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

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine