It’s that desperate time of year when most of the leaves are down and my morning walks are dark and windy. The time of year I took my last solo backpacking trip, last October. I’d quit drinking and the trip was meant as a kind of soul-searching thing, but those don’t often turn up as much as you’d think. What I remember was the feeling at the parking lot when I first arrived at that stark mountain pass, with me the only soul around. They close down most of the passes for the season starting on Halloween; it had snowed the night before and was still going, with a big storm forecast by the end of the week.
And the rational part of me fought against it as I hurried to pack my things and the wind shook my car, and I bent under the lift gate to keep out of the snow. And soon I was up the trail looking back at my car, reduced to the size of a matchbox and fading beneath the snow and clouds. I had my gear and my wits about me and my map, two bagels.
I hiked all day through mountain valleys and hillsides, pausing to take in the Narnia-like aspect of things. That fresh snow look over an Alpine setting with no one anywhere, so quiet. I hiked all day until the light started to fail and I picked a spot by an unnamed lake to pitch my tent. Then I got inside my sleeping bag to warm up, and drifted off to the sound of the snow on the tent fabric, the soft sound it made as it settled.
The sound took me back to a night in high school, walking home after a dance in late December, me trudging through the snow in my rented shoes, how I paused to listen to the sound of the falling snow on the trees above me, settling on every surface, the look of it falling through the street lamps, sparkling in the faint glow. I wanted to save that time forever.
And a year later I was off to college studying James Joyce, reading The Dead, his description at the end of the story of a snow storm at night on the Irish countryside. The story is about a married couple throwing a dinner party at Christmastime, the wife remembers a childhood lover who’d died young, he comes to her as a kind of ghost triggered by a memory from her past, and the husband realizes the boy was her one and only true love, and feels removed from her and his own life through this revelation. The snow falling over the cemeteries becomes a metaphor for something bigger, for his past or for all of the Irish people even, removed from their histories and their culture, their consciousness. Makes you think the same could be said about us today, “the dead.”
These passages are some of my favorite writing in all of literature, it leaves you with a feeling he’s tried to convey throughout the story that keeps layering with meaning like his description of the snow. And funny, as we were studying the story in college our professor said he’d been to a video rental store and noticed they’d mis-filed the film adaptation of The Dead under the horror section, with the slasher films. My professor, Archie Loss, is dead now too.
So we go off to our private spaces to find ourselves, thinking the alone time will help us grapple with the meaning of life for both the living and the dead. And how little we turn up, when we go looking. I go to the far reaches to be reminded of how much I have when I flirt with the idea of loss and absence. And how full I am despite this feeling of emptiness.