A Fleeting Resource: In Praise of the Deep Cold
Miranda Weiss on Moving to Alaska, and Choosing to Stay There
When I originally moved to Alaska, 24 years old and with a boyfriend I had no specific long-term plans with, my mother didn’t try to stop me. She wouldn’t have had much of an argument, having left her native England to move across the ocean with my father at roughly the same age, but she had experience enough to warn me.
My mother grew up cold. At least that’s what all her stories lead me to believe. She grew up in England in the 1940s, and her parents heated the house with coal or, more precisely, they heated one room in the house and even then, not very well. She went to Catholic boarding school where nasty nuns popped her pimples and she woke up winter mornings in her dormitory room with the washbasin water frozen solid. The school uniform in the coldest months was an above-the-knee wool skirt that chafed my mother’s thighs. The cold brought on painful swellings in her hands and feet called chilblains, which seem like a relic from another time, like trench foot or romantic train rides.
At 18, and recently graduated from the Sixth Form, my mother was slender with high cheekbones and long blond-streaked hair. She moved to London where she rented an under-heated basement flat with five other girls and a single bath. She worked at the Royal Brompton Hospital as a secretary, saving for weeks to buy a £10 winter coat and eating a hardboiled egg for dinner. Those were the days when poverty made you thin.
Sometimes I imagine that cold played a role in my mother’s decision to move to the States to marry my father. They met in the Brompton where my father, a medical student, was taking an elective. My father was a handsome and easy-going young man, a guy with a sunny disposition. They say opposites attract. He had grown up in an overheated Brooklyn apartment. As if to conjure the warmth he was used to during his six months abroad, my father had ordered a sunny yellow Triumph TR-6 before he had left the States. He zoomed my mother around England’s narrow country roads. No doubt riding in the car was a freezing experience, but life with a doctor promised financial security, and financial security promised warmth.
My parents settled in the mild suburbs of Maryland just outside Washington, DC, where our big brick colonial had central air conditioning and heat that kept the indoor temperature a steady 70 degrees year-round. My mother is happy to have her cold years behind her—some days I know she thinks I’m crazy. Where I live now, we often wake up on winter days with the house at a chilly 55. Even on summer mornings, I trudge around the house in a heavy terrycloth robe.
For 15 years now, I have lived in Homer, Alaska, a small coastal town with a local economy fueled by summer tourists and commercial fishing. Although Homer is in Alaska’s “banana belt,” winters last for six months and summers are always cool and damp. We wear wool sweaters and down jackets year-round, and on summer’s sunniest days, a sharp wind whips off the 50-degree bay on which I live and finds me everywhere.
I wasn’t consciously seeking cold when I decided to move to Alaska a few years after graduating from college, instead I sought the things that cold so often brings: vast stretches of wilderness, undeveloped coastlines, rich ocean waters you can eat out of, and dark starry skies. I took my decision to move lightly, even as I mailed change of address postcards to friends and family, indicating I was relocating to nearly the farthest point I could while still within in the US, and began amassing the kinds of possessions I would need in Alaska: heavy down parka, rubber boots, field guides to western birds. I was too young to see the ways in which a single decision can lead to the next and to the next until the course of your life has been shifted without you really understanding how or why.
What is it to live in such a cold place? It means that the world around you is drowned for half a year under a sea of snow and ice. You won’t see your backyard for months. It means a winter so cold it’s devoid of smells and even of color. Nothing is blooming, the leaves have dropped, all of the colorful birds have flown south, and the spruce trees—blue-green during the summer months—seem to turn black against the snowy drop cloth. On the most frigid days, the fabric of your jacket becomes stiff and noisy. Skis squeak across snow so cold and dry it has no glide. In the middle of winter, the sun—if it appears at all—is barely higher than eye level above the horizon. Even at noon, the light is lean, casting long shadows across the frozen ground. And during our few midwinter thaws, each a brief respite from the regular deep freeze, we are not warm. Rain pelts the snow, partially melting the entire town until everything is lacquered in ice. Broken collarbones, fractured arms, cracked pelvises—these are some of the side effects of this warmth.
To live in a cold place like this, you forget what real warmth is. We often have to turn on the heat inside the house during the summer to take away the chill. We lose muscle memory of the wonderful full-body ease that true warm weather brings. Until we travel elsewhere, we forget the feeling of walking outside in a T-shirt and shorts and feeling absolutely, profoundly, just right.
Before I moved here, I didn’t realize that the cold—preparing for it, insulating from it, warding it off, and reacting to it—would be the focus of life. Fall is the season of gearing up for winter, and spring the season of cleaning up after it. Summer—those light-drenched months that pass in the blink of an eye—is the season when you can finally coax green things out of the garden that are winter crops for people in the rest of the country: cabbage, broccoli, kale.
Paradoxically, summer is what brought many Alaska residents here, but winter is why so many of us have stayed. People who don’t live here think winter must shut Alaskans inside for half the year. But it is the time of ice and snow when this—and other cold parts of the world—are their most accessible. A blanket of snow in the hills behind town smoothes out miles of tangled willow shrubs and untraversible hummocks, creating limitless skiing and snowmobiling terrain. In the northern part of Alaska, frozen rivers become marked highways connecting remote villages otherwise only reachable by slow-going boat or bush plane. Winter there means that cab service to a village of three hundred people is possible, as is pizza delivery. And since much of the state is sliced by rivers, bogged down in wetlands, and serrated by frilled coastline, the freeze turns the soggy expanse solid, making it navigable. Thank goodness, because we have to get out—to work, to eat, to play.
Unlike scurvy, cabin fever can’t be cured by a daily pill. A few winters ago, when I was pregnant with my second daughter, a cold front plunged us into a spell of frigid weather for weeks, and the temperature rarely broke five degrees. I bundled my toddler to go out anyway. First the inside clothing, then fleece overalls and a fleece jacket, a heavy-duty snowsuit over that, thick mittens, thick socks, a hat, hood, and boots. Even then, we could only stay out for half an hour—25 minutes to be safer. An extra five minutes and she’d be bawling, hands and feet cold and red beneath her layers and unable to get warm.
Cold kills far more people in Alaska each year than bears, wolves, and bush planes combined. Winter here plucks people from life, by avalanche, car accident, broken-down snowmobile far from help, or errant wave across the deck of a Bering Sea crab boat. Living here can sometimes feel like a list of “don’ts”: don’t tip your kayak into the bay; don’t drop your car keys in the snow; don’t go boating, hiking, or skiing without telling friends of your plan; don’t go snowmobiling alone.
Even in summer, a simple afternoon fishing trip gone awry can mean drowning in frigid water within the first five minutes of being immersed. In whatever form, too much cold can make you lose your mind. You stumble, mumble, and lose your connection to reality. This is why people suffering from hypothermia often take off their clothes, insisting that they’re hot.
Most of the time, I forget about the cold and about what it takes to live here. Then I’ll recount a morning spent outside with my kids to my mother on the phone and remember: yes, we are tough here. We take our newborns outside in the middle of winter, our toddlers out to play when the wind is howling and the temperatures are in the single digits. While I complain about the fact that my daughters wear snowsuits for at least six months out of the year, I think the cold is, ultimately, good for them, making them tougher to adverse conditions and more adaptable. And I cannot deny I take pride in my own resilience to the cold and my stamina in the face of blowing snow, ice-slicked roads, and cold rain.
My own smugness aside, the greatness of our nation, some have argued, was born from the cold. Many early American colonists believed that New England’s harsh winters helped breed a people of tougher constitution and greater resourcefulness than the ones they left behind. Surviving severe winters in the New World required not just fortitude, but vigilance and foresight. The cold provided a test of character, they believed, and those who prevailed proved their physical and moral superiority. This spirit of exceptionalism lives on in our politics here and in the myths of self-reliance that serve as mantras in our lives.
People assume that to choose to live in a cold place is to choose austerity and a life without comfort. Because, of course, to escape the cold—to winter in the tropics, retire under the sun, take off for the islands at Christmas—has always meant you had achieved a certain level of success. But a cold life is not without its own riches. There are clear winter days when the surface of the snow glitters like diamonds. We have access to silence, one of the rarest commodities. And cold ocean waters make for extravagant dinners: salmon hooked minutes before, clams and mussels gathered into buckets by cold hands, oysters slurped raw so that you can feel the ocean dribbling deliciously down your throat.
Living here means we have the opportunity to see how cold can shape a place. The terrain out my living room windows was under ice until about ten thousand years ago, and the landscape—a mash-up of rounded hills, sharp mountains, steep fjords, and a four-and-a-half-mile gravel spit that pokes out into the middle of the bay—are remnants the ice left behind. Relatively low tree line makes for not only endless hiking opportunities and vast expanses of low-growing blueberries, but a tundra landscape that blazes red in autumn.
The cold is beautiful, and it has produced some of Earth’s most elegant and enchanting species: polar bears, penguins, walrus, and the largest animal ever to have inhabited our planet, the blue whale. And cold is a critical element in the natural world, a condition many organisms need. Cold waters—in rivers, streams, and oceans—contain more life-supporting oxygen than warm waters and can thus support biologically richer animal and plant communities. Even in Alaska, scientists are working on ways to keep our rivers and streams cold as the climate warms and urban development flattens forests that would otherwise shade these waters. Their efforts are likely too little too late, as climate change is already transforming the world out our windows. Even so, when the news programs from the Lower 48 report record droughts, ravaging wildfires, and lethal summer heat, in Alaska we feel relieved to be escaping that mess. Cold starts to feel like a valuable commodity, something we should be sure not to take for granted. The cold may just be our salvation in a dramatically warming world.
But perhaps what is richest about the cold is the way it makes light and warmth feel so extraordinary. There is nothing like arriving at a friend’s dinner party—hot food coming out of the oven, wine going down all around, light spilling out the windows onto the snow—after a headlamp-lit ski through a frigid winter evening. Nor nothing as festive as traipsing along neighborhood streets through an icy night carrying lanterns with a handful of neighbors as we progress between houses for the next of a many-course meal, as a friend plays a terrible rendition of “If I Were a Rich Man” on the accordion. Cloaked by cold, we feel closer to each other; we are lights in the dark night, savoring kinship in a big world.
Even so, the benefits of the cold can be hard to remember in the face of ice cleats, May snowstorms and frozen pipes. Not to mention our cultural bias against the cold. There’s no comfort in cold comfort, no welcoming from a cold shoulder. A killer is made even worse by being cold-blooded, an enemy by being cold-hearted. There is nothing cathartic or healthful about breaking a cold sweat, and a cold fish is not attractive as entrée or lover.
In spite of it all, being cold makes me feel alive. I’m not sure who I would be if I moved back to the comfortable life—if I swapped rubber boots that are always getting mucky for sleek sandals that knew only pavement. How would I fill all of the hours I now spend with my children, dressing and undressing them? Whom would I relate to if I could no longer commiserate with those around me about the cold?
And yet, between our frequent laments about the cold, my friends and I breezily discuss our half-formed plans to leave: one considers moving back to her small, Iowan hometown near her parents, where you can bike everywhere year-round, and the kids can spend the summer in the local pool. Another friend applied for a school counselor job elsewhere—where summers promise tank top weather and extended family is only a two-hour drive away. I scan online want ads from towns within a day’s road trip of my parents. But beneath the seemingly flippant exchanges among my friends, there is something tender and vulnerable: Are our friends going to abandon us in this cold place? If we left, would we realize that we’ve been wrong about everything all along, wrong about the correlations between proximity and intimacy, isolation and connection, cold and contentment?
I am more than 3,000 miles from where I grew up and where my parents still live in suburban Maryland. We are four time zones, three airplanes, and more than a day of travel apart. My husband and I take our girls to visit my parents at least twice a year—I can’t imagine seeing them any less. But for my parents, coming to visit us is like traveling to Japan. They don’t need their passports or a foreign language pocket dictionary, but the hours of travel and the tricky airplane itineraries, the necessity to pack for a climate not their own—forcing them to drag winter clothes up from the basement even when they come in the middle of summer—and the brain-addling time change make the journey particularly arduous and the destination feel foreign to them. Without the ability to fly, call, email and video chat, I would never live here, so far away.
There are days when the cold issue is the throbbing heart to all of my questions about who I am and who I want to become. Am I an Alaskan? Am I tough enough to ignore the comforts and conveniences of warmer climes to fully immerse myself in—and cherish—life here? Am I to be the mother of two Alaskan girls? Do I have it in me to chart the course of my own life, or just wait until necessity dictates where I should go?
At other times, I think the cold question is just a distraction. The real issue feels harder, hotter, painful: Can I bear to live so far from my mother?
“Do you like all of that snow and ice?” my mother asks me every time I visit her. It’s a funny question to try to answer. “No,” I often say, “I hate it.” Or, No, but I put up with it. No, I sometimes want to say, but it is attached to certain things I do like, things I even love, things I may now not just desire in my life, but need. It’s too long an answer to describe empty cross-country ski trails a ten-minute drive from my house. Or how we feel that the stars have magically aligned when the lakes freeze with solid, clear ice and we can skate across them, marveling at the silver, dinner-plate-sized bubbles trapped inches below our blades. Or the thrill of seeing the tracks of wild animals in the snow—moose, hare, lynx, wolves—and the way they are tangible proof of the beautiful, unruined landscape in which we live. “I could never live there. I could never stand all of that snow and ice,” she says.
I cannot help but take my mother’s indictment of the cold personally. And yet, these days, it is the cold that often brings my mother and me together. When my first daughter was born—two days before the darkest day of winter and in the middle of a snowstorm—my parents came to Alaska to help. I spent the first two weeks of their visit lying on the couch, doing little more than nursing my baby while my mother brought me glasses of water to quench my superhuman thirst. On the third week, when my father had flown home to return to work and I felt well enough to get up, my mother and I borrowed snowshoes and drove to a tree-cloaked nature center in the snowy hills behind our town. I put my newborn in a sling under my jacket, and I helped my mother put on the awkward footwear, her first time on snowshoes. Then we lumbered across snowy meadows and through the trees until we came to a clearing with a view of the bay. The scene was spectacular—the sun’s light low and subtle, the mountains decked in snow, clouds braiding and unbraiding across their peaks. At that moment I felt my mother understood why I live here—so far away from her—and what it is about this cold, cold place that pulls me so.
My mother came up again after the birth of my second daughter, who was born in the summer, when the days are so long it seems there’s two packed into every one, and the nights aren’t even dark enough to see stars. A few days after she arrived, on an unusually warm June day, we hiked down a switchback trail to a remote stretch of beach. My newborn was strapped to my chest in a pea-green fleece suit, and my husband, toddler, and blue heeler trailed behind. The sky was a flawless blue and the mountains on the far side of the water shot sharp, snow-streaked peaks out of the sea.
Once on the beach, my hot-blooded toddler began taking off her clothes. One sandal at a time, then her pink leggings and minute underwear, which my husband slung over our dog’s head to the toddler’s thrill. My mother got down on her hands and knees then on the cobble beach and conjured elaborate made-up worlds with my daughter—whole families and houses out of rocks—while I sat on a driftwood log and nursed my newborn. Then my mother set off on a brisk walk. As her figure shrank down the beach, I watched my husband chase after the toddler. There was no wind and the tide was out, leaving a wide expanse of sand for her to run around on. The warmth was an odd feeling; the absence of cold wind felt like a strange presence, no rushing in our ears, no hair to pull out of our eyes and mouth. The sun warmed my face and bare arms wonderfully.
My newborn slept in my arms as my mother turned into a black speck down the beach, and thoughts played an exhausting tug-of-war in my head: How could I live so far away from my mother, a get-down-on-her-hands-and-knees nana, the kind who really talks to my children, and listens? But the empty beach, the beautiful gray cobbles, the mountains glistening with wind-shined snow, my toddler barefoot, naked, free . . . how could I live anywhere else? Still, there was my mother, the woman who raised me, held me, nursed me, who talked me through the heartache of lost friendships and collapsed romances—how could I choose to live so far away, where I cannot help her if something comes up, where I cannot even have dinner with her without months of planning and thousands of dollars of expense? They were the same thoughts my mind had turned over again and again.
“I have to go in,” my mother said breathlessly when she returned. She was already scanning the beach for a good spot to leave her clothes. My mother is like me: when the thought flashes into the mind to get into cold water, it cannot be extinguished. This was the only way to fully experience the unusually warm, windless day. The tide had turned, and little waves rolled in. Already my mother was moving like someone cold, taking short, quick steps, a certain giddy nervousness overcoming her. We hurried up the beach to a driftwood tree trunk as if the opportunity to get in the sea might pass, or the will to immerse in water so cold it takes your breath away would soon expire. My mother yanked off her shoes and socks and the rest of her clothes. Then, with arms flapping at her sides, she stepped gingerly across the rocks, letting out a shriek when the first cold wave smacked her shins. She continued into the frigid, murky water, laughing and gasping, her body disappearing under the surface as her arms hovered above. And then she pushed off and swam out, up to her neck in the gray water with her arms swirling rapidly around her. For a moment she was unattached to anything—to the shore, to me, my still-new family, the past, the future. I stood watching her on the beach, chuckling at her jerking strokes and her constant shrieking, feeling something inside me quicken.
And then I did the only thing I could do. I put my sleeping baby down on the cobble beach and followed my mother into the cold sea.
Excerpted from This is the Place: Women Writing About Home edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters. Copyright © 2017. Available from Seal Press an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.