Finding Winter Zen
For our outsider team known as The Explorers, every trek is a journey of discovery, and their greatest finds are often inside their own minds
A smooth gray sky arched over Powder Mill Pond. Seventeen explorers, in various sizes and stages of dress, loitered on the glassy surface of the pond, stamping their feet to gauge the thickness of the ice. There was a certain uneasiness among the group, as the bright idea that had delivered us here was starting to dim, throwing our enterprise into doubt.
We watched as Joe Klementovich climbed the embankment and crossed Route 202 and began rummaging around in the bed of his truck. Longtime rugby teammate Mike Zizza looked at me with one palm held up, and I shrugged.
Soon Joe was traveling back over the crest of the road with a huge ax in his hand. He descended the bank, walked 20 or 30 paces out from shore, and began chopping at the surface of the lake, ice chips flying everywhere.
Gathered around in a loose knot, we trained our expectant gazes on Joe’s labor, scrutinizing his effort as though our lives depended on it.
Our series of northern expeditions has grown more popular lately, drawing inquiries from an expanding number of interested parties. Cofounder Chris Pierce and I had begun limiting access to a select group of our rugby pals and their families. Not opposed to taking our friends along, we had grown wary of developing some kind of stultifying outdoor franchise, complete with waivers and indemnity clauses.
Echoing one of my heroes, Groucho Marx, I refused to join any club that would have me — or the likes of me — as a member.
Two years earlier, Piercey and I had agreed that the original Explorers trip — fat biking, snowshoeing, and scaling an icy rock wall — was a little too easy. So, the following winter, a dozen hardy souls traveled to North Conway for a subzero hike and pond hockey tournament. Then, last January, the group ballooned to 15, and our snowbound trek up Mt. Wonalancet in raw, windy conditions did little to dampen the enthusiasm of our burgeoning clientele. [Note: See The Explorers’ past adventures here.]
Perhaps we’d been going about it the wrong way. Rather than making it tougher every year, we decided to make it easier. Maybe that would discourage some of our hard-charging cohort. It seemed likely that a visit to the Monadnock Region that included cross-country skiing and a guided meditation session would raise only mild interest.
But our rugby pals figured it was some kind of a gag, and 20 people signed up. Furthermore, what appeared simple in the planning stages — as winter expeditions often do — had turned into something more challenging than we expected.
Before we decamped for Powder Mill Pond in Bennington, the main body of our group had cross-country skied at a small, privately owned trail system near Mount Monadnock. Arriving in late morning, we discovered that an unseasonal thaw had left the trails icy and wet in several spots, and worn down to plain old dirt in others.
Our party filled up the ticketing area in the lodge, and when a short-tempered employee was rude to Anna Zizza, Mike called from across the room. “We just brought in 18 people in lousy conditions,” my buddy said. “What’s with the attitude?”
The employee backed off, speaking to Anna in an exaggeratedly polite tone. Still, it was an inauspicious beginning to the day’s events.
For the first hour, we climbed, a heart-hammering duckwalk up a series of hills. Near the top, we rendezvoused with the late-arriving Piercey and his wife Tanya, along with Kaya, 14, and Will, 11. They had hiked in to meet us, along with guest stars Ryan Swan of Billings, Montana, his artist wife, Elley, and their 11-year-old daughter, Daisy, a lacrosse phenom.
Like me, Swanny is a rugby and hockey guy, an easygoing, gritty fellow, eager to repay the adventurous visit the Pierces and I had made to Montana several
“Dude,” Swanny said, as we embraced. It occurred to me that our entire friendship had taken place outdoors, under some kind of physical duress.
“Where are the paramedics?” I asked, looking over his shoulder.
Piercey, Swanny, Mike, Bubba MacIntosh, Randy Reis, Jason Massa and I all played rugby together, and as we backslapped and whispered joyful profanities out of earshot of the kids, the clouds drifted away, revealing a pale blue sky. It was 55 degrees at midmorning, a far cry from previous outings, some of which had reduced members of our party to tears. An easy day, it seemed.
But going downhill on the spotty trails was as dangerous as bullfighting. After the first descent, the skiers clattered to a stop on a knoll overlooking the entire valley. Bubba MacIntosh, trying like the devil to keep up with his fiancée Kara Gauvin, an experienced skier, was standing beside me, his cheeks blowing outward from the effort.
Suddenly, Bubba went down like a stack of bricks, arms thrown up, his poles flying.
Piercey dropped into a crouch, scanning the tree line. “Sniper,” he said.
Off to my left, Mike’s 24-year-old daughter Sofia was upright one second and sprawled on the ground the next.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
Jason and Randy went ahead, scouting the trail junctions, the rest of us following in twos and threes. The herringbone slog of the morning gave way to the plummeting vicissitudes of the noon hour. Several descents ended in puddles a foot deep and 20 feet long. Some meandered off through the woods, concealing bare patches that had to be negotiated at alarming speeds, and still others were narrowed by other skiers clambering upward as we whizzed downhill.
I took my skis off and walked halfway down an unpromising stretch, then skied the bottom half and started to feel better. But in the last 200 yards, my gaze searching ahead, I fell down twice. The final stretch was a rippled sheet of ice, 60 feet wide and twice as long, running with a torrent of snow melt. It was like waterskiing down Loon Mountain.
Near the end of the run, I lost my edge and went down hard, sliding for 10 or 15 yards and getting soaked in the process. Arranging my skis perpendicular to the slope, I pushed myself up, wiping off my Gore-Tex pants.
“All right, brother?” asked Bubba.
“Right as the mail,” I said.
Inside the lodge, Piercey borrowed skis so he and Will could hit a few trails. The main room boiled with activity as my friends organized their gear and had something to eat. Warming myself at the stove, I felt like the morning was unsatisfactory in some ways. People were having a good time, sure, but there was an emptiness at the heart of the soufflé that nagged at me.
I called Randy over, said something in his ear, and he nodded. Our new plan was to head over to Greenfield State Park, looking for an appropriate lake or pond. Once we’d located a good spot, the others, including Piercey and Will, who were still out skiing, would meet us there.
Chopping a hole in Powder Mill Pond was tougher than it looked. After Joe, Mike took his swings, then Swanny, and Sofia Zizza’s boyfriend, 24-year-old Luke McCallum. In a frenzy, Luke drove the ax head into the rectangular groove the others had carved into the ice. Finally, it gave way. Everyone cheered as Luke and Randy pulled out the foot-thick chunk of ice and slid it to one side.
Everyone stared at the hole in the ice — an abstract notion of self-improvement had quickly morphed into a bone-chilling reality. I was standing barefoot on the pebbly shore, wearing my swim trunks, a towel draped over my head and shoulders. Rocking on the balls of my feet and working my hands like a boxer, I stared out at the pond: Just how freakin’ cold is it?
As I walked over, the slick surface of the lake burned the soles of my feet. My regular swim buddy, Tammi Wilson, who braves Lake Chocorua deep into the autumn, gestured as I passed by. I tossed her my wool hat and Philadelphia Flyers pullover and she laughed.
Someone had placed a branch across the gap in the ice. After a brief prayer, I sat on the edge, lowered my legs into the hole, and jumped in, submerging myself head to toe. Time slowed down, and I was surrounded by a cold, black effervescence. Immediately, waves of adrenaline surged up from my solar plexus and downward from my sinuses and throat. Every cell in my body was being recalibrated and recharged, and I felt light and strong.
Shooting up through the hole, I tossed my head and yelled “Whoa!” Swanny grabbed my right hand, and I hopped onto the ice, hustling toward shore. Elley wrapped the towel around my shoulders and stuck the wool hat on my head.
Nearby, Mike had stripped to his boxer shorts. He shook my hand as he went by. “Do it, Mike,” I said.
The hard-nosed rugger disappeared beneath the ice. Seconds later, he emerged with a war whoop, his torso streaming with water.
“Mike has a tattoo of an angel on his chest,” I said.
Sofia nodded. “Midlife crisis.”
Sarah Wilson, 21, who’s studying theatre at Dennison University in Ohio, got undressed and jumped through the hole. Then her mom Tammi dropped in, followed, in turn, by Luke, Sofia and her younger sister Anna.
“You gotta do it, Swanny,” I said, looking over at him. “No pressure.” He laughed, and took his turn.
Kara made her bones with our group by jumping in with enthusiasm. When she climbed out, I threw my towel over her shoulders and kissed her on the cheek. “That was awesome,” I said.
Bubba, her fiancé, rolled his eyes. “Great,” he said, taking off his shirt.
A roar went up from the crowd each time, our voices traveling across Powder Mill Pond to the ragged pines and maples lining the opposite shore. When it was his turn, Piercey sat on the chunk of ice beside the hole, extending his arms and legs like a wild-eyed diver at the Antarctica Winter Games.
Piercey slid into the hole, popping up a couple seconds later. “Interesting,” he said.
Scattered over the ice, everyone was high on his or her own supply, chattering like jaybirds, and occasionally letting out a whoop. Behind us, several cars had queued up on Route 202, gawking at the scene. For an instant, I had a vision for a new app, Polar Rugby Adventures, and then considered the liability and dismissed the idea.
With our laughter echoing over the 126-acre pond, any divisions among the people in our group — vague rendezvous points, the lack of an actual schedule — evaporated into the low January sky. Our bond, forged in dozens of rugby matches and through these boisterous adventures, had grown stronger.
Toweling off, and putting my shirt back on, I winked at Swanny. “Free admission,” I said.
The experience produced an invisible tether that linked each of us to one another, like silver threads, connecting our outdoor lives and our inner ones. It was a peak experience — the sort of moment you dream about. Through intense workouts and solo trail runs and periods of deep contemplation — how do I get back to that lost continent, that familiar but elusive place?
During those 20 minutes at Powder Mill Pond, we were a large, loving, rowdy family. No planning, no preparation, no specialized equipment. All we needed for that moment of rugby Zen was an ax.
From the pond, we drove to the Monadnock Mindfulness Practice Center on Roxbury Street in Keene. Although this appeared to be carefully thought out, it was a happy accident that our cold-water immersions were followed by a sitting meditation and body scan at the center.
Established in 2002, the center hosts several meditation classes each week, while offering daylong and half-day retreats and speakers to local residents and guests.
We entered the softly lit space on the building’s third floor and were greeted by Aylene Wozmak, the center’s chairperson, and her colleague Ginnie Gavrin. Between them, our instructors had 45 years of experience in meditation practices.
Cushions and bolsters and mats were scattered over the polished wooden floor. A colorful rug ran down the center of the room, dotted with scented candles and vases of flowers. Screens arranged here and there projected little scallops of light onto the white walls.
Noting that we’d had an active day, Ginnie and Aylene led us through some gentle yoga poses. Then our hosts filled little handleless cups with hot tea, advising us to feel the warmth of the cup, to smell the aroma, and to take a sip or two.
Meditation is the art of bringing one’s attention to the present moment, and the tea ceremony was a good way of illustrating that, Aylene said.
Sitting nearby, young Will complied with these edicts, very serious in his approach to tea drinking. Once or twice, he glanced over at Kaya and Daisy to see what they thought of the whole affair.
Offering around a tray of cookies, Aylene suggested that we begin with a small bite of the cookie, not letting any of the sensory experience slip away. Gazing around the room, I recalled the invisible tether of Powder Mill Pond, marveling at the fact that we were still bound by those silver threads.
Once the yoga had concluded, we were advised to make ourselves comfortable and “come back” to our breath.
Eyes closed, we focused on soft, slow inhales and the “Ujjayi” breath of the exhales, which mimics the sound of ocean waves. For a period of unmeasured time, all you could hear was the sound of gentle breathing and the soothing voices of the instructors.
Lately, through yoga and a related breathing technique, I’ve made this part of my spiritual and physical journey, an integrated way of looking at something I’d learned as a college athlete. In the midst of grueling practices, bent over and struggling for breath, we were instructed to straighten up, put our hands on top of our heads to expand the lungs, and breathe deeply and slowly through the nose.
Everyone tires at pretty much the same point, my coach said. Whoever recovers first is going to prevail.
At the mindfulness center, I used the focus on my breathing to recover from the day’s activities, from the stress on my most treasured friendships because of the haphazard schedule of events, and from all the times I fretted about things I had no control over. Inhale. Exhale. It’s so fundamental it often escapes our attention.
“What’s being nurtured is our confidence in our own wisdom, our own health and our own courage — our own sense of goodwill,” said Ginnie, in a prepared reading.
Various thoughts will crowd your mind, she added, saying we should acknowledge them in the way you’d notice a passing cloud, and then let it go.
As I sat on my cushion, I realized how much I was irked by Piercey’s habitual tardiness. I let that cloud drift away. The next cloud advertised my tendency to make decisions on my own and go off without telling anyone. So I let that slip past as well, figuring it would float by Piercey next.
After the meditation was over, we walked a few blocks to the friendly clamor of Pho Keene, taking up a large table and every seat at the bar. Huge bowls of soup appeared — “It’s pronounced ‘Ffff”,” said Elley — and the shouts and laughter of our group extended to the cheerful waitstaff and the people working behind the counter. Our mojo of goodwill was contagious, the network of silver threads expanding outward.
A short while later, we reconvened at our lodgings, putting out chips and salsa and setting up a makeshift bar. A raw January night rattled the windows of the restored barn in Hancock we’d rented for the weekend.
The solitary, square-built house was furnished in the shabby chic style of a 1950s ski lodge — worn furniture, mismatched throw rugs, wood stove, and sepia prints of skiers and skaters. No doubt, the old place had a colorful history. It was like visiting the home of an elderly aunt who was a retired stunt pilot, and whose third husband had a vaudeville act where he juggled fire while riding a unicycle.
The younger kids were on the floor playing a high stakes game of “Clue,” overseen by Sarah, Anna, Sofia and Luke perched on the sofa, reminiscing on the board games of their youth. Tammi and Tanya and Elley were seated by the roaring stove, imbibing some kind of vodka concoction.
Swanny discovered a guitar in the attic and, after tuning it up, was playing softly enough to converse with Mike, Piercey and me, who were seated at the kitchen table. Mike splashed some bourbon into tiny glasses and handed them around. Putting my feet up, I inhaled the woody aroma of the bourbon, and took a small sip, remembering Aylene Wozmak’s advice — don’t let things pass without noticing.
When I tried to walk by him, Piercey stuck out his leg. “What’s the password?” he said.
I jabbed my index finger into the pressure point behind his left ear. “Ouch,” he said.
The only TV in the house was off, and most of our cellphones were charging in the other room. Chatting with my friends, I took a sip of bourbon and glanced around the room. The network of silver threads ran back and forth, binding us tightly. I was breathing softly and slowly, my heart rate was low, and little ripples of adrenaline drifted through my circulatory system.
Beside me, Swanny was playing Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” which he’d taught to my nephew Owen when we stayed with them in Montana.
Raising my tumbler of bourbon, I said, “You don’t get many days like this, in life.”