Litchfield County Sketches
By Newell Meeker Calhoun
Litchfield County University Club
A Highway in Winter
HAD you only seen it in the Summer time you could hardly believe it the same road. Winter changes roads just as it does brooks. Yonder trout stream which you followed last June is the same, and yet not the same. It was singing over the stones free and happy then, darting under the bridge and playing hide and seek through the alders. It served as a beautiful looking glass for all the fairies and the little girls who waded in it with their white bare feet. Now you hear nothing but a choked, gurgling sound, as the poor brook crawls along under the ice. The alders do not even hide it on this mid-Winter day, but are frosted over like the ghosts of their former selves. Down in the meadow where you took that half-pound trout out of the deep pooi there is no stream to be seen, for the snow has drifted over it from bank to bank, the warmest kind of a blanket. The thirsty cattle from a nearby barnyard are searching for water, which they can hear but cannot see. The boy decides to help them get to it, and, shovelling off the snow, cuts a hole through the ice, until the cold water rises through the clefts made by his axe, and the grateful cows crowd around to get a drink.
The highway in the Summer time was full of life and beauty. The trees that overhung it were the nesting places for birds, while the squirrels chased in and out of the stone wall and cracked nuts on the lower branches of the hickory tree all through the Fall. Happy children went singing on their way to school, stopping to make daisy chains or to play in the little rivulet at the foot of the hill. Lovers sauntered along, plucking the roadside flowers and forgetting the errands upon which they had been sent. The hedgerows on either side were bright with color, while grasshoppers, crickets and katydids filled the air with their strident music by night and by day. A wagon load of people going off for a day's outing stopped at the top of the hill to admire the widesweeping view. Everything tempted one to loiter and enjoy the restful sights and sounds.
Now all is changed, and you are not just certain where the highway is. Looking across the landscape, you can just see what appears to be a fence of some kind on one side, but on the other side there is only the level expanse of snow. It has driven over the wall and ifiled the road to the depth of several feet. Here is a mountain chain stretching right across the road with overhanging cliffs, which the boy, exploring these white mountains, cuts off with a stick and watches the avalanche as it tumbles down. The wind was busy all night, and moved the snow out of the meadow into the road.
The trees have become way-mai'ks, and the farmer knows that the road is somewhere midway between them. Since the children must go to school a mile away, and the girls cannot wade through the snow, the road must be broken out.
The strong, slow oxen are yoked up and hitched to the great wood sled, shovels are brought out and a start is made. For a time the patient animals plod through the snowdrifts, but after a bit they come to our mountain chain, which must be cut through. The snow here has sifted together hard, the particles packing closely together, and it may be cut out in cubes like solid chunks of loaf sugar and thrown on either side of the path which is being made. Or the farmer thought it so much work that when he came to the next Alpine chain of drifts he concluded to go around. Out in the field the ground is nearly bare, for to help out the sleighing the snow has nearly all come into the highway. So he takes down the fence, or turns out through a bar-way, and goes through the meadow and then out into the pasture, and so back into the road once more. It is not the best of sleighing out there, for the runners hit against the stones and scrape over the bare ground. Passing by night over the path thus made, the sparks will fly from the steel shoes of the sleigh.
There is one frequenter of the country in Winter who is independent of the highway, and that is the fox. He crosses and recrosses it, however, just for sociability. The boy often found his tracks, but only once did he see the fox himself. Then he looked at the lad in a surprised sort of way, and wandered slowly along, saying to himself, "No gun." Foxes have a way of sticking to their own roads, for you cannot help but notice that they cross the highway in almost the same place day after day. The hunter takes advantage of this characteristic, and stations himself by the fox's road to shoot him as he goes by, fleeing from the dogs.
How silent a highway is in Winter as compared with the Summer! The wind is blowing straight from the north, carrying stinging particles of snow with it, which cut the face and blind the eyes. The boys and girls on their way to and from school turn their backs to the wind, and thus walk backward until they get their breath. Passing through the grove down in the hollow, they think they hear a sound and stop to listen. In the hemlocks below the road they hear a soft, cheery call, and stop to watch a chickadee foraging for his supper. At another time they listen to the lonely, ghostlike rap, rap of the woodpecker, as he works for his Winter's bread and butter. At night one hears the frost cracking the ice down in the gorge, and sometimes a sharp report made in the freezing snow by the side of the road.
On moonlight nights the highway, where it drops down the steep hill, is the gathering place for all the boys and girls of the neighborhood. They come from the farm houses far and near to coast down the Long Hill, as it is called. John went over and asked Susan to go with him. The home-made sled, shod with steel and made to carry only two, glides down the steep snowclad hillside, to the merry sounds of shouts and laughter. They may chance to overturn occasionally into the soft snow by the side of the road, but that only calls forth louder shrieks and laughter. Exercise and. excitement make them to forget the cold, and the Winter highway, that ordinarily has such a dull time, is most happy to give the lovers such pleasure.
At another time, when the highway stretched away for miles over hills and through the valleys, with the snow packed solidly under foot, the sleighs with merry loads went creaking over it. The bells, large, jolly, whole-souled bells, made of genuine bell metal, jingled furiously, but could not drown the merriment of the young men and maidens going to singing school, where they are drilled by the old singing master who taught in all the neighborhood.
On another afternoon the farmer and his wife pass quietly over the highway for a Winter's visit with some relatives in an adjoining neighborhood, staying to tea and driving home by the moonlight. This is about all the recreation they have, and it rests them and makes them feel young and sentimental again.
The highway is never more beautiful in Winter than when there has been an ice storm. Then every tree is laden down with its icy fruit, and all the grass blades and weed stalks left over from last Autumn have grown to several times their natural size. The stones in the wall and the fence rails shine like glass, while diamonds and brilliants sparkle everywhere. As the sun comes up the ice begins to fall upon the hard crust of the snow, making Nature's crystal bells to ring most sweetly. At such a time some of the trees, particularly the white birches, become very reverent, bowing clear to the ground beneath their heavy weight of ice. They seem to know that there are troubles that it is better to bow before than to stand up under and be broken by them.
This much is true, that, though one may not enjoy the New England Winter, the Summer is more appreciated because of the sharp contrast. The child, they say, always loves the Winter time, and it is a mark of age to dread its coming and to wish to escape from its rigor. Cold and snow help in hardening the moral muscles, and they who are trained by Northern Winters are more ready to carry on a successful warfare against all other opposing forces. He who has plodded over a highway in Winter cheerfully and courageously will make more rapid progress on life's highway, which must ever have its Winter's days.
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