My wheels traced black ribbons in the snow and my breath was a great billowing gust and the flakes swirled in my headlight like a million darting, cold mosquitoes. All up and down the road, lights blazed in living rooms and kitchens, people arriving home to get dinner started, to be safe and warm and whole and well. And I felt my place in the world, in the saddle, keenly, the weather shutting out thoughts of anything other than my work at the pedals and the promise of the embracing warmth of my own home.
I labored up the hill and wondered at the heaviness of my legs in their winter form, but was glad for the struggle, heat rising in my chest and pushing out at my temples. The world seemed ordered and perfect, as it often does when I’m on my bike and the traffic hasn’t followed me up some obscure back road. Somewhere near the crest, I glanced to my left and saw a squirrel laying dead in the middle of the road, his lifeless form a silhouette in the white dusting.
For some reason I pulled up and stopped.
The neighborhood was winter quiet, darkness heavy as a stone, and my breath quickly fogged my glasses, turning the street lights to Van Gogh haze. I pulled them off and felt the cold in the moisture at the corners of my eyes. I stood there in the road peering down at my small dead friend and thought about what had brought him there. The poor guy, grown to fatness but unlucky on an out-of-the-way lane, beyond saving, beyond comfort. There but for the grace…
I stayed with him for another minute, thought to take a picture to remember how perfect and still he seemed, but my double-gloved hands wouldn’t find my phone and a moment’s reflection told me it was a creepy idea. And then a snow flake snuck in at my collar, landed on my neck, and reminded me that I was still among the living, standing tragi-comically on the centerline with a deceased rodent.
Is this the feeling Frost was trying to capture in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening? My 8-year-old had recited it to me just a few nights earlier. I remember memorizing it when I was his age, or just a bit older, another assignment I didn’t understand in a long string of rote efforts, not unlike riding a bicycle, that would later yield inspiration.
I get it now, even if the horse is a bike and the woods are a catacomb of neighborhood streets, a recent roadkill the thing that brings me up short. It’s about savoring these transcendent moments of twinkling beauty, the brief pauses that crowd out life’s persistent pestering. And they can only be brief, cold creeping into your bones, time grinding its way forward, the Earth and its never ceasing rotation/revolution/hurtling through space.
Frost knew in his winter reverie that he had miles still to go. His poems are always tinged with melancholia. There is a nearly audible sigh at the end of Stopping by Woods. I pushed off and clicked back into my pedals, steadied myself against the slight slipperiness of the new fallen snow and made for the warm place where I had promises to keep. They are, after all, good promises.
Image: Matt O’Keefe