Jilly D.

Cabin fever

In Off-The-Grid Memoir on February 22, 2014 at 2:32 pm

956725-R1-20-21AFebruary is the month with the fewest days, yet in upstate New York it seems like the longest. The temperatures stay below freezing and it snows and snows. Sometimes the precipitation is something we call “Ithacating”: a fine freezing mist of miniature snow pellets that are not quite hail but darn close. The freezing sting on your face is a deterrent to going outdoors at all. Even the dogs don’t want to go out for a run. One February it got so cold for so many days in a row, one of our chickens froze her feet off entirely. The hen hobbled around on stubs thereafter.

Days go by without any direct sunshine. Days of grey turn into weeks. Either there is no wind just bitter cold, or the chill is delivered by storm force gales of wind.  Too cold to go out and the snow too deep to go anywhere.

Those first years together during February I spent afternoons sledding down the steep hill behind the pond dyke and climbing back up to go down again. Good exercise. I built snow people who waved at us across the pond. Cross-country skiing was another expedition in falling down. I even went ice skating in Cass Park in Ithaca to fall down more. I fell down intentionally in new snow and enjoyed making snow angels.

February is often a falling down time. There is too little money to spend because it may be a long winter. There is no money to be made this time of year. You dare not waste because the winter will last another two months, at least.

Cabin fever breaks out. The overwhelming sense of winter’s oppression sits on your chest and you just want to bolt out the door into a sunny fantasy. Sam and I have planned our escape to Bolivia. We haven’t applied for visas. Nor have we made much progress learning to speak Spanish. It’s a February fantasy.

I do everything in my power not to go stir crazy; and in so doing drive Sam mad. I sat one afternoon knitting for hours and hours on the back of a sweater. I found a mistake and ripped out inches of stitches. As I yanked it all out, Sam sat stunned and then he let go with a howl of another wasted day. Knitting taught me a new lesson in patience.

I drive him to distraction when I go in and out of the summer lean-to kitchen. “You’re wasting heat,” he says. In winter, the summer kitchen becomes our cold storage and pantry and the cool breeze rushes in whenever the door swings open and closed. This in and out and in and out sets off the energy police; Sam’s siren goes off.

“I spend all day trying to get the cabin warm and you waste the heat I make!” Sam is frustrated with my fidgety behavior. I am fidgety because there is nothing I can do without getting hollered at!

I bake my favorite Red Velvet Cake for Valentine’s Day. The recipe is an old Amish secret. You need a 365 degree oven. Sam thinks I need my head examined. He doesn’t eat sweets. Like the Amish, plain and simple is what he prefers.

Sam does love my red apple sauce this time of year. It’s the only fruit he craves. His mother taught me to use a Foley food mill. It makes it simple to cook down the apples whole with the skins on until you can hand crank it through the mill. Depending on the kind of apples I use, my sauces are light pink to dark red sauce. The Macouns and Empire Reds offer the most intense reds to apple sauce.

When the wood cook stove is hot and the griddle is dry I like to spend a February afternoon making lefse. The pleasures of donning my apron and participating in an ancient ritual of my Swedish heritage means a dust cloud of flour fills the cabin air.

Lefse is a flatbread made from leftover cold mashed potatoes mixed with flour. Small balls of the dough are rolled flat in flour and fried on a dry griddle until golden brown. Lefse can be served warm or cold. My family has traditionally eaten lefse as part of any winter holiday meal and my mother makes it best. I learned to love it eating my Grandma Swenson’s homemade lefse.

Sam thinks lefse tastes like shoe leather. He’d rather I make fried mashed potato patties from the leftovers. He’s just lucky this Scandihoovian don’t love lutefisk. (Lutefisk is cod soaked in lye; served with butter and salt and pepper, it is best described as hot slippery snot.) Feeding the cook stove sticks of wood all afternoon makes it warm enough to sweat indoors. Sam thinks when I wear an apron I’m hot.

Sam hates cold weather. It is not the cold that causes cabin fever. It’s not getting outside for too many days or weeks in a row. Getting stuck in an indoor rut and having no escape hatch is the basis of cabin fever. It is the boredom mixed with depression. There is a million things you could and should be doing but don’t really want to do.

Traditionally when cabin fever strikes it is about time for a thaw. A brief interlude of above-freezing temperatures can sometimes make things worse. The sap begins to run in the Maples about the time you think your blood is going to boil from the hardest job of all: doing nothing.

There is always more snow and cold after a thaw; that can add fuel to the fire of cabin fever. It warms up just enough to make you realize how long you have felt miserable in the dreary cold and then it turns back to bitter chilblains.

I conjure up memories of the summers of 1980 and 1981 when I worked as a lifeguard at a swimming pool in a Women’s Center in Saudi Arabia. In the bleak of midwinter I close my eyes and recall the heat and searing dry air of a walk through the village of Yanbu. The sun baked my bones and turned my skin a golden crisp. Sitting out in the sun for 8 hour shifts gave me plenty of time to contemplate heat. When I wasn’t in my bathing suit at the pool, I wore long caftan gowns made of cotton or silk to create a layer of light perspiration constantly evaporating off my burning hot skin. I snuggle comfortably in my long johns and extra undershirt in front of the open fire and try to recreate the Saudi sensations of sweat. I get goosebumps.

Sam retells the stories of traveling south to Texas, Louisiana, Mexico, Florida, Georgia, and Utah. As a truck driver during the era of CB radios and the strength of the Teamsters Union, Sam gathered memories along the road that take him to a warmer place. He followed the sunshine across the nation, avoiding cold weather wherever he went.

Living on the road without a home for years wasn’t a sacrifice he regrets. It is how he could afford this homestead. It is the memories of being a free spirit touring the south when it’s cold in the north that just taunts him this time of year. That the Teamsters took money all those years from his paycheck and now deny him any retirement benefits makes him hot under the collar. Angry, depressed and bored. Not a good combination.

Two adults share 200 square feet day in and day out surrounded by snow, ice and cold. Cabin fever. Temperatures rise inside and tempers flare. Will we go crazy together?

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  1. My mother swore by her Foley food mill. I have it now and treasure it! Didn’t know anyone else loved the Foley food mill. I also love Red Velvet cake! Yes, I have been thinking about Cabin Fever. Your blog does the ins and outs of Cabin Fever justice (the poor chicken!). I particularly love the part about falling down. I am going to set out now with the dog for an expedition in the mud and the snow. Just read in a piece in the wsj that Charles Dickens often walked 20 miles a day. He wrote: “Walk and be happy; walk and be healthy. The best way to lengthen our days is to walk steadily and with a purpose.” (The quote is from an article by Amanda Foreman called “A Brief History of Avoiding Exercise” in today’s wsj.) Had to share this because I know you walk alot as well. I also loved the description of your stay in Saudi Arabia as a lifeguard in a Women’s Center! Wow! You need to write more about that! Excellent post! So much life experience shared with energy and passion!

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