Beyond where the fleets of buses rest on the weekends, every hill is heavy with winter. Layers tell the tale – light snow, freezing rain, blizzard, then light snow on the frozen top. The dry, yellow grasses hold the weight of the year’s storms. Sharp winds seem relentless out of cloud-piled skies, sweeping the roads and frozen footpaths.
But today, things are changing. On a sunny March Saturday, lacing up my boots for the year’s first hike in a t-shirt, some friends coming in from their own trek said my normal route was impassable, impossible, overrun.
“Flooded. Completely flooded. Crazy.” They laughed at the confused look on my face, proud that they found another way, with muddy ankles and shins to show for it. Whatever. They’re new here. They must be talking about a different path.
I went anyways, slip-sliding in mud and melting snows. Five minutes in, I too was a muddy mess when I first heard, and then saw, the creek I was hoping to cross. Swollen to thrice its size, its churning brown wholly engulfed the bridge I normally took. I sighed.
All I wanted was a break from winter, a hike in the hills, an afternoon in the sun. Finding my composure again, I calculated alternative paths and started my detour. No more hang-ups, I hoped.
I had to follow a fence a quarter-mile downstream to cross. Hopping a set of barbed wires, I slid down a hill to the gap-toothed wooden footbridge. The water was higher there, too, sprinting downstream, running off with winter’s first surrendered weights. I’d never seen it so high, but something about it was encouraging. Spring.
High as the water was, at least I could cross there. On the other side of the bridge lay miles of open land, comforting for a day like today when I just wanted to walk and walk and walk.
I sighed again — this time, a sigh of relief — and started off, hooked thumbs hanging off the straps of my backpack.
I turned upward and hiked higher and higher into the hills. The sun sent more and more of the snow rushing towards the rivers below. Every other step was ankle-deep in an underground stream, hunting the fastest way down, whether trail, path or ravine.
I went to the highest point for miles. I could feel every hill between here and the horizon shuddering in the wet warmth, shaking off whatever the sun could take, sending it down in tiny torrents to the west river below. I could hear this snowmelt water flowing, even from up here, echoing on the sandstone bluffs the creek cut through. Some springs trickle; this one surged as the streams gathered in the gullies.
Every hill was heavy with winter. January and February were welcome months to flip on the calendar. I still carry their weight during my day job a mile away, the school I can just barely see from here. I feel the weight on my shoulders of two students we lost. I feel the weight of my grandpa’s passing, my uncle’s sickness, the official word I would be moving from here soon after three good years.
All that, along with winter’s cold, packed into heavy layers.But today the sun has the power, and hiking back on the bluffs, I feel spring in the river below. I’m not the only one needing and feeling and embracing this change; every hill gives what the sun will take, and down there, they all run together. We’re all shedding the winter.
I cleared my stuffy nose and smelled a wet earth thawing in the Saturday’s hot sun. I smelled that smell that reminds me of the mountains, of red pines coming alive, dormant evergreens going greener. It smells, somehow, like warmth itself. I laughed, nearly falling every tenth slippery step back downhill, never knowing which dirt was firm or fast with three inches of slick mud, never knowing which snowpack was icy strong or a gutted cave, downhill water flowing beneath.
My boots were unrecognizable, my legs rubber and my hands caked with mud from falling, but I couldn’t have been happier.
Who knows what weather a South Dakota April may bring, or when the snows will all finally melt, but the sun and the sound below are enough for now, heading home a little warmer and a little lighter. This moment of spring suggests that there is a summer. It’s on its way. There’s more to these hills. There’s more to me than winter.