Come Into the Cold: Learning to Love All Seasons

My big red car parked in a snowy area overlooking a mountain view.

I used to hate the cold. I absolutely could not stand it. Every year, as the temperatures started to drop, I would begin to feel grumpy, and I’d retreat to my cave to nurture my bad attitude in private. It would make me feel angry and impatient for months, until the numbers on the thermometer began to rise again. Living in New England, that meant spending at least a quarter of my year hiding from the world, begrudging its very existence. I was miserable.

Over the past few years, that’s changed. I don’t despise the chill the way I used to. It’s beyond mere tolerance; I actually enjoy it. Now I smile at the first snowfall, and I’m still smiling at the thousandth one. In the middle of this past January, I loaded up my SUV and drove down to Shenandoah National Park to camp out there in my car, even though it was only 15°F overnight while I was there. Lots of people called me crazy when I told them about those plans. A few years ago, I would have had the same response had I been in their shoes.

This is something that I changed about myself gradually, and on purpose.

It Started With Showers

Having been a hair stylist for more than a decade, I’ve long extolled the benefits that a cool rinse at the end of a shower can have for your hair and skin. However, I wasn’t taking my own advice. I preferred to stay scalding and compensate by overdosing on professional-grade hair conditioning products instead. I get the sense that most people would make that same decision.

A cold, snowy day on the local pond

Then, a few years back, I found myself dating someone who actually did turn the temperature down for a moment before stepping out of the shower. He had been reading about cryotherapy and wanted to experiment. While the plumbing in a home shower can’t reach the extremely low temperatures of a cryotherapy chamber you might find in a spa, it still had a very perceptible effect on him. After that blast of cold, he was noticeably more alert, energetic, and motivated throughout his day. Of course I had to try it for myself.

Cold Start

It was not easy, nor enjoyable at first. I would turn the handle to a colder setting, force myself to endure it for up to three seconds, then run to bundle up in the thickest, warmest towel I could find. After each attempt, it would take days to convince myself to go through it again, but I did.

Truthfully, part of me was upset about how much it would perk me up. On the days I managed to persuade myself (while repeatedly whispering to myself that “cold is just a feeling”), I felt greater confidence and drive. I don’t understand the mechanics of how the temperature drop could have done that – it may even have been a placebo effect – but it worked. I kept at it.

Gradually, it got easier. I learned to turn the temperature down slowly instead of suddenly, so it was less of a shock to my system. Giving myself that time to adjust helped me stand even lower numbers on the thermometer. With time, I was also able to stay in the cold longer before deciding it was unbearable. I got comfortable in it, and eventually realized that I had come to enjoy it.

A cold, wet, snowy day on the pond and in the reeds.

Then Came the Winter

As the seasons changed, I felt the same dread as I did in previous years creeping in along with the cold. I expected the same misery I usually felt to follow the last of the falling leaves. That year was different. I barely experienced symptoms of my Reynaud’s disease, and can’t recall a single instance where the familiar chilled discomfort engulfed my whole body in a way I couldn’t stand.

For the first time, my daughter got cold before I did while we were playing outside in the snow. I’ve always hated dragging her back inside before she’s ready. Now my numb toes won’t be a reason that I would have to. That realization delighted me. Up until that point, the experiment was solely motivated by the entertainment value of controlling and altering my own biological responses. It hadn’t occurred to me that an increased cold tolerance is a useful skill.

It Became a Superpower

Last year I wrote about gaining the confidence to start camping on my own as opposed to trying to plan trips around the schedules of busy friends. Once I did, I felt like kicking myself for having waited so long. My first solo camping trip that year wasn’t until August. The summer was already practically over, but I didn’t want to stop when I was only just getting started. I wasn’t ready.

I kept going as the autumn set in, and noticed more and more vacant campsites opening up around me. Everyone else was calling it quits at the first nip of cooler weather. Surprisingly, my sleep trackers on both my phone and my Fitbit were showing significantly better sleep quality on the nights when temperatures dropped. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons I find retreating to the wilderness so restorative: I sleep better.

Eventually, it did have to end. The state parks where I am close for camping in October, and the higher-priced campgrounds owned by private businesses mostly shut down in the following few weeks. I was stuck sleeping indoors for all of November, and then through December. Despite the constant distractions of the myriad holiday celebrations those months, I was craving fresh air in a desperate way.

North Entrance sign at Shenandoah National Park covered in snow

My Cold Snap

If I had to wait for the spring, I was certain I would go crazy. Maybe I had already gone a little crazy, because I had previously never imagined wanting to do what I did next. I started planning for a cold-weather camping adventure. By this point, I’d already made it a personal goal to visit all of the US National Parks, and hadn’t yet made it to Shenandoah National Park down in Virginia. I decided it was time. Even though the overnight temperatures were predicted to be well below freezing, I was going.

However, I wasn’t reckless about it. I made sure I had quality cold-weather gear and plenty of fuel for my cooking burner. I also called to mind every clothing layering technique I know. Having grown up in New England alongside early-2000s fashion, it’s a skill I’ve mastered.

Sleeping in my car would keep me warmer overnight than my tent would. Knowing this, I decided to make myself even cozier by crafting some insulation panels for the windows. Inspired by Pinterest (dangerous, I know), I used cardboard and Reflectix with some packing tape and black spray paint to do the job. After letting the paint dry and the fumes dissipate, I popped them in and tested them. Temperatures at home the week before my trip were predicted the same as those at my destination. That gave me an opportunity to try them while sleeping out in my driveway instead of a few hundred miles from my bed. The experiment was a success.

Bundled up Joy

It was hard to believe how well-rested I felt when I awoke, nor how cozy my little nest was. The thermometer on my keychain showed the temperature inside to be nearly as warm as my house after turning the thermostat down for the night. So, with renewed confidence, I made the trip a few days later. I am so very glad that I did.

It was the longest drive I’d ever undertaken solo, and I was so excited about it that I started driving as soon as my workday ended. That night – or perhaps I should say “early that morning” – I slept for a while in my car at a rest area, and then kept on driving. The closer I got, the more exhilarating anticipation I felt. Watching the terrain beyond the windshield changing as I went further south was breathtaking. I’d driven through all of those states before, but always with my destination at the forefront of my mind or engaged in conversation. I’d never made the effort to appreciate the journey.

When I reached the campground, I discovered I had the whole place to myself. In a warmer month, I would have had stiff competition for the sites with the best views. Instead, I got to have my pick because no one else was willing to endure those temperatures. It’s a memory I will treasure for the rest of my life: sitting fireside with my mug of tea, serenaded by the vibrant wild birds surrounding me, staring at the mountains in the distance. As the winter months approach, I’m itching to do it all over again.

Just a Warm-Up

I recently stumbled across an unattributed quote in an image on Facebook. “If you choose not to find joy in the snow, you will have less joy in your life, but still the same amount of snow.” That resonated deeply with me in both a literal and a metaphorical way. When I spent my winters lamenting that it wasn’t summer in that moment – focusing only on what I thought might be better – I was unable to see the beauty I was surrounded by. I was missing out on so much joy. Whether it’s building snowmen with my daughter, the serenity I can find in seclusion, or simply the shimmer of fresh-fallen snow outside the window, I can fully feel the bliss in those experiences instead of shrinking into myself and going numb at the fear of a chill.

Cold might be only a feeling, but I’m thinking more and more that it’s a good one.