“Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold and that he had never experienced such cold.” — Jack London, “To Build a Fire.”
Though it’s eased a bit, this is the coldest December that I’ve seen in my two decades in the Northern Rockies. Some locals describe it as the most bitter month since the 1970s other than any number of Januarys since. In other words: January in December. When I chat up the Salmon weather with family and friends back east, I tell them it’s no problem because unlike the chill found in their environs it’s a “dry cold.” Yeah, right, I think.
But there is something to this. Twenty below at dawn is a searing cold, but zero at noon of a crystal clear sunny and windless day seems almost mild. There’s little humidity in the air. The glaring white mountains look halfway closer. And though car exhaust escapes tailpipes in billowing clouds, people are seen going about lightly dressed. A woman wearing a light windbreaker trots from a heated car and into the grocery store. A man wearing a zipped up hoodie without the hood up, a baseball cap and no gloves, strolls down the street chatting on a cellphone. But at roughly 4PM when the sun sets behind Mt. Baldy it’s back to reality. Speaking of reality, with electric baseboard heating in my apartment, I could go for some real Aristotelian deferred gratification when it comes to opening up next month’s “Idaho Power” bill.
Five or ten below in the evening means that I “layer up”: ski gloves, long sleeve fleece under a ski jacket, and my “Elmer Fudd” hat. It’s just as the reader pictures it: It’s dark blue, tall and ugly, and has huge ear flaps that almost touch my shoulders. This hat is definitely not a hip fashion statement. I wear it only a dozen or so nights per winter. And I don’t think of it as a hat. When I wear it I feel like an astronaut with my head occupying a tiny warm room as I view in a detached way the frigid world before me. You know it’s cold when I open the closet and beat the dust off Elmer Fudd.
I wore Elmer Fudd out to the fabulous Owl Club the other night, a five blocks squeaky snow walk from my apartment. I promptly removed him upon entering the bar because he looks plain dumb when worn indoors. Then — thanks to crossing a threshold and going from ten below to seventy above — my glasses fogged up, and I stood in a noisy barroom with people talking to me or calling my name, and I couldn’t see. With Elmer Fudd under my arm and glasses frame clenched in my teeth, I stood at the bar, and ordered my O’Douls with my nose in my wallet so I could see if I was handing sweet Sarah the cheerful bartender a George, Abe, Alexander, or Andrew. Forget the numbers, faces are easier.
When my glasses clear up I can enjoy sports events on four big screens. Elk and deer heads adorn the walls by the pool table. The backbar is that shiny, ornate, faux redwood with columns and mirrors in alcoves seen in countless Western watering holes, and they always remind me of Buffalo Bill’s famous saloon in the Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming. The Owl Club has a venerable history in Salmon dating back to mining and logging days, but a couple of years ago became Salmon’s only smoke-free (of four) bar. I don’t care; I quit smoking years ago. There’s a cozy courtyard (cozy in the summer, anyway) with picnic tables out the backdoor, and I sometimes hang out with my smoker friends as they grab a few puffs out in the cold. And you can take your drinks outside. But these fresh air sojourns are brief lately and my glasses fog up yet again upon returning inside.
I talked to my friend and fellow TAS contributor Happy Jack Feder on the phone the other night. He lives with his family in Helena, Montana, about 250 miles north of Salmon. We are also separated by the Continental Divide on the lofty Bitterroot Mountains bordering Montana and Idaho. As any meteorologist can tell you, the Divide does a great job in funneling cold Canadian air east of the Rockies through Montana and Wyoming and then into the Midwest. In other words, the truly frigid weather stays out of Idaho and the Pacific Northwest.
Happy is a Montanan and they can be pretty smug about cold weather. During the recent cold snap he boasted that Helena hadn’t been above zero “for four days”. One day the high temperature in Helena was six below zero. I couldn’t beat that. All the high temperatures in Salmon that week were above zero. Happy has to leave his beloved 1960s-era Volkswagen bus in first gear at night or the transmission will freeze-up and be inoperable. This makes for jumpy starts in the morning. VW buses are so well insulated that after he’s finished scraping the ice off the outside windshield and windows, he has to scrape the ice off the inside windshield and windows. And anybody who’s ever owned one knows how efficient the heaters are. Just ask the “Car Talk” guys on NPR if you like motorhead hilarity. Though Helena doesn’t have it as bad as Jordan, Havre, or Glasgow — Montana towns that flirted with forty below last week. At forty below car batteries freeze solid, motor oil has the consistency of day old Jello, and shrinking air pressure makes your tires go flat. Block heaters are very popular.
Fine, Happy, keep Montana. I’ll take Idaho. It’s warmer. Oh, and Merry Christmas, old friend. Stay warm.