Posted by: dougery | December 7, 2010

The Kids are Squallright

Growing up in Buffalo one has a healthy appreciation of Winter and what that season is capable of. However, people assume that because it is snowy in western NY, that it is also frigid. This is a common misconception. Lake Erie, the least glamorous of the Great Lakes, is both responsible for the vast amount of snow that falls on the region as well as a kind of temperature control. As long as the lake remains unfrozen, the waters will keep the area around 32 degrees. The same lake effect phenomena that changes freezing blasts of Canadian wind into 2 or 3 inches of snowfall an hour, also ‘warms’ up that air as it passes over. Look, I realize Buffalo ain’t Buenos Aires, but the city never really gets all that cold. Chicago on the other hand…

Chicago gets cold. Chicago gets egregiously, ridiculously, face-chafingly cold.

Lake Michigan is on the ‘wrong’ side of the city. It offers no protection from everything the North Wind can dish out. I’m of the opinion that the city’s nickname is a reference to the political windbags in it’s corrupt history and not any particularly bracing weather occurrence although I may be in the minority here. It does get windy, but not ferociously so. What I do remember about the Chicago Winter wind is that it does not respect the laws of physics, as you can make three left turns in a row and have the air smack you straight in the face each time. In fact, I’ve turned around on the same city street and found the wind equally strong from both sides, so go figure.

Moving out to New England, I figured I would have the proper experience to handle anything Nature could throw at me. It doesn’t snow as much as Buffalo here, nor is it quite as cold and blustery as Chicago. There are forests and mountains to block the wind and no bodies of water to fuel any lake effect engines. Yet whatever New England lacks in brute force it makes up for in sheer capriciousness. Two days after Thanksgiving as my family and friends were spending some time up in southern Vermont I got to experience my first squall. It would prefer it to be my last.

We were passing the time in Brattleboro, it was a cold but sunny Saturday morning when we arrived for lunch and some shopping. We left around 2pm and there were trace amounts of snowflakes in the air. No need for windshield wipers as we pulled in to a farm store for end-of-season apple cider donuts. In the 5 minutes or so it took us to buy these snacks the flakes had turned to showers. I pulled the Jeep around and everyone hopped in, eager to get back to the mountain that was 30 miles away. 30 miles of winding, climbing, switchbacking road that would prove an absolute nightmare to drive as the squall burst on the scene.

The biggest problem was that this early in the season, the ground, the mountains, the earth, the roads—they weren’t yet cold. And as this snow ratcheted up, and the inches fell, just a few was all it took, things got disastrously messy. I threw the Jeep in 4 wheel drive as the snow came down harder and harder. It being one of the busiest shopping weekends of the year, there were plenty of folks on the road. In cars that had no business operating in the snow. With my wife, sister-in-law and best friend all looking out the windows and grimacing at what was happening, we approached a scenic overlook somewhere between Brattleboro and Wilmington. The road banks up and up before breaking north and down. The bend is somewhat dangerous under the best of circumstances, it’s blind curve is hazardous because there is often pedestrians about and one can’t quite see what oncoming traffic will do if it encounters them on their side. So we were reduced to a crawl that ended up being an outright stop.

Up ahead of us were two small cars going so slowly (and being safe, let’s make sure to add) that they could no longer make their way up the road. It had iced over and their wheels spun furiously. Neither was large enough, heavy enough or equipped with the appropriate gears to successfully make the climb. Finally, each had to wait for oncoming traffic to pause as they made U-turns and head back the way they came.

The Jeep powered around the overlook without a hitch, but in a few miles we saw a terrible sight. On the right side of the road a small car had gone over the edge, flipped over, and was propped up against the steep drop-off by large trees. Large trees that had they not been there who know how far the car would have plummeted. We pulled over (as had several others before us) to check and see if everyone was alright. Miraculously they all were, the police were called, help was coming. We were just in the way, so we headed out, closer than ever to home.

The streets near Wilmington were salted and clear, it was by far the easiest portion of our adventure home. We also finally got cell reception and phoned ahead to my parents-in-law, who had left 20 minutes ahead of us to see if they were okay. They told us that they had made it all the way to West Dover, home of Mt Snow and the ski place we were staying only to find an accident barring the road a mile away from home. They advised us to break toward Haystack and come around Mt. Snow from the side so as to avoid getting stuck in traffic jam that showed no signs of clearing. We thanked them for the tip and were shortly ahead of them in terms of getting back.

Unfortunately the Haystack bypass was full of tight turns and small but steep hills. As we approached one of the latter we saw a Forerunner in the middle of our lane that had just collided with the back of a small car and dislodged it’s bumper. Rather than pull over to the side of the road, the Forerunner sat in the middle, as the driver got out to see what had happened. Because of this I was forced to come to a complete stop in the middle of a steep grade. After a few minutes the Forerunner driver realized that our Jeep, as well as several vehicles behind me, could not get by and moved to the side. By this point the snow was falling so thick and the ice had set up so fast that when I dropped Jeep into the lowest gear, (it was a freaking towing gear!) it could not purchase any momentum. After skidding to the left and approaching traffic, I braked and then found the Jeep sliding backwards just as the tiny toy cars had done back at the overlook.

Needless to say this was terrifying.

Everyone in the Jeep was scared out of the heads. As we drifted a few feet back, we also canted to the side, where if we slid too far the shallow embankment would most likely be enough to make a tall vehicle like a Jeep topple on it’s side. But we stopped. We didn’t hit the car behind us or topple over. Nor did we try and move again. By this time my parents-in-law were 2 or 3 cars behind us and saw what had happened. The car behind us freaked out, turning and heading back in terribly dangerous drifting movements that nearly put them headfirst into a gigantic pine.

We didn’t have the option to do this.

We were right on the steepest part of the hill and any movement would likely send us in a direction we did not wish to go. All this time enormous Suburbans and other giant trucks were flying around us on their way up, oblivious of any possible traffic that might be on it’s way down. We were told to sit tight while a salting truck came, and sprayed the road around us. That was all it took, a little salt took care of the ice and in 10 minutes time we drove up as if nothing had happened. The rest of the drive was a breeze even if the snow was falling harder than ever.

Back at the ski place an enormous whiskey was thrust in my hand and my back was patted. Disaster had been averted. Knees, while shaking, were safe and sound and warm. In the end only about 6 inches of snow fell. An unexpected 6 inches that no advanced meteorological equipment had been sophisticated enough to forecast. It had been a squall.

Do not like.

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Responses

  1. In Chicago it’s so cold that you don’t even venture out of the house. So there’s pretty much no chance of getting into adventures.

  2. You did good, man. You did good.

  3. Except for the pun.


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