For the first time in nearly four years I’m experiencing an Upper Midwest cold wave. I knew back in Virginia during the wee hours of December 29 when Joyce and I piled into the van, pointed it northwest, and drove off into the rainy early morning darkness, that I was headed back to the once familiar world of winter in Wisconsin. What a way to mark my 60th birthday. Drive 938 miles. Long hours of cold rain across Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio (it was a miserable trip), was followed by a brief bout of freezing drizzle in northwest Indiana—thankfully no more than a minor nuisance. For some miles I watched the car thermometer mark time to falling outside temperatures. It went from the low 40s around Dayton to the upper 20s as we entered Chicago. But it was when we stopped off at the Forest Oasis of the Tri-State Tollway north of O’Hare that the first real blast of arctic air hit us.
It is amazing how quickly one can move across a frigid expanse of wind-blown asphalt from warm car to warm rest stop. You just need to be appropriately motivated. The cold was already threatening cardiac arrest and it had not jet cracked 20°F. But the wind! Ugh. Yet as bad as this was, I knew that just beyond the northern horizon loomed conditions far worse. By the time we arrived at our daughter’s apartment in Kaukauna, Wisconsin—just 22 miles southwest of Green Bay—the temperature was down to zero and the windchill was too bad to discuss in polite company.
That night it got down to -15°F. The windchill hit -31°F. The following day the high was 0°F.
I’ve experienced worse. Back in the early ‘90s shortly after we first moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, we had eight straight days when the temperature never made it up to 0°F. Two successive nights it dropped to -30°. That’s what the mercury actually recorded, not windchill. The windchill was down around -65°F. One day the HIGH was -20°F. We actually had a window crack due to the house’s contractions. But that was a long time ago. I was 39, not 60. Maybe I was tougher then. Or maybe today I’m just missing that insulating layer of 25+ pounds of fat that I starved off last spring. In any event, there are things about life in the deep freeze that I had allowed myself to forget, such as…
· The sensation almost akin to physical assault that you experience when you step out into wind-driven cold inadequately clad. I gave away my faithful old down parka years ago. I could have used it this week.
· The way cold burns, especially unprotected ears. This is followed by that weird hot redness that those ears experience hours later in a warm room.
· Icicles on my mustache.
· Frosted mucus in my nostrils (yes, that is every bit as disgusting as it sounds).
· The dry skin. Cold air is unable to retain much moisture. Heat up that already dry air, and the relative humidity drops drastically. With an indoor/outdoor temperature differentiation of 70 to 80 degrees, without some kind of humidifier the indoor air on a cold day has the moisture content of the Gobi Desert. Static electricity creates painful shocks. Your nostrils dry out worse than on a transoceanic flight. You find yourself constantly reaching for the hand lotion. Your throat gets dry. You become more susceptible to colds. For the last 24 hours I have had a dry, scratchy throat and an annoying cough.
· The way cold penetrates. Physicists will tell you that this is an illusion. The problem is not cold coming in but heat escaping. But any Upper Midwesterner will tell you that those physicists have never spent a winter in Green Bay. The cold up here has a malevolent will. It is reaching out for you. It will find any crack, any gap, any opening that would defeat a determined cockroach in order to enter your place of refuge. So determined is the cold that denied that crack it will just force its way through wood, rock, concrete, or steel. It comes through solid walls. It comes through triple-paned glass. Sit near an exterior wall in an otherwise warm room and you will feel the chill of its icy fingers tickling the back of your neck, your wrists, your ankles. And like an army laying siege to a city of old, the longer the cold encamps outside your door, the more effective it becomes in finding a weakness in you defenses.
· I had forgotten the glossy sheen of snow banks that have thawed, refrozen, and become petrified—little embryonic glaciers.
· I had forgotten that thin narrow band of iron-hard ice that forms along the edge of city streets, the result of snowmelt that has refrozen in temperatures so low that road salt is rendered useless.
· I had forgotten the stony-faced stoicism of people forced out of warm homes and cars on some unavoidable errand. They move with all possible dispatch from Point A to Point B, finding the straightest, fastest route through the cold, like some hapless trapper being forced to run a gauntlet of tomahawk-waving Sioux warriors. They move with the efficiency of water finding its way downhill. Eyes are narrowed to slits. Focus is dead ahead. Misguided Southerners think Yankees are unfriendly. Southerners just don’t know what it is to be really cold.
The ancient Greeks had a name for the cold. Boreas was the Greek god of the cold north wind and the bringer of winter. His name meant “North Wind” or “Devouring One”. Boreas was very strong and possessed a violent temper. Boreas is in a particular foul mood as 2013 gives way to 2014. The last week of the dying year brought record cold to much of Wisconsin. We are warned that even colder air will arrive before the first week of the new year is behind us. The forecast HIGH for Monday is -10°F. By then I should be back in the gentle latitudes of the Virginia Piedmont. But my wife, my children, my grandsons, and millions of other unfortunates will have to face the rage of Boreas.
Climate scientists inform us that the tipping point for the formation of those massive glaciers of the last ice age passed quickly. It was only a matter of a few years, not centuries, that transpired before those continental ice sheets began their inexorable push south. Thousands of years later the scars of that glaciation are visible across the Upper Midwest. Only a blink of geologic time has passed since ice stood a mile deep over the very spot where I type these words. Just a few bad winters in succession…
Thank God for global warming.