Heading around to end of what constitutes winter here in Atlanta, I’d be a fool if I didn’t feel some small amount of relish at seeing what the temperatures have been doing in the upper Midwest this winter, as with all winters there. By local standards, the winter of 2014 has been mild, with temperatures stuck well below zero only a few days at a time, instead of full weeks. Snowfall has been steady, but there have been years there where it snows before Thanksgiving, stays through the beauty of Christmas, and then lingers to show its cold, dead colors well into April. That’s roughly half a year of aching, relentless bundling against the cold.
Here, we had one brief snowfall, less than an inch on the ground, yet enough to send the city and surrounding counties into predictable frenzy. Otherwise, all winter long it’s dipped into the thirties, risen close to seventy, and here at the end of February it’s already showing signs of knocking it off and going away. Any Midwesterner that tells you that isn’t their idea of a perfect winter is lying.
“You’ll get yours!” the folks away up north will tell me. “Just wait until July! You’ll be miserable!” they say. But I’ve always loved to bake in the heat, to surrender to the humidity and just be. Winter is a time when things either go dormant or die outright, call it sleep or coma or what you will. Summer, though, is when the very Earth we live on comes back to life! Throw those windows WIDE open, and let as much of that sweet summertime stink in as the room will take. Smell the soil! Smell the greenery! Hear the birds and the people out there! Those that sequester themselves deep in the artificial Arctic and complain away the summer of life; those that appear to come alive during the season of dark and death, well, I’m not one of them.
“You’ll miss the snow!” people will say — in fact they started saying it as soon as I made it known I was moving to Atlanta. Have I missed it? No. Might I miss it, next winter or some winter hence? Maybe. Probably, at some point.
No, I don’t miss the Grudging Frozen Miserable, but there is one thing I do miss, about winter. About the depths of the coldest, darkest, almost extraterrestrial night that a Wisconsin or Minnesota winter can bring:
A time comes during any winter when the simple term “Cabin Fever” doesn’t even come close. By then, it’s been months of suiting up even before taking the garbage out. Of adopting a rigid and inefficient gait just to keep from slipping on the ice, which eventually is everywhere. Of coats and hats smelling like they could use a good airing out, with no outside air in which to air them. Of feeling like it’s dark all the time, and that when the sun shines it’s a glare.
At that same time, sometimes the night temperatures will sink down well below zero, and the wind chill (first one to say “Real Feel” gets a pie in the face, I mean it) hits something lunar, like -30 or -50 or something immediately lethal like that. When that happens, the air is far too cold to hold any moisture at all, and the stars shine, truly, like diamonds. The space around them is so black, and their points of light are so sharp, and so multi-colored, that they appear as something which most definitely should have some sort of sound; something tiny and musical, mystical and magic.
Sometimes — definitely not always — I would take advantage of that magic and actually head out into it. When cars labor to start and unexposed extremities freeze and fall off, I would layer up in t-shirt, flannel shirt, sweater, and heavy winter coat. Sweatpants under oversized jeans, thermal socks in thermal boots, a scarf, a hat, mittens over Thinsulate® gloves, until I found it to be a mild effort even to bend my arms or move my legs. I’d pour steaming herbal tea into a travel cup, and then I’d travel. The upper Midwest being largely flat, I would aim for a county or state park somewhere sheltered by trees or bluffs, twenty or so miles out of the city, leaving the freeway, then the state road, then the county road, then the dirt roads behind. I’d slowly roll to a crunching stop in the snow, pull on the hat and gloves, double-wrap the scarf, shut off the car, and get out. Immediately: Magic.
The quiet of any windless night after zooming in a car can be stunning, no matter when. Without summer’s crickets, or birdsong, or low-grass scurrying, or children shouting from their yards miles away or even heavy traffic whispering along a freeway somewhere, the quiet on a night such as this is, at first, absolute. I just stand, feeling the blood move through my entire body, testing the cold with my nose and face, ready to retreat but thrilled to be out in the fresh air. Of course it’s cold — eventually it’ll feel deadly cold — but for now it’s fine, and the change is exhilarating. I walk out ahead on the road, packed smooth with snow, listening to my feet crunch. I stop again, my body heat doing its job inside all the layers, and I look up; just rotate my head back and stare straight up at the stars. This world, this nighttime of stars and quiet, was such an easy luxury just a few months ago, but now it’s as if I’ve stepped out onto the surface of another planet. As I watch, I see satellites glide across the sky. More often than not I see a small meteorite, sometimes a big one, again seeming for all the world as if there should be an accompanying noise: A hiss, a scratch, but nothing. As the silence settles around me, I start to pick up on small sounds. A branch ticking against a pole a few yards away, the air barely stirring. A small animal gets used to whatever I am and continues the foraging beneath the snow I interrupted when I showed up. A single bird, so out of place in the scene, calls once. A dog barks, in this thin air probably five miles away. I walk back and lean against the car, fascinated by how not-cold I am, and the thoughts just come. Memories, dreams, ambitions, my place in the world, my place in the Universe. After all these months of furnacing and blanketing and hurrying, I’m outside, and the juxtaposition is luxurious. I’ve broken the rules and survived. I’ve stepped out of time and I’m experiencing the frigid night all alone, and it welcomes me.
Eventually, the novelty wears off, the cold begins to seep in and really make itself known, and I realize I’d better step back into line and go back to the inside world where everyone else is stranded. I get back in the car, pull off the hat and gloves and pilot my little bubble home again. I only ever did this once or twice each winter when it got really bad, but I always — fully always — was changed by it. I’d stepped out of my world for a moment, and was rewarded with a peace of mind and calmness of thought that had long been absent.
Do I miss winter? No, I don’t. As I write, the temperature here is a above normal near seventy, the birds are singing and the breeze smells sweet. In Wisconsin, the temperature is a little below normal at minus one, and virtually no one is enjoying the breeze, not even the birds. Here, tonight it might dip down into the thirties. There, it’s forecast to hit minus seventeen. It’s not just that I’m going to like it here, it’s that I already do.