Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve in Wisconsin

I thought that some of you might be unfamiliar with the realities of winter in Wisconsin, and in the interest of providing you with some setting info, should you ever decide to place a story here, or even if you're just wondering what makes Packer and Badger fans so cold-hardy, here is a little look into one Wisconsin writer's morning. (I'd love to hear how this differs from other snowy states.)

It's Christmas Eve morning, and I wake at a leisurely 8am not with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, but with the loud rumbling scraping of the snow plow going by outside. The weather last night was frightful, so this is to be expected.

I creep out of bed and let my poor sick husband sleep. While I usually have snow removal duty at our house (he mows the lawn, I shovel the walk), I am looking forward to when he is feeling better enough to at least walk the dog for me. I neglected to let the poor girl out last night before I went to bed (although when we had attempted to go for a walk earlier in the evening she hadn't liked the sleet one bit) and she was quite eager to get out this morning.

Last night the sidewalks had been covered with about an inch of actual snow, though the wind had blown it higher on the edges to meet the tops of the drifts on either side, some still as high as six or eight inches, so that you're constantly walking down a trail through what would otherwise be almost knee-deep snow. At least, if you're my height, anyway. On our 80+ lb dog, the banks reach mid-chest in many places.

As we make our careful way down the front steps, we realize two things: the snowy sidewalk is now an open-face sandwich of slush under snow under ice crust, and that the crust is both not strong enough to hold the dog's weight, and uncomfortable enough that she doesn't want to stand in it to do her business. After several attempts to surmount the snowbank, my miserable dog gives up and goes on the sidewalk.

However, the thinner layer of crusted snow on the sidewalk is apparently the new "neatest thing ever," and she decides she wants to run. She's not a running kind of dog, normally--she's a mosey kind of dog, except when on the trail of something small and furry--and she's been cooped up so much that I feel that I have to let her get her run in. We run full-out for a couple of blocks before I have to call a halt. I bless my YakTrax as the best dog-walking tool since the Gentle Leader.

After the walk I head out to clear the sidewalk. I am a much more conscientious shoveler since joining the ranks of the dog walkers. I wrestle our snow-thrower out of the shed, refill the gas tank, and fire it up. We've only had it for a few years, and I'm kicking myself for not getting a bigger better one. (At the time all I could do was look at the price tag and meekly say that the little one would be just fine, I was used to shoveling without one anyway...) No, I vow as I see-saw it back and forth through the ice crust, leaning my stomach against the handle-bar and shifting my weight from foot to foot, no, next time we're getting one with POWER. With TORQUE! With wheels that can push the damn thing without me shoving it from side to side.

I clear a path down to the end of the driveway and then attempt to clear out the knee-deep pile of ice and slush and snow that the snow plow has deposited there. I don't worry about getting this down to pavement, I just want it level enough to get the car out. Note to you novice snow-shovelers: put the snow from your driveway on the down-traffic side of the driveway, otherwise the plow will just shove it back in your driveway on the next pass. Not that you're supposed to snow-throw into the street, but it's a very narrow space between the street and the sidewalk, and no one wants to make more work for themselves by snow-blowing into the sidewalk if they can help it.

So, with the end of the driveway secured, I tackle the sidewalk. We have a longer sidewalk than most of our neighbors as we have a sideyard instead of a backyard. I plow down the hill until I get to the cross-street, then head up the side of the next block to get our elderly neighbor Carl's walk. This means I also am clearing the walk of the neighbor on the corner, but she doesn't have a snow-thrower and is very grateful for the favor. And I'm happy to do her walk and Carl's if it means she'll shovel Carl's steps for him, which she does.

As I make the turn to come back, one of the bolts on the thrower's handle pops off. We've already lost the other bolt on that side, so I have to try and screw it back in with my fingers while the handle is vibrating like mad, because I don't dare turn the bloody thing off. I have an electric starter for it, and while it does have a pull-starter, I've never been able to get it to work, which means I would have to push it all the way back down the sidewalk and up the driveway to get to the electrical outlet. Fortunately I am able to get the bolt back in tight enough that it holds all the way back down the sidewalk and up the driveway. However, it does make me decide not to do the rest of my driveway or the sidewalk of the abandoned house next door. Whoever's in charge of that property this year has actually been sending people out to clear the sidewalk and the driveway, so I'm not too worried.

After wrestling the thrower back into the shed, I take on the front steps with the shovel. The trick of shoveling the steps is to put the snow strategically along the bottom edge of the snowbank first, so any snow you drop higher up on the hill doesn't just roll over the ice crust and land back in the sidewalk.

There's still a layer of slush on the sidewalk, and in my anal-retentive way I decide to try and get that up as well. While today it is a balmy 33 degrees (and I'm wishing I had worn a lighter sweater under my heavy coat), I know that tomorrow this will all freeze, and there's nothing harder to get off of a sidewalk than glare ice, except for hardpack that's frozen solid. (Glare ice will usually succumb to ice-melt. Hardpack won't as much.) And so I dutifully scrape up the slush.

Veterans of Wisconsin winters can tell you about all kinds of snow. The blizzard two weeks ago was wet heavy snow, which is backbreaking for shovelers but not so bad if you have a snow-thrower. It's also great for snowballs. Last night's snow was light and dry, which doesn't pack for shit but is apparently good for skiing. It's easy to shovel and annoying to snow-blow (you'll find snow-blow and snow-throw to be interchangeable) because it tends to hang in the air and blow back in your face. However, in both cases it was the weather that happened AFTER the snowfall that really mattered. In the case of the blizzard, temperatures plummeted, meaning that if you hadn't gotten your sidewalk done you were now stuck with the aforementioned frozen hardpack. Last night the snow was followed by freezing rain, creating the lovely aforementioned slush-snow-ice sandwich. (At least now that it's warmer it's easy to get the hardpack up. Wedge your shovel under it and lift, and it'll break off in big chunks.)

As I work, I'm surrounded by the drip-crackle of melting ice. The trees are all coated with ice, and many branches that were already weakened by the blizzard two weeks ago have come down under this new weight. With the temperature currently above freezing, much of that pretty glittery coating is now cracking and falling off. Icicles are growing like mad. I've already knocked some doozies off the back porch. (Yes, they're pretty, but they're also terrible for the roof.)

Across the street, a man with a better snow-thrower than mine comes along to help out another elderly neighbor who is stubbornly out shoveling. My heart is warmed to see this man swing down the whole front block and back, stop to chat with the old man, and go on his merry way. I think the snow helps bring people together in ways people in warmer climes may not appreciate. Not being a very social person, I've met most of my neighbors through snow-removal activities.

Finally, the sidewalk cleared to my OCD satisfaction, I put down a light layer of ice-melt. It will probably wash away with the warmer temperatures, but in the meantime it'll clear away the last of the slush. At least until it snows again tomorrow.

Image: Ron Bird /

No comments:

Post a Comment