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To Build A Fire: Reflections On When It's Really Cold

When I was a boy there were two school subjects you could often find me reading ahead in the school textbook. History, of course, and literature. From as far back as I can remember one author was always included in that required tome, whatever the year, whatever the grade, Jack London. So as my teacher would drone on about some dry love affair in Wuthering Heights, I was in the Yukon, the wilderness, the frontier. London would take me on dangerous, thrilling, adventures. I still enjoy reading them today.

One short story always struck me as my favorite, "To Build a Fire". A man and his dog are traveling alone in the north Canadian wilderness. It's winter, it's cold, very cold. Through folly of his own the man missteps and his foot plunges through ice, soaking his leg. The temperatures are extreme, time is of the essence, he must build a fire. Misfortune befalls the man a second time when his first fire is accidentally snuffed out. He becomes frantic in his attempts to build a second fire knowing that delaying has already cost him his toes. I remember reading London's words, getting caught up in the man's desperation. I could almost feel the cold, almost see my breath materialize as I turned the pages. His hands now too numb to strike matches or break branches or even throttle his own dog to use its intestines for warmth, he makes one final effort to save himself. He runs, in denial that the exertion will warm his body, he finally gets tired and drifts into a final frozen sleep. All because he couldn't make a fire. Awestruck by the tale I remember closing the book and thinking something along the lines of "My God, I hope I never have to experience cold like that."

I grew up in a temperate climate, summers were hot and winters were cold. I'd play outside in the snow with my brother and neighbors till our noses were red and our cheeks stung. I remember coming inside our warm house afterwards to a cup of hot chocolate my mom would have waiting for me. At my grandmother's house it was always our special ritual, starting that first fire of the winter in her fireplace. We'd huddle around the hearth and she'd let me light the newspapers that would ignite the kindling, she'd even throw in special minerals to make the flames change vibrant colors. I'd sit dazzled and amazed, what an entertaining thing fire was. Snow, the cold, warm fires, it was a novelty, something that came around briefly once a year that you enjoyed. It meant days off of school, days experiencing the outdoors in a different way. It was never unbearable, it never scared me.

Then I moved to Vermont. Winters were longer, and colder. With the destituteness that comes with being a college student in an old apartment I spent the better part of the year huddled around a space heater. It couldn't have been less than fifty degrees in our apartment, but it was cold to me then. Walks to classes were taken at a quick pace and bundled up. It was cold, colder than I'd ever experienced previously but it was still doable. I still went out on weekends, I still walked downtown, but it certainly made me ready for summers a lot sooner. After graduation and my final summer at work drew to a close, I drove back home to New Jersey for the last time. I remember chuckling to myself as I headed south down the highway, the Green Mountains at my back, "Well at least I'll never have to be in cold like that again." The irony hasn't escaped me now.

Today I live in a ger, a yurt, a glorified tent. A round structure with a wooden skeleton and a sheep felt exterior. It is a sanctuary I've grown to love and make my own. For all its romantic primal appeal it is not without its disadvantages. Mongolians have lived in gers for centuries, before the time of Genghis Khan and up until the present day. A cozy space that keeps in warmth, but without special attention and care to that source of heat, the cold quickly creeps in. Cold that I've never felt or could have imagined before. My sanctuary freezes overnight or during prolonged periods of absence. Water, toothpaste, cooking oil, fruits and vegetables, milk and liquid soap. They all freeze. Cracking open my eyelids each morning, often times the first thing I see is my own breath. It is hard to will myself to get out of bed. When the wind rolls through the steppes and the temperature plummets further still, getting around town is excruciating. Walking from Point A to Point B, often distances of less than one hundred yards, is taken nearly at a running pace. Nostrils, face, and eyelids sting, extremities numb, and ice forms on facial hair. My body seems to scream "Get inside you fool!" I do with the utmost urgency. I tell you all this not for pity or praise but for recognition, I've been living here for a mere eight months. The people I have come to know have lived here their whole lives. Enduring the same extremes every year. They do it and they survive. I look at the bundled up figure of a six year old and realize they're more hardened than I'll ever be.

I stand just inside my school's doors, poised to endure the elements. Ready to go home for the evening, I pull on my gloves and secure my hat. I stare at the wooden double doors, a testament to the fact that the cold can batter through any defense. Every crevice between the frames is encased in ice and snow. The wind swept draft entombing the wood in a frozen prison. The door and the walls sparkle with ice crystals. The glass above long obstructed by water turned solid. I take a breath and push out into the night.

I'm home, crouched in the center of my ger. Huddled next to my stove, I'm going through a ritual I go through multiple times everyday. A ritual I've come to appreciate: gathering wood, breaking up paper and cardboard, emptying ash. The stove, my lifeline, my key to survival. The creation of one of our universes oldest elements. I've never appreciated it more. My world is frozen, it will take time to thaw. It is warmer in my refrigerator than where I am sitting. I crouch, blowing on the hot coals, the blaze grows, the wood ignites to a therapeutic crackle. I smile in satisfaction, it's all okay, I'm okay, all because…..

bi gal tulj chadna.

(I can build a fire)


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I grew up obsessed with places. Maps. Globes. Nations. Countries. The people that live in them and the things they do. I studied anthropology and history all through college but didn't begin traveling until early in my adult life. After studying abroad in Israel I was hopelessly hooked. Since then I've backpacked Europe, hitched a train across Siberia, and lived for two years in Mongolia volunteering with the US Peace Corps.

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