You know you’re starting to acclimate to the North Country when you see the thermometer reading 24 degrees and you wonder if it’s even worth building a fire.
At this particular moment, anything above 20 would seem like a steam bath. As I did my morning chores, the mercury hovered (which feels like the wrong word) at 12 below; the horse droppings clacked against each other in the muck bucket like billiard balls, and a couple of eggs had frozen and burst before I came to collect them.
We do not take the cold lightly. We have read all the literature, bought all the appropriate gear and taken all the appropriate advice. But while maintaining the proper respect, there is also something attractive about the cold. It’s a fine line, I know. But we have come here from a region where, as Mark Twain said of India, “hot” is a relative term and used to distinguish temperatures that would melt a doorknob from those that would just make it mushy.
Here, I can look out over the frozen mountains through air that is clear as crystal, which I will take any day over 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity.
It is true that there is a difference in terms of danger. Even at 100 percent humidity no one ever talks about your organs starting to shut down. And wind adds a whole, infinitely more unpleasant dimension, but today it’s calm and I am feeling boldly poetic about the whole thing.
I’ve noticed that a certain subset of the native population simply vanishes in the winter. One of the guys who worked on our house said he earns what he can in the summer, hunts in the fall and spends the winter sequestered indoors, drinking beer and collecting unemployment. The goals he has set for himself in life are not high, if they exist at all, but he is happy as can be and has figured this world out better than most.
Another faction I have noticed are those who have this do-your-worst aggressiveness toward the cold. Icicles are worn as badges of honor, and the ability to function in sub-zero temperatures is testimony to a toughness that those in milder climes lack.
A story from South Korea recently surfaced on Twitter talking about how severely frigid it is there, and how, during the upcoming Olympic games, the world at large isn’t going to be able to handle it. The piece mentioned that the wind chill would occasionally get down to single digits, and there was a pronounced snotiness from some respondents in the High Peaks area who did not perceive this as any real hardship. I myself wanted to write the author and say “Look pal, up here we have single digits — period. So take this fraudulent ‘single-digit wind chill’ garbage back to your bayside condo and leave the cold to people who know a thing or two about it.”
It’s amazing how fast you can get territorial about the weather. Last year at this time I would have associated single digit wind chill with the temperature it took to cryogenically freeze the dome of Ted Williams.
In the Mid Atlantic we would have a couple of weeks out of the year where the temperature dropped into the teens. And, in keeping, the TV meteorologists there are taught to totally freak whenever there’s going to be a heavy frost.
Here, I notice weather is just weather. But down there they take weather Very Seriously, and the television weather bureaus give themselves names like Storm Team 4 or Storm Watch 7 or First Alert Action Weather Force. And they don’t have uniforms exactly, but they all wear matching parkas from The North Face, and they — I swear this is true — they have what they call their “weather terrace,” where the weather man or woman can brave the elements, like they were Admiral Perry on a polar expedition. (Sadly, the local station in my small town tried to emulate this for a while, but their “weather terrace” was on a seedy, litter-strewn alley where it shared a border with an adult bookstore and a privacy fence with the beer garden of a neighboring German restaurant, where a few overserved patrons would amuse themselves by — well, safe to say, most of the precip that fell on the weather men and women was of the fermented variety.)
When they are feeling particularly adventurous they sally forth in their Channel 5 First Alert Storm Chaser vehicle, which is really just a little Chevy Equinox, from which the station’s viewers can have the singular experience of watching a string of brake lights through someone else’s windshield. If you drive the Beltway often, sooner or later you are bound to see a tow truck pulling the First Alert Storm Chaser vehicle out of a snow drift.
So they wish for hard winters, even as they are terrified of them. That’s born of a naivety that maybe I share. Maybe two months from now I’ll be curled up in a little ball begging for mercy. But further south, it always seemed it was too cold to bicycle, yet there was never enough snow to ski. Here at least, there are things to do besides sitting inside waiting for winter to be over.