To Bethel in Winter

It’s the day after Christmas and I’m moving to Bethel, Maine, in what feels like the middle of the night, but then again the sun sets early this far north. We blow through the one-stoplight town and pull up to a farmhouse facing snow-covered fields. This isn’t our place. My sister Abigail and I are renting the one-room cabin out back, and it’s so icy we end up unloading the car by sending my suitcase sliding down the hill and have to sit down and sled after it.

Only later will I realize that the snow we track into the cabin isn’t going to melt in there. I’ll spend days trying to get the woodstove with the cracked door to produce heat, and many of the rest of my waking hours huddled by the small propane heater. My sister and I sleep in the same bed in our winter coats to keep warm.

There I am on my first night, and I’m shivering as I change clothes in what feels indistinguishable from the subzero outdoors. And it sort of feels like the universe telling me This is it, kid. This is the real world, isn’t that what you wanted?

Then my sister chimes in, even louder, hurrying me out the door to get in a last ski before the temperature drops. She had planned to spend the winter in the cabin with her then-girlfriend, but as you can tell from the prefix, it was a long-term relationship in the process of ending. I had fallen apart all on my own and taken the semester off. Long story short, I needed a place to go. So Abigail got me a job at a cross-country ski center and I moved into the Goldberg’s backyard.

***

Bethel is only a town if you’re being generous. In the summer the population gets down to about a thousand. But in the winter it swells, as ski bums and vacationing families flock to Sunday River, the main mountain where Abigail was teaching preschoolers: make your skis like French fries to go, pizza to stop.

When you’re young and look like you work for a living, people start to ask how many winters you’ve spent on “the Mountain.” Twentysomethings become thirtysomethings working each season as ski instructors and lift operators in exchange for a little income and free reign of the slopes. I found it best not to mention that I prefer cross-country skiing to downhill, making me something of a pariah among the Mountain people, though I think we ultimately sought a similar white oblivion.

Though often lonely, it was a time of clarity—of feeling the weight of footprints against fresh snow. Sometimes, exactly what you need is a literal mountain to climb. If you want heat, you have to build a fire. We cooked in a toaster oven or a teakettle. At night, a thick stack of blankets heavy on our chests, Abigail would poke her rosy nose from beneath the covers and suck in the cold air, saying It’s like winter camping. This is the best sleep I’ve ever gotten.

It was a winter of everyday miracles, though I have to admit, I discovered them slowly. Some mornings, waking up to find all our water jugs and even my toothpaste frozen solid, I would wonder how I ended up here of all places. I think my sister sometimes wondered the same thing. The cold made me tired. My job was hours of sizing ski rentals, instead of out carving trails into the quiet wilderness, as I’d imagined. I politely turned down invitations to go out after work, eating alone and letting the dirty dishes freeze over in the sink.

Bethel was an exercise in finding my own momentum, a little hum of heat and motion. The Goldbergs and the rest of the locals seemed to get up in the morning, check the forecast, and figure out how many layers they’d have to put on before they could get out the door and go—skiing or hiking or sledding out back. You could see it in the way they’d breathe in deep when the first wall of cold air hit.

My boss Mike taught me to drive a snowmobile, then Spenser who moved up here for 4-H helped me draw the snowshoe maps. There were elementary school ski races and games of broomstick hockey on the neighbor’s frozen lake, and every day the sun set across the ski trails as I closed up the shop, and I could stand there alone and alive and breathless for the few minutes it took for it to pass below the pines.

I started to look forward to the sundown. It took a few weeks, then I started going out on the trails alone after work, turning off my headlamp and just feeling my skis in the grooves. The ski shop was attached to a hotel with an outdoor heated pool, and at night I would float in there on my back as little flakes fell and made the surface steam up like I was in a 20-by-20 different dimension. Once, halfway up a mountain, it was so quiet I heard the snow fall.

***

One weekend my mother comes up to visit, and we’re sitting there one morning and she’s telling us there’s no way she’s going out in this cold. But my sister, pointing to the cloudless sky and breathing in the mountain air, insists we not waste a perfect day. So we set out like pioneers waddling in our snow pants for the Appalachian Trail, thinking we’re just doing a quick loop.

Before we know it, flat ground becomes a full-blown mountainside with the footholds iced over and fresh snow on top. I look up to see my sister scaling the thing like a spider dangling from an invisible silk as I inch my way forward and my mother, behind us, is sliding on her belly down the side of the mountain. But we being the Marshalls and this being a loop cannot even consider turning around, so we carry on this way until we get to the most breathtaking view of this steep, stark valley with the highway like a tiny ribbon in between and we’re taking pictures with the most beautiful sunset as our backdrop when we realize what comes after the sun sets: the darkness, the dropping temperature. And we can’t find the next trail blaze. And my mother’s phone has just enough battery to leave a message for my father telling him where to find us if he doesn’t hear anything.

We can’t stay up there or we’ll freeze, so we eventually have to sit and sled down the mountainside, aiming to crash into the trees so we don’t get going too fast. Somehow we stumble our way out of it, and I’m crying a little because my mother can’t get the car to start while my sister is giggling from the thrill of it all, and it takes a few hours for me to be warm enough to feel anything below the ankle.

***

The whole winter was that way: trying to keep the circulation in your fingers and make it to the top of the mountain or the end of the trail for this National-Geographic-cover view that made you feel like yours were the first human eyes to bear witness to it, the hurt bound up with the release until you couldn’t tell if you were even having fun.

It was moving my body until it made the heat I needed. It was my sister holding on to me on the edge of a mountain. It was taking my mind off what I was supposed to be doing—school, the future—because I was following the trail blazes. It was hours in the woods feeling like the only person on earth, or in the cabin with a book, and the time to think everything through twice before I ever had to talk about it.

I’ll never spend another winter in Bethel, but I like the story of this one. There aren’t so many extra details, only a few main characters. And I can feel it, wherever I am, when it turns cold—that deep breath in.

 

Eleanor Marshall was born and raised in Iowa City, IA, a UNESCO City of Literature in a state with more pigs than people. She spent last winter living in a cabin in Bethel, Maine. While there, she regularly wore four pairs of pants, heard the sound of snow falling, and once sledded down the side of a mountain. Contact her at eleanor.marshall@yale.edu.

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