Tuesday, January 13, 2015


I've been wanting to write a blog about how it feels to live in Vermont in winter. I thought it would be easy to describe, but the words 'cold' and 'freezing' don't really do justice to what it feels like. Winter in Vermont isn't just cold, it's...
Cold enough to bring a priest to his knees
Several summers ago, we met an Irish priest who now lives in Ontario. He was on a houseboat, we were on a houseboat. He and his friend were very accomplished at navigating their boat, we were not. We followed them into a lock gate and I tried to copy the easy grace with which he wrapped his rope around the bollard. After I'd dropped the rope and we'd collided, we fell into conversation. He loved life in Ontario, he told us. There was nothing quite like a brightly shining sun in a vivid blue sky to make one feel God's benevolence and loving kindness. He particularly loved how the sun shone during winter and how that contrasted with his dreary memories of Irish winters. Sunny winter days made him feel glad to be alive.

Two lock gates later, our conversations had become more personal and he made a different confession. There had been a day during his first Ontario winter when he had nearly died. He'd left the house - no doubt eulogizing about the bright blue sky and bright yellow sun - and started to walk to the corner store. The store was only a few blocks from his house - no big deal, he'd thought. He was lucky that neighbors rescued him, although he couldn't remember that happening. He described his thoughts screeching to a halt inside his head, and said the next thing he knew was that he was lying on someone's sofa thanking God for saving his fingers, his toes, his nose.
'Always wrap up well,' he warned us as we said our goodbyes, 'And always wear a hat and scarf.'
Cold enough to make your eyeballs hurt
I understand the priest better now than I did when I first heard that story. I understand the temptation to slip outside without going through the palaver of finding your gloves, your hat, your scarf... I understand how easy it is to persuade yourself that it's not that cold because the sun is shining and the sky is blue. I know how the first step out of the door supports that illusion because you carry some of the warmth from the house with you.

It's on the second or third step that you begin to notice your chest burning from the cold. A few steps more and filaments of ice begin to form on your nasal hairs. It hurts to blink because your eyeballs are beginning to freeze.


When it's cold in Vermont, your eyeballs begin to freeze.

Cold enough to wreck your car
Not having money enough to build a garage (and having been foolish enough to move into a house without one) we bought a portable version. It arrived in a large cardboard box and looks a bit like a tent: a huge swathe of canvas, some guy ropes and some very long tent pegs. The instructions are straightforward and we didn't think it would be a big deal to put the thing up. We meant to do it in summer, but with one thing and another we didn't remember until it was November and then it was too late.

It's worth a quick digression here to explain what I mean by 'too late'. When we moved in, our neighbors had an old horse which had been in their family for nearly 30 years. The children and the grandchildren had all learned to ride on that horse. The family loved it. We loved it and used to pop by the field to feed it carrots. The family were worried the horse was too old to survive another Vermont winter so, in October, they shot it. It was the only way they could be sure the horse could be buried in their garden. Having tried to put the tent pole from a portable garage into the ground in November, I realize why our neighbors didn't keep the horse alive for a few more weeks.

Because our portable garage remains folded up in a box in the basement, the car takes a fair bit of time to defrost every morning. The windshield disappears behind layers of ice, the doors freeze shut, the engine refuses to start, the tires go flat. I have to prise open the driver's door, spend a few minutes persuading the engine to turn over, scrape ice from the windows, drive very slowly for the first few miles until the friction of the road against the tires causes them to reinflate.

One of the most beautiful things about very cold days is the silence. In part, that's because the snow muffles every sound; in part, it's because all the song birds have had the sense to go and live somewhere else. The silence on our side of the mountain is destroyed each morning around 7.15am when I start swearing. On a bad day, the car stays silent until nearly 7.30am.

Cold enough to spoil your groceries
When the local Burlington supermarket's freezer units broke last week, they put the frozen food into shopping carts and stored them in the car park. Their freezer units normally keep food at 0F (for my English readers, that's about -18C). On the day the freezers broke, the temperature outside was several degrees lower and the store manager told me she was concerned the food might spoil because she was having to keep it at too low a temperature.

So, if you want to understand what winter in Vermont feels like, climb into your freezer with a picture of some blue sky.

We get windchill too, but you'll have to imagine that.