Less Than Zero

(Mount Washington Observatory)

***

After spending most of November and December’s usable daylight (sum total: 4 hours) indoors, my Christmas vacation plans always carry a hint of desperation:  

I’ll get up early and snowboard.  Then I’ll cross country ski.  Maybe after that I’ll hike a 4,000 foot peak.  Then I’ll put my snowshoes on and walk around the house a bunch of times.  I’ll use muscles I have forgotten about since October, such as those in my legs and arms.  I’ll be outside!  It won’t be dark out! 

Then we get to Christmas and I remember that I live in New England — where the best laid plans of mice and men are always foiled by the Gods of Crappy Weather.  

Christmas Break 2017 was no different.  First, an East Coast-sized rainstorm conveniently appeared in time for my wife and me to drive to my in-laws’ for Christmas.  We made the four hour drive in just over seven, dodging wrecked cars while negotiating roads that looked like NHL ice rinks after the zamboni has been across.

By the time we arrived in Maine, an inch-thick skin of ice coated the car.  I peeled off pieces to bring inside to show my in-laws: a replica side-view mirror made of ice, a two-foot chunk that reproduced the contours of my car’s grill, Subaru logo and all.  It was like one of those molds they make of your teeth at the dentist.

Two days later, our presents opened, my father-in-law and I rode out of the garage in formation behind two snowblowers.  Clearing those 12 inches of new snow from the driveway turned out to be Christmas break’s only outdoor fun.

Because by the time we got home, the week’s temperatures were already looking like Donald Trump’s poll numbers:  -5, 2, 8, -2, -3.   And those were the highs.  Meanwhile on the drive home we saw a classic Big Truck Guy being winched out of the ditch, one whole side of his rig — the passenger side, fortunately — dented in like it was paper mache.  

It’s almost always Big Truck Guys who you see off the road.  They think that just because they have tires the size of RVs, they’re not beholden to physics.  In my experience, most Big Truck Guys are insecure.  That’s why they drive such big trucks.  Actually, Big Truck Guys aren’t even the worst winter drivers.  That honor belongs to Crappy Car Girls.  Big Truck Guys are overconfident, but Crappy Car Girls are oblivious, which is worse.  You’ve got to watch out for Crappy Car Girls.  

Last spring I watched one pass me in a snowstorm at double the speed limit, flip her car into the ditch, and land upside down and backwards.  “She’s dead!” I thought.  I put one foot up against the steaming wreck, wrenched open one of the horribly deformed doors, and watched a quivering hand emerge, then a face.  As the ambulance took her away, the state trooper and I shook our heads, muttering to ourselves how lucky she was to live.  Modern cars — even late 90’s Dodge Stratuses with bald tires — are so safe that we can get away with being oblivious.

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But more than the questionable roads, it’s the frigid temps that have quashed my Christmas plans.  Bright sun and deep snow are cruel jokes to a skier when the temperature is -20 at 10 am this morning.  And I’ve kayaked class V rivers in single digit temps.  I wear t-shirts even when I can see my breath.  But this week I haven’t left the house in three days except to break an icicle the size of a motorcycle off my roof.  I haven’t even gotten the mail.

New England is known for its picturesque winter beauty — the snow-covered fields, the plumes of smoke wafting from snug, warm houses — but the fact is, New England winters are harsh.  During my February vacation week in two successive years, first in Switzerland and then in Montana, I basked in sunny, 25-degree days, calm winds, and fresh powder under my skis.  During the same week the next two years, I suffered through freezing rain, resort-closing winds, and 50 degree temperature swings back in New England.  Today the high is -2 in New Hampshire, but in Aspen, Colorado they’re skiing in t-shirts: 50 degrees.  Why, New England, why?

I should leave.  My high school seniors ask about colleges and I’ll dreamily tell them to forget academic rankings.  Look for beaches, palm trees.  Go south, young man!  Florida, or California — where you can leave your coat at home (in New England) and focus on higher thoughts than survival.

But as brutal as New England is, it’s our brutal.  I just got the mail wearing only a sweatshirt and I’m still registering my extremities.  That wasn’t terrible.  Next week it’ll be fifteen above — balmy! — and I’ll ski in just a light coat.  It’s like those runners who train at altitudes.  You get tough in New England.  You think, “I’ve got this.” You think, “It’s not that bad.” You don’t get to think that in Miami-Dade County, and that counts for something.  There’s good in this ratcheting-down.  It reminds you how resilient you can be.  Hot temps make you lethargic.  In New England, we’ve got our eyes on the Troll-in-Chief.  We’re not taking a siesta.  Winter keeps us sharp.

And adaptable, too.  We don’t just endure, we roll with the punches.  “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait five minutes.” A week from now it’ll probably be 45 and we’ll be on the porch in our t-shirts and then it’ll rain, and freeze, and pockmark the roads, and snow again, and cover our cars, and the wind will blow a tree down, and we New Englanders will just roll with it.  We’ll wake up earlier, scrape the car off, leave earlier and drive slower and dodge Big Truck Guys and Crappy Car Girls.  We’ll pack extra layers.  We’ll go with it.  

We’re good at that in New England.

And when it gets really nice this spring, we’ll have earned it, dammit.

Until then, I’ll be on the treadmill.

(Mount Washington Observatory)

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