In the quiet, predawn darkness of Friday, March 6, the stars and planets sparkled like a million motionless fireflies decorating the cosmos. The full moon was settling into the haze of the western horizon, and there wasn’t a ripple of wind.
I stepped out onto the back deck in my stocking feet, and the thermometer read a nippy 51 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thursday’s Tribune reported that it would warm up to 73 degrees by midday. It would be another breathtakingly beautiful — very green but very dry — day here in Cambria. I brewed a cup of coffee, added a splash of French vanilla, and settled in at my work desk.
Shortly, I went online to check the weather for North Hornell, the upstate New York village where I was born (tongue-tied) on a warm July 1 in 1943. It was 1 degree below zero Fahrenheit (with a wind chill of 12 below), with weekend snow predicted. The current temperature was expected to be 26 degrees later that Friday.
My curiosity tweaked, I accessed the weather in Milton, Wis., the community where I was raised, and it was two degrees warmer than North Hornell: 1 degree Fahrenheit. The wind chill in Milton was 11 below, and the expected high was 25 degrees for Friday.
High school and church friends who still live in Wisconsin are going through their winter ritual. They email me, referencing the hideously cold weather, the new snow piled on top of previous snow, arctic winds howling over frozen lakes and the thick crust of ice that has to be chipped off the windshield before you drive your car.
That is, if the car will start and if you have the right snow tires and chains. My old buddy Bill wrote about winter’s indoor punishment — cabin fever. He looks outside and sees “a frozen wasteland.”
The ice on the lake across the county road from his house is 3 feet thick. He fishes for bluegills, northern pike and crappies in summer, but he doesn’t go out on the lake in winter, so how does he know the thickness of the ice?
He had recently watched a bundled-up ice fisherman (wearing a wool ski mask) bore a hole with a powerful ice auger. When the razor-sharp drill bit first cut into the ice, the handles were up to the fisherman’s shoulder. When he had bored all the way through, the handles were at his knees.
“At least 3 feet of ice,” Bill, a retired engineer, wrote. “That’s as thick as I can ever remember, and even though I was standing near my fireplace, with a roaring oak fire, watching him out there brought a chill through my whole being.”
I did some ice fishing in my youth, but I don’t recall having to cut through 3 feet — or even 2 feet — of the stuff. I do recall my many 4:30 a.m. treks on foot from Greenman Street a mile or so up to Paul Green’s barn in below-zero weather.
After a fresh snow, my footsteps made a crunching sound that I remember perfectly today. On my way back home, I tried to step into the same footprints, which made walking easier than carving new ones in the deep snow.
The 24 cows (Guernseys, Holsteins and Jerseys) I milked seven days a week, twice a day my junior year in high school, were always glad to see me, which I can’t say about everyone in my class at Milton Union, but that’s another story.
Fast-forward from Wisconsin in the ’60s to my experiences as caregiver for my elderly father in the Colorado Rocky Mountains in 2004. After my wife died in Texas in December, 2003, I moved to dad’s mountain home above Boulder — 7,770 feet above sea level.
Yes it snowed there, often deep snow, but it was stunningly picturesque against the forested landscape — Douglas firs and Ponderosa Pines — on dad’s property. It wasn’t nearly as cruelly, brutally cold as it had been in Wisconsin.
Walking on dad’s property after a fresh 6-inch mountain snowfall was magical. The boughs on the trees were heavily blanketed and bowed — a choreographed juxtaposition of bright white against emerald green. I was becoming reacquainted with a former antagonist who now wanted to be friends.
Still, my bonds with sunny California, where I had graduated from Cal Poly and launched careers in teaching, fundraising and journalism, were too strong to keep me in the mountains. Back in the ’60s, when I took those snowy steps up to the barn to milk cows, I imagined I was instead walking on a sandy beach.
And when Wisconsin’s winter winds whipped through the trees, I fantasized I was hearing the thunderous ocean breakers smashing against the land.
Today, as I finish this column, I hear that ocean roar from my place on Park Hill. And as I tell my friends back in the frigid land of cheese, beer and snow blowers: OK, Cambria has a flawed, drought-driven climate, but it’s warm here.