Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
I recognized that sound as a broken chain. Coming from the front right wheel well. Not the kind of thwacking sound I could ignore. With each thwacking revolution, it held the threat of severing the brake line. I had to stop and deal with it then. In the middle of the 6.5 miles of snow covered and wind swept road that separates our house from a county maintained road. I had to drop the plow blade, pull up the windshield wipers, and climb down from the truck to remove the bunk chain from the tire. My mittens were able to clear the snow from the metal fastener on the outside of the tire. When I rolled underneath the truck, I crossed my fingers that no one would have dared venture out our way in these conditions. The releasing link on the back side of the tire was frozen inside a major clump of ice. Oh, right, I forgot to remember to keep the screwdriver in my pocket to chisel the chains off. It had been a while since I had to chisel chains off in the middle of dumping snow and under a High Wind Advisory. I cursed again. I’m not my best self when I’m grumbling f-words in my throat. The homies were not in the truck with me. I left them home together alone for the very first time while I went for a plow lap. They were on FaceTime with my family.
It was not like I didn’t sign up for this. I absolutely did. Eight years ago, Jeremy and I and our two toddlers and two mountain mutts moved from a wee cabin in a remote mountain town to a huge house 12 miles up a dirt outside of it. We knew our winter driveway was 6.5 miles. In fact, when we came to check out the idea of it in February 2014, we had to ski those six miles with our homies in backpacks and sleds. Although I knew that I would always be a single parent in the summertime (my husband is the director of a summer camp), I did not know I would be managing February on my own as well. Jeremy has been guiding a group of high schoolers from NYC on a two week trip in California in the beginning of February. He’s been spending the end of February accompanying GAP participants on International trips to either Costa Rica or Belize. It wouldn’t have been a deal breaker even if I did know. My new-mom self of eight years ago was as strong as I had ever been and growing stronger by the day. It was a period of terrific trajectory. I had already begun preliminary planning for the first long-term goal I ever set for myself. I committed to entering the Tour Divide in 2016, the year I turned 40. The Tour Divide is a 2,400 mile self-supported mountain bike race along the Continental Divide from Banff, Canada to the border of Mexico in Antelelope Wells, New Mexico. It was a reward to myself for the 20 out of 26 months of pregnancy and the subsequent newborn, infant, toddler years I was deeply immersed in. It was a goal to match the life I wanted to live. Dream Your Life. Live Your Dream. I wanted to be strong enough and brave enough and self-actualized enough to give that a go when I turned 40. Six months after I began whispering about the bike ride, the opportunity to caretake a property in the real wild wilderness came about. It was a no-brainer. If I knew I’d be on my own in Februaries – I would have considered it training. And the first few years that is exactly what it was.
The first winter, Betty was three and Devlin was a potty-training two-year-old. The only calendar engagement we had that season was weekly swim lessons in Lander. We had to be there by 9:30am. It was at least a two-hour drive from our house. We made it on time every week. Even on the mornings when the temperature read -30, the truck wouldn’t start, or I had to plow my way in. On the days we stayed home together, I set up little puffy people on the floor with boots and mittens and spent most of the morning stuffing the humans into them so we could adventure outside. It was a slog dragging the Chariot through belly deep snow (even with skis on) to Big Tree. It was an all-day event. We did it over and over together. We played outside every day.
That same first winter, I began teaching yoga in town twice a week at 6:30am. In order to pull that off, I had to leave my house no later than 5:15am. The early morning temperature never read above zero and the blue dark mornings cradled a stillness that felt nourishing to experience. I plowed the 6.5 miles to the spot we’ve designated as Drifter Flats. Then I’d hop down from the truck to remove the four chains from the tires. That was when I learned to carry the screwdriver in my pocket to set the chain links free from the ice chunks. It was certainly a challenging beginning to those days, but I relished them. I never got grumpy or irritated by the circumstance. Instead, I marveled at the blanket of stars I could see from my back while I tried to coerce, never force, the chains free. On several occasions, I came up on herds of hundreds of elk gathered together in the pre-dawn light for their morning meetings and I felt respectfully honored when turned their heads and allowed me to pass through. Once I made it to town, I’d go to the gym to turn on the heaters, and then to the coffee shop to let my pal Frank know I made it to town. Those classes never had a great turnout. That did not get me down though. The novelty of our new life made all the challenging experiences glimmer like freshly polished chrome. Plus, I was in training.
The first two years we lived here, I trained every day for the bike ride. In the years since, I’ve trained every day for Februaries. I had to be strong enough, at all times, to walk/carry/ski/slog/transport my two peeps and myself for at least six miles in any and all conditions to get out of here in an emergency or if we were to get the truck stuck. I had to be that strong. I had to plan for that with skis and boots and water and snacks packed for each and every plow run. It is a requisite for allowing the cast to be living here. At least now, they can ski themselves. I thought that riding my bike alone from Canada to Mexico would be a crowning adventure achievement. Single parenting at 8,000 feet, from an isolated property in the middle of the forest, during the most heinous winter weather month, for the past eight years blows those 17 days on my bike outta the water. It’s been a wild ride.
Now it’s over.
Jeremy is home. And he will never be spending the entire month of February in California, Belize, Costa Rica, or the Florida Keys while I remain swallowed up by winter on my own with my peeps. Of course it comes with a touch of bitter sweetness – a little bit of bitter and a lot of bit of sweet.
I still love winter out here, but the novelty of going it alone has worn off and it’s become burdensome. Or maybe it felt that way this year cause the rest of the world is so different. There was no sitting down at the coffee shop after making it on time to school even though it was -22 and we had to plow to Drifter Flats and then switch into the Subaru. The frost was thick on the inside and outside of the windshield and I had to peek through a wee little hole until it warmed up to 1 degree. That situation was better before when I could take a seat, drop my shoulders, exhale, and share my story. I did not realize how much it mattered to me for people to bear witness to my existence. This year there is no yoga class. No community space to share vibrational energy outside our home. No place to get together and love and be loved.
I wasn’t being the most positive version of myself, but I was the most authentic. It took me all week of swells of grumpiness and agitation to come to terms with it. My regular self has an overflowing quiver of positive vibes that I use to annihilate irritation or negativity. Often times last week, I allowed myself to wallow in the inconvenience of it all. Some days, the challenges seemed unrelenting. Instead of clicking my heels and triumphing, I put my head down and say “Fuck, this is hard.” Then triumphed anyway.
I drove up the pass to ski with friends twice while I was on my own. Both times I was filled with dread the whole trip to town. There was an extreme wind advisory warning for the entire week. On the first trip, I was not certain we’d make it back home. On the second, I knew I’d make it, but that there would be plowing to be done immediately upon return. It was unsettling to be away from the house.
After I crawled out from underneath the truck with the set of chains slung over my shoulder, I pressed on. The wind swirled and whipped and the windshield was coated in slush and ice. I was in 4-Low, three chained tires, differential locked, plow blade in the flying-v, and I was barely able to ram my way through the Squeeze Box. I turned around and came home. There was no way I would be able to keep the road open overnight.
On Monday morning, we loaded up in the plow truck to at least clear the road as far as we could. When we got to the Squeeze Box we were met with a wall of snow that stood much taller than the plow blade and went on and on to the bend in the road. Once we got home, I called the fella that lives in town that comes out our way to check on another ranch. I let him know that he wouldn’t be able to drive through if he were planning on coming out. He called me back a few hours later and said a bulldozer would come out the next afternoon to clear the road. He sent the big plow truck right to the edge of our driveway!
The homies will likely not remember how challenging it was for me to single parent through Februaries. What they will remember is the forts we built in the snow and with our blankets. They will remember Ayurvedic meal planning and mindful eating. They will remember making a nest in my bedroom so the three of us could sleep together. They will remember paint-by-numbers and crafts and board games. They will remember the sticker charts and the ice cream sundae rewards. They will remember the books we read together and the movies we watched while in a love lump. They will remember howling at the moon and listening to the wolves howl back.
I was relieved. It was the second time I was stranded alone with my homies. The first time, in 2017, it was seven weeks before we could drive on the road again. When Jeremy returned home on skis that February, I had the plow truck stuck in the driveway and the side-by-side stuck down by the garage. I was a cold mess, a damsel in distress.
This time, it would only be two days and nothing was still stuck (I dug the plow truck out of several “stuck” situations). By Wednesday, we were connected to the mainland again and returned to school. I continued to plow daily. By Sunday afternoon, the sun was shining, the wind was tempered, I had fuel in all the vehicles, I replaced all the windshield wiper blades, I dug the snow out of the bed of the truck, I fixed the pellet stove for the third time. My head was far enough above water that I hooked the culvert to the back of the side-by-side and groomed a track around the house and down the sledding hill and out to the bridge and back.This time, when Jeremy returned he did not rescue a damsel in distress…instead, the Hero of Horse Creek rescued herself.
Eight years ago, I did not know the things I know now. Things like: car batteries and engine block heaters. hydraulics and spark plugs. wind flow and mitigation. wind rows and dialectrical grease and locked hubs. and tire chains, and differentials, and drifts, and float, and troughs, and planning, and pre-planning, and failing, and working, and pellet stove repairing, and toilet unclogging – an extraordinary amount of toilet unclogging. It’s been a challenge and I have most certainly grown. I’m ready to grow in new ways now, and I’m ready to share the responsibilities of managing our life in the bleak midwinter with my partner.
I’m looking forward to sharing our summer life together too. I hired Jeremy to work for SOAR in 2005. We have never had a relationship with each other that did not also include SOAR and Eagle View Ranch. Last summer, Jeremy was furloughed. For the first time since we met, we spent the summer adventuring together. He got a glimpse of what the kids and I have been up to and how wonderful summertime is in the High Country when you are not too stressed to appreciate it. His last day at SOAR will be the end of April.
It’s all a big deal. The future is all unclear, but we know it includes Jeremy around the dinner table more and me single parenting less. We have faith that the universe will conspire to meet us and what comes next is most likely sitting on the far side of our wildest dreams waiting for us to uncover it.