Wednesday, December 10, 2008

In Which there is a night of Grim and Ancient Wandering

So ever since that frosty night I've had the tendency to overpack. So when I decide to go hiking on Sunday up North I throw the entire line of Patagonia's Fall/Winter 2007 into the back seat of the car, as well as a few pieces of spring/fall 2008 just for good measure. Really, you can't be too prepared.

Well eat it, naysayers, because low and behold another blizzard came hurling out of the wings and stranded me way up North. Call it the Lake Effect, call it winter in Northern New England, call it my predilection for forays into inclement weather patterns, but a storm of biblical proportions was unleashed upon the Green Mountains, and this time I was behind the wheel. Sure, beats ailing in a frozen stream chewing on birch bark without a coat, but let me assure you that Hell hath no fury like Interstate 89 in a blizzard. The road was six inches of ice, cars were scattered on all sides like a beaded necklace that's been torn off. The temperature was going down faster than the cast of the L word and didn't show any sign of stopping: 30, 25, 18, 16.....and soon enough it was too cold for the ice anti-freeze to work, so the road crews threw up their hands and went home to their families (or tried) and the highways were shut down.

The storm was akin to those that used to hit the Great Plains, before Henry Ford came up with a great idea and we all made the world a little toastier; the type of blizzard that could freeze a farmer between house and barn. Yes, this used to happen with some frequency, and a few days later when the sun came out the poor wife or one of her children would walk outside and find Dad's frozen self curled up in a fetal position (from whence we came...) having tried to climb into the milk pail for warmth. First the cars in front of me on the soon-to-be-doomed highway were a string of pale rubies melting away, then all lights were gone and the world was a swirling, chaotic universe of flying snow. Picture yourself a little figurine inside a now globe, now give it a hard shake.

Knowing I wasn't going to make it home, I directed the car's slide off of the exit and headed towards the home of my friend Calef, who thankfully lives in the town of Westford off 89, only about 22 miles from the highway. I crawled along. It was almost 0 degrees and the Wind was screeching, and to make matters all the more macabre NPR was doing a dramatic reading of The Raven, and since I couldn't spare a hand to reach for the knob I just had to deal with it. So, 20 miles of unfamiliar backroads in front of me, 1/8th of a tank of a gas left, my vision reduced to a million snowflakes and the radio saying Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore.....I was very close to throwing in the towel, pulling over and doing The Sulk.

And maybe I should have. The roads were sheer terror. Now and then I could make out the flashing blue of a patrol car or the red swirl of an ambulance trying to trek by. The miles oscillated between shit-show and total solitude. But the real problem here lay in the combination of running out of gas and deadly cold temperature. I could have opted to spare myself the indignity of spinning out of control and just pulled out into a field to wait out the storm. But without enough gas to idle the engine for heat, I'd be playing a dangerous little game. The car would quickly lose its heat and become a cold metal shell. It would keep out the wind and the snow but the cold would bleed through. Rule Numero Uno of being stranded in a storm in your car is to stay put. Do not attempt to get out and walk to a farmhouse unless you can reach out and touch said farmhouse through your car window, lest you recreate The Frozen Farmer. And the miles between houses in the Champlain Valley stretch on for a loooonnnnggg time.

Lucky for me, I had overpacked. I had two pairs of guide pants and long underwear, boots that had been purchased for an aborted trecking trip to Nepal (August 2001, Maoists attacks) one down sweater vest and one down vest, a down jacket, some sort of pricey shell thing, a new tres populair marsupial fleece thing, a synthetic jacket (just in case for the wet) and Rs 1 through 4 (not including lightweight R3). This in addition to what I was wearing already, which was no day at the beach I assure you. As well, I had a pound of truffles Zoey had given me which no doubt have the caloric content to sustain me for well over a year. Unfortunately for the truffles, they did not get to serve such a noble cause and were instead the victim of a serious case of the Hungries that night, up in the attic celebrating the situation with the North Country's finest homegrown. A rarity for me but the night called for something out the ordinary.

Anyhow, my arsenal of Pataguchi was probably enough from keeping me from catching the Deads that night. But I had no cell phone and no way of assuring anyone I was still kicking. Regardless, I did spin off the road three times, each time fighting and lurching the car back onto the road and egging it on. No 360s but some solid European Road Trips (know what that is? what, were you never a hapless highschooler with a learner's permit and a licence to kill?) It was black night, white snow, ruthless wind and nothing else.

I struggled through the porch and into Calef's house, and as I did the phone rang. Their friends had spun off the Jay Peak access road, snapping a power line in two and blacking out the entire ski mountain. Scores of people stuck in motionless chair lifts, blown back and forth in the gale. The lights blink out in the lodge and suddenly no one can recognise each other. And their friends are stuck in the car for an hour and a half as the Jaws of Life tears into the car roof. When the woman is rescued, she has a broken collar, broken pelvis, a xylophone of broken ribs and- what's that, a femur bone shoved straight through her thigh. Add to this the idea that my mother's plane is supposed to be landing and you'll understand why me and Calef and his brother retreat to that attic and check out: the night is Grim.

But the morning! The morning is pure action! As I stood gassing up the car in Essex- the snow had stopped but the temperature only an eyebrow above the negatives- a car comes whirling off of State Route 15 and into the gas station- completely out of control and heading in an entirely unpredictable pattern towards me and my car. I start sprinting and take cover behind the truck of a man dressed entirely in camouflage. "Almost gotcha din't it!" He lulled in a heavy native dialect, seemingly unfazed that I had just narrowly dodged a car skidding backwards and sideways. In a parking lot. On foot. "I got a tip for you, honey: stay home." The woman inside the gas station had a similar sentiment. When I told her I had about 90 miles of road left between me and my destination she just shook her head. "Well, go with patience, sweetheart." (I should mention that when I'm all wrapped up in winter jackets et. all I look like I'm about 12.)

Go with patience I did. I white knuckled it down a beaten and battered 89, full of cars so far off the road the tow truck men were standing around scratching their heads. At one point there was a magnificent 18 wheeler stuck sideways in the median, steaming like a horse in the early morning. Then sometime around signs for Barre the ice had lightened, I was heading South after all, and pretty soon the interstate was dry and the yellow line was visible again. I made it home and then last night a rainstorm came and washed away all the snow.


grunder said...

This was good. I feel like getting bundled and heading up there for a wintry trek. It's a dangerous thing tempting an Alaskan stuck in the city.

Zoey said...

you should get an award for being the toughest twelve year old girl in the world.