Meditations on the cold in Vermont

There’s no use whining, moaning, or cursing the cold. You get out of bed, stoke the fire, brew the coffee, feed the cat, pull on your outdoor clothes, and open the door to a new day

GRAFTON — Early this morning, I shined my flashlight on the thermometer that hangs on the woodshed: 15 below.

When I first moved here, the sight of that needle anywhere below zero made me quake. I wondered what had possessed me - an essentially tropical soul - to move north. Somewhere between then and now, I miraculously acclimated and accepted my fate.

When I was young, I dreaded winter. Six days a week, I exercised racehorses on a farm in southeastern Pennsylvania. Like the other riders, I loved the job in other seasons, but in winter we had to emulate postal carriers: “Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

The mail must be delivered. The horses must be ridden.

And what wild rides we had. The horses reveled in the cold and were keen to go forward.

We were keen to convince them to go at a reasonable pace. A winter ride on a bumptious racehorse traveling at 25 mph is no picnic in the park. The cold is more chilling. The wind is more brutal. Our hands were numb with cold. We couldn't feel our reins. The tough horses pulled our arms out of our sockets. Only finesse and prayers kept us from galloping at high speed over the bleak horizon.

In between sets of horses, we huddled in the heated tack room slurping rank coffee brewed at 6 a.m. in a grungy pot that hadn't been scrubbed in weeks. We complained about the coffee, but never the weather. With no scientific evidence, we nonetheless believed that whining would lead to hypothermia and death. At the very least, it would earn the whiner a sharp rebuke from fellow riders.

“Oh, do shut up!”

We left the tackroom swathed in layers of high-tech winter gear, so many layers that we could scarcely feel the horses underneath us. Hunched against the cold and wind, we longed for that first spring day when we could sit up straight in our saddles and breathe in the balmy air.

* * *

Anyone who tends large animals wakes up to a dark sky in the winter. Rolling over and going back to sleep until the sun comes up isn't an option. There's no use whining, moaning, or cursing the cold. You get out of bed, stoke the fire, brew the coffee, feed the cat, pull on your outdoor clothes, and open the door to a new day.

Every morning, I walk the old deer trail to the barn. No matter how cold it is, I take this trip in service to the two horses and two donkeys.

When I open the door, the horses nicker softly. The donkeys make a joyous chorus of brays. Their welcome always makes me feel warmer. I tidy their stalls, throw them hay, carry their frozen water buckets to the wash stall, chop out the ice, and refill the buckets with warm water.

After I've fed them their grain, I climb back up the trail for breakfast by the stove and another hour at my desk.

Then I head back to turn the animals out in their field. Then I start mucking stalls.

When it's 15 below outside, the barn temperature is about 10 above.

The stalls are very dirty after a long night of the animals standing in them. The trip to the manure pile pushing a full wheelbarrow seems endless, although the distance doesn't change with the seasons.

Cold demands attention, mindful preparation, and patience. Lots of it.

When I was young, patience wasn't in my repertoire. Neither was pace. Blessed with an unerring sense of pace on a horse, I lost it when my feet hit the ground. I was always in a rush. I was impatient with frozen things and broken things and thought I should be able to fix everything in a minute.

Minor delays in my routine sent me into orbit. I was prone to swearing at inanimate objects. This kind of impatience is an expensive ticket to insanity.

* * *

Vermont winters have saved me from lunacy. I don't push the wheelbarrow across the frozen ground chanting “it is what it is.” Lately, that phrase seems to be on almost everyone's lips, and all the chants, mantras and Hail Marys in the world won't change the temperature.

The cold is not my “friend.” I'm not “embracing” it or “inviting” the bite of the wind, but I have learned not to hunch against it. Working in the cold is kind of like childbirth. You have to relax, be patient and trust nature even though the job is painful. The kid will pop out eventually. So will the crocuses.

Patience is a necessary skill as well as a virtue. Maybe I wouldn't have learned it if I'd moved south instead of north.

Olympic rider Bobby Costello once wrote in a letter to me, “So much patience is learned with age.... It's ironic that when we literally have less time to get something accomplished [because we're getting old] somehow patience finds us.”

“Exactly,” I wrote back. “And what advantage is there in growing old if we don't grow up?”

* * *

As I cultivate patience in the cold, I also remember that cold is relative.

Several years ago, when I'd escaped back to Pennsylvania for the winter, I was at a gas station filling my tank. Two cute, young guys in an old Ford pickup drove by, stopped, backed up, and rolled down the their windows. There was a Vermont license plate on their truck, and they had noticed mine.

They flashed ebullient grins, the way Vermonters often do when we encounter each other in “foreign territory.”

“Where ya from?” the driver asked.

“Southern Vermont,” I said. “Grafton.”

They broke into raucous laughter.

“Ha! That's not Vermont!”

“Let me guess,” I said. “You're from the Northeast Kingdom.”

“Yep,” the passenger replied, still grinning.

We chatted for a couple of minutes and then they drove off.

I think of them when it's 15 below here and VPR meteorologist Mark Breen reports 30 below in some northern hollows. I wonder how they're faring. Likely they're fine.

I wonder how I'd fare in one of those hollows, too. Would patience still find me or would it desert me?

I hope I never have to find out.

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