My daughter and I traveled last winter to Grimsey, an island north of Iceland that is somewhat above the Arctic Circle. The trek involved a hike of many miles to the northernmost tip of the island, and it was extraordinary — not just for the stark beauty of the landscape but because we were in the elements in the best time of the year for walking.
Walking in the other seasons is easy enough. But in the winter, against the wind, across frozen lakes and along snow-covered trails, walking is exhilarating. The snow, the ice, the cold give form and purpose to an endeavor that might otherwise be utilitarian. We can, as did William Wordsworth on his epic walks through the north of England, feel our feet “dispersing the powdery snow that rises up like smoke.”
The poet and his sister Dorothy were great winter walkers. Indeed, it was a walk on the cusp of winter that took them to the Lake District with which their lives became so closely associated.
A week before Christmas, in the winter of 1799, William and Dorothy embarked on a snowy, four-day hike that would become the subject of one of the great philosophical ruminations on walking.
My friend Rebecca Solnit begins the second section of her brilliant 2001 book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking” with a description of the journey across northern England that William and Dorothy Wordsworth made on foot on the eve of the 19th century.
“Two weeks before the end of the century, a brother and sister went walking across the snow,” recalled Solnit. “The first day of their journey, Dec. 17, they had gone 22 miles on horseback before they parted with their friend, the horses’ owner, and walked another 12 miles to their lodgings, ‘having walked the last three miles in the dark and two of them over hard-frozen road to the great annoyance of their feet and ankles. Next morning the earth was thinly covered with snow, enough to make the road soft and prevent it being slippery.’ As they had the day before, the travelers turned aside to see a waterfall amid this mountainous landscape.”
The diversion to the waterfall was undertaken with full knowledge that it would add extra miles to a long journey. “‘Twas a keen frosty morning; showers of snow threatening us but the sun bright and active; we had a task of 21 miles to perform in a short winter’s day,” Wordsworth noted in his Christmas letter. Yet the natural beauty that surrounded him was too extraordinary to simply pass by. “On a nearer approach the water seemed to fall down a tall arch or rather nitch which had shaped itself by insensible moulderings in the wall of an old castle. We left this spot with reluctance but highly exhilarated.”
Marveling at the accomplishments of the walkers, Solnit noted, “In the afternoon, they came upon another waterfall, whose water seemed to turn to snow as it fell amid the ice. (Wordsworth) continued, ‘The stream shot from the rows of icicles in irregular fits of strength and with a body of water that momently varied. Sometimes it threw itself into the basin in one continued curve, sometimes it was interrupted almost midway in its fall and, being blown toward us, fell at no great distance from our feet like the heaviest thunder shower. In such a situation you have at every moment a feeling of the presence of the sky. Above the highest point of the waterfall large fleecy clouds drove over our heads and the sky appeared of a blue more than usually brilliant.’ After the detour to the waterfall, they walked the next 10 miles in two and a quarter hours ‘thanks to the wind that drove behind us and the good road,’ and he seemed to relish their prowess in walking almost as much as the scenery. Seven more miles took them to their next resting spot, and in the morning they walked into Kendal, the gateway to the Lake District, where they had come to live.”
Solnit remarked: “What they did on those four days across the Pennine Mountains of northern England, what they had done and would do as walkers, was extraordinary. What exactly makes it so is hard to pin down. People had traveled by foot much farther and in far worse conditions before. People had begun, by the time of the poet’s and his sister’s birth nearly 30 years before, to admire some of the wildest features of the British countryside — mountains, cliffs, moors, storms, and the sea, as well as waterfalls. … (Yet) Wordsworth and his companions are said to have made walking into something else, something new, and thereby to have founded the whole lineage of those who walk for its own sake and for the pleasure of being in the landscape, from which so much has sprung.”
“On the cusp of the next century, the Wordsworths were having a splendid time walking not only roads but fells and byways,” Solnit observed, “as they admired the view and enjoyed their own powers of walking in weather that would keep most people huddled indoors.”
One of the more appealing notions in these often overwhelming times is that, for all of our technological advances, it is still possible to have a splendid time following roads and byways, to admire the view and to enjoy our own powers of walking in weather where the drivers of automobiles might think twice about hitting the road.
It is walking that allows us to most fully embrace the great gift that is winter. It is our destiny as Wisconsinites, and our great opportunity, to enjoy a long winter. Like the poet and his sister coming down from the Pennines toward Kendal, we still have the capacity to travel at our own speed toward inspired destinations.