By the time you read this, it will no doubt be a warmer world. But just now, the Central Coast is frozen. Snow here is not the rarity it once was, but it is still rare enough to cause all sorts of havoc. Highway 20 is closed, blocked solid by fallen trees and I have been warned to stay off the side and shaded streets. Fortunately for me, I have nowhere I have to be but right here in front of the glowing woodstove, which I find is inspiring memories of so many other snow days.
I’ve awoken to 20-odd inches of snow in September in Colorado and camped in 12 unexpected inches in Alaska in April. I’ve also seen six inches cripple a place. It was not long after we had moved from Alaska to Allentown, Pennsylvania, that I awoke to a world covered in white. Out on the street, men shoveled and grunted and generally looked miserable as they toiled to free their cars. Those who had already dug out had left for work, marking their clean spot with a chair or some such item to ensure their hard work was not claimed by anyone else. I was used to depending on Chan for that sort of work, but he had just transferred to Connecticut. We had brought little with us from up north and I didn’t even know if we had a shovel. Nonetheless, I had a job to get to and it was purely up to me to figure out how I might do that.
Growing up, I loved the snow. It transformed the world. People were kinder, more patient and in our little town in central Pennsylvania, a good snowfall was likely to shut the place down. Of course, once I moved to Alaska, the long winters of snow lost a bit of their allure, though the first few snowfalls never failed to bring a smile. Driving in the stuff was another matter. Initially, I didn’t mind it, and while I’d slid through an intersection or two, I’d never actually hit anyone. I did, however, once get high-centered on a median strip made invisible by the snow. But it wasn’t snow that put the fear of winter driving in me. It was black ice. Invisible. Slick. Fast. I learned this one morning driving up a section of road on the Kenai Peninsula known as Pickle Hill. I had no idea why it was called that, and I still don’t know for sure, but I have my guesses. It was about 7 am, a dry (or so I thought) October morning. As I accelerated up Pickle Hill, I felt the tail end of my El Camino break loose and just that quick I was whipping across the highway like a top on jet fuel. I looked in the rearview mirror just as I was headed backwards over an embankment. I knew it was going to be bad. Then, just that fast, the tire caught dry highway and the car stopped. I, of course, shook for days. And I never, ever got over my fear of winter driving.
Still, people hear that I have lived in Alaska, Colorado, New England, and they assume I must be an ace winter driver. Once in Pennsylvania, as a driver spun his tires endlessly on the corner of a snow covered street, a neighbor beckoned, “You lived in Alaska, you know what to do.” I did. The guy had the gas pedal floored and no matter how we pushed, or how hard I tried to get him to ease up on the accelerator, the tires would not grab. Finally, I pounded on the car, got his attention and yelled that he had to quit spinning the tires. Moments later, our block engulfed in rubber smoke, he drove off. And I looked like the expert on winter driving. It’s fair to say I do know a bit about safe winter driving. I just lack the nerve. Unless, I have no choice.
On that morning in Allentown as men up and down the street shoveled and grunted, I climbed into my big four-door Chevy, let it warm up a bit, then ever so gently eased it back, and then forward, and then back and then forward until I’d created a track of sorts, at which time, I pulled smoothly out of my parking spot and drove off.
You should have seen the looks on their faces.
Alas, I forgot to put out a chair.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.