As I gazed at the world of white piled high everywhere around me, I felt momentarily overwhelmed, as if I didn’t know where to begin.
Then the all-too-obvious answer slapped me in the form of a swirling, surly wind gust flinging snow in my face.
Start at the back porch, of course, right where I was standing, right where a moment before I had struggled to force open the door because of a thick snowdrift piled against it.
Clearing that space, I’d then have to uncover the porch steps hidden somewhere under the foot of snow Eau Claire had received overnight that had drifted even higher, then proceed to the patio, which was necessary to get to the garage, where my salvation waited in the form of a snowblower.
Still standing on my porch, I tried to muster the willpower to begin what would become a nearly three-hour endeavor to clear the deep snow from my corner lot and a couple of neighbors’ properties.
Another blustery breeze to the face, left a dusting of white across my cheeks. I pondered heading back inside, back to an alluring hot cup of coffee and bacon and eggs and a comfy spot on the couch. I could come back out later to complete the arduous task ahead. The snow could wait.
But it couldn’t. I turned dutifully, grabbed the snow shovel I had propped against a porch wall, a shovel covered with icy remnants of too many recent work sessions and began digging out.
I typically don’t mind our Wisconsin winters, and at times I even like them. I enjoy how the season slows down, as if Mother Nature, tired of the hectic pace of spring, summer and fall, decides it’s time for a break, time for a hibernation of sorts for a few (or sometimes longer) months before life winds up again.
I appreciate the silent solitude of hikes through a world wrapped in a frosty white blanket that presents such a sharp contrast to the colorful noise of the rest of the year. Sometimes I revel in heading out into the bitter cold, feeling somehow more alive, as if proving to myself one more time “Hey, I’m still tough enough for this.”
I wasn’t feeling very tough on this cold, snowy morning a week ago. My back and shoulders still ached from shoveling snow a couple of days earlier, and a couple of days before that, and on too many previous occasions for me to remember during a February that had become one extraordinarily long, white blur in my mind. It was a February that will be recalled in future years for both its record snowfall amount (a whopping 53.7 inches, shattering the previous record for February or any other month in this part of the state) and its soul-sapping power.
So much snow at once has complicated our already busy lives. Simply getting around has become increasingly difficult.
Choked with so much snow, city streets, even main thoroughfares, have grown increasingly narrow, like tunnels bordered by castle-like white walls. Two-lane roads have been reduced to tight confines, and motorists must often pull over and take turns, allowing others to proceed down the street before doing so themselves. Drivers cringe at meeting an incoming city bus or snowplow as vehicles pass just inches from each other.
Simply turning onto streets is hazardous, thanks to titanic-size snowbanks that impede motorists’ vision. Last week I took four different ways to work in seeking a safe route and failed to find one as I narrowly avoided being struck by other vehicles each trip.
Rural roads have been even more challenging to navigate as strong winds in more wide-open areas have piled huge drifts across many of them. Beleaguered snowplow crews worked nearly nonstop all month to maintain streets amid the unrelenting conditions, doing their best in an impossible situation.
Even walking around town has proven an adventure. While most Eau Claire residents have done an admirable job clearing their walkways and driveways, some appear to have given up, apparently overwhelmed at trying to keep pace.
During a walk downtown a few days ago, I slipped and slid through patches of soft snow over an icy base as I navigated a narrow path carved between piles of white on either side of me shoulder high. Then the path ended, replaced by a wall of snow taller than me. I pondered continuing, then thought better of it and turned around.
Taking a toll
We here in Wisconsin pride ourselves on our toughness, our ability to endure subzero temperatures, mountains of snow and winters that can envelop nearly half a year and can seem never-ending.
But it turns out we can only experience so many giant snowfalls, endure so much cold, before we start to show cracks in our collective spirit.
The challenges of dealing with our record snow, combined with a recent historic cold snap that dished up life-threatening frigid air, has taken its toll, even on the hardy souls of this region. The difficulties of the situation, and the continuation of such extremes with seemingly no end in sight, has dampened the spirits of even the most optimistic of my friends.
As I was reminded in recent days, there are people out there for whom this winter’s brutal force is much more devastating. I recently interviewed a couple of farmers who had experienced roofs of barns and other buildings they owned collapsing under the weight of so much snow.
Badly damaged structures. Dead livestock. Battered psyches. All of that amid longtime low milk prices and other economic pressures that continue to force more farmers off their land. While I have trivial concerns about whether my snowblower starts, those farmers are rescuing remnants from deep snow and pondering their futures.
If there is an upside to the myriad challenges posed by winter’s wrath, it is this: We Wisconsinites often turn our struggles into opportunities to help.
Neighbors clearing snow for each other. Strangers pushing vehicles free from being stuck in the snow. Residents making trips to the grocery store or the pharmacy or other places for those whose vehicles are snowbound or won’t start. People helping people.
Maybe we help others because we all understand the fortitude it takes to endure winters in this place we call home. Maybe it’s because we realize we all need each other to get through this season of darkness in one piece. Maybe it’s because it’s the right thing to do, the way we’re supposed to live our lives.
The other day I was back at it again, guiding my snowblower along my sidewalk, snow piling up in ever-higher heaps. I approached the end of my driveway, home to a towering wall of snow capped at the top like the height of a mountain range.
The snowblower belched a blast at the mass, and suddenly part of the snow wall collapsed, burying the just-cleared sidewalk, avalanche-like. Exasperated, I looked away and noticed my neighbor, Sue Luthy, looking at me, having taken a brief break from clearing her driveway.
Our eyes locked and I shook my head, then laughed and shrugged my shoulders. What else could I do?
March started much like February, with more snow. Who knows when it will stop. Maybe not until June. In the meantime, we’ll do what we always do. We’ll hope for spring. We’ll get by with the help of our family, friends and neighbors. We’ll get to work and make the best of our situation.