When I was a little kid I used to weave the word tundra into stories I wrote–adventure stories involving unicorns and elves traveling in magical hot air balloons. The tundra was a place seen in movies, or in the pages of National Geographic. Exotic animals like caribou and reindeer roamed there, among shrub-like trees and lichen.
Only recently, I learned there is an area very near where I live, that is actually alpine tundra.
My town, where I live, rests at the base of Mt. Mansfield in northern Vermont. The peak of this mountain apparently contains 200 acres of alpine tundra.
To me this is amazing, but then put into context of a record setting cold winter, not so amazing.
I thought about alpine tundra as I went for a cross-country ski the other day. It was below zero, and very windy. I was bundled from head to toe, and as I made my way across a very windy open field, taking one slow step after another, I imagined myself as an arctic explorer. The wind in my face, snow blasting my sides, but I continued on. Tundra.
I was feeling pretty good about myself, being so rugged and outdoorsy. An arctic explorer.
I pressed on, one ski forward, then the other, picturing myself the star of a movie where a character is stranded in the wilderness, in the tundra. I thought about books by Gary Paulsen and Jean Craighead George and Jack London. I could do it. I could survive in the wild, I thought.
As a blast of wind forced me to stop skiing and turn my face away from the indescribably frigid air, I thought again about tundra. Only a tiny sliver of my nose and cheeks were exposed, between my goggles and my fleece face-warmer, but it felt as though a thousand miniature frozen knives were slicing me. Of course we have tundra here. Why would that be surprising at all? I thought to myself as tiny icicles formed on my eyelashes behind my goggles, and I blinked them away quickly. The lining of my nose was frozen, forcing me to mouth-breath. Ugh. I hate it when that happens. Maybe I wouldn’t last so long in the wild after all.
The sun was starting to set, and the sky was becoming a darker shade of grey. I decided I better turn around before the sun got too low and it started to get even darker–and even colder.
Then I heard a coyote howl.
Okay, we’re done here. I raced back to my car, irrationally fearing that coyotes would actually chase me on my way out. It. took. forever. to. get. to. my. car. Even as I tossed my skis onto the roof-rack, I glanced around for signs of wild animals.
Okay, so I’m no arctic explorer.
But I’ve been to the tundra.