Singletrack

Winter finally returned to central Alberta a couple of weeks ago.  Up until the first week of January, we had basked in above-normal temperatures and only had a skiff of snow on the ground.  Everything changed when our traditional arctic air mass made a belated arrival last week.  Temperatures slipped to -20°C and even -30°C and the steel grey skies unloaded about 15 cm of snow on us.

But Mother Nature dug out her yo-yo, and the wind switched around to the south today, pumping in warm Pacific air instead.  The temperature made it up above freezing, and the winds were light, which made it a perfect day to go for another stroll in the ‘burbs.

The ponds were once again frozen over.  The trails were blanketed by the sort of snow that crunches underfoot.  Sorties of bohemian waxwings cruised the neighbourhood in search of mountain ash berries, while keeping a wary eye on the local cats.  For a brief moment, everything was in balance and all was right with the world.

Except it wasn’t, really.

The themes of separation and isolation are fruitful sources of inspiration for songwriters.  Ben Gibbard uses an ocean as a metaphor for emotional distance in Death Cab for Cutie’s “Transatlanticism”.  The Atlantic reappears as an unbridgeable gulf in “England” by The National.  Even that new song on the radio by Gotye, “Somebody That I Used To Know”, uses the passage of time to separate two people that weren’t destined to make it to the end of the race together.  Taken literally, Gotye’s relationship sounds like it ended very badly, but most people will probably just pick up on the angst of isolation, of a bridge forever burned.

The lyrical themes throughout Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album all revolve around isolation.  The “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” suite of songs is about Pink Floyd founder and original visionary Roger ‘Syd’ Barrett.  Syd’s story is especially tragic; his underlying mental health issues were exacerbated by the consumption of various substances.  He eventually became estranged from his band and, later, disconnected from society at large.  The song “Wish You Were Here” is one of my all-time favourites.  It’s a perfect example of the elegance of simplicity.  Wistful acoustic guitars and piano and a terrific David Gilmour vocal performance resonate with the haunting melancholy of Roger Waters’ timeless lyric:

How I wish, how I wish you were here
We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year
Running over the same old ground, what have we found?
The same old fears, wish you were here

Today’s walk took me about 2 hours and 40 minutes and covered just over 14 kilometres.  On the trail there were quite a few other people out enjoying the beautiful weather.  There were old couples, eminently comfortable in each other’s company, out for a stroll.  Young couples walked their Golden Labs and Pomeranians.  Several rosy-cheeked families traversed to and from the toboggan hills.  Kids skated back and forth across newly shoveled skating rinks.  They all walked different paths in life, but shared close companionship as a common currency.

I was the first person to break some of the more off-the-beaten-path trails following yesterday’s new snowfall.  When I looked back where I’d come from, I couldn’t help noticing that there was only one set of footprints in the snow.  I can’t write songs like Ben Gibbard or The National or Waters & Gilmour, but the single track of footprints seemed like the perfect euphemism for how I felt.

I’ve come a long way in my life, both metaphorically and literally.  But late at night when the wolves are circling, it’s hard to wrap my head around how I don’t see any of my childhood friends any more.  I almost never see my university friends, either.  And as much as I love their company, I barely see my adult friends because I respect their need to spend time with their growing families.  All that said, there’s far too many ‘people that I used to know’.  And the older I get, as people pass out of my life (either metaphorically or literally), the list of people I may never get to talk to again just gets longer and longer.

It all hit home for me today when Keane’s song “We Might As Well Be Strangers” came up on shuffle.  This particular turn of phrase stopped me in my tracks, staring up at the azure sky, thinking about somebody that I used to know:

I don’t know your thoughts these days
We’re strangers in an empty place
I don’t understand your heart, it’s easier to be apart

What I wouldn’t give to turn around and see a second set of footprints in the snow.

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