As we approached the darkest – or at least the longest – evening of the year last month, the kids and I took to venturing out for post-dinner walks. Partly this is because with so much dark and so little daylight, it can be a challenge to fit exercise into the daylight hours. And partly it’s because there are only so many Netflix shows we can watch and games of cribbage we can play during these long nights. Sometimes we need another diversion. Or a fresh air fix. Winter evening walks are a way to have both.
Like lots of people around here, we live on a dirt road where the traffic is sparse, especially during dark winter nights. The only streetlight is at the far end of the road, and we tend to wander in other directions during our evening forays. I often strap a headlamp around my hat as we venture into the darkness, but my preference is to allow our eyes to adjust, to see our way bit by bit, sometimes with a twinkling of starlight or moonglow to guide us.
Last year, these walks generally included only me and the dog. This winter, though, the kids have been wound up and ready to ramble with me after we’ve eaten dinner and done the dishes. Having their company is not always relaxing – they can be loud, and sometimes they run ahead to hide, then spook the rest of us by jumping out from behind some shadowy tree – but as the mother of teenagers, I figure I should take all the screen-free together time I can get these days. Plus, I’d rather have them running around outside than bouncing off the walls inside.
I remember watching people stroll along Lake Garda one summer, during college, when I spent a few weeks backpacking around Europe. Older couples walked arm-in-arm, kids scampered about, and nobody seemed to be going anywhere in particular. They weren’t in a hurry, or pumping their arms to burn extra calories from eating all that delectable gelato – just meandering along a lake in a resort town of mountain views and sidewalk cafes.
Probably most of these evening strollers were tourists, like I was. And maybe this was not their normal, non-holiday routine. But I found the idea of an after-dinner walk charming – and memorable enough that the mental image has stuck with me for more than a couple of decades and countless life changes since those two nights spent at a hostel by the lake.
My winter evening rambles through the neighborhood with my kids are vastly different from those Riva del Garda strolls through the bright evening light of an Italian summer when I was 21. Somehow, though, the one evokes a recollection of the other.
Then, I was sipping wine with friends and basking in warmth of the season and our youth, suntanned and carefree and thrilled to be spending a couple of days in this foreign land. Now, I walk with offspring who have surpassed me in height, our feet crunching across a frozen, white landscape. Our breath curls as wispy clouds into the darkness. The snow-laced branches of balsam firs and hemlock trees stand as silent, magical sentinels along the quiet road.
Sometimes we step off the road and into the woods, where our tracks crisscross those of snowshoe hare, deer, foxes, and other forest dwellers. The dog revels in the scents floating in the night air and throws herself happily down to roll in the snow. The mountains of home rise along the horizon, their familiar craggy shapes barely discernible through the dark, the bright lights of snowcats prowling along ski trails.
We come home rosy-cheeked and stomping snow from our boots onto the floor, where it will melt into small, cold puddles. These winter nights are long, yes. But our walks bring us, bit by bit, through the darkness.
Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's January 6, 2022 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.