Here’s a true Christmas story. It may never turn into a yuletide movie starring Reese Witherspoon and John Stamos, but it has stayed tucked away in my memory as an adventurous search through the wilds of Wisconsin.
This event occurred many years ago, back when Sherry and I were still testing our potential as partners. It was one of those weird mid-life romances that have little logical promise, but much desire. We had agreed to go for a hike up a snowy, forested ridge of Wisconsin. It was Christmas Day.
A mutual acquaintance had told us about the hike. He said it would take us from Madison to Richland Center, a 28-mile traverse to the east. “It’s a popular snowmobile trail, with lots of signposts,” he mentioned, while sipping his third brandy Old Fashioned. Back then we described such sparkling individuals as “reliable sources.”
Off we went, early Christmas morning. We cut through farm fields and across half-frozen creeks, heading toward a forested ridge. The sun peeked over a morning cloud as we reached what might have been a trail (it also might have been going west). By nine, it was snowing those big flakes that land on your face and hold their shape for a few precious moments. By eleven, we stopped to eat our Christmas dinner: Saran-Wrapped cheese, tomato and lettuce sandwiches and a shared bag of ice-cold potato chips.
By noon, the snow was getting deep, forcing us to walk as if we were in a high-stepping marching band. And the only trail we could see was the one we were creating behind us. The ridge we were supposed to be aiming for was hard to distinguish from all the other rolling hills of Western Wisconsin.
By five that evening, we knew we were lost, with no road, no farmhouse, no snowmobiles and no signposts in sight. I was hungry and tired. At the start of the day, I had dressed to look good. Now, I wished I had dressed to stay warm. The gentle snow from earlier that day was now slashing across our bodies, and decisions to go left or right were no longer discussed, but based on hunches made by whoever was in the lead. That person was always Sherry.
By 10 at night, I noticed an odd thing. Sherry had no fear. The blizzard had finally stopped, the moon was sneaking around in the sky and there she was, making angels in the soft, deep snow.
At midnight, we saw it: the glow of a light blinking between bare limbs of a giant oak. The light led us to a road and the road led to a little town, snugly shuttered on this Christmas night. But there, in a time before cell phones, was a pay telephone booth. We brushed the snow away from the folding door and both hopped in to call our friends in Richland Center, friends we knew would understand why they had to get out of bed and rescue us. After all, we couldn’t be that far away.
Sherry and I waited in the booth until they arrived, and spent the time sharing which part of the trek was most memorable for us. I went with seeing a lone wolf in the moonlight, and imagining what he thought when he spotted us, wondering if he had any feelings of sympathy for me. Sherry most liked the time earlier in the day when we had rolled down the ridge like two giant snowballs, picking up speed with no control or direction. Sherry had come to a graceful stop in the gully, while my roll ended halfway down against the base of a sturdy pine.
Finally, the rescue car arrived and we climbed in. Our friends gave us the news. We had indeed traveled 28 miles, but we were no closer to Richland Center than when we had started our trek! It was a great day. Sherry and I had gotten totally lost, and in doing so had found precious little pieces of each other.
May you have a Merry Christmas.