The main life event I am experiencing right now is the excruciating cold here in Yakima, Washington. As I write this at the desk in my bedroom, the window is frozen shut and icicles hang along the inside of the sill. It doesn’t affect my sons the same way it affects me. They get cold, yes, but not nearly as cold as I do, and they can handle it better. As for me, it sometimes dominates my awareness to the exclusion of everything else. It distracts me and keeps me from enjoying daily activities I would normally relish. It causes me to dread going outdoors, taking a shower, getting up in the morning. The puny heaters in the apartment give out a meager few inches of an aura of warmth around themselves and do nothing to expel the overall cold. I have no idea how I will make it through the winter like this, though I realize it involves just toughing it out a minute, an hour, a day at a time, and putting on as many layers of clothing as possible. The ever-present discomfort caused me to think back about other times in my life I found myself in severe weather conditions and pervasive cold.
When I was very young, still in elementary school, it got so cold one winter in Seattle that older neighbor kids iced down the street on the steep hill near our house. They barricaded off the top and bottom of the street, filled garbage cans with water, hauled them up to the top of the hill, and poured them down. The water froze along the way, so eventually the street was covered with a solid coat of ice which all the kids around slid down in sleds, plastic tubs, cardboard boxes, or whatever else they could find. As I recall, that was the year our next-door neighbor, a teenager who had assisted in the water hauling, tried to show off by sliding down a much steeper ice-covered hill nearby nicknamed Devil’s Dip, went under a car, and broke his leg.
Then there was the winter that Seattle languished under a thick sheath of snow and ice for two weeks. The city almost came to a standstill, as very few vehicles could handle the hazardous road conditions. I had moved out of my parents’ house by that time and had rented the upstairs of a duplex near the Fremont district with a friend, but the friend had taken off for Europe so I was on my own. There was no central heating and all I had was a little portable electric heater. I used the heater in my bedroom to keep myself warm and abandoned the rest of the two-bedroom apartment to the relentless frost; it quickly became as cold as a refrigerator. I remember making the long walk from my parents’ house, to which I would foray when I felt the need for a decent meal, back to my apartment, foundering through the deep snow for over a mile.
During my hitchhiking days I often traveled in bitter cold weather. Through eastern Turkey and the high pass near Mount Ararat to the Turkey/Iran border the temperature was well below freezing; multitudes of vehicles that had slid on the slippery ice lined both sides of the road up the pass. Afterwards, northeastern Iran was dry and frigid. That’s where another traveler told me that if I followed a hot shower with a cold one to close up the pores I would be able to manage the outside cold better. I tried it, and it worked. But then later in Kabul, Afghanistan, there was no escape from the cold again. In the hotel at which I stayed, though I was freezing, for the Afghanis it was not yet cold enough to turn on the heat. Another time I remember feeling extreme cold on that trip was when I slept outside beside a lake up in the Himalayas near Pokhara, Nepal; at that time some German hippies who were sleeping in a tent nearby gave me some pot to smoke, which dispelled the cold. But then on the way back across the Middle East so much snow had fallen that the pass over Ararat was closed, and I had to take an alternate route through frozen wasteland around the mountain to the north, where the bus passed within a few miles of the Russian border.
On another hitchhiking journey in mid-winter I crossed the United States, Europe, and the Middle East to India and often found myself standing in icy winds or deep snow drifts while waiting for a ride.
On yet another journey I spent six months through the winter in Katmandu, Nepal, and though it never snowed it was impossible to get warm at night no matter how many blankets I piled on. Even when I found a girlfriend and we tried to share body heat, still we shivered through the nights. I spent a winter in the Western Ghat mountains in Tamil Nadu in southern India once too, and I remember the agony of stripping down in the small bathroom and trying to take a weekly shower with a bucket of water heated on the wood stove.
When I was living near Rome with my young family, I spent some time traveling through the hills and mountains of central Italy in a camper during the winter. I would wake up with ice crusting on the windows inside. Before I knew to put additive into the diesel fuel, the engine almost stopped working because the diesel began to freeze. I remember watching the famous nativity play on a clear Christmas eve night brilliant with stars in the village of Rivisondoli, as the actor who played Joseph struggled through deep snow pulling the rope of the donkey on which Mary sat.
Another chilling experience in my life was when our family moved into the new house we’d bought in Trilofos, a village in the hills east of Thessaloniki, Greece. The central heating had not yet been connected, and water barrels the construction crew had left were frozen solid outside. We had no heat at all for almost a week, and suffered through daily activities as our breath misted into vapor and ice coated the windows.
So yes, I have been cold many times before. It’s just something that you can’t do anything about if you find yourself in a disagreeable clime. So what I do, to purge myself of the discomfort of such circumstances, is write about them. I can’t help it. It’s one way I have of coping.
PS: I have discovered one partial solution that works tolerably well, at least indoors: more and yet more layers. I finally feel at the edge of not dramatically uncomfortable. I have put on a sleeveless tee-shirt, then a white tee-shirt, then a long-sleeve pajama top, then a fleece jacket, then my heavy robe. And I am almost okay. Oh, a couple of shots of whiskey didn’t hurt either.