This season’s crop of unusual weather featured several stretches of bitter December cold the likes of which we usually see in January or February. Injected into the mix were periods of warm temperatures and rain, and in combination, those extremes caused problems for a lot of people—car accidents, frozen pipes, flooding, canceled events, and lots of other bad stuff. In general, though, it was the sort of stuff we North Country folks are accustomed to dealing with.
However, there is one group (of which I’m a member) that has suffered for weeks now, and it’s not over yet. Despite enduring this lifelong affliction, I’ve never spoken to a professional about it so this amounts to a confession of sorts: I’m a shoveler. I’ll wait a moment for the jokes to clear from your head—“as a writer, you’ve been shoveling it for a long time,” and stuff like that. You’ll get no argument from me. But still, maybe I need help.
The current trouble: ice from three to six inches thick, some of it miserably uneven from tire tracks impressed during slushy stages, has virtually eliminated any possibility of neatly shoveling and clearing the driveway until we get some sort of heat wave. The recent melt helped, but inches of ice remain on most of our tar surface.
As for my obsessive shoveling, a shrink might trace the problem to my mom, and she actually was involved back in the beginning. In the 1960s, when Dad had to be at work by 7 am, he had a terrible time whenever it snowed heavily, which was quite often. Remember that the term “snow removal” in those days applied only to cities. In rural areas, plows plowed until the roads narrowed, and then front-loaders were called to scoop everything up and dump it onto huge snowbanks. And yes, if you’ve heard the stories, it’s true: many of us could have (and have) stepped over the telephone lines at one time or another.
A big storm sometimes caused schools to close, but it had to be big. It was glorious when that happened: a snow-day typically meant rolling over in bed and going back to sleep. But snow-days didn’t happen at work-places no matter what the conditions were outside. Dads had to shovel out their cars, brush them off, and go to work. I wasn’t much for sleeping in, and when I was up with my mom and dad on one such morning, I saw him struggle to remove just enough snow from the car and the driveway to allow him to leave. Mom, meanwhile, lamented the fact that sleeping upstairs were some healthy young folks, including my two older brothers.
Her comments were my inspiration. When the next storm hit, snow-day or not, I was up early as usual. While Dad shaved hurriedly so he’d have time to attack the snow, I suited up the best I could and headed outside, digging in with a fervor. The average snow shovel in those days was just a plain flat pan at the end of a breakable handle. To complete most snow-shoveling jobs, the tool itself was secondary to elbow grease and enthusiasm, and I was nothing if not an enthusiastic shoveler.
When Dad came out, he assessed my efforts, thanked me profusely, and headed off to work. I’ll never forget that great feeling of satisfaction as he drove away, the still-square tires thumping rhythmically against the snowy road until they gradually rounded into shape.
And that became my routine, even though I was well short of ten years old. Whenever I was available, he didn’t have to worry about deep snow anymore. With reluctance, my siblings shoveled on many occasions, but I relished the opportunity. If our walkway was already clean, I shoveled at the neighbors, or at the post office across the road, clearing the entry steps, roadside (for parking), and loading dock.
Nothing was more fun than digging out buried cars and pushing them on their way. I became expert at it, learning skills that have served me for a lifetime of freeing my own cars and the vehicles of others. (Wood ashes were added to my repertoire in later years, making the job much easier.)
Since that time, I’ve always been a persistent and prodigious shoveler. I sure hope there are others out there who will have some understanding of my “problem.” No matter how wide or long my driveway has been (and it has sometimes been very long), I didn’t hire anyone to clear it. I always just dug in and shoveled until it was clean … so clean that my mom often asked, “Who plows your driveway?” I kept telling her I shoveled it, but because the banks were so neat, she never seemed to believe me.
And I didn’t shovel because I was too cheap to pay a plow guy. Yes, it saved money, but for me it was just part of house maintenance, most of which I tackled myself unless/until experts were needed. I also shoveled my parents’ driveway in recent years, but since they lived 25 miles away, Jill and I hired a local operator to plow them out whenever it snowed. At the same time, I continued shoveling my own.
I suppose it’s time to come clean about some extreme shoveling I’ve engaged in. I’ll describe one of my top-five shoveling endeavors, but because it wasn’t a one-time thing (I engaged in it for years), maybe it rates #1 … at least in the snow category.
I always wanted to live in a cabin in the woods, and a home we purchased in Clinton County around 1980 (we had three children by then) sort of fit the bill. It was very secluded—three tenths of a mile off a secondary road, and nestled behind a hill and sugarbush. The first 500 feet of the driveway bordered the eastern edge of a farmer’s field. The narrow lane then skirted the sugarbush for the next 1000 feet, a compact path covered by a leafy canopy.
The wooded section offered protection from the wind, but friends warned me about the 500-foot stretch, where brutal winds sometimes built snowdrifts upwards of six feet high.
I sort of believed them, but nature soon confirmed that the extreme snowdrift claims were no exaggeration. It sometimes took only minutes for it to fill in during shoveling, and because the stretch was so long, I simply couldn’t keep up.
There were no options: the car had to be left near the roadside so I would be able to make it to work every day. That, and snowshoes to reach the house, solved my part of the problem.
Hmm … but what about the children, all under the age of ten? How would they catch the bus to school? And groceries? How would they get to the house, more than 1500 feet from the road?
I’ve never ducked hard work, and the ambitious routine I adopted did raise a few eyebrows, even in that tough neighborhood. While it may have seemed unorthodox, it was efficient.
Arriving home between 1 and 2 am, I snowshoed back to the house (ground snow provides plenty of residual light at night). Early every morning, I grabbed the shovel and made sure a path was cleared all the way to the car, three-tenths of a mile away. After starting the car, I returned to the house, loaded all three children onto a toboggan (draped by a blanket on windy days), and hauled them to the road. By that time, the car was comfy warm, and there we sat until the bus arrived.
As winter progressed and the wind built substantial drifts, I kept shoveling that same path, developing a roofless tunnel through which I hauled children and groceries regularly.
Finally, when a big storm hit, the giant drifts were packed solid, and at a steep angle. At that point, as much as it grieved me, I hired a local farmer with a big snow-blower attachment for his tractor. His asking price was $15 (back in the 1980s), but I gladly paid him $25 per job. He took care of us for nearly a decade … but only when the road was plugged. Other than that, I shoveled it.
In the back of my mind, paying extra was probably self-punishment for not completing the job on my own. I tell you, it’s a sickness. It may be time to start looking for a self-help group. They seem to exist for just about anything these days. But what if I discover I’m alone in my affliction? Will I be traumatized for life? Maybe it’s best to just leave it alone.
And in the interest of full disclosure, I should add that it’s not just snow. In rocky, gravelly conditions, I once dug a hole so enormous, you probably wouldn’t … well, perhaps that’s a story for another day.
Baby steps, after all … and snow is falling, with a forecast of three inches. I have to at least try!
Photos: I come by my ailment honestly. Pictured are scenes from long ago in my mom’s hometown of Churubusco in Clinton County, famous for its wild weather (which is now harnessed by many giant windmills). At the top, on the high snow-banks, is a snow-shoveling crew tasked with clearing a path ahead of the plow on the main road. The other two images are Churubusco village scenes. Again, snow removal in rural areas is a relatively recent development.