How To Winter: Do We Stay Or Do We Go?

Around this time of year, as the cold descends on the Northern Hemisphere, certain species migrate thousands of miles southwards to find enough warmth and sunlight to ride out the winter until the spring flowers are making an appearance once again. 

I don’t mean the birds, which I wrote about last winter – although certainly them too, even though they’ve already done their migrating months ago when the conditions were pleasant enough for winging it over long distances. But no. It’s us. That’s what we do. Folk from Canada and the United States, most famously (there’s even a Wikipedia entry on this), but this is a time of year that finds all of us browsing online holiday destinations in a half-lustful, half-mournful daze and using that upwelling of emotion to plan our vacations..

It’s easy to be self-critical about this, and a little too stoic for your own good. Stop being so weak! But as any travel writer will tell you, anticipating a trip is almost as much fun as taking it. It expands the mind and fills the future with hope. It’s fuel for the kind of positive obsessiveness that can send you deep into the local library, hunting for every book you can find about the place you’ve newly become enraptured with. As psychologists were noting during the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns, the anticipation of travel is part of the mental self-care package that people use to get them through the winter months – and when that’s taken away, it can make life feel a lot harder:

Oahu, Hawaii
Oahu, Hawaii

“Some use travel as a way to disrupt anxiety and racing thoughts — both before and after a trip. “You’ve never been to the Hawaiian Islands, and you try to predict what it’s going to look like. That’s the kind of soothing thought that puts you to sleep,” said Tom Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University. And after your trip, you’re able to compare your expectations to the reality you experienced, which can also feel gratifying…

“The emotional system is really geared toward steering people to engage with good things and to avoid bad things,” said Leaf Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This is why thinking about future events can elicit stronger emotions than reminiscing about past events. Have you ever felt as if your anticipation of a trip was more pleasurable than the trip itself? This is why, Van Boven added.”

– “Vacation anticipation is a real thing. It helps your brain. And now it’s gone” – Rachel Schnalzer, LA Times

It seems there’s very real value in “window-shopping” your way through potential trips during the coldest months – and that process encourages experimentation in what’s practical in the short term, like weekends away to somewhere relatively nearby, on nothing more than a whim. That itself will help you cross paths with a few strangers, helping banish the relative loneliness that can strike as everyone spends more time indoors. It’s a virtuous catalyst for all the benefits of a more adventurous life – including the ones you can squeeze into your day-to-day.

Cairngorms, Scotland
Cairngorms, Scotland

(A personal case to illustrate this: this week a tiny spike of wanderlust coincided with one of the coldest snaps that the UK has experienced in years, and where I’m living in a wooden cabin in Scotland the temperature plunged to -7°C / 19°F. When I woke up one morning to find a bottle of olive oil in the kitchen had frozen solid (the freezing point of extra virgin olive oil is 2.7°C) I figured it was time for a break – so I chose a hotel a few miles away, and booked myself into it for a few nights. Delightful fun, entertainingly weird-feeling, and I ended up having a few pleasant conversations with some complete strangers during the complimentary breakfasts, most of whom were visiting from out of town, which added even more to that “I’m on a mini-holiday” vibe.)

But the flipside of this is to take a cue from the natural world:

“Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on living the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt. They perform extraordinary acts of metamorphosis to get them through. Winter is a time of withdrawing from the world, maximising scant resources, carrying out acts of brutal efficiency and vanishing from sight; but that’s where the transformation occurs. Winter is not the death of the life cycle, but its crucible.” 

In her bestselling memoir Wintering, Katherine May makes the case for respecting winter for what it is, not what you wish it could be. Maybe you find it an opportunity to get your breath back, to sit for hours by the fire with a good book, to stare out the window. Maybe it says “stop” and that’s exactly what you need to do. And maybe it’s also what you need to prepare for what’s next:

“Doing those deeply unfashionable things—slowing down, letting your spare time expand, getting enough sleep, resting—is a radical act now, but it is essential. This is a crossroads we all know, a moment when you need to shed a skin. If you do, you’ll expose all those painful nerve endings and feel so raw that you’ll need to take care of yourself for a while. If you don’t, then that skin will harden around you.”

Choose your favorite traveling destinations
Choose your favorite traveling destinations

So yes, dream about sunnier places, and flick through the brochures (and our itinerary for 2023 and beyond). It’ll be good for your mood, even – or perhaps because – it makes you long to visit those places. Maybe take the edge off your restlessness with a short break here and there. 

But if your heart and mind is telling you to stock up on calories and curl up like a groundhog for the next month or so, maybe there’s some good wisdom there. It’s what the rest of the natural world is up to, after all.

Starting in January, Wheel & Anchor will be chasing the sun in all directions for the whole of 2023. Check out all the trips here.

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