Winning at Winter

Snowy morning in Loring Park

It’s the time of year when my daily walk to work is a source of pride and competition. Who is going to win – me or the Minnesota winter? King Boreas or Vulcanus Rex?* There are days that I concede easily, disqualify myself without a second thought. When the National Weather Service describes the temperature as dangerously cold and any exposed skin is liable to freeze in under a minute, I’m fine with taking the bus.

But let’s face it – as much as we like to complain about the cold, most days do not include a wind chill warning. These are the days when the competition is a fair fight. I start these mornings waking up five minutes earlier than other seasons to allow for the extra preparation time. I execute the first portion of my routine in a typical fashion – shower, dry my hair, put on make-up. Getting Dressed: Act One is fairly normal. I put on a heavy-knit black and white striped dress and pull fleece-lined leggings over my legs (okay, maybe wearing fleece-lined anything to work inside isn’t entirely normal). Black ankle boots with a chunky heel are placed in my backpack to wear once I arrive.

Breakfast is next, usually eggs or oatmeal. It’s always something hearty and warm to prepare me for the approaching 40 minutes outside. Occasionally I think it will be a timesaving measure to pack a smoothie to consume at work. Then I arrive at my desk to find the smoothie too cold to drink or freezing to the point that the top of my Nalgene adheres to the bottle and I have to run it under warm water to access my breakfast.

After eating is Getting Dressed: Act Two. The order is critical. First I pull black wind pants with vertical white track stripes over the leggings and under the dress. Then I tug a gator over my head, trying not catch my earrings or destroy my hair in the process. Next I slip on short, furry black boots if the sidewalks are dry; gray Merrill hiking boots if I’ll be trudging through snow. The wind pants cascade over the tops of the boots, ensuring total protection. The next layer is the main event; often the only article of clothing that people living outside of the Midwest require to stay warm in the winter – the coat. I love my coat. It reaches to the mid-thighs and zips all the way to my chin where the velvety lining hugs the gator close to my neck. I raise the hood and snap it in place over the zipper; a third tier between my skin and the impending air. I adjust the elastic around the hood, pulling it tighter as the temperature decreases and wind increases until my peripheral vision is completely blocked and I have to swivel my entire body to check for cars as I cross the street. On the coldest days I pull the gator over my chin and mouth so that only my eyes and nose protrude from the depths of down and fleece. Many co-workers have commented on the sheer beauty of this layered look. I think it’s the wind pants under the dress that really takes it to the next level.

I swish through the back door of my condo and enter the basement. I lock the door, clip the keys in my backpack and then proceed to the final step, putting on my mittens. It is imperative to wait to put on mittens until any activities requiring small motor coordination are complete.

I open the back door and emerge into the dawn. On warmer days the sky is filled with a thick layer of gray clouds providing insulation for the city. On cold mornings the sky is crystal clear, a few stars still shining in the west while the eastern horizon brightens with a sun that will bring no warmth. My asthmatic lungs quickly reject this dramatic change in temperature and I cough, my face pressing into the tight straps of my hood with each convulsion. My nose runs immediately. I sniff and my nostrils stick together, freezing momentarily before body heat takes over and my breathing canal opens again.

I ascend the half flight of cement stairs from the building, careful to avoid the patch of ice that pools at the bottom of the stairs on the occasional day above freezing. I march through icy ruts in the alley towards the bus stop two blocks away on Hennepin Avenue. This is the test. Once I take a left on Hennepin towards downtown there is no turning back. Several elements factor into my decision. Does the coughing continue or do my lungs adjust to the 40-70 degree temperature plunge they just encountered? How quickly does the cold air seep through my wind pants and fleece leggings? Does the slightest breeze against the four square inches of skin exposed on my face inflict pain and incite cursing? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then I head towards the unheated shelter of the bus stop and hope that one will be along shortly.

If the answer is no, or if I’m feeling particularly stubborn, then I endure the walk. Many times, I even it enjoy it. I see the sun rising through glasses that are intermittently fogged by the warm breath rising from inside of my gator. The light catches the snow, creating golden waves and shadows through Loring Park. Squirrels bury their noses in the snow attempting to find a stash of acorns and chickadees flutter spastically to stay warm. I pass by people with dogs, other walking commuters, even the occasional biker. We exchange a knowing glance, eyes smiling at each other because our mouths are hidden behind fleece and wool. Today we have won. King Boreas defeats Vulcanus Rex. The Minnesotan rises above the Minnesota winter.

Spoon and Cherry in the Sculpture Garden

*King Boreas is the son of Greek gods that presides over St. Paul, Minnesota and declared it his own winter playground. Vulcanus Rex is the god of fire and against all festivities celebrating winter. To represent this dispute we hold the Winter Carnival each February, a festival complete with ice sculptures, medallion hunt, and outdoor torchlight parade. King Boreas and the Queen of the Snows preside over the Carnival along with a number of other royalty. Thousands attend the events every year, showing that many other Minnesotans have also risen above the Minnesota winter. Click here for the full story.

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