Yesterday was the halfway mark between the winter and spring solstices. I’d like to believe this means we are halfway to spring, but living in Pennsylvania we leave the prediction of winter’s length to a groundhog. As has been the case since 1887 in central Pennsylvania at 7:15 yesterday morning, Punxsutawney Phil was awakened. In front of witnesses, he saw his shadow, which tells us we have at least 6 more weeks of dark winter ahead. 

This ritual is based on the Christian tradition of Candlemas Day. All over Europe on this mid-solstice day clergy would bless and distribute candles needed to make it through the rest of the dark winter. It became important to predict how many candles to provide. Germans enlisted the help of a hedgehog to make this prediction, and in the US, groundhogs were substituted, since hedgehogs are not found here. 

In recent years it had been my practice to not be in Pennsylvania in winter, however long or short the cold weather might last. Our desire was, and still is, to visit friends who winter in Florida, and family that live there year round. I’ve loved being in Atlanta with my co-author Christine, where we would organize some event to contribute to making the world a better place. Other years my husband and I have enjoyed spending part of the winter near Palm Springs where we have family and a home.  

But this year, and most of last winter as well, we’ve had to stay sheltered in our Pittsburgh home, as most other people on the planet have been doing in their homes due to the pandemic. Like in the game of musical chairs, when the music stops you need to grab the nearest chair and sit or you’ll find yourself really out in the cold. 

Though not my first, or even second choice to be wintering in PA I have discovered many gifts in this situation I did not ask for or want.  Yesterday, unlike Phil, I was delighted that the sun was shining and that the temperature was hovering around freezing. I deemed it a perfect afternoon to bundle up, and take my walking poles to a nearby snow-covered southwestern Pennsylvania forest and hillside. 

Intrigued by the crunch of the snow under my feet, I’m drawn to follow the tracks of a deer. I delight that this takes me off the official trail and high above it. Returning gingerly to level ground I become the explorer. Stepping and stomping on patches of pristine undisturbed snow, I leave my marks for the next hikers to follow.  All the while I’m breathing the crisp fresh air and drinking in the views: massive dark brown fallen tree trunks covered over by puffy white blankets of snow, rocks wearing a cap of with what looks like from afar, a meringue topping. The proudly standing timbers have now become giant artistic sculptures, dusted and outlined by the sticking snow.  

As I continue my walk I wonder why this is so much fun. I didn’t grow up surrounded by winter landscapes, at least after the age of nine. But tromping in the snow seems to ignite some muscle memory of my early years in the Chicago area. Then snow and frozen ice were invitations to leave the warmth of hearth and home to explore and play in, a frozen wilderness. Later, in my child rearing days in Michigan I had to intentionally learn, along with my three young children, how to ice skate and snow ski–following the advice of locals who said, “If you have to live here, find something fun to do in winter cause we get a lot of it.”  

I’m grateful for that advice given long ago, and thankful to the friend who told me about the walking poles. Different than a cane or single walking staff, they have delivered to me a gift of confidence, and a sense of security yet freedom, rivaled only by the promise of a Covid19 vaccine, as I move about the uneven earth. 

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