THIS PAST SUNDAY, Rhode Island had the day off – a day off from winter and a lot more.
Temperatures reached 66 in Newport, and, at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, where Rhode Island records are set, the 70-degree reading was an all-time January record. What’s more, a potential spoiler that had been forecast – showers throughout the day, some “heavy” – failed to materialize, and by afternoon, the sun was out and so were thousands of people.
I was among them, along with Phoebe, our Yellow Lab and Husky mix, who is an ideal companion on any day, balmy or savage. She was rescued as a 6-month-old stray in Missouri 10 years ago and brought to Rhode Island, where a vet pronounced her “sweet,” a diagnosis that hasn’t changed.
Sunday was the kind of rare winter day that New Englanders regard as well deserved: compensation for the regular, but resented insults of slush, ice smeared windshields, spiked heating bills and the occasional blizzard, preceded by the ritual dash for bread and milk.
Modern politics have added these spring-like days as a new entitlement – a justified chance to escape the arguments and anxieties of the Trump presidency and a divided nation that’s no longer able to agree on any subject, including whatever is going on with the weather.
In Puerto Rico, thousands were sleeping outdoors, fearing a repeat earthquake In Baltimore, police were counting the number of shootings the previous day (12). In Australia, they were tallying homes destroyed (2,000), human deaths (28) and animals killed (a-half to one-billion). Families in Iran, Canada, Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan, Germany and United Kingdom, were mourning the passengers and crew (176) who died when an Iranian missile destroyed a Ukrainian jetliner.
BACK IN RHODE ISLAND, Phoebe and I headed for Newport’s Cliff walk (3.5 miles long), where I counted (with little help from Phoebe), the surfers (15), who were bobbing up and down on their surfboards in the chilly Atlantic (43 degrees), waiting their choice of the special wave that would sweep them toward the jagged rocks beneath the cliffs.
The surfers were lured by unique conditions that periodically turn Newport’s normally tame surf into roaring California-scale breakers, with the Atlantic disrupted by faraway storms and perhaps extreme tides produced by the recent full moon.
The surfers, in turn, drew a big crowd of spectators (I counted 35) behind The Breakers, the former Vanderbilt mansion (70 rooms) and now a major tourist draw, for a spectacular show that was a bargain by any measure: admission ($0.00) and hardship viewing conditions (also zed).
The urgent issues of impeachment – When would it start? Would there be witnesses? Will any Republican go rogue? – were absent among the watchers, who were amazed and bewildered by the surfers’ daredevil exploits. I cornered one of them:
How do you manage to reach the water, carrying your surfboard with one arm while descending an almost vertical drop down the cliffs?
There are clear paths….
How do you avoid the water hazards: huge, hidden rocks scattered across the route surfers take to shore?
The water makes channels around them – you learn to read them.
You all have wetsuits, but I’ve heard they aren’t exactly toasty warm, especially in winter?
Oh, they are toasty warm – you’d be surprised at the technology.
OUR NEXT STOP was Newport Beach (also known as First Beach and Easton’s Beach) a vast arch of flat sand from where the Cliff Walk ends and extending to the Newport/Middletown line (3/4 of a mile long).
Scores of people – parents with small children, cyclists on their Harleys, an elderly treasure-seeker with metal detector, a jogger in shorts, even a young woman in a bikini, dogs of various sizes and shapes, all wandering in the magical late-afternoon haze created by the clash of air and ocean temperatures.
Sea gulls soared in the gentle breezes that were strong enough to allow them to glide in place without seeming to move their wings; other gulls high-stepped their way across the flat sand, covered by a thin film of water left by advancing, then retreating surf.
The wildfires of Australia, the broken hearts in Baltimore, the grieving relatives of passengers of the downed jetliner in Iran, the sleepless earthquake victims in Puerto Rico, the impeachment strategists in Washington – all forgotten on this special spring-in-winter day, all so far away.
BUT HOW FAR, really?
A spring day in January seems just and fair, a well-earned intermission in New England’s most treacherous season.
Why is it so warm today? Why is there no snow on a mid-January afternoon? Is it just a lucky break?
Or is this Sunday part of the pattern that’s threatening the earth’s climate and eventual survival?
The only thing that the prophets of climate change seem to have gotten wrong so far has been the timing – things are moving faster than predicted, demonstrated by extremes not only of temperatures, but the frequency and destructiveness of floods, fires, drought.
Is it possible, in the anxious times in which we live, that there no longer is such a thing as a “nice day?”
Is a day like this simply one more sinister warning, neither to be welcomed nor ignored?