I left Boston on a warm, clear afternoon. My car was fully packed with my necessities for the evening into the next two days. I knew that no one had been to the lakehouse in months, so I figured I should over-prepare.
I chose a terrible time to leave – 3:45PM on a Friday – and pulled onto I-90 to a standstill and a sea of glowing red brake lights. I let the daydreams of our lakehouse lift me up, and I surfed the radio stations.
The traffic didn’t last terribly long, and I was soon pushing west across Massachusetts. I was reminded of a Steinbeck quote which I’d recently read: “These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside…When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” This became even more true as the evening brought an overcast of grey clouds. I’d brought a few CDs with me that I either hadn’t listened to yet, or thought would accompany the trip well. I grabbed “The Essential Steely Dan” and popped the disk in.
The next hour flew by as I got lost in driving rhythms, ripping guitar lines, and bizarre lyrics. Then suddenly, as I passed into Becket (so said the “Now Entering” sign on the side of the interstate), a heavy, thick cloud loomed ahead, and seemed to have settled directly on the road. I was worried there may have been a fire, but the cloud was purely natural, a heavy mist. I could see it slithering along the mountains to each side of the highway, shrouding trees as it went along. I entered the fog and pushed on, keeping a closer and more attentive eye on the road.
What was once a clear sky was now a dull and dark sheet of grey. The lack of color bled into the fog and seemed to swallow me hole. I just barely made out the large sign – “The Berkshires” – as I passed, then shortly after, the one that informed me that it was the highest elevation on I-90 east of South Dakota. I found that I cared significantly more about the elevation I was at when I’d been hiking the high peaks of the White Mountains and the Adirondacks than when I was speeding through a soupy fog on a highway.
Fortunately, as I broke clear of Becket and Lee, the cloud almost immediately lifted, and I was greeted with a much more pleasing variety of colors. The picturesque view, accompanied by Steely Dan’s bright and rhythmic music, gave me a newfound energy. My car needed a refill to find that same energy, so I pulled off at the next service plaza to fill my gas tank, grab some water and a granola bar, and be on my way.
I passed over the Massachusetts-New York state line to no particular significance, save for the large signs that first pleaded with me to return to Massachusetts, and then welcomed me into the great Empire State.
As the album finished, I ejected it and let the silence carry me west into New York. The sun was setting behind the clouds, and a dark blue dusk settled as I came to my exit. I turned off the highway and wormed my way back and forth, onto a much more calming state highway. I clicked my overhead light on and glanced over the directions I’d written down, fairly confident in finding my way, but checking them just to be sure.
They must have taken down the street sign for the road I was supposed to take, because I passed by, and upon later inspection, still couldn’t find any trace of a street sign. This was particularly confusing and frustrating as someone trying to find their way in the dark with no GPS. Regardless of where the sign had wandered off to, I turned back and found my way, following signs for Johnstown. The night had fully settled, and on the rolling state highway, wide open farms and fields were shrouded in a deep, dark blue.
I finally saw lights in the distance, and knew I was nearing the town center. Bright fluorescent signs crept up as I drove on, advertising motels, restaurants, and beer and tobacco. I saw a familiar convenience store and pulled into one of the parking spaces, regarding the firewood out front as I walked through the front door.
There was one middle-aged bald man behind the counter, wearing thick-rimmed glasses, a salt & pepper beard, and a surprisingly bright expression.
“Hello. I think I’m in the right direction, but just figured I’d ask – I’m headed west here. Is Townsend that next left?”
I hesitated. “No, no, I think it’s either Road or Ave…”
He chuckled and interrupted, “Yeah, he owns the whole street, on top of his business. Or at least it used to be his, now it’s his sons’.” He paused, then looked outside. “It’s not this light,” he pointed, “but the next one. Can’t miss it.”
“Thanks, I knew I was almost there.” I motioned to the front window. “The firewood – do they not have any at the supermarket?”
He shook his head. “Nope. Got just about everything else except that.”
“I was looking at those ice bags and Styrofoam coolers. Do they – “
“Sure, sure, they’re a full supermarket, they’ll have anything you need.”
“Well alright then, I’ll go grab some.” I started to walk away.
“No need to bring it in, I can just ring you up first so you can put ‘em in your car.”
I turned back. “Oh, great.”
He looked at me skeptically. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Well…” I explained to him that I’d grown up in Saratoga Springs and that my family had a lakehouse up this way, but I’d been in Boston for too long, and felt the need to come open up the house for a solo nature getaway.
“Boston! Oh man, do I miss Boston.”
I’d never gotten the man’s name, but let’s call him Dan.
Dan had spent most of his life in upstate N.Y., but had lived for a time in Boston. He recounted late nights when he’d stayed out partying, indulging in more ways than one, then waking up in the morning only to wonder what had happened. I laughed and nodded along to his stories, telling him I knew the feelings all too well.
We talked a good deal longer, comparing city and country life. It was Dan’s 50th birthday in a few months, and he was still ruminating on which big city he wanted to go party in. I was a week away from my 27th birthday, and was planning on a quiet dinner with my family.
Just as I’d been considering how long we’d been talking as the only two people in the store, the bell by the door chimed and signaled a new customer. A group of loud teenagers filed through the door and made their way to the ice cream counter. Dan looked over, gave a light sigh, then rang me up for two bags of firewood. He wished me a happy, relaxing weekend, and I wished him a happy early birthday. He smiled and waved, then as I left the store, I heard the same “Hi there!” I’d received when I’d walked in.
I loaded the firewood into my passenger seat and started the engine. The supermarket was directly next door, so I simply drove over one parking lot and stopped again. I checked the clock and saw how much time I’d spent talking to Dan, so I made quick business of my grocery shopping. I scanned up and down each aisle, making sure to get slightly more than I needed, but not so much that I’d be weighed down by it. Once I was happy enough with my cart, I checked out, loaded up, and drove away again.
After the missing sign mishap, I was back on track, and the rest of my trip was easy driving. I gave a relaxed sigh and, feeling more comfortable, put my next disc in. Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” seemed to guide me as I drove out of Johnstown and toward the Adirondacks.
The suddenness of the appearing snowbanks was jarring. The gentle folky guitar picking kept me calm enough, but I couldn’t help the rising concern. The snow banks were not the fluffy white snow of fairy tales. If you’ve been in New England in a frigid early Spring, you know the terrible transition period of snow. It hardens into a repulsive, slushy, chunky pile, spotted with dirt, rocks, and streaks of dark mystery matter. The snow here was just that.
Though I couldn’t see it, the signs assured me that the lake was coming up on my right. I slowed down, and seeing the entrance, turned in. As I drove the winding road around the north side of the lake, I felt a peaceful content coming over me. I smiled to myself, watching the street numbers pass by. As I drove, the snowbanks grew. And they darkened. I slowed around the bend where I knew our driveway should be, then saw the number “127”. I’d passed it. I put the car in reverse and slowly backed up, overcome with a sense of dread. I came to a stop and, peeking over a dirty brown snow bank looming close to five feet tall, I saw the small sign: “123”.
I looked back at the small shovel sitting in my backseat and muttered to myself – “Fuck.”
I grabbed the shovel and got out of my car. Looking up and down the street, I saw no break in the snow bank. No one else was here, and no one would be coming here. Who in their right mind would do so under these conditions? I left my car where it was, lights on and engine running.
I scaled the snowbank, grabbing and climbing. It may as well have been a rock face – there was absolutely no way I’d be breaking through the surface with my pathetic little shovel. Standing on top of the horrendous mound, I took out my flip phone and turned on its flashlight. The light was too weak, and our driveway too long, for me to see anything but the dirt-spotted snow stretched out in front of me, which had once been a driveway. Observing from my height, I judged the snow to be a few inches deep. I was wrong.
The hiking term, as I learned from my uncle and mother – hiking partners – is postholing. It refers to the unfortunate results from hikers who don’t use snowshoes, and instead trudge through the deep snow in only their boots, sinking into the snow and creating deep holes. The snow I walked on seemed to be frozen on top, but was clearly not thick enough, and I made it only a few steps before my first posthole.
I realized now that the snow was at least a foot deep. I had my snowshoes in the car, but for some reason, in that moment, I found it preferable to trudge through the ice-snow and posthole my way down the long driveway.
I grunted and smashed my way, carrying my small shovel and flip phone flashlight. Finally, the house revealed itself and I made my way to the porch and up to the front door. I admired the glass pane and then looked down at the snow. The key to the main door (behind the screen door) was under the doormat, which was under the snow I was standing in. I set my phone on the railing to illuminate the small amount that it could, and I started shoveling.
It only took a few minutes of shoveling to break through the initial frozen layer and clear the loose snow beneath. I shoveled until I could feel the hard surface underneath. After clearing all of the snow, however, I discovered that the hard surface was not a doormat, but in fact a sheet of ice. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it did slightly worry me that I couldn’t even make out a trace of the black mat, only a cloudy, glassy white ice.
I made my way back to the car, retracing my steps through the postholes, to exchange my shovel for my ice scraper. This would have been a good time to put my snowshoes on, but I didn’t.
I trudged back to the door, and the uncovered rectangle of ice in front of it. I started to scrape at it, and realized it was no good. So I began to swing the scraper, wailing it against the ice with its hard corner, hoping to chip it apart. As I wailed, ice chips exploded and flew into my face. I closed my eyes and continued.
It took about five minutes for the ice scraper to snap. The plastic shattered and rendered the handle useless. I brushed away some ice chips and examined the dent. I’d made it about an inch into the ice in a very small spot, and there was no change in the translucence. I sighed, dejected, looking up at the door and feeling defeated.
Another thought popped into my head and I went back to my car a second time. I put the ice scraper back and went to my backpack. I unzipped the side pocket, rooting through the supplies, and pulled out a small lighter and my Swiss Army Knife. I shut the car door and marched back to the house. Still no snowshoes.
I knelt down on the ice in front of the door. My knees stung from the biting cold of the ice cutting through my jeans. I ignored it, and I flicked the lighter on. I held it close to the ice around the edges of the small dent I’d made. The ice became glossy and wet, before the flame blew against my thumb and burned me. I cursed, then opened up the largest blade on the Swiss Army Knife. I exhaled, then began to chip at the ice.
With enough strength and persistence, the ice started to come free, first in slivers, then in larger chunks. I chipped more and more, until I felt the blade stick in what felt like rubber. I continued clearing the space until I had a hole about an inch in diameter. I cleaned the snow and ice chips away. Black rubber. The doormat. It was really there.
I examined the hole I’d made and tried to measure the depth of the ice sheet. I gauged it to be about three to four inches deep. I took a long, deep breath.
It’s an interesting thought to consider the line between stubbornness and determination. How do you differentiate between the two? Both apply to the person who won’t give up, who just keeps at what they’re doing, regardless of any voice of opposition or reason. Is the difference only in perception? It seems that when someone is saying or doing something that is disagreeable, and stands by it, they are stubborn. But if a person is persisting at an action or viewpoint that is accepted as “good” or healthy, then that person is determined, not stubborn. This is a thought I would have the next day. In the moment, there was no room for rational thought.
For just over forty-five minutes, I chipped and stabbed at the thick slab of ice. My skin was coated in a cold sweat. I swung my fist down over and over again, desperately stabbing away with my small knife, every so often scooping the ice and snow away with my bare hands. I sank into a tunnel vision, acting in a fit of animal rage, of an insane man unable to do anything but swing his knife downwards. At some point, both my knees and my knuckles had begun to bleed. The blood stained the white snow a reddish brown, before I scooped it away. My nose ran and mouth watered, my body seeming to secrete all over as I was driven in this mad fugue state.
I’d finally cleared enough around the edge of the doormat, about two square feet, to tear at the edge. In my rage, I tore the rubber in several places, but managed to lift it a few inches off of the wood. I peeked underneath.
I’d never seen a more beautiful key in my life.
I half-shouted and half-laughed in a sort of weird, light-headed euphoria. I used my knife to scrape the key out from under the mat and slip it into my jacket, being sure to zip it shut.
I took another fifteen minutes or so chipping enough away in front of the screen door so that it could open outwards. After I’d gotten enough, I wedged the screen door open, shoving at it and slamming it open. The weak metal frame loudly shook and warped, but I was able to open it enough to get to the main door behind it. I took the key from my pocket, put it in the doorknob, turned, and swung the door into the house.
I’d done it.
I panted, slowly waking from my animal state, and smiled. If someone else had been there, I would’ve gone in for a hug or a high five – but I was alone, so I simply stood for a moment in silent self-congratulation.
I went and flipped the power circuit on, turned on the lights, and cranked every thermostat in the house to the max, as for the moment, my breath was creating clear frozen clouds in the air. I set my keys, knife, and lighter down, then went to take the few trips to bring my things in from the car. This time I put my snowshoes on.
I was certain that the pure adrenaline rush would keep me awake all night. But after slipping on my pajamas and robe, and rewarding myself with two microwaved hot pockets, I passed out in a matter of minutes.
I awoke the next morning in a confused daze. I had to reassure myself that I hadn’t dreamed the entire previous evening, and that I’d really hacked my way into the house. I came out into the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee, then walked over to the window.
The lake was completely frozen over, and the snow rippled across it in incredible curving lines. It was almost as if the thin layers of snow were trying to imitate their liquid cousin underneath the ice, and create waves of their own. The white sea stretched on, and it looked as though I had discovered a new and unsettled world. I half-expected a polar bear or penguin to waddle into my field of view. I stood for several minutes, hypnotized by the blinding whiteness of the frozen lake, until a loud beeping noise signaled a ready pot of coffee.
I took my coffee and sat down, opening my notebook. I started to write.
“I left Boston on a warm, clear afternoon…”