January 8, 2014

Surviving the Bitterest of Cold

A smooth blanket of snow glistens in the sun, its contours sculpted by relentless winds; while sub zero temperatures have frozen the surface into a solid sheet of ice.

Welcome to winter in Wisconsin. 

As temperatures recently plummeted into double digits below zero, we braced ourselves for the onslaught of Arctic air. A phenomenon known as a Polar Vortex was sweeping down from the north, bringing along high winds that produced wind chills that doubled the temperatures downward, into the negative thirties and forties, and even down to -50 degrees.

Though I’ve never heard of a Polar Vortex before, extremely cold temperatures are not a new occurrence here in the upper Midwest. When I was a young girl, temperatures would always plummet below zero for about two weeks in January every year. That’s just the way winter was, and we all survived by bundling up whenever we had to go outside, with layer upon layer of clothes until you could barely move your arms. Think of the little brother in “A Christmas Story” and you have a pretty good idea of our reality.

I think we’ve gotten spoiled. Winters don’t reach these arctic temperatures here very often. In fact, it has been a decade since we’ve endured this kind of cold. While these temperatures can present a deadly situation if one is exposed too long in the cold, if your are prepared, it’s just another winter day in Wisconsin.

In 1982, several days of temperatures as low as -25 were a catalyst for my exodus to warmer climes, though moving to California in mid-March might not have been such a great idea. A snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada mountains closed the mountain pass and we had to wait out the storm in Reno for a few days. 

When the pass was opened, and we drove through, we were rewarded with the most beautiful winter landscape I’d ever seen. The mountains and forests were covered with several feet of new fallen, pristine snow. Even growing up in the Midwest, I’d never seen that much snow. In the mountains, they measure snowfall in feet per hour, not inches.

For those of you who have never experienced -25 degree temps with -40+ wind chills, let me share one example of life in subzero temps. After moving to California, we returned the following winter to visit our families for Christmas.

One particular evening after visiting with relatives, we got in our borrowed car (after warming it up for 30 minutes or so) and drove away. There was a THUD, THUD, THUD as we drove away. We realized the tires had frozen to the roadway and were flattened on one side from the extreme cold. After a short distance, they found their round again. That’s something I will never forget.

For you folks who live where it never really freezes like this, let me describe how the cold air stings your nose and cheeks, or any exposed skin. Kind of like “Over the River and Thru the Woods.” Even the moisture in your nose freezes, which is quite an unusual sensation. 

Yeah, it’s interesting living here.  

I remember ice skating – outdoors – when I was young. Oddly enough, ice skates aren’t insulated. Why is that? Have you ever had your toes feel so frozen that they felt like they could snap right off? Yeah, that’s the kind of cold I remember! After ice skating on a makeshift pond on Buchner Park’s baseball field, my toes felt this cold. And then, while warming up afterward, as the blood began to return to the toes, the sensation was excruciating pain! But it was all in the name of good fun, right? The funny thing is, I don’t ice skate anymore.

In contrast to the bitterest cold, the people living here have the warmest and most sincere appreciation for one another. The hearts and spirits of family and friends exude the kind of warmth that makes living in the Midwest worthwhile. When I think of our hardy ancestors who lived in these parts when there was no such thing as snow plows and central heating, I am awed by their persistence and fortitude in enduring Midwestern winters.

It is this robust heritage that we share that unites us in our common struggle to endure this cold snap. And true to our ancestry, the warm hearts of our friends and families make sharing life through our wintery struggles more than worthwhile. We are still a hearty people, who love good food and fellowship; who care enough to stop and help a stranded motorist in a snowstorm, and open our hearts and our doors to celebrate the warmth of friendship, even in the midst of the coldest winter.

The warm hearts of the Midwestern people brought us back home to Wisconsin, and we’ve been living here again for nearly two decades. 

I embrace the change of seasons here: glorious rebirth in new life of spring; summer’s bounteous plant growth with long, hot days and warm nights of summer fun; autumn with it’s beautiful pageantry of color in the hardwood forests, and yes, even winter with the bitterest of cold, which produces a stark beauty all its own.

It’s winter in Wisconsin, so grab a cup of something warm to drink and put another log on the fire. Do what you can to keep warm, my friends.

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