Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ice, no Snow.

I have a friend I've never met. Well, not face to face. His name is Wayne Sallee and he's a phenomenally talented poet and author. He's not nearly as famous as he deserves to be, and I hope someday to hear that he's reached the measure of professional notoriety that he should have.

One thing about Wayne is that he lives in an area of the nation that gets particularly cold and nasty. And I'm not just talking about some freezing temperatures and the odd snowstorm here and there. I'm talking near-Arctic conditions with constant and hideous head winds blowing in off one of the largest bodies of fresh water on the Earth. Weather that can peel the asphalt right off the roads. That can crack the mightiest tree under the groaning weight of ice. Cold that sweeps in on the gales and gets into every nook and crevice where one might try to find shelter.

I'm talkin' about Chicago.

Wayne speaks of the cold and the wet and the snow and ice that lets you know that...well, that it can kill him. To hear him tell it, the cold rakes the skin off his bones. His descriptions do not paint a pretty picture.

Contrast that to my Southern experiences with the cold. Here in the South, Winter tiptoes up and taps politely on the door and apologizes for any inconvenience its brief presence might cause. Here in my native land, we look forward to the rare snowfalls, the brief ice storms, the occasional frosts. We delight in it. We look forward to it. We play and dance about in it like one huge nation of kids.

But I have to be careful. Because we so rarely see Winter in anything approaching fury, we take it as a lark. It's something that's fun and almost never dangerous. Our pipes don't freeze. We don't see paralyzing blizzards, save only in a few places and then only once or twice in a lifetime. To us, a winter storm is a curiosity and a reason to blow off some steam. We have plenty of steam down here.

Recently, Carole and I spent a few days at the Peaks of Otter Lodge in Virginia. We were hoping for snow while we were there, but it didn't happen. However, on the day we left, we encountered a major ice storm in the higher elevations of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Almost as soon as we left the lodge, we began to notice that the trees we were seeing along the Parkway were icing up. The farther south we traveled, the more ice we found.

We had planned to take the Blue Ridge Parkway south to Sparta NC, where Carole owns property and where we wanted to stop to buy a Christmas tree. But as we drove along, some of the areas through which we were passing were getting really solidly iced. To the point where the road was becoming slick. My truck has four-wheel drive and can take most road conditions that weather can throw in its way. But solid ice is a surface I don't like facing. However, each time that it looked like the road might be a problem, we would take a dip in elevation and the surface would clear and things would look a lot better.

Finally, though, we had to drive over the summit of Rocky Knob not far north of Mabry Mill. Here, the elevation was high enough and the temperatures had dropped so much that what had been a light coating of ice on the roads had become a very slick and solid covering. This was just too much, and I certainly did not want us to join the list of idiots who had died while trying to navigate the Blue Ridge Parkway in inclement weather.

We did want to record the conditions, so we stopped the truck at the parking area on the top of the Rocky Knob. By then, the temperature had dropped to around the mid-20s. The rain, which was continuing to fall, was freezing instantly onto every surface. In addition, rime ice was forming on every thing that faced the increasing winds. It was a very weird sight, and one which I'd never witnessed.

So after we pulled into the parking area, I donned my set of yaktrax and walked around the frozen summit of the mountain, shooting brief videos and taking photographs. I didn't want to linger too long, because I was a bit worried about the worsening road conditions. So I quickly climbed back into the truck and headed down the mountain. By the time we reached the next gap we drove from the Parkway and pointed the truck south into North Carolina. We were still able to drive to Sparta to buy a tree, but not by the route we had intended.

As we drove along, I recalled my friend Wayne, as I always do when cold weather strikes. For me, it's a brief and wonderful aside. For Wayne...well, I assume he'd not be amused.

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