It is said that Houston has two seasons: summer and non-summer. Our summer is cruel, intolerable, notorious—the sole reason that millions will never consider moving here no matter how good the jobs are. Summer defines us. Not so non-summer. Non-summer is simply glorious, wonderful, and sweet. Otherwise, it is a mystery.
To understand non-summer, you must begin in August, or nadir-summer, when the grackles begin to molt and stagger as if recovering from a three-day bender. It is then too that the cicadas’ rhythmic roar begins to fade, replaced by the rumble of marching bands of various degrees of musicality. The papers erupt with gridiron-themed headlines about “Depth Charts” and “Quarterback Controversies,” greeted by the same promise of sweet relief that “Pitchers and Catchers Report to Spring Training” does in the winter-weary north.
In still-summer (September), the church, food, and ethnic festival circuit heats up even as the mercury refuses to fall. Then again, still-summer does bring with it one small consolation: by month’s end, the flood of alarmist screeching from TV weathermen—all that hysteria about storm-fronts off the coast of Africa—has mercifully slowed to a trickle.
Out and about in urban nature, the sunflowers wither and die as beautyberries erupt in purple-red glory along the Arboretum’s trails. Pecan branches sag under the weight of our state nut and the hordes of acrobatic squirrels who come to feast upon the bounty. To walk beneath a pecan tree in early non-summer is to suffer near-constant aerial bombardment from creatures with the table manners of Attila the Hun. They chuckle with glee as they drop half-eaten nuts on what- or whomever is below.
Also falling from the trees are asps, though more menacingly. These most cuddly-looking wooly caterpillars are also the most venomous in America. Catching one on an unlucky shoulder means a sting that inflicts immediate agony, and after-effects that linger for days.
So: pecan bombardments and venomous caterpillars in lieu of leaves of glowing red and burnished gold fluttering to the lawn.
And yet non-summer is a marvel. The sky’s blues deepen, losing their whitish tinge of high summer. Clouds of butterflies and migratory hummingbirds tank up on flower-sugar before the great journey over the Gulf. And with that, October arrives, bringing with it six months of glorious weather, a few jarring northers, lows above freezing, and more mysteries.
How is it possible, for instance, that it can feel colder in Houston than places where snowdrifts are six-feet-high and tongues stick to light poles?
We put that question to quite a few experts, beginning with a woman who has seen more Gulf Coast non-summers than most—the writer’s grandmother. She has spent all of her 88 years south of I-10, excepting college and wartime.
Grandma is firmly in the Wet Cold Is More Miserable Than Yours camp. In fact, she has been so ever since she was a girl, specifically the moment her father, a marine commander, recounted a conversation he’d had with a pair of Scandinavians aboard his ship.
“He had these Norwegian girls he was carrying into the Port of Galveston from the depths of the Gulf or somewhere,” Grandma says, building up a head of steam. “It was a cold, sleety, bitter sort of day and they stood out on the deck. And they came inside and told him that they had never been so cold in all their lives. He couldn’t believe it. Norwegians!”
Having traveled a bit ourselves, we have to concur with the Norwegians. We distinctly remember, for instance, the day we wore a parka-vest, short-sleeve ensemble comfortably in 18-degree weather up north, an ensemble that proved woefully inadequate when we landed, later that day, in blustery 40-something Houston. And no, it’s not just a family thing. M. Martin, a Houstonian expat in Portland, says his definition of shirtsleeve weather has downshifted 10 or 20 degrees since moving to the northwest. Kelly Bishop, meanwhile, who spent her first 34 years in Michigan and Illinois, swears that she never broke out her winter coat there until temps dipped into the 30s. Here, the same dipping finds Bishop donning Uggs, scarf, hat, gloves, and her warmest coat.
Having acquired a small mountain of anecdotal evidence, we proceed to seek out a scientific explanation for the phenomenon that is Wet Cold. Bishop cuts us off. It’s all psychological, she says.
“I expect it to be cold in the Midwest. But since Houston is usually warm, if and when it gets cold, it feels worse than it actually is.”
This woman seems to think Wet Cold is all in our mind. No, we protest. It is a thing. We consult with Amy Prasad, another former Houstonian, who also thinks it’s a thing, or so we think. No, she says. She used to think it was a thing. Why the change? “I moved somewhere cold as shit.” (Baltimore.)
We begin to doubt ourselves. Perhaps Wet Cold is not a thing. Perhaps it is somewhere between Bigfoot and UFOs on the credibility scale. Baloney, in other words, and of a similarly cross-cultural sort. (“I hear it so much on the Prairies,” Canadian climatologist Dave Phillips told the CBC in 2013, referring to the claims of Manitobans, Saskatchewaners, and the like, who apparently never tire of saying things like At least ours is a dry cold, not like that damp cold you have in Ontario. “It’s a myth, there’s nothing to it,” Phillips declared flatly, debunking the received wisdom of whole provinces.)
Feeling defeated, we molt and stagger into the kitchen of Rich Hornbuckle, another Michigan transplant, and so we expect him to parrot Bishop’s line, which he does for a time.
Here, “you get these 73-degree December days,” says Hornbuckle, “and then boom, 37 the next day. In the Great Lakes, it is a slow slide down and then a slower ride up, or in other words, an actual change of seasons.” So we’re just imagining things, right?
“I think it is part perception and part ‘wet,’” he says. We are almost obscenely grateful to hear this. Wet is a thing to Hornbuckle, a small thing maybe but still a thing. Of course it is. Think about it. Doesn’t a bottle of wine chill faster in a bucket of ice water than a bucket of ice alone? Absolutely, because the water puts more cold in contact with the bottle. Hornbuckle knows this. He has been in the bar and catering business for decades.
Furthermore, who is Canada to tell us about Wet Cold? We have weather experts too. We dial Frank Billingsley.
“When there’s wet cold there’s obviously going to be more moisture on your skin and that’s going to make you feel even colder,” says KPRC’s chief meteorologist. Hell, yes. Tell ’em, Frank. “In the summer it works as your body’s air conditioner, and it is giving you an air conditioner in the winter too, and that’s when you want a heater. So that’s why wet cold is just a little more fierce.”
Take that, Dave Phillips. Wet Cold = THING.
“But if anybody ever tells you ‘It’s a dry rain,’” Billingsley says, “that’s when you need to be suspect.”