Opening Letters

Cold Flashes of Brilliance

how being from Wisconsin means instantly being resourceful in winter

Kinzy Janssen, illustrated by Michelle Chrzanowski |

Winter is the most demanding season. We have no choice in the slippery matters as they arise – we must tap our seldom-used skills of resourcefulness, ingenuity, and creativity. Simply put, winter pins us like lemons to a juicer, forcing us to make lemonade.

I’ve come to regard these moments as opportunities – though usually in the distant (and much warmer) afterglow of reflection. And this hard-earned knowledge accumulates, inch by inch, every year.

One December, my roommate and I spent an hour simply preparing my car to drive the precarious eight blocks to the laundromat. (We really really needed to do our laundry). Of course, as soon as we hauled our clothes-laden baskets out to the driveway, it started to snow – hard. And the doors of my Chevy Lumina were frozen – hard. This was a semi-weekly occurrence.

So we yanked. But my door handles are the kind that pull up. I’m no physics expert, but I’m pretty sure the force needs to oppose the door in a horizontal fashion. So I have this (pretty legitimate, I think) fear of handle-snappage.

We pounded on all four door-seams with our fists. (Tip: put a stocking hat between your fist and the door). Then I remembered I had some de-freezing solution – a tiny bottle equipped with a needle – so I retrieved it and punched it into the rubbery seal. A trickle oozed out. It was suddenly glaringly clear that it was designed for inserting into a lock, not an entire door frame.

I like to think the next step wasn’t necessarily obvious to the winter layman. We boiled a pot of water. No, not a pot – a Dutch oven. Then I carried it outside without sloshing water on myself or the stairs, and poured the steaming liquid evenly over the door seam.

The desperate move worked ... yet the payoff was simply entering the car. The drive was another story altogether.

Alleys are a curse in the wintertime, too. It’s not that they’re a low priority on the plow’s route – they simply aren’t marked. I remember the alley behind my house being gradually sculpted into a deep-rutted ice track. My Lumina rumbled along, its wheels controlled and confined like those of a roller coaster. I’d wiggle the steering wheel back and forth and they’d object to any angle but “straight.”

It was a feat to turn into my driveway, which happened to be slanted against my favor. There wasn’t enough momentum to climb the ruts, so I’d back up along the track and try again, this time gunning it and whipping the wheel at the last second. Needless to say, this felt unsafe, but I knew we needed something beyond “crawl” speed to make it. After I had tweaked every aspect possible – speed, timing, angle – it became clear we would need to build a makeshift ramp. My boyfriend rummaged through the shed and produced large sheets of plywood that he wedged just under the lip of my tires. In just a few touches of the gas pedal, my tires grabbed the dry wood and were lifted out of their ruts. O, to be able to park your car!

* * * * *

And then there are the struggling folks you can’t help but help. In the aftermath of this last blizzard, I pulled over to help a girl who was trying to get out of her driveway, though it looked like she nosed into a snowbank on her way in. As is customary, I circled the situation, made some assessments, and threw my own opinion into the fray. We quickly learned that she and her roommate had already worked on this for some time (hence the spinning-digging tires) and that this had already happened to her earlier that day (hence the cracked bumper).

So we got down low, gripped what was left of the bumper, and pushed, using the rock-back-and-forth technique, of course. The squealing of tires! The smell of exhaust! But it wasn’t enough. The roommate disappeared and reappeared, running wildly back with two-by-fours, which were stuffed under the tires, sticking out into traffic. But the driver didn’t like this. Her instinct was to struggle back up the driveway, counterintuitively, as the car’s nose was in a snowbank. Well, it worked, and afterward the roommate brought the four of us together for a big, energized huddle/hug. And he offered us beer to go, so we carried our bottles of Honey Weiss home, satisfied.

* * * * *

Northern climates don’t have an exclusive claim on this kind of resourcefulness. Maybe people who live in monsoon regions contain deep wells of ingenuity on how to keep the contents within their drawers from molding. Maybe desert peoples know how to fight sandstorms. Survival techniques are probably plentiful, but aren’t often given a chance to manifest themselves. All I know is, I’m proud to own these specific bits of knowledge: that bread bags make great waterproof foot encapsulators, and that buckets make decent substitutes for shovels.