Of Many Things

A cold rain. That’s the worst kind of winter weather. We have had a lot of cold rain this winter in New York. Even what little snow we have had seems to switch over to rain before the storm passes. More than any amount of snow, it makes me want to flee south to the tropics or southwest to the desert. Melville’s Ishmael speaks of times when it is “damp, drizzly November in my soul.” Along the east coast south of Boston, that’s the kind of winter it has been—“damp, drizzly November,” now heading into its fifth month.

Snow, at least, gives you half a chance to battle back, with the right outerwear, shoveled walks and snowmelt. But the rain wins out as soon as you step out the door. If your shoes and trousers are not drenched through in a block or two, clogged drains at the corners and drivers careless of the pedestrian’s plight assure that you get soaked. Getting a cab on a cold, rainy day is nigh on impossible. I have a pair of Gore-Tex lined walkers, but they give no protection against water seeping in along the cuffs and down the socks into the shoes in the driving rain or after a car splashes by. Sometimes a subway stop is near, sometimes not; but most times it is not near enough to keep from getting wet. And once wet, you must endure it until you reach someplace where you are able to change, if you have the wherewithal to change at all.


In the summertime or on a warm spring day, walking in the rain can be a pleasure, but a winter rain is different. It is a reminder that against nature, you really don’t have a chance. There is no escape, and the consequences can go on for hours. When it is cold enough, in the mid-30s, winter rain sends a chill to penetrate the bones. We are at the weather’s mercy.

Snow, by contrast, gives us a fighting chance. One of the less-acknowledged attractions of snow is that it provides us with attainable challenges. You can shovel out the walk and driveway, dig out the car parked along the curb. Walking becomes a test of stamina and sometimes balance, when snow turns to ice. Most of the time, you can deal with the snow. It can even be an asset. Hikers can insulate their tents with snow; Eskimos on the trail can build igloos, and backcountry skiers snow caves. When snow drives us indoors, the fireside seems more cozy and the hot chocolate more appetizing than when we seek refuge from a cold rain. When we retreat from the rain, the gloom still seems to hang around us; but when you come in from the snow, you enter a world of warmth and light.

Freezing rain, of course, is often the worst thing winter can throw at us. It can also make life desperately hard, tearing down powerlines and thrusting people into cold and darkness for weeks on end. When the great ice storm of 1998 hit the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, whole forests were turned to matchsticks. An ice storm reminds us that nature is master. Yet if freezing rain falls in the early hours before a bright dawn, it can make for a dazzling landscape that delights the eye.

In the East, where I learned to ski, ice-coated slopes and snow turned to ice by a freeze following on a rain are commonplace. Perhaps the worst conditions in which I ever skied were on Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks. The crust was so thick that the snow groomers had only chopped the surface into baseball-sized chunks of ice. It was hard even to think of what we were doing as skiing at all. They say, though, that skiing in conditions like those is what makes eastern skiers more successful than westerners at the annual race around Europe’s Mont Blanc. Skiing on ice teaches you to ski with more control—a small, unexpected blessing, I suppose, of freezing rain.

Another time, I was skiing Mont Ste.-Anne in Quebec with some French Canadian friends. It rained for three solid days. Finally the weather broke, and we went for the top. Of course, the top third of the mountain was ice. The first two runs went just fine. The descent from the lift, however, took a hard, blind right turn. On the third trip, as I made the turn I hit a block of ice fallen in the track. I fell against the ice wall. I saw stars. Then I felt the warm drip of blood down the side of my face. It was a freak accident. The ice had nearly severed my earlobe. Winter rain is nature’s treachery.

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