Concrete Jungle

Skijoring, Sort of

I’ve lived in Stevens Square for eighteen months, and I’ve never seen anyone eating chicken wings and walking down the sidewalk. If this doesn’t surprise you, you’ve never walked a dog in Stevens Square.

A dog walker’s environment is defined by landmarks the casual pedestrian never notices, all of them disgusting: squirrel heads, pigeon wings, dog piss, discarded food, human vomit. So much human vomit. All appearing as if by magic. Matilda will chomp a small stick with the same relish as a chicken bone, so it requires a certain amount of discernment to know whether I need to grab her chin and start fishing around in her mouth with two fingers. If I can’t I.D. her prize immediately, I only need to wait a second or two. If she has a stick, she’ll begin a proud/delighted prance, not quite as proud/delighted as her wad-of-soiled-paper prance, but easily distinguishable from the ecstatic/furtive crouch reserved for items so delicious they must be forbidden.

I never see the fried chicken tossers, the upchuckers, or even the dog owners nonchalantly strolling away from their dogs’ feces; yet the evidence is there. And, in Minneapolis, the evidence is especially there in winter.

In summer the city seems cleaner. Maybe it’s the desiccating heat and rinsing rain. Maybe the birds and squirrels are more active scavengers. Maybe the textures of tall grass and leafed-out shrubs just hide everything better. At any rate, the beginning of winter is not so bad. The first snow falls and the city is as clean as it will ever be. Then the temperature rises, and things get drippy. The dog is in ecstasy at the end of her leash. Overwhelmed by the plethora of smells, she compulsively zigzags from one melt-hole to the next until she finally pokes her delicate nose into a snow bank and pulls out a turd, which she eats before you can stop her. The snow falls again, the city is lovely and quiet. Then you are in February.

The typical January warm-up has occurred: with highs above freezing for five days, all the layers of snow melted together, dropping their sediments into one another to form one condensed layer of refuse. The typical January cold front has set in: the wind chill doesn’t rise above zero for a week, and whatever water is left on the surface performs that miraculous action, unknown in more southerly climes, of actually freezing deeper each day until the alleys and sidewalks are covered with a permanent layer of slick, black, dense ice. The ugliness of the city is locked in place. You can’t run (well, you can, but your toes go numb and you get snot all over your face) but you can hide. For a few weeks, it’s pretty nice. Take the dog for a brisk walk and hustle your ass back inside. Pour yourself a gin martini. Listen to the radiator steam and hiss. Have an excuse to be more idle than usual. Do like your ancestors and just be glad to be out of the cold.

But eventually it occurs to you that, for a while, smiling has required a conscious decision; your default mood is a low-grade case of claustrophobia. And a few days later, you realize you aren’t coming down with the flu, going insane, or being dosed with a hallucinogenic drug, you’re just sick of winter, sick of darkness, sick of cold, sick of coziness and sloth, sick of walls and doors, sick of couches, sick of Matilda, cabin-crazed, rolling back her eyes and compulsively barking at the center of the dining room (at a ghost? you hope not!) or chewing on your toes unless you hold a knotted rope for her to tug, in which case she waits until your attention wanders then chomps on your delicious hand. This is when it’s time to harness up the dog, grab your skis, and find a frozen lake.

The origins of skijoring are shrouded; as Wikipedia eloquently puts it, “Since many leashed dogs naturally tend to pull a skier with no training, the sport cannot claim a single country of origin.” I’ve seen competitive skijorers out on the lakes, so I know their dogs can not only pull, but pull in the exact same direction the skier wants to go. My friend Elizabeth told me they respond to their masters’ commands. Despite this competence, I have no doubt that the dogs and their masters skijor for the same reason Liz, Matilda, and I do: to embrace and confront winter, to wrestle fleeting joy from it and thereby defeat it, or at least survive it until spring.

My first winter in Minneapolis, two years ago, was one of the snowiest in the city’s history. Thirty-three inches fell in December alone. I was intermittently employed by a moving company, and on off-days I’d carry my skis four blocks to Hiawatha Park, where the city groomed a ski trail over a nine-hole golf course. Liz’s dog Little John was sixteen years old. We bonded that winter, since we were both home with each other quite a bit. He would tell me when he needed to be let out into the fenced backyard, but Liz had raised a gentleman, and he was too polite to bark when he wanted to come back in. I had never been responsible for a dog, and I considered Little John more a peer in Liz’s affection than a helpless dependent, plus, I tend to get highly absorbed in my own routines. In other words, sometimes I forgot him out there. Usually I’d remember and race downstairs to find him shivering patiently in the snow by the door, sometimes Liz found him there when she got home. Unless I commit the crime of premeditated murder, I have no doubt that, in fifty years, if you ask Liz what she will never forgive me for, forgetting Little John in the snow will be number one on her list. At any rate, a dignified stroll around the block was all the exercise John needed or wanted; so I skied that winter dogless. I usually went in the late afternoon after I’d sent off a few job applications. The solstice was approaching, and the sky transformed with stunning speed in bands of tangerine and red that lingered in the southwest for a long time after the rest went dark. I’d do a couple two-mile loops through the inky blue snow, exulting in my motion through such a rapidly transforming world.

My mental health is finely tuned. If left to its own devices, it will come to rest at a baseline state of anti-appreciation: the assumption that at any given moment my life could and should be more enjoyable, beautiful, fulfilling, and generally better. This tendency reached its peak when I was twenty-three and living in a small stone house on the savanna of southern Kenya, on the grounds of an all-boys’ secondary school where I was serving out my two-year commitment to the United States Peace Corps. I loved the savanna, and loved especially that I could set out on foot and walk into nature for days if I wanted to. But I was bored and very lonely, and for a long time it didn’t seem possible that anything would ever change, a feeling reinforced by the equatorial monotony of the sun rising and setting at exactly the same time every day, shining at the same angle and casting the same shadows through months that could only be distinguished by slight changes in rainfall or temperature.

I realized I loved seasons. I needed order, not only in the year, but within each day. I had so little work for such a long time that my sanity depended on learning to divide up a day so as to feel productive and not be lost in unmeasured time: making coffee, eating breakfast, washing dishes on the back stoop, writing in my journal, teaching a class or two, coaching the basketball team, listening to the radio while I made dinner, reading a carefully rationed New Yorker article before I went to bed. And when the drain opened, as it often did, and all the meaning, motion, and optimism swirled out of the world, I learned to do the exact opposite of what I felt like doing: I would haul myself off the couch and out of my empty house and onto the savanna for a long walk. I knew that eventually, if I walked long enough, I’d feel a little better. That was an insight that has helped me calibrate my feelings ever since. And it was particularly useful that winter of 2010. After long afternoons of painstakingly tailoring cover letters, describing personal qualities that seemed more and more like lies the longer I went without a job, I would slide onto the snow-covered golf course, get hot under my jacket and cold in my lungs, listen to the scrape of my skis on the snow, witness the world transform. Get tired.

Coffee, exercise, and cocktails play essentially the same role in my life. I use caffeine and alcohol to change my body’s chemistry, and when I run, climb, or ski, I change my own. I can hardly bear to contemplate a life without a morning coffee, afternoon workout, or evening cocktail, but it would be hardest to give up the workout, which is ironic, since there are so many mornings I would rather relax with a cup of coffee instead of going for a run, and so many evenings I’d rather mix myself a Manhattan than head to the climbing gym. Liz says I’d be more happy if I just did what I felt like. She thinks I’m trapped by my routines. But if I know that if I let myself go a few days without exercise, I get irritable, lethargic, and generally hopeless; I enter a February of the soul.

But Liz isn’t wrong. It’s exhausting to maintain the routines that keep me all right. There are days when I lie down on the couch, or the bed, or most likely the floor, and I just have to accept that I don’t feel like getting up and going for a walk, or running an errand, or working on my bike to feel productive, and this time I won’t be. I will just feel bad for awhile. It’s about as easy for me to be all right with just feeling bad as it is for me to be all right with February, even though both are inevitable. The fact is, February isn’t just an external climatological state, our hemisphere’s lonely wobble away from the sun, it’s an existential disaster. And besides flying to the Dominican Republic, skijoring is about the only respite I’ve discovered. Maybe it’s because I’m from that vast part of the world where you can never, ever walk across bodies of water, much less ski on them, but there is a joy I get from being out on a frozen lake that no other terrain can match. It’s like magic, like stepping into the back of a wardrobe and feeling the coats become pine boughs, to ski past an island where beach stones run seamlessly into endless snow and driftwood sinks into solid ground.

It feels illicit to ski under the stone bridges that span the canals connecting the city’s Chain of Lakes, a crime against reality. It’s a weirdness that Minnesotans intentionally cultivate. Every February, Minneapolis hosts a Luminary Loppet when hundreds of ice lanterns, ice pillars, and ice pyramids are illuminated all over Lake of the Isles. 

But the biggest thrill of skijoring, at least skijoring with Matilda, is unclipping the harness. On the first glorious Saturday afternoon we took Matilda sort-of-skijoring, we were skiing past the north shore of Cedar Lake when half a dozen dogs came streaming over the backside of a forested hill and into the open snow between the bare trunks. The tight pack of running dogs decompressed as it crossed the hillside, the way a river delta opens to the sea, and the dogs burst off the shore onto the lake where Matilda, our little black dog, was running, running, running to meet them as fast as her outflung paws could take her.

Little John died in June. A few months later, as Liz and I contemplated getting another dog, it seemed impossible, that I, who could share an apartment with two dozen plants and forget to water them for a week when Liz was out of town, who left a sixteen-year-old dog in the snow for hours, who had to work so hard just to keep myself okay, could maintain a little breathing, eating, thinking, pooping, peeing body that could feel love and unhappiness and would depend on Liz and me completely. Then one day we drove to the shelter in Golden Valley, picked out Matilda, and led her out to our car. She was ours, and life went on the way it always had. No line was crossed, no complex ritual of ownership and responsibility was set in motion, we simply had an animal in the house, another source of joy, and frustration, and exhaustion, and terrible guilt, guilt like I hadn’t felt since my Peace Corps days.

It was easy to buy a water dish and a forty-pound sack of Taste of the Wild and keep her fed and hydrated. But hard to keep her happy, precisely because making her happy was so simple: all she needed was attention, exercise, and interaction with other dogs. And yet, providing these were incredibly inconvenient for me and Liz. We’d already had to fit our own needs and enjoyments around a forty-hour work week. Now I had to choose, in every free moment, whether to indulge myself in the activities that not only make me happy, but make me mentally healthy, or to meet the needs of the animal depended on me. And no matter how much of my time I gave Matilda, there were still hours and hours she spent alone in our little apartment. It was easy to see, in the frantic joy with which she greeted us whenever we came through the door, in the ecstatic strain she put on her leash to reach the next disgusting smell, that she was sick of walls and doors, sick of lying on the carpet, sick of chewing on her toys, sick of the same weak smells in the same dusty corners. In other words, it was clear that for Matilda, significant stretches of her life with us were one long February of the soul.

Snow fell on Superbowl Sunday, and on Monday I hustled out of my office to get out on the Lake with Matilda. Liz was going to a 5:30 yoga class in Uptown, and she’d offered to drop us off at Lake of the Isles and pick us up again around seven. With Mat leashed to my waist, I skied over to Raspberry Island and unclipped her.

The sky and snow were still bright. I made a wide loop while Matilda explored the fallen trees onshore; she ran with a Labrador playing fetch with its owner, then we leashed up and skijored under the bridges and over to Calhoun, which is larger and rounder and has no islands, just a flat disk of white. There were a few walkers and skiers near the north end, but soon we were alone out on the middle of the lake, Matilda stopping, sniffing, while I move at a steady pace. I’d look over my shoulder now and then, and eventually I’d see her sprinting towards me, a little black dot getting larger with impossible speed.

IMG_2551It had been a bright evening, but darkness fell as we worked towards Calhoun’s far shore. I’d worried this would be too much time outside for Matilda, but it turned out to be too much for me. All day, on the internet in my cubicle, I’d been looking forward to motion, snow, sky, and silence, but now I’d had enough. I was tired and cold and a little lonely. I was ready for Liz to call and say we could go home.

The snow glowed blue. On the black shore I watched the bobbing headlamps of joggers and the smoothly sliding tail lights of cyclists heading home from work. Matilda had been running ecstatically wherever her pleasure took her for almost an hour and a half when we saw a solitary walker on the ice beyond a snow-covered lifeguard stand. Matilda gave chase, barking. I was irritated and ashamed. I called out to her and kept moving away from the walker until I reached some invisible limit that made Matilda turn and sprint in my direction. She barked as she ran, and continued heedlessly barking at the dark shore long after the walker was out of sight behind us. I looked to see what was stimulating her, but there were no runners, no cyclists.

It struck me what it must be like to be Matilda, to be wordless. Was she cold and tired and trying in the wrong way to tell me? No, I decided, she’d just been out on the ice too long. She was barking at the shore itself, where she knew she belonged. Angry and in love, she was ready to be leashed up and taken back to the dark trees and the bright streets, to pizza crusts and chicken wings in dirty snow, to our warm home and the walls that made her fret and gnaw and feel safe and whole.

She’d had too much empty snow and freedom. But when I tried to approach, she ran a few steps away, and when I called her name, she sat in the snow and looked back at me: a little black soul, out on the ice, unknowable and overwhelmed, just out of reach.

John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.