The only problem, though, was the 10 inches of snow that had fallen the night before. A two mile hike is simple enough, but when you combine ankle-deep snow with undulating elevation, it becomes slippery, difficult, back-breaking terrain. And yet, I remained undeterred. What awaited me at the end of the journey was the promise of a 13 acre pond, at 1200 feet, all to myself.
As I started my climb, I noticed how alive the woods seemed after the freshly-fallen snow. I saw the woodpeckers I heard the week before, their shiny red heads standing out like tiny beacons amid the white background; I noticed bright red holly berries glowing through the undergrowth; I heard the chirping of nuthatches, juncos, and cardinals; and I saw the yellow-green mountain laurel leaves desperately clinging to the mother-plant, attempting in vain to withstand the 15-mph wind gusts that lashed the top of the ridge-line. When I reached the apex of the ridge, I could see out into Pennsylvania, with the rolling hills of the Delaware Valley giving way to the strange flatness of the Pocono Plateau. In the distance, I noticed a few stray water towers and the lights from a nearby ski area.
Besides those interlopers, the landscape seemed devoid of human touch, covered under whiteness. At moments like this, it’s easy to think about things like peace, purity, virginity, and calm. It’s easy to come up with hollow lines about beauty, about place. It’s even easier to note a feeling of smallness in a massive universe. This is what whiteness does to us; it’s what hundreds of years of cultural symbolism have embedded into our collective consciousnesses. Our brides are bathed in white, our babies swaddled in its protective sheen. It is associated with privilege, and with progress. It is all encompassing, and it completely surrounded me as I stood alone, gazing upon the Keystone State from the top of a mountain.
It was then that I remembered the lessons of Moby-Dick, a foundational text in my graduate education. A victim and a victimizer, Herman Melville knew that whiteness had another side, a meaner side, even a darker side, that few of us ever notice. As he wrote over 150 years ago, “Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?” At the top of a Kittattiny ridge, I thought of this passage, one I had memorized in college. The all-encompassing whiteness around me suddenly seemed terrifying: what if I broke my leg and I was stranded in the blinding cold, with nothing but the stark white snow to stare at? what does the white snow do to the birds that ostensibly seem so happy? does it cover their food supply up, so that their chirps are nothing more than hunger-shrieks? is it fair that the whiteness can transform an abusive home into a paintable winter landscape so beautiful it brings tears to your eyes? In the end, I thought, does whiteness like this make us all like Melville’s harlot, who paints her face to hide the “charnel-house within”? I wasn’t sure then, and I’m not sure now; but I did become frightened, as the trail extended forever onward, and I could never seem to reach the end of it.
But like all of our strange quests, mine eventually did end. Hemlock Pond was right where the maps said it would be, and I spent the next five hours ice fishing. I didn’t break my leg, get lost, or fall through the ice. I even caught a fish: a solitary yellow perch, about eight inches in length. I emerged from my journey with a sore back, sore feet, and a pound or two lighter. It was a pleasant day, replete with exercise, and I drove back home content with my first attempt at “extreme” ice fishing.