As we endured our latest cold outbreak, where the high temperature for the day only reached -8 degrees, I was feeling very warm and cozy sitting our living room next to the stove. I got up to take a look at what the thermostat said, and it showed 62 degrees. It struck me then, that living in the mountains, my definition of a warm house was quite different than the rest of my friends and family. But just to confirm, I called my mom and asked her what her thermostat was set at — 68 degrees at night, 71 degrees during the day. On the rare occasions it has reached 68 degrees in our house in the winter, I think we are roasting.
They always talk about how living in colder climates thickens the blood, and the truth is, living at high altitude in the mountains literally does produce more red blood cells. I don’t know if that makes me feel warmer, but I do know through the years of living in the mountains both in the Sierra of California and the Rockies of Colorado, I’ve gotten a bit tougher and heartier in order to get through the cold of winter. But it wasn’t always so….
In my mid-twenties, I moved from Washington, DC to Mammoth Lakes, California to become a ski bum. I arrived in mid-November, and at over 8000 feet, it already felt like winter with temperatures dropping well below freezing at night. I had rented a room in a condo, and saw a huge black stove in the middle of the living room when I moved in. There was a fire burning and it seemed relatively comfortable sitting on the couch in the living room. When I awoke in the morning, it was a different story. I had brought my polyester comforter and blanket from back east with me, along with some flannel sheets. Sometime during the night, I awoke from feeling chilled. By the time morning came, I was fully cocooned into all the covers, and the thought of getting out of bed was daunting because of the cold air the enveloped the room. I finally did get out of bed, and ran to the bathroom as fast as possible, turning on the shower to as hot a temperature s I could possibly stand it. When I finally got dressed and went into the living room, the temperature on the wall said it was 48 degrees.
Apparently, something I didn’t realize until I arrived was that mountain residents are dependent on some sort of wood stove to heat their homes during winter. When the wood stove is stoked and has been running for a bit, it’s actually quite warm and cozy. The problem is that you can never put enough wood in the stove to keep it going all night, or all day while you are at work, and it burns out, and the temperature quickly drops. Most houses have some sort of back-up heat — either electric baseboard or propane — but it’s so expensive, that they try to use it sparingly. Right then and there, I was convinced I had made a terrible mistake and there was absolutely no way I could survive living in such an environment.
But we adapt. I bought a down comforter, and learned to run and take my shower first thing in the morning, and to build the fire shortly thereafter. I also adapted what I thought was a warm house. Wow, if it reaches 60 degrees — hooray! I also learned the value of layering your clothing even while inside, and that a down vest can be an invaluable item of clothing. In our home in Nederland, we too use a type of wood stove, a pellet stove, which runs partially on electric and drops wood pellets from a hopper to burn and keep our house warm. One benefit of using a pellet stove is that it does not run out of wood overnight or during the day — in fact one 40-pound bag of pellets can last up to 24 hours. The other benefit of a pellet stove is providing weight training all winter from schlepping the 40-pound bags of pellets around.
Maybe the thicker blood does keep you warmer, or maybe like the wildlife around us we learn to adapt by changing our coats (to down preferably), or changing our expectations of what we think warm is. One’s thing for sure, since living in the mountains, I have a much greater appreciation for the comfort of a warm house, whatever the temperature may be.