January is one of my favorite months. For those of you who shudder at the thought of vitamin D-depriving weather and slippery commutes bookended by snow shoveling, I offer this in return. January is a reader’s month. It’s a month for coffee, fireplaces and sturdy biographies. There is a list of things that are best in the coldest month — hot toddies, chicken soup and Andrei Tarkovsky movies among them — but my favorite part of January is cold weather hiking.
For those who haven’t experienced its joys, cold weather hiking might seem an extreme hobby, perhaps even frightening. After all, when you’re miles out on a trail and the temperature drops, you can’t just adjust the t-stat. However, with appropriate clothing, walking poles and traction devices (snowshoes or microspikes, depending on the trail conditions), there is less physical danger in the woods than in attempting to return gifts at the mall.
January is a time to enjoy the new vistas created along the trail by fall’s falling leaves. Paths are revealed and the briars of last year stand in stark isolation. The creaking of trees and cracking of ice create a meditative soundtrack to thoughtful perambulations. As the woods lie exposed, so are thoughts, and winter daydreams seem to arrive at a cloud’s pace, patient and clear. Most who wander in the woods this time of year are solitary — it’s hard to hold idle conversations when your mouth is muffled by a balaclava. Wind-blasted, ungloved hands make for poor texting. Like monks in contemplation of the sacred, winter woodland hikers often seem dissolved in silent prayer.
There are fewer people on the trails, but those you come across are well met and often exude a friendliness you won’t find in summer strangers. Perhaps it’s because the killing frost has largely removed the threat of mosquitoes and ticks. Perhaps it’s because the cold disentangles pleasures we normally take for granted in the blur of everydayness. Emerge from cryotherapeutic winds and corridors of seemingly interminable shadows into a cascade of sunbeams, and the solar rays feel like a wash of serene good fortune.
For those who make a living with the written word, this is our time. Cold weather hiking lets us indulge our most introspective selves while staving off the worst aspects of the season — for cabin fever, seasonal affective disorder, screen fatigue and prolonged sedentary idleness, the woods offer a cure.
The Merrimack Valley contains numerous trails that are perfect for the activity. From Merrimack, New Hampshire’s Horse Hill to Harold Parker State Forest, we have plenty of trails with, perhaps more importantly, well-maintained abutting parking lots.
Symbolically, what we do in January sets the tone for the year. It’s why people make resolutions. Cold weather hiking is an expression of a virtue that I hope to exercise throughout the year — active engagement with a non-virtual world, with a reality that goes beyond the rectangular confines of the pervading buzz of electronic devices.
So here we are, at the start of a new year. Let it begin!