The first arctic blast of the season arrived last night, with the mercury flirting with zero and a tattered blanket of snow thickening as today got underway. The hens, on lockdown in their warmed coop, are stir-crazy, and my cats are giving me raspberries about my refusal to let them out. The wild birds and squirrels are feeding voraciously, and a doe and her yearling fawns stopped by for a few mouthfuls of grain.
Ten degrees, with a windchill below zero and snow splitting the air. A perfect — or perfectly crazy — day to do the Incline, a century-old cog railway that begins at an elevation of 6,500 feet and ends at the summit of a mountain not far from my home. Now adapted for use by hikers, the Incline — the name is an understatement — climbs more than 2,000 feet in a scant mile.
This morning, the white thread of ties jutted sharply into the clouds; the top was invisible from the base. There was snow at the bottom, and more with each step. I was glad for my microspikes, glad for my heavy-duty wind tights, glad for my face mask and lobster mitts and beanie. And, really, just … glad.
The old railbed, which climbs through pine, scrub oak and spruce with Pikes Peak as a backdrop, is always beautiful. But the Incline in serious winter is a memory worth making. Conditions deter the usual traffic; the handful of people you might encounter are, at once, serious and quietly jubilant, alert to both the mild danger and severe beauty of the undertaking. Traction is essential: A fall on the Incline can cause serious injury, and a fall in flesh-freezing temperatures, frostbite as well.
Never have I been so grateful for my microspikes, a constellation of heavy chain and half-inch metal teeth attached to rubber that pulls on over running or hiking shoes. Microspikes bite and don’t let go. Which you’d think would be all good, and is. Mostly.
I have always been a dig-in sort of person, so I like traction. I like to feel the ground firmly beneath my feet; I like having something solid to push off from. I like stability and assurance. And there was no problem with any of that today. The snow deepened as I climbed; still, the microspikes grabbed and held, grabbed and held, step after step.
The greater danger — I realized this as I tired and stepped a little less lively — was not slipping, but catching the spikes on a tie or one of the metal grates that pepper the railbed. The liability was obvious: The spikes catch and hold, hard; the body keeps moving forward. The ankle or knee or hip lets go first. I thought about this especially on the way down from the snow-shrouded summit, feeling the tug of gravity with each step. I had to be mindful of my trailing foot, lifting the spikes clear as I took the next step, planting firmly and then fully releasing on each of the more than 2,700 snowy ties.
The Incline is always a teacher to willing students; getting to the top embodies the perseverance I so admire. Today’s oppositional lesson was unexpected: that it’s no less important to freely let go than to bravely keep going, that misjudgment in either direction invites needless injury or loss.
The trick, as always, is knowing what to do when. And we all know how that goes.
Home now, in front of a woodstove fire. Wishing me, you — all of us — the hushed beauty of winter. And the wisdom to walk our paths bravely but not too stubbornly, that we may know both when to persevere and when to let go.