North of the Wall
The figure plows through the snow, pulling his legs above the drifts so to gain footing on the treacherous ice beneath. Icy winds chill him, crusting his gloves, hat, coat, and pants in hoarfrost. His cheeks are raw, his beard a frozen mess of ice, snow, snot, and saliva. He squints ahead, trying to see through the stinging squall, the chill burning his throat raw as he shambles through the frozen gulch.
This isn't a scene out of Game of Thrones or Shackleton's adventure across Antartica.
This is now my daily walk to work.
I wrongfully assumed that going to school in the Midwest had prepared me for a winter out in Montana. I despised the perma-cloud, the dreaded smear of gray that hangs over any states south of the Great Lakes from October to April. I was relatively used to what I thought were large accumulations of wet snow in both Pennsylvania and Indiana, used to the humidity that makes 30 degrees feel like 0. I even survived a bitterly cold winter in DC that shut down the federal government not once, but six times, and gave those of us who followed the federal calendar that many days off.
Winter in Montana so far has changed my perceptions of what it is to be cold, but has also taught me that dry cold trumps wet cold every time. As my friend Chelsea pointed out, wet cold chills you to the bone; dry cold chills you to the skin.
I was lulled into a false sense of security when I first moved to Helena. It snowed three inches, then shot to 50/60s every day up until December or so. Then it plunged. And I'm not talking 20s, or even teens, but negative values. It's somewhat shocking when you start your car and realize that the temperature gauge doesn't say "of", but rather "0F". And that's even before the temps drop even more. I actually got to a point where single digits above the 0 line feel almost the same as though below it. Almost. 15 degrees below 0 is still always going to feel like a bastard, no matter which way you cut it.
I've finally gotten used to the bitter cold of winter up here, which isn't even the worst Montana has to offer. I've gotten used to my mustache freezing during a ten-minute walk, gotten used crossing my fingers each and every time I start my car. I now make sure I always have my hat, gloves, and buff on hand, and my warm ski socks not far behind. You can honestly get used to this cold, especially during dawn and dusk when the sun paints the mountains in its palette of red, oranges, yellows, and purples. You expect to shovel the front walk every day and double-check that your snow boots are by the front door for easy access.
There are no snow days here in Montana.
Not to mention the fact that the snow sports are incomparable, especially coming from someone who'd only skied once before moving to Montana. I'm slowly accumulating gear for downhill skiing, looking less and less like a gaper, and getting ready to eventually take on some blacks. My cross-country skis, boots, and poles have finally arrived, and once they're waxed I'm good to go. I can even borrow snowshoes from work whenever I want.
But what I can't and won't get used to is the roads. Don't worry, I feel competent driving on them and like to pull the occasional fishtail when no one is around (sorry, Mom). That's the catch, though, is that it's so easy to do this on roads in Helena. Salt isn't used. In fact, plowing most roads is unheard of. Instead, the previous snow is packed down, forming a nice hardpan of ice, over which accumulates a gradual addition of snow. "Plow at this point? Nah, let's just throw some gravel on it for grip and call it a day. Everyone has four wheel drive anyway." Compare this to Washington, DC, where people lose their minds if their back alley isn't plowed within 12 hours and the federal government shuts down at just the mention of snow.
Sure, Montana winters have a habit of dipping below zero on a regular basis. And the roads aren't properly plowed. And my mustache freezes on my daily walk to work. And I have to shovel almost every other morning.
But I'd still take this bitter, dry cold over the damp, humid cold back East.
And the snow sports help keep me here, too.
Beer I drank: Pils Royale by Blackfoot River Brewing Company
Song I heard: Morning Light by Wilderado
Book I read: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch