Monday, February 22, 2010

Winter in the hills


One of my best years as a boy came 50 years ago, when it snowed three or four Wednesdays in a row and school was canceled for the rest of the week. It was a wonderful time for an eighth-grader struggling with basic algebra concepts, not to mention the complexities of a biology course I had no business taking. The weather bailed me out each week and I've ever been grateful to the cold hand of nature for saving me from some of those dreary days. Never have gotten enough snow.

But this year I'm getting close. Up in the Blue Ridge in Patrick County, Va., it has snowed more this winter than anytime since at least the 1980s, according to faithful bloggers on one of my favorite Web sites, Kevin Myatt's The Weather Journal. Myatt is a copy editor and "principal weather geek" on The Roanoke Times, a newspaper I once served as a Washington correspondent, and it's clearly a site for snow lovers looking for the next big storm. I've read more comprehensive information about coming storms in southwest Virginia -- and along the N.C. state line -- than anywhere else I can recall, and it has been helpful to understand each time we were about to get another 12-16 inches of snow.

Around our place just a few hundred yards from the highest point in Patrick County (barely visible at top right of the picture), we've gotten at least three major snows, two or perhaps all three of them followed by freezing rain and ice storms, and at least two smaller snows that have brought the white level back up to 10 each week. We've had our driveway plowed twice by Garrett Goad, the indefatigable plow king of Vesta, Va. Garrett gave me good advice: When it snows, you've got to plow it soon before it sets up. Amen, Brother.

We shoveled our way to our front steps through waist-deep snow twice. There's three feet of snow on our deck in two places where it has slid off the steel roof, and walking to the barn is an exercise in, well, exercise.

With a couple of frozen levels in the snow and a slick crust on top, I had to dig out my old baseball spikes to get around before discovering some semi-crampons called Yaktrax. They were a big help in getting to the barn so I could dig out the snowplow for the ATV, whereupon we made it all of about 10 feet before miring up in a hard icy slush the consistency and weight of concrete that was poured maybe an hour earlier.

I was going to try to find a used scrape blade this week for the tractor until the truck radiator blew out, so now I'm trying to figure out how to adapt a loader bucket for a plow. My engineering's coming along about as well as that eighth-grade algebra-and-biology business.

An ice storm around Christmas day left us with several hundred trees badly damaged -- most of them along the tree line around our fields. Some were large limbs broken off but still hung up; our favorite deckside maple snapped in half; and a lot of elderly locusts simply gave up and lay down under the cold blanket of ice. I've been replacing the blades on the old chipper-shredder to help reduce the stuff, assuming the snow and ice ever melt. If that day ever comes, it's going to take a long time to clean it all up.

The sun was out over the weekend and the temperature soared to 51.2 degrees, and a lot of stuff melted from the roof. A few bare patches appeared in the driveway and a six-foot icicle on the shady side of the house disappeared under a brief but noisy avalanche of ice, snow and melt water.

Wakely Phillips, who helps his son Jimmy keep our old tractor running, told me a while back we wouldn't see bare fields again until April. I thought he was joking, but that was 27 inches of snow ago, and now Kevin Myatt says watch out. Temperatures will plunge again, and while there's not much chance of a big snow this week, he cautions: "Long term, there appear to be a couple of train cars on the tracks (moist systems from the Pacific) rolling into the first week of March as cold air dominates. We'll just have to watch them one by one."

We will indeed. I'll have to say I've thoroughly enjoyed the snows we've had this winter, but after trying to clear a path across the deck and down a few steps Sunday morning, I've realized that I'm mighty doggone close to having my fill of this stuff, thank you very much.