Sweet Smiles of Hope

Lonyearbyen, a small Arctic village in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, was said to be 33 degrees warmer than we were this weekend. In other words, we are enjoying their typical weather while they’ve doused their seaside saunas!

Artist musician friend, Lee Kanten, sends a photograph of ice frozen in a lawn chair from South Padre Island. Another friend writes that they may as well head home from their winter hideaway since the temperatures are about the same as at home. Someone else posted a picture of the Riverwalk in San Antonio covered with snow. Every single county in the state of Texas is below freezing! Actually the entire central part of the nation, from mountain range to mountain range is below 32 degrees, which seems warm for us right now in the heart of this polar vortex.

Our little dog, Cocoa, steps through the door onto the deck and instantly raises her paws signaling that our weather here isn’t fit for neither man nor beast. These outside temperatures range from between -24 to -18 degrees, and this isn’t with factoring in the wind chills. We’re also warmer at these temperatures than much of the country is to the north and east of us. This morning Mary lamented, “This is the longest stretch of sub-zero weather we’ve here had in years.” In retort I suggested that we usually have a week or so of such temperatures, to which she responded, “But this is now more than two weeks. This isn’t normal.”

Beauty in the vortex of a sundog on a frigid prairie morning …

I’ve given up trying to make wooden frames for my show in March, for it’s too cold to run my saws in my unheated wood shop, and even if they did it’s too chilly to attempt to do the sanding. Indeed, the garage with in-floor heating is struggling to keep enough heat to even paint the frames. Adding to that, I have a spinning rod I’ve made that I can’t spread the epoxy on due to the low temperatures out there. 

Mary is keeping our hearts warm, however, hunched over her computer. I’ve never known anyone more immersed in doing computer research, for between her quilting she is finding her warmth in planning our summer camping trip to the coasts of Oregon and Washington. This began as a caravan outing that germinated last September among her “tribe” of “Murdock girls” who all grew up together in her small railroad town here in the prairie and have remained extremely close even now as they near their 70s. 

Last September her tribe met in a state park in western Montana and remained socially distanced and masked in close proximity throughout the trip out and among ourselves in the campground around the campfires. We sat as twos, as couples, distanced from one another into the nights. Since there were three RNs among the women, Covid consciousness was at the extreme as it surely will be again come this July.

A frosty hillside across from Big Stone Lake State Park brings shivers.

She is mixing in a couple of cabin nights she’s found in her research to interstice with our road time. So far the longest time we’ll be on the road is a stretch between Pendleton and Corvallis, Oregon. This appears to be about ten hours in the pickup. Most of the other days are in the six to eight hour range. Within the plans are visiting with some old friends of mine in Oregon and southern Washington en route to Larrabee State Park outside of Bellingham. Mary’s college roommate, who now lives in the Bellingham area, arranged the Larrabee portion that anchors the venture there and back.

Initially we had considered returning through the Tetons on the way out since Mary figured I missed the late afternoon shots with my favored light when we were there on the way home from Montana. It was either the Tetons or traversing the Columbia River valley, and like many of my desires of late, doing the Columbia again in my lifetime seems almost a dream. We’ll add a couple of more states to our history, for in our fourth year as a couple we have now been through 30!  Had the pandemic not happened it would have surely been more for we had our sights set on a trip to the Southwest over this winter and spring. Like her sisters and the Murdock girls, just give her time. 

The Listening Stores prairie and a distant tree in the snowy “mist.”

So it’s a fine reprieve for her from the temperatures outside. So is planning for the exhibit, which took a turn since we’ve now placed an order for pre-made frames rather than fight the elements. Now I can work on the fly rod I’ve been intending to make for the past several months. Like the spinning rod, it will be a gift. It will have a burl reel seat for soul and beauty, and offer some fine 5 wt. action for bluegill and bass around here, and for trout out west. I guess these are things you do when it’s too cold to do much else. Mary alternates between our trip planning by creating some incredible beautiful quilts while I make prints for the upcoming show and wrap line guides to fishing rod blanks. All while keeping the bird feeders stocked with black sunflower seeds!

Seems the most I can do outside is fill those bird feeders, for I find it too cold to ski. Warnings are to not spend more than a few minutes outside because of frostbite, and little Cocoa’s paws offer a fine reminder of such dangers. This provides a few breaths of fresh air while we busy ourselves indoors with creativity and dreams of a warmer and hopefully safer summer. Sometimes the cold of winter is like that, so you feed those feelings with hope and dreams of different times. Or as Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier’.”

A Light in the Gloom …

Waking to another morning of foggish gloom, even with a frosty coating of hoarfrost, was beginning to take a toll. Don’t get me wrong. There remains a blessed magic in hoarfrosts and a calm beauty within the fog and whiteness. Yet, somewhere deep in my soul I felt a need for color; to see blue sky and sense the warmth of the sun. 

My son in Norway and Mary both push Vitamin D, which despite the ease of swallowing a pill lacks the verve and vitality captured from energy of the sun. One year while living in Denver there was a count of 300 plus days of sunshine in one calendar year that became utterly monotonous. I’ve even wondered how people in the Caribbean can handle having both the constant sunshine and temperatures every single day. Maybe it’s not the fog so much as it is the sameness. 

Beyond the weather there is the me in me. Meaning, beyond this exterior of insufferable calmness there is a raging extrovert and exhibitionist, a hugger of rather unlimited bounds, a guy who craves social gatherings and fine dining with decent wine. Even my introverted partner claims she’s missing the social sides of our lives. This is our fourth winter together and our first of staying put. We don’t trust the masking, and even around here there is inconsistent compliance. At least here in our home surroundings we can safely cocoon while awaiting our shots. 

Finding reflective cypress in a Louisiana bayou is a cure for northern winter gloom.

Staying home is quite different. Two of the past three years we’ve taken long January road trips to the southern states, to the bayous of cypress and long-necked birds, to venues offering good music and have shared fun moments with distant friends and family while sharing dinners much different than deep-fried steak cubes and the mushy excuse of  “BBQ’d ribs” served around here. Our shared vagabonding was interrupted a couple of winters back when I made a six week solo trip through SE Asia and Australia, which was my last experience in either an airplane or a foreign country.

We were initially planning to spend a long month this winter in Rockport, TX, where we were last year, surrounded by interesting birding experiences. Whooping cranes, roseate spoonbills, blue herons and other species congregate in interesting state and national parks along the western Gulf Coast. We further enjoyed our dining experiences by ambling across to Louisiana to visit my author friend, Roger Emile Stouff and his wife, Suze. Although it’s not sleepy country in reality, the Cajun Triangle offers shades of such in the bayous.

Rockport offered us many birding options including a heron rookery right in town.

We briefly entertained thoughts of hooking up to travel to central New Mexico where sandhill cranes overwinter, and even considered spending a month at the old farm place in Northeast Missouri of my childhood. We’ve since learned from my nephew that a huge flock of snow geese have unexpectedly congregated on the farm which would have been rather interesting. Birds aside, our thinking was that this would be a warmer option than being here and it hasn’t appeared to have been. Plus, with the pandemic being an elephant in the room, we feared that our not being actual residents would jeopardize our getting the vaccinations. So we’re here at home with the dogs along with the Thorson’s horses and chickens, and yes, we’ve both feel fortunate to have received our first shots.

Actually, Listening Stones Farm, or Mary’s cabin on Lake Linka, are wonderful places to be. Things could be much worse! Here, if the sun is streaming through the windows of our solarium we can relax in a delightful and somewhat warm hideaway. Easing back in Dale and Jo Pederson’s comfortable bentwood furniture to watch the birds attack the feeder or to see the big bluestem ripple gracefully in a prairie wind in the lower prairie can wile away a good portion of a wintry afternoon. At the cabin, sitting in the warmth of a nice fire while looking out over the ice sheet as clouds continually fade and alter is equally as entertaining. At either place we can strap on cross country skis for some hearty exercise, which Joe Pye absolutely loves.

A hoarfrost offers a delightful mystery in a foggy winter …

This fall Mary bought a hammock chair that I’ve now hung it in the upstairs of the studio next to a window ledge bird feeder. Downy woodpeckers, chickadees, redpolls and a couple of species of sparrows visit during the day, and in the mornings you can see and hear bluejays attacking the seeds with what could be mistaken as anger! If I’m downstairs working I can often hear them pounding on the seeds like a rebellious teenage drummer in a garage band! It’s the “music” I hear while I work on an upcoming exhibit of my photographs or build a couple of fishing rods, or tie flies for the spring bluegill season.

So, yes, beyond the gloominess we are doing just fine. We’re safe. We have taken time to make some significant plans for our post-vaccine lives. Perhaps in March, with decent weather, we’ll take the camper down to central Nebraska to once again experience the sandhill crane migration, and we’ve actually committed to a trip to Isle Royale in late June. Later we plan to join friends in a camper caravan to Larrabee State Park outside of Bellingham, WA, with the same folks we met up with in Western Montana last September. They’re Mary’s “Murdock girls” who have remained close friendships through marriage, child-raising and careers, folks who are incredibly covid conscious and extremely careful. 

The first of our plans is to revisit the sandhill crane migration in Central Nebraska in March.

Ah, the dreams. Sandhill cranes. Moose and wolves. Traipsing across the High Plains through the mountain passes to the rugged West Coast, hopefully passing through coastal Oregon to visit old friends on the way up to Bellingham. If we were driving on one of our long winter road trips we would still be making plans wiling the miles behind us, which we’re doing now as we’re enveloped in this foggy mistiness. Meanwhile we prepare interesting meals, share some fine wine and bake a loaf or two of bread to give the house some charm and character. As a friend was known to say, “things could be worse.” Yes, and in so many ways. We’re blessed that have one another, that we’re as alive as our dreams, of which we’re ever hopeful will materialize.