“It’s your human environment that makes climate.”
The day before my mom and I were to leave balmy California, the dogsledding trip suddenly struck me as insane.
I called the Wintergreen Lodge in northern Minnesota to double check that the super-double-extra-warm parkas I’d reserved would be ready. “And how’s the weather there?”
“Oh, it’s warm for January,” chirped the woman on the other end of the line. “It’s one.”
One? One degree?
“Yah, I’m not even wearing a hat today,” she sang in her cheerful Fargo-esque accent. “Yesterday was really cold, though,” she said. “Minus fifty, doncha know.”
Minus fifty? A full one hundred degrees colder than it was in my garage?
Last summer, it hadn’t seemed like such a loony idea. My mom and I have always gotten along pretty well, save for some frosty stretches in my teens. But rarely have I gotten to break new ground—particularly frozen ground—with my sixty-four-year-old mom.
“You’re lucky,” my best friend said when I mentioned the possibility of the trip. Her mom had trouble just getting through a game of golf. “Our parents are getting old,” she’d said, shaking her head.
My mom and I had flipped through the brochures in my sweltering California backyard. From the pages smiled apple-cheeked people petting fluffy, snowy dogs. Glistening icicles dangled from powdered sugary trees.
“This is going to be so cool, Mom” I said, fanning myself with a straw hat. “More lemonade?”
I didn’t really think about the trip for a few months. I patted sandcastles with my kids, carved a grinning jack-o-lantern, and peered at columns of dark smoke when the Santa Anas sparked autumn fires nearby.
Then shopping for Christmas presents it hit me: We were going to the coldest spot in the continental U.S. in mid-January. What in god’s name had we been thinking?
I flipped through a winter clothing catalog. Sorel Caribou boots, rated to minus forty. I ordered a pair for each of us.
After New Year’s, Mom phoned me. “Ely, Minnesota is colder than Moscow today!” she was breathless with excitement. “Even Helsinki was warmer!”
I went to REI and bought super tundra-weight high-altitude mega-wimp fleece long johns. “I need the warmest gloves you have,” I said to the bearded mountain guy in the green vest.
“Sure. Ski trip to Tahoe?”
“Nope. Dogsledding. Minnesota.”
He stopped rummaging through the box of mittens.
Good freaking question.
“With my mom.”
He stared at me for about three seconds. “Try these.” He handed me a package of Hot Hands, little chemical patches you slip into your gloves.
“I’ll take the whole box.”
“Nice day out there, folks,” the pilot said as we taxied on the tarmac. “Six degrees with a slight breeze out of the northeast.”
My mom and I glanced at each other. “Ha!” she said, zipping up her jacket. “That’s nothing.”
She whipped out her cell phone and called my stepdad. “We’ve landed!” she shouted into the phone. “There’s snow everywhere! I’ll call you later!”
In the tiny airport, I saw things I’d never seen in California. A moose head hung over the drinking fountain. Past the security checkpoint a stuffed grizzly bear pawed the air with his club-sized foot. Several women sported calf-length fur coats, looking quite toasty snuggled inside those dead animals. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
“You the folks from California?” a chunk of woman in a furlined camouflage parka said in a singsong accent.
“Okey dokey, then. I’m Wanda.” She motioned toward the taxi purring at the curb. She hoisted my mom’s suitcase. I gazed around the blinding white landscape. “So, you guys ever seen snow before?”
We puttered out into the icy afternoon, the low winter sun glinting across the slick highway. We chugged past iron mines, a store called Chocolate Moose and a town called Embarrass. Flakes fuzzed the windows while Wanda passed back pictures of her grandkids. She asked if we’d ever felt an earthquake.
It was three-thirty and getting dark when we arrived at the Wintergreen Lodge. “Oh, you’re the ones from California,” said Dominic, one of our guides. We shook hands with our fellow mushers, all from the Midwest. All had nice warm hands. One was even wearing a tee-shirt.
I poured steaming tea for my mom and me, and Dominic announced we’d start Dogsledding 101 after dinner. “But first, let’s talk about fears and expectations.”
“Yah, then we need to go over your clothing system,” said Lynn Anne, the other guide. She was looking right at my mom and me.
I snuggled a little closer to the wood burning stove. One woman said she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to handle the dogs. Another confessed her fear of falling through the ice. My mom didn’t know if her cell phone would work in negative-degree weather. I was wondering what the hell a “clothing system” was. And my feet were cold.
I raised my hand. “Uh, I’m a little worried that my contacts are going to freeze to my eyeballs.” I had read that such things could happen. I wanted to be ready.
Dominic gave me a stern look. “Don’t get freaked out by the cold,” he shook his shaggy head. “If you get it in your mind that you’re going to be cold, you’ll be miserable,” he said. “Besides, it’s only 15 below.”
We practiced saying “gee” for right turn, and “hike” for go. We gobbled hunks of Baked Alaska. Then Lynn Anne asked us to lay out all our cold weather gear. She picked through our multiple fleece jackets, the Polartec leggings, the boots with extra liners. “You guys are going to roast,” she said. My mom and I beamed.
People started yawning, and made for their rooms. But we were still on west coast time and wide awake.
“Hey,” my mom said, “let’s see if we can see the northern lights.” Her face glowed.
“You mean— outside?”
“Come on,” she nudged me. “We’ll try out our ‘Clothing System.’”
It took ten minutes to get suited up. I pulled on a pair of thermals. Insulated snow pants. Then a fleece jacket. Another fleece anorak, then the shell. Two pairs of socks and two hats. The minus forty Sorels. Glove liners and mittens. The Hot Hands. And the neck gaiter pulled up over my mouth, doncha know. I looked like I was ready to rob an igloo.
“Mmmffphrgg” my mom said, and poked an appendage toward the front door.
Outside, I squinched my eyelids so only a nanometer of pupil was showing and braced for the icy blast. I gripped the handrail and started down, like Neil Armstrong descending. That’s one small stair, one giant step for the thin-blooded, freaked-out, overly-dressed Californian.
I stood in the deep snow and surveyed the wintery surroundings. The spruce trees were like giant green toothbrushes with a foot of icy white toothpaste squirted onto their branches. “You okay?”
We waded through the thigh deep powder on White Iron Lake. A half moon winked from behind a cluster of clouds, bathing everything in a fairy tale white. I thought of wolves. Of Robert Frost’s poem. Of the ice, solid under our feet. Mom’s breathing was heavy and I stopped.
“I forgot how quiet it gets in the snow,” she whispered. I pulled down my neck gaiter and looked up. Tiny diamonds gleamed in the black bowl of the sky. Orion, the hunter. The dog star. Polaris.
We hadn’t gazed at the stars together since I was a little girl, back when time stretched out in front of us like a long summer day.
“It’s wonderful to be here together, honey” she said, and put her arm around me. Her breath hung warm in the icy air.
You’re lucky, my friend’s voice echoed in my head.
I nodded, and deep inside my ears I heard the shushing of my heart, the blood running hot and strong through my body.
My mom turned to smile at me. Well, she crinkled up her eyes so I assumed she was smiling, because I could only see a one-inch strip of her face.
And we were warm enough to stand together for a long time on that frozen lake, staring at the stars moving slowly but surely across the wintry sky.
Suzanne LaFetra is an award winning writer whose work has appeared in many newspapers and literary journals, including the San Francisco Chronicle, the Christian Science Monitor, Brevity, on San Francisco’s NPR affiliate radio station, and in more than a dozen anthologies. Her work has garnered over a dozen literary awards, including a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Berkeley, CA, with her children.