Saturday, June 6, 2009

Wisconsin Winter

I live in Wisconsin. The state that even made Vince Lombardi think twice. In “When Pride Still Mattered,” David Maraniss wrote about the Lombardi family’s response to the Wisconsin winter as they rounded Chicago and headed north toward Green Bay: “…[Lombardi's son] looked out in disbelief…at snowdrifts higher than car level lining both sides of the road. I had no idea snow got that big and tall. We were up and talking and then it got real silent in the car.”

Winter here is itself a wild animal. Hot summer days cool into autumn, crisping leaves into bronze and brown. Temperatures drop. Freezing rain and snow transform roads into balance beams. Backs ache from shoveling, and snow blowers hum and whir down sidewalks and driveways. Furnaces are maintenanced. Emergency kits are resupplied and replaced in vehicle trunks. Salt is stockpiled. The wood should be chopped by now; fireplace flues spiral wood smoke into the atmosphere. Its delicious scent sparks memories of winters past.

There is something to be said for living in austere conditions. It sharpens the mind. It leaves no space for petty argument. The cold is indisputable. The primal drive for survival paired with contemplative landscapes fuses the senses with the spirit. The environment bestows provision as well as challenge. Snow glows blue in the moonlight. You hear coyotes howling in the distance. You check the latch on your door. You make sure the family dog is secure. And you snug that blanket a little tighter around your sleeping children.

During the snows, even the smallest venture outside requires tactical awareness. Weather patterns, current temperature, status of roadways. You make sure you have extra socks. You don’t dress so warm as to sweat. You replace layers if you do. You know that dehydration happens just as often in cold temperatures as hot. You review the symptoms of chilblains and frostbite. You make sure you have at least two of every necessary item in case one becomes inoperable or fails.You listen to the crunch of snow under your boots as you step through the drifts. You notice how sound is muffled and hushed, giving a sense of the sacred, the inviolable. The trees bend and moan under the weight of the ice. You recollect the canceled schooldays of your youth due to snowstorms and the ensuing snow forts and snowball fights. You remember the thankfulness of your grinning father as the clouds opened up. He taught you the benefits of snow for tracking, your heart pounding as you followed the blood trail to your first deer. The steam of your breath ascends to join the blurry glow of the Milky Way in the night sky. The stars glisten and shimmer as your eyes focus and shift through them. You glance at the amount of battery power left on your GPS and are comforted by the beaming North Star.

Winter becomes a family member that you admire for its beauty, revere for its power, and are tempted to get sick of when it outwears its welcome. It snow-blinds you, dries your skin until your hands and lips crack, and sends shivers down any exposed skin. It also sends you into the cuddle, rekindles your romance with your morning coffee or evening cocoa mug, and evokes a conquering spirit that refuses to be impeded by adversity. Where sacrifice and difficulty sleep is where the dream of freedom is forged into reality. If perceived as a gift, the arduous Wisconsin winter can make royalty of a man, woman, or child.

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