As these words find form, my heart is thumping. The heat of the woodstove is chipping away at the frost which is poking countless pinholes in my cheeks. Cold is radiating off my clothes. I’ve just come back inside, and the fresh air has stolen my breath. A look out the window reveals brilliant sunlight reflecting a healthy snowfall on the mountaintop across the way. Down low, there’s barely a skiff. The high today made it out of the negative numbers – barely: it’s zero degrees, Fahrenheit. The low last night was -8, tonight the weatherman says -14. It’s cold, but not the coldest I’ve experienced – that was -30 a few years back – and let me tell you, that’s a different world.
On days like today, when the sun is shining, it is oh so deceiving. The sky is as brilliant a cobalt blue you’ll ever see. The mountains stand prouder, the trees taller. The creeks seem to run a little faster. Okay, that last one is a bit of my imagination, but to keep from freezing I know I would. All in all, winter is Montana’s grandest season. For those who’ve only experienced Montana’s charms in the summer, you’re missing out, but I can’t say that I blame you, I can relate. When I first started dating Tammy, I was petrified of the idea of a Montana winter. It carries a mystique. Back then, the worldly east coast boy that I was knew of its reputation. What I didn’t know it is the season when Mother Nature reveals her most beautiful self, but like so many beings that possess alluring attributes, she harbors a harsh side. For the adventurous, she is a siren, her cry seducing you to frolic in the elements.
In this my eleventh Montana winter – a tenure in which the old-timers no longer consider one a rookie – I’ve seen my fair share of people wanting to test their mettle. I’ve seen success and I’ve seen people flee as fast as the first plane ride south. I can’t help but think of the thirty-something couple who ‘retired’ from the whirlwind of Washington D.C. to the refines of a remote cabin. In there weekly sojourns to the bar, the cost of their lifestyle decision echoed from their expressions to their posture. What was once a refreshed smile soon morphed into scowls and hunched shoulders. Soon they were gone, together a victim to one of Montana’s seductions – Quaintness. It’s understandable, especially coming from inside the Beltway. What could be so difficult about living the ‘simple life?’
The reality is it isn’t so simple. It takes preparation and a willingness to forego. It’s one thing to winter in a city like Missoula or Billings, it’s a different story in the hills, where high-culture very likely is a conversation held atop a barstool, and a quick trip to the C-store for a loaf of a bread or a gallon of milk is an impossibility. On a bitter night, a flat-tire could mean the difference between life and death. Especially if one’s not prepared. What’s that? I have AAA. Forget about it! You’ll most likely not have cell service.
“Screw that,” I hear you say. “I’m staying home.”
Oh my. Cabin Fever is a real thing. I’ve experienced it. It’s the closest I’ve come to literally jumping off a bridge. It explains why so many people go crazy in the mountains and it leads to the philosophy that there are only two types of people who live here: Those going crazy and those already there. Cabin Fever is like Chinese Water Torture without the water. Each hour another drip of frozen nothingness dinks off your forehead. Soon objects within the paintings on the walls start moving. Some of them have conversations. Some of them stare at you. You feel it and turn around only to find your dog giving you the evil eye. It’s so cold, that unless Fido is a Husky, it’s hunkering down in front of the fireplace cursing you for not having an indoor bathroom for your best friend. “Will you stop looking at me,” you bark at the dog.
When it’s time to throw another log on the fire, you realize more firewood is needed. With a deep breath, you turn to the dog and say: “I have to go outside, you’re coming too!” You open the door and step outside. You’re met by the Seductive Paw. No, it’s not a bear out of hibernation who suddenly looks like a good option to cuddle with, it’s the feeling you get when you step into the cold. It’s a brisk kiss on the cheek. It’s not so bad. Even in a hoody, zero doesn’t seem horrible. Maybe you fall for its allure and you take your shoes off and jump barefoot into the snow. Even if you’re not like me and would never do something so foolish, it’s only a matter of time before the paw slaps you across the head. It starts with realization that your cold and it quickly morphs into the shivers. Only the cold isn’t skin deep, it burrows deep, digging into the marrow of your bones. You can’t stop shivering, but you don’t want to go inside.
“Wait a minute John, why wouldn’t I want to go back inside?”
“The essence,” I answer.
Even in the light of a crescent moon, shadows from the trees reach out to embrace you. It’s so quiet that you can hear the shadows stretching for you. If the creek isn’t frozen, the tumbling water plays a soundtrack so sublime that mountaintops appear to be dancing with the stars. If it is in the deep of winter and even the creek is in slumber, the silence is such that you can almost hear the earth coasting in its orbit. But it’s the stars that are, well, the stars of the show. Thousands of them, shining brightly as they watch you catch a glimpse of the Milky Way. If you’re really lucky, the cry of a faraway wolf or the hoot of an owl will rattle your soul. In that moment, that fleeting moment, you’ve felt it. The essence of being alive; the essence of what a miraculous place we call home.