It was 33 degrees Fahrenheit this morning. The sky, flush with sunrise, was a beautiful gradient. Lilac, lavender, cyan, white. Green-black landscape below, in half-silhouette. Frosted grass. A cold bite on my throat when I stepped outside. Fall has begun its descent into winter.
I like the winter and I also like cold places. I like mountains and taiga and tundra. The problem is that I’m not good at cold — a problem I’m reminded of about this time every year. The temperature dips below 40 and I immediately get numb toes and fingers, a runny nose, a wind-burned face, a cold. Every year between December and March, I get a sinus infection. It is the season of antibiotics.
One year we went to Iceland. We saved and planned and schemed. A place we’d both been dreaming of visiting. This was long ago, when my wife and I were young and childless and we could do things like visit arctic volcanoes because we wanted to.
I remember when we arrived and settled into our hotel, we took a walk through downtown Reykjavik. At one point we took a turn onto a road that ran by the water, with a striking view of the mountains across the bay. Then the wind coming off the Atlantic hit me. Reader, that wind cut through my parka, my fleece, my sweater, my long johns, my skin, and my bones with an immediacy that impressed the vastness of the cosmos upon my mortal soul. I was Arjuna standing before Vishnu. I was smote. I gasped and pulled my hood lower. I retreated, huddled behind a building, trying vainly to use it as a shield.
Locals, meanwhile, sauntered by in their knit sweaters and jeans, window-shopping, enjoying the sunshine. It was, by Icelandic standards, a pleasant spring day.
Later on we took a tour of the Northern Lights. After dinner one evening, when the forecast was auspicious, we joined a few dozen other camera-laden tourists on a bus. After some driving around and false alarms and intensive radio consultation, our guide parked the bus on a rise outside the city just as the lights began to emerge. We all clambered out.
The view from here was beautiful. I could see for miles. The dry, freezing air made every star, rock, plant, and building visible with crystalline clarity. A craggy Martian landscape, bare igneous outcrops and young hills. The city’s lights spread across it like a swarm of mingling fireflies. I looked up and there they were! The Northern Lights, a pastel blur across the sky somehow just below the register of my normal awareness.
I blinked a few times, stared and waited, and they became more apparent as my eyes adjusted. All the documentary footage I’d seen of them, I realized, wasn’t quite “real.” The images of bright green, undulating curtains that appear in countless National Geographic specials are, I believe, time-lapsed. They are rendered to suit our eyes and attention span, brighter and faster and clearer than they appear to the naked eye. The Northern Lights do move, but very, very slowly, a bit like the way cirrus clouds undulate in a strong wind. To me, they were a barely-perceptible whisper among the stars, a psilocybin sheen of blue and green and purple, alive but not performative, not interested in my attention, not obvious. They were a wondrous thing that took patience to observe.
But patience I did not have. I was wearing nearly everything in my suitcase and I was freezing. Boots, double socks, long johns, thermals, sweater, scarf, parka, gloves, hat, hood. Warmers stuffed in my gloves and boots. None of it mattered. The cold was so merciless that I could manage to be outside for about ten minutes at a time before I had to retreat to the bus and nurse my fingers back to life.
I was in a bucket-list agony. Iceland lay before me, the Northern Lights overhead, and both were things I knew I wouldn’t see again for a long time, or maybe forever. But I couldn’t take it all in because I couldn’t handle the cold. Despite the fact I was physically standing there, right there in the middle of this scene, it felt as inaccessible to me as if I was seeing it on a screen.
And so I wrestle with a funny conundrum in my life. I like the cold and, to some extent, seek it out. But it knocks me down again and again. I’m not sure why; I’m not sure if it’s a matter of my body, my mind, my clothes, my temperate-climate-native softness, or all the above. It’s a kind of challenge I feel a need to overcome because, I suppose, I wouldn’t want a warm arctic. That deep cold is part of what makes those lands such a wonder to experience. It’s something to be appreciated and protected.
I guess there’s some kind of instinct or ethos I feel, deep down, that I should never expect the land to change itself to suit me. I must adapt and learn to walk there. I also believe that there’s got to be a… a way of being in the cold. People who live in the arctic and subarctic, especially indigenous people, have done so for millennia. A kind of winter skin you know how to employ. I wish I did.
I’ve had glimpses of this. Long into a run or hike, I’ll get some steam up, get my heart rate elevated. My circulation will improve. I’ll feel a flush of warmth spread from my core, out through my legs and arms and face. My fingers and toes will come back online. The wind will be reduced to a gentle brush on my cheek, cool and pleasant. I’ll feel my body radiating heat. I’ll feel invulnerable, I’ll feel like I can do winter now. It’s wonderful.
But then, sooner or later, I’ll stop, and my heart rate will drop, and the cold will set in and I’ll be shivering, once more.