Stepping out of the musty, college-male smelling interior of Lorenzo’s worn car, my feet bite into the crusted snow and my eyes retreat into the back of my skull as the sun beams its plasmic energy down on the Earth. The air is sharp, my throat burns and my mind, riddled with to-do lists and stress, clears. I breathe deeply, listening to the mystery of a winter wood. The pines are roaring, the wind gusting through the brittle boughs sending wisps of spindrift into the fallow, icy field. I track the flight of a lone raven as he soars above the trees—row upon row of silent sentinels receding into the wooded hills of the White Mountains, the far peaks a deep blue, the color of smoke lazily curling out of a clove cigarette. The raven, a black disturbance against the sky’s piercing brilliance, glides to his perch: a rusting combine, its hitch jutting out of the snow like a ship’s prow in high seas. Pulling my keffiyeh flush against my face, I brace myself against the stiff wind and shuffle through the snow to the combine, my feet occasionally plunging down through the drifts to the matted grass below. The raven regards me with mild interest as I sit opposite him on the cold metal and gaze out over the field into the unbroken vastness of the boreal wood.
My mind wanders. The trees, the mountains, the brooding raven all serve as kindling, stoking the dancing flames of my imagination. I am no longer a hung-over college student ten miles from Dartmouth. I am a fur-clad trapper checking his lines in the Yukon with a hulking malamute pawing along by my side. These what-ifs permeate my consciousness and function as an escape from reality—they are integral to my mental wellbeing.
As the wind whips at my face and my fingers constrict into frozen, arthritic claws, I consume the discomfort and expel it in a cathartic, sustained sigh. It is not a sigh of displeasure or angst, but an act of purification: I sigh to orient myself, to “be where I’m at” as my wizened grandfather would say. The mere act of being outside, removed from the trivialities of my day-to-day life, is liberating. Although I’m only a few miles from the campus around which much of my life revolves, balanced on the edge of a corroded farm implement, I am anywhere I desire. I realize how much I needed to break from the “Dartmouth bubble” and take some time for myself. Without my cellphone, runny-nosed roommate or 111 pages of assigned reading occupying my energy, I’m free to think and think and think. I think about what I want to be. I think about who I am. I think about cheeseburgers—succulent, aromatic, fat-infused meat sandwiches, that with each bite permit me to tread the precipice of a cosmic experience.
Sensing my primal yearning for meat, the raven flaps off, cawing loudly, its abrasive note swallowed by a passing gust. I watch him fly away and wonder where I’m going to eat for lunch. Relating my perception of the natural world doesn’t necessarily involve claiming my mind is infused with lofty, lyrical thoughts about the meaning of existence or true love. While I am guilty of both acts, being outside and perceiving what’s around me is done in much the same way as if I were pondering in the middle of the Green or in a bustling airport terminal. I neither alter my sensory receptors nor do I wax poetic about my surroundings. Doing so would only add to the sense of self-delusion I am trying to escape. Instead, as I do everyday, I attempt to drop all preconceived notions and expectations and simply feel I strive to feel and perceive as an infant does, pulsing with life, eyes stretched like milky saucers, brain humming with sensory input. By feeling the snow melting against the heat of my foot and allowing the frigid air to freeze my snot, I place myself in the moment, in that exact place. My mind is free to soar and drift, but I remain focused on my awareness, of where I am and what I’m doing. It’s not always easy. My mind seduces, distracting me from the present every chance it gets, but revels in the rolling hills of rural Vermont. Devoid of distraction, I can home in on myself and perceive the world through a slightly purer lens. I’m not quite an innocent crawling out of Plato’s cave into the light, but the crisp air and solitude unbridles my self-consciousness, peels back my public shell and reveals me. Me. In a stuffy lecture hall or crowded party I am a different me. Outside, in the sun and the snow, I am whoever or whatever I want to be.
Back on the combine, I stretch my stiff legs, stand straight and posed like a serene bodhisattva in my red North Face parka, let loose a bellowing yell, ragged and untamed. My in-the-moment mindset and wild imaginings spring forth, in a savage cry that flows upwards and outwards on the polar wind.