I walked in from skiing; cold morning, bright skies, snow squeaky underfoot. Sally looked at me, said, “Bragging rights?” It was 15 below zero or so and I knew what she meant. Bragging rights, northern Wisconsin style, where cold weather scores points and being out in the cold counts for even more. Bragging rights, where the backyard thermometer tallies up the negative numbers and assigns them value; lowest temperature wins.
I’d gone out just after daybreak under a sky hazy and pale, and when the wind was more of a breeze than a force. I’d put on an extra layer of clothing: thin wool underwear shirt and pants, warm but not bulky, pulled on over the thin layers I usually use. I’d daubed a greasy mix of skin cream on my cheekbones and nose; no insulation there. I wore my standard ski boots and socks; jam doubled up socks in a boot and you’ll end up colder than not. I’d learned that lesson when I was a kid.
The truck protested but started; windshield thick with crust of frost, exhaust heavy in the January air. I let the truck run, let it warm up some, and then I drove the few miles to the ski trails, left my heavy down jacket in the truck and walked to the place where the ski trail started. I was chilled. Why not? It was cold and it wasn’t going to get much warmer.
And then I skied. Simple. I skied in the track set deep in the cold snow, skied under the pale gauzy sky, skied past the bare trees that stood patiently. I left the breeze behind me; the woods were thick enough; not much wind got through. I skied out on a familiar trail as the sun came up ever so slowly and tried to break the haze.
My hands were chilled and I considered that. Some chill is not a bad thing; too much can put you in debt and you never get caught up. If you get too chilled, there’s not much you can do to recover so I paid attention to my hands. Five or 10 minutes; if they don’t warm up by then, then maybe best to turn back.
There is a misconception among people that the colder the snow, the better skis glide. That is not true. Skis glide best when it’s warmer, maybe in the 20s. Below zero the snow is too dry; skis do not glide well and when skis do not glide, a skier has to work that much harder. On this day the skis were very slow and I had to work that much harder, expend that much more energy, just to keep moving forward.
After 10 minutes my hands warmed up and even if the skis did not glide any better, I was less concerned about how things were going.
I only skied for about 40 minutes; I had to get to work. Then I drove home, parked the truck and came inside and Sally asked, “Bragging rights?”
The next day, Monday, it turned very, very cold and the day was very mean, and the cold cut hard and deep. It was serious cold. I walked to work, a matter of 10 minutes or so, and I wore a long raccoon-skin coat that belonged to my grandfather that I wear on days when it is very cold.
I wondered how old the coat is: older than I am by a lot. Seventy years old? Eighty? ‘Coon skin coats were the rage back in the Roaring Twenties; could it be that old? It weighs a lot and it’s very warm and I walked with bare hands deep in the pockets and the collar pulled up to my ears. But even with that, I could feel the chill when I turned into the stubborn northwest wind that blew on that cold morning.
That day we learned a new term: “Polar Vortex.” I’d never in all my years heard that before, but by the next afternoon everyone was familiar with it and most everyone tossed the term around as if they’d used it all their days, even though I’m pretty sure nobody had. You can call it what you want (and people certainly used more familiar terms than “vortex” to describe the weather) but any way you cut it, it was very cold.
How cold was it? So cold that talk of the Packers’ loss was relegated to second tier in normal conversation.
On Tuesday morning I tried to start my truck and it made that sick, strangling sound that trucks make when they’re frozen hard and you can call it what you will (“Polar Battery Vortex?”), but when you hear that sound you pretty much aren’t going anywhere very soon. Sally’s car was in the garage, pampered and protected from the cold, so I tried that. It made the same strangled sound and then punctuated it with a rattling, clicking noise and it was clear that I wasn’t going anywhere very soon, either.
So there I stood; 25 below zero, both vehicles have ceased to be functioning modes of transportation and are now some apocalyptic sculptures signifying the folly of existence in these cold times and perhaps of human folly in expecting anything different. Oh, and we need to be in Madison that afternoon for a buying show to consider (how appropriate is this?) cold weather gear for next winter.
Is there anything that bears the weight of frustration and despair to equal the sight of a stone-cold car with a battery like a brick on a January day? I peer beneath the hood as if by looking hard, something good will come. Nothing happens except that my hands chill further and the wind finds its way inside my collar.
Phone calls are made; a friend with a functioning vehicle arrives, a new battery is bought, paid for and installed. The key turns; then engine wakes, the car starts. All is well. We drive to Madison and work the afternoon and listen to the tales of the winter; of snow deep (four feet fallen in Duluth this year), or cold (the tales fill the air), hear several people say that Rhinelander (Rhinelander! Hometown!) had the coldest temperature in the nation that morning.
Coldest temperature in the country? Dang! Bragging rights for certain on that count!
[A note here: I heard from five or six people that Rhinelander was the coldest place in the nation but no matter where I looked for confirmation, I never did find any fact that supported that, and at the time of this writing it remains unclear: Coldest? Or not?]
The cold has changed the conversation by now, has altered the language: All talk centers on the cold. And now, when even strangers converse, the usual, “Have a nice day” has been banished. Now the proper and considerate note when taking one’s leave is, “Stay warm.” And people mean it.
They say that the Polar Vortex will, as all things do, take its leave. The forecast holds the promise of warming temperatures; in Madison there was talk of rain. There is a chance of temperatures in the 30s and simple arithmetic suggests that will be nearly 60 degrees warmer than those very, very cold mornings earlier this week.
All week we’ve heard about wind chill as very serious weather reporters stand under fur hats or thick hoods and intone that with the wind, the actual temperature will feel much colder than it really is (to which I ponder: Do they really think we do not know this?). This weekend: 30 degrees. And I wonder if they will advise us that the actual temperature will really feel like springtime and that any bragging rights will be long gone, riding the cold winds of the Polar Vortex into our memories.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800.