Sunday, December 16, 2007

Into the Wild: A Man-Child Takes on a Major Snowstorm.

It would be a one-two punch: two major snowstorms in Massachusetts a couple of days apart. The first one, on a Thursday, caused massive gridlock on highways and city streets. Hoping to beat the storm, waves of people left work early and promptly overwhelmed the highways.

Instead of beating the storm, people endured horrendous 7-hour commutes. Many ran out of gas after idling for hours in standstill traffic. People abandoned their cars. Some slept in them. Thousands had horror stories to tell.

And now another big one was due Sunday morning, a Nor'easter. Central Massachusetts braced for a second "end-of-civilization" snowstorm promising drifts, sleet, power outages, cancelled flights, bone-deep wind chill, and clogged highways turned into stress-ridden parking lots.

We New Englanders like to think that we don't let our sometimes cruel winter storms push us around. Yet as people spoke of the coming Nor'easter, they did so without the usual jauntiness. After two extra-mild winters of teens playing basketball outside without shirts -- that is, half naked -- the fury of the Thursday storm and the havoc it wreaked, had came as a sudden punch in the stomach. Oof!

If the truth be told, people were, if not afraid, certainly nervous. Even some die-hard New England Patriot fans gave away their tickets to Sunday's game against the Jets at Gillette Stadium, rather than risking the icy highways. And around here where during football season family and the job often play second fiddle to the Patriots, that's really saying something.
Then there are people like me, pictured here napping on my 1994 Honda. I'm a polar bear. I could fall asleep on an ice floe. To me, the coming Sunday storm was a great chance to have fun in my own element. My natural habitat was coming to me! How cool is that?

So while many people dreaded the coming big storm, I looked forward to it. Bring it on, baby! While breathless radio and TV reports about the storm's expected power and resulting chaos scared the crap out of many, I was serene. While many wanted to do everything they could to avoid the storm, I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to bear witness close-up to its power, to take everything it had to throw at me, to learn from it -- and to prevail.

Authorities urged people to stock up on food and stay indoors. That was my cue to bundle up, grab my camera, and go out into the wild to view the latest creation of the grandmaster of all artists. No artist is as brilliant, or works on such an epic scale, or is more deserving of our close attention. No artist can teach us more.

When the elderly are advised not to step foot outside to avoid falling -- perfectly valid and sensible advice -- this old guy (69) runs right out there right in the middle of it. When everybody and everything tells me to take a snowstorm seriously, that it is dangerous, that I could get hurt, I laugh. Ha, ha, ha!

Of course, I'm weird. Or maybe not. I report, you decide.

In the wee hours of Sunday morning, the Nor'easter roared in right on schedule with howling winds, heavy snow, and sinking temperatures. While I slept in my warm house dreaming sweet dreams and looking forward to morning, outside the snow piled up fast.

As usual, I was up early -- by 5:30 -- and when I looked out the window, I smiled. I saw a white wonderland. Contrary to best medical advice, I had a light breakfast of black coffee, half an orange and half a bagel. I prefer a light breakfast and a hearty lunch.
I checked the outside temp. It was 10 degrees with howling winds. The wind-chill factor had to be down to zero. Out there was no place for sissies. To maintain body heat, I bundled up in layers (eg. 3 socks) as if for the Arctic. And by 7:00 am, I stepped out of my warm house into a much anticipated and feared storm.

My little Honda in the driveway was covered in a thick white blanket. The snow in the driveway was so deep, I couldn't walk through it. I had to push through it, using my legs as little plows. I pushed out into the middle of the street and stood there taking in the lastest work of the grandmaster. No question about it, I was in the presence of genius. I felt privileged -- and awestruck.

There was not a sound, except for a whipping wind and rustling trees. Not a car. No sign of a plow. Not a human being. Not an imperfection. While I slept, the world just outside my door had been transformed into something magical, breathtaking in its natural beauty, all without benefit -- or burden -- of a human hand.
I looked. Looking is not the same as seeing. It is possible to look and not to see a thing. All of us do that every day. In the course of a day, we look at many people and things but do not see them. Out of self-absorbtion, out of habit, out of laziness, I know that I am one of the worst offenders.
But now, I want to see.

For long moments, I just stood there in the middle of the road taking it all in: the snow, the wind, the trees, the white rooftops, the quiet, the emptiness, the purity, the absense of all humans, the extravagant beauty. I stood in a place where on an ordinary day I would be asking to be run over by a driver going too fast. Not now. Now the vehicles, useless, were gone. Now, powered by nothing but my own two feet, I owned the street.

How empowering!

How wonderful to be able to walk out your door and see a work of art that no human being could possibly contemplate much less create! This photo is of a little work of art I found in my backyard. It was by the same artist that created the storm.

I started walking, or rather pushing through the snow. I would head down my hill and make my way to the White Hen convenience store to pick up my beloved New York Times. The store was less than a mile away, but the snow was deep and taking a lot of energy slogging through it.

Suddenly, a flicker of fear. What if I was the only human being out here? What if everything was shut down? What if today was worse than Thursday? What if I got tired from pushing through the deep snow? Would I have trouble getting back up the hill?

I had my cell phone. Would I have to call 911 or the police department or the fire department? I wondered which would be the best one to call to rescue a delusionary senior citizen who stupidly strolled out into a massive Nor'easter, ran out of puff, and got stranded?

Should I just go back in the house? No one would have to know. If I said nothing, my little aborted attempt at bravado would never have happened. I was trying to decide, when I noticed something that squelched that flicker of fear: my fresh footprints in the virgin snow.

There was something elemental about them. They had intruded upon and altered a masterpiece of nature and yet they were now an integral part of the work and could not be taken back. In a flash, I realized that once you step upon virgin snow, you are a part of it and there can be no turning back.

I pushed on. Making my way down my long steep hill, I saw no person or vehicle, no sign of life in fact. Not until I reached the White Hen convenience store, did I see a human being. It was a solitary figure trudging on snowy
Chandler Street toward White Hen.

As she got closer, I recognized her as an employee of White Hen. Her name is Enkelejda and she is from Albania. She has been in this country for three years. She said the storm didn't bother her. "In Albania, we are used to lots of snow," she said.

The store must be open! Human life and civilization! Maybe even The New York Times! Then I noticed that The Donut Shop across the street was open and I could make out human forms inside. I was going to survive the Nor'easter!

Sure enough, The White Hen was open. The two clerks that had opened up had both walked to work. Not only that, The New York Times was there. I went in and bought the old grey lady, a newspaper I have been reading every day for 50 years. It's called addiction, folks, though (I maintain) a positive one.

I went over to The Donut Shop for a steaming cup of java, along with a couple of other hardy souls. Like me, they are not cowed by a Nor'easter, even one as big as this one. (For the record, that little panic attack described above never happened and anyone who says it did is full of it.)

While I read the Times and sipped coffee and reveled in having linked up with civilization, a driver got stuck outside. Customers rushed out to help. I rushed out with my camera to get the picture. If you get stuck in a big snowstorm, you better hope that I'm not the one there in your hour of need -- unless you desperately want your picture taken.

The trip back was good exercise, my hill being a steep one. By now, the plows had cleared the hill. This being Sunday, the whole neighborhood was out clearing snow and there was much friendly chatter about the storm. Nothing like a snowstorm to get neighbors talking to each other.
Against the best advice of medical experts, my wife Barbara and I shoveled snow for nearly two hours. It was exhilerating. I went back into the house sweating and happy.

In my neighborhood, the first brave footsteps in the virgin snow had been mine. I went into the wild alone, became one with it, and emerged from it alive and inspired while the once mighty and feared Nor'easter would die a quick death.

By afternoon, after concerted assaults by plows and snowblowers and countless shovel attacks by homeowners, the storm was a shadow of itself. Cleared driveways and walks and drivable streets said that humankind had reclaimed the turf.

As it turned out, the second storm was not nearly as bad as the first. But of course as one of the few fearless people to be out in the storm at the height of its power, I tell a very different story. It is of a heroic figure (remember, those panicky moments never happened) who dared to go out first, giving others the courage to follow.

So long and keep moving.



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