It was our last morning after two nights at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY. Check-out was at noon, and our breakfast reservation was for 9:30. But Mohonk’s price includes free activities and equipment to guests, and the snowshoe hike with naturalist Michael Ridolfo at 10:30 was tempting. The day before, we’d joined him to learn about “Animals’ Winter Survival Strategies,” and today’s “Native American Journey” was sure to be equally good.

“What do you think?” said Dave.

“I want to go, but I hate feeling rushed. I’m inclined to skip it.” My favorite thing about retirement is letting days unfold as they will. It’s amazing how full are the hours, how quickly they pass, when not marked by obsessive glances at the time.

“Let’s relax and enjoy breakfast, and if we finish in time, we’ll go,” said Dave. Good plan: no rushing, and our options left open.

By 10:10, we’d savored the last of our omelets, coffee, and juice.

“So. What do you want to do about the hike?” Dave asked.

It was going to be tight, but the sparkle of sunshine on new snow beckoned. “How about wrap up our packing quickly, then you take the snowshoes and meet Michael to let him know we’re coming. I’ll check out of the room and store our bags downstairs,” I said.

When away from home, it takes but one repeat encounter to feel you’re meeting up with a friend. Michael greeted us warmly and introduced us to the other people who would be hiking with us.

We started out on a trail along the frozen lake then turned into the forest. Our snowshoes freed us from the fetters of a packed surface and allowed entry to wherever Michael chose to lead. Given his breadth of knowledge and experience, he was not one to follow a script. We clomped through woods and thickets, pausing often when an interesting tree or animal track begged comment or a story. Tiny rodent prints threaded through by a line, a tail trail, were those of mice; voles and shrews do not have tails. We examined fox and coyote prints, noting at Michael’s direction the indents left by claws at the end of each pad. “These are canines. Cat claws, like those of a bobcat, are retracted, where canine claws are always extended,” he explained.

When we passed a tree, girdled with a wide band at its base as if by a beaver, Michael stopped. “When I first noticed this a while ago, it was a conundrum. It looked like the work of a porcupine, but I couldn’t understand why the damage was low to the ground. That’s unusual for them. Then one day, I spotted the animal itself heading for the tree, dragging one maimed leg. That explained it: he could no longer climb. Haven’t seen him around lately; he probably died.”  Michael motioned us on, and I tried to banish images of the suffering porcupine.

As we trudged up a ridge, a young woman accompanying us mentioned that her man had proposed to her the day before, here at Mohonk. She whipped off her heavy mitten and proudly flashed her new ring. Our hoots and congratulations no doubt startled into hiding any creatures that might have considered making an appearance.

When we reached the top of the slope overlooking the lake, Michael stopped us. The crunch and thump of our snowshoes fell silent. Everything was silent. But… not really. “Listen,” said Michael. “Close your eyes. What do you hear?”

My breath above all. A jay’s cry in the distance. The faintest burble and rustle of water under ice. A sigh of wind through the trees. “Native American elders can discern tree species by the different sounds wind makes passing through branches, needles, and foliage,” said Michael.

He led us down to the water’s edge and a large wood plank shed where he talked about survival skills. He demonstrated how to make a fire and purify water by heating a rock and dropping it into the liquid to boil away bacteria. “You can live without food for at least a month, so clean water and shelter are your priorities.”

From the shade of the woods, we followed Michael out to a sunbathed meadow where snow crystals glinted rainbow colors. Cold cheeks, rapid breath, white light, and the squeak of dry snow. A young couple planning a life together. A sense of the connection among all creatures. And here on the mountain, a blessed separation from the concerns that so often plague me. Trailing behind the others, I flung my arms wide in gratitude for it all… and for the push to say “Yes!”   

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