It was 31° below zero the other morning when I drove up to St. Johnsbury.
The storm door on the back porch opened hard. When I stepped off the porch, it sounded like I was walking on Styrofoam. The hinges creaked as I pulled open the car door, and the icy cold leather seat stung the back of my thighs as I slid inside. The engine turned over like it was filled with molasses, but at least it started.
Every little imperfection in the frozen road surface was telegraphed up through the car’s unyielding suspension into my now frozen buttocks as I drove down the hill and over the bridge across the Connecticut River. When the needle on the temperature gauge finally started to move, I switched on the fan. It squealed in protest.
As the inside of the car warmed, I thought back to another time I’d been out in such fiercely cold weather.
On New Year’s Day 1993, my wife and I drove up across the border into Quebec to take pictures. It was a bright clear morning when we left a friend’s house in northern Vermont. The temperature was –15°.
I got some beautiful shots on the back road up to Sherbrooke, but by noon a good snowstorm had blown in. We weren’t far from a picturesque round barn in Barnston that I had photographed the previous summer, so I decided to take some shots of it in the wintry weather before we turned back. I wasn’t concerned about getting stuck because my trusty old Volvo wagon wore four Gislived snow tires.
It was snowing harder, and the wind was howling when we reached the barn. I pulled into a plowed driveway and put on my hat, gloves and long wool stadium coat. Then I gathered up my camera and tripod and headed out into the field beside the barn.
I’ve never taken photos under such adverse conditions. The wind sucked the heat away from my body in spite of numerous layers of warm clothing.
I set up my tripod and snapped a few pictures. On the third shot the shutter froze. After coming that far in that weather, I didn’t want to go home empty-handed; so I took the camera off the tripod and stuffed it inside my coat.
After several minutes, I pulled out the camera and snapped a few more shots. I repeated this process several times until I was sure I had a good picture. By then, I was really feeling the cold.
When I turned to head back to the car, I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t find my tracks in the snow. I was caught in a whiteout in the middle of a large field with the temperature well below zero. After a moment of vertigo, I set off in the general direction of the car. With nothing to guide me, I couldn’t tell if I was even going in a straight line.
I strained to see some landmark.
Finally, I spotted a phone pole. I worked my way toward it and climbed over the snowbank into the road. I could see the faint outline of the house where the car was parked and headed in that direction.
The warmth of the car was sublime. I peeled off my coat, hat and gloves and held my frozen fingers against the heater grilles as the car rocked with each gust of wind. My wife looked up from her book and asked me how it went. I told her she didn’t want to know.
Looking at the photograph still makes me cold.
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