Snuggle Up by the Fire for Some Chilly Remembrances

December 31, 2022

As 2022 winds down, it’s time to look back and reflect—and then move onward and upward as we dive into the new year. A lot has happened over the past twelve months—some good, some bad, and some downright scary. Other folks have done a good job covering the news, analysis, opinions, and predictions, so today I’m just going to share a few stories. Some things we can change, some we can’t. The weather is one of the latter. We can be thankful for it, cuss at it, or suck it up and endure it. Nebraskans are fond of saying, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait a minute.”

Bring On Winter!

Just before Christmas 2022, an arctic front pushed abnormally cold temperatures across most of the continental United States, including our little corner of southwestern North Carolina. Before it reached us, I watched it bowl through our old neighborhood in Nebraska. I felt sympathetic but, I must confess, a little smug about having the sense to move to the southeast a few years back.

Rough winters are normal in Nebraska, but this storm packed a one-two punch. First, it dumped a couple feet of snow, pushed by high winds that created conditions locals hadn’t seen since the 1980s. Drifts piled high, closing roads for days. One photo showed a freeway underpass completely filled with packed snow. The yellow sign above it read, ‘Clearance 14’ 2”’. Some of the old-timers said it reminded them of the Blizzard of 1949 that shut down most of the high plains for a couple of months. This time, before folks could dig themselves out, round two arrived. It wielded 70 mph northwesterly winds that ushered in temperatures as low as minus twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit, creating wind chills of sixty degrees below zero—literally off the charts.

The weather in North Carolina is generally mild, year around. If I’m tempted to complain, it’s in July and August, when it’s often hot and humid—but, frankly, no worse than in eastern Nebraska. We’ve seldom felt temperatures colder than 20 degrees, and that didn’t last long. This time, we got a wake-up call.

The arctic blast that blew through Nebraska continued barreling south and east, and it hit us the night before Christmas Eve. The outdoor thermometer read 42 degrees at bedtime, and 5 degrees the next morning. Our furnace and water pipes froze. We pulled on extra socks and long johns, turned on the gas fireplace, brought in more logs for our wood stove, and counted our blessings.

Christmas Eve Day temperatures topped out at thirteen degrees before heading back into the basement at sunset. We stayed home from church to tend the fire as the temperature dipped to zero. Sitting by the wood stove, I reminisced about cold-weather misadventures during the half century I lived in the mountain west and Midwest.

I come from hardy Minnesota stock, but my parents grew tired of frigid winters and moved our family to sunny Southern California when I was two years old. Snow always fascinated me as a child, but other than a couple of visits to a ski area, I never experienced it. As soon as I graduated from high school, I set off to remedy that.

My first winter in college turned out to be an eye-opener. At 7,000 feet above sea level, Flagstaff, Arizona has a stout four-season climate. Over 200 inches of snow fell there during the winter of 1972-1973. Cold, yes, but I loved it and never looked back. I encountered deep snow, ice, frigid temperatures, and bone-chilling wind during the decades I lived in cold climates across the west and the high plains.

Long, dark Idaho winters introduced me to all-night vigils stoking the woodstove, reading by kerosene lamplight, and trekking to the outhouse in subzero temperatures. Once, I attempted to drive to town after a sleety rain turned to ice, coating my world with a translucent glaze at least a quarter-inch thick. Although the highway seemed navigable, I hadn’t banked on the condition of the overpasses, where the wind blowing beneath the bridges made the ice thicker and slicker.

Both approaches to the arched bridge north of town sloped moderately. As I entered the bridge from the north, my tires spun and my pickup slid across the northbound lane into the guardrail. I couldn’t see past the bridge’s apex, so I had no idea if oncoming vehicles threatened. The guardrail prevented me from opening my door, so I slid across to the passenger side and got out, intending to walk to the top of the bridge to warn traffic. I placed both feet on the ground and stood, but immediately ice skated across both lanes and into the other guardrail. I only gained traction by climbing over the rail and walking in the snow next to the road. From the crest of the bridge, I could see no traffic in either direction on that normally busy road. I skated back to my truck, got in, pushed off from the guardrail, and slid backwards to the bottom. I turned around and went home.

Nebraska offered some dandy winters, too. One morning when the thermometer read minus thirty-six degrees, I stepped out on the front deck with a steaming mug. I intentionally spilled a few drops of coffee, which shattered when they hit the wood.

Closer to spring that same year, when things began to thaw, one of my chickens escaped. Late one afternoon, I heard panicked squawking. I found the bird twenty feet out on a frozen pond, where the top layer of ice had thawed earlier and then refroze, immobilizing the Leghorn’s feet. I fetched my husband—and a rope.

“The ice looks pretty thin,” I said, tying the rope around my waist. “I’ll crawl out there to spread out my weight. You hold the rope.”

The chicken squawked louder as I approached, and it pecked me hard enough to draw blood when I pulled it loose from the ice. As soon as I freed it, the bird flapped its wings and flew to the shore. I heard the ice crack beneath me.

“Start pulling!” I yelled, and lay completely flat to further spread my weight, moving my arms like a swimmer as my husband towed me toward the bank. I grabbed the base of a shrub just as the ice broke, and only my feet got wet.

One year, I served as assistant manager at a US Forest Service tree nursery in Nebraska. I lived onsite in an old cabin at the foot of a steep north-facing hill. It received no direct sunlight between October and March. The house had both a wood stove and a propane heater, and it took both of them running full force to keep the place tolerable. I knew to leave the water dripping in the kitchen sink when it got cold, but sometimes that wasn’t enough, and the pipes froze.

The manager had warned me that this occurs often, so I was ready the first time it happened. I donned my insulated coveralls, grabbed my flashlight and a portable hair dryer, and went into the bedroom closet, where I rolled back the carpet. I plugged the blow dryer into a long extension cord, pried the cover off the crawlspace entrance, and lowered myself inside. The pitch-black cavern smelled mousy as I worked my way forward on elbows and knees because the distance from the floor joists to the ground didn’t allow normal crawling.

The fifteen feet seemed like a mile, but my flashlight beam finally illuminated the ice-encrusted pipes below the sink. I sighed as I plopped over on my side, pointed the dryer iceward, and turned it on. A few beads of water began dripping. As the pipes slowly thawed, I flashed my light around the underbelly of the cabin and let out a chuckle. Evidence abounded that other people had been here, doing this, long before me. In addition to the unsurprising litter of dead flashlight batteries, discarded heating tape, and cigarette butts, a line of empty Budweiser cans extended into the darkness, lined up like little soldiers.

So no, our North Carolina winter of 2022 didn’t qualify as the coldest or the toughest I’ve experienced, but I did decide to invest in additional insulation and space heaters.

Happy New Year to everyone . . . see you in 2023!

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