The one thing that can shut a Virginian town down, or any Southern town for that matter, is a good snow. By good snow, I mean just an inch or two. This past Friday afternoon the snow began as faint little flurries that my middle school students were running through, screaming and waving their arms in ecstacy, at the between-class break. At 5 pm, the grocery store shelves were out of potatoes. Bread and milk were dwindling. The check-out lines were each 4 carts deep. Approximately fifteen hours later on Saturday, 8 inches had fallen and the roads were pure ice. Church services were called off 24 hours in advance, and families everywhere traipsed through the snow for sledding and snowman building adventures.
The snow of my childhood was equally enchanting. The snow clouds of southwest Michigan, however, would start their descent in November, usually weeks before Thanksgiving. The magical powder would sprinkle like icicle glitter, off and on, throughout the weeks of December. It was a rare year to not have accumulated snow on Christmas Day. I can think of only 2 times in my first 20 years of life that we did not have snow.
Snowblowers would be filled with gas and started vigorously to heave through the drifts. By the time driveways were cleared, the mountainous piles alongside the pavement were almost as tall as I was; the pivotal foundation for igloos and snow caves. One highly essential tip for shoveling in Michigan: shovel or snow blow all the way through the driveway into the street. Also, do not park in the street. I repeat: avoid street parking at all costs. Those two mistakes will cause a wall of solid ice and snow chunks to block your cars and driveways in, when the city snowplows barrel aggressively through your quiet neighborhood. Unless, of course, you enjoy trying to pick-ax a foot or more of solid ice chunks with a dull-bladed shovel.
January and February brought blizzards that children would pray would give them relief from their academic jailhouses. To have school off in the mitten state, the snowfall had to be unusually deep, in access of two feet in less than 12 hours. Or, an ice storm had to rage through, covering the snow in a skating rink and turning the trees into a magical, fairy-like, winter wonderland. Those were my favorite–trying to lightly walk on the fragile layer of ice before falling through to the powder underneath. Another guarantee to have school cancelled was if the windchill fell below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Any of those three requirements, in combination or isolation, was a pretty good bet for a kid in the upper Midwest.
In high school, a snow day didn’t mean we were confined to our homes to wait out the thaw. Everyone drives on the snow and ice in Michigan. I can still vividly recall driving the speed limit on a stretch of D Ave in Cooper Township– 55 mph– in my tiny, rusty, stick-shift, gray hatchback packed with friends, and skidding over the snow in glee. Teenagers live for driving in the seasonal, lake-effect weather. The reason for the cancel was mostly so that children didn’t have to wait at bus stops in frigid winds. Double layers, snow pants, parkas, gloves, hats, and scarves would be thrown into cars, Thinsulate boots laced, and snowboards packed for a day of freedom at the slopes.
If school was cancelled it meant deep, fresh powder at the Bittersweet ski lodge. While our faces had to fight the frigid temperatures and whipping wind that left our cheeks chapped and red as we rode the lifts, the blanket of snow was pillowy, forgiving, and worth the chill. On warm days, we shucked off our coats and hats and felt the wind flutter through our longsleeve t-shirts. When temperatures hovered near the 40s, the snow was still abundant and the cold wasn’t painful. I could fly down the hill in just my snow pants and gloves.
All winter long we had our fill of freezing fun. Heading to the ski slope after school one day (night skiing and boarding was my favorite), hooking sleds up to fourwheelers and careening dangerously through frozen cornfields the next. One year we strung Christmas lights down the sledding hill behind our house and the church youthgroup came over for night sledding. There are major perks to living right next to a city park with a sledding hill that closes its gates to the public at dusk.
The winter is so long, and cold, and seemingly endless that one gets used to the obstacles. We’d chink out a 2 by 2inch section of visibility in our windshields and just crank up the defroster. It was not unusual to see our headmaster shoveling the roof at school to keep the melt off from leaking inside. Snow was just absolutely everywhere, for 6 months straight. One fine April weekend my friends and I headed up for a few spring days at the Lake, and by that evening we were chucking snowballs at each other and drying our clothes out by the woodstove.
I had the experience of my first real Virginia snow in 2002, the year that my husband and I moved south for college. The whole university shut down for 3 inches. Meaning, classes were cancelled the night before the snow fell. This was absolutely mind-boggling and unheard of for Michigan kids who waited on pins and needles at 7:45 a.m. for a snow day when we were younger. Mid-morning, after sleeping in and lazily gulping coffee with cream, we decided to drive up to the mall and walk around. Maybe browse the bookstore on our day off. That is until we arrived and found out the mall was closed, due to inclement weather. My boss, a pharmacist, called to make sure I was still going to make it into the pharmacy that evening for my shift. I was confused. Why would I call into work if I wasn’t sick?
Nowadays I bundle my toddler up and he waddles out to play in the new snow with his sisters. His favorite thing to do is scoop it up in his mitten and eat it. Although it snowed three nights ago, the temperatures stayed below 30 all weekend, and school was cancelled–at about 4 pm yesterday. Snowplows down here always wait to come through until the snow has already fallen, leaving it pretty near impossible to clear the slick, packed ice by that point. In another couple of weeks, snow will fall again, clearing grocery shelves and pausing daily life for a few days at least, to the delight of students and teachers everywhere. The local news will have what I consider an endearing and quintessential report on how to attach chains to tires.
In fact, that reminds me of my years in college, when someone asked me when Michiganders put chains on their tires for the winter. I replied that we….didn’t. We didn’t even own chains for our tires. Chains were for semi-trucks and tractor trailers traveling through Alaska and the frozen Canadian tundra. You know, extreme conditions. He just looked at me kind of stunned. But didn’t it snow, like, a lot in Michigan? I left him with this: all the kids in Michigan do donuts in the icy parking lots all winter long, no chains in sight.