A Southerner’s First Wisconsin Winter: Or How I Learned To Love (or Tolerate) the Polar Vortex

On January 6 at 5:01pm, in the midst of the worst polar vortex in recent US history, a terrible thing happened: My nose-hairs froze.

If you’re reading this and originally hail from the North, this probably isn’t a foreign concept to you (albeit a little graphic, and for that, I apologize). But if you’re from where I am – a magical land of year-round beach going and endless supplies of fresh oranges – you probably think I’m nuts. And let me tell you, cotillion certainly did not provide me with a more lady-like way to express what happened to me above. (Sorry, Mom.)

When I told my parents I would be moving away from the South for the first time in my life in favor of a job in Northeast Wisconsin, they took the news with all the excitement of a root canal. (And like a bad root canal, this one seemed to come to them without enough Novocain.) Though I know they tried to be as supportive as possible, there was obvious doubt I could survive what from that day forward will forever be known to my family as The Great Frozen Tundra.

Lawrence in the snow

Perhaps naively, I didn’t think it would be that hard. After all, I’m a millennial… I can do anything! (Insert generational commentary here,) I’d buy a coat, start my new career, and get on with it.

I made the brilliant (read: lucky) decision to move in August – you know, sweater weather time. I loved Lawrence instantly and proudly volunteered for Welcome Week, where I courteously provided directions (likely wrong) to other newcomers like myself.

But as time tolled on, I realized there were quite a few differences I may not have been prepared for. So, with all the wisdom that comes with exactly 5 months and 5 days of living in Wisconsin, here is a brief list of things you may be comforted to know in advance: 

  1. The Weather. It’s cold here. Don’t buy your coat in the South, because it doesn’t count. Don’t buy your jeans there either. Your nose hairs will freeze and you’ll have to carry mittens everywhere and your poor 6 pound Yorkie will fall straight through the soft snow. That all being said…
  2. No seriously, the weather! Snow is kind of a blast! People don’t actually just stop going outside here when it’s cold. (I’m looking at you, Texas.) There’s sledding and snow shoeing and snowman building – there’s even igloo building for the advanced, future civil engineer snow-architects.
  3. It’s easy to make friends. Southern hospitality is simply called “Midwestern Nice” here. Try going to a grocery store here and NOT being smiled at or greeted by 100 strangers. I dare you.
  4. How about them apples? Did you know ‘Red’ and ‘Green’ aren’t the only types of apple? And they have different flavors? This is a weird one you’ll grow to appreciate, and you’ll establish alliances based on your preferences. (Because there is a limit to how many people will edit this post, I’d like to take this opportunity to announce Honeycrisp as the Lawrence Admissions Office’s apple of choice.) Plus apples go well with…
  5. SAY CHEESE! It really is everywhere. Just accept it. Fried cheese curds may be the best thing to ever happen to you.
  6. Watch your language. If you tell someone “bless your heart,” they will think you’re being nice and not realize there’s at least a 50% chance it’s an insult. On a similar train of thought, all phrases referencing ticks, armadillos, wet towels, wet mules, and/or hot tin roofs will not be understood. Understand y’all?
  7. Predator-free aquatic recreation. Wisconsinites spend a lot of time taking advantage of our 15,000 lakes without ever worrying about a shark, crocodile, or alligator! (Ahem, I was born in Florida.) Also, Wisconsin has more lakes than Minnesota. Did I wish I knew that last tidbit ahead of time? Probably not. Is it fun to taunt Minnesotans and their 10,000 lakes about now? You betchya.

So maybe I do still wear a puffy coat when it’s a balmy 27 degrees and sometimes mistake the names of fancy apple breeds for 90s pop stars… I still maintain that when all is said and done, Lawrence makes it all worth it. And if I – and my 6 pound puppy – can do it, so can you.


Gaelyn Rose is a recent addition to the Lawrence Admissions staff. Arriving in Appleton by way of Houston, Texas, she shares her experiences dealing with the regional changes of all things weather, language, and critters. 

3 thoughts on “A Southerner’s First Wisconsin Winter: Or How I Learned To Love (or Tolerate) the Polar Vortex”

  1. Thank you so much for this review. I was specifically looking for a southerners take on Wisconsin. I will be relocating to Milwaukee in the next 6-8 months. I am scared but, ready. I currently live in Birmingham Alabama. I have visited everywhere but never lived any further north than Virginia. I am looking forward to the adventure.

  2. Well said Gaelyn as Mark commented. Most people do not understand the beauty of the winter. I am from Sri Lanka, which is a tropical island country, most probably similar to Florida. I visited US with wife and daughter, to join my son at Michigan State University for a short holiday. He joined the MSU as an Assistant Professor in August, just like Gaelyn. But he was at UW-Madison for 5 years for his PhD studies. So the winter is not new for him. But this winter was an exciting experience for us. The polar vortex, icy rains, lake effects, blizzards, cold waves streaming down from Canada are all new and amazing phenomena for us and added new words to our vocabulary. People in Michigan and Wisconsin know how to deal with even the worst situations such as power outages due to power line snapping at the eve of the Xmas. Their life goes on well without any hindrance in spite of skidding on the road and ending up in ditches. I think several hundreds of pounds of ice they carry at the bottom, sides and roofs of the autos make them very stable on the road. Only the schools were closed for several days. We traveled from Lansing to Madison to meet his friends and the drive was really exciting both ways facing the lake effects and blizzards. Somebody wrote that he sprayed water into thin air and it was only ice crystals that fell on the ground. My best memory is seeing the real white christmas both at WI and MI. The glassy appearance of trees, the icy long stalactites formed at the roof edges, power lines, road signs and other objects with the snow cover everywhere, make it the real white christmas, a glassy world, which we in the tropics can never imagine, until we see this. Nature does wonders but it is very rarely humans tend to appreciate it. Congratulations for Gaelyn for awakening me to write this. My daughter has applied for undergraduate studies at Lawrence and I think that is why Gaelyn’s note ended up in mail box. I hope I will be able to visit WI again in a winter to see these marvels, if she is selected for studies. Best regards.

  3. Well said Gaelyn. I lived in Wisconsin for more than ten years.
    I used to tell people that when I walked outside in the morning I would breath deeply two or three times and if my nostivs stuck together it was really cold.
    People actually know how to drive in inclement weather in the midwest, which cannot be said for Florida. People need to stay inside, close to each other , preferably by a fire drinking Ben & Jerry’s, hot chocolate or brandy to stay warm. ( body heat works well). People tend to gather together more in a cold climate. Lawrence, Beloit, U of W -Madison, Ripon and. Carthage College all make the cold worthwhile.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.