Surviving Winter

Looking back in May 2011

The early morning snow dance!

It’s been a couple years since I moved to Montana from the West Coast, but this winter turned into the first full frontal snowfest I have endured since my arrival one hot July a few years ago. For starters, I’ve shoveled my driveway and front sidewalk enough times I am starting to feel as if I live in a white version of WWI, and I’m training to see if I can launch the next shovelful to the top of the growing mound. It’s also the first winter where the use of Yak Traks (basically car chains for your shoes), has been an ongoing necessity. Even the high school guy dressed as the Statue of Liberty flaunting a tax sign, has taken to wearing a full black skimask under his shiny green pointy crown.

Ice is a danger I knew in Oregon (once or twice a year), whether on foot or on the road, but the new varieties of ice and snow and their intense desire to kill me are inhumane in their propensity for fierce challenges. Thirty-one degrees below zero (a new personal record) presented a range of obstacles in and of itself, but I’ve found that the human body is very adaptive to climate change, given a slow progression and significant layers of clothing.

Unfortunately, I arrived home from a ten day, sun-ridden, peace adventure in Maui as the local winter shifted into high gear. Sigh. The first few inches of what became a foot-deep barrage, began as I was midway across the Pacific. Seattle was a panic of de-icers and yellow cat’s heading in multiple directions. A plane from China slid off the runway in the minutes before we landed leaving. The passengers looked as if they were waiting for Bruce Willis to pry open the rear hatch.

Inside, the airport was abuzz with desperate phone calls to family members and travel agents in a vain attempt to avoid a late night carpet mattress. Although we managed to skirt the fray, the words issued by our pilot two hours earlier summed up our reaction to the weather, “what do you say we turn this plane around and head back to Maui?” A few seconds of remembered laughter didn’t quell the sting of low temperature snow hitting freshly tanned skin. I shivered my way to the parking lot and made a mad dash for the valuable wool gloves I had so foolishly buried earlier. Ironic they were hidden to avoid a thief stealing them.

A few weeks later, I received a dose of whiplash worthy of a car wreck. The twenty below doses of snow were bracketed by brief periods of sun and warming that melted ice into puddles that refroze the instant the sun dipped below the western mountains. I found myself penguin walking around sidestreets working from dry concrete island to dry concrete island when an unlikely dash of “gropple” kicked in. It danced off my shoulders and covered the ground in a soft skin of white beanbag nodules. Gropple is a actually a form of snow half-way between flakes and hail. It is circular, but fluffy like Hawaiian shave ice. I was out walking my dog when it hit, and visual confirmation of dry spots ended as I slipped and skated my way over what I call “surprise terrain”. What becomes particularly annoying about Montanans in this situation is the disparity in sidewalk care provided by residents. One regularly- attended stretch is stable as a supermarket aisle, while the next neighbor’s is left to melt and freeze with impunity. So it was, I passed from stability into a live-free-or-die stretch where my feet shot out from under me like a rifle and my head bounced like silly putty off the icy stone. I automatically jumped up, blurry vision and all (it’s a guy thing), before letting off a storm of swear words that would make Winston Churchill blush. I cursed the nearby house for choosing pizza delivery and late night tv over a safe walkway when I often clear the first few strips of my sidewalk in my robe and slippers in the early morning.

So, what lessons has winter in the Great White North taught me at the expense of my bouncing skull and nervous system? Well, I now know that the pain endured by ones fingers stretching wire -rimmed cables over boots is far more desirable than skull basketball. I have learned that there is something to the more power equals more kiss ass theory of lawn implements. I finally purchased a heavy duty snow blower rather than face weekly chiropractic visits, and now launch the deepest snow far enough to knock a would-be intruder off the porch. I can confirm there is a certain ape-like satisfaction that comes with punting a former foe with such barbaric ferocity. I get a Tom Sawyer-like grin every time visiting out-of-towners talk me into doing the job themselves. “Sure, you can shovel my sidewalk!” Seriously. I’ve learned that trucks with more power and size spin violently out-of-control through an intersection when the driver’s I.Q. matches the number of tires. I’ve learned how much activity really goes on around my house during the year when I’m not watching. My yard is polka-dotted with softball size doggie pees, gridded by cross country ski passes, and stomped by numerous daily foot paths reflecting visits by UPS, mail, cookie sales girls, neighbors, and God knows who else. I’ve learned that all those tacky flocked trees and painted windows with rows of icycles in the 1970’s reflected the winter reality of the northern third of the nation.  And finally, I’ve learned that just because you could skate as a kid, doesn’t mean you won’t spend half an hour twirling your arms and flying out of control on the local pond in pursuit of a Christmas card moment.

All-in-all, winter is still my favorite season. Hot chocolate, holidays, bulky sweater fashions, and cuddling are just some of the counter-balances that make this season supreme. If you live in Florida, Texas, or Southern California, you might want to look a little more deeply into what you are getting into before a move. I recommend buying your snow blower in the summer while they are on sale.

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