I am from Minnesota, a state roughly halfway through the United States and butted up against Canada. I go to college further north than where I grew up. The weather is typically six to ten degrees cooler on any given day than at home.
I hate winter, but not in the way that you probably do.
See, Minnesotans cannot actively say, “I love winter! It’s my favorite season!”. It’s just not something you do, probably in the same way someone from Texas can’t say they thought the Dust Bowl was just a peachy experience. If you told me you love winter, I would look you in the eye and say in my best Fargo-esque accent, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
But we (or at least most of us) do not despise winter with the all-consuming hatred that people from further south do. You can’t truly hate something you live with year after year. You can’t hate something that lasts eight months out of the year when the other four are spent complaining about the unending heat and humidity. As a Minnesotan, I hate winter in the same way you probably hate it when your grocery store has only low-fat eggnog instead of the unleaded variety with the calories you need to brace yourself for the wind when you take out the trash this evening.
Come to think of it, that might be a bad example.
One of my friends is from San Diego, a magical place where lemons are not shipped in from thousands of miles away and the natural bodies of water don’t freeze into six-foot-thick ice right around Thanksgiving. Now, I didn’t know this friend before this fall, and so when we first met we fell into the traditional upper-Midwest conversation routine that I call “So You Think You Know Winter, Do Ya Now.” It’s a simple enough exchange, and one that you may even have experienced yourself. It goes something like this:
Me: So, have ya got yer two pair of boots up on campus yet for the winter?
You: It’s the fifth of October.
Me: Ya know, we had four inches on the fifteenth though last year. Ya never know when the weather’s gonna sour here. I’d get those boots up here before ya regret it.
After this exchange, I will probably wow you with the windchill average for last December (-18 degrees Farenheit), tell you about the time my car doors froze open after that day it was sunny and 27 degrees, and then end the conversation with something to the effect of, “But it’s not that bad. You’ll learn to love it before too long.”
These temperatures are not an exaggeration, and my promise is not actually a lie. Winter in Minnesota is icy, bitterly cold, and strangely beautiful. It’s survivable, and it’s enjoyable in a sort of stick-it-to-The-Man way. This is why I was caught off guard by the vehemence with which this Californian friend dislikes the climate.
“How do people stand it?” he asked. I honestly did not know what to say; the thought had never crossed my mind with any real significance. How DON’T people stand it? I wondered. You wear long underwear under your jeans, you invest in some leather chopper mittens, and you perfect your hot beverage-making skills. Perhaps more than anything, you pace yourself. You don’t hope too far ahead for spring, but instead find the tiny little things amidst an otherwise-spartan landscape that make a hard freeze worthwhile. Not acclimating to winter as a young person is a totally foreign and somewhat uncomfortable concept to me. How do you articulate a cultural norm so strong you can’t imagine not having winter?
One day over Christmas vacation, this friend sent me a photo of three palm trees near his home, trunks curved gracefully against an absolutely clear cerulean sky. A color like that doesn’t happen this far north except on that one perfect day each summer. “Winter doesn’t exist here,” he wrote. The photo was beautiful, but it completely turned me around. Although I may fantasize about escaping the dreaded post-Christmas weather (temperatures and snowfall decrease in January, February, and March), the idea of avoiding snowfall and cold altogether is actually unthinkable.
“Why do people live someplace so cold?” he asked. Why do people do anything that is difficult? Why challenge yourself to stay engaged with your community no matter how cold it gets? Why develop the mental endurance to look the tenth gray, chilly day in the face and say, “Well, I’m going to make something of it anyway?” Why acclimate yourself so thoroughly to cold that thirty degrees is warm enough to go without a jacket and still be comfortable?
I believe that this brutal, nearly-unending cold makes us tough, or at the very least disciplined. You must learn to control your expectations, or you’ll spend eight weeks raging against the rather impassive sub-zero temperatures. You must get over the physical pain that comes with packing snow into a fort with wet gloves, or you’ll spend perhaps thirty percent of your year inside. You must learn to “hate” winter with a sort of knowing wink that keeps your positive outlook from disintegrating and friends from avoiding your constant complaining. It’s a sort of stalwart resignation, a grudging pride that says, “It may not be great, but I know what I’m doing and I’m not giving up.”
One of my favorite books is called The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Aside from being a rollicking good read and an excellent title in and of itself, I think it speaks to the Minnesotan winter as a whole. Winter is long, cold, and dark, certainly, but it is not entirely unenjoyable if you give it a little work. Perhaps more than anything, it is a sort of tea-time, the contented reflection on year filled otherwise with the color and clamor of life. It’s a chance to rest and a chance to test yourself, to batten down the hatches and see if you’ve got what it takes. And if you’ve made it through a Minnesota winter before, it’s absolutely certain that you do have it. So put on your down vest and dig out your wool socks, because no matter where you are from, you’ll experience the same silent smug satisfaction at surviving (and even flourishing in) this frequently-misunderstood season.
If you’re interested in reading more about Minnesotan winters and the excuses us northerners use to keep ourselves living here, I’d recommend this post from Staving Off Disaster (“You know that your oven can double as a space heater”) and this one from the Maple Grove Barefoot Guy (“Minnesota kids have to read a ton of Jack London, probably to convince us that it’s not that bad around here.”). Enjoy and stay warm!