I’ve met the most interesting Madisonians when I stop for my morning caffeine jolt at Cargo Coffee on South Park Street.
There’s the successful Madison businessman who assembles specialty pumps at his shop in Fitchburg and probably works about 100 hours a week. There’s the longtime Madison taxi driver who in an earlier life not only sprayed drywall at construction projects, but sprayed crops from his airplane at area farms. Driving a taxi is a piece of cake.
And then there was the Cargo barista who was one of the stars in the Mad Rollin’ Dolls roller derby league. Her roller derby name? “Ana Killingspree.”
But, none has been more interesting than a fellow who started showing up in the morning a few months ago driving an old (1991) red Mazda Miata convertible with the top down. Nothing unusual about that, except that he’s still showing up every morning — below zero or not — with the top down.
Yes, Dustin Harter admits to “being a little bit crazy,” but, hey, when you’re in Wisconsin in the winter, “you gotta be tough.”
It was four above zero when I talked to him the other morning. He normally wears a cowboy hat when he’s driving the Miata, but that day he had succumbed to the numbing temps and covered his head with one of those authentic winter caps with fur ear flaps.
Dustin, trim and wiry at 44, has quite a story. He once was in the solar business in Fresno, Calif., where the temperatures were scorching in the summer time. He learned to take the heat by watching the veteran outdoors people when it got to be about 120 above. They’d drink hot coffee, not some cold drink like most people do when it’s too hot, to keep the body from overheating.
After selling his company in 2004 and deciding to move to Madison, a city that he’s absolutely fallen in love with, he had to quickly learn about the opposite end of the thermometer.
He soon discovered that people try to hide from winter in their comfortable cars, something he considers “not good.” But, he insists, if you embrace the weather you’ll discover all kinds of amazing things about the cold environment and you actually feel as though you’re part of it — the sunsets and sunrises, the sky, the air around you.
“Once you make up your mind to do it, it’s fun, coupled with a little bit of perseverance. And what better way to make yourself experience the environment? You discover it’s not all that cold really, it’s fantastic.” he added.
It was on sort of a dare that he decided to keep his top down all winter (besides, it’s broke). He thought he’d try it until Thanksgiving or so, but then decided to go all the way. So on those mornings when the snow crunched loudly beneath your feet as the thermometer read minus-five, up would drive Dustin for his morning cup of coffee.
A maintenance guy for Gorman and Co. where he takes care of several apartment units, Dustin admits to having another vehicle, but he’s adamant he’s going to tough out the winter of 2012-13 in the topless Miata.
How do other drivers react when they pull alongside you on the street?
“A lot of people give me a thumbs up,” he laughed. “Some people take pictures with their cellphones.”
It’s the young, serious guys in their suits who shake their heads in disgust, he added. If there’s a wife or girlfriend with him, they usually smile, though.
What do you do if it’s snowing, I ask.
“Oh, I just drive faster,” he said. “The airflow from a convertible, you know, sort of creates a shield. It works quite well.”
I’ll take his word for it.