A Gap in our Streak

We all have Covid Stories. You know the litany – because of Covid I couldn’t do this, or travel there, or see so-and-so. Covid interrupted our lives, our routines and broke our winning streaks. But life went on.

In my case, the streak ended just shy of 30. Every year since 1993, my friend Susan and I have escaped our husbands, kids, work, stress and life to spend several days plying the ski trails by day, and sharing our woes, our dreams, our successes and failures in front of a fireplace by night. Until last year.

Those early years we felt so rebellious. The whole idea was born of a need for equal time, payback for the fishing weekend our husbands shared every fall. It was our turn to hand off the kids and venture off into the wilderness. Susan was pregnant with her second child, and I left three at home. It was ground-breaking, escaping before the days of cell phones, out of reach, out of touch on the shores of Lake Superior. And wonderful.

1993 at the Stone Hearth Inn B&B

How well I remember the middle years. We were both in management, working in IT balancing the technical aspects our of careers while getting mired in people management, motivation and leadership. Living in the Cities at the time, we had a long drive to our chosen ski lodgings up the North Shore, hours we used to shed our challenges, our anxieties, and especially our frustrations. Speeding through the darkness, we peeled away layers of pent-up emotions, leaving them on the floor of the car when we arrived. The same topics would resurface over our après-ski wine and cheese, but the tone softened with each passing evening. We were not alone.

2002 Celebrating 10 years at Old Shore Beach B&B

Our kids grew up, our careers shifted paths, and the busy-ness of our lives moderated, slightly. We grappled with thoughts of retirement, of life after work, of building new homes away from the Twin Cities. The life changes that awaited us were ample fodder for our time together, and we allowed ourselves to extend our outing to longer weekend trips. The guys’ fishing trip had long since met its demise, but we clung fiercely to our annual tradition. We continued to see one another through life. Listening and supporting.

2010 at Skara Brae B&B

Retirement has brought increased freedom, allowing us to move to week-day trips. We’re more willing to splurge on our lodgings these days, to grant ourselves some extra comforts. But little else has changed, and despite now living far apart the bond of friendship rekindles the minute we pull away with a car full of skis, food and gear. A comfortable companionship.

2017 at Poplar Creek Guesthouse

I’m not exactly sure how we chose cross-country skiing as the basis for these escapes, but it has remained a constant throughout our trips. Year after year we’d glide through the woods, losing ourselves in the silence of the sport. Our paces often didn’t always match up, but it didn’t matter. We’d drift apart, deep in thought, one of us waiting down the trail to regroup. For all the talking we did at night, we let our brains percolate on their own in the midst of the cold and snow. Most trips we racked up the kilometers all day long, returning to our digs pleasantly worn out, chilled and ready for the fire.

2009 Mukwonago Trails
2014 Sugarbush Trails
2014 Sugarbush Trails

From the very start, my ritual was to get up for an early morning ski before breakfast. Eager to push myself, I’d head out the door in all conditions. Susan joined me in the initial years, and on one memorable occasion we skied up to a ridge on the North Shore where we had a grand view of Lake Superior. We then plummeted back down to our B&B just in time for the sumptuous breakfast that awaited. We walked through the door, faces bordering on frostbite, eye lashes crusted with ice crystals and fingers that hardly moved. It wasn’t long after that when Susan elected to spend those early morning hours painting instead. But I persevered. I balanced the frequent brutal conditions with skiing as the sun rose, being the first out on freshly groomed trails and breathing in the tranquility.

2008 A foggy morning at Maplelag Resort
2003 Susan painting at Poplar Creek Guesthouse

Perhaps it was the gap that urged us to look back and take stock of our accumulation of shared experiences. Just as our lives have changed throughout the last 30 years, so have our outlooks. We still eagerly pack up our skis, and look forward to time spent in the woods. Skiing remains the focus of this annual excursion but we don’t feel the same pressure to pack it in as we did during our working years.

“I think I’m getting wimpy,” I confessed to Susan on the drive up the shore. “I just don’t relish going out in those cold, sub-zero temperatures anymore.” She nodded. “And I’m not keen on skiing crusty snow, or steep downhills on a twisty trail.” My confidence is waning. I now prefer soft new snow with good grip and staying in control. Susan put it differently. “I call it being selective. We’ve earned the right to make different choices.”

2022 Ready to ski the Sugarbush Trails

We embraced this new attitude over a cozy breakfast in our trail-side cabin at Bearskin Lodge the next morning, as we monitored the thermometer, waiting for it to cross zero. The following day we chose to start our day snowshoeing through the deep snow in the woods. The recent snowstorm and grooming delivered ski conditions to my exact specifications, and the sun shone down in a deep blue sky as if to endorse the perfection as we glided down the tracks each day. Being able to walk out the door to over 70 kilometers of trails afforded me plenty of opportunity to continue skiing, even when Susan had reached her fill and retreated to the Lodge. Proving we have acquired the wisdom to pursue our own passions.

2022 Morning snowshoe at Bearskin Lodge
2022 Molly skiing around Flour Lake
2022 The evening ritual by the fire

Next year will be our 30th trip, and there is no doubt we will go. We will still pack up our skis, dream of the solitude on the trails, communing with winter and pushing our bodies in the great outdoors. But we will also have the grace afforded by age, to give ourselves options. To make different choices, because we can. And it’s infinitely better than another gap in our streak.

Good Advice on Mt. Rainier

We left well before dawn, the hatch brimming with equipment, a cooler humming in the back seat and sipping Starbucks lattes. As we exited the city and ventured down narrower lanes, the sky brightened to a clear blue and Mt. Rainier rose majestically in the early morning light. Beckoning to us.

Arriving just as the gate opened, we reached the parking lot among the throng of outdoor adventurers eager to be the first ones up the mountain. In the warmth of the sunshine, skis, poles, boots, snowshoes, and backpacks littered the ground and cheerful chatter punctuated the air of excitement.

Erik, Katie and I carried our snowshoes to the trail entrance where we strapped them on. We were hardly alone, joining the long column of people stretching out ahead of us, trekking up the trail – we dubbed it The Great Mt. Rainier Migration. All destined for Panorama Point or beyond, high above.

Snowshoeing in the mountains, I had envisioned thick powdery snow through narrow tree-lined paths. But here was a wide open expanse encompassing open fields, glaciers, rocky outcroppings and clusters of pines, all gleaming in the brilliant sunshine. The snow was more than well packed, and I was thankful for the metal teeth and firm grip of my snowshoes.

I was most intrigued by those who were ski mountaineering. With thick skins on their skis, many were shuffling their skills uphill. Others chose to strap a ski on each side of their backpacks, forming a peak over their heads as they trudged with crampons on their boots. We seemed to be in the minority choosing snowshoes.

As we advanced, so did the steepness of the slope. When we got to the true climb, I gladly accepted the trekking poles Erik had brought along. I learned to punch with my toes then step up and repeat. The surface was as slippery as it was firm, and I was grateful when Erik positioned himself behind me – just in case. We commiserated with those around us, marveling at the icy slope and encouraging one another. By this time, the skiers had all removed their skis.

Step by step I moved upward. A slow and careful process, never looking down, only just at the spot in front of me where I might punch my next set of metal teeth. Up ahead Katie had already scrambled to the top, nimble in her youth and fitness. Never once did I allow myself to think about the return trip. About how I was going to navigate that sliding hill in reverse. I lived fully in the present, elated to be doing this, committed to making it.

And then we were there. Standing atop Panorama Point, buffeted by heavy wind threatening to blow me over, soaking in the warm sunshine and the view of peaks in every direction. Mt. Rainier in all its splendor.

We considered our options for going back down, but the alternate routes were sparsely populated and we took that as a sign. Better to be among the masses then off on our own. Still steeling myself from thinking about it, I followed Erik and Katie back over the edge. Back onto the slick slope. Inch by inch.

“Say, I’d wait if I were you.”

We turned to find an athletic young man fully outfitted with mountaineering equipment and skis.

“It’s still too icy to go down now. Wait for the sun to soften the snow first. It will be a lot safer then.”

The wisdom of his words took only seconds to absorb and we quickly retreated to the top, calling out our thanks. Surely, this was a scenic spot for our lunch. Scouting out a perch that might provide some protection from the wind we prepared to settle in.

Our friend soon returned.

“Oh, and when you go down – take off your snowshoes and punch your heels into the snow. That will work much better.”

We weren’t alone in dithering over which was the best way down, and we shared laughs with other snowshoers over the options and myriad pieces of advice. But time and sunshine proved our best friends, and the heel-punch method took us right down the softened slope. In fact, by following in the boot-steps of others it was almost like walking down stairs in the pocked snow.

With our climb completed, we still had an afternoon of exploring left. The wide open expanses gave us limitless options for meandering, and I relaxed into the aimless wandering and endless views. By that time, the ski mountaineers were descending the slopes, the best of them carving precise squiggles through virgin snow. A show in itself.

With the temperature soaring and the snow softening, the mountain became a playground. Families built snow forts, kids romped on snowshoes, the adventurous set up tents and boy scouts dug snow caves for spending the night. We found narrow unpopulated trails to explore and stretched our time until gate-closing loomed. The ideal capstone to our day.

We left with that good tired feeling, faces flushed with the sun and wind, the joy of spending time with family and reveling in God’s nature. And the luck of getting good advice.

A Stroke of Luck

One more day.  Our time was up at the AirBnB in Ft. Myers but we had one too many days for our travel home.

“How about we splurge and stay right on the beach?”  I saw no point in leaving the beautiful weather any sooner than necessary. 

Rich feigned deafness.  He was bent over his tablet, intently searching, reading, expanding the map, searching again.  I knew it, my fate rested in his hands.

“Here, take a look at this,” he said, handing over his tablet.

The charming cottage appealed to me, but it was the location that clinched it.  The small peninsula on the Gulf Coast was dominated by Bald Point State Park.  It had miles of beach, wetlands for Rich’s birding, trails for hiking and options for cycling.  My eyes traced 5-mile long Alligator Point, already planning my bike ride.  The cottage was wedged into this outdoor haven, surrounded by park land.

“Let’s book it!”

Turning off the Interstate toward Florida’s Panhandle on smaller roads, we lost traffic with each passing mile, and my muscles gradually unclenched after the tight game of leapfrog with the endless stream of semis.  By the time we turned onto the peninsula we had the road to ourselves.  After passing elaborate beach houses floating above impossibly tall stilts, we pulled into the grassy lot to find a humble cottage nestled among the wild Florida greenery.

This was a true cabin, Florida style.  The floor was tiled in a colorful pattern, heat rose through metal grates in the floor, there was a hand-sewn quilt on the bed and the quaint, comfy furnishings invited lingering.  The well supplied kitchen and modern conveniences ensured a comfortable stay.  It didn’t take us long to unload and venture out to explore.

We both set out on our bikes, but in opposite directions.  Rich headed into the park to check out the beach and marsh trails for birding options.  I had Alligator Point in my sights, eager to explore.  The road meandered down the narrow peninsula, first giving me views of the Gulf, threading down the middle, then following the bay sideThis was an old-time beach community.  Small ground level houses mixed with newer stilted monstrosities.  A community center, waterworks and marina were among the few commercial properties.  It was impossible to hurry despite the lack of traffic.  My head swiveled to take in the ambiance and culture of this local culture.

It didn’t take me long to determine that this was a different Florida.  Having traveled significantly north, the temperature had dropped significantly, especially when combined with the chilly wind off the Gulf.  The highs were in the 50s not the 80s.  Being from Northern Minnesota it still felt balmy to us, but was not yet inviting to other tourists.  As a result, there were very few people around.  It was quiet.  For years we have tried to “think un” when we planned vacations.  This time we nailed it.

I woke early the next morning, intent on walking the beach at sunrise.  Noting the 38-degree temp I donned my winter jacket, hat and mittens and covered the short distance to the sand that stretched as far as I could see.  Already the horizon was ablaze, the cloudless sky waking fiercely with the sun’s impending rays. The tide was well on its way out, leaving behind ripple patterns, tidal pools and sand islands that reflected the orange glow and blue hues of the water.  It wasn’t the barefoot saunter I might have envisioned, occasionally splashing through the retreating waves.  Instead, I headed downwind, braced myself against the chill and found my warmth in movement.  Perhaps all the better in its uniqueness.

Over a mile down the beach, the sun finally peeped above the horizon, a yellow orb that rose quickly.  And with it the beach glowed in its initial pastels.  Transformed.

Lingering over my breakfast in the cottage as the sun streamed in, I perused the park maps and settled on a hike.  The closest trail was the loop around Tucker and Little Tucker Lakes, and I liked the idea of seeing water along the way.  I must have been in a Minnesota mindset, picturing narrow paths lined with trees and easy views of the lakes.  But this was Florida.

I set off down a swath wide enough for a highway, looking more like a dirt road than a path.  It became grassier at times but never lost its width.  The tall pines that populated these woods seemed to emulate palm trees, with impossibly tall barren trunks that branched out into a rounded canopy of needles and huge pinecones.  I admired those tall soldiers in a huge battalion.  At their base swarms of palm bushes blanketed the ground, high enough to obscure my view of the lakes.  But the sun beat down, I shed several layers and pushed onward – never seeing another soul on the trail.

A final short bike ride included a visit to the main entrance of the park.  I pushed my bike out one of the beach entrances, where I could see the beach wrapping around the end of the peninsula.  Boardwalks traversed the marsh, and a long wooden pier extended into the water.  So much more to explore. Someday.

Sometimes the best experiences can’t be planned.  What started as a solution to a problem turned into an unexpected pleasure.  A peaceful coda on the end of a melodic symphony.  A chance to unwind, to engage with nature and retreat from the more populated world.  A stroke of luck.

Trapped!

The wind howled all night long, whipping around the 5+ inches of new snow dropped by the storm. I tossed and turned, hearing our windows rattle and the moan of the gale. What I didn’t hear was the crack of falling trees.

It wasn’t until I ventured out in the still-dark morning, backing out of our unplowed driveway and inching down our remote road that I noticed the downed power line and a shadowy hulk that loomed beyond my headlights. A tall pine tree claimed the road from edge to edge. My trip to the pool at the Y was scuttled. Our little strip of 4 houses have only one way out and it was blocked.

The power company was on it right away, severing the line and carting it away. But the tree remained. There was only one thing to do. Ditch the swimsuit for my snowshoes.

At 6-degrees with a fierce wind still raging, I had to dig for all my warm layers, find my gaiters, heat up some hand and toe warmers. The minutes fled as I wriggled into my stack of insulation and struggled to bend over far enough to lace my boots. Did I really want to do this?

As soon as I crossed the street and headed down the multipurpose mountain bike trails, I knew the answer was Yes. In the silence of the woods, the only sound was the wind in the trees and the creak of my left snowshoe. Surprisingly, someone had beaten me out there and I followed boot tracks down the narrow path. I mentally thanked COGGS for creating these twisty, curvy and playful trails with short bridges over deep gaps.

I lost the footprints about a mile into my trek when they disappeared down a steep embankment. Hmmm, really? Continuing on, I relished the unmarked snow even if it was more of a challenge to discern its route. My favorite bits were the hairpin curves, steeply banked for the cyclists and carving a luge-like chute still discernable through the drifts. The sun was high enough to lay shadows across the snow, and I admired the snow’s artwork on pine branches. It was a morning for taking in my surroundings, letting my whirring brain slow and being in the present.

My nose reminded me that it was exposed to this cold and wind, requiring periodic warmups from my bare hand. But my hand and toe warmers blazed, keeping my other most vulnerable body parts toasty. I trudged on, warming my core with the effort even while breathing in the crisp cold air. I was in no hurry to finish and let my footsteps lead me on down the trail.

Why did I think this was a good morning for swimming? Because it was cold and windy? Nature knew better. This outdoor fix beats chlorine any day. I didn’t mind being trapped one little bit.

Sunrise Cycling

With the onset of fall, the days seem to shorten at an alarming speed. At this northern latitude, by the fall equinox we tip the balance to more darkness than light each day. By now we are already down to just 9 1/2 hours with the sun above the horizon.

I mourn the dim mornings which push out my morning workout routine. On cycling days, I wait impatiently until I have just barely enough light to see in front of my bicycle – typically about a half hour before sunrise.

Absent the sun, there is a definite chill in the air. I layer on warm clothes, pull booties over my cycling shoes and don my Happy Hat under my helmet. Ski lobster gloves and a buff complete the ensemble. I shiver as I coast downhill, absent the heat-generating pedaling I need to stay warm. But soon that all fades into the background.

By the time I reach Superior Street, I get my first glimpse. The sky begins to widen, and color radiates above the trees. I can’t wait to get to the shore to see the full effect, and I’m richly rewarded by the time I reach London Road. The sun is still low enough to generate rich colors that bounce off the clouds, paint their undersides and send reflections across Lake Superior.

My favorite stretch is from the Lakewalk tunnel through the newly completed path through Brighton Beach. Despite the cold, I have to stop, straddle my bike and pull off one glove to take pictures. I am compelled to record this majesty.

But the real impact is more personal. I can’t help but be thankful for the beauty of Nature. The sense of wonder fills me with gratitude. How lucky I am to be out here, fit enough to be cycling, able to witness God’s handiwork, healthy enough to do this day after day, and to live in close proximity to Lake Superior’s many moods. A day that starts like this just has to be good.

No two mornings are the same. As I flick through my photos, the words that come to mind are Fire and Ice. The brilliant red-orange mornings are balanced by more subtle blues and purples turning the lake a cold steely gray.

When the sun finally makes its fiery entrance, the show moves quickly. It doesn’t take long before its radiance overpowers the scene. Dawn has arrived, colors fade and light begins to bathe the world.

The warmth of those powerful rays eases my way up the shore, reviving my fingers and toes, glowing on my face. I’m not sure how long I can keep up this fall routine. But for now, each day I make it out for sunrise cycling is a gift.

Life in the Slow Lane

Covid has shut down large chunks of my social life. Confined me to writing at a table in our bunk room instead of the cozy environs of Amity Coffee. Diverted me to Zooming with my delivery-mates instead of bringing library books to shut-ins. Shackled me to the stove every afternoon at 5:00 instead of eating out now and then. Limited our table to two instead of the frequent dinner guests we love to invite to our home.

There have been positive sides too. Loads of time for writing, urging my book forward toward becoming a real manuscript. Seeing family more than ever, the only personal contact we’ve allowed ourselves indoors. Getting out to enjoy our State Parks. Pairing up with friends to run and walk and talk, talk, talk in the great outdoors. Pedaling my bike up and down the shore, waving to other cyclists and runners.

And then came “recovery.” I had minor surgery to repair a hernia the same week Rich had his latest heart procedure, sidelining us in tandem. Our Covid-suppressed household narrowed even further, as life quieted down to allow our bodies to heal. I finished several books, started knitting again and poured myself into my writing. In solitude. Indoors.

Although I bounced back quickly, I was still under strict restrictions: do not lift over 15 pounds, avoid straining my core, no cardio exercise for two weeks. Then came the empowering words, “Walk as often as you feel able.”

It started out as shuffling. I barely made it to Superior Street and back. I couldn’t keep up with Rich for a 1-mile walk, despite his impairment. But each day I was determined to try again. Four days in it actually felt like walking. Each day from there got better, my walks longer.

When I’m running or cycling, I’m aware of my surroundings but more focused on the activity. Pushing my pace, pedaling up hills, getting in a good workout. Walking has shifted me into slow motion. I have more time to appreciate nature as I amble along. I open my eyes and ears to the world around me. It’s as much about the escape as it is about moving my body.

I hear the soothing rush of Amity Creek for the whole distance of 7 Bridges Road, and pause on the bridges to watch it gushing with spring run-off.

Amity Creek above Smiley Falls
Amity Creek at The Deeps

My limitations encourage me to sidetrack and look more closely at the evidence of Spring’s struggle to arrive.

Spring buds

I have more time to appreciate the beauty of the sunrise, even if the sun is hiding.

White sunrise Brighton Beach

I catch a glimpse of nature’s artistry created by the prolific rainfall, and pause to admire.

Brighton Beach reflection

I take the time to play with “burst mode” on my phone in order to catch the waves at their highest.

Brighton Beach waves

I stop and sit on the rocks warmed by the sun, listening to the water gently lapping.

Resting at Brighton Beach

I catch the scenery I see almost daily, but in a new light.

Brighton Beach gazebo
Gazebo with shoreline

I’d be lying if I said I was content with my daily walks. I can’t wait for the day I can resume running and cycling. I’m told to “start slow with short timeframes.” So I’ll continue to supplement that with more walks, more observations. Still living life in the slow lane.

Molly at Brighton Beach

Exiting the Cold Snap

This morning’s temperature was 54 degrees warmer than it was a week ago. Already it feels like a distant memory to get up and check the thermometer, only to see it in the -20s, day after frigid day. To wait until mid-day for the air temp to reach a balmy -4 before setting out for a run. To forego my afternoon friend walks in favor of warmth by the fireplace. While Covid was socially confining, the cold compounded it.

As the mercury rose, so did the options for outdoor activities and Covid-save ways to meet up with family and friends. I readily embraced the opportunities.

First up was the Luminary Walk. This candle-lit stroll on the Lakewalk was part of the city’s Cold Front activities intended to celebrate winter. Ironically, it was postponed by the real cold front. Its new date fell on the first “warm” evening, a sure indication that I should get out and do it, and I convinced Rich to join me. Because we could.

Luminary Walk

To celebrate our son Erik’s birthday, we arranged to meet up with him and his wife, Katie, at Banning State Park. The river trail followed the ice covered stream and led us to rapidly flowing water gurgling in the icy openings. The sun shone down and I could feel its glow on my face, its warmth radiating down to my fingertips. There was no reason to hurry, it was enough just to be outside and moving, in the company of family, conversation flowing up and down the line. With a trunk load of firewood, we soon had a roaring campfire in the picnic grounds and warmed our innards with hot chocolate and s’mores. Lingering until the sun was low in the sky.

Rich Molly Erik Katie at Banning State Park
Erik Katie Rich hiking at Banning
Erik by Kettle River at Banning
Rich Molly Erik campfire at Banning

The icy snow on the ski trails was rejuvenated by a slow gentle snowfall and lured me back out on my skis for the first time in two weeks. It was a sweet reunion, gliding over fresh grooming, moving freely without the encumbrance of extra layers, not worrying about losing any fingers or toes. Remembering winter as it should be.

Lester ski trail
Shadow Molly XC trail

The grand finale of this recent surge in outdoor social life was being invited back to the “snow room.” Thanks to the ingenuity of our friends, we have enjoyed a number of pleasant happy hours and light suppers outdoors in front of a fireplace surrounded by snow walls. Protected from the wind and containing the heat of the fire, spacious enough to position our chairs with six feet between couples, we whiled away the hours enjoying the personal contact we took for granted a year ago.

Luikart's snow room
Molly Rich happy hour Luikart's snow room
Jon Beth Rich supper in Luikart's snow room

What a relief to relish the outdoors once again. To resume this strange new normal. To exit the cold snap.

A River Worthy of Snowshoes

The trick with snowshoes is to find a place to walk where you actually need them. When Erik and I first arrived at the Sucker River, we wondered if we were wearing unnecessary encumbrances.

The new fallen snow lay sparkling on the river’s ice bed, billowing over underlying formations and giving way to openings where the water flowed rapidly downstream. Overhead, tall pines framed the deep blue sky and the wilderness beckoned. But although we had the river to ourselves that day, we were hardly the first ones there. A well-beaten path headed upstream, trampled by snowshoes, boots, fat tire bikes and skis.

Erik and Finley on Sucker River

The good news was that the trail showed us where it was safe to walk. I had no qualms about skirting the watery openings, stopping to peer at the ice bubbles that formed around the edges. Dozens had done this before.

Sucker River open water
Sucker River icy bubbles

Even on the ice, I could hear the water below, burbling. The sounds accompanied our walk and I stopped frequently to admire nature’s artwork.

We clambered up waterfalls, and as they got progressively steeper I was thankful for the ice teeth on my snowshoes. They were just as useful on the way back down.

Before long, we lost our fellow hikers and the trail narrowed to one set of ski tracks and fat tire treads. When those petered out, only animal tracks crisscrossed the river. Dare we follow them? We made our way to the river’s edge to continue, happy to have our snowshoes.

Molly on Sucker River
Erik and Finley upstream on Sucker River

Sunlight warming our backs, pristine snow and deep silence rewarded us for venturing far upstream. When the river flattened out, the snow depth thinned. We hoped to reach 3 miles inland, but stopped a little short when the ice visibly changed and appeared to be slushy up ahead.

The return trip delivered new views on the banks, different snow and ice sculptures on the river, and deep breaths of crisp clean air. An escape through a corridor accessible by foot only in the winter. And worthy of snowshoes.

Snow art on Sucker River
Erik and Molly snowshoeing Sucker River

Christmas in our Bubble

Social distancing. Face masks. Isolating. Six feet apart. Quarantining. COVID. Words constantly on our lips. Concepts we have learned to live with.

Family. Gathering. Feasting. Sharing. Hugging. Christmas. Words we long to express. Emotions we ache to indulge.

It’s a strange mixture, this new reality. And we all forge our own paths through the unknowns of the pandemic. After months of having to be uber-careful following Rich’s surgery, we sought relief. We launched a plan well in advance to add our daughter, Karen, her husband Matt and their four children to our bubble to spend Christmas together. As the day approached and everyone remained isolated and healthy, we welcomed them into our house and our arms for four wonderful days of normalcy.

We had no problem sequestering ourselves as a blizzard raged outside. We easily distanced ourselves while sledding down through the swirling snow, kids disappearing from sight in the raging wind and swirling snowflakes. Laughter reigned among bumpy rides and grueling walks to the top of the hill. We were alone in the storm.

Karen and kids sledding in blizzard

Inside we warmed up with hot chocolate, played games, read books and watched a Christmas movie. Squeezing into the tiny TV room, we attended our Christmas Eve church service on the big screen. There was no nursery for the little ones, but their antics didn’t seem to bother the other worshippers. And we didn’t have to wear masks.

Santa’s visit seemed a safe bet. As long as the kids stayed in bed, he was guaranteed a safe social distance. So preparations commenced per usual. A note, cookies for Santa and a carrot for each reindeer were prepared. And the kids skedaddled off to their room.

Mya writing to Santa
Kennedy Kids ready for Santa

Christmas morning began at the stroke of 6:00am. I heard little voices, and poked my head out to find the kids, lying in wait for me! I’m not sure who was more surprised!

Christmas morning surprise

Through the child-induced pandemonium of tearing through wrappings, squeals of delight and the inevitable squabbles, the quintessential Christmas unfolded. Pandemic or not. It was the most normal I’ve felt in months. The best Christmas present ever.

When things quieted down, grandson Ben begged to try cross-country skiing despite the below zero temperatures. Bundling up, he and I shared my two sets of classic skis and boots, and we fudged on the poles to set out on the trails. We easily remained six feet away from the other skiers, trading Christmas greetings as Ben took off like a pro.

Molly and Ben skiing
Ben skiing for the first time

Circling the table laden with food, we said grace, asked God’s help for those struggling with COVID, and gave thanks for all that we have – particularly one another. Gathered together. Within hugging distance. The biggest blessing of all.

Christmas Dinner 2020

We connected with other family members through FaceTime, Zoom and the good old cell phone. Safely distanced, but close in our hearts. I sincerely hope that this is the last time that being together for Christmas – or any day – is unusual.

Christmas with the Kennedys

Coming Half Circle

The infant days of COVID-19 seem so long long ago. Back in those early times, it all seemed so strange. So disruptive. So confining. And lonely. In lieu of a social life, I took to the outdoors. By mid-afternoon each day I needed to flee the house, and began walking Seven Bridges Road. What a boon it was to have the city extend the road closing, to have a safe place to walk just outside my door. To climb that hill time and time again, and venture over to Hawk Ridge to look down on Lakeside. Quiet, traffic-less, sheltered neighborhoods. Shuttered by the virus.

Seven Bridges Road April 2020

I watched the leaves come out, the grass come to life, the roadside don its cloak of spring green finery. And still I traveled through a foreign world. The road reopened, and I joined the cyclists grinding up those same hills. My wheels took me further afield, granting a longer and more vigorous escape. I retraced old routes, invented new ones and flew down newly surfaced roads that felt like butter under my spinning tires. It felt almost normal. But I couldn’t out pedal the grip of the virus.

In summer, lively voices accompanied my wanderings. Amity Creek was teeming with life as teens and families alike were drawn to its swimming holes and surrounding woods in greater numbers than usual. “Hammockers” inhabited the trees. Thrill seekers jumped from high cliffs. Kids played hide and seek in the bushes. Picnickers ate by the stream. All eager to forget. Not exactly social distancing. We all needed a way to cope.

Fall’s colors painted over my world, brightening my days with radiance. Every day brought a new landscape, each set of changing leaves outperforming the last. Enticing me out to walk my route before they faded. Those hikes were habit by then. Seeking beauty in a world inhabited by ugly germs.

Hawk Ridge fall view

The falling leaves now signal the waning warmth in our days. Days which have already grown too short for my taste, darkness closing in on both sides. Gone are the evenings we could sit on opposite ends of the deck with friends, to relish seeing them in person. To satisfy that craving for live company. In ways we are allowed in the midst of the virus.

I feel winter lurking at the door, ready to scale down my social opportunities. To limit my face to face contact to that contingent of friends that embraces snow, skis, snowshoes and bundled up walks. To challenge my creativity and strengthen my tolerance for Zoom. All in the name of staying safe.

I don’t know what I expected when the first shut-down order came. I wasn’t naive enough to think it was only a matter of weeks. But I didn’t fully grasp the long-term nature of this confinement. Yet here we are. My walks up Seven Bridges Road tell me we have come half circle. I now have no doubt we will complete this circuit, and then some. Until the virus releases its hold on our lives.

Seven Bridges Road October 2020