Quitting Winter

Winter, I’m giving notice. I’m quitting. I’m out. I’m done-zo. No need to bring in HR for an exit interview. I barely have anything in my desk anyway—a packet of tissues, a pair of mittens, a small box of festering despair. You can burn my file. I was about to do that for warmth anyway.

This is the time of the season that breaks me. I think if you conducted an informal poll of New Englanders, the non-skiers, non-snowboarders, non-cold-weather-activity-enthusiasts, and I’m including the people who think it’s perfectly fine to jump into the ocean in the middle of January all in the name of charity (I see what you really are: equal parts decent and Vulcan), you’d find that many of us start to come apart at the seams right around now.

It’s the cold, the cold, the savaging cold. The raw, icy, forever damp, splits your skin, freezes your lungs shut like a vault, fuses to your goddamn bones, cold. There’s a lyric from a Patty Griffin song that comes to mind: “Where I come from/winter’s long, gets into your boots.” I hear that line and instinctively my toes curl to escape the swampy chill. Griffin knows what she’s talking about. She grew up in Old Town Maine, a small, rural town located about 3 hours from the Canadian border. Single digits make for a balmy October. In January and beyond, the thermometer plunges and stays well below zero. It comes as a shock to no one from around here that Griffin ended up settling in Austin, Texas.

It’s also the weather, the weather, the unforgiving weather! The wonder and novelty of the early snowfalls in December and January have faded, or as B.B. King sang, “the thrill is gone.” Those storms made us all briefly entranced. Like Dorothy stepping out of her house and past the unfortunate remains of the witch she just smoshed, into the glorious landscape of technicolor OZ, we marveled at the world transformed. We gawked at how the snow turned the gnarliest, sickly-looking house on the block into an iced gingerbread castle. We blinked at this newly made place in astonishment even though it happens every year; it’s remarkable how the first snow of the season manages to feel like the first discovery of snow itself. If only all of life held even a thimbleful of that kind of mojo.

But now: the cold air turns stubborn, refuses to give us more than a few degrees in either direction. The snow, the beautiful, sparkling stuff that looks like it belongs in a diamond engagement ring commercial, turns mean, unyielding. It gathers itself into small icebergs that squat on street corners. Sometimes they marshal themselves in a chain along the edge of a sidewalk like security guards standing at the apron of a stage at a Taylor Swift concert. The snow becomes leaden and dense; it fuses into a special type of hardpack with a polymer make-up of cement and Gorilla glue. In the city, streets shrink to half their width. Cars parked on the street become ensnared. Up and down the block, they look like insects wrapped neatly in spider webbing. Some are tilted uncomfortably on banks, as if The Hulk was in mid-lift when he got a phone call that his wife was going into labor and he dropped everything and ran. Driving is a dicey situation. These are the days that try men’s souls and side mirrors.

Why do I live here? This is also a question that circulates among us on Facebook and in text messages, accompanied by crying emojis and images of places like Bali and Costa Rica. It’s like we’ve collectively given birth and forgotten the pain and hardship of the experience, cheerfully signing up for the next one. It’s seasonal amnesia. Because prior to this period of winter slog, we are chirpy assholes about how lucky we are to live short distances in nearly any direction from the coastline and mountains and lakes and national parks and big cities along with small, historic towns. We’re eager to brag about the seasons—like, we have all four, you guys—as a selling point: #leafpeeping, #NewEnglandFall, #NewEnglandblossoms, #beachday, #ShutUpNewEngland. If there ever is another civil war, New England will get preemptively kicked out of the union for our unsufferable elitism alone.

I know there are plenty of other states with a love/murderous rage relationship with winter. Minnesota, Nebraska, Alaska, both Dakotas—you win a prize for hardest seasonal pounding. I’m not unsympathetic. I just think you know what you signed up for moving to places where the wind doesn’t just come sweeping down the plains, it wrecks them and everything in its path. You clicked “agree” after not reading the terms of service. New Englanders are both gold-medal level whiners and stubborn old goats. You’ll never get us to admit you have it harder than us.

But this year I mean it; I’m not playing around. That’s it—khattam-shud, the end. I pile on my padding to take my usual morning walk and consider my options. I could live on a houseboat in the Aegean sea. I could become one of those RV people who rove the nation, their homes on their backs like diesel-fueled turtles, visiting places to get enough of my season on before splitting. A few more far-fetched ideas come into view: join Space Force, learn to hibernate like a grizzly, grow gills and take to the ocean.

My mind is so busy sketching my escape that I hardly notice coming to the fork in the bike path. Most days I veer left, a little on autopilot, following the natural continuation of the route. For some reason, that morning my feet turn me right. I cross over a busy road to pick up this other branch of path that I’ve never been on before. There’s a sign at the edge of a wooden fence telling me I’m at the edge of a wetlands preservation and restoration area.

This might not be startling if it weren’t for the fact that the bike path bisects city territory, only slightly insulated from the urban junkscape—highways, apartment complexes, shopping centers. But here I am, suddenly transplanted to Narnia. Wooden footbridges snake over marshy inlets serviced by the nearby river. Snow covers much of the landscape, but stalks of tall, tan reedy things and bushes palming bright red berries growing all over the perimeters create a painterly scene. Stone markers announce the habitats of animals, insects, and native plants. As if to give it all the touch of an attraction at a Disney park, I encounter a stoic blue heron, a squadron of ducks and geese, more cardinals than I’ve ever seen in one place, and a burly hawk perched in a tree.

I visually gobble up all of it, but it’s the hawk that makes me stop and really ogle. She literally doesn’t have to do anything but sit there to be fearsome, awe-inspiring, totally badass. She indulges me anyway. Arching her wings she drifts a few feet away to settle on a nearby utility pole. She swivels her head in a way that feels like a challenge, as if to say: “Yeah, I can make this thing my tree if I want to. You got a problem with that?” No ma’am, I do not. I’m standing off to one side as joggers and people out walking dogs breeze past me. Are they getting any of this? I take what feels like a million photos of this majestic bird, not registering that my hands are freezing. I’m too busy marveling at this incredible landscape, that should not even exist, but has been hiding in plain sight all this time, right where I live! And there is nowhere else I’d rather be than in this sublime, wild place, here, in the middle of winter.

Timing Is Everything

The heron glided silently along the river’s surface like a heat seeking missile. The snow had been falling softly for hours. The landscape blanched like an over-exposed negative. Street signs, trees turning black against the blank canvas, the occasional fearful, red flare of break lights were the only distinguishing markers. It was a not unpleasant disorientation. These days, variety in any form is welcome.

I almost didn’t go down to the river. I had gotten about half-way, slipping and sliding along what I assumed to be sidewalks, wading into snowbanks to avoid getting clipped by the plows out roving like East German gestapos. My camera thudded against my coat, already warped with layers. I cradled it awkwardly. I had it wrapped in a thin, waterproof covering that came with my camera bag. It worked similarly to one of those flies that go over tents and about just as effective.

It was beautiful to be out in the snowstorm. It was work to be out in the snowstorm. Both things can have equal weight. As I trudged, halting every so often when something caught my eye, my mind picked up its own badminton game. The volley:

Haven’t you been out here long enough? It’s kinda cold (whine). You still have to walk back home, you know. Not like you can just pop into a café to get warm. What do you think this is? 2018?

The response:

(Eye-roll) It’s not that cold, c’mon. And it’s gorgeous out here! You’re lucky to even be out here! And haven’t you had enough of the couch and the blanket and the bag of salty chemicals and the book you’re not even pretending to read anymore and the vague sense that your brain is slowly turning into some kind of viscous molasses-like substance that any day now will just start to ooze out of your ear and pool in a puddle of sap that you’ll notice with only the smallest register of astonishment but mostly disinterest because really this seemed like a foregone conclusion after months of festering existential ennui?

Point. Set. Match. I kept moving.

And so it was that I put myself on the trail that runs along the river, which had become one of my favorite and reliable walking destinations in these past months of restriction and caution. It’s not a spectacular route. There are no rocky outcrops singing with the crush and crunch of roiling waters. No bends delivering a stunning vista of hills and fields. No tire swings dangling over irresistible drops into deep kettles of water. The river is an urban waterway—functional, hearty, modest, a sports bra, a metal thermos, a well-oiled baseball glove passed down from parent to kid. Boston’s lumbering Charles River can have the pizazz and the tourons that come with it.

The seemingly unremarkable nature of this stretch feels like a challenge to me. I return and return and return and I always find something that not just catches my gaze, but holds it. I keep expecting the well to run dry and then KERBLAM! I’m 25 feet from the shoreline and just happen to glance to my left, the snow raining down harder now, and I’m gifted with the spectacle of this ethereal creature that seems like she belongs in Jurassic Park than in a suburb of Boston in 2021. And it feels staged. It feels very Disney theme park, cue the animatronic bird to give the tourons a thrill. It works. I’m standing stock still as if breathing too heavy will make it all disappear. I see a couple about fifteen feet ahead of me, a little closer to the edge of the river in the same pose. Witnesses to this strange and beautiful synchronicity of things—the snow, the river, the bird generous enough to give us a viewing, and the astonishing ballet of moments divided into what appears on the surface as random decisions, arbitrary maneuvers, orchestrated by something unseen, but not unfelt, bringing us all to this spot at the exact right time.