I spent much of my childhood in upstate New York, and though I tend to be nostalgic, I have a lifelong hatred of winter. It’s unreasonable, I know, and I’m trying to do better.
Last year I fled south for a few months. That was wonderful in many ways but felt a bit like cheating because, in general, I am Mother Nature’s biggest fan. (I just love what She has done with the other three seasons in the Northeast.) So skipping winter seems the equivalent of walking out on a great play because one act has hit a weak spot — the epitome of fair-weather friendship — and that’s not my style.
Still, let’s be honest. In some parts of the country, it’s a hell of a weak spot: bitterly cold, relentlessly snowy and — worst of all — dark. The frigid days with bright blue skies are not what I’d call fun, but the endless weeks of low, white ceilings, short days and long, dark nights are the worst. As a mariner, I find it disconcerting to stand in a snowy field and see no horizon line, only a pale gray sameness stretching all the way to spring and salvation. It tends to make me crave whiskey and the fetal position.
I have accepted that it’s too late to embrace the season by taking up skiing or snowboarding — the only thing worse than winter would be winter on crutches — but I do have a grudging admiration for its willing collaborators. My middle brother is excited about it. For months he has been sharing photos on Facebook of snowfalls at ski resorts and updates from New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Observatory, which once recorded a wind gust of 234 mph. As I write this, it is 38 degrees colder up there than down here, with winds of 61 mph. Congratulations, Padraic! You’ve located hell on earth. (We have always had our doubts about his parentage, by the way. Really nice guy, but he looks nothing like the rest of us.)
Still, I think I may have put together a good plan to get me from fall to spring this year in one relatively sane piece. Like epoxy, it requires a two-part process to do the job right.
Part One: Build a fire, make a strong cup of tea (OK, maybe indulge that whiskey craving with one small dram) and settle into a comfortable spot. It’s time for some armchair travel. Nothing beats a great book as an escape. Don’t like today’s weather? Climb into a small whaleboat with the remaining crew of the Essex in Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea (see Page 26). An unusually (but understandably) pissed-off whale has stove in their ship, and it has sunk, 2,000 miles west of South America. Fear of cannibalism on the Marquesas, a mere 1,200 miles west, drives them to set a course for South America, which first requires sailing 1,000 miles south to pick up easterly currents. Did I mention there’s very little in the way of vittles aboard? Good times. If you think shoveling a path from your front door to the driveway is torture, imagine surviving this.
South (great title!) by Sir Ernest Shackleton is another riveting read. It is the thrilling tale of an expedition that goes wrong when the ship Endurance is crushed in the ice pack in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea. Shackleton leads his men to survival through two years of brutal conditions with the supplies they have salvaged from the ship. Put it this way: You’ll henceforth be embarrassed to whine about scraping ice from your car window.
A good book doesn’t always have to gird the loins, though. For a cozier read, turn to a book I’ve mentioned before — Henry Plummer’s The Boy, Me and the Cat. This straightforward account of a 1913 journey on the ICW, from Massachusetts to Florida and back, in an old catboat is authentically charming. When the wind is howling and the snow’s drifting, it’s magical to feel yourself along for the ride, kept in excellent company by the changing weather and the clever improvisations of an old salt (fenders made from bags of dried leaves!) who’s a gifted conversationalist. I guarantee you’ll develop a craving for oyster stew, too.
The second part of the process? When the eyes get weary, close the book, throw another log on the fire and imagine the cruising you’ll be doing in just a few months. To paraphrase a line from the movie An Affair to Remember, winter is only cold for those with no warm memories.
This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue.