“Here,” Phyllis said to me in the garage a few nights ago. “Want to grab this milk?”
We had happened to cross paths out there after coming home from separate outings. The temperature was already several degrees below zero, on its way to 29 below.
“Sure,” I said.
I grabbed the bag with the gallon of milk in it, holding on as best I could while wearing my chopper mitts. My other arm was full of snowshoes and a daypack. Before I could get out of the garage, the bag slipped out of my mitt, the plastic jug of milk landing on the garage floor. I heard a sound like a plastic jug of milk splitting open upon impact.
I kept shuffling toward the back porch. Milk kept leaking from the bottle into the bag. On the porch, the bag let go and deposited leaked milk in a large blob and several splotches of splatter down the steps, freezing on contact. It looked as if an asteroid made of vanilla yogurt had imploded upon reaching the earth. The porch is black. The milk is white. The flash-frozen blob shows up nicely.
This is what winter in a cold place will deal you occasionally. In those moments, you just have to put things in perspective. Laughter helps. Nobody got hurt. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the time Phyllis and I were headed for a gathering of friends on a 30-below evening in Ely, when the chili con queso spilled as we rounded a corner. It froze to the vinyl interior of the old Cutlass and stayed there until spring.
These incidents reinforce the Minnesota mantra: It could be worse.
Even in this last cold spell, I found myself starting to think about summer. I was sprinkling blueberries on my cereal one morning, and I was transported back to a July morning when a buddy and I picked them at a farm outside of Duluth. The sunlight was low and warm. The grass was still damp with dew. The berries hung in profusion. I can still see them rolling off my fingers and plopping into my pail.
That memory inevitably got me thinking about open water, the sound of a paddle dipping in a border-country lake and the plaintive wailing of a loon. Permits for travel into the Boundary Waters became available a couple weeks ago. We grabbed a couple right away. Once you have a permit, you are free to begin imagining the trip — the sound of the breeze whiffling through Norway pine needles. The subtle tap of a walleye inhaling a leech. A reflected moonrise broken into thousands of silver slivers.
The other day, a friend who harvests maple syrup began tapping his maple trees. He moved through his maples on snowshoes, drilling the tap holes. Another friend followed behind, placing little spouts in the tapped holes. The sap isn’t ready to run yet, but when it is, my friend will be ready.
And somehow, we’ve gained two hours of daylight since Christmas.
All of these warm-weather yearnings would have seemed premature, almost cruel, several weeks ago in the deep dark. But we have crossed a threshold now. We are over the hump. We can give ourselves permission to begin imagining something beyond winter.
Meanwhile, the yellow dog pauses on the back porch each time we let her out. She stops to paw, gnaw, scrape or lick the unexpected caloric windfall of spilled skim. She, too, awaits the spring thaw with great anticipation.
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find his Facebook page at facebook.com/sam.cook.5249.