For days, the weather forecasters have been intoning dire news: A cold snap is coming. Adjectives like "brutal," "vicious" and "nasty" are being slung with grave intent. It's killing weather. Men and women in front of green screens everywhere are warning us of the impending danger, afraid that someone won't get the news and will perish while trying to run errands in a windbreaker and flip-flops.
In truth, I think these forecasts have a lot more to do with good TV than with life in Minnesota.
I know a bit about extreme cold now. I moved to International Falls (by choice) seven years ago. My family treated it as a big adventure. We were moving to "The Icebox of the Nation."
When we told our friends in the green, soggy and warm Pacific Northwest where we were headed, the reaction was stunned disbelief. No one commented on the two-time-zone difference or the remoteness of the town. No one wondered how the kids would adjust to a new school or where my writing might go in a totally foreign environment. All anyone could talk about was the cold.
"How will you handle it?" they asked. "Diane [my lovely wife] wears two sweaters when it's 50 degrees. What's she going to do when it's 50 below?"
My sister told a horror story of being stranded in Minneapolis during a cross-country flight. The jet fuel froze solid, she said. Froze solid! And we weren't even going somewhere as warm as Minneapolis. We were going to the coldest edge of the coldest state, the town where they actually embrace cold. They are PROUD of their cold in International Falls, like some off-kilter uncle who shows off a gruesome scar.
There was real concern for our welfare, and our sanity. I was touched, but mostly just confused.
The thing about cold is, it's not much of a natural disaster. Ask the average person for stories of winter peril and you will hear tales of blizzards and whiteouts and ice storms. But cold? Seriously? Where's the threat? Modern building codes and the good folks at Carhartt have largely rendered it moot.
There are dangers, to be sure, but they seem best dealt with by common sense. I would have no idea what to do in an earthquake, but if I step outside in the morning and discover I'm cold, I simply go back inside and put on another layer.
I'm a husky guy. I LIKE winter. What freezes my heart is the July search for a pair of shorts that doesn't make me look like a pear.
A really cold day is bracing and dramatic. The very molecules in the air slow down. Sound becomes sharp and intense. A snow blower can be heard for blocks. An axe splitting cordwood sounds like gunshots. More often than not, the sun shines, trebling its impact on the eye by reflecting off the blanket of snow on the ground. Get up early enough, and you might catch sight of a snow dog, an effect of the light caused by the sun reflecting off ice crystals in the air. Nature's great disasters make us feel small and mortal. Cold? Cold just makes me feel alive.
I walked outside this morning with the temp at -20. There was no wind. I was encased in my -40 parka, feet in boots, hands in mittens, head under both a stocking cap and the parka's hood. I walked five blocks to the coffee shop in relative comfort. My glasses stuck to my face a bit and I could feel the weight of ice forming on my moustache, but I arrived at my destination without incident.
Inside, the mittens came off so I could grip my coffee cup. Five minutes later my parka was on the back of my chair, the cap shoved down in its sleeve. I was in a warm place with good friends and a little senseless conversation. I might as well have been sitting in Miami.
Every now and again I'd stare outside at the sun and the stillness and someone would say, "Gonna be cold today. Yup." And I would lean down into the waft of steam from my mug and smile, just a little, so no one could see.