Letter from Birdland | An exhilarating day in the snow

Letter from Birdland | An exhilarating day in the snow

We are driving into a snowy afternoon. The sky is a gray flannel, and the world is sepia-toned. The air is full of snow and has washed out all color except the tawny hummocks of grass between the brown snow-speckled stalks of last year's weeds.

The pavement is the same gray as the sky, and everything else — trunks of trees, the earth between stripes of corn stubble, the empty windows of the farmhouse we just passed — is black.

Well, everything but the snow and the farmhouse, itself — which are white — and the yellow dashes in the middle of the road we are following. Even that yellow is muted by the low light.

The snow in the past half-hour has gone from hard little crystals that hit the windshield straight on with a soft ticking to small flakes that swirl and eddy a bit before they melt on the windows.

A red pick-up truck passes us as if to remind us that world actually does hold other colors, but it seems garish against the stark snowscape.

We are on the road to Chicago again. Michael and I have work up there. It seems like every weekend finds my husband and me making the trek north. But it is not all work, and now we reminisce in the car about last weekend's cross-country ski outing at the Morton Arboretum.

Michael had been researching various parks with cross-country trails, but they were mostly pretty far away. Then he discovered that the arboretum has trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

When we heard that Chicagoland was hit with about a foot of snow, Michael began to plan our weekend. I was skeptical, especially when we got word that the arboretum had canceled the first night of their Chocolate Weekend and was taking a snow day.

Then I thought maybe it would all melt, but Sunday dawned cold. We jumped in the car and headed north.

Like today, the sky was overcast, but the cloud cover somehow felt cozy, and we stood in line to rent our skis. Our membership to the Chicago Botanic Garden meant we could get free admission and ski rental for $21 for the whole day. Compared to the cost of downhill skiing, this was a bargain.

Cross-country skiing is more my pace, anyway. It's rigorous, but easier on my knees, and I get a better chance to look around at the wilderness.

I've never felt comfortable with the environmental impact of downhill skiing, the way a ski resort fragments habitat and demands the use of a lot of expensive, specialized equipment.

Granted, you need skis and poles and special shoes to ski cross-country, too, but not lifts (and lift tickets) or quite as much heavy equipment, like artificial snow machines that add to the compacting of the mountain soil.

I remember once watching a large garbage truck climb to the ski lodge at the top of a mountain to carry away the trash generated by the restaurant. I then imagined how all the supplies must have gotten up there in a similarly heavy vehicle.

I suppose that some venues might make artificial snow for cross-country trails, but at the Morton Arboretum, they simply don't open unless the trails have 4 inches of snow.

We skied a quiet path through the arboretum, enjoying the various paths, first through the conifer collection, and then along the major loop through the woodlands.

The day in the snow was exhilarating, but the final push to get back to the visitors' center was a challenge to tired, but happy skiers. We were a little late back to return our skies, but let it be known that we were not the last ones back.

On the road home, we marveled at our luck. I told Michael that we might have hit the best snow in 10 years, and it fell serendipitously on a weekend. With the odd weather patterns we've been having, who knows if we'll ever have another chance for a day like that?

But still, we mulled over the idea of buying skies of our own. We want to be ready for the next good snow.

Ski in beauty; march forth in peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in anything that gets her out to the woodlands. You can follow Birdland on Instagram (@BirdlandLetters) and Twitter (@BirdlandLetters). Mary can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.

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