Winter's Child

Winter's Child
Sharon Hawley Flies North for the Winter

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Fond Goodbye

Ten days after leaving International Falls, I realize I did not say a proper goodbye or convey to anyone listening that I have enjoyed your company. My going was too soft and too hard, too happy returning and too hard to leaving.

I feel welcome here in the oasis of Pasadena. I feel a warm wind of reception as if I have brought some sense of metaphor from the cold to share. People seem receptive to ideas derived in much different air. I have given the talk twice, trying to answer the questions I posed before going. Empathy with my strange vacation has felt good, as if some people think their own lives could use a little weirdness.

Back in November I tried to explain what sent me off alone to a cold place for the winter, where I have no family or friends, no tourist destination, no prospect of making money—and to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. I tried to convince you that it’s a budget item against available time—some thirty years—in the same way that the available money is allocated where length of life is unknown.

I felt honored to be doing this strange thing—to have the time, the freedom, health, and tolerance for being alone. I wondered, as I talked about it back then, if Thoreau who built his own house in a far-off place, felt any more honored on its completion than I did as I began.
I could have gone anywhere that’s cold with a small town and cheap accommodations, but I found those conditions met in only a few places. I arrived at International Falls because it promised to be the coldest place in the lower forty-eight states and has virtually no tourists in the winter.

I expected to spend a lot of time outside, learning to survive extreme cold, feeling and finding insights. I wanted to ice skate and ski and snowshoe. I wanted to become part of winter, not just a brief observer of it. And I wanted to understand the lives of people who live in these conditions all their lives, to compare, edit, write and ponder the exceeding cold and loneliness of border songs, bird songs, and the Aurora Borealis. This is what I expected, and I expressed the hope that I was wrong. For in being wrong, I would change and find childish newness.

What I found is mostly put down in these sixty-two blog posts. It is not what I expected.

I spent a lot of time outdoors, as hoped, and I skated and skied. I became a part of winter, not just an observer, and learned after many errors, how to dress and how to breathe. I have a little black spot on one toe, frost-nip, gained early, and it told me that to make it here I needed training. But after many days of not giving up, I can say that I have learned to survive for a few hours in most cold circumstances. While living in simple houses as the Paleo Indians did is still beyond me, living outside in the daytime is not, and if I find a warm place at night I feel quite proud to say that I can stand a day at well below zero.

But mere survival is just the start, a kind of potty training that an infant Eskimo learns on the way to becoming fully socialized and acclimated. I learned that almost none of the residents care about these things. They walk from their houses to their cars and from their cars to the next warm place. They dress with half the insulation I wear because they do not stay outside long enough to need more. With few exceptions, they are happy living here because the interiors of buildings are warm.

I did not associate with them very much because most of our interests differed. I walked to Sandy’s CafĂ© most mornings or had coffee with Jerry and Sandy, my landlords, and walked to church on Sundays, and that was about the only contact. The rest of the time I was alone on skis, in boots, in the woods, ice skating and generally being enthralled with the wonderful cold sparkling place I had come to.

I made a few friends, but even they did not quite understand my coming. There was always a small suspicion in their eyes as to my real motives. Katrina at Sandy’s Cafe understood I think, but she is a free thinker on many topics. If it seems that I have emphasized the beauty of ice crystals and diamond dust at the expense of understanding the people, then you see this adventure as I do. I wish to have better communicated with them; they are good people.

In summary, I got more than I hoped for in winter knowledge and appreciation, and less than I wanted in the lives of residents.

Thank you for reading and for your comments.


  1. Beautiful story, brave adventure, totally inspirational! Thank you!

  2. I think as you accumulated layers, and the snow deepened, you rolled it in your mind into perfect spheres, and built friendships, stronger and more various back home. Here is Stevie reading you, and being inspired, and so many more... as the snow melts off this experience I think what's underneath it will continue to be revealed, to you as well as others as you share it. Sometimes it takes a long time for experience to shine through its coverings... You became closer to those afar, and perhaps treasure where you are even more than before as you look again at our mountains... here the snow melts faster... and friends smile bigger. Can't wait for program 9 and 10 on this adventure... I will enjoy them all and all your continuing sparkling insights! You never mentioned your toe! An easy thing to hide for now, you'll call it a beauty spot in summer! Maybe IF you ever go back to IF (maybe an offshoot of a bike trip?) you'll see those same characters in summer's glow...

  3. Stevie, thanks for joining me here at the end and for backing into the adventure. I was happy to meet you after returning and hope to know you better.

    Kathabela, you have skied beside me the whole way and should probably check your toes for frost-nip. Yes, the welcome home has been warm as the Chocolate Moose Restaurant after a long walk in the snowy woods.

  4. Wonderful Sharon, thanks for summing up the experience for rest of us. I agree with Kathabela. (Someone I have come to appreciate through your blog.) I think you will return sometime to International Falls to check up on the people and place, and when you do, be sure to take us with you again. Voyager Carol

  5. Thanks, Carol, I might return someday, perhaps to be bitten by mosquitoes instead of frost. I am happy to have you join me, your comments have been encouraging.

  6. Sharon, I have had the chance of being bitten by both mosquito and frost. Mosquitoes come soaring down with their razor blade stingers and not without sound!! Frostbite sneaks up you.
    I feel fortunate to have met you and I hope you will return one day. The summers here are wonderful. I have enjoyed reading your blog. Karen

  7. Karen, I am happy to remember knowing you during my winter visit. Yes I want to return some day. Ginny has my information and you are welcome to it if you want to contact me or if you ever come out this way. I am happy that you read my blog and still wrote this happy comment. Love, Sharon

  8. It's been wonderful for me to share Sharon's adventure, and now have her home with us here in Pasadena. Tonight she will give the third program at our home salon telling us about her adventures and showing more photos. It has been also wonderful to get to know other of Sharon's! We've met here Carol and I have enjoyed your encouraging comments, thank you for appreciating mine too. And Karen! What an exciting blog~salon we have here... I love that you have come to visit, at least here online. Sorry you only had Sharon there for a short time, wish you could come tonight and see the photos of your home town!

  9. Tom said... (on August 22 - justNOW) -hereon this archived blog of afterNorthernWinterWinging

    Winter's child redux: I came@thistime:summernow coincident to find this poem&myresponse this poem & my response and Sharon's
    ........ the stork flew North and Sharon has been seen again in southernCalifornia climes, her voice heard in this summer ...... my question: what, sharon did you bring back?did you find that the right to follow whim:Freedom to fly against the easywind - is sufficient and enough to recompense any challenge you have taken [[we know:you have taken challenge & returned and taken challenges anew and gone:returned again]]

    I have missed or perhaps forgotten your already answer to my question here framed above - i will cast imagining:aFeather with the spell to lead me to the answer to my question here, no matter:where & when - this is the feather cast

    whence and when the northern windstirs
    whence and when
    whence and when
    August 22, 2010 11:28 PM

    hardly sooner cast & sayed than here is where the feathered wind brought my finding!

    such is the correspondence, the communication when spirits share awarenesses without and within

    It is my herewish that who(ever) may read this may also have a similar feather in the wind experience and a similar going whither one may will in seeking new life knowledge [[ both to come to sure good ends! ]]

  10. Tom Hall, I assume it is you, the very one who so eloquently brought up my laughter at the Pacific Asian Museum, upon your banter with Russell Salamon. What a unique way you have of writing!

    I didn’t know you have been reading my winter and summer blogs, but when you say “the stork flew North and Sharon has been seen again in Southern California climes, her voice heard in this summer,” I feel itchy, and wonder how much your read compared to how much you comment. I ponder your question and fail to know what answer you seek.

    Kathabela has my email it that is easier.
    I wish you well.


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