Shelter From the Storm


When it snows up here I plow a route for a friend. There’s a dozen or so places at various points around the lake, most of them tricky with steep, winding driveways, and difficult approaches. It may be why he’s given them to me instead of the other, younger drivers who plow the big parking lots and the commercial properties around the lake. He knows that I take my time with each one, that I am by nature a cautious man who likes to leave things just so and he knows that no one will call in to complain about the narrow paths shoveled to the door or some bed of flowers that’s been accidentally driven over. I mark out the route in the Fall before the ground freezes by driving wooden stakes into the edges of the driveway that let me know where I can pass safely and I write my notes about things like fuel tanks and access to the generators that all the big places have these days. I drop off five gallon pails of granite dust and sand to spread along the sidewalks, concrete aprons and porches. I rarely speak to the homeowners, most of them live somewhere else during the winter months, but if I do happen to see one I make it a point to ask their preferences and make sure to jot it down. People can be particular and once the first snow falls it’s too late to try and figure out where things are under a blanket of white. I have been fortunate this year to have my oldest son back with us and he rides along with me in the truck, jumping out to shovel while I make the passes over and over again to push all the snow back and clean up the drives and parking areas. One of the things we’ve made a point to do before each storm is to carefully check out the truck and the things we carry with us the night before; fluid levels and hoses are examined and topped off and made tight, we test the blade and the hydraulic connections and we load extra pails of sand into the bed along with a flat shovel, two snow shovels, a roof rake, chains and bars. I keep a couple of 2x12’s for emergencies and make sure the tires and lights are good. Inside the cab there’s always a couple of tow straps, a first aid kit, extra gloves, a blanket and a box of flares. I learned a few years back that an extra set of wiper blades is nice to carry along as well so there’s always one tucked behind the seat. We take along a thermos of hot coffee and a bag of sandwiches and jerky and my wife almost always packs a few snacks extra to carry us through if it’s an especially long night.

I had never driven a plow truck before we moved up here and so I learned it on my own by taking care of our own driveway and the farm roads. I made all of my mistakes on our own property over the course a several years before I tried my hand at someone else’s, but as with all skills I became better with each passing year, learning tricks that not only cut time off of the effort, but which prepared each property for the snows to come. Plowing is a lot more like sculpture than anything else I have ever done. You remove material in order to leave a finished work and so you must see what is hidden beneath waiting to be revealed. Each pass of the blade pushes the snow ahead of you and depending upon the depth and the quality of the snow you must have a plan for where to deposit the material, how to angle the plow as you drive so that it falls away to either side in a controlled manner. Once you’ve left a berm of plowed snow there’s little chance of moving it again absent a melt-off or a visit with a loader to clean it away at a later date. You have to always be thinking about how much snow will bank up over the course of the Winter and just how much space you must leave to be able to get in and out and never let yourself get boxed in. In most cases you visit the property for two or more passes and if the wind gets up and the snow is light and the temperatures cold enough there can be more snow in the plow path than fell originally, drifts that run like dunes across the drives and parking yards. To do the job properly you often have to come to within inches of garages or other structures, there are lamp posts and hedges, walkways and benches and after a good blizzard all of it just disappears beneath a blanket of snow and looks like nothing more than a plow pile or drift. If you know the property you can avoid them, but if you haven’t paid close attention you can do serious damage to both property and plow. Some conditions are more challenging than others; heavy winds can buffet the truck and push you across the road, a wet snow and temperatures below freezing can load up the wiper blades with ice so that every ten minutes or so you’ve got to stop to clean them off by hand just to be able to see through the windshield. Smaller flakes are optimal but sometimes it spirals down in fluffy clots the size of gumdrops and when you’re driving into that kind of snow, even thirty miles an hour, all you can see is a never ending vortex of falling snow, turning in a cyclonic rotation as you move through it, hypnotizing, mesmerizing. The strain on your eyes is one of the hardest parts of the job, always looking ahead into the white glow during the daylight hours, the shallow depth of a hundred feet or less in the pitch black night. When you pass another plow truck there is almost always a friendly wave between drivers, in perfect alignment of purpose and risk. I prefer the bigger snows, the Nor’easters that come in on a weekend that keeps the other drivers home-bound and leaves the roads empty but for us. There have been days when I have driven for an hour without catching sight of another human being, the only sign of life coming from the soft glow of orange light that trembles in each window of the houses along the way. My son and I listen to the radio off and on — he likes sports talk and I prefer oldies or classical and so we compromise, but more often than not we drive in a silence or exchange a few bits of information as we go, concentrating on the task at hand. There is an unwritten law that applies to plow trucks, like ships at sea, that requires you to stop and offer assistance to anyone who is stuck or in need of help along the route. You can count on at least one of these rescue missions every time you plow. Someone in a Subaru stuck half in a snow bank and half out into the road. You turn on the flashers and quickly glove up and try to sum up the problem and solution before you exit the cab. Usually it’s a little bit of shoveling, a couple of handfuls of sand and a quick scoot up under the front or rear end of the car to fasten the tow strap to the shackle or cross member and then cinch it off to the ball mount on the back of the truck and give it a tug. Sometimes it takes only a minute or two, sometimes it can take an hour but you work at it until you get them out and then you go back about your business. In virtually every case the drivers will offer money but you never take it because that’s not why you stopped in the first place, but they always leave with a smile and sincere thank-you and it lifts you up for the rest of the route and pays back in a way that money can’t buy. I always make a little small talk when I’m helping out so that no one feels uncomfortable and one of the questions I always ask is “What brings you out on the road in this kind of weather?” It’s funny that in all this time I have always heard the same answer from every single person I have asked — “I’m going home.” they’ll say.

All of us, I suppose are seeking shelter from the storm.

I like to be useful, it gives me a sense of purpose in this world. I don’t get paid for plowing but my friend always let me use his excavating equipment if I need it on the farm or comes right over whenever I need a hand with something that I can’t handle alone and he has never said no. I know he is paid well for the plow jobs and I am happy to help out with his bottom line in the small way I can and he appreciates my work and that he can depend on me. So the payback, when it comes, is always equally appreciated and just as dependable. You can’t pay for that kind of thing anymore but it has a value nonetheless.

It’s an old trope to be sure, but one that rings true the closer I get to the finish; it’s the journey, not the destination.

Life has always been about survival and sustenance and it hasn’t changed because people depend on others to provide it. But life is much more than that, it’s about the connections you make between like minded folks and the way you build yourself up to deal with whatever comes along, not just physically but mentally and morally. When we first moved up here we thought along the lines of some cataclysm that was coming down the pike and how we’d need enough to feed ourselves and a way to defend against people coming for our stuff. It was, I am ashamed to say, selfish and self-centered. As time went on we found out that the most important things that we’d gained were the relationships we’d built up with our neighbors and in our community. The way you woke up in the morning and went out into the world and how you came back in with your family at the close of each day to reflect on what you did right and could be proud of and what you failed at and needed to improve was all the motivation we needed. That went for not only skills and responsibilities, but how you communicated and dealt with adversity and loss. Year by year we’ve become better people for what we’d given up rather than what we had in the past chosen to accumulate. The trip from consumer to producer may have been our intent at the beginning, but it was our transformation into giving rather than taking that really made us complete. A part of that is age, I assume. You gather things together, then the time comes to cast those things away.

For us there was no single greater reward than the trip we’ve taken together, the way we love and rely upon each other and how we are able to take the bounty it provides and spread it around, which in turn comes back to you a hundredfold.

Yesterday a friend of mine drove over a load of big bales. He cuts hay in the Summer and is always sitting on a stockpile as his reserve currency. He doesn’t raise livestock and he lives alone so we always make sure he’s got an extra set of hands or two at his disposal when he asks — which is rarely — and we pass him some chickens, sausage and beef when we go up to visit. He’d needed to clean out some space because of all the snow and so he was bringing me the bales that were in his way at no charge. It had been warm for a day or two with melting snow and then back to bitter cold and our driveway is steep and long. It had iced over and I hadn’t gotten a chance to sand it, though it was on my short list. He didn’t think about the conditions before he came up the drive and when he was almost at the top he started to slide back with a hay trailer behind him. It could have gone bad, he could have gone the wrong direction and he could have dropped over the steep embankment to the south side of the eskar and suffered a catastrophic loss, but he managed to halt its slide into a snowbank before it jackknifed. He kept his head, and my oldest son and I came out and fired up the tractor. We sorted things out and when we were done we all shared a nice glass of bourbon in the barnyard as a reward and smiled about it. If that kind of thing had happened ten years earlier I don’t think we would have handled it in the same way. Now I was able to just go about things in a manner that provided a solution, with family and friends regardless of the difficulty and the challenge and to find a to way profit that didn’t involve someone else’s loss. We were in balance and in tune with each other and that made everything that much easier to bear.

The weather tells me that we should probably start tapping maples this week, that the big snow is probably done for the year unless we get a freak storm in March. I don’t need a weatherman to tell me what’s coming because I know the cycles of life fairly well by now. I’m not unaware that there are other storms out there that aren’t related to our climate but are caused by humans going through their own seasons of change. Clearly there’s no way of telling how things will play out anymore than I know how many inches will fall in any given blizzard, but I trust that we’re as prepared as we can be, that no matter how severe this man-made tempest may seem, even as it is unfolding, there will be a light at the end of it and all though it there will be people out there doing what they’ve chosen to do to help clear the paths for other people huddled up in their homes and the ones just trying to get back to them. In the meantime we’ll keep doing the things we’ve picked up along the way, looking for the sweet life in the midst of the cold and darkness and do our level best to share it with everyone we can.

Tapped Trees

IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN. MAPLE SUGARING SEASON. WE WILL START TAPPING THIS WEEK AND START PRODUCTION NOT LONG AFTER. DUE TO THE DEMAND LAST YEAR WE’VE ADDED ANOTHER MAINLINE AND HOPE TO PRODUCE AN ADDITIONAL 10% OVER LAST YEAR. WE PUT EVERY DOLLAR WE EARN FROM SALES TO CONTINUE THIS ENDEAVOR AND IT IS NOT ONE WE WOULD EVER WANT TO GIVE UP SO WE DEPEND ON OUR READERS TO HELP US MAKE THIS YEAR WORTH THE EFFORT. IF YOU’VE EVER TRIED OUR PRODUCT YOU KNOW THAT IT’S A UNIQUE AND HIGH QUALITY NATURAL PRODUCT MADE BY HAND IN LIMITED AMOUNTS. YOU KNOW WE TAKE A GREAT DEAL OF PRIDE IN TURNING OUT SOMETHING SPECIAL AND WE LOVE TO SHARE IT WITH AS MANY CUSTOMERS AS POSSIBLE. IF YOU ARE INTERESTED PLEASE PUT IN YOUR ORDER AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. THIS YEAR WE ARE ALSO OFFERING A UNIQUE SELECTION OF CURED BEEF AND PORK; BRESAOLA, PROSCIUTTO, PANCETTA AND CAPICOLA. IF YOU’D LIKE TO SAMPLE ONE OF THESE DELICIOUS AND INDIVIDUALLY CRAFTED PRODUCTS PLEASE LET US KNOW.

FEEL FREE TO EMAIL YOUR REQUEST TO merceroak@hotmail.com OR GIVE ME A CALL @ 603-748-6917

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