Having lived mostly in warmish, southern climates, I’ve always taken certain things about winter for granted. Like when the sun comes out, the temperature will warm up. Like when a low pressure system blows through, there’ll be a day or two of really cold weather, but then it will start warming up into the 60’s under the high pressure system that will move in, and the Santa Ana winds will pick up and blow out to sea over the coastal plain and create hellish static electricity and drive everyone nuts for a week or so, and maybe fan some horrible fires in the chaparral-covered hills. Or if you’re up in the high country, the long-anticipated three day snow storm will only last three days, and that fourth day? Oh my gawd, what a gorgeous, crystal clear, sunny day that one’s going to be.
So, something I didn’t understand when I moved to Minnesota is that winter is an actual season. That means that it lasts several months. Not just a few days at a time. It's not incremental, it's a constant. And winter? It’s cold. A northern winter season has always been an abstraction to me: “Sure, sure, a whole season of cold. What of it?” My previous experience of winter provided no context for the real thing. Today it got up to about 31 degrees. That’s the warmest it’s been since sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Today I received context.
I drove to work this morning in the dark – it hasn’t been daylight during my morning drive since October – and the roads were icy in patches, but there was something else. Following behind other cars, water splashed up on the windshield. Liquid water. I hadn’t seen liquid water outside in over a month. I didn’t realize that I’d been stressing about the fact that all the millions of gallons of water hanging around in the form of snow, (Snow. That. Does. Not. Melt…EVER), has literally been solid and immobile for over a month.
At first I thought how nice it was to see the little drops of hydrated oxygen on the windshield, but then I had the dawning realization that this newly reborn liquid form of water was doomed to be short lived, because it’s January - because winter, right? Suddenly warming didn’t seem like such a good idea. Suddenly warming meant freezing. Worse, it meant refreezing.
So, today we’re in between liquid and freezing here on the prairie. For my part, I’ve found that I can really get behind low temperatures. I’ve found that I don’t mind the feeling of sub-zero cold on my face. I recently saw what must have been microscopic ice crystals slowly falling in absolutely still, sub-zero air, glinting in the cloud-filtered sunlight just like the best hallucinogenic trip, like a crazy quilt stargown in the dream night wind. I stopped and stared at the sight, unaware, and uncaring if others took notice of my wide-eyed wonder.
But I don’t like walking or driving on ice. Counterintuitively, prolonged, sub-freezing temperatures actually seem to keep the roads clear of ice - I haven't slid or felt the car slip from underneath me in weeks. Keep the thaw away until the end of March, I say, and then let it come overnight and be done. If the winter season is not incremental here, then neither should be the thawing. Incremental thawing only equals incremental refreezing. The lesser of two evils is still evil. I can throw salt on my driveway, but the world at large around me still remains a frozen, melting, and refreezing mass, threatening to thaw, only to repeat the cycle. Run the sub-freezing days up to as late a date as possible, then flip the switch and make it be warm enough to melt all that icy drift that’s built up around the trees and our senses and souls. Break us out at once, not gradually. I call for binary freezing and thawing; frozen or thawed, nothing less.
But then I guess we still won't avoid the mud that I hear is coming.