Winter came earlier than usual to northern New England this year — we had a white Thanksgiving — and shows no signs at the moment of going anywhere till maybe April. Most of us accept this with a certain Yankee philosophical calm — what’s the rush, when the next thing coming is mud season? — and even try to find the bright side. I, for example, take some comfort in the nighttime snowlight that keeps the house bright enough inside to get around without electrical assistance. And it’s so much better to an old man not much into vacuuming to be tracking in snow, rather than gravel or mud, every time he or the dog comes in.
But there is a major downside. It’s not the darkness. We get that every year, snow or not, and it’s worse without the snow. Seasonal affective disorder is serious, but it’s a matter of the head. What I have in mind has to do with the other end of our bodies.
I call it Inuit Shuffle Syndrome (ISS). You can see affected people everywhere, from parking lots to city sidewalks to personal driveways. Almost all are at or past middle age. Instead of striding as most of us normally do during periods of good traction underfoot, they shuffle in little tiny steps, their center of gravity conspicuously held directly above their feet.
I noticed it for the first time a few years ago when my late buddy Dudley and I were waiting for a plane in an airport terminal in northern Quebec. There were quite a few Inuit there, some in anoraks and mukluks; others, headed for Ottawa, in dark suits and wingtips. Yet all of them shuffled, even on the dry, polished concrete terminal floor.
“What’s up with that?” I asked Dudley, who’d spent several years doctoring in an Inuit village in Alaska and more in Anchorage. “Is that walk genetic and physical, or is it a cultural thing?”
“Listen,” he said. “If you spent your life walking on ice or packed snow in boots as slick as carpet slippers, you’d walk that way, too.” It was an epiphany for me, and the birth of the name of the syndrome.
It’s not a lot of fun, going about the normal functions of living while walking on ice; yet, as hinted at earlier, it’s a damn sight preferable to mud. Most days, like today, just to go to the bank and the grocery store, I have to don creepers just to get to the garage. “Have to” doesn’t mean I can’t make it without them; it means that, after a really bad fall just a year ago (what I thought was water was ice), and after promising my local daughter that I won’t, I don’t quite dare. If I do chance it, and come to grief en route, the Life Alert button on a loop around my neck works at least as far as the garage doors; and once I’m in the car, another one, this one armed with a GPS locator, takes over.
A small arsenal of weapons sits by the back door: a cane with spikes that flip up when not needed (I’ve discovered it won’t go through airport security); a pair of Sorels with Yaktrax already mounted (not great on hard ice, and they wear out fairly fast); a pair of L.L. Bean snow sneakers to which I’ve added some screw-in carbide studs that another daughter sent me; Stabilicers, which pull on pretty easily (once you know they do) and are good on hard ice as long as it’s level; and finally a pair of so-called microspikes, sort of like pressed steel crampons that are excellent on all going except really hard, gray ice. For that, you need read mountaineering crampons (I sold mine years ago) and an ice axe. If things get that bad, nobody’s going anywhere, anyway, especially in a car, and there won’t be any mail or newspapers to go after.
Kiki and I walk almost daily in the park, over hard-packed snow or ice on the trails, noting the tracks of all the devices I’ve just described — plus those of skis and the occasional Christmas-present snowshoes. The occasional runner bounds by, somehow managing on only cleated soles and youth. Kiki bounds unfettered and unconcerned everywhere. I clump along with quite a bit of confidence, thanks currently to the microspikes attached to the snow sneakers and the spiky cane. Some other walkers appear with pairs of carbide-tipped hiking poles. They’re a pretty savvy bunch, but I haven’t seen any helmets yet.
As I write this, the outdoor thermometer on my desk reads 33.4º Fahrenheit, the sky is the color of cream of wheat and lifeless, and Kiki is beginning to stir to remind that it’s time for our walk. So in a few minutes it’s on with the sneakers, a glove for the hand that holds the cane, a pocketful of treats for the dogs we meet, and out to the waiting car. I love my driveway at the moment; descending the icy ruts to the road is just like driving a bobsled on a rough day.
But before we go, I’ll read one more time, one of my favorite Robert Frost poems — a verse, really — called “Brown’s Descent, or the Willy-Nilly Slide.” Then off we go, doin’ the old Inuit Shuffle.
Willem Lange is a writer from East Montpelier.