This Winter

I’ve spent most of my life in Chicago, through countless blizzards, several polar vortexes, early October frosts, surprise late April flurries, and as of this past week, the second coldest day in recorded local history. On Wednesday morning, the thermometer on our back porch registered -22 degrees (the record stands at -27 in January 1985, when I was 5 years old).

River pees on the porch in -22 degrees

While these extreme polar vortexes are more the exception than the rule, even an ordinary Chicago winter is typically brutal. It can be festive and pretty up to and through the holidays, but the dreary gray skies and frigid winds that batter us through January, February, and early March can really drain your spirits. And that’s not to mention the endless shoveling of sidewalks, the chipping of ice from windshields, salt stains on your heavy winter boots, and short days with long nights spent cooped up inside.

And yet, I love winter. I love CHICAGO winters. As a Midwesterner, I crave the rhythm of seasons. Winter is a time of resting under warm blankets, watching movies and drinking wine while the dog curls up on our feet. As soon as spring breaks, we tend to run  headlong into sunny summer days when we barely spend a weekend at home, taking in every opportunity to drink in the sun, jump into a lake, and sit around a campfire. Summer is a period of nonstop activity, and winter is, for me, is the perfect period of forced rest spent reading, writing, cuddling and catching up on TV shows. (Just like the pioneers but replace needlepoint with Netflix).

The temperatures on Wednesday were low enough to give you frostbite in less than 5 minutes. But inside our toasty warm house, in my Jon Snow t-shirt and Swedish winter cap, a steaming mug of coffee in my hands, I was living my Laura Ingalls’ “The Long Winter” best life. Candles and a salt lamp made my home office light and cozy.  I was all set for a peaceful day  bathing in the light of my laptop while frosty patterns swirled across our windowpanes. Then, Kurt realized his van got towed (someone  got home late the night before and forgot about snow routes). A few minutes of cursing went down, then I posted a quick “out of office, brb” message before layering up in all of my winter gear to drive Kurt to the city impound lot.

Outside, the winter sun seemed brighter as it reflected off the heaping snowbanks (we had gotten about 6 inches of fresh snowfall two days earlier). As we walked to the garage, the frigid air hit my face like a slap.

Traffic was light, but it wasn’t quite the ice-covered ghost town I had expected. A few brave souls were out and about, running their cars to keep their batteries from dying in the extreme cold. As soon as we got to the impound lot, I understood why–after paying for the van’s release, Kurt couldn’t get the engine started. Our poor van had given up on this batshit weather and died on city property. In my car with the heat running, we called multiple towing companies, but they were all either too busy to assist or gave an estimated wait time of 4-5 hours. With no other options, we left the van at the lot and went back home so we could finish our afternoon workloads.

Later that same night, the sun long gone, we went back to the impound lot to meet a tow truck, which showed up roughly two hours later. Sitting in the car with the engine and heat running, I read Twitter all the way to the end. My feet froze in the passenger side while my entire face dried out from the heat blasting from the vents. Finally, our tow truck savior pulled up. I would have cried tears of joy but they would for sure freeze on my face. Kurt rode in the truck with the driver while I took our other vehicle home. Back at our house, I threw a frozen pizza into the oven and poured a glass of wine before I even took my coat off. We slept soundly that night, the dog and cat huddled on of the blankets in the concave of our bodies. The house creaked, the winds howled, frost quakes erupted.

In Chicago, we don’t have to worry about things like hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, mudslides, and droughts. Our landlocked flatness makes our region geographically boring AF but relatively safe from natural disasters. In the event of a dystopian apocalypse, we’re situated near the country’s largest source of fresh water. But we get winters. And I think because of our notoriously shitty, 15-month long, arctic blast winters, we’re tougher than the average bear. We’re resilient, and usually good-natured about it (drinking helps). We help our neighbors dig out their cars. Just this week, a Chicago woman named Candice Payne took action and rented 30 hotel rooms on her personal credit card to get homeless people out of the life-threatening weather. I love the way this city bands together in the worst of times.

And today, 4 days after the worst of the winter storm, it’s nearly 50 degrees, I’m wearing a light sweatshirt and nano-puff jacket, and I just stepped in thawed dog poop. Ah, Chicago.

 

 

Winter Adventurers

“You know what’s happening this weekend, right? You’ve seen the weather forecast?” the park ranger asked the first of our friends to arrive at the campgrounds early on Friday afternoon.

“We know,” they replied.

“Are you here for the start of hunting season?”

“No, just here to camp.”

The ranger shook his head in disbelief. A winter storm was rolling into the area, expected to drop up to 10 inches on much of the Midwest. And we were driving up north, headed the opposite direction of the geese flying south for the winter overhead, to spend the weekend outdoors.
IMG_6684Winter camping is one of my favorites. Though the days are short and our beer freezes overnight, there’s something about the quiet stillness that makes the forest otherworldly. The world hibernates around us, but in our small circle around the campfire, we stay warm and pass the whiskey. Overhead, stark branches criss-cross against the silver sky. The snow falls steadily, piling up on our tents, our boxes of beer (no need for a cooler), our fur-trimmed hoods pulled up over our heads. Beyond the circle, whiteness obliterates the landscape; we could be in Wisconsin or Westeros. Coyotes yip in the night. Or direwolves.

We’ve camped in snow before. We’ve camped in 1-degree temperatures before. But this was our first time camping in a legitimate winter storm, one big enough to get a name: Bella. We were undaunted by this news; we are not the type to be scared off, especially by a storm named after a damn Twilight character. We may be crazy, but we’re tough, and this wasn’t our first rodeo. There’s a Norwegian saying that goes “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.” We were prepared with insulated sleeping pads, bags rated for 15 degrees, waterproof layers, a coat and Musher’s Secret for our dog.

IMG_6714We arrived, car by car, at our large group site. As Friday slipped into Saturday, the snow fell. It melted onto our coats, warmed by the fire. It piled onto our tents, causing rainflies to droop under its wintry weight. It buried bottles left out on picnic tables, turning them into ambiguous white blobs. It blanketed us from the rest of the world, silencing the sounds of civilization, leaving only our laughter, our breath as we blew into our mittens, the crackle of the fire.

On Saturday morning, the snow still fell. We stayed in our warm sleeping bags, our tents transformed into igloos. Finally lured out by the promises of coffee, campfire, and Bloody Marys, we emerged from our brief hibernation. Before we could eat or drink, we had to shovel inches of snow off the tables. The dogs frolicked in the fresh powder, losing tennis balls and frisbees. We posted photos to social media with Winter Storm Bella hashtags, declaring ourselves Team Jacob. Our friends back home called us crazy.

The snow eventually stopped; blue sky peeked out through the bare tree branches. We began to cook our Thanksgiving meal. Potatoes boiled over the campfire. Vegetarian curry stewed on a camp stove. A turducken dripped savory juices in the smoker. Just before sunset, we set up our spread over the picnic table, salivating before our feast.

“I wish the ranger would come by and see this,” my friend said. We ate our meal together, friends bonded by our breaking of bread under the most snowy extreme circumstances. Call us crazy; we don’t mind. We’re adventurers.

IMG_6723

What’s Your Winter Sport?

I keep returning to the topic of winter, as you can tell by my last post on this blog as well as over at Drinkers with Writing Problems. We’re at the point where we’re past the frenzy of the holiday season but still have a long stretch of cold and gray ahead of us before spring, a.k.a. the super boring tedious part where, in The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder had to twist hay for fuel and subsist on potatoes. For us modern-day pioneers, it means scraping our windshields for the billionth time or writing furious EveryBlock posts about the neighbor that keeps calling dibs.

This is also the part of winter where people start to go on vacations, either to tropical locations for a break in the monotony, or to ski destinations to take part in winter sports. My husband grew up in a skiing family, but I’ve only downhill skied a handful of times. When I was a kid, it was perfectly acceptable to spend the whole ski outing on the bunny hills and using the rope tow. Sadly, as an adult I get mercilessly teased for doing the same.

The last time I went on a ski trip with friends was about 12 years ago. I was the only one who rented skis; everyone else brought their own. They had grown up in skiing families and were skilled and experienced enough to tackle the black diamond slopes. Alone on the wimpy hill, I slowly practiced my snow plow stops and mini-slaloms, working my way up from the beginner slope to a more intermediate run. Eventually I braved the ski lift, which is one of my biggest fears; I’m terrified of heights and the seats look so open and precarious, leaving you vulnerable to any number of Final Destination-esque grisly death scenarios.

On a trip up the hill, shortly after I scooted my snow pants-covered bottom onto the ski lift seat and let it swoop me up about 10 feet into the air, one of my cheap rental skis fell off my boot. I yelped in horror. The ski lift groaned to a standstill.

“What do I do now?” I asked my friend seated next to me in panic. He looked behind us and told me that the lift operator had fetched my lost ski and handed it to the people on one of the chairs behind us, so they could bring it to me at the top of the hill like helpful, goggle-wearing golden retrievers. As our chairs slowly lurched forward again, I started to think about what would happen when we reached the top. I would now have to disembark from my chair and slide my way down the little landing mound on one ski, a la John Cusack in Better Off Dead. My heart was pounding as we climbed closer to the top of the hill; for the first and only time ever, I didn’t want the ride to end. We eventually reached the end of the lift. I gritted my teeth and hoped for the best. When my one ski touched down on snow, I balanced on it as best as I could and rode it out, waving my arms and poles for balance like a deranged pelican, wobbling the whole way down. But I made it! I Lane-Meyered it just far enough to ensure that the next group to come off the lift wouldn’t crash into me, and then stood aside to wait for my other ski. After that, I decided that I shouldn’t push my athletic prowess or dumb luck any further and it was time to retire to the lodge for some adult beverages.

So yeah, skiing is not my winter sport. I’ve since had a major surgery on my knee, so I doubt I’ll be taking it up anytime soon. What else is there? My favorite Olympic winter sport is speed skating, which I’ve only done myself on roller skates. Luging looks like an insane thing to only be attempted in a futuristic death match reality show. Curling looks dumb yet oddly captivating. Maybe any of the things that I only do in the winter could count as ‘my winter sport.’ So that leaves me with drinking whiskey and moisturizing the shit outta my face.

Little House on the Tundra

It’s currently 11 degrees in Chicago (feels like -7, according to weather.com). In the last three days, I have only gone outside to shovel the front sidewalk and play with the dog in the backyard for a few minutes before my hands turn into icicles inside my Thinsulate mittens. Most of my Facebook feed is either threatening to move to Florida or posting Hoth/tauntaun/North of the Wall memes. Some who live in warmer climates are sharing screenshots of their weather apps with sunshine icons and temps in the 70’s; these types are kindred spirits to the people who purposely eat ice cream cones on the sidewalk in full view of Weight Watchers meetings. Schools, businesses, and airlines are shut down, hunkered down, and grounded. People might as well change their out of office emails to “currently on Netflix lockdown.”

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I have a strange love of extreme storms and weather conditions, mostly due to a childhood obsessions with the Little House on the Prairie books. When Mother Nature gives us the business, I like to think I can tough my way through it. During these bleak winter days when polar vortexes descend on my city, I look at them as training. Not for some Snowpiercer-esque future apocalypse, as you may be thinking, but for my retirement days.

Kurt and I like to kick around the ridiculous idea of someday retiring in Alaska. We spent 10 days in an RV driving around Denali, Anchorage, and the Kenai peninsula in the summer of 2012 and both of us fell in love with the breathtaking scenery and the way of life. Since then, we’ve become hooked on a TV show on Destination America called Buying Alaska, which follows couples as they house-hunt in the Last Frontier. We like to talk about what trade-offs we’d be willing to make (could I live with an outhouse as our main bathroom if we could routinely see orcas breaching in the bay from our living room window?). I like to picture a cozy log cabin with big picture windows overlooking pristine nature. I’d have a comfy chair next to the wood burning stove where I’d read books all day and watch for moose or caribou passing through the yard. Kurt would do all of the shoveling. We’d grow vegetables in a greenhouse and store Alaskan beer in our root cellar. The only tough part would be getting through those long, brutal winters.

The tough weather we’ve been having recently give me a small taste of what an Alaskan winter would be like. Could I really deal with -30 degree temperatures, 80″ of snowfall, and 20 hours of darkness? I’ll let you know in a bit.

If not, I could also do Vegas.