BRYSON'S AMERICA: Don't say I haven't tested my body to the limit

SOMETHNG DARING that I like to do at this time of year is to go out without putting on my coat or gloves, or any other protection against the elements, and walk the 30 or so yards to the bottom of our drive to bring in the morning paper from a little box on a post.

Now you might say that that doesn't sound very daring at all, and in a sense you would be right because it only takes about 20 seconds there and back, but here is the thing that makes it special: sometimes I hang around out there just to see how long I can stand the cold.

I don't want to sound boastful, but I have devoted much of my life to testing the tolerance to extremes of the human body, often with very little thought to the potential long-term peril to myself - for instance, allowing a leg to go fast asleep in a cinema and then seeing what happens if I try to go for popcorn, or wrapping an elastic band around my index finger to see if I can make it explode.

It is through this work that I have made some important breakthroughs, notably the discovery that very hot surfaces don't necessarily look hot, and that temporary amnesia can be reliably induced by placing the head immediately beneath an open drawer.

I expect your instinct is to regard such behaviour as foolhardy, but let me remind you of all those occasions when you yourself have stuck a finger into a small flame just to see what would happen - and what exactly did happen, eh? - or stood first on one leg and then the other in a scalding bath waiting for an inflow of cold water to moderate the temperature, or sat at a kitchen table quietly absorbed with letting melted candle wax drip onto your fingers, or a great deal else I could mention.

At least when I engage in these matters it is in a spirit of serious scientific enquiry. Which is why, as I say, I like to go for the morning paper in the least encumbering apparel that decency and Mrs Bryson will allow.

This morning when I set off it was minus 19F (minus 28C) out there - cold enough to reconfigure the anatomy of a brass monkey, as I believe the saying has it. Unless you have a particularly vivid imagination, or are reading this in a chest freezer, you may find such extreme chilliness difficult to conceive.

So let me tell you just how cold it is: very.

When you step outside in such weather, for the first instant it is startlingly invigorating - not unlike the experience of diving into cold water, a sort of wake-up call to every corpuscle.

But that phase passes quickly. Before you have trudged a few yards, your face feels as it would after a sharp slap, your extremities are aching, and every breath you take hurts. By the time you return to the house your fingers and toes are throbbing with a gentle but insistent pain and you notice with interest that your cheeks yield no sensation at all.

The little residual heat you brought from the house is long gone, and your clothes have ceased to have any insulating value. It is decidedly uncomfortable.

Nineteen degrees below zero is unusually cold even for northern New England, so I was interested to see how long I could bear such an exposure, and the answer was 39 seconds. I don't mean that that's how long it took for me to get bored with the idea, or to think, "Gracious it is rather chilly; I guess I'll go in now." I mean that's how long it took me to be so cold that I would have climbed over my mother to get inside first.

New Hampshire is famous for its harsh winters, but in fact there are plenty of places much worse. The coldest temperature ever recorded here was minus 46F, back in 1925, but 20 other states - nearly half - have had lower lows than that. The bleakest thermometer reading yet seen in the US was at Prospect Creek, Alaska, in 1971, when the temperature fell to minus 79.8F.

Of course, almost any place can have a cold snap. The real test of a winter is in its duration. In International Falls, Minnesota, the winters are so long and ferocious that the mean annual temperature is just 36.5F (2.5C), which is very mean indeed. Nearby there is a town called (honestly) Frigid, where I suspect the situation is even worse, but they are just too depressed to report.

However, the record for the most wretched inhabited place ever must surely go to Langdon, North Dakota, which in the winter of 1935-36 recorded 176 consecutive days of below freezing temperatures, including 67 consecutive days in which the temperature fell below 0F (i.e. into the shrieking brass monkey zone) for at least part of the day, and 41 consecutive days when the temperature did not rise above 0F.

Personally, I would find it very hard to spend 176 consecutive days in North Dakota at any time, but I guess that is another matter.

In any case, I have all I can handle right here in New Hampshire. I was dreading the long, cruel winters in New England, but to my surprise they delight me. Partly it is because they are so shocking.

There really is something exhilarating about the sharpness of the cold, the cleanness of the air. And winters here are stunningly pretty. Every rooftop and mailbox wears a jaunty cap of snow for months on end. Nearly every day the sun shines, so there is none of the oppressive grey gloom that characterises winter in so many other places.

And when the snow beings to get trampled or dirty, there is generally a new fall that fluffs it up a bit again.

People here actually get excited about winter. There is skiing and ice skating and sledging on the local gold course. One of our neighbours floods his back garden and turns it into a skating pond for the kids on our street. The local college has a winter carnival, with ice sculptures on the college green. It is all very cheery.

Best of all, you know that winter is just one in an endless cycle of reliable, well-defined seasons. When the cold starts to get to you, there is the reassurance of knowing that a good hot summer is just around the corner.

Apart from anything else it means a whole new set of interesting experimental challenges, involving sunburn, poison ivy, infectious deer tics, electric hedge clippers and - this goes without saying - barbecue lighter fluid. I can't wait.

`Notes from a Big Country' by Bill Bryson (Doubleday, pounds 16.99) can be purchased at major bookshops or by mail-order on 01624 675137

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