November: The Dark Time of Year

Last weekend, on October 31st, we didn’t get much Halloween traffic.  We live at the top of the hill, and as a result the only visitors we got looking for candy were either the local kids who basically couldn’t stumble out of their driveway without cutting across our property, or some rather mature-looking elves and ghosts who looked like they’d driven themselves.

But the full pail of leftover Reese’s and KitKats wasn’t the only thing on my mind that evening.  After all, trick or treating isn’t even the most significant ritual that occurs on Halloween — at least not to a guy like me, who doesn’t have kids.  The most important ritual for me happened later, after all the trick or treaters had probably gone home.  I had just finished watching the Kansas City Royals beat the New York Mets in Game 4 of the World Series.  “The Royals just put the ball in play, that’s all they do,” announcers Joe Buck and Harold Reynolds kept reminding us — as though this were just a basic strategy that other teams had simply overlooked.  (“That teacher just keeps changing kids’ lives, that’s all he does.  Other teachers should consider trying this . . . “) When the game was over, I switched off the TV and headed upstairs.  There, my eye was instantly drawn across the dark bedroom to the garish red letters of my old clock, the one still streaked with scotch tape from back in high school when I’d tried to bar myself from an easy alarm switch-off to avoid last-minute Calculus homework.  Sadly and without a word I sat down on the bed and cradled the old clock in my hands.  I hate this time of year.  It was time to set the clock back an hour.

Then I fell asleep — and when I woke up it was cold and rainy and that afternoon, the sun set around 4:30.  It was November: the dark time of year.

Now, I realize that when most people start to complain about winter here in the North Country of New Hampshire, they’re usually complaining about the 100 inches of average snow snowfall that buries our cars, or about the constant mornings when the temperature is far below zero.  For the past two  years I’ve been lucky enough to take ski vacations with my family to the Alps and to the Rocky Mountains — and both of those weeks stand out as by far the warmest I felt outdoors all winter.  (You know it’s cold where you live when skiing at 12,000 feet in Switzerland feels downright warm.) What can I say?  I’m used to skiing at Cannon when it’s minus-10, a 30 mile and hour wind, and white-out visibility.  The White Mountain winters are harsh.

But I have discovered over past few years of living here that it’s not the cold or the snow that bother me about winter.  Sure, shoveling and bundling up are no fun, but I love all sports associated with snow — skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing — and my personal favorite: winter hiking and then sledding down.

Winter sledding down Camel's Hump.
Winter sledding down Camel’s Hump.

The problem with winter isn’t finding things to do outside — it’s that you only have this comical sliver of time to do it all in.  The problem with winter is that you only see the sun for eight hours.  The problem with winter is the dark.  There’s been a comic going around Facebook for the past few days.  “What time is it?” asks one of the characters.  “Midnight?” The other says, “No, it’s 5:27 pm.” I’ve had this same moment almost every night since the time change.  I keep thinking it’s time to go to bed . . .  and it’s not even dinner time yet.  You start to realize at this time of year how uplifting the sunlight actually is, just seeing it out the window.  You don’t realize what an effect the sun has on your mood until you don’t have the sun.  You start to feel like some kind of insomniac all the time, or like a prisoner trapped inside the house by the dark.

I’ve come to believe that winter would bother me about half as much if it was light out like it is in the summer.  Imagine if we had light until 8:30, like we do in June: going skiing after work would be easy — you’d be outside enjoying the glow of the evening sunlight across the mountains and the the snow covered trees.  Winter is beautiful, after all.  It’s just that you never get to see it.  Instead it’s the first week of November and I’m already driving home in the dark at 4:30.  In another few weeks, by the time it starts snowing, I’ll be leaving home in the dark too.

Now I realize November’s not the darkest time of year.  That’s December 21st, of course — the shortest day.  But December’s different.  December has a lot going for it.  My birthday comes early in the month, and a few weeks later, Christmas.  December is when the snow starts falling, and that’s always exciting.  There’s usually skiing here in the White Mountains.  December is kind of fun.  November is just dark.

November didn’t always bother me.  It only started to become a problem in 2010, when I was 28.  This was, not coincidentally, the time when I would consider that I became a “real” adult, for various reasons.  Before that, I wasn’t really aware of November.  When I was a kid, I do remember a vague sense of boredom in the interlude between soccer and ski seasons, but the dark didn’t bother me.  It was cabin fever.  In college I barely noticed November.  (But then again in college I barely noticed anything.) I did notice how dark it was all the time during a January-term class I was taking on Nietzsche that let out right at 4 pm when it was completely dark, but any existential frustration I felt then was probably more attributable to the dour continental philosophy than to any recognition of what was actually going on around me.  And that was January, anyway.

When I was out of college and training as a competitive whitewater kayak racer in Washington, D.C., November was exciting.  November was when our training cycle got interesting — when we finally got back to training on whitewater after two months of dull aerobic base-building workouts on flatwater.  Besides, I was only working part-time; I had all day to paddle my canoe on the Potomac River under the sun.  By the time the downslope of November had begun, I didn’t even notice; by 4 pm I’d usually been outside on the river all day anyway, and was only just arriving at the tutoring center where I worked all evening.  November barely registered.

But there are certain things you don’t appreciate until you become an adult (and not a kayak-racing, debatably employed adult, but a “real” adult with an actual full-time job) — taxes, dentist’s bills, the joys of car repair, mountains of papers to grade, the general sense that you’re starting to make the particular bed that you yourself will lie in — and November.  The darkness of November.

By 2010 I’d retired from racing, finished grad school, and moved back to a small town in Vermont where I most definitely did not know anyone and where I most definitely did have a full-time job keeping me chained inside during the day.  Like many first jobs, especially first teaching jobs, that fall was very difficult, demanding reserves of mental and physical energy that I didn’t even know I possessed.  The only thing that kept me going that fall was the modicum of work-life balance I’d been able to carve out by sprinting out the door as soon as work ended, driving 45 minutes through the Green Mountains, and meeting two good friends to go whitewater kayaking.  Nick Gottlieb and Justin Crannell both had similar schedules to mine that fall and both also had a similar affinity for the crown jewel of Vermont whitewater: the Big Branch river in Danby — the closest thing to kayaking down a fire escape that there is in New England.  By October, we were running it two or three times every week after work, almost always eking out two or three runs before dark.  It was perfect — and then suddenly it was over.

The author on the Big Branch, after work, October 2010 — before it got too dark to paddle. Photo by Justin Crannell.

Just like that, it was November.  We set the clocks back — and gained an hour of sleep, that was a good thing, wasn’t it? — and suddenly I couldn’t even find my car in the parking lot at 4:15 it was so dark.  We never talked about it, but we knew our window for after-work adventures had slammed shut with a bitter finality.  I kept asking myself: what happened?  Had it always been like this?  Had November always been like this?  Had it always been so dark all the time?

I attempted to cope in several ways.  First, denial.  I tried simply undertaking all the activities in the dark that I might have done in daylight.  Although I did NOT attempt to kayak the Big Branch by myself in the dark (mostly because the rain stopped and rivers froze), when snow fell I began hiking the hill behind my house and skiing glades with the aid of an ancient headlamp that I probably couldn’t have read a book by.  After nearly visiting a kind of permanent darkness on myself by doing this, I slid down another path.  Under the influence of Christopher Hitchens’s wonderful book, Hitch-22, I began to dabble with, as the Hitch termed it lovingly, “Mr. Walker’s amber restorative”: scotch.  Restorative it was not, and after a few evenings of which I have vague by unpleasant memories, I donated the balance of the bottle and changed courses again.  I signed up for the town bowling league.  This was not, I should say, a bunch of hipsters in trucker’s hats drinking PBR and making Big Lebowski jokes.  This was not a league undertaken with even the slightest bit of irony about the sport of bowling.  Let’s just say I was definitely in the minority by not owning my own bowling shoes.  A top five awkward social experience I’ve had as an adult, certainly.

You can never discount the importance of league play in a small town.
You can never discount the importance of league play in a small town.

By the time league play was over, I was tracing a predictable path of resignation each day after work: from my desk to the door, out to the car, then, seeing how dark it was — straight back to my desk.  After all, where else did I have to go?  I was living in a town where the average age was approximately 74.  My best friends at the time were probably Michelle Norris and Audie Cornish.   So I just worked all the time.  It was dark.  It was November.

On the opening page of his famous Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote, “Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November of my soul . . . then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” Since the days of 2010 and that first November in the mountains, I’ve tried a lot of things to cope with the winter blues.  Over the next few weeks, through November and into December, I’ll be blogging about ways I try to cope with the winter blues here in the North Country.

So — what do you do to beat the November blues?