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I can't wait for winter to be over.

It's not because the weather has been particularly bad in my Middle Atlantic home base. On the contrary, it has been relatively mild, with just four-tenths of an inch of snow and daily temperatures averaging a few degrees above the normal high of 39 and low of 25 degrees.

I also did get away to Orlando, Fla., for the International Builders Show for most of the second week of last month, so even if it had snowed several feet, I would have gotten a break.

We have gotten more rain, which I would have been glad to share with Texas and Oklahoma. I assume that Washington and Oregon also would have been happy to make large donations of their record rainfall to the Southern Plains. The rain was typically heralded by rare January thunderstorms, and lots of wind that knocked out power to 60,000 electric customers at a time.

No, my problem with winter is that I spend more time in the dark, with sunrise between 7:15 and 7:30 most of the month and sunset now only inching closer to 5:30 p.m.

This is the time of year housebound gardeners hunker down with seed catalogs, but I decided long, long ago that it was better to fill the yard with perennials and buy my fresh vegetables at the farmers' market.

No, in winter, I think about houses -- alternative shelter, actually.

For example, I read recently that cave houses are becoming a cult thing in the hills and mountains around Almeria, Spain. So I checked out the website, and saw a Spanish-style house complete with red tile roof partially embedded in a hill.

The website said that dwellings have been carved into the rock "to provide a unique style of property in which to live. Cave houses have become very popular as they are easy to keep warm during the winter months and stay nice and cool during the summer period."

Cave houses start at 90,000 euros. Since currency rates fluctuate so much, I'm not absolutely sure what that is in U.S. currency, but it seems reasonable for a house that just uses the hillside for insulation.

I mean, there are no bears left in Spain, are there?

There are chalk caves in the English county of Kent that were used during the Battle of Britain to shelter Londoners from nightly Luftwaffe attacks. According to the World War II book, Frontline County, the caves were damp and dank, and everyone couldn't wait to leave them as soon as they arrived.

I've only been in a couple of real caves once, and my impression is that they are not the Costa del Sol. One was Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, which was filled with monuments to perpetually dripping calcium carbonate, basking in multicolored lights.

The other was Ailwee Cave in Ballyvaughan, County Clare, in which the bones of Ireland's last brown bear are kept, pretty much in the place they were found in the 1940s. Ireland hasn't had bears since the 12th century of the present era. I hope that's how long they've absented themselves from Spain.

Maybe not a cave, but a nice cottage in Ireland would be a sound investment, as my friend, Cormac Meehan, the former president of the Irish Auctioneers & Valuers, always tells me.

We did look once, at a rather derelict cottage across the way from our friends' house on the Clare coast. Before Ireland became the "Celtic Tiger," we could have picked it up for about $25,000 U.S. Today, it would sell for $200,000, and the last time I saw it two years ago, it still needed a lot of work.

When we were last there, we rented a place from acquaintances, one of five they built on excess farmland overlooking the Aran Islands and the Atlantic Ocean. It cost $330 a week, minus utilities, which were maybe $15 more.

Well-appointed, cozy, with dishwasher, washer dryer, microwave and picnic table on which I started the draft of my book, I figure that if it were for sale, maybe $300,000.

That cave house is starting to look even better.

It's a cabin I've been dreaming of, now that I've become a disciple of the late Richard Proenneke, who spent 35 winters in one in the Alaska wilderness, 170 miles northwest of Anchorage.

But not in Alaska. Because all the cold weather has been bottled up north of the border, Canada and Alaska have been really cold this winter, and the temperature in Anchorage the other day was minus 30, so you could just imagine what it was in the wilderness.

And it's dark all winter, too.

I wonder if they'd let me sink a two-room cabin into one of those Spanish hillsides?

Just me and, of course, my bear.

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