There is no cold like city cold. Walk a concrete sidewalk packed with snow; face the wind that is funneled by high, hard walls of buildings that rise and disappear into heavy haze. Wind blows hard and the canyons of stone and glass funnel it and focus it and bring it more power. Air damp even at zero degrees; snow spits hard and biting with the wind behind it. Walkers bend into the wind, angled forward, shoulders hunched awkwardly up to their ears in a cold-weather contortion.
They say that the cold cuts like a knife but no, in reality cold is like water; all enveloping, swirling and surrounding one; looking for seams and leaks and on finding them, working in, closer to the heart of things. Cold air is like cold water; it shocks one at first contact; then works steadily to rob heat and vitality. In the dark night of January my thoughts turn to warm months and open water not as an attempt to escape the reality of the cold but instead to find similarity in it all.
But on the city streets the cold seems worse and we walked early this past week under dim streetlights in driven snow with packed sidewalk snow squeaking under foot. It seemed colder that night at zero than it did 12 hours earlier at home at minus 20. Or near minus 20. Who quibbles about a degree or two?
Not that the minus teens did not bring a chill and a longing for plus zero temperatures; once they are gone it seems they will never return. But on Monday morning when the bottom dropped out of the thermometer the sky was clear and blue and the sun shone it did not feel that cold. Really.
The sun made the snow on the top of the truck glisten and glitter as if it was covered in precious minerals, diamonds perhaps; the age-old image of snow under sun that never seems to lose favor. We were on a schedule this early week morning, a drive to Madison for a buying show; a review of new gear and clothing for next winter. I needed simply to back the truck out, change out with Sally’s car, load it and point it south.
There is no sound quite as disheartening as a truck that will not start on a cold day in January. The sullen grinding noise sounds out as a dirge on a cold day signaling to anyone in earshot that things are not right in this side of Paradise. Not that many linger in such weather to hear such tidings.
Nor do many linger in an ill-begotten attempt to make things any better. I have no clear idea of the exact process by which an engine actually starts but do know that if the beast does not get up and run after two attempts that one is wasting one’s time.
But walking back to the door with a truck that was dead as stone didn’t improve my mood and I felt the cold more then than I had when I went out to start the truck. I walked in, told Sally the truck was dead and then I stomped down the basement where, by a stroke of luck, I found the battery charger that on this day was celebrating its one year anniversary as my go-to miracle worker on cold days.
It was one year ago on the same day of the month that we woke to temperatures near 30 below; neither car nor truck would start; I replaced both batteries and for good measure bought the battery charger. On that day I worked with bare hands to change the batteries (in their lifeless state they resembled concrete blocks), all the time thinking uncharitable thoughts about the Wisconsin weather in January. That was the week that the term Polar Vortex came into our lives and with it the real vortex, which by any name was a real bugger.
That day we drove to Madison and walked into the show hours behind schedule and the first person I bumped into said, “I heard about Rhinelander on the news today,” and when I asked him why, he said because it was the coldest place in the nation.
Before that day was over two or three more mentioned the same thing and I was feeling pretty good about it all; bragging rights were mine! I figured it you were going to have cold weather you might as well go all in and have it really cold! There is no practical difference between 20 below and 25 below; it’s not as if you dress lighter for minus 20. Get south of 15 below and you’re pretty well bundled up with all you’ve got. So the few degrees we needed to take the title that day of Coldest Spot in the Nation were chump change in the scheme of things.
I played it pretty casual that day. People would ask how cold it was at home and I’d say that I wasn’t sure, maybe 25 or 30, and they’d ask in puzzlement; “Below?” and I’d give them a look like somebody gives someone who’s slow on the uptick and say, yes, below, as if it wasn’t a big deal to us hardy northern types.
I felt pretty cocky that day what with it being so cold that we made the news. I felt less chippy about it with the passing weeks when the cold never really moved out and everyone was feeling down in the dumps about it, myself included. If you can’t move the marker the extra few ticks to make it newsworthy there’s not much good that you can take on a dark, cold morning.
This week the charger did its work on the battery and we were on the road without wasting too much time. When we got to the show nobody said anything about us having the coldest temperatures of the day and all we could say is that it was minus 20 or so at home and let it go at that. Nobody seemed as impressed as they had last year.
We worked the show Monday and Tuesday, looking at winter boots and jackets and such. When a sales rep would hold up, say, a winter jacket and tell me that it was really warm I’d ask how did they think it would do that day, outside where it was near zero and the wind was snapping the flags so that they sounded like castanets. If they hesitated at all I figured the jacket wasn’t all that warm and maybe I’d look elsewhere.
In the evenings we went out for dinner and walked on the hard streets under a snow on Monday and into a snappy wind on Tuesday and I thought to myself: There is no cold like city cold.
I thought back to last winter when I walked to work when it was 25 below and when I skied the Birkebeiner when it was 15 below at that start and I knew it would take nearly 4 hours for me to complete it. I thought back to the bitter cold last year, cold that never seemed to end, cold that was invigorating at first, discouraging as it continued; downright depressing by March. But it never seemed as cold as city cold.
I thought to myself on those evenings this week, thought; this is cold and it’s bitter and I don’t enjoy it one bit, but on Thursday when I have the day off I’m going to go skiing, no matter what. I can ski in the trees sheltered from the wind. I can ski in the cold and I can enjoy it. Because cold in the woods doesn’t seem as cold as it does in the city. There is no cold as cold as city cold.
An assortment of outdoor product is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNow.com.