Monday-Temperature 35F, Windchill 26F
I woke up at 3:45 AM to find that we had a snowfall during the night. The temperature was about 35F; not impossibly cold. I put on a scarf, my red stocking cap, ski gloves, and donned my Cabella down coat. On my Bogs boots, I strapped on a pair of YakTraks ice cleats and headed out the door. Off I went on my 3.5-mile round trip walk to Starbucks.
I had discovered YakTraks a few years back, and they have allowed me to walk much more securely on icy sidewalks. We have had strange weather in the Midwest with warm rainy days followed by freezing cold. These juxtapositioned temperatures have resulted in a lot of very slippery sidewalk ice, which is even more dangerous when it is hidden by freshly fallen snow. I have had a lot of near falls in the last month, which is why I have become increasingly dependent on the YakTraxs.
The weather reports had all been warning about an upcoming Arctic Blast that was scheduled to hit Chicago on Wednesday. They spoke of the lowest temperatures in Chicago’s history and cautioned everyone to stay inside.
I decided to walk on that Wednesday, despite potential temperatures below -20F. I felt that I could face the cold safely if I prepared adequately. My overall goal is to try to walk most days, and through the years I have purchased gear to handle most any weather. I’m hardly a risk taker, but I like to push the envelope and challenge myself.
I did a mental inventory of the things that I already had at home that would be useful for the trek, and went on a hunt and gather mission in my closet. I looked for a pair of glove liners, but I found my old trooper hat instead. I located a good flannel shirt and my Naperville North orange hoodie. In my sock drawn I grabbed two pairs of heavy socks. I planned on wearing jeans, but I knew that they wouldn’t be warm enough on their own. I clicked on Amazon and found an inexpensive, but recommended pair of thermal underwear and ordered it. I popped for the extra $3 next day delivery charge. At the same time, I ordered a pair of inexpensive ski goggles. In past winters I discovered that frigid cold wind would really burn my eyes and I was unsure what -20F would do to them. With accessories gathered or ordered I felt up for the challenge.
Tuesday-Temperature 0F, Windchill -26F
Another day to get up at 3:45 AM, Same gear as Monday, same walk. On my return I made a horrible discovery, I lost my YakTrax cleats on my left boot. That explained why I was slipping so much! I checked the driveway and looked down the street for the rubbery, spikey band. It was nowhere to be found.
I left mention of my intentions of walking the morning of the Arctic Blast on Facebook and received many responses from friends and family advising me to reconsider my plans. Most said that my actions were foolish and a few offered an alternative, like taking a nice walk in at the mall.
My son William seemed especially concerned and clearly wanted me to stay home. My wife Julie said that it wasn’t uncommon for her to walk to school in sub -20F temps in Minnesota, “They never closed schools.” Spoken like a real Swede! With that said, she was not without concern as she showed me where she kept her stash of hand warmers.
I checked Amazon, and the soonest I could get a replacement for the YakTraxs was the following Monday. I checked the websites of local stores to see who carried ice cleats and headed out to buy a pair. First Walmart- sold out. Then Dick’s- sold out. Then Home Depot- sold out. Then Ace Hardware- sold out, but the Ace manager did say that they had a different brand that was still in stock. Those cleats consisted of a small rubber band that was held onto a boot with a flimsy sheet of velcro. Being the only option, they were the best option, and I bought them.
Wednesday-Temperature -24F, Windchill -52F
I woke up at 3:45 and noticed that the house seemed colder than usual. Everything was silent and dark. I had stacked my clothes on the chair in the corner the night before and grabbed them in the dark, so as not to wake Julie. I dressed in the bathroom.
Thermal long sleeve T-shirt, thermal long johns, two pairs of socks, flannel shirt, heavy jeans, hoodie.
I went downstairs and checked the weather on the computer as I drank a half cup of coffee and ate an apple with peanut butter. Then it was time to complete my preparation.
Down coat, face mask, trooper hat, ski goggles, scarf over my nose and mouth, coat’s hood over everything. Into my gloves, I placed the hand warmers that Julie shared with me.
I had set up a chair in the hallway to make it easier to put on my Bog boots. I had already attached the new ice cleats, and they were sharp and seemed like they could damage the floor, so I wanted to be able to get the boots on and be out the door in a single step.
I opened the door and faced the elements. I have discovered that when you leave the house on a cold day you temporarily take the house’s heat with you, and for the first 30 feet or so it didn’t feel cold at all, but then it hit me.
I had dressed so well that it felt like a typical cold day and I started to walk. Some sidewalks were freshly shoveled, but even these had a thick layer of ice on them. Within 4 houses I began to notice that my feet were really slipping and I almost fell a few times. I looked down at my boots, and even in the dark, I could see that both my ice cleats were missing. It was time to problem solve.
The most sensible option would have been to return home. However, I absolutely didn’t want to do that as I had prepared so well and I really wanted to challenge myself. Staying on the sidewalk was a no go. Every few feet I found myself almost falling. It was dark, and just about everyone was indoors. If I fell and lost consciousness, there was the real chance that the snow that I fell into would melt and negate all of my carefully planned layers. The possibility of freezing to death at -52F is real. Walking on the sidewalk was not an option.
My brain moved into problem-solving mode. I could walk on the grassy, snow-covered lawns, but the snow was too deep, and I would surely get wet. The streets, being dark asphalt, retained more heat and thereby were less icy. I usually don’t like walking on the streets because of the possibility of getting hit by a car, but it was a reasonable option, and it would allow me to continue my journey. I elected to do it.
My face, trunk, and feet were all pretty warm, but my legs were starting to feel the burn from the cold. My ski goggles were definitely helping, but they were beginning to ice up in a way similar to a car windshield on a frosty day. The ice started at the top of the goggles, and with each block, it expanded down a bit.
The cars on the road were few, and I was grateful for the limited traffic. A middle-aged couple in a minivan stopped and asked me if I needed a ride; I told them I was thankful for their kindness, but I was OK. My walk continued. A few blocks later I saw a compact car stopped dead in the middle of the road a block ahead of me. I was concerned that something was wrong. I approached the vehicle and saw an older man sitting in the driver’s seat; I asked him if he was OK. He said he was waiting specifically for me, and that he would be happy to drive me anywhere I needed to go, “It’s too cold for you to be out.” I thanked him for his kindness and moved on.
I entered Starbucks, but I was unrecognizable due to my getup. I waved to the barista and said hello. She recognized me and rewarded my walk by upgrading my coffee. Initially, I had the entire coffee shop to myself, and I set up my laptop and started to write. My friend Tom showed up to visit and commented that his diesel pickup started without a hitch. I was amazed as I thought a diesel required some sort of heater to keep its fuel from turning into Jello on freezing cold days. He went off to his worksite, and I redressed for the walk home.
It was now light outside, and there was more car traffic. A man in his 30s driving a BMW was very annoyed with me (edging close to me with his car) because I was taking too long to cross an icy street, and this delayed his left-hand turn. I wasn’t about to speed up my efforts so he could arrive at his destination 3 minutes earlier.
The return trip seemed colder, but also quicker. I decided to walk down Jefferson instead of my usual Jackson as I thought that the roads would be less slippery. As I crossed the DuPage River, an old Chevy pulled up alongside me. It was full of young Mexican guys, and I guessed that they were going to work. The window on the passenger side rolled down, and I saw a youngish man with a concerned look on his face. “Sir, can we offer you a ride somewhere?” I told them that I was only two blocks away from my destination. I thanked them and sent them on their way. I arrived home feeling triumphant. I honestly felt like I had just scaled Mount Everest.
My actions were not foolish, they were careful and calculated. The safest option would have been to stay in bed. The possibility that I chose did have some risk, but it was not reckless. I like the idea of pushing myself because when I do that, I grow. The lessons that I learned on other cold day walks served me well on this freezing day. No information is ever useless, you just need to know when to apply it.
I gained more information on that freezing day. Out of the four encounters that I had with drivers, three of them showed me how good and wonderful strangers can be.