Ignoring the Windchill Factor

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WHEN it's cold in South Dakota, I'm never lonely. Let a national newscaster say ``windchill factor'' and drop his voice to whisper ``90 degrees below zero,'' and my phone starts to ring. I hardly have time to throw wood in the furnace and feed to the cows. I got an answering machine so I'd have time to start the pickup every two hours, and eat. My friends call from California, Texas, and Florida, to ask how we keep warm when the windchill drops. The first rule of keeping warm in cold country is: Never listen to weather reports. Think about it. Humans know winter is coming; we stock up on firewood and propane. We have heated cars, miracle fabrics, and warm pets. But every time the sun goes under a cloud, newsmen dash out to photograph people shivering and complaining loudly.

Do they ever talk to cows? Horses? Sheep? Those animals are out there in their nature suits - only a little thicker and hairier than ours - and no one hears them complain. They survive not because they're stupid, but because no one has ever told them about the ``windchill factor.'' If they ever heard how cold it is, they'd stampede south every fall like the geese. The public's ``need to know'' is frequently debated; we certainly don't need to know the windchill factor.

I also ignore weather reports because they're usually wrong. If weatherpersons scream, ``The blizzard is coming,'' for three days running, I can relax. But when the chimney smoke drops down off the roof and crawls across the ground shivering, I get in more wood.

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The second rule for keeping warm is to throw away your razor; never shave anything after October 1. Hairy chins are warmer, even icicle-covered ones. And once the hair on my legs becomes entangled with my long johns, I'm warm all day. If I don't give in to some passing fad for miniskirts, no one needs to know. On May Day, I perform my annual spring rite: shave my legs; the year it snowed on June 2, I declared spring June 15.

Third, I hoard wool. I've been colder in a sweat-soaked down jacket than in anything except a mountain stream with snow on its banks. Feet can freeze solid in socks containing polyester.

When I went to the mailbox the other day, three cars filled with ``cool'' teenagers in T-shirts honked. I heard raucous laughter and the words ``bag lady.'' My feelings were injured, since I was wearing the ranch woman's dress-for-success look: two wool stocking caps in contrasting colors, a long red scarf wound three times around my head, two pairs of mittens, an army jacket with a fur-lined hood, my husband's coveralls, and fleece-lined boots two sizes too large. Under all that was a sweater, wool German army trousers, wool socks, and a pair of red long underwear.

Power dressing in a Dakota winter is stylish: lots of layers. I had enough clothes on to dress every one of those teenagers, and if their car had broken down, they'd have envied me. Out here, ``cool'' is cold.

One doesn't have to ignore style when dressing for winter. When I was in New York recently, I noticed black was ``in''; it's a practical choice, since it doesn't show the stuff that falls out of the sky. Out here, we wear black to soak up sun rays. In the morning, a black cow on a hillside is up curling her eyelashes while a white cow is still frozen down.

It is impossible, however, to find a hair style that looks good after four hours under a stocking cap. I don't take my cap off until I get a hair appointment in May, but I still have both ears.

Even in a blizzard, one never enters a plains house without knocking. It's not impolite, but we hang old blankets over doors, and pile rugs at the sills, to keep out the brisk wind. Anyone trying to get inside without help will require the fire department.

If I'm suddenly warm, and the pickup isn't on fire, I know I'm experiencing one of the first signs of hypothermia. The best solution is to get inside and warm up; if I can't do that, I fight off a desire to sleep, and keep moving until the false warmth is replaced by the real thing.

I hate wearing a scarf over my face, because my breath condenses and forms icicles, but inhaling through a scarf warms the air. Breathing carefully also requires one to pace the work; deep, gasping breaths aren't good. This means I work slowly, which is better anyway.

Diet is important; I can't walk far in knee-deep snow on lettuce and carrots; I require meat and potatoes, preferably with gravy. This principle is the same as that behind the simple lamps our ancestors made with a wick in a dish of fat. In order to have energy, you must have something to burn.

For winter fuel, I also like to cultivate international understanding. Nothing starts a cold day like huevos rancheros - eggs and chili peppers. Chinese mustard warms the coldest sandwich. Chili con carne, especially the traditional Texas Red, has been responsible for unexplained Dakota thaws in December, when the jet stream was visiting Oklahoma.

When the brief winter day is nearly over, and shadows turn blue behind snowdrifts, the perfect warm-up is English breakfast tea - preferably with buttery Scottish shortbread. Come to think of it, most of these winter rules could apply to life in general. With enough tea and shortbread, and a little bagpipe music, it's possible to forget cold. Until sunrise the next day.

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