Often thoughts on how to spend idle hours in the depths of winter revolve around themes such as curling up with a good book, snuggling beneath a quilt while gazing at a cheery wood fire, sipping a steaming cup of Russian tea or a buttered rum toddy, or enjoying a scrumptious meat-and-vegetable stew hot from the stove.
All are undeniable creature comforts, and any of them can go a long way towards dispelling a chronic case of the mollygrubs (cabin fever).
Yet a different, equally appealing side to winter merits special recognition. It involves indulging in a pastime that my paternal grandfather sometimes referred to as “yearning and yondering.” This nostrum for addressing wintertime blues clears the mind, lifts the spirits, and puts any and all negativity normally associated with this season of the year in abject retreat. It involves dispelling the depression often associated with months of low light, short days, and miserable weather through firsthand observation of winter’s myriad wonders. You will find no better way to sample and savor these pleasures than through the simplest of pursuits — a watchful walk in the wilds during the midst of winter.
One obvious benefit of meandering, or as early English travel writers styled it with the delightful word “perambulation,” during the cold months involves the splendor of solitude. Byways, woodlands, and hiking trails that overflow with other humans during the wildflower glories of greening-up spring or the splendor of fall’s leaf-peeping time are virtually deserted. Hunters are taking a break between the rituals of the autumn quest for deer and the rites of dealing with turkey gobblers come spring. It is a time of the year when all of us, from the most gregarious of souls to those who are reclusive by nature, need some special moments alone in a setting that beckons and bewitches. Everyone welcomes a change from daily routine or perhaps a period to meditate while enjoying a respite from the stressful hurly-burly of our world.
Of course, for those already inclined to the lone wolf style of life, wandering about in woodlands chilled by whistling winds or perhaps adorned with a skiff of snow on the ground offers pure delight. Yet another appealing aspect of winter rambles, at least in the present time of coronavirus troubles, is that they offer a type of recreation and exercise that is uplifting and yet does not necessitate human contact.
While winter walks are a soothing balm for the soul, they also offer special treats for the senses. Something is singularly appealing in the elusive yet enchanting sights to be sampled and savored after a newly fallen snow, a frost so heavy you could track a rabbit in it, or the passage of a cold front followed by see-forever skies of purest blue. One’s sense of smell finds the aroma of a wood fire on a backcountry trail — perhaps lit to brew coffee, cook a simple repast, or merely for warmth — a glorious reminder that not all perfume comes in bottles. Similarly, the sounds encountered while walking in winter can entrance — the raucous cacophony of busybody crows, the cheery “pretty, pretty” call of a cardinal, the scream of a soaring hawk, or the eerie eight-note cadence of a barred owl all captivate in their special, unusual ways.
For all the appeal of these variegated sensory perceptions, however, what winter walks afford the wayfarer’s eyes must be reckoned most appealing. The opportunities for observation, especially if one pauses frequently to wonder as they wander, are endless and endlessly enjoyable. In times of bitter cold, various manifestations of subfreezing temperatures greet you at every turn. Here are long, tapering icicles formed from seeps as subsoil moisture reveals its treasure in sparkling brightness. Or maybe the ice takes the form of never to be duplicated natural architecture as spray from tumbling waters of gurgling branches and creeks decorates overhanging branches, streambanks, and indeed any part of the landscape touched by water. Then there is the fairly common phenomenon of needle ice puffing up on barren ground in formations a couple of inches high and of delightful natural design. Or if one is out and about early on a frosty morning when the sun first strikes broomsedge fields or grassy openings, the earth suddenly sparkles with the brilliance of a million multi-faceted diamonds.
Another inveigling aspect of winter strolls involves all sorts of captivating little vegetative surprises. At first glance woodlands during the cold months can seem almost monochromatic, with nothing but muted grays and grim earth tones to be found at every turn. Yet abundant evergreens, most notably pines and cedars, are always available for relief, while one oft-overlooked blessing of the absence of leaves on deciduous trees is enhanced viewing of distant terrain invisible when leaves are present.
Landscapes that seem close and almost cloistered in the months of verdant foliage suddenly open up and allow for sights that are unseen at other seasons. But for me it is the abundance of close-up miracles of color or configuration that are most enticing of all. Who can fail to be awestruck by the vivid purple leaves with subtle green striping offered by puttyroot orchids? Their flowers may be the least fetching of all the orchid family, but the puttyroot’s foliage is, as my Grandpa Joe used to put it, “a glory to behold.”
Similarly, the depths of winter offer a grand opportunity to observe other elements of wild loveliness too easily overlooked. Well to the forefront among them are the lovely scarlet berries of she hollies. Yes, holly trees, like persimmons, come in male and female versions and only the latter bear berries or fruit. Speaking of berries, this is the time to view what are invariably called berries although they are actually tiny cones: the blush blue fruit of the omnipresent red cedar. Maybe you will be fortunate enough to come across witch hazel plants in bloom. A true “winter bloomer,” witch hazel is common in South Carolina and has a distinct preference for damper places (think branches or seep springs).
Of course for many, the grandest of winter’s visual offerings comes in the form of snow. In this part of the world, a snow of any measurable amount, something more than a “skiff” (the term often applied to the merest dusting of flakes), can be the cause for anything from celebration to consternation. In the latter category come concerns such as downed power lines, broken tree limbs, treacherous roads, and other worries.
Yet those of the glass half full persuasion will greet snow with open arms and even pure delight. To walk a winter path after a soft overnight snow has adorned the earth and every limb with a cleansing coat of purest white is to know almost indescribable inner peace. It is something better experienced in person than described in print. Moreover, for the nature lover or wildlife observer, snows in effect create a tabula rasa where creatures great and small can paint a picture on a canvas of purest white.
Here a deer of impressive size, judging by its prints, walked leisurely through the forest. Dainty tracings of bird tracks form wildlife graffiti atop the snow, while mayhap a flock of turkeys has wrought mayhem to the pristine whiteness as they scratched for acorns, beechnuts, or other tidbits. With persistence, you can track a rabbit to its bed or a squirrel to its den or simply enjoy the challenge of reading and interpreting the signs creatures have left to mystify or mesmerize you.
The message, in short, is a clear one. Winter walks offer wide and varied appeal, and to take one, be it a brisk hike or an aimless perambulation, is uplifting. Make it a point to ponder as you wander. Your assured rewards will be many and manifest, a sort of growing inner treasure made up of pure pleasure. Upon return to hearth and home, you find that you feel better about the world in general. Chances are your mind has churned up a bit of welcome nostalgia somewhere along the way, a few of life’s burdens have likely eased, and for certain you benefit in terms of both physical and mental well-being. Once you return from your “yondering,” kick back in an easy chair and reflect on your jaunt. You might well discover that maybe, just maybe, you are not quite so beset by the mollygrubs as you thought. That is the enduring beauty of walking away the blues.
Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who lives in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He is the author of 20 original books and has edited and compiled many others. His latest book, A Smoky Mountain Boyhood: Musings, Memories, and More, has recently been released through the University of Tennessee Press.