I am outside in the heart of this deep, winter night. The abandoned railroad bed is buried under layers of snowfall, but its broad, white ghostly curve shows the way through the dark shadows.
I’m lucky that these tracks pass within a half block of my home. Since there hasn’t been a train on these tracks for years they provide a perfect place for a quick, spontaneous walk on this late night.
Ten minutes ago I sat in the easy chair dozing over a book. I was just about to give in to the season and crawl into bed, when I remembered these tracks. It took me a moment to get up the gumption – and I almost faltered when I had trouble finding a good pair of mittens – but then I came out into the cold, gray night, and headed for the tracks.
I turn away from the village and step onto the rail bed. In a few steps the last glare of the final streetlight disappears and my only light is the faint glow reflected off of the snow. Behind me the village is asleep, tucked into winter’s dark blanket. To my right the unseen Moose River hisses and gurgles between pillows of snow and dark, ice.
One of the very best times to walk the hills of Vermont is on a winter’s night when the pale snowy light is all that brightens the dark midnight. If I am careful and mindful, on such a night as this, time will disappear.
I’m like most people, my brain is a constant whir of chattering. As soon as I start to walk into the night’s wilderness it starts babbling to me at a million miles an hour. It either comments on what I see – the dark ravine of a stream entering the river, the faint white outline of snow on a fir branch – or it runs rapidly from one thing to another, stringing a long line of thoughts that take me farther and farther away from the reality of this moment.
Now I am a half-mile from the village. The snowy tracks run deep into the woods; the Moose River has grown quiet under the thick ice; my squeaking footsteps barely break the earthly silence. All the while, however, my mind has been babbling at me constantly: first I think of work, then of home and the things I need to fix around the house, on Sunday I’ll call my brother – on and on and on my mind jabbers at me.
I concentrate on my breath. I count my footsteps as I breathe in slowly; count them again, as I breathe out. The air is fresh and clean. Once again, the wintry night appears. The illusion of past and future fall silent to the essence of the moment: snowflakes fall softly on my cheeks; I wriggle my fingertips deep in warm mittens; I listen to the sound of boots on snow; I become aware of my own breath.
The problem isn’t that my mind constantly chatters at me, but rather that I never really listen to what it is saying. I seldom become mindful of where my thoughts are taking me. In the rare moments when I do – like tonight’s peaceful winter’s walk – the clear essence of the moment appears before me.
I turn for home, thankful for this walk. The grace of the silent, winter night has gently allowed me to walk for a short while in the very soul of now.
This is Alan Boye just walking the hills of Vermont.
–Alan Boye teaches at Lyndon State College.