The Other Side of Snow

In eastern South Carolina where I grew up, about an hour’s drive from Myrtle Beach, a snowfall was a unexpected and exciting gift from Mother Nature. I remember one particularly bountiful snow—enough to build a snowman! That was a true rarity. My brothers and I went all out, rolling three balls of snow, each larger than the one before. We rolled and we rolled. How proud we were to be able to make a huge snow statement.

We rolled the huge bottom section where we wanted to build our snowperson. We rolled the next one over, but when we tried to lift it into place, it didn’t budge. That’s how little we knew about snow. Finally, Dad’s strength and ingenuity solved our conundrum.

Now I live in a place that gets snow most every winter, some years more than others. I enjoy the variation of the seasons, so I welcome snow. Sometimes.

In the right conditions, a snowfall can be breathtakingly beautiful. If the temperature hovers near the freezing mark, the snow is usually heavy and wet, turning every outdoor thing into a pearlescent sculptural wonder.

 

 

Snow paw and snow antlers

 

 

Snow fences

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening

The tiny, dry flakes created by brisker winter temperatures sparkle when the sun comes out as if billions of diamonds fell from the sky.

If the snow is preceded by hoar frost, feathery ice crystals that attach themselves to every outdoor surface, the whole world becomes white—every branch of every tree, every pine needle, every fence post and metal structure, everything. It almost makes my heart ache.

Clothespins on clothesline

Tree with hoar frost against blue sky

Abandoned bed springs

Garden fence

 

Pine branch

 

Even cobwebs are appealing when covered in hoar frost.

 

But snow has another side. The excitement grows old when winter comes early and refuses to leave center stage so colorful spring can make a long-awaited debut. And that’s not all.

When even a modest snow is accompanied by strong winds, as is so often the case on our mountainside, the snow piles into unplowable drifts. We’ve been known to pack snowshoes, a shovel in case we get stuck, and a plastic sled in our car and park at the bottom of our nearly half-mile gravel drive in anticipation of such an event. On more than a few occasions, we’ve slogged up that mountain road pulling a sled full of groceries, bags of pet food and birdseed, book bags, and more.

Sometimes we’ve been caught off guard. Without snowshoes or the shovel that spends most of the winter in the car, walking in can be a real trial, especially in a deep snow where each step means lifting one’s knees waist high or higher with every step. And climbing uphill, at that. Conversely, we’ve been completely snowed in for four or five days at a time. An adventure at first, but gnawing anxieties grow with each day as we begin considering the possibilities of being trapped in the event of an emergency.

And then there’s that dreaded word, ice. At just the right—or wrong—temperature, snow is preceded by rain which freezes on roads. Sometimes the reverse happens and rain or sleet falls after the snow. Walking and driving in either condition is treacherous. Add steep, curvy, and sometimes narrow mountain roads for a bigger thrill than any theme park ride.

 

 

Icicles can be fascinating, though, especially when the wind blows.

In normal times, we may only have one ‘good’ snow a year, and it doesn’t usually hang around long. A day or two later, the sun’s rays melt most of it away. We’ve had a few exceptional years, though. Real doozies.

In 1993, snow totaled more than three feet in just over two days. We were under curfew for forty-eight hours straight. Locals fondly remember it as the Blizzard of ’93 (and yes, it was an actual blizzard). At the time, it was called ‘the storm of the century.’ The National Weather Service named it a superstorm.

The 2009-10 winter brought us more than nine feet of snow—and since temps remained below freezing for the duration, none of it had a chance to melt. For more than three months, the only outdoor colors we saw were white and gray.

Once we could drive around our mountain road,  2010

Snow field

Fifty years earlier, way back in 1960 (well before we lived here), it only snowed seven feet, all of it falling in a just over a month. Every other day it snowed. Temperatures never rose. The winds were fierce. What snowplows cleared one day, howling winds turned into another drift the next. Children missed a month of school; helicopters dropped food, medicine, and cattle feed to isolated rural households.

Now, I know our snow totals are nothing compared to the country’s northernmost areas and tallest peaks. But, hey, I’m in the south. Most folks don’t typically associate such snow totals in the land they think of as all sunshine and beaches.

But don’t feel sorry for us. We mountaineers take a kind of perverse pleasure in our extreme weather. It’s like a badge of honor and we wear it (read: talk about it) all the time, as if we somehow deserve credit for weather’s natural occurrences. We proudly claim our snow.

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Among the trees

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Taking a bite out of snow

Bragging rights

Back in my high school days, when every snowflake sent us running to the windows in gobsmacked awe, we were naively oblivious to snow’s downsides. All we knew was that even a relatively deep snowfall would disappear within hours, the reason we wasted no time getting outside.

During spring break of my senior year, our high school chorus went on tour. We were headed to New York. We spent a night in New York City, the first time most of us had ever seen a skyscraper. Then we traveled upstate to perform. We were excited to see snow on the ground. But what were those humongous ugly mountains of grayish-black, sludgy-looking stuff at nearly every corner? Yeck! Why, I wondered, didn’t these northerners care enough to keep their snow clean and pristine? How could they let it sit around and get so dirty, so totally ruinous to the landscape of purest white?

Now I know.

 

 

Recent snow scene

Deep Freeze

Winter went into overdrive around here a couple of weeks ago. We live in the high mountains of western North Carolina so, even though we live in the south, we’re used to cold winters. It’s not unusual for temperatures to drop into the single digits or into negative territory. We experienced a frigid -32° one year—and, no, that wasn’t the wind chill factor. Almost always, though, those cold spells are short and interspersed with warmer temps.

This time was a little different. The -5° to +5° days lasted far longer than usual. Long enough for mountain waterfalls to transform themselves into a paradise for ice climbers. (Tip: don’t try this at home, kids!) The damp seeping between rock-lined roadsides turned into massive icicle displays, and our fast-moving mountain streams and rivers froze solid. Nothing out of the ordinary for some parts of the globe, I know, but around here it was unusual enough for the Gnome and me to decide that, in spite of the cold, we wanted to get out there and see some solid water, camera in hand.

It was late afternoon when we left home so we didn’t get to check out as many streams as we’d hoped. Besides, we quickly got sidetracked. Still, it was a fun adventure and we did manage to get a few photos. It finally warmed up some and, with a few exceptions, most of our daylight hours have been above freezing for a while now. Colder weather will return soon enough. Who knows what photo ops we’ll find then. In the meantime, here are a few of the scenes we captured on our field trip.

 

We had to stop the car when we came upon this sight. If you look closely you’ll see a small stream of water shooting out of the icy sculpture created by the fountain (right). The high winds of a few days before had blown the water to the left to create another sculpture. Cool!

Rocky roadside cliffs have turned into giant icicle displays everywhere you turn.

We never pass up an opportunity to observe and photograph deer.

The trees obscure this scene, but we kept coming upon mountainsides covered in ice from peak to base where water had oozed from rock seams to create what looks like frozen waterfalls.

 

 

This great blue heron was clearly frustrated in its search for food on the frozen river. 

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We’re not used to seeing dogs walk on top of rivers.

No ice here, but we can never resist the sight of old, abandoned houses. When we saw this one on a distant hillside, we were forced to take a detour. 

 

Coming ‘Round the Mountain

Coming ‘Round the Mountain

Coming ‘Round the Mountain (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Public domain photos retrieved from Wikimedia Commons titled Winning horse and buggy with driver at the Wynnum Show, Brisbane

Is there anything quite like the sweet scent of a dew-kissed early morning—especially in our green southern mountains? Every time—every single time—I catch a whiff of it, I’m transported back to those too-rare childhood trips to visit my maternal grandparents.

It was an excruciatingly long drive from the South Carolina flatlands to North Carolina’s southwestern mountains, even longer for the three children relegated to the back seat.

We claimed our territory before the first hand ever touched a door handle. No one wanted to be stuck in the middle, surrounded by sibling arms, legs, and torsos. We knew we’d have to take turns, but hope sprang eternal.

The window-seat sitters were intolerant, and arguments began almost immediately: your feet are on my side . . . I don’t have anywhere to put them . . . keep ’em on the hump . . . Mama, he’s touching me. And so on.

Our trips usually began late on a Friday afternoon so Daddy could get in most of a day’s work and we’d still have all day Saturday for visiting—and resting up before we had to make our return trip on Sunday afternoon. In the days before interstate highways, the drive lasted more than six hours—an eternity to us children. A couple hours in and we were miserably fidgety. That’s when the questions began. When will we get there? How much longer? Are we there yet?

Mother tried diverting our attention with car games. We looked for license plates from other states; we searched for words on billboards that started with the next letter of the alphabet; we tried to be first to spot whatever animal or object one of our parents called out to us.

Once our brown, two-tone Ford Fairlane began climbing and winding, we knew we were getting close, which only made us more restless. That’s when Mother began leading us in all the verses of She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain, with its ever longer refrain. In my mind’s eye we were singing about Mother in an earlier era. I imagined her in a bonnet riding on the front seat of our song’s buggy, maybe even wearing scratchy red pajamas.

For Dad, navigating those ever steeper, narrow, curvy roads in the dark after an already long day at the office was harrowing enough without being distracted by the fussing and whining emanating from the back seat. No wonder Mother was so desperate to keep us occupied.

Everyone knew what was coming when we inevitably got on Dad’s last nerve, and we didn’t want to hear it any more than he wanted to say it: “Ask me that one more time, and I’ll turn this car around right here.” Not likely. Returning home would have made for an even longer trip, and no one wanted that. Occasionally, the threat was, “One more argument and I’ll stop this car and give everyone a spanking.” We rarely got spanked and never on a car trip, so why pull out that old chestnut? Sheer exhaustion, most likely.

Somehow, we always reached our destination in one piece and not too awfully frazzled. A few hugs, kisses, and a midnight snack later, we were hustled off to bed and bundled under the covers.

And then it was morning. This was the moment I’d been looking forward to since we first got in the car. I woke under a pile of Grandmother’s homemade quilts, fog drifting through the windows I’d opened the night before so I could feel the kiss of the deliciously crisp mountain air on my face.

Before anyone else stirred, even my early-rising grandfather, I stole outside to walk barefoot in the cool, damp grass. I breathed in the clean scent of a world washed in dew, nibbled on a green apple that had fallen from its tree, and slipped under the graceful, draping branches of the giant weeping willow on the edge of the yard—my sacred hideaway. It was the perfect spot for a little girl to daydream, think private thoughts, and grow.

And worth every minute I was stuck in the middle.

Any hour of the day, any season of the year, every time I see sights like these I know the mountains are my meant-to-be home.

 

 

 

Needles and Thread, Part II: MaMa’s Treasure

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

I never knew my paternal grandmother. She died in 1942, about two and a half years before my parents married. After still another year, Grampa married Carolyn Usher Johnson, the woman I always knew as MaMa.

When Grampa and MaMa married, she moved into his three-bedroom home. As I was growing up, I thought the house was hopelessly old-fashioned with its mahogany furniture, Oriental rugs, ornate cuckoo clock, and velvet upholstered sofa and chairs adorned with crocheted antimacassars. An old wind-up Victrola, complete with its puzzled-dog-staring-into-the-horn icon and wax cylinders, always a fascination to us grandchildren, stood in the hall.

Once the last of the nine sons and stepsons was out of the house, two of the three bedrooms were reserved for company. When our family visited, we usually stayed in the front bedroom, which featured a porcelain pitcher and bowl on the antique washstand and a brightly colored, velvet crazy quilt on the bed. The bedspread in the second bedroom was much more sedate: a thin woven cotton spread in muted shades of brown.

After I was married with children of my own, I was happy when our young family moved to North Carolina because it meant being nearer both my husband’s and my extended families. I was especially eager for our children to get to know their only living set of great-grandparents.

When we went to see Grampa and MaMa in the summer of 1981, the term Alzheimers’ had only recently entered the popular lexicon to describe the most common form of dementia. MaMa had been diagnosed with this horrid disease not long before our visit. Her diagnosis came after she was found walking along the highway near their home in the middle of night, wearing nothing but a nightgown, unsure where she was or how she got there. But when we visited, she was perfectly lucid, even joking about that nighttime misadventure. She seemed quite competent.

We stood in the front yard saying our always stretched-out goodbyes when MaMa asked us to wait a few minutes more and disappeared into the house. She returned a few minutes later, carrying the brown bedspread I remembered from my childhood. As she presented it to me, she explained that her grandmother had woven the spread during the Civil War.

I was touched, but I demurred. Surely, she should give it to one of her sons’ children. It was their birthright. She was quick to say, “Oh, they’d just pack it away in a cedar chest. I know you’ll use it the way it was meant to be used.” Grampa, standing beside and ever so slightly behind her, silently gestured that we shouldn’t belabor the point. MaMa knew what she wanted and would be unduly upset if we declined. We accepted the spread.

It was the last time we saw her. MaMa died before we were able to make another visit to eastern North Carolina. We were even more honored,and now sobered, to be in possession of the spread with its rich heritage. But how were we to honor it?

It had been in regular use for over a hundred years and simply wouldn’t stand up to much more wear, especially in a house filled with cats, dogs, and active children. Yet, we knew we couldn’t let the spread spend the remainder of its days in the dark recesses of a cedar chest, no matter how much longer it could be preserved.

We had to find some other way to care for the special piece of history entrusted to us. Today, the treasured spread is folded over the loft rail overlooking our bedroom, a compromise that keeps it in sight but protects it from the risks of everyday use. We’re careful to keep it out of direct sunlight, to fold it loosely, and to rearrange its folds every so often to keep the fabric from weakening at fold points.

We honor it. We tell its story. I hope that’s good enough.