winter walk

Despite having earned a master’s degree in it, I never write nonfiction anymore. But this happened this morning, so I went with it. Call it a rough draft, even if it’ll never become a polished piece.

I walked through winter this morning, on my way to the coffee shop. My Saturday morning treks are a ritual I started when I moved to Newport, two years ago. Unlike other seaport cities that existed before their colonists declared independence, Newport has remained a tiny town—just 7 square miles of land, all told—and I live at the south end, within walking distance of a few hundred years of history and at least two favorite coffee shops. In spring and summer and especially autumn, I like taking to the street before anyone but the joggers is awake. It gives me a chance to gather my thoughts before I sit down to write for a few hours, to be a person in the world without expectation or hurry.

But this morning it’s winter. Not only that, we had a blizzard yesterday. This morning it’s still cold, real cold, and we still have snow.

Directly out of bed, I pull on a camisole, a cotton long-sleeve shirt, my warmest wool sweater with its big cowl neck. I’d planned my layers out ahead of time. I say goodbye to my sleepy-eyed boyfriend who is still muddled in bed as I tug on my softest wool hat, and I’m already too warm to be indoors as I yank on my snow boots. I roll my jeans up to my boot tops, to keep them out of the snow.

It’s a sunny 11 degrees Farenheit when I step outside, no wind. Three deep breaths with my eyes closed and I can almost believe I was back in Michigan.

Rhode Island, you understand as a girl growing up in the Midwest, surrounded by lake-effect snow and ice fishermen, is in New England. Snowy, Martha-Stewart-Christmas New England. What you don’t know until you’re adult and you live here is that, climate-wise Rhode Island is in southern New England, south coast New England, the National Weather Service calls it, and there’s difference between “south coast” and the picturesque photos of central Connecticut in Martha Stewart Living. Newport in particular, since it’s surrounded by brackish bay water that rarely freezes, stays warmish and wet throughout the season. Winter here means painfully strong winds and the kind of precipitation that hollows out any chance of holiday spirit—rain and more rain, naked gray trees against gray skies, reflecting on gray water. Potholes multiply as rainwater pushes up their summer patches. Walking anywhere is seldom an attractive option.

So when the snow comes— It’s a relief, all that white. I don’t care that it inconveniences my neighbors and all my coworkers complain. When it’s real snow, more than an inch, heavy enough to stay a while, it feels a little more like home. I know how to live like this. I’m still a very proficient shoveler.

It’s far enough below freezing that the snow squeaks like good Wisconsin cheese curds under my boots. Not all my neighbors have cleared their sidewalks—I suspect a few of them are in Florida until March—and I swerve into the street every so many yards to avoid drifts. My first year living in Rhode Island we had a blizzard so bad and so unexpected it took days for the capital city to clear its streets. Two people died from being hit by snow plows in the days following the storm and at the time my Michigander mind couldn’t wrap around that—it had to be the result of extreme incompetence, and at least a little stupidity. Squeaking down the empty streets this morning in Newport it made more sense. And I’ve since learned a further lesson about New England: no one shovels what’s not theirs.

Until a young man in low-slung jeans, unlaced skate shoes, and a knit cap tumbles out of a doorway and sets off ahead of me, I’m the only person on the street. The drivers of the few vehicles who pass give me funny looks from their SUVs. Since moving to New England I’ve been teased several times for owning heavy snow boots. In a state where you can wear impractical footwear all four seasons, my waterproof Omni-Heat Columbias seem like overkill. This morning I feel smug in my preparedness.

Half a mile in, the stiff push of my boots against my ankles begins to hurt. The fronts of my thighs go numb, despite the layer of long underwear between my skin and frozen denim. I know it’s the novelty of it, the cold, that allows me to want this walk instead of avoid it, makes it refreshing instead of an everyday drudgery. After a childhood of snow tunnels and sledding, this is closest I’ve come to playing in the snow in years. Sometimes I forget I used to be able to set off cross-country skiing from my backyard, that I used to skate on frozen lakes, that winter used to be my favorite season.

My upper body is overly warm again well before I reach the coffee shop, and I’m glad to have a place I can stay long enough to let the sweat dry as my destination. It’ll be warmer when I set off again for home, but cold and damp is always less pleasant than just cold. Elementary-school recesses creep to mind or, rather, after recess water-logged snow pants and soggy mittens spread out along the classroom registers, cranking out that sour smell of damp cotton and nylon, and never quite dry before you had to put them on again to go back outside or take the bus home. Enough kids in my class had to put bread bags around their stockinged feet before putting their boots on that it wasn’t weird. Or, depending on who your friends were, not too weird. Everybody’s snow pants were Lisa Frank pink or teal or purple, whatever matched your coat. All my coats are black these days. I’ll proudly tell anyone, whether they ask or not, that I’m from Michigan, a Midwesterner born and bred, but I always feel like a conspicuous country bumpkin if I wear too much or too bright a color. And when I visit home now, I feel stuffily overdressed.

In the business district, the best-shoveled sidewalks are in front of B&Bs and bars. The post office, too, is clear down to the pavement. My best friend lives in Milwaukee, has lived there her whole life except the two years she spent in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, which isn’t, climatically speaking, much different that her native Wisconsin. I told her once that one of the major problems with heavy snowfall in urban Rhode Island is that there’s nowhere to put the snow as you clear it. She didn’t understand the concept. Streets are too narrow, I said. There’s no buffer between street and sidewalk, sidewalk and building. “They can’t put it dump trucks and carry it away?” she asked. I’m not sure I ever got her to understand that on streets created for horses instead of cars, streets that cropped up around houses instead of between farms, there’s just no room for dump trucks. There’s hardly room for snow plows.

It’s exactly one mile between my house and the coffee shop I was aiming for. The sky is empty blue, and sun too bright on the snow-covered brick street, but there are no cars parked opposite the building. The cowl of my sweater is covered in ice crystals from my breath, and the narrow marble steps up to the entrance are stained white with salt from yesterday. I pull off my mittens and touch face, cheeks burning, and stamp snow of my boots on the entryway rug. When I look up, my glasses are fogged over and it makes me laugh that I can’t see whoever says good morning to me. Oh yes, I think, I remember this.


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