This is not the cold you think it is. Because this is not a cold you can imagine. But try, for a moment, to envision arriving somewhere on a plane, to a land that appears entirely white from the window as you land. Several smokestacks can be seen in the distance, but the steam coming out of them doesn't move. It just hovers in a thick white, static mass, like it's permanently tethered to the chimney in that shape. You watch several big rig trucks pass on the highways that surround the airport, but their exhaust fumes don't evaporate into the atmosphere. They rake the back of the truck, hanging in a curved spine over the load making the trucks appear like long, smoking, chrome-faced beasts prowling the highways of this place. The captain's voice welcomes you to your final destination where the current temperature is -6.
You stop by the baggage claim to find the carry-on you were forced to check in Anchorage due to the piles of winter coats that plugged up the plane's overhead storage. You grab your single, carry-on sized suitcase that you regret is entirely inadequate to hold the thick, goose-down attire you wish you'd packed. At the rental car counter the clerk hands you an extension chord and tells you you'll be responsible for it if it gets lost. You give him a quizzical look. “For winterization,” he says dismissively. You thought “winterizing” a car meant putting snow tires on. He reminds you that in the wintertime here it's necessary to plug the car in to activate its engine block and battery warmers, or “good luck getting her started,” he chuckles. Stepping outside you breathe naturally like you did indoors except now the air is so void of moisture your shocked throat closes in protest. The hacking exhales hang like a cloud in front of you so thick it obscures your vision. You unplug the car from the rail, like untying a horse from a corral. The remaining wire hangs from the grill like a serpent's tongue. You search for where to stow it. Under the hood perhaps? You rid yourself of this thought instantly. Touching any of this car's metal would freeze flesh like the touch of Midas. On the drive to find the hotel you notice the same foot-long bit of power cable dangling from their front grills of every car. You feel better, more assured, more native. Then at your first right turn the wheels spin out, the anti-lock breaks engage and you're sliding across two lanes of traffic. You note that the darkness you're driving on is not in fact asphalt, but 1-2 inches of solid ice. You note others' speeds are substantially below the posted speed limits. No vehicle moves faster than 25. You adjust your speed. Passing the Denali State Bank the temperature at 12:37 reads -9.
The Denny's next door to the hotel claims on its signage to be the “northernmost Denny's in the world.” You resolve (as strongly as one can to eat at a Denny's) to eat at this one, knowing how useful this little bit of braggadocio will come in handy during some Denny's visit down the road “Yup. This Denny's is pretty good. Not like the northernmost one up there in the Alaskan interior, of course.” You fishtail into a parking spot at the hotel, plug the car into one of the many outdoor outlets you were told would be on the building, but still surprised and feeling a little foolish as you do it. You sleep, wondering what change the sun will bring.
In the morning you choke on the air again. You stop after backing up, noticing the chord dragging on the ground in front of you that pulling out of the space has ripped out of the wall. You hop out and roll it up, noting to remember it next time. You drive, slowly slowly down Fairbanks' main drag, seeing snowmobile tracks where sidewalks should be. At the first location you scout for the night's shoot, you begin to notice the undeniable ache permeating through the soles of your feet from their constant contact with the perma-frosted ground. You worry that perhaps the new rubber muckboots you extensively researched and overpaid for before you left could prove to be the worst possible choice of footwear for this environment, the rubber a pitiful insulant against the cold, and the excess sweat from the non-breathability of the material only conducting the cold deeper into the marrow of the tiny bones in your feet. You can feel all 52 of them. You promise yourself to think these things through better next time. The wet on your upper lip is numbing your bottom one and you wonder at the source of the moisture. You try to stretch the top lip out by sucking both lips in and feel the awful tug of what is unmistakably concrete stuck in the hair of your mustache. Dumbfounded at how you got concrete on your upper lip you touch it and realize from the texture and temperature that it's not concrete at all, but ice. Thick, hard, encrusted ice from the moist air that's frozen on its way out of your face. It's uncomfortable so you breathe from the mouth. And choke. When the sun goes down so does the temperature. By nightfall it's -10.
By 4:30 in the morning, about the time your first test shoot is over, it's -15. You can't feel your face, except the tightness of your crusted upper lip. The soles of your feet are not numb. Much more like standing atop a bed of sharp nails. It hurts so bad you refused to stand anymore three hours ago. Feeling sheepish that your partner had to do all the work in your car-ridden absence, you muster up the gumption to pull your feet out from under the dashboard heater, stuff them back into your frost-conducting rubbers, and hobble back out into the snow to help him at least break down the cameras. You take one of the cameras by its tripod and begin to fold it when a sharp and very localized burning shoots through your fingers. You rip your hand away like you would away from fire to see that the metal of the tripod leg was so cold it actually burned the skin off the tips of your fingers. Through the scorching pain in your fingertips you're overtaken not by anger but by a feeling of sheer awe. You had not anticipated this. You resolve very strongly never to dare anyone to stick their poor tongue against a frozen metal pole again. You apologize to your friend, and promise to be better tomorrow after a quick stop at the boot and glove store. You feel defeated and disappointed. You rebuff your New England cynicism. This is about as real as it gets.
You thought you were a tough guy. The rugged kind.
Note to self: remember to get footsie warmers at the store tomorrow.