When I left for Montana, friends made dire predictions.
"You won't make it through the first winter," they said.
After my first year, people said: "You can't call yourself a Montanan until you've been through at least two winters."
Now I'm winding up my fifth winter, and somebody just told me: "You're not really a Montanan until you've seen 10 winters."
Whatever. For my money, the problem isn't winter. It's spring.
Which isn't to say winter isn't fearsome.
I moved to Montana in the fall, bemused by the fact that my new apartment advertised car-battery plug-ins and FREE HEAT! Outside, a few golden leaves still clung to the trees, bright as coins against that legendary big sky. The first snow drifted down like glitter, just a couple of inches, magical beneath a full moon. I oohed. I ahhed. I e-mailed photos back to the naysayers.
Then the temperature plunged to 20-below. I plugged in the truck and cranked up the FREE HEAT! and seriously contemplated not going out until spring.
Because, back then, I didn't know about spring.
You see, the thing about winter is, you can gear up for it. Hello, layers. And more layers. And still more. I got snow tires. And ice grabbers for the bottoms of my boots. I never, ever forgot to plug in my truck. And, at some point, I realized I actually enjoyed those bracing, crystalline days.
Besides, the really bad cold doesn't come that often and doesn't stick around that long. Pretty soon the temperature heads back up into the single digits and you start shedding layers the way Donovan McNabb shed his feathers.
You know what sticks around forever?
Spring. Where winter involves an active effort, spring is just an endless, spirit-sapping endurance test. That brilliant wintertime sun goes away somewhere - Philly, probably, the better to brighten those dogwoods - and stays away for weeks on end.
Still, folks look at the calendar and try to act accordingly. The University of Montana students, young and hormonal, run in shorts, kneecaps blue and painful-looking. The coffee shops drag out their sidewalk tables, and people sit at them in coats and gloves, saying things like, "It's supposed to warm up at the end of the week." They neglect to specify the week in question. June is a good bet. Late June.
At which point, everything becomes worth it. The sun rises before 5 a.m. and hangs around forever. Come 10 at night, you can take a beer and a book out onto the back deck and still count on a good half-hour's reading. Better yet, you can stand thigh-deep in the Little Blackfoot, watching the swallows perform arabesques off the rock walls as the stars blink on overhead, and listen as the trout slurp up every single thing striking the glassy river surface except the fly at the end of your line, and it's all so heartbreakingly beautiful that it doesn't matter.
We get 90 days of that, more or less, 90 days of heat without humidity, of nights so cool and crisp you need blankets, and see-your-breath mornings that make coffee around a campfire better even than anything La Colombe serves up. We might even get a little snow. But by then, it's OK. We're so drunk on summer that we've forgotten about spring.
But those days aren't here yet. We had a cruel 80-degree tease last weekend, but it's supposed to be back in the 40s soon. I got more of a fix a couple of weeks ago when I flew back to Philly for a long weekend. It was snowing when I left Montana, the retreating landscape an old-movie reel of black and white and gray. Upon landing in Philly, I felt like Dorothy in Oz, stepping into a world suddenly colorized. "It's so green," I babbled to anyone who would listen.
Duh, I could see them thinking. It's spring.
I flew back to Missoula at night, reality blissfully invisible. But only for a few hours. When I woke up the next morning, it was snowing.
E-mail Gwen Florio