Thirteen Below: Dispatches from a Polar Vortex.

“The collectors of cold have assembled
their evidence, and the professors
have completed their book.”
–Lawrence Raab, “The Collector of Cold Weather”

“It grows cold, you sauceboxes.”
–Jonathan Swift, December 30, 1710.

It’s 5 AM on Monday, January 6, and I’m driving to SFO airport. My phone says it’s 46 degrees. With a little luck, in six hours I’ll be 1838 miles away–and at least 55 degrees colder.

Wait. What?

It’s true. I’m flying into the Polar Vortex, the mass of arctic air that descended into the Midwest (and points south) the day before, snarling travel and causing a media sensation. I’m not flying into the heart of it, but rather only as far north as I can manage based on my air travel limitations. But it will certainly be plenty cold. From my departure gate, I check the weather. It’s -13 in Chicago. In comparison, Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the US, reports -4. I think that qualifies Chicago, at this moment, as sufficiently polar.

§

Here are some things people who live in the Midwest said to me (or about me) on Facebook when I announced that I was intentionally flying into the Polar Vortex (spoiler alert: my mental health is frequently called into question):
“He’s crazy, and will not have coats heavy enough for that cold.”
“Why!? Why would you want to experience this mess? Most of us would do anything to not be here right now!”
“Wait–are you serious? You booked a ticket?”
“I think you have officially lost your mind!!!!! I’ll go back to California in your place and you can stay here for me!!”
“If he’s coming in can I use his place in California for a few days?”
“I’m not sure I know anyone else who would do what you are doing! Be safe, my friend.”
“They are saying you can get frostbite in just a couple of minutes and hypothermia shortly thereafter–I’d say the only way to experience it is from inside somewhere warm.”
“I’m on my way to Minneapolis. I’d like to reiterate here that I can’t believe you’re doing this.”
“Pajamas do double-duty as long underwear” [I should have paid more attention to this.]
“You are totes cray.”
“You are CRAZY!”
“You’re brave!” [My vanity made me include this one.]
“You are insane!”
“I’m trying to fly out of this. My feet constantly feel wet but really they’re just withering away. Why would you fly into it?”
“I would have done a house swap with you! All you had to do is ask – Dude you crazy !!!”
“Somehow this feels like the most hipster thing you have ever done.”

So, why would I do such a thing? I can give you a number of reasons, but I suspect that none of them are likely to convince you this was a reasonable thing to do. Here goes. First, I should note that, in my academic work, I write about disaster. In the context of this work, I have developed an increasing interest in meteorology, extreme weather, and climate change.  Second, I should explain that I feel a strong attachment to Midwestern weather. I grew up in Michigan and, though I have lived in California for a number of years, I still miss the idea of snow in the winter. Third, I’ll admit that I’m feeling something like a fear of missing out (#FOMO). The Polar Vortex is an event–both meteorologically and culturally. It hasn’t been this cold in Chicago in twenty years (or more). Shouldn’t I be there? Will I get another chance? Will it happen again in my lifetime? (Incidentally, I think this is what makes it “the most hipster thing [I’ve] ever done.”) Fourth, Joan Didion used to do this kind of thing. And isn’t that reason enough?

And before we go any further, let me try to settle the question of how much of a jackass flying into the Polar Vortex makes me. I would suggest that the answer is “not as much as you think.” Because my partner works for an airline, I flew for free. I stayed at an airport hotel that I booked on Priceline. In other words, I didn’t blow a bunch of money on this bizarre adventure. More importantly, I want to stress that I contributed very little to the wider travel difficulties at O’Hare. I flew standby, so I didn’t take up a seat that anyone else needed/wanted. And in the face of small delays and minor frustrations, I was calm, patient, kind. I wasn’t a jerk. I tipped excessively whenever tipping was appropriate.  My goal–and I think I achieved it–was to make no one’s day worse. So while this may have been a weird and possibly crazy adventure, I am confident that it didn’t harm anyone.

§

My flight to O’Hare is very empty. I have a whole row to myself, which is not surprising, really–who’s actually trying to go into this? What is surprising is that it’s one of the smoothest transcontinental flights I’ve had in recent memory (except for the wind in Chicago as we land). By it’s very name, the Polar Vortex suggests a remarkable atmospheric disturbance, but it’s not noticeable on this day at 36,000 feet. The skies are clear the entire flight and, somewhere around western Nebraska, a light dusting of snow on the ground outlines the topography of the plains. The snow on the ground gets deeper as we get closer to Chicago. At the Illinois border, the Mississippi is covered by a frozen crust. In air this cold, hot moist air (exhausts, smoke, etc.) becomes thick white clouds of vapor. Some sort of industrial plant near the Illinois-Wisconsin border throws off a dense white plume that the winds blow eastward–in a long, straight, visible line–for what I estimate to be almost fifty miles.

The snow-outlined topography of Nebraska.

The snow-outlined topography of Nebraska.


The frozen Mississippi.

The frozen Mississippi.

Because we need to approach and land facing into the wind, we overshoot ORD and turn around over Lake Michigan. From my window seat, I have a spectacular view of the Loop. There are wisps of low clouds hanging over the city and plumes of vapor from the buildings’ air vents–it looks like half the city is burning. I see the Chicago River and it’s flowing, but it looks strange, fuzzy, almost as if clouds of smoke are coming off of it. I realize that the water itself–freezing cold, but probably more than forty degrees warmer than the ambient air–is producing clouds of “steam” or fog as it evaporates. Then, moments later, I see the lake itself. There’s a frozen crust along the shoreline, but farther out the chunks of floating ice cluster together, forming lace-like patterns. In between the ice chunks, there are wisps of fog/”steam” rising from the open water. I would never have imagined this. It’s creepy and apocalyptic, as if the lake is boiling while downtown burns. We bank sharply and I get a long view. It’s mesmerizing and horrible.

Lake Michigan, frozen and steaming, with The Loop in the background.

Lake Michigan, frozen and steaming, with The Loop in the background.

On the ground, my first taste of the cold is in the jetway as I deplane. It’s warmer than being outside, of course, but it’s still almost shocking. My first breath makes me cough, which turns into a kind of disbelieving laugh. The woman behind me make a similar sound as she steps out of the plan and the businessman ahead of me turns and smiles at us with shared amusement. I will have this type of experience again and again the rest of the day–with doormen, smokers, other pedestrians–when we, in each other’s presence, step in and out of the cold. It’s like we can’t quite believe what the cold feels like and we need to reassure each other that “yes, I’m feeling it too.” The cold–this type of cold–becomes a collective experience.

On the ground at O'Hare.

On the ground at O’Hare.

§

Above, I already gave several reasons why I wanted to take this trip. But what these reasons left out–what they overlooked–is that there is a somatic reason. The point of seeking out the cold is to feel the cold. And it’s not just about feeling cold; it’s about feeling colder than I have ever felt. It’s about expanding my experience of cold, feeling something I’ve never felt before. If you want to quantify it, you can think about it in terms of what I’m going to call a “lifetime temperature range”–the hottest and coldest temperatures that you’ve ever experienced outdoors. The warmest temperature that I’ve ever felt was 109 degrees (in Las Vegas); the coldest (before this trip) was right around 0 degrees (in Michigan one winter). This trip, then, allows me to add almost 15 degrees to my lifetime temperature range.

§

An hour later, after checking into an eerily empty hotel, it’s time for my first prolonged excursion into the cold. I am here to feel it, after all. The weather report on the hotel television says that it’s -13 degrees with a wind chill of -39. I need to be dressed like a Shackleton, but, as you can imagine, I don’t have all of the necessary clothes for this (I’ve lived in California too long). My solution is layers. I wear several pairs of socks. I put on multiple shirts and a thermal (under a jacket that I did buy in the Midwest). I have two scarves. The problem is my legs–I’m only wearing jeans, although my jacket does extend below my waist. I step outside and, to the incredulity of the doorman, announce my intention to walk to the end of the block. With the first gust of wind, my eyes are tearing. The snow is cold and dry and it squeaks under my boots. Within a couple hundred feet, my breath is freezing in my mustache (and yes, my nose hair). The breath from my mouth freezes my scarf to my beard. I want to pretend that the air temperature is bearable–searing, but bearable. But the wind is a different story. My torso (under four layers) feels fine; my knees and thighs do not. I stop several times to take selfies with my phone, my momentarily unmittened hand getting pinker and unsteadier each time. In the photos, I clearly look uncomfortable, but also excited and–in a way–happy. I stay outside for twenty minutes, making it to the end of the block. As I head back to the hotel, I begin to worry about my legs, which are going numb. The feeling comes back in the elevator: a tingling, then a burning, then an weakness that causes me to lean against the wall for a moment. Back in the room, I find that my knees and thighs are chapped and bright pink. I take a pic and send it to my partner. I tell him that, on the whole, it was actually kind of fun.

Feeling the wind.

Feeling the wind.

Two hours later, it’s dark and the Polar Vortex is already starting to wane: -12 degrees, -37 wind chill. I decide to walk down the block even further to another hotel for dinner. This time, I’ll be wearing basketball shorts under my jeans to layer my knees and thighs. The shorts are thin, but they actually help. The cold is still overwhelming (especially the two minutes that I stand on the corner waiting for the crosswalk light), but I manage. The restaurant is terrible, and mostly empty, but I get to sit right next to the fireplace. As I layer up to go back outside, the hostess is nonplussed:
“Are you going outside?”
“Yes, I’m going back to my hotel.”
“Did you drive here?”
“No.”
“You’re going to walk?”
“Yes.”
“But it’s too cold! You should use our indoor walkway! It’s a much longer walk because it goes through the convention center, but you won’t have to go outside.”
“But I want to go outside.”
“Why would you want to go outside?”
“I want to feel the cold.”
“Why?”
“I live in California!”
To me, this seems like a perfectly reasonable response, but I can tell immediately that my answer entails, for her, exactly the opposite course of action. For her, living in California should mean that you don’t want to feel cold. She rolls her eyes and lets me go with a concerned admonition to “Be careful.”

Abandoned parking garage.

Abandoned parking garage.

Maybe it was sitting next to a roaring fire for an hour, but by the time I get back to my hotel, I feel like I could keep walking. (Or perhaps the wind has eased a bit.) I continue down the block in the other direction toward a park at the end of the street. I pass an abandoned parking garage that’s waiting for demolition. The snow is blowing across the bare concrete slab under the bright fluorescent lights. It’s eerie, but then again, so it is the whole street, deserted in the snow. My iPhone is barely registering my finger on the touchscreen at this point; I have to use the volume buttons to click the shutter. At the end of the block, I reach the park. There’s a purple-orange glow from the city lights behind the bare tree branches. I manage to take one photo before my iPhone gives up entirely and shuts down. Back at the hotel, I crank the thermostat to 76, unlayer, and lay down to watch the football game. Twenty minutes later, I realize that I’m shivering uncontrollably. I take a hot shower to get warm again–it takes a while.

The last picture before my iPhone shut itself off.

The last picture before my iPhone shut itself off.

§

Of course, if I’m going to talk about my pursuit of the Polar Vortex as a primarily somatic experience, I have to talk about pain. As I think I’ve made clear, it hurts to be that cold–in a myriad of ways (my knees, my cheeks, my hands, my sinuses). So why would I seek out such pain? I’m not going to deny my ascetic impulses. I could spin a story here about the pleasures of internalized cruelty and it wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But I don’t think it’s the only story. There is more pleasure here than the pleasure of self-punishment; there is also a pleasure in reminding myself that I have a (mortal) body. Stepping out into the cold is a way of forcing an experience of embodiment, an experience that, even in pain, is not without a type of pleasure. And not just an experience of partial embodiment, like when you have pain in a specific body part (a toe, a knee, your head). This is cold that makes you feel large swaths of your skin, many of your muscles and bones, all of your respiratory organs. It produces something close to a sense of a full body in pain. And because it is temporary, and because it is chosen, there is, I think, a pleasure in this.

§

When I get on the airport shuttle the next morning, it’s -2 degrees (wind chill -20). It clearly feels warmer, so much so that I get a little reckless. I get off the shuttle with an open coat and no hat or gloves. For a few moments, I offer my head, neck, and hands to the Polar Vortex. And the Vortex rewards me–it allows me to leave. Two hours later, it is my remarkble luck that there are enough no-shows for me to get a seat on what was supposed to be (as of that morning) a full flight. By that evening, I’m back in unseasonably warm, increasingly drought-stricken San Francisco (which promises its own type of extreme weather).

Let me try one last way to make sense of this trip. For Christmas in 2012, I received a small book called The Weather Calendar. Compiled by “Mrs. Henry Head” around the turn of the twentieth century, it collects references to the weather from letters, diaries, and journals by historical English and French writers (spanning the 16th to late 19th century), one reference to correspond to each day of the calendar year. For example, the epigraph from Swift above is from December 30 (Swift wrote it on that date in 1710). It’s a remarkable collection. On a lark, I decided to turn this book into a project on Facebook for 2013. Every day last year, I posted the corresponding entry for that date. I called it my “Weather Project” and I posted faithfully almost every day. I lived in Mrs. Head’s collection for an entire year. And when the project ended, naturally, on the final day of 2013, I felt for several days at loose ends. It was only after I returned from Chicago that a dear friend pointed out that it wasn’t exactly a coincidence that my Polar Vortex adventure happened less than a week after the end of my Weather Project. When we read it this way, my visit to the Polar Vortex becomes a transfer and reinvestment of psychic energy–from the history of weather to the personal experience of weather. It becomes a type of performance piece. It’s a companion (and idiosyncratic capstone) to Mrs. Head’s Weather Calendar: almanac becomes travelogue. It’s a different way of collecting weather, a mode of collection that I intend to pursue. Stay tuned, you sauceboxes.

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