A bitterly cold night starts as the evening wanes late. The wood stove in the kitchen is repeatedly stocked with wood, very diligently, until the bedroom upstairs is uncomfortably warm from the rising heat. (Or warmed just right, if you are my wife.) Once I go to bed I get up throughout the night to restock the stove. Since I am tired, I don’t stock it as religiously as during the evening, so the house grows colder as the night progresses. Sometime after midnight when I come downstairs I think, “Boy, it is getting cold down here” and I check the faucet to make sure the water lines haven’t frozen. This I do every time I get up for the remainder of the night. The water still flows in the faucets, and I keep restocking the stove over the course of the night. Morning comes, and it might be hovering around sixty degrees in the kitchen, but that is country life. I clean out the ash from the stove, stoke the fire back up and know that the battle has been won for another night. And I check the faucets one last time because you never know.
It is coldest right after dawn. I learned this experientially back in the days of my youth when I went out biking on these very mornings. The temperature drop varies, but is most pronounced on still, clear, and bitterly cold mornings. I wonder this morning if my car will start.
The car does start after a few sluggish turns. I give it a little extra gas just to make sure it doesn’t think about giving up. The dashboard comes alive and the outside temperature display reads -12F. I am slightly disappointed. If we must suffer with cold, it feels like we should get something a little more dramatic. My coldest bike ride those years ago was squeaking just past -20F, and in my childhood we had it drop to -30F. A little part of me is disappointed at the lesser showing this morning, but the rest of me is glad it isn’t so cold.
When it is this cold it is hard for the car to defrost the windows. On these coldest mornings the heat is going full blast and the windshield is only half defrosted by the time I reach work. A clump of snow might melt and then refreeze when it has slid a little further from the heat vents. The windshield washing fluid is frozen in the lines, so cleaning away the fine grime from the road is only a dream.
These are the best winter mornings to drive into work, if one must have a winter morning to drive. On the other side of December the daylight is fleeing away, less each day, until I drive into work while it is dark, and drive home while it is dark. In this new year we have reached the point where I drive in to work with the sunrise, and drive home as the sun prepares to set. This experience is inexpressibly more cheerful, and it encourages me to look forward to even better things.
This morning the world is wrapped in snow and stifled in cold. Still, the sun rises as it always does. The slanting rays peek from the east, filtering through the hill breaks, reaching out amber fingers of benediction which rest across the opposite side of the valley. Peace, be still, it says. This sun and the cold make an impossible combination of beauty and savageness. The light calls us on, the chill hunts the unwary. Do not travel unprepared.
I drive to work past farm fields of snow and corn stubble. The farms are waiting, the land sleeping. It is the stillness of day’s birth, the quiet which comes before a shout.
My trek takes me over a one lane bridge and up a winding hill. Here the view looks over a wide windswept valley. I think of coming to this spot in the warmer months when all is green and the breeze is gentle. These are good miles to wander in better seasons. For now my car heater blasts hard against the cold, and the sun chases me to work.