In the fall of 1993, I moved from northern New Mexico to northern Wisconsin to start college. I picked a school and a town that can be pinpointed on any globe. I chose a spot to experience winter and water, one mile from the shore of Lake Superior. I selected a school that not only had an environmental studies major, but an institutional emphasis on the environment, not just on the letterhead. This was a school somewhat populated by a generation of latter-day hippies. Hackie sacks and hairy legs were de rigueur. The early 90s seemed like a hopeful time, the economy was rebounding and the environment was gaining mainstream attention and focus (who knew what that would look like twenty years later). Partly to fit in and partly for my own edification and an examination of my lifestyle and ethics, I stopped shaving, became a vegetarian, occasionally studied, and excitedly participated in up-all-night debates with friends. I eagerly awaited winter.
Northland College, at the time, was coolly un-school-like. There were no homecoming celebrations and not much attention was paid to collegiate sports. In fact, my small town high school teams had much bigger followings. Instead, we had the magic of sense of place. It was a wonderful place to grow and experiment and learn and dream. Snow Fest, in the middle of the winter, was probably the only time anyone had a shred of school spirit. There were lots of competitions between voluntary teams of friends including a cannon ball into the pool competition, an ice sculpture contest, a lip-synching-to-music event, and a zany scavenger hunt. It distracted us from the doldrums of studies and we disdained the low temperatures to be outside. It was a celebration of winter and nature and the fact that people will do crazy things in crazy cold temperatures.
Winter in northern Wisconsin was wonderful. Two of my years in college were some of the coldest on record and they were accompanied by dizzying amounts of snow. During my first year it was the first time Lake Superior had completely frozen over in something like 20 years. You could cheaply rent snowshoes and cross-country skis from the student outdoor gear Outpost. However, a good pair of snow boots and some heavy wool socks were enough to run around in, build snow people, make snow angels, try kamikaze sledding runs, and take maddeningly cold midnight walks. They were perfect for nocturnal adventures and looking for the Northern Lights. A pair of Sorels in the winter was like my ticket to the universe. In a school where fashion meant more holes and less laundering, people were serious about their outdoor gear. I packed up for college with a couple of wool sweaters, two pairs of rag wool socks, an old-hand-me-down green down stuffed coat, and a pair of seventies era hand-me-down steel-toed hiking boots. I figured the hiking boots would suffice for hikes and snow.
When we started receiving our first snows in late fall, however, I began secretly lusting after a pair of Sorel snow boots. Lots of students had versions of them and they were utilitarian enough not to look too cool. (This was before Sorel had high heel options–ewww–or started to advertise in Vogue, seriously.) I remember standing in front of the window at the Army Navy store looking at them, the way a dog drools for a bone. My parents, on the phone, said we would figure out something during the winter break, as money was tight. My first Christmas home, the last present I opened under the tree was a big heavy box. I figured it might be snow boots, but in my childish, churlish ways I expected them to be the “wrong” kind, not the ones I’d been drooling over for a semester. To my surprise I opened the box and there they were. I wore them to walk into town, to walk across Chequamegon Bay, to walk to Sand Island. I wore them as much as I could for camping and sledding and every day adventures. I grew up in those boots.
Things are different now. I have a full-time job, an apartment, and adult worries. I think about carbon footprints and wonder if I’m making any impact professionally. As I ponder next steps, the snow boots come to mind. I have now owned the same pair of boots for 19 years. In a world where cheap and disposable, however unsustainable, seems to be the trend, I relish the old and reliable. They have accompanied me on moves to four states, throughout my entire “grown-up” life. They have outlasted resumes and relationships. In the last couple of years in drought-stricken Colorado, they have seen little use, but I still pull them out when the forecast calls for one to two inches of snow. I’ve replaced the shoe laces two or three times, but the boots are still in great shape. We have hiked, snowshoed, winter camped, skated on sidewalks, jumped in ice-and-snow piles, and wandered on dry ground searching for frozen moisture.
I take the most comfort pulling them on in the middle of the night, out for a walk to sort out my thoughts and to soothe my soul in the cold dark air. I can hear the rhythm of my footsteps in these boots to two of my favorite songs, Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made for Walking” and Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight. Those songs become my themes, my armor as I walk alone. I have dried the boot inserts in front of fireplaces as I dried my tears. I have squashed the boots into the corners of closets and car trunks, hearing their whispers of adventures. They still warm the feet and heart, they still trudge along with the baggage of a life. They sit silently, speaking to my adventurous soul, ignoring my still life. I look at them longingly as I once did in a store window. They fit my feet and their fit comforts me, knowing that when I pull them on, adventure awaits.
Those boots rest at the intersection of girlhood idealism and adulthood hope, the merging, perhaps, of my best selves. I can see footsteps from yesterday, paths to take now, trails for tomorrow. They’re waiting and so am I. Next steps harken. What will they be?