Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Cold is Relative, After All

The sleds were singing their eternal lament to the creaking of the harnesses and the tinkling bells of the leaders; but the men and dogs were tired and made no sound.  The trail was heavy with new-fallen snow, and they had come far, and the runners, burdened with flint-like quarters of frozen moose, clung tenaciously to the unpacked surface and held back with a stubbornness almost human. Darkness was coming on, but there was no camp to pitch that night.  The snow fell gently through the pulseless air, not in flakes, but in tiny frost crystals of delicate design.  It was very warm,--barely ten below zero,--and the men did not mind.  Meyers and Bettles had raised their earflaps, while Malmute Kid had even taken off his mittens. From "An Odyssey of the North" one of the Klondike Tales by Jack London.

When I came out of Connie's house today, all hot and sweaty from my workout, I felt warm and invigorated.  I had my coat unzipped, no gloves or hat, it was nice.  All of about 5 below.  I wasn't mushing sled dogs, so I only had to get from her door to my car.  Still, it reminded me of this passage by Jack London.

I love Jack London.  I don't know why.  I think it's the desolation of his settings.  There is an appeal in the "man against the elements" themes found in his stories.

Perhaps I've shared the following story with my readers before; please forgive the repetition if one exists.

We had been living in Madison, WI, when my husband accepted the call to serve, as pastor, four northern Minnesota congregations.  Since it was the months immediately following 9/11, and although Madison is not a terribly large urban area, we were still glad to be going to a more remote part of the country.  Times were somewhat uncertain.

We had arranged to arrive at our new home the Tuesday after Thanksgiving.  We planned to leave on Monday and hoped to put at least half the trip behind us before stopping for the night.   After cramming as much of our belongings as would possibly fit into the moving van, we sent it on its way and stayed to finish up the last cleaning tasks.  By the time we had everything done and all kids and stuff loaded into the mini-van, it was late afternoon or early evening.   Our frustration was increased by the approach of a winter storm which was forecasted to hit diagonally across the route we needed to travel.

We made it as far as Eau Claire that night.  The visibility was getting very limited by that time.

The next day we set off early.  Before full light, if I remember correctly.  So that put us into the Twin cities area, yes, at exactly rush hour during a winter storm.  Not a smart move, in retrospect.  But we forged ahead.  Bu the time we had made our slow way to US Hwy 10, heading north toward Motley, we were about the only vehicle on the road.  The snow was about 7 inches deep on the roadway and was still falling.  I was driving that stretch.

I remember thinking that I was entering a different world.  I was 7 1/2 months pregnant at the time (with our dear Sophie, whose birthday incidentally, is today).  We were heading to a new lifestyle as a pastor's family, and to a new home, sight unseen.  The only directions we had is that the church and parsonage were 8 miles north of Oklee and 4 miles east. We knew no one, although we had spoken to a few of the people by phone, and gotten a nice letter from one member.

We were travelling through a blizzard to get to an area of the country with which we were totally unfamiliar.

It felt like a dream driving that stretch of roadway.  I recall being thankful for the thick forest on both sides of the road.  It helped guide my guess as to where to drive.  The stretch I drove was perhaps fifty miles of deep snow, heavily falling snow, and very little traffic.  In that time, I think I only met one or two other vehicles.  When I did, we crept toward each other, neither wanting to crowd the center, but also neither wanting to be the one to suddenly find ourselves off the edge of the roadway.

After we got past Motley the roads cleared up.  By the time we neared our new home, the ground was snow-covered, but not deep.  The moon was nearly full, and we were able to see the expanses of very flat land.  We could see the various woods and groves at the farm sites.  We watched the moon shadow of our car follow us along the last several miles of our own Odyssey.

I was never so glad to get out of the car. I was instantly enveloped in a big hug from Shirley.  Although I had never met her, it was exactly what I needed.

During that first winter, many were the days I would look out and gaze across the very wide view of frozen land.  It seemed never ending.  When I would go to town, I was always nervous about missing my turns.  They all looked alike.  Flat, flat, snowy whiteness with perhaps a woods or farm site.  But even the woods with the barren black tree branches, and farm sites with pale lonely looking buildings, all looked alike to my unaccustomed eyes.

One of my first trips to town, of course, included a stop to scope out the local library.  I didn't really know what I was in the mood to read.  My brain was still full of the move and of our new life and of the coming baby.  So I gravitated to the familiar.  I came home with the Scarlett Pimpernel and a collection of Jack London stories.  I don't think it was the above quoted collection, but one in a similar vein.

Again, perhaps a poor choice in hind sight.  I hoped it would help me feel less isolated to read about real, absolute isolation.  I'm not sure it really helped.  I certainly felt an affinity to the characters as I looked out my windows.  Mixed in with the expanses of white, I could see many farm sites across the miles.  Some of the neighbors I had met.  Many I had not.  Some I still have not met, even after nine years.  It seems strange.

But that first winter, it just felt big, and open, and cold, and oh-so-white.

And somewhat lonesome.


Anonymous said...

Oh, but the isolation is not always so bad, huh? I would like to have a little more space around me. And a little more "white".


theMom said...

Well, Aimee, I'll be glad *when* Bob gets his St. Paul job. You'll get some white there and you can come here for isolation.

And yes, isolation has its good points.

And there are many good things about living here. The post was trying to portray my first impressions. How strange everything felt.

I was just thinking, while pulling out of the garage to pick up kids today, that I'm so glad our winters are cold enough to not have constant slushy stuff on the roadways. It seems to make everything feel that much colder when one's feet are always wet and there's always moisture in the air.

With the lifestyle that we have here, the winters really don't bother me much at all anymore. Winter is a good time to slow down. I think it's important for the psyche.

But every once in awhile, I still get that other worldly feeling come over me.