A Rainy Grey Day in January

It rained today. It is the middle of January and, instead of the freezing cold, snow, sleet, and “wintery mix” I’ve grown accustomed to in the Midwest, it merely rained. It was a cold rain, to be sure, as the temperature is hovering right above freezing and driven below it by every gust of wind, but it was not a freezing rain. It plinked off my umbrella with a liquidity I don’t typically expect a month into winter. Usually it bounces off my umbrella with a plonk and snap, as the fabric repels the solid crystals or sludgy drops, but today it plinked and then slowly rolled away. I know the cold and bitter winter I expect is still hovering on the horizon, waiting for its chance to invade once these warm southern winds finally leave it be, but it feels like it lost any real chance it had to take hold this year, despite the havoc it wreaked around the holidays.

As I walked through the rain, small umbrella held close to my head to shield at least my head and shoulders from the damp, I watched it course down the streets and sidewalks around me. It had been raining for about ten hours when I finally dared venture forth in search of my daily walk and a refill of a prescription from the pharmacy a couple blocks from my apartment, and the water flowing beyond me had grown from the usual small puddles and trickling streams to a steady, unceasing rush toward the lowest ground available. As I watched old leaves, bits of trash, and the tiny icebergs that remained of once mighty snow piles course down these streams toward the nearest storm drain, it occurred to me that we might have to deal with some flooding. The ground was already saturated, so it couldn’t do anything to the water rushing past except carry it along.

Typically, when it rains during a brief bit of warmth between long periods of cold, the water refuses to sink into the ground. The ground takes much longer to adjust to the ebb and flow of winter’s bite than the air does and water can’t seep very far into frozen ground. That’s one of the reasons early spring rains can be so dangerous if you live in a watershed. The other is snowmelt from places where precipitation had accumulated all winter finally being freed from its frozen form in order to join the freshly fallen rain. Today, as I carefully observed the world around me in order to avoid any hidden ice and the daunting likelihood of wet socks, I realized we had both conditions.

Normally, as far as early spring and winter rainy days go, the ground is still frozen enough that this is not much of a concern for a walker such as I. The reasons the sidewalks flood is they’re frequently the only bit of level ground amidst the small inclines and odd grassy lumps along my path, so it is usually quite easy to take a step aside to casually shift around a massive paddle using the firm, raised, and frozen ground around the sidewalk. Today, though, the top layers had thawed in the recent warmth and every step was like wringing out a sponge, water flowing out from beneath my shoe as I trapped the inch of absorbent sod between my sole and the still-frozen ground beneath it. If not for the alternations made to get the cuffs to hang at the perfect height, my pants would have been soaked. Unfortunately for me, there was nothing to protect my socks from this gushing water and they soaked through in my first two steps.

I finished my walk, since there was little threat to my person beyond the discomfort of sodden socks and I needed to pick up that prescription (the pharmacy sits at the halfway point of my walk, so there was no shortening it), but I found myself watching the water rushing around me with a unsettling apprehension. I know a great many people who live in slightly more temperate climates, whose winters consist of days like these due to their proximity to the coast or their position alongside or below some great current or jet stream, so I’m quite familiar with what it’s like to live through winters like this. That never quite freeze, where snow is rare, and where ice forms in thick sheets overnight as the puddled rain gets stuck by suddenly dropping temperatures. I also know that this is the fate of the northern midwest as the climate of the world slowly shifts and the border of snowy winters creeps further and further north. We will see droughts, I’m sure, but the once bewildering white of snow will become less and less common as grey, damp, and mildew replace the season I’ve loved my whole life.

It is difficult not to imagine the weather patterns I’ve known most of my life as a bit of debris floating along in the gutter. Sometimes there are long stretches where the flow is strong and steady, so the clump of leaves just swirls onward, spinning slightly as the concrete beneath it rises and falls. Eventually, though, it’ll find an obstruction and the smooth flow will turn chaotic and surging, miniature rapids will toss the clump of leaves every which way, sometimes flipping it over entirely. Those periods are short, since the weight of the water seeks to flow quickly and smoothly, so it can seem like such danger is only temporary, but the thing to remember is that all of these streams are flowing toward a storm drain. Even the smooth flows are an illusion of safety since it’s all going to wind up in the same place eventually.

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