Close Horizons of the Winter City

One crucial trick to living in Minnesota is appreciating winter.

For many, long months of colder weather, ice and snow, shut windows and thick jackets, offer nothing. We wallow in a mentality where winter strips our theoretical freedom to be Californian, to drive with open windows or bask in the sun. We freely wield the moralistic assumption that warmth is good and cold is bad, that melting snow should be greeted with sighs of relief, that winter is a thing to overcome or ignore or engineer out of existence with tanning beds or heated garages or skyways or flights to Florida.

It's all too easy to fall into these canyons of climactic resentment, as the small talk builds up and weather reports plot daily escape. It's far harder to appreciate winter, to see seasons not as limits but opportunity.

This winter I've found myself marveling anew at its expanse and openness. I love the way that leafless trees expose the surrounding city, and seem to draw it closer like a hug. This year, I'm embracing the sight lines of the winter.

It helps that I live near a bluff, just south of downtown Saint Paul, and just downstream of where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers come together. Here the valley opens up and expands into a wide bend.

In the summertime, the views of the valley seem suffocated, as the trees and sumac and various vines explode to swallow up the landscape. In summer, it seems as if the ground beneath the streets is alive and trying to buckle. The edges of the valley around seem distant and unclear, far removed from the rich world unfurling around me.

In the winter, it's the opposite. The valley telescopes in strange new ways. The leaves disappear. Trees quiet. Horizons appear closer.

From my back porch in winter, I see the crisp ridge of Saint Paul's East Side over the rooftops. It appears as perfect as an origami fold edging the city. There is Mounds Park, the pulsing lights of the airport tower, the purple glow of the Metro State building (a former hospital), the red cross of the old Lutheran church on the edge of Swede Hollow, and there is the row of yellow streetlights cresting the bluff top. It's all plain as day during long winter nights. These places seem closer in the cold, offering new arrangements. Looking at the silent horizon, I feel I could reach out and brush the bluffs with a bit of snow, like Bob Ross adding a highlight.

Walking in winter, the bluffs newly manifest. Rocks arrive. Foundations expose themselves. The limestone cliffs, normally hidden beneath a thick quilt of green, are now frosted with thin white snow.

The bluffs are thick, ancient, and impassable, the basis of the city below your feet, and walking down Wasbasha, in wintertime I can look up and see the house that sits on the end of Delos Street, its windows poking up aglow. It levitates over the streets below like a magic carpet.

Driving along Highway 13, that narrow road that curves over the river below, the West 7th neighborhoods stretch out. The lights of the buildings and streets read like a braille sequence, and the Schmidt Brewery sign sits atop the story like cake decor. The edges of city are visible in new ways, and everything from the downtown Minneapolis skyline, poking above Highland, to the alabaster Capitol dome is right there for your eyes to encompass.

This is to say that Saint Paul shrinks in winter, its geography contracting like an iris. Sweep the horizon with your glance. Notice the fresh connections. Winter offers such subtle surprises, cold vistas to appreciate, and even the dark embraces.

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