Thursday, December 05, 2013

Simulated cold

Like many, I am a creature of habit. I have the daily work routine, the foods I like, the diversions I enjoy, the routes I ride or run, the clothing I wear. Like many, my habits bring comfort, but comfort in turn brings complacency. I didn't give a second thought to my attire when I set out for a ride on Wednesday — jersey and shorts, ultralight Pearl Izumi pullover, and a day-glo vest. Roadie layers, designed for what passes for winter here in the Bay Area. Outside there was a nip to the air, and a confirmed temperature of 42 degrees at 300 feet. But it felt pleasant, pedaling hard up Highway 9 and working up a lather of sweat. Just as I crested the hill at 2,700 feet, the sun slipped below the ridge line. Suddenly the air felt ten degrees colder than it had in the shaded canyon. Condensed breath swirled around my face. I reached in the pocket of my now-soaked jersey and pulled out the only extra layers I brought with me — a knit cap and a thin pair of gloves. In front of me was seven miles of fast rolling followed by a ten-mile, winding descent. There would be no more lather of sweat, no more body heat generated by hard work — only wind chill, and the inevitable law that what goes up must come down.

The experience of cold is relative. I've felt toasty at 30 below and near-hypothermic at 45 above. It all comes down to expectation and preparation, and here in California, there's always at least one cold day in December that catches me off guard and re-teaches me that hard lesson. Wednesday was that day. The fingers went first, followed by feet, clad as they were in only well-ventilated shoes and thin socks. Then my face joined my limbs in wooden rigidity. Tingling numbness crept up my arms like a spider, until it became difficult to steer and I involuntarily maneuvered the handlebars into scary jerking motions because my muscles were no longer sending the right signals to my brain. The flash freeze. I am a cyclist prone to complacency, so I know it well.

But I've also accumulated enough cold-weather experience to know this is not the end of the world, at least at these still-forgiving temperatures near freezing with an end close in sight. At 10 degrees or 0 or 30 below, you'd never catch me venturing outside in roadie clothing. "Leave it to cycling companies to make the most useless warm gear ever," I laughed to myself as my teeth chattered audibly. My ears began to burn. My feet grew heavy. My legs felt like they were wrapped in cold meat. The capillaries on my skin tingled with electric sharpness. It was painful and yet it felt so lively, so invigorating, so real. I smiled in spite of myself, a lopsided grin that had to chisel its way through ice-hard cheeks. "This is awful. I can't wait to go to Alaska," I laughed again.

Back in the relative warmth of the valley, I jumped off my bike at a red light and started running in place. A well-bundled bike commuter rolled up beside me. "Are you okay?" she asked.

"Fine," I said, teeth still chattering. "My feet are cold, just trying to get the feeling back."

"It's supposed to freeze tonight, 28 degrees," she said. "That's cold for around here."

"Yeah," I said. "I know."

Elsewhere, winter abides. Single digits in Utah. Deep subzero in Montana. Freezing rain in Alaska. Here in California, I cuddle up in my fleece blanket and daydream about the cold, the hard-edged kind that draws every life force to the surface and sharpens the senses with renewed vitality. Habits and comfort are often good things; hubris and mistakes often are not. But when the latter gives way to the former, a beautiful cycle of experience begins to happen.