Baby, It’s Cold Outside…

January 21, 2008 by Ellen Stimson in Nature, Vermont, Wintertime

It’s too cold to ski and even sledding is an activity best done for fifteen minutes or less. When 7 degrees is the high of the day and your skin burns from the cold, outside is only an attraction from inside, next to a warm fire and with a steaming mug of hot chocolate or buttered rum.

Even inside comfort requires layers. These old charming farmhouses built in the early 1800s, are rather more quaint in summertime. The old boilers chug, and growl like a wooden ship in stormy seas. Everyone up here owns silk longjohns, thick wool socks and boots made in Canada. Instead of closets full of shoes, the women have baskets full of hats and gloves in every imaginable pattern and color. And a scarf thrown over your robe, atop your flannel nightgown which already tops your silks is just about right.

The tourists clog the restaurants and the bookstore. They’ve come to ski and the temps up on the mountains are 15 and 20 below zero Fahrenheit. The ladies put on their slick icy pink ski suits with rabbit fur around their pert and cheerful faces in the morning. The men look like Olympians in shiny black or silver with equipment ordered in pre trip excitement from the web. They load up on carbs at breakfast and then they ride the lift…once. They pull out their cell phones to talk to each other about their misery and their hands get frostbite as they dial. Our ski towns have more cases of frostbite up here than broken ankles. And there’s always a phone involved. The ‘don’t take off your gloves’ signs are there for a reason.

Yesterday at the bookstore I heard a woman complaining to her friends who were just about on their way. “Don’t even bother,” she whined, with a distinctly unhappy New Jersey pitch. “I don’t know what these people do up here” When she got off her phone she somehow tagged us as locals. Maybe it was the way we were sprawled on the comfy sofas, or the clothing designed not for skiing on this bitter day, but for comfort, silk long johns peeking out from a skirt with leggings and big fleecy Canadian boots. What do you guys do here…. she wondered. I told her we get fat absorbing novels at the bookstore and then we read them. We go to movies. We play games. We talk to each other. She looked disappointed. When it rains at the beach I wondered if we look the same.

The divorce rate is high here in these picture perfect postcard villages. People come here because they have made a little bit of money somewhere else and they think they can afford now to live where they once vacationed. Only the money runs out faster than they ever dreamed, and then they have to figure out how to make a living. This gets a bunch of them. And then there are the ones who already had gone a little bit off the rails, and they come here hoping the change will revitalize their lives. That gets a few more. There are also the ones with only one partner who has experienced a change. The other one followed him or her onto this spiritual path toward beauty and meaning leaving behind some faster paced more material life. She or he often turns right around and goes back to their own life after a few dark wintry months up here.

There are people too who seemed content with one another in their old lives, only to find that they can’t make it without all the stimulation of dinner parties, gallery openings, concerts, and plays. While there is plenty of stimulation in the summer, with all of the great NY summerstock companies, and concerts aplenty for the second home owners, wintertime is infinitely slower. And then it lasts….and lasts, until Easter at least. Some of them like it, but most of them don’t. The housing market is always moving here. Some go back as a couple, but just as many divide, having learned more about one another than they wanted.

There are some lucky left over couples like us who both seem to thrive up here. You have to really like each other to feel content. The quiet is consuming. Some days it’s even too cold for the chickadees, and then the outside is silent in a way no city person can ever quite imagine. This morning we were up at 5 to feed the chickens and check that their water heater was working. Their heat lamp is red. We call it the Bethlehem light. It is always shining through their windows into our back yard, and you can see it from way up high in the woods at night. Like a beacon it guides us home on starless nights. The chickens snuggle up close to it in the rafters of their house and cluck at us, flying down to see what morning treats we’ve brought. Sometimes it’s leftover pasta from the night before. Potatoes are their favorite. This morning they had some Chinese take out and they seemed pretty excited by that too.

Back inside we watched the puppy and the cat, Pippi and Zoe chase each other, tumbling and rolling in a furry ball together. Zoe would jump high onto a chair back and dangle her tail for the dog to tag. Quick as a flash she’d jump down and the chase would be on. This sweet animal watching ritual with mugs of hot coffee can entertain us for a long while. What is there to do up there people ask? Well…um, we watch the animals play. In the summer we join in, and raise the hose so we can watch them jump in and out of the water.

The pleasures are slower here, but somehow when you get them just right, when everyone has been quiet all day reading, or drawing, and you come together in the afternoon, for some lively political discussion, or quiet talk about what feels really important to one of you right now, they seem deeper too. The laughter after a few goofy sled runs, or the pile up on the bed when someone is sad, feels like we are living a life we were meant to live. The old one was fun too. But the malls made me wonder what I was missing. I was never a nature person but I often idly wondered if the human beings were really meant to be figuring out our place in the natural world. Meant to or not, we have found it here in this high valley. In the coldest darkest months we learn about the stars and delight in a warm snowy day. And like the bears we hibernate a little bit, waiting for the sun. We come inside, and think, and talk, and study. Our kids will undoubtedly have more city lives. Maybe even so will we. But what I have learned for sure is that we seem to need these slower dark times to prepare us for what comes next. I think one of the best reasons to live is never knowing what the next grand passion will be. And in these quiet moments we can finally just about think up the next ones…


  • illinois x

    your best column to date; just wonderful.

  • Don Mills Diva

    I loved this post. I grew up in a tourist town and so much of what you said rings true…

  • Anonymous

    the divorce rate bit is sort of sad. who knew before anyone came up here?I hear they call dorset divorcet

  • beesknees


  • asjackson

    loved this … spent a good deal of time in Vermont as a child, and have lived amongst the Tetons for the past 10. very interesting and very true!

  • library lady

    We’re supposed to be down to 7 degrees tonight. Unfortunately I won’t be able to curl up and watch the antics of my cats–I’ll be working and my gorgeous black cat Killer will be undergoing knee surgery, so he won’t be doing any leaping…I hope.

  • Jennifer

    This was so lovely.

  • Catdog

    Did you read Walden beofre you moved? Or did the monk inform your decision? Either way we are all glad to have you up here. You are here for the right reasons. And people like you and your family make it better…I met you at “the store”
    And believe me, you are better off

  • Rebecca

    Beautiful, evocative writing. Would I last there? Never. Does this post make me wish that I were the kind of person who would? Very much so.

  • Badness Jones

    That was a beautiful post…and it took me back to my less-city childhood on a farm in Eastern Ontario. I remember winters when the septic system would freeze and my mom would set up a bucket with garbage bags in the washroom, because it was too cold to send her babies to the outhouse! We used to do puzzles in the winter…and read…and talk…

    You made me remember what a wonderful childhood I had, and how much part of me misses it. Thank you.

  • marybeth

    Wonderful writing…glad I found you

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