Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when I turned aside from the main trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland. It was a steep bank, and I paused for breath at the top, excusing the act to myself by looking at my watch. There was no sun nor hint of sun, though there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a clear day, and yet there seemed an intangible pall over the face of things, a subtle gloom that made the day dark, and that was due to the absence of sun. This fact did not worry me. I was used to the lack of sun. It had been days since I had seen the sun, and I knew that a few more days must pass before that cheerful orb, due south, would just peep above the sky-line and dip immediately from view.
But all this—the mysterious, far-reaching hair-line trail, the absence of sun from the sky, the tremendous cold, and the strangeness and weirdness of it all—made no impression on me. It was not because I was long used to it.
I plunged in among the big spruce trees. The trail was faint. A foot of snow had fallen and I was glad I was without a sled, travelling light. In reality, it was not merely colder than fifty below zero; it was colder than sixty below, than seventy below. It was seventy-five below zero. Since the freezing-point is thirty-two above zero, it meant that one hundred and seven degrees of frost obtained.
I held on through the level stretch of woods for a mile, dropped down a bank to the frozen bed of a small stream. I held steadily on. I was not much given to thinking, and just then particularly I had nothing to think about save beating The Manly Runner, as I had beaten him so oft before.
Once in a while the thought reiterated itself that it was very cold and that I had never experienced such cold. As I ran along I rubbed my cheek-bones and nose with the back of my mittened hand. I did this automatically, now and again changing hands. But rub as I would, the instant I stopped my cheek-bones went numb, and the following instant the end of my nose went numb. I was sure to frost my cheeks; I knew that, and experienced a pang of regret that I had not devised a nose-strap of the sort The Manly Runner wore in cold snaps. Such a strap passed across the cheeks, as well, and saved them. But it didn't matter much, after all. What were frosted cheeks? A bit painful, that was all; they were never serious.
A certain fear of death, dull and oppressive, came to me. This fear quickly became poignant as I realized that it was no longer a mere matter of freezing my fingers and toes, or of losing my hands and feet, but that it was a matter of life and death with the chances against me. It struck me as curious that I could run at all on feet so frozen that I could not feel them when they struck the earth and took the weight of my body. I seemed to skim along above the surface, and to have no connection with the earth. Somewhere I had once seen a winged Mercury, and I wondered if Mercury felt as I felt when skimming over the earth.
Freeze Your Thorns Off 5K
How did you do, oh Manly Runner?
Adapted without permission from Jack London’s “Build a Fire.”
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