Part of the selection process for choosing Backcountry workers is an oral interview with a Backcountry program staff member. Just like a regular job interview, this helps to weed out people whose ambition might outpace their ability to live and work in the Backcountry. One of the questions I was asked in my interview was “What are the harshest conditions you have ever been through?”
My Illinois upbringing gave me an edge on this one.
Not only did I grow up outside of Chicago, a Land of Ice and Snow for half of the year, but I thrived outside in those conditions. I walked everywhere I went until I was eighteen, even in the dead of winter. Drifting snow or sub-zero temperatures did not matter. If I wanted to get somewhere, I had to walk.
I lived a tenth of a mile too close to the high school to ride the bus for free. A student had to live 1.5 miles from the school to ride for free. The bus stop was on the corner just west of our house, literally three houses down. Kids right around the corner from us rode the bus for free. We protested to the school, but they showed us the bus route map. There was a circle drawn with a radius of a mile and a half from the school. Our house was just inside the line. I mean, if we had Google Earth back them, the edge of our lot would have been just on the edge of the line. My parents couldn’t believe this. They tried driving the shortest route from our house to the high school. It was definitely 1.4 miles. We didn’t have a lot of money, and the bus was going to cost us ten dollars a week. My parents were on the verge of caving in and scraping up the extra forty dollars a month when I told them that I was fine with walking. They asked me, “What about when it rains? Or winter?”
“I’ll just walk.”
So I walked. Everywhere. All the time. In all weather.
I learned how to layer. I had a letterman jacket for a winter coat. (Yes, this non-athlete earned my numbers, JV letters, and varsity letters. I played tennis. I pretty much just had to show up and give it my best. But I came by those letters honestly!) I learned how to layer thermals, flannel, and a sweatshirt under the jacket. I had an insulated camo hunting cap with ear flaps that folded down. In sub-zero temps, I learned that a scarf wrapped around my face was essential. You’ve heard of ‘brain freeze’ from eating very cold food? Without the scarf, I had ‘throat and lung freeze’ just by breathing in the Arctic air. With the scarf, my breath would warm the wool. This would preheat air that I breathed in.
One very frigid winter the temperature dropped to -20°F. Add a stiff wind to that, and the wind chill made it -60°. Nobody was moving anywhere, because cars were not starting. Then my Mom ran out of feminine hygiene product. My Dad and I buddied up and hiked about five blocks to the local White Hen Pantry. That was one cold day!
If that wasn’t enough outdoors activity for me, I also signed up for the Eskimo Unit for gym class every time it was offered. We would suit up with sweats over our gym suits and head outside for the snow. It didn’t even matter if the snow was still coming down or not…we went outside in it! Even when the temperatures dropped below freezing, we would go out for 40 minutes, anyway, and throw the ball around, run around, and make some contact. Everybody else thought we were nuts, but we reveled in our ruggedness. The harsh conditions helped to keep the class on the small side. We always had enough people to field two teams, but there were never so many people that anybody was left out of the action. And that made all the difference.
And if all of that weren’t harsh enough conditions, I lived for a Round Lake winter in a house with no heat.
I moved out of my house one summer after high school when my Mom and I were having some serious differences of opinion. I rented a room at Mark Rhodes’ house. I had a job, and paid Mark’s mom, Angie, room and board. Angie was divorced and money was tight, so the extra money was a help to the family.
There was an Illinois law that said the utility services could not shut off utilities for non-payment in the winter. I believe this is a compassionate law. However, the law also said that if utility services were cut off in the summer, they did not have to be reconnected in the winter.
Money being tight at the Rhodes household, Angie had let the natural gas bill lapse. She still had electricity, which operated the lights, stove, and water heater. (Electricity and gas came from two separate companies.) We had no gas when I moved in, and were never able to get it back on before winter set in. This turned out to be an advanced course in layering. Lotsa blankets. Thermals. Layers of clothes. We knew it was getting cold when our breath fogged inside. And then when we started getting frost on the inside of the windows. I remember Angie frying up huge skillets of potatoes and sausage with Mark, his little brother, and myself huddled around the electric stove for the heat. There were two nights that winter that got so cold, everybody in the house spent the night at other places.
So when the Backcountry program recruiter asked me about harshest conditions, I aced that answer. Thank you, Illinois!