Whales have thick layers of blubber to keep them from freezing in the fathoms below. Polar bears have hollow hair that somehow insulates them during their forays into icy waters. North Dakotans, well, they are protected from blizzards by both thick skin and thick skulls. These are just a few of the many useful traits handed down by Scandinavian ancestors who decided that the best place to settle in the New World was a treeless prairie with at least six months' worth of free outdoor refrigeration. (Other notable traits include a propensity for leaving doors unlocked and a bland palate requiring every food on the table to come in matching shades of white.)
Once North Dakota winter really sets in, we fall back into our preprogrammed habits: waking up ten minutes earlier to get the car running, keeping an ice scraper in the passenger's seat, groaning at the weatherman when he predicts more snow. Owning a snowblower and/or an automatic car starter is becoming a given, almost as expected as having a computer or a microwave. Every year, we feel it creeping into our bones as the all-too-brief autumn frosts over and crumbles away. We complain about how we're sick of winter, sick of shoveling, sick of watching the forecast, and we question whether great-great grandpa really found this a better alternative to fjords and mountains.
One winter, our driveway was so jammed with snow that my car got hung up between the road and the curb. However, the curb was a 6-foot-wide snow drift, so it didn't really matter that my car was essentially sticking halfway into the street. A few years ago, there was a blizzard that rendered our family unable to be with the aunts and uncles on Christmas day. I can't name a high schooler who hasn't experienced a North Dakotan driving initiation: sliding off an icy road into a snowy ditch. And so I have become a winter hater, one of those grumbling, frozen masses. (It didn't help that the girls and I spent a few years in a rental house with no insulation. Every time friends came to visit, we handed them a fleece blanket and a hot drink to ensure their survival.)
Why don't North Dakotans just move elsewhere? Because we have good people. Because we have jobs. Because every North Dakotan is inherently connected both to the land and to one another by a long, invisible taproot that winds itself through the prairies and tangles our hearts and homes and histories up with one another in such a way that it's nearly impossible to undo. Or to want to undo. Because somehow, all of that outweighs the drudgery of a dark, windy winter.
That is why, if anyone outside makes a comment about our winters, the ice in our veins turns to fire! Living through negative temperatures flames up this odd sort of pride--like the kid who can't stop crowing about winning the national aware for the world's smelliest feet or something. No one wants the prize; no one cares that we're winning the unspoken competition for who can survive the longest in the most awful environmental conditions! But we care. I care. And while you're all shaking your heads and wondering what kind of crazy people choose to live in a tundra half the year, we are often wondering the same thing...but will never admit it to you. If you are from the South, we secretly envy that 60 degrees marks the start of your winter, but we will counter our envy by remembering our grandparents' stories about walking uphill both ways on ice to deliver babies in the middle of December in nothing but a flannel jacket! Somehow, that is inherently more enviable.
Before I moved here, I received several warnings about the cold winters, about how windy it gets in Camarma and how I'll want a thicker jacket. With two suitcases approaching the 50-pound limit, I had no desire to stuff in any sort of jacket thicker than my little peacoat make of sweatshirt-esque material. Because I'm North Dakotan, for crying out loud! On 32-degree days in April, North Dakotans pull out their shorts and walk their dogs. When the icicles are dripping beneath a pallid spring sun, we're celebrating by exchanging our coats for sweatshirts. I heard that Spain turns chilly in January, perhaps even hitting 30 degrees, and I secretly balked at all the warnings.
Autumn arrived last week and has been slowly unpacking its bag. And now I've come to a quandary! It still lingers in the 60s and 70s by day, then plunges to the 50s at night. It's chilly, particularly after our drawn-out summer. I have to swallow my pride like a bite of lumpy potatoes and remember that, even in North Dakota, I'd be shivering on a 50-degree hayride and moaning about the winter to come. I admit it, Spain friends: I'm chilly. I'm sitting up in my classroom with all the windows closed, and I'm chilly!
But I also think about how I will not have to wear a Columbia coat to go outside this winter, nor wake up early to scrape the half-inch of ice from my windshield, nor stress every time I meet a red light while driving uphill for fear that I'll start sliding backward. That will make this the best winter of my entire lifetime! It doesn't seem right to complain! Snowless, iceless, 30-degree winter, I'm not afraid of you! I embrace you! For the first time in my life, I have wished summer to an end; I've actually hoped for cardigan weather. Granted, I still don't like you, but if you're going to come in like a lamb, then I won't hate you.
(The Norwegian ancestors probably also passed on to me their own breed of crazy.)
All that said...I could really go for a cup of hot chocolate right now.
(This is a picture of last year's fall--to counteract all the awful winter images I have just conjured up. We do have grass in North Dakota! And trees! And sunny skies!)
Bonus quote of the day:
Each quarter, I give the kids a certain number of passes to leave my room (for locker runs, bathroom use, or drinks of water). They earn extra credit if they don't use up any of the passes. Yesterday started the new quarter, and I wanted to remind them...
Me: "What do you get if you don't use your bathroom pass all quarter?"
Boy: "Bladder infection!"