I miss winter.
I realized just how much on Sunday when I found myself in need of a second layer. Light gloves wouldn’t have been bad, either. Or a hat. There’d been snow a ways back, I recalled, and it was cold for a couple days after. But since? I couldn’t recall the last time a hike had started in 30-degree weather.
I couldn’t recall the last time I couldn’t wait to get moving, in part, of course, because hiking is about hiking, not standing around. But I also missed the need to get moving simply to stay warm, to ward off the chill that gives cheeks a cherubic hue, to warm the feet and stoke the furnace. I missed the opportunity to dig into the gear closet and pull out exactly the piece of cold weather gear I needed to counter the elements.
I’ve missed winter for other reasons.
I miss winter for the cold, crisp air that makes the world pop like it’s projected on an overly ambitious LED screen. With warmer air, evaporation accelerates, the air becomes polluted with water droplets. (Polluted is a bit strong; hazed is perhaps more appropriate.) The dry air of a sunny cold day goes largely unacknowledged when we asses a winter hike. (Unacknowledged, but not unappreciated or unrecognized: we just tend not to put a value on it. Early one morning after a blustery cold front had blown through, keeping my tent aflap throughout the night, I hiked down to Rough Ridge on the southeast flank of Grandfather Mountain and swore I could see individual pine needles in Wilson Creek miles below. I can still see those individual pine needles.)
I miss winter for what some see as a dull, monochromatic landscape of grays and browns. Crayola currently offers 11 shades of brown and, apologies to E.L. Jones, just two shades of grey. They haven’t scratched the surface.
I miss winter for the anticipation of spring. Typically, around the first of February I began furtively casting about for those first wildflowers of spring along the trail, the trout lilies, the spring beauties that the Piedmont Almanac cautions me won’t show until the third week of the month, at the earliest. Being deprived for much of February isn’t disappointing; rather, it heightens the sense of anticipation. Seeing the first bluet on Feb. 11 this year was akin to “accidentally” tearing open a corner of a Christmas present a week out: a moment of elation, then the blues from ruining a surprise.
And, selfishly, I miss winter because not everyone has the same appreciation for the season. Three weekends ago, a 75-degree Umstead State Park was overrun, people parking in ditches, a half mile out along Harrison Avenue Park entrance. Rangers focused on the law enforcement aspect of their job, writing parking tickets. Two weekends ago, a ranger at 80-degree Eno River State Park shared a neighborhood entrance he knew of that might not be jammed pack. A weekend ago, a remote roadside access to the summery Mountains-to-Sea Trail along Falls Lake where I’d never seen more than two cars had more than a dozen.
This past Sunday, with the day starting in the low 30s, we didn’t pass a soul in 8 miles on the MST.
The weather people say it will be 81 Wednesday. There are more than three weeks of winter left, yet I doubt we will see any more of the season until December.