At the store in the village this morning, Mark, a waterman I know, told me he didn’t head out today. “Waves are five to seven, wind chill out toward Tangier at best below zero, close anyway,” he said.
It’s been cold here, single digit wind chills two nights ago. The weather is a dominant force in the employment of most of the people here at the end of the peninsula. Watermen, farmers; even my friend Mike’s flying enterprise over at the field is airborne or grounded based upon the weather.
Mt Washington had wind chills of nearly 100 below yesterday. I remember in Massachusetts one January when the pipes at the health club froze. Another time I sat in the bleachers at Rich Stadium in Buffalo as some Lake effect took off layers of my face for three hours.
For weather, I have better stories about the heat than the cold; the Sonoran Desert in ’83 when my car broke down near the mission toward Mexico. In Senegal where the temps were in the 110’s in the shade and the air was heavy. When I collapsed from heat exhaustion while building a brick wall here at Aerie twenty something years ago. Yet for some reason I don’t mind it. I can do sweat.
But for cold days (literally, not metaphorically) in my life, there is only one story:
My friend Joe and I arrived in northern Norway to spend a month teaching at a university. We lived in a cabin owned by an American there, John. It had three bedrooms, views of a fjord, a neighbor, Magnus, who brought over codfish, and a massive fireplace always burning. It might be one of my fondest memories. And while the cabin had a beautiful, normal, modern bathroom, John had it shut down and we were all to use the outhouse, fifty feet behind the cabin, just up a path with snow piled to the side higher than our heads.
The first night I sat up at 3 am and had to go. It was serious, so simply peeing out the window was not an option. The temps were pushing twenty below outside, and I sat contemplating whether or not I could make it to the University the next afternoon.
No, I could not. And I was going to be there a month so I knew I simply had to get this over with. I spent fifteen minutes getting dressed in six layers of clothes, lacing up my boots, strapping on my neck covering and hat, gloves, and moved up the path like a polar bear, pulled on the handle—locked. Then from inside, Joe called, “I’ll be out in a minute.”
I waited inside, he came out, I went in, discovered the origin of the phrase, “Froze my ass off,” and returned to the mudroom just inside the cabin.
So here’s the thing: When you are fully dressed to go out at 3am in negative temperatures, you are awake—blood awake, no-going-back-to-sleep awake. Behind the cabin were woods and a wide, snow-covered path running well up the hills overlooking a lake.
“We’re dressed anyway,” Joe said. So we went back out, heading up the path.
This is what happened, though my prose falls desperately short of the experience:
Green bands of light bounced down the fjord and across the lake, touching the hills and rolling off like a green curtain in the wind, lifting, holding, then falling and bouncing again. I had heard of the beauty of the aurora borealis but never saw it. Better said, never imagined I’d be under it, literally under the green bands of northern lights, so that a few times we almost ducked.
We walked further when further up the hill two moose slowly walked out of the woods on the right and stood in the path staring down at us. They moved slowly to the left, into the woods, and a few more followed.
And the stars, the carpet of endless stars, a shooting meteor, all breaking through the northern lights. It was like standing on the moon. We seemed suspended in space, in absolute, deep canyon, liquid silence.
By the time we returned about four thirty, our neighbor, seventy-five year old Magnus, a fisherman his entire life, pushed his skiff into the water to motor out into the bay for cod. His small engine sounds filled the canyon and echoed well into the fjord, and later he would return—red face, red hands—to give us the cod. He will have already cut out what he wanted; namely, the liver. And I’d stand in the warmth of the kitchen to clean and filet the fish for dinner.
When we got back it took ten minutes to get all the outer wear off, and as I moved up the stairs to my room I noticed, was completely conscious of the fact, that I never thought once about the cold. It was not even “the price you pay for the experience.” It simply wasn’t part of the evening’s vocabulary.
When I think of Norway, now almost thirty years ago, I think of that night, and of the next day and a ferry ride out to the Lofoton Islands, of teaching at the college and walking the fishing piers of Bodo, of Joe and I starting a fire in the snow to cook some red potatoes we brought on a hike, of falling through the day-melt layer of ice on the lake to my calves one evening, of playing guitars with a Russian musician, Max, of so much, so very much.
But I don’t think of cold. I don’t remember that part of it.