Starting the Car on the Coldest Day of 2013

Finally, more than forty below the morning I wrote this. Twenty-three below in absolute terms, wind chill minus forty. According to the U.S. Weather Bureau, it's the coldest it has ever been on December 11th in Bismarck. I love days like this. This is when you truly feel like a North Dakotan! The snow has a perfect blue cast. The air is absolutely clear, crystalline, electric, almost crackly. You feel that if you fired a pistol into the air on a morning like this, the whole sky (the Bible's empyrean) and everything under it would shatter into a trillion miniature ice crystals and just collapse around you in a prolonged tinkling. I watched the sunrise from my kitchen window well after eight a.m., but it seemed as if the real sun was vacationing in Australia and we were assigned a sub from the minor leagues. Plenty of light but no heat. The sun looked like a giant fried egg yoke congealing on the eastern horizon.

When you walk out of the house on mornings like this, the utter windlessness makes things a little eerie. We all know how to handle the usual North Dakota ground blizzard, the day's first bite of raw wind that feels as if it might rip your outer skin right off. But when you walk out the door expecting wind and discover that the great world is unnaturally silent, when you sense how incredibly cold it is rather than immediately feel it, that's a wonderful North Dakota moment. Suddenly you are a character in one of Jack London's Klondike stories—some survival instinct deep in your DNA below the tripwire of consciousness realizes that you are now in a potentially dangerous situation, that there is no room for error on a morning like this, that if you ran out of gas near Glen Ullin (as I did in August), you could die in short order no matter what you're wearing. For Jack London characters up on the Yukon in mid-December, it is always a life-or-death struggle to strike the last match successfully with numb clumsy fingers. For us the question is: will the car start?

My old used Honda has a remote starter. That's the sort of over-civilized gadget I like to sneer at, like heated car seats or hand warmers. I tried it twice from the kitchen window this morning, but my car just wheezed and coughed. So I ventured out to the crisp air, a mere 54 degrees below the freezing point. Silence. The only sound, the faraway crunch-thud of my feet on the snowpack, seemed as if it were miles away, or that it was coming from someone else's feet. It was so cold that when I pulled open the car door it felt as if it might just sheer off from low temperature metal fatigue. I sat down on the seat. It was frozen solid. It didn't give a millimeter. So it was that cold. The seat was as hard and uncomfortable as metal bleachers on New Year's Eve in International Falls, MN.

Normally, when you start a car you just do it without a moment's thought, because it is a habit so deeply engrained that it somehow just happens: key finds its way to ignition switch without aiming, key turns clockwise the instant it is fully inserted, car starts the minute it has the chance. But when it is this cold, particularly if you are out in the badlands or away from a ready back-up plan, you have to have a premeditated internal combustion strategy. I paused for maybe ten seconds before I turned the key. In the course of a long North Dakota life, I have been involved in half a dozen big winter car dramas. About average, I think. There is nothing quite so dispiriting as hearing the battery grind down and finally poop out on those few occasions when it really matters. At best it means you are in for a long day of cracked skin and foot stomping and probably bloody knuckles, and we all know how seldom an extreme-cold jumper cable transfusion works. When the engine does that eh-heh, heh . . . heh ……. heh . . . oh heh! thing and then you hear the click, click, click of system collapse, your heart just falls onto the floorboards and cracks into a thousand shards. "Here we go."

In those ten seconds, as I sat high up on (not in) the frozen solid front seat and watched my breath frost up the windshield on the inside, I reproached myself, for not having a better car, for not having plugged in the head bolt heater, for not living in Bermuda, and of course for having left the hoses out for another bruising winter because I reckoned the mild weather would never end this year. I knew I had to make some choices and get things right the first time. Just turn the key and hope for the best? Feather the gas pedal while turning the key? Press the gas pedal down to the floor once, quickly, and then turn the key? Go back to bed and forget the whole thing? Like an Apollo 13 astronaut, I began by turning off every potential battery drain: the radio, the heater, the dome light.

My trusty Honda started up on the second attempt, with at least half a minute of battery life remaining. When it is this cold, the just-started engine races for the first few minutes as if it's running on espresso not gasoline. The whole car shakes and snorts and rattles as if it is about to lift off or break up. But at least the car was running. Suddenly I felt a little smug and I smirked in praise of Japanese engineering. I turned on the radio and dialed it to KFYR—half-hoping to hear the Ole Reb yodel up the weather report. It was so cold that the speakers in my car buzzed and blared as if the cardboard membranes had cracked during the night.

The last remaining problem was the windshield, which was entirely covered with a thin, quite beautiful, but hard-as-steel frost curtain. This was not one of those occasions when I could just shoot an abundance of wiper fluid over the ice and cheat the frost away. My windshield scraper was buried somewhere in the back seat under many layers of holiday season strata. Rather than excavate it this morning, which would probably have involved getting out of the car and opening the back door, I decided to try to tough it out. I could almost make out the road through the gray crystal screen, if I squinted just right, and I reckoned it would melt before I killed anyone. I was running the defroster at full brassy throttle, thus pointlessly blasting 20-below air at the windshield (and my face) from within. If I bent over until my eyes were just above the level of the dash—a strenuous yogic posture made more difficult by the high frozen seat—I could occasionally find a narrow slit through which I could peer out at the roadway. It was like driving to work wearing a welder's helmet.

I'm happy to report that I seem to have collided with nothing as I drove—at least I heard no big thuds—and now that I have completed this report, I've started to get some feeling back in my fingers.

Welcome to another North Dakota winter.