My laptop is a metal ice cube on the tops of my thighs. I’m sitting on a hard metal bleacher at the aquatic center, trying to shiver the cold out of my bones from running out to my car after my swim to retrieve my computer bag.
It’s dark and 15℉ (-9℃). The coldest part of the night, just before the sun rises. Not so cold that my wet hair froze, like a friend from Minnesota said hers used to do when she stood at the bus stop, but cold enough that my hands became fumbly pretty quick out there.
I grew up on the coast of Georgia where we had more experience with sweltering heat, humidity that made it hard to breathe, and sunburn. Cold wasn’t a big part of my upbringing. Cold was cold, that’s it. In winter it was either above freezing, freezing, or below freezing. Degrees of how cold weren’t really part of my life; when it felt cold, the temperature was always somewhere around freezing.
We spent a winter in Maine about 15 years ago, when we lived in Florida. I bought all sorts of clothes for the winter — thick gloves, snow boots, hats, fleeces, a bulky winter coat. One night, we decided to go out to eat. I think it was -12℉ (-24℃). I bundled up in all the winter clothes I had brought, layer upon layer. When we crunched over the powdery dry ice and snow in the dark night parking lot, and I opened my door, the seal felt brittle, like if I shut the door too hard the seal would crumble into a frozen heap of rubber at my feet.
The walk from the car to the front door of the restaurant probably took 45 seconds. We were parked right out front — there was nobody out that night. When we stepped inside the restaurant after being outside for those 45 seconds, I jerked with shivers from neck to knees. The cold was so deep in my body, I sat in my chair for several minutes with all my winter gear on. I felt like I would never get warm again.
Being from Georgia, I was clueless until that night that it can feel colder than freezing, that there are degrees of cold, just like there are degrees of hot, and how quickly the cold will penetrate you as it plummits. Before that night, below freezing was just below freezing. It didn’t occur to me that you can feel colder than freezing, or what it feels like to go further and further below freezing.
I realized, I could die out here in this cold if something happened where we couldn’t get shelter. It was the first time I had experienced that where I lived could kill me. I had always loved nature, but this experience gave me a visceral respect for it.