Ten days after leaving International Falls, I realize I did not say a proper goodbye or convey to anyone listening that I have enjoyed your company. My going was too soft and too hard, too happy returning and too hard to leaving.
I feel welcome here in the oasis of Pasadena. I feel a warm wind of reception as if I have brought some sense of metaphor from the cold to share. People seem receptive to ideas derived in much different air. I have given the talk twice, trying to answer the questions I posed before going. Empathy with my strange vacation has felt good, as if some people think their own lives could use a little weirdness.
Back in November I tried to explain what sent me off alone to a cold place for the winter, where I have no family or friends, no tourist destination, no prospect of making money—and to spend Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. I tried to convince you that it’s a budget item against available time—some thirty years—in the same way that the available money is allocated where length of life is unknown.
I felt honored to be doing this strange thing—to have the time, the freedom, health, and tolerance for being alone. I wondered, as I talked about it back then, if Thoreau who built his own house in a far-off place, felt any more honored on its completion than I did as I began.
I could have gone anywhere that’s cold with a small town and cheap accommodations, but I found those conditions met in only a few places. I arrived at International Falls because it promised to be the coldest place in the lower forty-eight states and has virtually no tourists in the winter.
I expected to spend a lot of time outside, learning to survive extreme cold, feeling and finding insights. I wanted to ice skate and ski and snowshoe. I wanted to become part of winter, not just a brief observer of it. And I wanted to understand the lives of people who live in these conditions all their lives, to compare, edit, write and ponder the exceeding cold and loneliness of border songs, bird songs, and the Aurora Borealis. This is what I expected, and I expressed the hope that I was wrong. For in being wrong, I would change and find childish newness.
What I found is mostly put down in these sixty-two blog posts. It is not what I expected.
I spent a lot of time outdoors, as hoped, and I skated and skied. I became a part of winter, not just an observer, and learned after many errors, how to dress and how to breathe. I have a little black spot on one toe, frost-nip, gained early, and it told me that to make it here I needed training. But after many days of not giving up, I can say that I have learned to survive for a few hours in most cold circumstances. While living in simple houses as the Paleo Indians did is still beyond me, living outside in the daytime is not, and if I find a warm place at night I feel quite proud to say that I can stand a day at well below zero.
But mere survival is just the start, a kind of potty training that an infant Eskimo learns on the way to becoming fully socialized and acclimated. I learned that almost none of the residents care about these things. They walk from their houses to their cars and from their cars to the next warm place. They dress with half the insulation I wear because they do not stay outside long enough to need more. With few exceptions, they are happy living here because the interiors of buildings are warm.
I did not associate with them very much because most of our interests differed. I walked to Sandy’s Café most mornings or had coffee with Jerry and Sandy, my landlords, and walked to church on Sundays, and that was about the only contact. The rest of the time I was alone on skis, in boots, in the woods, ice skating and generally being enthralled with the wonderful cold sparkling place I had come to.
I made a few friends, but even they did not quite understand my coming. There was always a small suspicion in their eyes as to my real motives. Katrina at Sandy’s Cafe understood I think, but she is a free thinker on many topics. If it seems that I have emphasized the beauty of ice crystals and diamond dust at the expense of understanding the people, then you see this adventure as I do. I wish to have better communicated with them; they are good people.
In summary, I got more than I hoped for in winter knowledge and appreciation, and less than I wanted in the lives of residents.
Thank you for reading and for your comments.