JOHN BARTUS: DEALING WITH WINTER IN THE ISLANDS

This past week brought the coldest temperatures of the winter season thus far to the Keys. Down in the Islands, we have our own unique ways of dealing with the relatively frigid weather. Keep in mind that our cold 60-degree days are balmy spring/summer days for our visitors from up north. While we are huddled in multiple layers of sweatshirts and hoodies, our visitors are rejoicing in the warmth as they run in and out of the water at the beach. Brrr.

(As a matter of full disclosure, I love our winter days. We have the best winters in the world here, and the breath of cool fresh air is a welcome respite from our usual heat and humidity.)

My first winter down here, I had no problem going swimming in January or February — those mountain streams and lakes we used to swim in were colder than winter Keys waters even in the summer. By the second winter, however, things had changed. I went to jump in the pool on a sunny day … and I shot right back out because it was cold enough to stop my heart. The more time we spend here, the more we change physiologically so we can deal with the tropical heat. That also affects the way we deal with cold.

In my younger days, I had no problem venturing outside when the mercury plummeted. Anything from 20 degrees to 60 degrees was acceptable; below 32 degrees with snow was just fun (except for the shoveling). Sixty degrees and above was shirtsleeve spring and summer weather.

Now, 60 degrees is just plain cold. I kid friends of mine who came from up north about how much they complain about our winters when they used to endure serious snow/sleet/freezing rain/sub-zero temperatures. Secretly, I am the same way. Fifty-five degrees feels colder to me now than 25 degrees did in my younger days.

Seeing locals trying to deal with cold weather can be an entertaining lesson in fashion. There recently was a woman in line at the supermarket who had on layers of sweatshirts and hoodies, but still wore shorts and Birkenstocks. (In addition to long pants and closed-toe shoes, she left her teeth at home that day as well.)

By the time many of us become ensconced in the islands, we have donated or given away all our old winter clothing. I won’t need these heavy clothes again … until that really strong cold front comes through and makes me wonder why I gave my coat away. Because of the lack of available winter clothing, many of us end up looking like homeless people as we attempt to add layer upon layer to ward off the cold. 

One frosty year more than a decade and a half ago, I had to be in Washington, D.C. on city business. When we landed, it was 25 degrees, blowing 25 knots, and snow was on the ground. The heaviest item of clothing I had in my possession was my suit coat. I was an island boy way out of my element … and I don’t remember ever being as cold as I was on that trip. Needless to say, I bought an overcoat before my next trip north.

As much as we might whine or gripe about our eternal humidity, it certainly beats the dry arid desiccating air of central heating. Skin cracks. Lips chap. Sinuses dry out. And heated air just doesn’t smell good. It’s like grilling ancient dust with a generous amount of mold and mildew dry rub. 

When I remember all these things that accompany a climate closer to the Arctic Circle, I don’t miss northern winters at all. I am extremely glad that I am one of the fortunate ones who made his way to our islands all those years ago. And I am surprised that massive hordes of winter-hating northerners haven’t already descended upon our warm islands and sunny shores. Grateful, but surprised.

As we bundle up in anticipation of the chilly days ahead, let’s pause and think about those poor folks enduring the freezing winds on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago … the ones subject to sub-zero temperatures in Grand Forks, North Dakota … the cold and damp of a nor’easter on the coast of Maine … the frozen tundra of Siberia. Let’s think about what it means to be truly cold, count our blessings, and try to find that hoodie we haven’t worn since last year.

– Catch John Mondays at Boondocks, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at the Key Colony Inn, Thursdays at Sparky’s Landing, and Fridays on Facebook Live. Music available wherever you get your streaming or downloads.  www.johnbartus.com

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