Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sliding & Spinning

Early December brought our first significant snowfall accumulation. That phrase – “significant accumulation” – is subjective. Around here, anything less than 7 or 8 inches is usually shrugged off. We’re accustomed to regular – one might say unending – snowfall, and it’s typical that we receive at least a few inches a day when the season really gets rolling. To grab our attention, a good foot or more of snow is required, and some of us can ignore the onslaught until it’s measured in upper-body terms: up to my waist, my chest, my shoulder… Over my head.

Sometimes, it’s not inches or feet by which we measure a storm, but other factors, like wind chill, wind speed, and consistency of snow. The first two are self-explanatory – even a trace of snow, if accompanied by a wind chill factor in the single digits or below zero, will hurt. If you have to be outdoors when the wind chill dips that low, you get so cold that the slightest dusting of snow on exposed skin feels painful – more like hot than cold; even the lightest touch can burn. Wind comes off the lake and can literally knock you off your feet. Combine those gusts with slippery surfaces or walkways that are not shoveled, and getting from point A to point B can be an unpleasant adventure. Even my car, a small sedan, has been rocked on its wheels; a good body blow to the driver’s side has made me flinch as though being struck on more than one occasion.

What’s a little harder to explain is snow’s consistency. Everyone knows there’s a difference between powdery snow and wet snow. We get both here, sometimes during the same storm. There’s a whole spectrum of consistency that exists between those edge points, as well – snow isn’t just wet or dry, heavy or fluffy. There’s one particular kind of snow that locals refer to as greasy, and it’s as unpleasant as it sounds. I don’t think it falls from the sky in its greasy form or, rather, I’m not sure if its vertical form is entirely responsible for its horizontal slickness. I’ve heard that the phrase refers to snow that’s dense, almost slushy, and occurs when temperatures are right around freezing. It’s more slippery than other kinds of snow, and can make both walking and driving rather treacherous.

That’s what happened yesterday, and most of us were unprepared. By “most of us,” I mean everyone. The plows weren’t sent out early, drivers weren’t warned about the conditions, and my students, who walk to school, were taken aback by the deceptive intensity of the weather. It looked so pretty and, because it was the first real snowfall of the year, initially caused considerable delight. Delight, that is, for the indoor observer. Those who had to engage with the snow quickly felt their joy diminish.

When I headed out in the morning, we appeared to be enjoying one of those stereotypical picture-perfect snowfalls. The flakes were large, no wind was discernable and, although it felt cold, there was no bite to the air. It was just a nice winter day. As is my habit when I leave home during the winter, I always test my brakes. I want to see if the road is slippery and, if so, gauge how far I’ll slide if I have to stop suddenly. We have lots of deer in the woods surrounding the house, as well as darting squirrels, chipmunks, and a whole menagerie of slower critters I could conceivably encounter in my path. My tires are good, and usually I’ll slide very briefly if at all. Yesterday, however, although the roads looked fine – just an inch or so of snow – I slid and fishtailed when braking at a very low speed. Odd, I thought. I guess it’s more slippery than it looks.

I intended to take my time getting to school and was, in fact, forced to do so almost immediately because I hit a white-out. White-out conditions are my least favorite and I try to avoid them whenever possible. Given where we live, however, it’s inevitable that several times a year I’m going to have to keep driving when I can’t see.

Driving in a white-out requires two things: experience, and faith. I mean faith literally – you have to believe, fervently, that some benevolent force in the universe is going to assist you in your travels. Maybe it’s comparable to the faith some must feel when getting on a plane or stepping into a church. You aren’t entirely sure how that machine stays in the air, you aren’t able to explain, really, who or what or why you believe in whatever religion draws you… Driving in a whiteout is like that: it seems impossible that all over town individuals are at the wheels of two-ton vehicles, maneuvering them blindly towards and away from one another with little mechanical or technological guidance. It seems, honestly, like a miracle every time I get out of the car after driving through the density and chaos of a whiteout.

As for experience, generally speaking, pulling over and waiting out a storm of this kind is not an option. For one thing, you can’t see where to pull over. Where we live, there’s often no shoulder and even if there were, it may not be safe to stop. Approaching drivers can’t see your taillights and you could be at as much risk while parked as you’d be in motion. So you learn to seek out potential markers – either actual landmarks that will indicate your location and help keep you on track, or moving targets, so to speak – other cars. I often feel relieved when I see another vehicle’s taillights or headlights, because they tend to mean I’m still on the road. It doesn’t always indicate that, however – I’ve watched one car follow another car’s lights into a ditch or into a field, unaware that the road had curved.

That didn’t happen yesterday. The ride to school is only seven miles, and I thought that the worst-case scenario meant seven miles of low to no visibility. That’s plenty – even a hundred yards of driving when you can’t see is frightening, no matter how many times you’ve done it. But I had a feeling that the white-outs would be intermittent, and they were. Although there were stretches where I couldn’t see the road at all, the closer I got to the college, the better the visibility became. I thought the worst of the drive was over as I approached the school’s entrance.

The entrance, which would be for me a left turn, is on a sloping road. When conditions are clear and dry, you’d barely notice the slope. Walking up it would require little more exertion than strolling on a flat surface. Even so, I’ve learned, over the years, that the road near the entrance tends to be slippery in winter; I always slow to a crawl on the approach. Yesterday, crawling was too fast. As I began to turn, I also began to slide. I quickly realized I couldn’t complete the turn and so continued straight, downhill, preparing to turn around and take another crack at the entrance. Because it was early, not many other cars were around. As I saw my first opportunity to reverse my course on a side street, I also spotted a mother and her school-age son walking in the street. I knew if I made that particular turn, I might slide directly toward them. I passed up that street and came to a second opportunity. No cars, no humans, no obstacles. I inched around the turn, pulled into a driveway, made my way back onto the main road. This time I was going uphill, just slightly, and could feel my car – all-wheel drive – slip just a tad. That was my second indication that the road was incredibly slick -- normally I’d have had no trouble. I took it slow and turned into the college. I was now on a minor decline that segued into a fairly tight turn. Way ahead of me, a car stopped, waiting to pull into a parking spot. I pumped my brakes, well in advance, I thought, of having to stop. My car began to spin.

I should mention, here, that I’ve been driving for over 34 years. I’ve been pretty lucky, but I’ve also been rear-ended by a preoccupied student; I’ve slid on black ice; I’ve cried after surviving an hour-long white-out; I’ve driven too fast and paid the price; I’ve had the misfortune of hitting squirrels and birds; I crushed my own taillight once when backing up in an unfamiliar parking lot. And, because I live where I live, I’ve spun out before. The last time was on a busy road, two nights before Christmas, and my car came to a rest after narrowly avoiding half a dozen other vehicles, nose to nose with another skidding driver. Our front ends were within an inch of each other; we smiled weakly, waved, and maneuvered back into our respective lanes.

Yesterday, although the road was lined with parked cars, there were no oncoming drivers and nobody was behind me. I was effectively alone, on my own college campus, two minutes away from my office. Although it hadn’t yet fully registered with me, the snow was greasy and, in addition, may have concealed a layer of black ice. I don’t know, to be honest, what was happening beneath my car’s tires; I only know what wasn’t happening. The wheels were not gaining traction, and so my car executed a graceful slow motion spin, sliding as it spun further down the hill. I concentrated on minimizing my panic, tried to assess my surroundings and guard, as best I could, against hitting anything. Eventually the car just stopped, as though it had thrown a sudden tantrum and grown weary of its own misbehavior. I drove back out the entrance – I was now facing the wrong way and the road was too narrow and too slippery to right myself – and went through the whole procedure one more time. I made sure, on attempt number 3, that no cars were around, no students were walking, and took the entrance super slowly. I lucked out this time, as a snowplow preceded me and apparently scraped enough of the surface to allow me to inch to a parking lot without further incident. I then did what every other person who drove to school did: repeated and relived my adventure roughly 30 times, and in return heard other slightly harrowing narratives of other early-morning treks to school. In that manner I learned that at least six vehicles had gone off the road where I’d spun out and the unfortunate drivers had had to wait for hours for tow trucks to assist them in getting on track. I guess, in retrospect, I was lucky.

At the end of the day I was fortunate to have clean roads and clear traveling all the way home. Our driveway, although it had been plowed, had one last surprise in store for me. Although I’ve never hit anything stationary, bar one rear bumper after aforesaid black ice incident twenty years ago, my car slid at the bottom of the driveway – another slope, another curve – and before I could make the turn, rammed the passenger side up against a tree and rock wall that border the pavement. I absorbed the hit, heard the crunch, heard something shatter. I was fine, but a door was dented and a taillight busted.

Today I’m just the tiniest bit sore and more than a tiny bit worried. I’m not looking forward to driving in the snow again, something I’ll have to do today or tomorrow and every day for the next four months. I don’t want to navigate the route to school when the snow blinds me, or feel my car bashed by the wind, or fear that I’ll slide into another vehicle or a tree or a ditch. None of that is fun to contemplate. I won’t dwell on it for long, but since I’m still in the 24-48 hour range, I’m allowing the anxiety to take its toll and then, hopefully, it’ll dissipate and allow me to function normally.

In the meantime, I’m thinking about sliding, about spinning, about losing control of something tangible, like a car. Although it’s not fun, quite, there’s a built-in undercurrent that many might identify as a thrill. It’s thrilling to slide, to spin out, to wonder, in a concentrated and fleeting way, what’s going to happen next. It was so, admittedly, because I could assess, instantly, that the danger level was low. The worst thing that could have happened at school was I’d have hit another car. A bummer and a huge expense, to be sure, but had I gotten hurt it’d have been only mildly due to my exceedingly slow speed. And I probably could have taken out part of a fence at home, maybe some steps, if the car hadn’t hit exactly where it did. I could have crumpled my bumper but there, too, the potential for major damage or injury was low. I was free, in other words, to feel that momentary thrill. It didn’t translate into danger; had there been other moving vehicles or individuals, my reaction in retrospect would be considerably more sober. As it is, I don’t feel any residual elation. I feel low-grade fear and low-grade dread. There’s a dose of resentment, too, because I know I can’t indulge these feelings – I have to get through them, deal with them, tamp them down, shuffle them into the denial folder of my brain. You can’t be scared to drive here. If you are, you’re doomed. You’d have to leave this place, find a safer spot to set down roots. Danger’s part of the package and although I don’t like that aspect of my small town life, I accept it. I accept it the way I accept the blasts of the shots I hear as I type this – hunters stalking deer in posted (no hunting) areas that are, in effect, right outside my door. I accept it the way I accept the bitter cold and the battering wind. These things are facts of life, and there’s little to be done to mitigate or alter them. They’re the reasons for faith, perhaps. But I don’t mean faith in a god, or faith in the good will of human beings, or even faith in myself.

The kind of faith I’m talking about is, maybe, a faith in what I’ll call the sacredness of living -- a secular faith in our collective willingness to set out, day after day, on our individual quests for things we don’t often bother to properly define. “Why do we live here?” people ask, every winter, laughing in bewilderment after hearing or relaying yet another story of near misses on the road or superhuman feats of snow removal or unbelievable narratives of spending a week without electricity or having a tree land on your roof after an ice storm or watching a squirrel contemplate, with the focus of a physicist, exactly where to land after it leapt, blindly, from the third floor of a house to the drifting snow below.

“The heart never fits the journey. Always one ends first.” So wrote the poet Jack Gilbert and, although I think he’s onto something lovely and true, I also think that maybe he’s brushed up sideways against a definition of the kind of faith I know. It’s a faith of refusal – refusal to believe in that inequality. Maybe, despite all evidence to the contrary, the heart is a match for the truest, longest journey, and these beating, love-struck emblems of our very lives are up to the challenge of surviving every last ineffable and unimaginable feat along the way. If we come out with a few dents and bruises along the way, so be it. Part of the ride, part of the thrill of it all is the slipping, the spinning, the long slide towards something we know so little of… We drive in the dark, all of us, don’t we – even though it might look like light, even though we pray, this way or that, to come to a stop in one piece.

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