Frolic and Play the Eskimo Way
I grew up in Central Pennsylvania, a land filled with lakes and streams, mountains and valleys, deep, rich forests and wide, verdant fields. It was a largely untamed place – in my youth, the pockets of civilization tossed here and there always felt like they might be overrun at any moment by wilderness.
And yet despite the easy availability of all this untrammeled countryside, I seldom set foot upon a plot of earth that wasn’t paved. My parents – who had lived in New York City for 12 years, during which time they’d produced my brother and me – instilled in me a deep apathy for nature. Family getaways were spent not in the surrounding sticks but in the metropolis for which they still yearned. I was a child of good restaurants and fine museums, of the theatre, of shopping and nightlife. Of the city.
So a few years ago, when in the grip of some mysterious mid-life fever I began to not merely enjoy nature but to actually crave it, like I had the world’s worst case of PMS and nature was a giant frozen Hershey bar with almonds, I was ill-prepared. I’d never been hiking. Or mountain biking. Or canoeing or kayaking or cross-country skiing – or downhill skiing, for that matter. Or snowshoeing.
But I wasn’t going to let a little thing like total and complete inexperience combined with a truly astounding lack of anything vaguely resembling grace or athleticism stop me. Nature, you see, soothed me. I’d discovered that using my own muscles – working them hard – to get out into the middle of nowhere filled me with a kind of still, quiet joy I’d never before encountered.
Which is why I was so thrilled to try snowshoeing at Turning Stone Resort in Central New York. Oh, I knew it was supposed to be about 10 degrees out, and the wind would be blowing like Superman out to freeze a lava flow, and there was a better than even chance I would take a header onto my face at least once. But, essentially, I’d be ok. The resort was providing me with a guide, which was expedient as well as extraordinarily kind, since my becoming hopelessly lost on their 1,200 magnificent acres of grounds and freezing slowly to death would be good for no one involved.
The sun was happily shining when I met Bill, my guide, in the lobby of The Lodge, Turning Stone’s ultra-luxe, all-suite accommodations. Bill was tall and lean, with wire-rimmed glasses and a white mustache. He looked to be in his late 50s, and I immediately developed a sort of awestruck crush on him, the way 12-year old girls do on cute English teachers who seem unimaginably worldly and suave. We stepped out of the Lodge and onto the snow-struck ground, where Bill asked if I was wearing good, warm boots.
I proudly held my foot out. “The best,” I said, pointing. “Timberland hiking boots. They’re waterproof!”
“Wow…they’re pink? I don’t think I’ve ever seen pink hiking boots.”
“I KNOW!! Don’t they just ROCK??”
“They are mighty stylish,” Bill replied, smiling. “What about your pants? Are they heavy enough to keep you warm?” He peered more closely at my legs. “Are those…”
“Yes. They’re pajama bottoms.” I pulled them away from my body, fingering the stretchy material. “But they’re fleece, and I have another pair of pants on under them.”
And then, with Bill still grinning and shaking his head, we were off. The wind blew, lifting the powder off the treetops in great swirling gusts, and soon we were in a silent world that seemed far from people and the problems they make. The snow wasn’t terribly deep, which made the going easier than I imagined it would be. But I still felt my legs working, the muscles in my lower abdomen, hips and butt straining with exertion. It felt good, as did the warmth that was spreading throughout my body. Bill stopped occasionally, asking if I needed a break. I think he was surprised at my stamina, and that felt good, too.
After an hour or so, he led us to the resort’s sweat lodge area. The lodge had been mostly dismantled for the winter, though the red willow skeleton remained. Bill opened a nearby hut and, digging around, retrieved a massive pair of furry buffalo hides. He wrapped the heavy things around us and we sat on a nearby bench, toasty and warm, as he explained Turning Stone’s grueling, glorious sweat lodge ceremony. After I’d peppered him with questions (“How hot does it really get?” “How many people are in there?” “What if you want to leave?”), the talk turned to the Oneida Nation, on whose land the resort sat, and their history and traditions. Finally, curious about this gentle, resourceful man, I asked him what he’d done before coming to Turning Stone.
He told me, but made me promise not to tell anyone. And I swooned with pleasure. Life, I believe, is best when filled with adventure, with happy surprises. When I checked into Turning Stone I sure didn’t imagine the next day I’d be sitting wrapped in a buffalo hide on the grounds of a genuine Native American sweat lodge with a man whose former gig was of the “I’d tell you but then I’d have to kill you variety.” But that unexpected morning spent tromping around in the snow with Bill will remain, I have no doubt, one of my most cherished memories. And you know, I didn’t even fall once in those snowshoes?
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