“November was here, and it frightened her because she knew what it brought – cold upon the valley like a coming death, glacial wind through the cracks between the cabin logs.” – Eowyn Ivey, The Snow Child
When we left Florida on November 1, 2009 to make the drive north to Minnesota, our station wagon packed so full of belongings that we couldn’t see out the back windows, the grass was lush and green, butterflies flitted at the mouths of hibiscus blooms, and the air conditioner was running in my in-laws’ Sarasota home. When we arrived in St. Paul four days later, the world was brown and grey, and bony branches rattled in the cold breath that chilled the city. We wore hats, coats, and gloves when we stepped out of the car onto our new driveway.
Once we unpacked our moving Pods and got our home in order, I remember lying in bed one night next to my husband, listening to a wintry wind whistle through naked tree limbs and catch in corners under the eaves. I felt a panic come on, and I turned to my husband.
“I’m scared,” I told him.
“Of what?” he asked.
Having grown up in the mild state of Georgia, I did not know true winter. I did not know frozen earth and scoured limbs, months of barrenness, and shivering as soon as I turned the shower off day after day after day. I knew live oaks dripping with Spanish moss – oaks that kept their leaves year round – and Christmases that sometimes allowed for a crackling fire, and sometimes required short sleeves and shorts. I knew azaleas that bloomed in early March, not snow that lasted into June.
I was afraid of how I would handle the blanket of snow that would shroud the earth from November to May. I felt suffocated by its eternal coverage. I was afraid of the bleakness, the lack of color. I was afraid of cabin fever, and the madness that the endless repetition of dressing and undressing might bring: 20 minutes of layering and wrapping and covering and zipping and mittening and booting to leave the house, and 20 minutes of shaking off snow and stomping out boots and unwrapping and uncovering and unzipping and unmittening when we came back in. Life was so much easier where it was warm. So quick to skip out the door, hop in the car, and go.
One morning, my husband crawled out of bed in the dark, dressed in his winter running clothes, and stepped out into the silent -10° blackness. I lay in bed under the down comforter, cozy and warm, until I started thinking about all the things that could happen to him out there. The rest of the city still slept – he often did not see another soul on his pre-dawn runs – and I thought about the ice out there in the darkness, and the fact that if he slipped and fell and broke his leg, nobody would find him before the cold got him. And this is what gave me shivers despite our down comforter.
We lived in a place that could kill us.
Over time, I was surprised repeatedly by how Minnesotans embraced this deadly cold. Winter didn’t drive Minnesotans in, it drove them out. Our first winter we bought sleds, I bought snow shoes, my husband bought skis, all four of us bought ice skates, and no matter which equipment we chose each weekend, we’d see dozens of flushed cheeks, glittering eyes, and North Face logos on the backs of shoulders as other folks sledded, or snowshoed, skied, or ice skated too. Golf courses switched to cross country ski routes in winter, and local parks flooded plank-walled ovals for outdoor skating rinks. Some of them even had hockey goals.
On a brilliant sunny Saturday under a thin azure sky, we walked out onto a frozen lake to visit an art installation: Art Shanties. Local artists erected and decorated ice fishing shacks, from a traditional fishing shelter complete with a hole cut in the ice to show its thickness to a Nordic Immersion shanty where we made lanterns out of snowballs. The activities included a bicycle race on the lake, and as we walked among the bundled entrants, a Ford F-150 drove by us on the ice. The thick, crystal skin popped and cracked under the weight of the truck, and fear took my breath away. But in Minnesota they know how thick the ice has to be for the weight of their vehicles – this is the type of knowledge that is useful in a place like Minnesota – and so we did not fall through to the icy blue depths below.
Another weekend we explored snow sculptures at the state fairgrounds, sculptures that included towering vikings, Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence, and a maze we entered at one opening and navigated through to the end. Another weekend we drove downtown at night to see ice sculptures of crystal dragons and diamond palaces glittering in the white lights strung through giant spruces in the park. We even witnessed lawn mower ice racing. And I can tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve watched the Minnesota Lawn Mower Race Association skid around tight turns on a frozen lake on lawn mowers.
After that first year, I didn’t fear winter anymore. We all survived it, and I grew to love the crystalline beauty of ice, the soft silence of snow. But being among people, and neighborhoods, and buildings, and festivals is a different thing altogether than being alone with your spouse in a handbuilt cabin on a homestead in Alaska where, “Whenever the work stopped, the wilderness was there, older, fiercer, stronger than any man could ever hope to be.”
I am both inspired and envious of Jack and Mabel’s story, and how over time, they too overcame their fears. Only they did it alone. Without neighborhoods and buildings and winter festivals. I was surprised that I grew to love the piercing beauty of winter in Minnesota, and reading The Snow Child makes me ache for the wilderness Eowyn Ivey writes. But if I’m to be honest, I am not made of as tough of stuff as Minnesotans or Alaska homesteaders. As much as I think I would love to brave an Alaska winter, to live in the wild beauty Ivey brings to life on her pages, I’m pretty sure I’m more content cuddling in our Appalachian home, blowing steam from my hot cocoa, safe on our snug sofa instead of scorching my eyes and lungs, isolated and alone in a landscape that could kill me.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. “Alaska, 1920: a brutal place to homestead, and especially tough for recent arrivals Jack and Mabel. Childless, they are drifting apart–he breaking under the weight of the work of the farm; she crumbling from loneliness and despair. In a moment of levity during the season’s first snowfall, they build a child out of snow. The next morning the snow child is gone–but they glimpse a young, blonde-haired girl running through the trees…”(Goodreads blurb)
This was originally published November 28, 2013 on Andrea Badgley’s Butterfly Mind.