The winters are tough out here.
I know that I write from the muddied perspective of an ex-Californian (becoming more ex by the minute), but damn.
I’m also aware, as the mother of a child now in North Dakota, daughter of a man who farmed cattle in Alberta, and correspondent of numerous friends and colleagues all over the northern United States, that’s it’s not as bad as it could be. But who wants to hear superiority-laced platitudes when one is feeling put upon?
I don’t live in those places for a reason, and when you start discussing those reasons in double digit numbers below zero with a smirk woven into the very fabric of your voice, you need to understand that I’ve stopped listening and am only questioning your sanity and life choices.
And yet…I wouldn’t be without the winter. I wouldn’t be without a manifest shift in seasons – the endurance and experience of which heightens the occasion of the others. Southern California was a great place to live in my early twenties, but putting a sweater on in December just tended to irritate the weather-entitled twit in me.
I frequently go head-to-head with my husband upon the subject of winter in the Mid-Atlantic (when I am acting as advocate not antagonist). Though we both come from the same Sierra Nevada region of California, the poor man grew up at a greater elevation than I.
When you climbed the four mile, 1500 foot grade to his neck of the literal woods and continued to head onwards and upwards, the foothills of golden grass and live oaks gave way to treacherously beautiful mountains of sugar pine and sequoia.
Add a few feet of snow – as the heavens were likely to each year – and winter to a teenager was all about skiing. Without having to speak Balaclava.
It was something to look forward to. Which is precisely why he dislikes winter in the Mid-Atlantic so much – he feels it’s an entire season he must simply endure.
The man’s argument is flawed in three places, and as he is never going to read this, let’s thrash them out here. I’ll begin with the most deeply flawed.
Now, I am not going pretend that the Sierra Nevada mountains aren’t beautiful in winter – that the skiing isn’t fantastic and that the Hallmark moments don’t number in the hundreds per day.
But, as I have pointed out to him on numerous occasions, the teenager in him didn’t live the adult reality of that kind of snow on those kind of roads with the kind of job and life and responsibilities he juggles today.
When he shoveled, he shoveled to live his teenage life (also known as his best life), not his adult one.
If he put on chains, it was to drive that best life up to a ski resort filled with teenage girls in neon lycra rocking out to Def Leppard in a lodge – not to fellow Amtrak commuters with personal hygiene issues on their way into the belly of the Beast.
When he spun out and coasted into a ditch on the way to living that best life with those neon girls, he called his mother’s insurance company, said his best “I’m sorry,” and figured out a way to hitch a lift with a friend back to Hot Tub Time Machine.
No sense wasting a perfectly good day of skiing.
In short, the man’s memory is clouded.
Yet he won’t accept it, so I move on to my second argument: Winter in the Mid-Atlantic builds anticipation better than Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.
I’d use more current examples for my younger audience (all three of them) but it’s a hard Hollywood analogy to make these days. Anticipation has been replaced by a lot of participation about six minutes into a movie.
For those of us who still find the build-up as or more delicious than the consummation, the complications of winter are all part of that dance. How better to appreciate the presence of something than by experiencing the pain of its absence and the anticipation of its return?
And it can be painful – though if we are fortunate enough to have shelter over our heads, the pain is mostly experienced in the getting from one place to another. If people only dressed to accommodate what they found out there, rather than a fashionable version of same, there might be a lot less gnashing of teeth and girding of loins in grocery store parking lots and Amtrak train stations.
By the end of the January/February gauntlet our senses have been finely tuned to detect any shift in temperature – any warmish breeze – and greet it with a joy disproportional to its merit. Whether you are a gardener or the anti-gardener, your spirits cannot fail to be lifted by what I think of as the Yellow Triad of a Mid-Atlantic spring – forsythia, daffodils and dandelions.
Though they are exceptionally common heralds, they are bright ones, and our brains respond in kind.
To stand on an early spring day with the sun at your back and the earth awakening in front of you is a sublime pleasure that can only be entirely experienced in those parts of the world where the earth was fully asleep to begin with. Forests of sugar pine or palm don’t make one yearn for the sight of color.
The longing is the thing.
But there is joy to be found in a Mid-Atlantic winter and this brings me to the third and final folly in my husband’s argument: that one must put one’s head down and endure.
Not only is there much to experience, I submit that we are further gifted with the chance to slow down and discover it.
Our friends in warmer climes do not get that break. One season being only slightly altered from another, they find themselves knee deep in strawberry season while red-shorted Santas stand in front of drug stores ringing bells.
Even if you are not a gardener, you can feel the slowing of the season and the chance to regroup. And when you accept that time for what it is, there is a chance to discover.
Some of my favorites: The incredible diversity of mosses, now framed by the browns and greens of the woodland floors. The geological formations of hillsides and fields, laid bare and rugged. The white-barked sycamores featured like great soloists, no longer hidden in a symphony of green. Yesterday I found a bubbling spring on the side of the road surrounded by short tufts of green meadow grasses and the footprints of creatures that rely upon it.
I could go on, but those discoveries are personal, and yours to make depending on where you live and where you walk, not least which windows you stare out of each afternoon. They are different from the joys you’ll experience during the other three seasons of the year, but that in itself is a source of happiness unless you’re determined to be miserable.
I have, however, found one source of winter happiness that seems to resonate with the man: Fire.
Fire and hearth (or some approximation of it) is the counterpoint to those icy roads and grocery store parking lots and even those winter walks somedays.
We have had electric fires, pellet stoves, wood stoves, wood furnaces and fireplaces in our houses and rental digs in the Mid-Atlantic. We have also experienced Mid-Atlantic winters with none of the above, and I can tell you without hesitation that the season seemed much longer when the only thing radiating warmth was the oven and the only thing orange and friendly was the French cast iron sitting on top of it.
Winter is cold. When you have some sort of hearth to sit next to and warm up by, the indignities are lessened, and the more likely you are to appreciate the slowing of pace and the joys of the season outside. It is a primal connection.
If you can squeeze an electric fire into the corner of your apartment, or supplement that heat pump with a pellet stove, consider it.
I will probably never fully change my husband’s mind. He informs me that we will retire someday to a cabin in Lake Tahoe where the snowfall is consistent, and I inform him that this will be difficult as I will be in Amalfi sipping prosecco and learning the Italian term for pruners.
Obviously, a compromise must be reached. Until then I will continue to make my case for the Mid-Atlantic winter – no matter how challenging the client.
A version of this article was originally published in The Frederick News Post and is republished here with kind permission.