One thought ahead. Two sentences behind.

Forty Below


Living in Minnesota in the middle of winter has a few advantages.  One of them is the ability to fish on a frozen lake, sled on a frozen hill or skate on a frozen pond.  (If one thinks these are advantages.)

The number one reason not to live in Minnesota in the middle of winter is trying to start your car.  I’m talking about winter so bitterly intense that if you spit, the saliva will instantly crack; weather so unbearably painful that if you stick out your tongue, you may never get it back; weather so immediate and dangerous that if you think you can carry on like a normal day, the winds will slap you so hard, you may not completely thaw until spring.

I once had the unfortunate circumstance of living through such a day when the degrees plummeted past zero all the way to a negative forty degrees Fahrenheit. The governor shuttered all public agencies; so closed the schools, the libraries, the courthouses and most of the private sector.  For some reason the manager of my office decided to stay open for business.  He came from the days of old where you went to work no matter what:  “Car won’t start?  Start walking!  Tornado outside?  Be sure to duck!  Sickness turning to death?  Cover your mouth!  Forty below?  Wear another shirt!”

Yes, even at forty below the doors were going to swing wide and snap from the hinges.  So what if a freak ice storm turned the entire city into a skating rink.  The manager was going to be there.  And if he was going to be there, you, yes you, better be brewing coffee when he steps through the door.  So, you’d better get going…

As you kick open the frozen door of your apartment, the first thing you notice is how your toes and fingers instantly lose all sensation.  It doesn’t matter what type of gloves or boots you wear at forty below.  The air clamps down to a point where these appendages no longer feel like a part of your body.  What you previously experienced as cold no longer applies in this fresh, frozen Hell.  Cold is no longer an adjective but a crack-hard whip, smacking your nose and tearing at your ears.  You are so cold you can’t even remember what it felt like to be warm  moments before.

Ten seconds into forty below your brain has an insane idea of doing a jumping jack.  But when your brain says “Go!” your feet say “What?”  So, only your arms flail as a gale force of bone-chilling air rushes up your jacket, through your two wool sweaters, three turtlenecks and five t-shirts.  You are in so much pain from the assault you howl a bale of moist air that instantly crystallizes into the weighted dimension of a bowling ball, which drops squarely on your left toe. 

A fireball of pain almost lifts you off the ground, but you hold in the next scream because you don’t want to drop another bowling ball of frozen air onto your right toe.  Instead, you take every ounce of pain to fight your way to your car.

When you reach your vehicle, you find it completely encased in ice.  It looks like somebody moved it into a meat locker and watered it all night. It’s a frozen block that shows no points of entry, but what are your options?  You can’t walk to work.  No cab service will fight to reach you.  Carpooling doesn’t work on a normal day.  You have no other choice.  You have to get into your car. 

Even though you’ve never been in this position before, you come prepared.  In your right hand you have a five-pound hammer, and in your left hand you wield an industrial screwdriver.  This is not a normal day and plastic ice scrappers will not do the job.  The howl you saved from your smashed left toe, you let erupt as you bring hammer crashing down on the roof of your car… THUD!!!

The hammer bounces off the car.  You raise your arm and hit the car again. You keep hammering.  You hammer and hammer like John Henry.  And even though you are colder than you have ever been, little spurts of joy shoot though your body, because when’s the last time you took a hammer to a motorized vehicle?  (Not since high school.) 

You pound and pound and then…  CRACK!!!  A tiny fissure. You wiggle your screwdriver into the tiny gap and quickly raise your hammer into the air for quick strike.  But with all your hammering and mounting euphoria, you completely miss the head of the screwdriver.  The hammer glances off the roof, leaves your hand and sails into the icy street.

“Sheik!” You scream.  You lunge for the hammer, but slip and fall on your back.  Such a foolish move should have landed you in traction, but no pain comes because six inches of clothing separates you from the icy street.  You will be fine, but there is still a problem.  In your hurried panic and mounting euphoria, you started to sweat and that sweat will soon turn to ice if you begin to cool down.  You need to get back on your feet and start hammering.   

You slowly turn from your back onto your belly and try to lift yourself off the frozen street, but with the ice and bulky clothes it will not work.  So you crawl like a half-dazed sea lion into the street. 

You notice the hammer luckily cleared the undercarriage of a parked car and sits in the frozen gutter.  You grab the car’s side-view mirror and pull yourself up.  Then, you carefully slide over to the hammer, pick it up and slide back to your car.   

You come back with a calmer state.  Instead of being a hammer-wielding John Henry, you need to be Michelangelo.  There is a car underneath the three inches of ice, and it will not be able to withstand the blows of a five-pound hammer.  So, you chisel and tap, tap and chisel, a piece here, a chunk there, tap and chisel until… CRACK!!!  You create an opening big enough to slide your screwdriver into the door and pop it open like a freshly sealed can of tuna.   

You did it!  At forty below you opened a completely frozen car.  Now comes the hard part – starting it.   

You jump into the driver’s seat.  It feels like you landed on a rock.  If the cold somehow turned a cloth seat into a boulder, what did it do to your engine?  You slide the key into the ignition to find out.  You turn the key and nothing happens.  You turn the key again. 


Life!  A current fought its way through the electrical system to make the engine go “mmmrrr.”  Your car will start.  You know it will.  You flip the key again and again and the engine says, “Give me a second.” 

You abide.  You let out a sigh and a frozen cloud climbs over your dashboard and bonds with the windshield.  Three inches of ice separates you from seeing where you need to go, three inches that will have to be chiseled and removed because you are not going to stick your head out the driver’s window while driving down the street.  

You flip the key and the engine goes, “mmmmmrrrrr…”  You wait and flip it again.  “Mmmmmmrrrrrrr.”  You wait and pray for a B.  Then you flip the key. 

“B…  B…  Brrrrrrrmmmmm…” 

You did it!  You are on the attack.  You finally got a B.  That means your car will start.  And after thirty more attempts it finally does.  Your engine violently shakes like a patient fighting his way back from the dead.  This day will claim many victims, but you won’t be one of them.  You will be one of the survivors who will drive to work, head inside and pour a warm cup of coffee over your frozen body.  

You climb back out of your car with hammer and screwdriver to clear the windshield.  And as the engine convulses, spits and spews, you tap and chisel ever so slightly because few companies will replace a broken windshield on this day.   

After you clear your windshield, you crawl back into your car and look straight ahead and see the road.  You look into your rear-view mirror and still see three inches of solid ice, but you don’t care.  You only have one direction today and that’s forward.  Eventually, spring will come and melt the rest of the ice, but today there is no time.  You’re already late for work, and if you take any more time, you might as well look for other employment. 

You grab the stick shift and with the might of Thor, you shove it into first gear.  Your transmission moans like a beluga whale trying to sing a Puccini aria but you ignore the off-note screams.  You are finally on your way but there is a problem.  Even though the transmission if fully engaged, your car will not move because the three inches of ice that encased your car also cemented the tires to the street.  

This will not happen!  You did not spend an hour in near-comatose, hypodermic shock, chiseling into a frozen sculpture, trying to start it, fighting like mad to keep it alive only to have it remain frozen to the earth.  This frozen sculpture is a car and this car needs to get you to work.  So, you shove the gas pedal into the floor and hold on as the car starts to rattle like a space shuttle bracing for lift-off.   

Not today!  Not today will reality settle this moment.  You grab the wheel, violently screaming and shaking, trying  anything to dislodge the car from its frozen grave.  If there was ever a time to go crazy, this is it.  And by your sheer will the car shatters the encased ice and launches into the street.   

You did it!  It will only be a matter of time before you push this frozen sculpture across an ice-capped city, park it in an ice-filled parking lot, go into your office and wait in the break room for someone to pour coffee over you because it will be three months before you will regain function in your hands.   

As you crawl through the empty streets of the frozen city, you keep your car in first gear because you lack the Herculean strength to force it into second.  But you don’t care!  The streets are coated with a thick sheet of ice and going faster than five miles-an-hour is a suicidal act.  So you crawl and watch the events of this wind-swept landscape unfold.  And what you see is an absolute miracle…

As I pulled onto the boulevard that bends around Lake of the Isles, I noticed not one portion of the city had been spared from this most extraordinary event.  Trees that normally lay bare dangled like frozen giants.  Drifts of snow looked as if they were now part of the permanent landscape.  Parked cars were frozen igloos.  Sidewalks became long bobsled chutes.  Houses turned into majestic, fortified edifices. Even the normally invisible air hovered thick and still like a brewing concoction barely letting the far-off sun filter through its milky haze. The color blue never had a finer moment.  It imbued the lake, the air and the snow with a refined, distilled, almost brilliantly sheen.

Even though I had taken this route hundreds of times before, I felt like I was traveling through undiscovered territory.  Everything felt remote and lonely.  Everything resided in a glacial, peaceful silence.  Even if I were to kick open my door and let out a primal scream, surely the air would freeze the yell at my lips.  Nothing could alter this landscape.  Spring would never come.  I was in Heaven if God forgot to pay the heating bill.

I often wondered what drives men and women to places where they were never meant to be.  Why in a world with Bali and Hawaii do some climb like ants towards the perilous summit of Mount Everest?  Why in a world with the lush glens and thick forests do some drive a sled of huskies across the giant nothingness of Antarctica?  Why in a world filled with lakes and ponds, rivers and streams, do some caravan by camel into the empty heart of the Sahara?  Why would anybody risk life and good fortune on an endeavor that will only grant death in return?

Driving with a turtle-like speed, I was given partial insight.  Because if you survive, you may experience something that will forever remain out of reach of the normal, sane person.  Even with all of our futuristic, computer-generated technologies, nothing can match the overwhelming experience of Mother Nature.  People drive right into the middle of these godforsaken lands because they know 99.9% of the world will not.  It’s too dangerous, too foolish; too insane.  Nobody in their right or left mind should expose themselves to such conditions.  And that makes the effort worth taking for they believe you are not truly living unless you are close to death.

I understand the credo.  Life should be vibrant when it is fleeting.  Mother Nature should be brilliant at her extremes.  The moments we most cherish are the ones we know will never last.  Life and death, beauty and destruction can sometimes be sewn so closely together, one may hardly see the seam.  Or as the great English poet, William Wordsworth, may have penned on expedition to Greenland:


Where else would I wander
Where else shall I be?
So closely I reach the heavens,
If only I could feel my feet.


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