We could see our breath in little puffs of freezing air as we spoke, climbing out of the car and feeling that little catch in our throats when our lungs weren’t quite ready for that unwarmed air. In the city, the streets had been cleared, but down here in the Hocking Hills, the snow lay clean and undisturbed, except for the occasional animal tracks. The sky was a solid grey, but in the east, a promise of winter sun crept into the icy air and painted the baron branches with glittering icicles.
Soon, other cars crunched over the icy gravel, and more happy hikers emerged. They blew out their own little puffs of freezing air from smiling lips that called out joyful greetings to other winter-lovers, who had forsaken their warm beds to celebrate this winter day.
I opened the back seat of the car, and my Seeing Eye Golden Retriever, sherry, bounded out with gleeful expectation. She snorted and sniffed the air, sensing the excitement that would be hers today. It was New Year’s Day, and we were all there to start off the new year with a 7-mile hike and a picnic in the meadow—perfect for the first day of January.
When 8:00 arrived, and it appeared we all were there, we began our trek down the snowy path, 2 by 2, 2 by 3, 1 by 1, and with Sherry in the lead. Guide dogs always like to be first. We stepped over snowy roots and icy rocks, climbed over fallen tree trunks and ducked under brittle branches, heavy with snow and ice. We stopped to listen to a growning tree as it swayed ever so slightly in the breeze and the cry of a hawk as it split the sky.
Now, we were warming up, pausing to take a swig of water from our half-frozen bottles, or to much on a granola bar, kept chewy in a warm inside pocket. The path wandered up and down the hillside and occasionally along a creek. We slipped as we struggled to keep from falling to our knees going up, and we just slid on our behinds as we made the steep descents. A recent flood had washed away the bridge over the creek, but a good-sized log had been thoughtfully place there for a crossing. All the other hikers stepped onto the log and confidently walked across, but I held Sherry back. This was not going to work for a blind hiker with a guide dog. She probably would have felt it would be easier to just wade across, and I would have wanted to stay on the log. Just as I was weighing my options, one of the guys came to my rescue. He cheerfully and easily scooped sherry up, threw her over his shoulder, and marched across the log. I followed behind, holding onto his backpack. Sherry was embarrassed to be carried, but I was afraid her paws would get frostbitten in the half frozen creek if I allowed her to make her own way. then, as dogs do, when they know a joke has been played on them, she jumped around and acted like this was the most fun of all. But the most fun was yet to come.
By lunchtime, we had arrived at a clearing for our picnic lunch. One experienced hiker had brought a camp stove and offered hot soup or hot chocolate to everybody. Life seemed pretty perfect, sipping hot chocolate in the winter sun among new friends. The meadow was bordered by a stand of trees, so I took Sherry’s harness off, and she was off like a shot into the woods. In a few minutes, just as I was beginning to worry, she raced back to me with a big goofy grin on her beautiful Golden face. She was having the time of her life. But as always, she was ready to get back into her harness for our trek back along the path. We fell behind for a minute, as my friend and I noticed Sherry’s limp and discovered little icy balls that had clung to her toes. Once they were removed, she returned to her joyful self, charging ahead, regaining her status as leader of the pack.
Back at the cars, we all sang out “Happy New Year,” kicked the snow off our boots, climbed into our cars, and breathed a sigh of contentment of one of the happiest New Year’s Days ever, even for Sherry, who was asleep in minutes.