Technically, it is Spring. The Spring Equinox was Sunday 20 March, so there can be no doubt about it. But meteorologically, here in the Midwest, it’s definitely still winter. It snowed all day yesterday, and although the pavement (sidewalk) and road (pavement) were too warm for the snow to accumulate, the grass and the roofs and the bushes and the trees were not. It feels like November out there. It feels like Christmas is just around the corner.
I was warned. I really can’t say that I wasn’t warned. I was warned quite clearly, by a friend over dinner.
Years before Kevin and I moved here, we knew that we wanted to. Kevin had spent a long time away from his family, London housing prices were unreasonable, and city living was disagreeing with us both. We didn’t know when or where or how we would move back, but we were pretty sure that we would.
My friend had lived in the Midwest for some considerable time and, over an all too rare dinner, I broached the subject with him. Did he have any advice for me, were Kevin and I to move? Visit in the winter, he said. Makes sure you understand just how cold it gets. Because it gets really, really cold. I nodded. Probably made some sort of noise about, no really, I do understand. And, up to a point, I did.
I’ve felt cold. Not British cold, dank and bone-swelling and sullen. British cold is unpleasant. Spiteful. Niggardly. But there is worse.
I am in Boston for a business meeting, and to hang out for a while with my then boyfriend, a long-distance relationship carved out of joint nerdiness and IRC. I am spectacularly unprepared for the weather. I own only a light jacket and court shoes which, at that time of year — February or March — would have been fine in the UK, but not Boston. And not with a winter storm dumping three feet of snow on us overnight.
My then boyfriend & I stay with mutual friends, sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the lounge of a lovely Victorian house made of matchsticks and paper and spit. I don’t know what the temperature falls to, but the air in the mattress sucks all the heat out from under us. We have nothing but a sheet and a thin quilt (comforter) to keep us warm, and it is insufficient protection against the cascade of cold air tumbling down from the bay window to drive the warmth out from above. I remember getting up and piling all of the coats from the coat stand on top of us, and as many of my clothes from my suitcase as I can. It isn’t enough. Once back in bed, I don’t dare move, because the slightest shift means discovering a new bitterly cold patch, or worse, letting a frigid blast of freezing air under the quilt.
I am cold. I am so cold that I hurt. My joints ache. My muscles ache. I don’t sleep at all. I just lie there, freezing, miserable, and wondering how the hell anyone could live in a place where the cause of death might not even be “Went outside”, but “Slept on air mattress in front room”.
I think I understand cold.
Woodstock, Illinois. That’s where they filmed Groundhog Day, and that’s where Kevin and I are going to move to. We’ve been over a few times, fallen in love with the place, and decide to live there. Kev has a geographically independent job and so do I. There’s a train from Woodstock into Chicago, so good for work, and it’s very near Kev’s parents’ place. It hasn’t changed much at all since Bill Murray found himself repeatedly stepping in the same puddle. It has a timeless charm, plus a great crêpe place.
We visit around Groundhog Day, by chance. They have their own groundhog now — Woodstock Willie. He does his prognostications each year on 2 February. We miss the big day, sadly, as our flight back to London is that evening, but we find a lovely house and our estate agent (realtor) is on the Groundhog Day committee, so we go to one of the events. It is a lot of fun, and makes us even more keen to move there.
Early February in northern Illinois can get chilly. And it does. Down to -18C. My breath freezes in my nose, a tickly, crackly sensation. Breathing deeply is a mistake, frigid air brutalising my lungs. But I have better shoes and a better coat this time, and we sleep in a proper bed in a proper house made of matchsticks, paper, spit and actual insulation.
I now know a lot more about cold.
Kevin has been here in Sheboygan for a month when, in March 2014, I visit to look for a house. He’s done all the heavy lifting; I just have to pick one of the final three and give it my seal of approval. It’s easy. The house we now live in stands head and shoulders above the others.
I have ten days to look around, find something out about the place I am about to call home. It’s white and snowy, huge piles of the stuff in every carpark, walls of it along the side of every road. Kevin introduces me to the Duke of Devon pub, an English eatery run by a chap from Bideford and crammed with British memorabilia and incredibly expensive British chocolate.
We decide to drive out to Plymouth, to look at an antique shop. More of a flea market by British standards, but we don’t know that and by the time we figure it out, I don’t care. We park a bit of a ways up the high street from the shop we’re aiming for, but that’s ok because we’re not scared of walking. It’s -16C. Even with my nice thick coat and my boots, by the time we get to the shop I am ready to go inside, no matter how much tat it sells. We have a look round. Twice. Slowly. Warming. Up.
Eventually, we go back out into the bitter wind and trudge back to the car. Should have taken cousin Leonie’s advice: Go where you want to go, and then find a place to park.
The thing about cold is that you forget.
Thanksgiving, 2014. I’m living here now. We have a house. It’s made of matchsticks and paper and spit and although I know it has some insulation in the roof, there are so many gaps around the windows that they might as well have not bothered. We have had a wonderful evening with friends in Milwaukee, and we’ve got home to find the house suspiciously cold. It’s -13C outside. Our heating, which uses the infernal Fahrenheit system, is set at 72F (22C). I do not believe that the thermostat tells the truth about the temperature but that is a discussion for another day.
Whatever biases the thermostat has, it says that it’s 68F/20C. I turn it up, try to get the heating to kick in, but nothing happens. Kevin goes downstairs to check the furnace. We don’t have boilers here, we have furnaces. Great big beasts with giant flues that sounds like small jet engines when they start up. This one was silent as the grave. No small jet engines here.
It’s 11.30pm on Thanksgiving evening, and there’s no way we’re about to call someone out. It’ll be fine, I say. We have our sofabed, and a working fireplace. Kevin gets in the last of the wood. We only use the fireplace when it’s warmer than -2C, because otherwise you loose more heat up the chimney than the fire can produce. But we have no real choice. I make up the bed with two duvets, two blankets, and I make sure we have hats and wooly socks and long-johns. Kevin lights a fire. The temperature continues to drop.
The cats are unhappy. They don’t really understand why it’s so damn cold inside and try to scrunch themselves up into tiny little balls to conserve heat. Mewton discovers that it’s warmer under the duvet, and I welcome him in. Every little bit of extra heat helps. But Grabbity is a jealous goddess and, after sulking for a while at the end of the bed, she pounces on top of the Mewton-shaped mound, firing him out from under the duvet like a pea squeezed out of its pod. He is disgruntled. I am very disgruntled, as his rapid departure has allowed a gust of cold air in under the duvets and the blankets. It feels like Boston all over again. I daren’t turn over.
We wake at 2am, Kevin puts the last log on the fire. We sleep fitfully until around 6.30am. It is 48F/8C. Inside. The temperature is still falling, and will fall faster now that we have run out of wood to burn. Kevin rings an engineer as soon as he can, and we sit on the sofa, wrapped in coats and blankets and duvets and hats and scarfs until the engineer arrives at 11am. We get a temporary fix; the proper fix comes later and costs us $400. The house takes 12 hours to warm back up to something approaching sensible.
The winter of 14/15 is not as cold as the previous winter had been. That one had been legendary, even amongst the townsfolk of Sheboygan. It had been phenomenally bitter. Ridiculously cold. Brutal. Lake Michigan was solid with ice, and blue ice at that. Baby glaciers, covering 93% of the lake.
Don’t get me wrong; 14/15 is cold. Very cold, with impressive ice jetties sticking out into the lake along the North Point shoreline, but only 90% of the lake is frozen and it isn’t brutally cold. It has only gone down to -27C.
Here’s how temperature works, now, for me:
0 to -10C: This is not too bad at all. The cold here is a dry cold, so it doesn’t get into your bones the way it does in the UK. It doesn’t really feel that cold.
-10C to -15C: It’s starting to get a bit uncomfortable if you’ve got the wrong coat on, or if there’s a breeze. My knees suffer the most.
-15C to -20C: Your breath freezes in your nose, your lungs hurt if you take a deep breath, and the dryness is evil. Everything becomes static. You can’t touch the cats because you’ll zap them. Your skin starts to dry out and itch.
-20C to -27C and beyond: Dear fucking god get me out of this hellhole. When I said everything becomes static before, I didn’t really mean it. Now, everything, every single thing is static. My silk scarfs stick to the walls. I fear that if I stroke the cats they’ll float upwards and stick to the ceiling. I can’t kiss my husband without getting zapped. I can’t do anything without getting zapped. My skin is starting to fall off, and it’s only great self-restraint that stops me carving it off in chunks because it itches so fucking much. This is miserable fucking cold. Do not go out without a thick coat, scarf, hat and gloves. In fact, just do not go out in this shit. Exposed flesh will begin to freeze within 10 minutes. Do not get yourself locked out. Do not let your car break down. Do not take a walk. You will die.
When Kevin and I started talking about moving to the States, I said that I had conditions: I would not move anywhere where the cause of death might be tornado, hurricane, earthquake, volcano, or ‘went outside’. I failed on that last point.
That’s not my joke, btw, I read it on the internet somewhere, though I now have no idea where. But it’s also not actually a joke.
My understanding of cold is now far deeper and broader than it has ever been before.
This winter, I work hard to try to plug up all those pesky gaps around the windows. Last winter, we frequently had sheets of ice covering the secondary glazing (storm windows), especially in the bathroom. It was quite beautiful, really. Jack Frost visited often, drawing his fern leaves in frozen water. Trouble is, that moisture is precious. I want that moisture. I want it in the air. I want it in my skin. So I cover the windows in tertiary glazing, that plastic you stick to the window frame with double-sided tape and shrink with the hairdryer. I can’t do all of the windows, but I do the most important ones. The shitty, cheap double-glazed windows in the dining room get done twice, as in two layers of film, because ice is forming on the room-side of the film.
We buy ‘caulking cord’,which turns out to be long strips of plasticine. We buy foam strips to go under the sashes, where they meet the windowsill. We buy insulating curtains, and we finally put up the red Thai silk curtains that we bought from Restoration Hardware’s outlet store at 90% off. It helps. A bit.
In the depths of winter, we have a humidifier running 24/7. The noise of it drives me crazy, but it helps. A bit. We pump litres and litres and litres of water in to the atmosphere, but this house gets so dry, you’d need two or three of the things to really make a difference, and I’m not sure my psyche could cope with the incessant drone.
This winter is, though, not as cold as last. We’ve been down to -22C once, but mostly we’ve been in the minus single digits, which isn’t bad at all for round here. Ironically, these warmer temperatures lead to more snow. More days of snow fall, and more snow actually falling. But we also enjoy more warm periods, which has meant more snow melting in between the more snow falling. It’s been a bouncy kind of a winter.
It’s mid-March, and I’m packing up to leave my parents’ house in Dorset and return back to Sheboygan.
“Oh, well,” my mum begins. “It’ll be spring by the time you get home!”
I tell my mum that it’s unlikely, and that we had snow in March last year. We did. One flurry after I got back from my apparently-now-yearly March trip home. It’ll snow again, I’m sure, I tell my Mum, and she looks doubtful, but acquiesces.
It has snowed more since I got back than it did in December. It’s April now. It snowed all day yesterday. It snowed the day before. It might snow again tomorrow. There is snow on the ground, right now, as I type. We’ve had ‘lake effect’ snow when we weren’t supposed to get any snow at all, and we’ve seen snow go north of us, and snow go south of us. We’ve been in the snow firing line, and we’ve dodged snow bullets.
I find it fascinating, the snow. It falls, and I watch it, and I have to tear myself away and get back to work, but then I glance up and there it is, mesmerising, spellbinding, hypnotising. As I gaze out of the window, the world is obscured by white static. And yet.. And yet… It’s April. I am ready for the snow to go away. The daffodils are ready for the snow to go away too. And the lilies. The grass. The trees. We’re all ready now for the snow to retreat. It’s been Winter for five months, since the temperature first fell below freezing on 7 November. It has to be time for it to be Spring now.
The cold is not what makes Midwestern winters hard.
What makes them hard is that they don’t seem to stop.
“Winter weather advisory. Snow possible at 4:30am.”