Monday, February 28, 2011
The weekend that changed my life
In 1992, I went snowshoeing for the first time in my life. It was Valentine's Day weekend. A friend at work had invited me to join a local hiking group for a snowshoeing outing in the Haliburton Hills north of Toronto. I had never snowshoed before, but Ron assured me there was nothing to it. I was 40 years old. I had been divorced and on my own for nearly 10 years, and during that time had discovered the pleasures of being outdoors.
Leaving work on Friday, Ron and I climbed into his Jeep. We picked up his wife Anita at their home in the east end of Toronto. As the winter afternoon light dimmed, we drove to our destination, a camp tucked into the shadows of the Haliburton Hills.
The cabins were rustic: pine veneer panelled walls, twin beds covered in red wool blankets, nubbly foam pillows, blue floral sheets, thin white towels. We had brought our own food. About 20 people had signed up for the weekend. That Friday night, the group gathered for the ritual opening party, held in the largest cabin. It had a small living room and kitchen, with some weathered sofas and chairs arranged in front of a small wood stove. Beer and wine flowed as we munched our way through pretzels and chips and chattered to one another.
About an hour or so into the party, the door opened. Two young men stepped into the cabin, stamping freshly fallen snow from their boots. The clamour subsided briefly as we all turned to look at them. One was tall and lean, with straight sandy hair and a slightly stooped frame. The other was a few inches shorter, not quite as thin, with thick black hair and wire-rimmed glasses. His smile was soft and shy. “Hi Ian and John!” someone shouted. The chatter resumed.
Ron and I were standing on the far side of the room, debating the merits of different brands of hiking boots. I cocked my head towards the door. “The dark-haired one,” I said. “Very handsome.” Ron looked over, turned back to me and took a swig from his Labatt's Blue. “Too young,” he pronounced. We went back to boots.
Saturday morning dawned clear and cold. The sky arched over the hills like a seamless blue tent. We packed sandwich lunches, snacks and thermoses of hot tea. I strapped on my rented beaver-tail snowshoes, and fell in line behind the others. To walk, you had to swing your legs out to each side to accommodate the width of the snowshoes. They felt big and awkward, clattering on the trail of packed snow like clunky, over-sized boots. Up ahead, a couple of people stepped off the trail into deep fresh snow. I did the same. The clattering transformed into springy, padded bouncing. I felt as if I was walking on clouds. Off trail, we bushwhacked through dense sapling groves, slid down snow-covered rocks, and used our snowshoes like shovels to dig steps into a steep incline. It was magic.
Mid-morning, we stopped for a snack break. I pulled out a plastic bag filled with raisins, cashews, almonds and a generous sprinkling of brightly coloured chocolate Smarties. I found myself in a circle with Too Young next to me. He was wearing a rich purple zip pullover on top of dark blue wind pants. His black hair was damp and spiky. He had hazel eyes.
“Would you like some Gorp?” I held out the plastic bag. Too Young – whose name was John – thanked me, and then carefully picked out a dozen Smarties. I twinkled at him.
That evening, we all trooped into the main cabin again for a communal supper of chili, bread and wine. I sat down on one of the sofas, and John slid next to me. We talked about our work, his as a software designer, mine as a freelance writer and facilitator. He was passionate about the outdoors, and had led hiking and canoeing trips while at university. He was 26.
The next day, we snowshoed together. A surge of playfulness swept over us. We chased each other on the snow, galumphing on the snowshoes. I threw snowballs at him. He dumped me into a snowbank. He ate all the Smarties from my Gorp.
The afternoon ended. It was time to head back to the city. I knocked on the door of John and Ian's cabin to say goodbye. He asked for my phone number. I kissed him on the cheek. On the drive home, I didn't talk much, and floated in a pleasant bath of memories. I had enjoyed myself. John was sweet and cute. But too young, of course. I returned to work the next day and completely forgot about him.
One Saturday morning about a month later, I was lying on the sofa, my nose in a book. The phone rang. It was John. Would I be interested in going out for a walk down by the lake one night that week?
And so began what was for me an incongruous courtship. I was too old; he was too young. I felt strongly attracted to him, but never thought of him as a possible long-term partner. I kept my heart light and detached and told my friends I was having a fling with a younger man.
John and I saw one another regularly. We spent winter weekends snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. When the weather turned milder, we hiked the Bruce Trail east of Toronto, listening to hawks screaming in the maple forests. The following summer, John introduced me to canoeing in Algonquin Park. I learned how to paddle, how to stern using a J-stroke, and finally, how to get out of a canoe without falling into the water yet again. In the fall, we spent weekends hiking in Killarney, or cycling on Manitoulin Island.
Winter returned. We went winter camping, and I learned how to build a quinsy – a sleeping cave out of hard packed snow. We had been dating for more than a year. We both felt comfortable and easy with one another. My girlfriends teased me, “Oh, he's just a friend, is he?” In early March of 1994, John and I flew to Thunder Bay to spend a long weekend skiing with his university friends in a cross-country ski race. The evening after the race, after all the friends had gone, we lay in bed talking about the future. John said he was considering travelling to Europe. Suddenly I envisioned life without him. My heart shrank. It was then that I realized that Too Young had carved a room in my heart.
And, as it turned out, I had settled into John's heart as well. He never did board a plane for Europe. Instead, that summer we rented a house together, and a year later were married.