NOT A GOOD IDEA!
Living just southeast of Lake Ontario, in a little town called Cato, New York, Jill and I, were used to the lake effect snows that could blast into town and dump 48 inches of snow in a few hours. These storms were an adrenaline producing adventure as valid as sport climbing or parapenting. While “getting used to them” is perhaps a bit preposterous, we did treat them with the respect, excitement and anticipation they deserved.
Snow that descends like what you might see in a snow globe—Currier & Ives style—was a rarity in Cato. Snow that you could actually build a snow man out of or have a good snowball fight with was also not very common. It did happen, but most of the time it was just too dang cold.
There was one extraordinary exception to the typical horizontal delivery of snow to this forbidding land. When snow blew across the top of a hill—as in a hill that had been cut away for a road—the snow would drift, creating a cornice of snow, as sharp as a razor. Some of the dry snow would filter out of the blizzard and create a wonderland of ethereal formations out of the fences, blackberry vines and small trees held captive beneath the cornice. This area was virtually windless and serene—a frigid respite from the raging storm above.
Wind blowing across an open field could either leave the ground bare and clean shaven except for the corn stubble, or it could build up in layers hard enough to walk on—almost. Trudging through this snow could be very difficult. Each step would ultimately break through the frustrating surface and then you would have to step out of the deep imprint only to repeat the process over and over again. Moving through nearly waste deep snow under these conditions could be tedious and exhausting—leaving one soaked with sweat and one’s lungs aching from sucking in the cold air. Add a heavy wind to the conditions and progress could become almost impossible.
In those days we lived a quarter of a mile off the road. It was a landlocked piece of property referred to as a “back 40.” The wagon trail was drivable in the summer, but in the winter the only access was by snow shoes, skis, or walking. You planned ahead if you did not want to be caught having to do without something. Having plenty of firewood was always number one on the list—right up there with a well stocked root cellar.
It was the third or fourth winter we had spent in our one room ferro-cement dome—living off the land. We had no electricity—we were considered hippies to some, but it was no commune. The home was small and heated entirely with a wood fired cook stove that was most likely new when my grandfather was a boy. My oldest daughter, Julia, was born in the dome and we took her to the the town clerk office, at the local hardware store, to register her birth. They had to use a form printed sometime in the late 1800’s. It had been a long time since anyone had been born at home in Cato, NY and I am pretty sure it made us famous—if only for the requisite 15 minutes.
This was the year that we decided to bring our lifestyle a little closer to the 20th century and installed a gas cook stove. It was more of a “convenience” than an “improvement” and it meant we had to maintain a tank of propane—something we were not used to doing. Cooking on a wood stove takes vigilance and skill—there is nothing quite like it. As it turned out, we did indeed neglect to fill the propane tank before winter set in—and now the tank was empty. That meant that I would have to haul the empty tank along the 400’ uphill trail to the top of the hill, and then across the corn field to the car parked at the road that led to town.
This sort of a project was all in a day’s work when you lived off the land, a quarter of a mile off the road—after all, the tank was empty and probably only weighed 60 or 70 pounds. In good weather one could carry it on one’s shoulder.
The weather report said there was a monster storm moving in and I figured that I better get the tank filled before the storm came crashing down on us. The trail was one long rut in the snow from the previous days of tramping back and forth. The rut was useful in keeping the tank corralled, allowing the tank to be dragged along quite easily by the rope tied around its neck. Looking back on it, if it was me today, I would probably just as soon the rope was tied around my neck.
I got the tank filled in town and as I headed back home, the storm hit. If you haven’t lived in this area of the world, you cannot appreciate how suddenly and ferociously these storms can descend. Sure you can have all the warning in the world due to modern weather technology, but it can literally be sunny and clear one minute and the next minute you cannot see the front of your car. They arrive as sort of a snow tsunami. All you could see is the car’s headlights lighting up the horizontal lines of snow whizzing by. Driving in the dark of night it is an eerie light, with most of the light being reflected back at you. You could become quickly hypnotized, as if some Greek siren was trying to convince you that crossing into the other lane was the correct way to go. You learn the markers along the way that tell you where you are—a neighbor’s mail box—a broken fence post—a bent guard rail—as long as you could keep going at all.
One had to be vigilant watching for oncoming headlights—hopefully the other driver was doing the same.
As I drove along, I eventually found my way back to the trail that led to the dome. I got up just enough speed to plow my way through the 6 inches of snow that already accumulated where I usually parked the car—-just far enough to keep the rear end of the car from being whacked by the first snow plow that would soon enough rumble by.
By now the wind was at gale force and driving the snow hard enough to cut your face to shreds if you were nuts enough to leave it exposed.
It was 10 degrees Fahrenheit. It would soon be dark as a pocket and still snowing at 30 to 50 miles an hour—which calculates to a wind chill somewhere below -35 degrees Fahrenheit.
I was a quarter of a mile from the warm wood stove and homemade bread. I was not looking forward to dragging the 100 pound tank of propane across the field and down the trail to the dome. Suddenly parapenting seemed like a much safer thing to be doing.
The propane tank was full and no longer weighed 60 to 70 lbs. The additional 100 lbs was like trying to drag a mule through a swamp.
Off into the descending darkness I headed. The rope was wrapped around my waist in a loop back to the neck of the propane tank and I was bent over braced against the wind—just like that mule in the swamp. It wasn’t long before I could barely make out the trail. I had been doing my best to follow it by looking down through the fur rimmed hood of my army surplus arctic coat. The coat’s hood was designed so that you were essentially peering through a tunnel of fur. This tunnel provided a relatively effective barrier to the cold and wind, while at the same time providing a view.
Despite my adequate attire for the conditions, my mustache quickly froze solid from the vapors of exertion as I slowly inched the tank along.
It did not take long before I realized that what I thought was the trail was most likely the tricks of the Sirens again. I had to face the fact that I had no clue where I was—that I was lost in the white-out.
I was exhausted as I lay down half on top of the tank, as if it was some great cold whale that smelled of propane. I could feel my heart pounding against the tank as I licked my icy mustache to quench my thirst. The Sirens were wailing in the wind and darkness. My sweat immediately turned cold and the possibility of hypothermia crossed my mind. My mittened fingers and Soreled feet were beyond sensation. I thought about my family and how they would be wondering where I was.
If only I could get a bit of rest and perhaps even a nap—then I could carry on, I thought to myself.
Like a buoy in a fog at sea, a bell sounded in my fading consciousness that reminded me of something I had heard about freezing temperatures and sleep. It was so seductive to simply fall asleep—and never wake up again.
NOT A GOOD IDEA!
I fought off the thought of sleeping and abandoned the cold dead tank. I thought that if I kept heading into the wind I would eventually get to the hedgerow of barbed wire, Osage Orange and wild asparagus that marked the edge of the field where the trail went down the hill to the dome. Either that or I would be found in the morning face down and frozen solid under the clear blue sky after the storm passed. It was so much easier making my way with a glimmer of optimism and without the dead whale.
Once I found the hedgerow, it was easy to figure out where I was and where I had to go to find the trail. The wild apple tree-lined trail along the hill down to the dome was not quite as windy as the open field and I could soon see the candlelight flickering in the window up ahead. Soon enough I was home and sitting by the wood stove, with my wife and baby girl—warm, still alive and a little contemplative to say the least.
The propane tank whale would have to wait in the cold alone.
Sometimes we are adequately prepared to have the epiphanies we need—when we need them. A well timed epiphany can make a moment of life or death seem like not such a close call after all, leaving us wondering for a life time just how close it actually was.
By Charles Buell
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