Below Zero, Not so Cold

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A week or so ago, I woke up to remember that I had forgotten to buy milk on my way home the night before. Tea without milk is no way to start the day. I reluctantly emerged from my down comforter, opened the front door, and let the dogs out. WHOA! I took a look at the thermometer on the porch — which always reads a bit high because it’s protected: 18 below zero. I let them right back in, got dressed, loaded up both woodstoves, and started the car to get it warm before setting off for the store. Outside, in temperatures like that, my usual surroundings turn otherworldly. A rim of hoarfrost coats everything, even the ice on the trees. The exhaust from my car rose like clouds from a factory. Nothing moves in this cold stillness. Over the years I’ve learned that in temperatures like this, if I take a mug of hot tea and throw it into the air outside the door, it will rise up like a cloud. If I blow bubbles out into the cold, the bubbles turn to ice and will shatter on landing like thin crystal. Those are the fun parts. I’ve also learned to carry essentials in the car with me: extra gloves, hat, socks, wool scarf, snow boots, a shovel, can of sand, container of kitty litter, granola bars and a small bottle of brandy (my father’s advice to me thirty years ago when I first started going out on assignment in northern New England — the bottle he gave me then remains in the emergency kit).

When the car was warm, I herded the dogs into the backseat and we set out. With all the snow we have had, the road was snow-covered. It was still dark. The snow under my tires made eerie sounds like ghostly voices crying in pain. As I turned out onto the road, my headlights lit up the surface of the snow which appeared to be sprinkled with glitter. Or tiny diamonds. Once out onto the main road, I joined the other cars making their way through the frigid darkness. Everyone’s exhaust was making vapor trails, and in the parking lot to the store, everyone had left their car running so there was a kind of cloud that hung over the market, a mist of commerce.

Inside the store, there was a hush. No one wanted to say what we say to each other all the time: “Coldenufforya?” That would be too absurd. So we traded expressions, raised eyebrows or little shakes of our heads. It was enough. From the cooler (which seemed warmer), I took the desired milk from the display, somewhat more grateful than usual, as if I’d gone on safari to reach this one object. And now it was mine. The cashier and I grinned at each other knowingly and I was back out into the atmosphere of below zero. My friends in Iceland had written — it was 40 degrees F. there. In Iceland the thermometer hardly ever drops below zero — something about the Gulf Stream. My friend in Alaska, however, does us one better with forty below. Her husband died two winters ago, leaving her to run their greenhouses and keep their wood-heated log home warm and shoveled out in the winter. She had written that week of her struggles to find dry wood. A young friend was bringing a truckload of big pine rounds for her to split. Which she did. She sent photos of some of the knots she encountered. I felt like a queen with my protected woodpile, right outside my door, all nicely split and ready to be transferred into the two big woodboxes inside. When both are full, I can keep the stoves purring for a week or more.

When I got home, I backed the car into the driveway, the tires squeaking like new leather. I got out, an extra effort to open the door. Even oil seems to freeze up at this temperature. My nostrils stuck together as if with glue and I could feel the air in my lungs, a strange sensation — I could actually envision the parameters of my lungs. I opened the back door of the car and let the dogs out. They always follow me back into the house. It’s not that far but as I got to the door and reached to open it, I realized they were not in step with me, as they usually are. I turned around to see Mayday, who will turn 15 in two weeks, literally stuck to the concrete floor of my porch. She looked at me pitiably and I rushed to rescue her from her frozen pose. I carried her inside. The little one, who is just two, was standing on the snowbank, holding up her paws as if to say, How can you expect me to walk on this horrid dry ice?? The expression in her eyes made me feel as if I’d just read a full length tragedy. She also was hustled inside, where the stoves were radiating that welcome heat and the kettle on the stovetop boiled with vigor. At times like this, I like to make the equation. I went to the thermometer on the living room wall. It read 70 degrees. If it was 25 below outside, that means that the difference between the outside and the inside (just one thin door between the two places) was 95 degrees. That’s how powerful my woodstoves are.

Yet, when the temperature drops below zero, friends write in concern: “Are you OK?” Yes, very much so, thanks. “How can you stand it?” Well, I always hate to sound like a Pollyanna when I answer that question. But I kind of like it. In fact, there’s something exhilarating about navigating through this weather. It’s usually still, often comes at the time of the full moon, and everywhere I look there is exquisite beauty. I occasionally venture forth with my camera — not for long but long enough to snap some photos of the cold, which is hard to convey in images. But once back inside, I’m beautifully warm and slightly triumphant.

Maybe I’ve just lived up here too long. A friend has gone to New Orleans to visit her son and she writes of how cold it is down there — probably forty degrees. Above zero. But she’s in an uninsulated house with inadequate heating. That’s how they build them down there. I remember living in Philadelphia and being colder than I’ve ever been then or since, a horrid damp coldness that felt much colder than the twenty degrees reported. Up here, it’s all about dressing right and having a good, insulated house, and, in my opinion, a woodstove. Other than that, the essentials include wool socks and wool sweaters (the old maxim: wool saves, cotton kills); a big supply of good, dry wood; flannel sheets and a good lofty down comforter for sleeping at night.(I am not one of them but I know people here who sleep with the window open, even on below zero nights. I once knew a woman who slept with the window open an inch or so, wearing a hat to keep her ears warm. She liked it like that.) Once you’ve got all these things, you need little else to stay warm and happy. (A couple of warm dogs are an added bonus.) Oh and I also recommend having a good supply of milk so that you don’t have to go out before dawn on the coldest morning of the year.


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