It’s almost mid-winter and feeling fairly cold, but, to compare, the lowest temperature recorded on earth was observed on July 21, 1983, by Soviet scientists at Vostok Station in Antarctica. They figured it was 128.6ºF below zero, which is just plain “stupid cold,” compromising the ability to reason. You can’t help but think that there must have been some Russian vodka involved with this reading.

“Ivan! My lashes have frozen together and I can hardly open my eyes. Can you read the thermometer?”

“No, comrade, it seems to be frozen at -40 and is no longer functioning. However, some of the vodka we left out in the snow is still not frozen.”

“Good. Take a bottle that is almost frozen back to the lab. We will extrapolate the outside temperature by determining its freezing point.”

“Very fine idea. We are running low in the lab on alcohol anyway ... to use in our alcohol lamps, of course.”

“Of course; I know my ‘alcohol lamp’ runs much better on that ‘Russian Standard’.”

“‘Absolut’ ... ly, comrade, absolutely.”

My coldest experience took place in Glennallen, Alaska, when the winter night temperature fell to 56 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. It is interesting to note that the mercury in an old-fashioned thermometer — the kind with the silver column that rises and falls with the temperature, freezes at 40 below zero. At -56 you need an alcohol-based thermometer to let other people know just how cold it is.

I found that, as Americans, we are compelled to get the car started at any temperature and go someplace no matter how much the car would prefer just staying put or, better still, inside the cabin. In town you can plug the engine heater into a convenient outlet. But at the cabin, Alaskans employ a more primitive approach, using a sizeable propane weed burner and a length of stove pipe with an elbow. The massive blow torch is lit and placed in the pipe while the elbow end is directed against the bottom of the engine. This arrangement gives some distance between the flames and the car, but even if the flames lick the engine block, you have plenty of time to adjust it before anything heats up enough to catch alight. At this point you might cover the hood of the car with tarps in a pitiful attempt to keep in the heat and then retreat to the cabin to wait with a cup of coffee.

After a time the car might be warm enough to start or if you have mixed too many shots of brandy with the coffee, it may be totally engulfed in flame. This spectacle is typically enjoyed from a distance, as nobody wants a front-row seat when that propane tank blows.

Generally there is not so much excitement. The engine will reluctantly turn over and, wonder of wonders, start running. After a sufficient period of warming up without the propane assist, I would try to push down on the clutch, having a manual transmission. The clutch pedal takes some time to go down. Everything mechanical reacts in slow motion. Once the clutch is engaged (which by that time it could have been not only engaged but married with children), it’s time to find first gear. Searching for the gears with the shift lever is like stirring a barrel of cold honey with a canoe paddle, but doable with practice. There is no need to slowly disengage the clutch; you just slip your foot off the pedal and it will return to the up position ever so slowly and with more precision than if you were deliberately being extra careful. 

As you start down the road there is a definite thump-thump-thump because your tires are flat on one side, too cold to conform to the road. If you take a turn throwing your wheels out of sync, you bump along awkwardly going thump-th-thump-th-thump. Eventually the tires warm up enough and you can get on your way, presumably to someplace warmer if the cold has not compromised your ability to reason.

Truth be told, the cold has damaged us long ago. We stay put enduring winter after winter and tell our stories over and over about how cold it was when we were younger. My coldest experience took place in Glennallen, Alaska, when the winter night temperature fell to 56 degrees below zero....