Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Snowshoeing Back In Time

It’s been a long, rough winter in northern Maine, and it’s not over yet.  The other day, for the first time this season, I got to do one of my favorite winter recreational activities: snowshoeing.  Up until mid-January, there had not been enough decent snow to do it, and since then, there has been one howling snowstorm followed by another, with extremely frigid temperatures and wind chills sandwiched in between them.  There have been a few snowshoe-worthy days here and there, but without fail they have come on days when I have been working.  When the thermometer read a tropical 25 degrees (‘nice’ is relative) on my most recent day off, I tossed my snowshoes into the back of my car and headed out into the country to my grandparents’ old place.

Much has changed on that property from the days when I spent at least a part of every school vacation there as a child.  The forest has encroached on much of the land, most of the outbuildings are now gone, and many familiar landmarks on the property like clotheslines and flower gardens have disappeared over time.  The house itself is still inhabited by my cousin, though his housekeeping and landscaping habits are worlds apart from those of my late grandparents.  As I trod around the property on my snowshoes, enjoying the exercise and lamenting the effects of the inevitable passage of time, I began to sharpen my focus a bit, and found that there were still some reminders of the days gone by.

For instance, I noticed that a pair of very old and heavy swinging gates were still standing near the rail bed that runs adjacent to the property.  The railroad tracks led past my grandparents’ place to the local airport, which was an air base and prisoner of war camp during World War II.  The gates had to be manually opened and closed whenever a train passed into or out of the base.  I tend to doubt that the gates would have kept an actual train from entering the base, but they probably provided some security that no one would be able to easily drive some other type of vehicle on the tracks into the base without authorization.  The rest of the base was ringed with barbed wire fencing, about four feet high, which is not much more than would be used to keep livestock corralled these days.  Some of the barbed wire can still be found in the woods there.  Securing a military base on home soil meant something very different in the early 1940s compared to today.

By the time my siblings, cousins and I came along in the 60s and 70s, the air base was long defunct and was now functioning as a somewhat sleepy regional airport.  The swinging gates near my grandparents’ place no longer served any purpose, but they still stood, leaning a bit with age even then.  They still swung however, and that was what mattered to us kids.  With great effort against the weight and rust, we would push the gates up to their nearly closed position, and then jump onto them.  The gates leaned enough that they would swing back to the open position on their own, providing a pretty cool ride with a very abrupt stop at the end.  The challenge of holding on when the gates crashed open against the brush that they normally leaned against was the best part of it all.

The gates were certainly not moving that day I was investigating them on my snowshoes, buried as they were in deep snow.  I would be surprised if they would move at all now under any circumstances, age having taken more of a toll on them.  That doesn’t mean I won’t at least give it a try once spring comes.

One of the gates in question. There was no swinging on it this day.

Just beyond those gates, a little ways along the rail bed, there is a small tree-covered hillock that seems out of place if you stop and think about it.  I recognized it immediately.  Underneath all that snow, and probably under quite a bit of brush, I knew there was a thin piece of steel sticking up from the ground.  My grandmother and I used to walk by there quite frequently when I was young, and she said that it was the site of a fatal plane crash years before I was born, occurring not long after the air base made the switch to a regional airport.  The pilot was killed in the crash, she said, and the remains of the small plane were left there  in the woods along the train tracks for some time afterwards.  She told me that it wasn’t unusual for people to walk in to see the remains of the plane and take pieces away as souvenirs.  My grandmother said she once saw a man carrying out a large piece of what looked like the plane’s tail.  In time, railway officials buried the remains of the plane in hopes of discouraging visitors.  

By the time I first saw the site in the mid 1970s, the railroad tracks were seldom used, and the trees still growing over the plane’s burial mound today were already taller than a grown man.  As a kid, it was quite sobering, thinking that a man had lost his life on that spot, and it still was on that snowy day of my recent visit, so many years later.

At the end of my snowshoeing trek, another memory of the days of my grandparents came upon me, also somewhat unexpectedly.  It had been my first snowshoeing adventure of the year, and that meant breaking new trails in deep snow while not being especially physically conditioned to the activity.  Quite simply, I was wiped out when I got back to my car.  Before I packed everything away to head home, I flopped down on my back in a nearby snowbank to rest and just listen, and was reminded of the sounds of being so far out in the country in mid-winter.  I used to do much the same thing when I was staying with my grandparents during the winter time and had spent a long afternoon outside playing in the snow, which I often did.

Mind you, there are not many of sounds out there in mid-winter.  The silence is almost total.  If you’ve been playing hard, as I was that recent day, the only thing you can hear for a while is the sound of your own heart beating.  There are no busy roads nearby, and all the birds have gone south for the winter or are laying low, except for some hardy chickadees.  I could hear several of them twittering in the trees nearby, calling to each other in their language.  There has always been a large population of chickadees around that property.  To my amazement, my grandmother used to be able to hand feed some of them, who were possibly ancestors of the little birds I was listening to now.  A breeze came up and blew through the evergreens with a distinctive hiss.  There are no leaves on the deciduous trees at all, and the snow has buried anything on the ground that might rustle.   The shushing sound of the wind in the pines and spruces remains the defining sound of wintertime for me.  

Before I got up out of the snow, a jetliner passed far overhead with a distant rumble. I remember hearing planes high overhead after a long day of playing hard, and wondering where they were going and who was on them.  I liked to follow them with my eyes if I could spot them until they were out of sight.  A Cold War-era air force bomber and refueling base was located about an hour north of there when I was a kid, so the sound of B-52s and KC-135s flying high overhead was very common then.  I watched the jetliner from the other day leaving contrails in its wake until it was gone behind the trees, just as I might have nearly 40 years ago in that very spot.  

As I was putting my snowshoeing gear into my car, it occurred to me that none of the things I had been pondering had any monetary value or even meaning of any kind to anyone, except maybe to some of my siblings and cousins.  A rusty old gate, a small tree covered hill buried in snow, and the sound of jets high overhead would likely go totally unnoticed by most people who had walked the same path I had just taken.  Yet they opened up a floodgate of memories for me that day.  I want to try to remind myself that it is never a waste of time to stop and take the time to just look around and listen.  You never know the significance that seemingly insignificant things might take on in the future.