Saturday was our town’s annual outdoor Fire and Ice Winter Fest at a pavilion on our rail trail. The “fire” refers to 25 pots of chili and the “ice” to sculptures carved during the event. In addition, there are games for kids, roasted marshmallows and chestnuts, hot chocolate and coffee, recorded music that always seems a little bit too loud, a scavenger hunt, and either wagon or sleigh rides determined by how much snow there is. Some years a local fellow brings his horses to pull folks around, in other years a tractor is used. This year we used a tractor and a wagon. There is no snow. But whatever the conditions, this is one of our best “Northern Exposure—Cecily, Alaska” events. All the local characters show up, and people who normally feud seem to get along, and everyone has fun.
The chili comes from 25 restaurants in the area, delivered secretly in big pots and then numbered so you don’t know which restaurants they come from. Volunteers from the Rotary serve the chili in small paper cups, and for an $8-ticket, you can taste as many as you want. Then you vote for your favorite. The problem is that after about fifteen cups your taste buds are so blasted you can’t tell if the chili is any good or not, or better than another. You also forget which ones you’ve tasted and which ones you haven’t. Still at some point you stop eating and vote. The next day the Sunday newspaper announces the winning restaurant, and presumably hordes of people stampede to the winning restaurant to get “the best chili” in the area.
The frozen sculptures are carved by ice-artists wielding buzz saws and shaping blocks of ice into eagles, or leaping dolphins, or bears standing on their hind legs. They stay on the rail trail until they melt. Some years they are there for weeks. This year we had no ice sculptures at all. At first we feared it was another budget cut that eliminated the sculptures, but then learned that the reason was that it was too warm. The temperature has to be below freezing, and we were just hanging in there around 32 or 33 degrees. It’s been like that most of the winter. Temperatures in the 40s or 50s by day, and often not much below freezing at night.
We’ve been going to the winter fest for about 15 years now. Over the years we’ve volunteered to sell tickets, score chestnuts, and help the Rotary volunteers dish up chili. Some years it’s been mind-numbingly cold, other years it’s been so mild that teenagers don’t think they need to wear coats. But it’s always fun and you’re glad you went even though you belch the rest of the afternoon and swear you won’t eat chili for at least a week.
Winter provides for these stark contrasts: fire, ice. It also brings home thoughts that are stark themselves, of death and the end of things. Even though different cultures have had different starting dates for the new year, there’s something fitting about our custom of having the old year end and the new one start in the winter, at the darkest time of the year, when we tend to think a lot about darkness and light. And once the craziness of the holidays is over, you often experience a strange ambivalent feeling of both relief and let-down once the decorations are gone and the living room returns to normal, and you’re confronted by the long winter months ahead. Spring can look so far away. So there you are, waiting, wondering what the new year will bring, wondering what will begin, what will end, what will be born, what will die, where you yourself will be in twelve months. Stark thoughts. Stark contrasts of likes and dislikes, joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, fire and ice. Restless wondering about what’s to come.
Thinking about stark contrasts in terms of desire and hate, Robert Frost put this human quandary into a short poem called “Fire and Ice.”
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
Now with the holidays past and the winter fest over, I’m content to just wonder and watch winter’s fire and ice, how the season will go. Some say the winter will be long and cold, some say short and warm. Since I’m never sure from year to year how to read the stripes on the furry caterpillars, I usually expect the winter to be whatever it wants, and last as long as it wants. And every year it does. In a few weeks it will be ground hog’s day and then we’ll know for sure, and our wondering will be over.