Welcome to the latest edition of my perennially popular blog, “Geekrant!”. You know you've been wallowing in misery since I last wrote, bereft, caught up in sheer desperation..., okay, so I might be exaggerating a little but I truly hope that the return of my humble offerings of the literary sort on the subject of my cross cultural adventures are welcome to one and all.
Winter has reached us here, the first frigid icicles of its frozen fingers creeping across the landscape and although we have not yet seen the first full blizzard of the new season... it will come. Rolling across the prairies and the vast open spaces of the plains states, it will come.
The northern states of the American Mid-West, you see, aren't exactly known for the mildness of their winters. It is not by accident that Lambeau Field, the home stadium of Wisconsin's beloved Green Bay Packers, is known as the “Frozen Tundra” and multiple cities, throughout the area, such as St. Paul, Minnesota and Des Moines, Iowa, have skyways. These enclosed walkways, bridging streets between buildings, were built simply so that people didn't have to venture into the frigid atmosphere just to go about their daily business. So it's a fact that you have to be ready to make the most of the weather if you're going to live here for any length of time.
For most of my life, I lived in an area of the UK where it very rarely snowed to any great degree and when it did it would be melted and gone before a couple of days had passed. When it did snow, children would rush as one great horde to every hill in town, desperate to be the first to go sledging (that's sledding to my American readers) which was necessary because if you were late, you'd be sledging through mud, the oh so thin snow having been sledged and melted away. It seems to me that there is something so magical about snow to a child. As a young boy I would look with wonder at the stories on the television news of snowstorms blanketing the United States and puzzle what it would be like to see so much snow in one moment, to not have to go to school because it was snowed in and to know what it was to see a lake completely frozen over in the winter cold.
Well, living in Wisconsin and having family now in Minnesota, means that I'm often in the middle of those news stories that I used to see back home. There is generally a lot of snow, ice and generally sub-zero temperatures (both centigrade and fahrenheit, by the way) and although sometimes it can look and feel like a scene out of “The Day after Tomorrow”, the truth is its really not that bad. Primarily because the Midwesterners know how to deal with it.
Now it is somewhat of a cliché that the British adult is generally not known for their sensible reasoned response to the news of impending snowfall. So while the children of the UK rush to enjoy the fleeting flakes falling from a suddenly overcast sky, a single one of those flakes touching down upon the tarmac of a British motorway such as the M25 is more than enough to cause traffic jams, tailbacks and a general inability of any part of the country's adult infrastructure to deal with even the smallest amount of arctic weather. The trains fail to run, people spend hours on the roads, my mother worries that she'll slip on the ice, that kind of thing. Indeed it is like the world has slipped into a new Ice Age.
Now it is possible, that over the last paragraph that my penchant for dramatic license has been in evidence, but the simple truth is as British people, we are just not used to the sort of the weather that makes the countryside look like the set of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (the classic BBC version obviously) and leaves us snowed into our houses.
In Wisconsin and the surrounding states, however, it is as if they stand guard all year waiting for the first hint of Winter, like an army on patrol. Not that they dislike the season, they just want to make sure they have fair warning to get the snowmobiles ready for action. Around here they say that there are but two seasons in the world, Winter and road construction. They're not even slightly joking.
They know its going to come and are well prepared for it. Four wheelers (quad bikes) are put away in exchange for snowmobiles, hunters bring out their snowshoes and fishermen start hoping that the ice will soon be thick enough to carry the weight of their ice fishing shacks. At times it feels like Laura Ingalls Wilder's memoirs of pioneer life in the Mid-west and the harsh winters those hardy homesteaders faced, are only a fleeting moment in the past.
Even the mighty Mississippi freezes over in places, truly, I have sat on a frozen night outside a motel on the banks of that great river and heard in that frostbitten silence the sound of the ice moving like waves across the surface of that great waterway and crashing into its banks. Suddenly I felt very small, knowing that the weather here is truly something to respect and honour and prepare for and that a millennium ago some Native American probably sat on the same banks and heard the same unearthly noise and in that solitary moment felt much the same as I.
Cars have to be winterised here, of course, antifreeze being a must have and windscreen/shield washer fluid has to be changed for a type that will not freeze in the Siberian temperatures. Here in Madison, cars parked out on the street have to alternate the side of the street they park on, so as to give a clear passage for the snow ploughs in the morning's early hours (it is, in fact, a city ordinance to do this, ignore it and you get a parking ticket). Gritters are out every night and you're not going to make it through a interstate journey without your car being covered in a thin layer of rock salt.
And in the midst of it all, it is beautiful. Back home it can seem that during the winter it rains non stop, day after day, or the sky just sets in a grey visage staring back at me. So it has to be said that while the nation of my birth has its beautiful moments and places, after over 30 years of living there, a winter of snow filled days makes a nice change. And I even find I enjoy shoveling snow.
There is something untamed about the weather here, like this land secretly is still the frontier and it wants to remind the people who live here of this fact. They call Wisconsinites, “Badgers”, not because that small ground dwelling nocturnal mammal is particularly seen around this parts, but because many of the early settlers, who were lead miners, dug homes into their mines to escape Wisconsin's harsh winters. Just like Badgers.
And that is the way everyone here responds to Winter. They find a way to work around it. At some point this winter, Mrs Geekrant's aunt and uncle, will no doubt venture out from their cabin on the lake, cut a hole in the ice and go fishing. The vista will be entirely different to when we visited them in summer and it will be bitterly cold, but the desire to make the most of what this land has to offer is still there.
The land here is itself enticing, reflecting all the beauty of its Creator and the wildness of the divine and unknown. There are a hundred stories to be heard, a thousand lives to be lived and a million moments to gasp in wonder, even in the depths of the coldest winter night. And it works for me, because even after all these years, I am still that young boy fascinated by a place where it snows so much that the world is transformed in a night and where its so cold that the snow stays around for weeks on end. And hopefully at some point this year I will finally ride a snowmobile. And find something yet again new in a Midwestern sunrise.