Notes from Niflheim: Frost Bites

RDG Stout

I recently asked our local chief of police if he needed extra manpower to prepare for the infamously raucous Niflheim Mardi Gras. He laughed, but I warned him that chilly co-eds might flash in exchange for scarves.

The East Coast, at least up New England way, just keeps getting pounded this winter, which is doubly bizarre for rural Minnesotans because ours has been uncharacteristically gentle. Indeed, unnervingly so. Last winter was rough even on the seasoned veterans; the temperature stayed around negative 20 for three months straight, with wind chills often dipping near negative 50. The frost line plunged down seven, eight, nine feet. Water mains froze. In town folks had to keep their faucets running for the entire season.

In contrast, this winter has been suspiciously enticing. We experienced warm spells up to 40 degrees (positive!) at both Santa Lucia and Christmas Day. I was out walking the dogs in December, which proved highly surreal. The high school crowd is grouchy because we’ve had so little snow that they can’t break out the snowmobiles, and even the most ardent of the ice fishers had to wait a bit to drive out on the lakes and drag along their mobile fishing palaces.

Recently we’ve dropped back down to a more familiar negative 30 wind chill, so I can return to bemusedly smirking at Facebook friends who cry out in astonishment at five degree temperatures in New Jersey. (Native Minnesotans are far too polite to mock the rest of the country’s inability to deal with even moderately sized frost giants. As a transplant, however, I have no such qualms.)

I remember when I first flew out to Fargo to meet up with my wife, whose move had preceded mine by a few months. As soon as I stepped out of the airport, I took a deep breath—and doubled over hacking. It was a balmy negative 40, and my lungs were as yet Pennsylvanian in constitution.

“We don’t gulp the air here,” my wife admonished gently. “We sip it.” What sort of people voluntarily dwell where the very air one breathes burns from the inside out? I tried to sputter. All I got out was, “Ack! H-guh! *cough*” There’s nothing quite like the first time that you feel all the hairs inside your sinuses freeze at once.

I later recalled my Giants in the Earth, and realized that people used to wait out these winters in sod huts. Sod huts! Truly these were gods amongst men. Or at least part bear.

After several months of acclimation, however, I remember chipping my car out of an ice bank one fine day for my morning commute—it often snows here from Halloween to May Day, and we had but a single car garage while my wife was pregnant, so you know she wasn’t going to be chipping out her car—and thinking, “Oh, it’s not so bad today.” So I removed the earmuffs and gloves and scarf, and made do with the long coat.

Then on the drive in I noticed the temperature on the bank sign: negative 20. Negative 20! And I could breathe! And expose bare skin! By thunder, I’d done it! I’d acclimated! It’s like learning that you can breathe underwater, or walk unsuited on the moon.

So buck up, Jersey. You’ll survive. Around here at negative 20 kids still frolic in the backyard with dogs, and school is never, ever canceled. Take some inspiration from the Vikings. Visit Fargo. Read Giants in the Earth. And know that this too shall pass. Why, it probably won’t even last much past May Day.

RDG Stout was born and raised amongst the Pennsylvania Deutsch but has spent the last decade as a country preacher in the windswept wilds of Niflheim, a.k.a. rural Minnesota. He lives in a mead hall with his Viking wife, three kids, and a bizarre assortment of stories.  His musings may be found here and at Grimly Optimistic.

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