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  • Ken Ilgunas


When I lived in the arctic, I heard a story about a white man and an Eskimo. The white man, overcome with curiosity, asked the Eskimo, “What’s the secret? How do you deal with the cold?” The Eskimo thought a moment and said, “I don’t.”

Tonight, here in Durham, the temperature will drop to 16˚F (-8˚C). Tomorrow, it’ll get as low as 13˚F (-10.5˚C).

There are many aspects of the “hard” life that aren’t hard for me anymore. Discomforts are no longer discomforting. Adversities, no longer adverse. The cold, however, is always a pain in the ass.

Taking off my clothes to get into my sleepwear will always be something I dread. In such weather, my knees clang against each other, my muscles tense up, my breathing becomes erratic, and my penis turtles into my body. With teeth chattering and fingers as hard and stiff as icicles, I’ll—with great difficulty—struggle to get a grip on my sleeping bag zipper.

But within moments of sealing myself in my sleeping bag—now burritoed in my own body heat—a consoling warmth blankets my arms and legs and torso, as if my bag were stuffed with sun rays. The cold on my face and the warmth of my sleeping bag make for prime soporific conditions—a natural tranquilizer that’ll, within moments, turn my eyes heavy, as I begin to drift away into dreamland.

But then, in the morning, I’ll have to get out again. I’ll have to strip off my pajamas, and shiver back into my school clothes. I won’t lie: this takes quite a bit of will power—and I’ve even been late to work a couple times because I’ve come to dread getting dressed in what feels like a glacier crevasse.

My water jug will be half-frozen. Bananas, if I have them, will have turned a frost-bitten black. My windshield—from the inside—will be coated with ice.

The cold’s a pain. But that’s all it is: a pain, and nothing more. The minimalist life is not all deprivation and sacrifice. It’s not all hardship and austerity. Minimalism, rather, is removing the unnecessaries from your life, not the necessaries. If you’ve voluntarily reduced your things to the point where your health is adversely affected, you’re no longer a minimalist—you’re a foolhardy masochist.

This is my third winter in the van. And I can say, quite confidently, that the van has not weakened my health one bit. And dealing with the cold is, and never has been, an issue.

In all my time here in N.C., the temperature has never dropped below 10˚F (-12˚C). I’ve handled such cold without difficultly, and I will be so bold to state that I could live in my van comfortably—without any other source of warmth—in temperatures as low as negative 30˚F (-34˚C). This I can say because I once lived in Coldfoot, Alaska—60 miles north of the Arctic Circle—with a guy who lived in his Chevy Suburban for 6 years, winters included. He was able to deal with arctic chills by installing a wood stove in his Chevy, but I have more than enough warm clothes and sleeping bags to compensate.

There’s not much to keeping warm in a van, but if you’re curious, here’s how I do it.

First, I put on a set of thermals. I have one “light” pair, and another that is “expedition-rated.” My mother sent me these in the mail when I lived in the arctic years ago. I’m guessing they cost a good $50. They work ridiculously well.

Step 2: Put on my jammies (not that I call them that or anything).

Step 3: Another pair of wool socks.

Step 4: Hat and gloves.

Step 5: Selk sleeping bag.

Step 6: Zip up my mummy bag. Supposedly, it's rated to -20˚F (-29˚C), but I don't think it could withstand colds beyond 0˚F (-18˚C).

All warm! By this point, like the Eskimo, I’m no longer “dealing” with the cold; that’s because I’m no longer cold.

I’ve never had to follow all these steps. In fact, I’ve probably only worn my thermals on maybe a dozen occasions. (My red sleeping bag is quite effective–consistently keeping me warm between the months of Dec. through Feb. when the average low is between 30-33˚F (0˚ C.))

In the morning, if it’s really cold, I’ll cook up some hot oatmeal with peanut butter, freeze-dried milk, and hot chocolate mixed in.

Believe me, I'd love to walk into a home that's been heated by a wood stove. And when I wake up, I'd love to be in a room warm enough to keep me from seeing my own breath. But there's no sense in living in a constant state of want—hoping for heat in winter, cold in summer—the way so many do. I'm always amused when people shriek about some "horrible" five-day weather forecast. They'll exclaim about the coming weather as if an invading army were positioned on the outskirts of town.

So few in our cubicled culture have to actually deal with the weather—except, of course, for a few menial tasks like shoveling the driveway, scraping the ice off a windshield, or bundling up to get the mail.

Never before in our species’ history have we been so cut off from the weather as we are today. Yet it seems like we’re in a state of denial—still expressing excitement and exasperation over harsh weather that, at the very most, will force us to get up and turn a dial on our thermostats.

When we bewail “harsh” weather, we do great disrespect to true “harshness.” If we peeled off the soft layers of civilization then we might—through exposure to real harshness—see that what bothered us before was merely balmy. Ah, the pampered panoply we privileged don—when wearing it, what’s easy becomes difficult, what’s cool becomes freezing, what’s mild becomes sweltering; sniffles are now diseases, going without is going insane, and luxuries, our dearest longings.

Something’s been lost upon severing ourselves from the seasons—a bond, a connection, an intimacy, a “something”—what it is exactly, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s perspective. Yes, we lose perspective of things—a perspective of what are our true wants and needs; of what are our true physical and mental limits—these questions cannot be answered when hidden under houses, cloaked in polypropylene, and protected from the cold, hard, can’t-be-questioned reality of nature.

With all that said, I certainly wouldn’t mind a thermostat and warmer quarters. But I do get something out of sleeping in the cold. It’s a sacrifice, of course, and a sacrifice that pays off.

Lucian (120 – 180 A.D.), a Greek who championed the simple life, said:

The old cloak, the shaggy hair, the whole get-up that you ridicule, has this effect; it enables me to live a quiet life, doing as I will and keeping the company I want.

If you were to wander into my van at any hour, you’d probably find me reading. Or I’ll be laying on my bed, staring at the ceiling, lost in a moment of idle musing—unworried about feeling “industrious” or “useful.” Oddly, it is these times—these times when I’m doing nothing—when I’m most productive. I’m able to piece together thoughts, develop new ones, and think of everything from the Milky Way to the fallen crumb on my floor.

The van is my monastery—an abode perfect for reading, thinking, reflection, and contemplation, or just laying there with my eyes shut—basking in my solitude for sometimes hours at a time.

And outside my van is that great big world, and all the turning, burning, buzzing, bustling, shuffling, selling, tree-chopping, mountain-topping, plastic bag Babylonian nightmare of which I have no desire to be a part.

If having a warm home means I need to pay for it with my time and money, there’s no question about it: I’ll take my shivers and solitude any day of the week.


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