The Driven Snow
a local winter memory
I desperately held on to my aunt, simultaneously trying to stay on the back of the swerving snowmobile and hoping to keep my lunch down. We were part of the back half of the Rasmussen Snowmobile Armada, and something was wrong with the sled we were riding. The track was smoking and the smell of burning rubber and oil was overpowering. Another member of the group thought an easy fix might be to run the machine through the softer, powdery snow on the sides of trails, and this meant riding at an angle on the bank with constant swerving to avoid rocks, trees, and the overly steep parts.
I really, really had just wanted to stay at the cabin and read. I don’t remember which book I would have been infatuated with when we took this ride, when I was 11 or so – perhaps I was working my way through Jurassic Park for the ninth time. But this is what big family gatherings meant for me for most of my childhood – participating in traditions that my adolescent self would never have independently chosen to.
Watching football, waterskiing, fishing, giant snowmobile outings ... all of the outdoor Wisconsin classics never held much appeal for me. These activities certainly were not without happy moments and wonderful memories, but I always seemed to find joy in the wrong parts. When I learned to waterski, I was filled with incredible pride when all my relatives congratulated me on making it up for the first time. The actual waterskiing just hurt my knees. Fishing was pure, painful boredom, and I didn’t care for catching my own occasional fish, because I felt bad for it. But working the net when my dad or uncle caught something was super cool. And what I was supposed to enjoy about these snowmobile trips -- the 12 sleds tearing through the pristine white woods, the thrill of speed -- just made me scared and nauseous. But the kiddie cocktail and Snickers bar at whatever northwoods bar we stopped at was a special treat.
After a while, I apparently wished hard enough for the ride to be over, because the whole caravan stopped to attempt some maintenance. It was decided that I was too heavy, which was great for a pudgy 11-year-old to hear. Now I was placed on a snowmobile with my older cousin, who, with his bottomless spring of teenage testosterone, was the reason why snowmobile manufacturers make the things go 90 miles an hour. The nausea was replaced with fundamental terror as we flew around the corners. In my memory, most of the rest of the trip was spent clutching him around the chest while my feet flapped in the exhaust behind us.
Somewhere between my standard awkward childhood and my current, much more well-adjusted (and attractively muscular) adult self, all of my aunts and uncles became more geographically separated and involved in their own families. So, for a good decade I was able to excuse myself from all of the Wisconsin recreation I found distasteful. During this time, though, my father inherited the cabin, and as is the Rasmussen tradition, my wife, kids, and I try to make it up there as much as we can to enjoy the nature, the isolation, and the company. And in the garage across the street that used to house eight snowmobiles, two still remain. And my father and brothers very much enjoy snowmobiling, not to mention fishing, waterskiing, football, and all the other expected recreation of my childhood.
Except this time around, so do I. I have been able to find the aspects of these activities that I actually enjoy, which eluded me as a child, and have been able to focus on them. Take the snowmobiling, for example. For a lot of people, the enjoyment comes from the speed and danger, which snowmobiling certainly delivers, with insane speeds and unfortunate fatality statistics. But the appeal for me has more to do with the nature. It’s certainly not a Thoreau-Walden sort of nature communion – snowmobiles are loud, tear up the trails, and are definitely not the friends of the more low impact winter environmental crowd. But going across a frozen lake in the evening, just as the light fades, the headlight illuminating the snowflakes swirling in the northern wind … it’s beautiful, and although I don’t necessarily feel like I am a part of it, I do feel like a steward of sorts, like a ranger with a lot of ground to cover and a lot of nature to take in. I also feel like I’m on a Return of the Jedi speeder bike. It’s really a compelling experience.