You’ve noticed the cold starting to leave. The light has been strengthening, sun lifting every day, and the wind has lost some of its bitterness. Twenty-three and a half degrees of tilt to the planet, you can feel every degree.
Two mornings ago a blizzard hit where I live in Colorado. It was a fierce one with hundred-mile-an hour winds. Snow sprayed up the door frames and blasted in through cracks. As I closed the front door, stomping off the cold, I thought that one day very soon my arm would be out the window as I drove down the highway, crisp wind and warm sunlight, which happened to come yesterday, the day after the blizzard.
Last week, I hiked with some friends into a skirt of high desert in southeast Utah, catching the last of winter. I’d been saying no lower than 30s at night in late February, and the interweb weather seemed to agree. But we were off by ten degrees. Not dangerously cold, just memorable. We slept tentless on sandstone for four nights. Three of those nights we woke as squalls of snow and spritz blew through, and our fingers reached to pull drawstrings, closing zippers, as we waited out the weather like pupae.
During one of those flurries, I thought that one day soon I’d be thinking back to the last cold I felt. It would be August in New York, a hundred degrees and humid. Phoenix would feel like a furnace, its malls as shockingly chilled as walk-in refrigerators. Des Moines would be a swamp.
Not to be alarming, 2016 was the hottest year on global record, and last January was the third warmest January on record, according to a monthly analysis of global temperatures from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. One way or another, it’s going to be hot. Every year it happens, some lately more than others.
Next summer, like every summer, we’ll be thinking back on pulling on a coat, tucking hands into gloves, scarf around the neck, and the warmth of breath against wool. We’ll be thinking of ass on a thin pad on cold sandstone, movements limited, camp gathered in close.
No one had a scarf on the hike, something I would have packed if I’d expected 20-degree nights. Instead, we huddled around our stoves and sat silently as wind ripped through the stars. The desert lay bare, junipers gnarled with drought. You might call it unpleasant, but each of us enjoyed being out. You come to witness the jolts of wind and sky. Sitting up with my headlamp, looking into a confetti spray of snow, it looked like I was making the jump to light speed. I patted around for anything left out, grabbing my socks, boots, journal, a knife, stuffing them into my bag. I took one last look into this cone of blowing snow, briefly loving it, loving the swiftness and brunt of the storm, and buried myself in my bivvy.
The waterholes we relied on for cooking and drinking were frozen and we filled our bottles in the morning by breaking through hard skims of ice. If you didn’t keep a water bottle in your sleeping bag with you, it’d be hard by dawn.
This part of the desert is decorated with prehistoric archaeology, remnants of what is called Anasazi culture when early Pueblo people occupied the Four Corners region about a thousand years ago. These people stuffed cliff dwellings and masonry granaries into cracks and ledges during times of conflict, retreating into this country of cliffs and canyons. As we explored their remains, we gravitated toward warm pitches in the rock, south-facing exposures where sunlight curled on itself. These were natural places to sit and rest, body drawing in the heat. We found in one warm place a cliff dwelling with a dark rectangle for a door. In another was a broken stone blade where someone sat long ago for the same reason.
This might be what I remember next summer, not the cold, but the comfort of warmth, how good it feels on my face and in the tips of my fingers, how good it has always felt as the hemispheres tip back and forth. This is the part of winter I’ll carry ahead.
Photos by the author.