Cold Reality: Vassar Alumnae/i on Top of the World

By Gordon Sacks'93

Looking out her window, Kelly Berkson ’00 can see across a wide, snow-covered field to a stand of fir trees that stretches up and over the granite mountaintop. Berkson’s downstairs neighbors are a heifer and two calves. “Spring’s better when you earn it,” says Berkson.

It should be a very good spring. There has been so much snow in this remote corner of Vermont that it’s hard to tell where the road ends. But that’s not a big deal to Berkson: when her Honda slides off the road into a hip-deep snowbank, as it does several times each winter, she climbs out and walks home, up the old quarry road in the dark. It’s not that far.

It is a warm day in late May when each Vassar student spins off in his or her own direction. No cataclysm, no Big Bang—just a diploma, a collective sigh of parental relief, and a yawning choice: now what?

“What” can be a bigger part of the equation than “where”: I’m going to be an editor. I’m going to law school. I’m joining the Peace Corps. I’m working for Microsoft. But for others, “where” is what counts: I’m going to New York. I’m going to Belize. I’m going to Colorado.

Things get more complicated from there—a circular relationship of where you go influencing who you are, which in turn forms what you do and comes right back around to where you go. That circle makes it hard to see your own life clearly. But life is much easier to understand when it’s reflected in the experiences of others to whom you are connected. That’s what’s so great about staying in touch with college classmates—and, to almost the same extent, reading college quarterly alumnae/i magazines. It’s all there, four times a year, as much a mirror as a magazine.

Forty-one percent of Vassar graduates end up in Boston, New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. No surprise, really: that’s where many of them came from, and where a lot of good jobs and comfortable lives traditionally are. Other alumnae/i make different choices, and their answers to “Now what?” define them in different ways. Why, on that sunny day in late spring, would anyone head for rural Maine? Or Canada? Alaska? Northern Vermont?

I interviewed several Vassar alumnae/i in extreme northern climates to see how their surroundings influence them. But even if you live in Boca Raton, Florida, you may see a frosty image of yourself refracted in their lives. Though the alumnae/i interviewed had many different reasons for moving north, they had parallel things to say about the effect of living where they do.


For Susan Lynch Ruddy ’63, a vice president at the Nature Conservancy, life in Alaska has been transformative in many ways. “Classmates would most likely remember me as rather shy and somewhat reluctant to voice strong opinions. That is no longer true. It may be attributable simply to years, but I also believe it is because of Alaska. I took total delight in the fact that I was free of any expectations: I could be whoever it was I was meant to be, and that was not something I had felt growing up in Rhode Island.”

photo of snowy mountain peak
photo of snowy mountain peak


The harsh climate of the North is self-selecting: if it doesn’t work for you, you leave. Those who stay share a bond of common experience that unites them in its adversity. The more adverse, the closer the bond. Alaskans refer to the Lower 48 as “outside,” as in “She’s from outside.”

It may seem odd to go to unpopulated places looking for social relationships. But the simple fact that there are fewer people leads to closer connections. “People look out for each other in Montana,” says Wendy Raney ’93, national field director for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation in Great Falls. “If you get a flat tire in a snowstorm, not many cars will pass before someone stops to help.”

“Winter in Vermont is for Vermonters,” says Alison Knox Wermer ’74, a veterinarian who lives in Essex Junction, 44 degrees north latitude. “The tourists go to the ski resorts, and the rest of the state is ours.” Berkson, an assistant to a prominent novelist, concurs: “There’s a sense of‘We’re in it together’ that comes from facing a tough winter.”

For Brendan Howley ’76, a novelist in the Canadian snowbelt of Stratford, Ontario, winter provides a surprising opportunity for warmth. “I love winter. I love the sense of safety you get from being inside with your family on a snowy night.”


“Living on a ranch for the first time, I notice and appreciate the change of seasons more than I ever have. It’s made me more aware of the seasons and changes we go through,” says Raney.

“What really gets me is the dark,” says Wermer. In the winter in [town] the dim northern sun doesn’t rise until 8 a.m., and it sets by 4:30 p.m. But summer is the opposite extreme: light fills the sky from 4 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.


While urban (and more so suburban) life affords many luxuries and conveniences (Thai food, decent espresso, one-hour dry cleaners, foreign movies, etc.), it cannot always be relied upon to deliver electric jolts of intense experience. Some people do find intensity in work or art, but for others that thrill comes only from nature.

Susan Ruddy tells of her drive north to the village of Talkeetna, Alaska: “A light snow gave way to another of the many blizzards we had that year. My headlights reflected their light back at me, making visibility ephemeral at best. Moose were everywhere; the winter had been hard on them, and they had taken refuge on every piece of snow-free road or trail. Snow berms along the side of the road created canyon walls, which even a moose’s long legs could not clear and over which we could see nothing. Every few miles a snow-canyoned driveway cut the highway wall, and more than once I was suddenly and unnervingly aware of four legs joined by a dark belly, approaching from my right. Seconds later the semblance of a moose took shape, its body part of the whiteout.” While this experience might be harrowing for some, Ruddy says she “cannot imagine a time when Alaska will not be part of [her] life.”


photo of snowy mountains
photo of snowy mountains

Though it’s sometimes 50 degrees below zero for several days in a row on Raney’s ranch near Augusta, Montana, she has no intention of leaving. “I’d miss the way the moon glistens on a fresh bed of powder, icicles competing to see which can reach the porch railing first, children bundled head to toe as they run and tumble in the snow, making snowmen, and the refreshing, invigorating feeling you get first thing in the morning as you take in that first fresh breath of clean air and the chill touches your cheeks.”

“When I’m taking a walk in the woods during the winter, the specifics of the landscape, the trees and granite of this land, make it feel like home. People who live in cities might feel differently; but in the woods, in the winter, nothing can touch me,” says Berkson.

It’s easy to slide into a Garrison Keillor-fueled reverie about the (moral and physical) cleansing qualities of winter. But there is something oddly centering about knowing that if you go out that door, drive off that road, or let that fire go out, winter could kill you. The other side is that you can go do all of those things and prevail against the elements.


For Caroline Lupfer Kurtz ’81, a writer and editor at the University of Montana, a chance meeting in Whitefish, Montana, changed everything. It was a gorgeous late fall in Glacier National Park, where Kurtz was “belatedly sowing a few wild oats,” in the form of a three-month solo tour of western parks. The handsome stranger she met came into focus as her husband, and a few years later she moved from Boston to Missoula, Montana.

Ruddy ascribes much importance to her choice, 40 years ago, to leave Washington, DC, for Juneau. “Alaska has been a joyful and challenging and rewarding place to have lived my life. I am deeply grateful to have been part of the fabric of this land, and to have had this land shape much of who I am today.”

Kelly Berkson dismisses the cold and concentrates on what matters to her about living in her mountainous corner of Vermont. “People always focus on the cold, but after a while you stop noticing it. And what you get in return is worth it: things are never more crisp and vivid as on the coldest days. I don’t know what the physics is, but you can see things more clearly. I wouldn’t trade that starkness for anything.”

Gordon Sacks ’93 lives in snowy northern New York.