Outside magazine, December 1995
In my youth in Minnesota, it was definitely not cool to dress warmly. Guys who wore warm clothes were assumed to be taking orders from their moms, so a cool guy ignored winter and traipsed around hatless, gloveless, scarfless, jacket unbuttoned, hopping around snowdrifts in his sneakers, a dude of great metabolism, a walking furnace. You smoked cigarettes, you drove fast, you didn't dress warm, you were cool. Every January and February, nature made several sincere attempts to kill you--and cool guys ignored this.
Most of those cool guys eventually emigrated to California or Texas or Georgia, and thus winter serves us Minnesotans well as a force of natural selection: The thin ice of early December tends to weed out stupid people, and the cold weather drives away bores.
And being cool is ultimately boring. It takes too much concentration. That's why a person wants a pair of warm boots in Minnesota: so you can wander around outdoors and, instead of thinking about winter, think about jokes or about sanctification by grace.
When I opened the box with my Sorel Dominator boots inside, I was taken aback by their immensity. I have big feet, and an insulated boot in my size is gargantuan, the sort of thing that great woolly mammoths might have worn. Sorels might have saved them from extinction.
Sorel boots are made in Canada, so you assume they're warm: On a cold winter night in Canada you can feel every bone in your body vividly. Being Canadian, the Sorel literature comes with French subtitles that tell you the boots are of premiere qualité, tres robuste, and chaud even in temps tres froid, such as one finds in l'Arctique. And you learn that rubber, in French, is caoutchouc, which looks like a sneeze.
The boot is classique: leather uppers, rubber lowers, half-inch-thick felt liner, double insole, and a metal-reinforced toe so you can kick ice chunks out of the wheel wells of your pickup and not bust your toe. You steer your foot into the boot--the leather loop on the back gives you leverage--and lace it up, and you feel transformed.
You walk back and forth in the living room and feel clubfooted and awkward at first, as Frankenstein's monster must have felt when he broke out of the laboratory and ran across the moors with the villagers hot on his heels and the big clunky Sorels on his big monster feet. You imagine yourself tied up on the deck of a trawler a mile off Long Island while a guy named Gino stuffs your feet into two Sorel boots full of soft concrete.
But then the boots start to feel good. Solid. You are not going to play tennis or dance the tango in them, but you are going to endure and survive, and that's the frame of mind you need this long winter. Walk around in these Sorels for a couple of hours, in fact, and they change your whole way of thinking. You feel them at the ends of your legs and you decide:
1. I may gain some weight this winter, and I refuse to worry about this. I hereby resign from the race of rats anxious to be thinner and younger. I am a rat in very big boots who will burrow into his nest and dine on very fine cheese, indeed.
2. I am not going to worry too much about anything else that may be inconvenient about me--my religion, my political leanings, my advanced age, my homely face. I am who I am. I should be grateful for it. If other people don't like it, I may kick them.
3. In my Sorels, I will be grateful for winter. Winter is a season when we are blessed by the force of reality. When the rain freezes on the highway, you maybe can't be on time to your meeting even though it's important, and some people curse the rain or the cold as terrible impositions on their own importance. I will not be one of those people. A blizzard cuts through the static and forces us to pay attention and cancel the schedule, stay home, tend to our life, mind the children. A blizzard makes peasants of everybody. These are peasant boots, and I will be a pleasant peasant, not a grouser. I will trudge forth in my giant boots and make the best of things, accepting cheerfully that in very cold weather, many of the inventions of the late twentieth century don't work well and a person may suddenly be plunged back into the midnineteenth. If so, so be it. I will be the very best nineteenth-century person I can be.
This is what Sorel boots do for a man. And then in the spring you take them off and for a few days feel as graceful as Baryshnikov.
When Garrison Keilor isn't writing books such as Lake Wobegone Days and The Book of Guys, he's hosting his radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, now in its 21st season.