Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tahiti on Ice

On Monday, the first substantial snow of the season fell in NJ. “Substantial” is a deliberately vague choice of adjectives. It was nothing like the 50 inches (127cm) that fell on the northeastern US in the Blizzard of 1888, a storm that killed 400 people, buried thousands of houses under drifts, shut down railroads, and sank 200 ships. It was nothing like the 34 inches (86cm) that fell on NJ in February 11, 1899, setting a state record for a single day (the snow of the Blizzard of ’88 fell over 2 days). It was not at all like the Super Bowl Blizzard of 1975 in the Midwestern US that killed 58 people and 100,000 farm animals. It wasn’t like “Snowmegeddon” that shut down the Northeast in February 2010 – DC, which usually gets off fairly lightly, piled up 32.4 inches (82.3cm) in that one. It wasn’t even like the freak October snowstorm of 2011 that caught most leaves in NJ, NY, and CT still on the trees, bringing them down on power lines and cutting off the electricity of millions. No, it was just an ordinary snowfall of a few inches. Because of accompanying icy conditions, however, the snow was enough to shut local schools for a day and to make driving treacherous until late afternoon. There are likely to be several more snowfalls just like it before Spring, and a there is a fair chance a few will be considerably bigger. Then again, we could have scarcely any snow at all this winter; in these parts one never knows.

With regard to storms as well as other life challenges, I try not to fight the big ones more than I have to. I have to shovel out the walks around my office, replace the mailbox by my driveway (it is a foregone conclusion that street snow plows will take out my mailbox once or twice each winter – yes it’s regulation height and distance), and check the furnaces, but otherwise I’m content indolently to sit out a snowstorm at home on the couch with a book or DVD.

I made an exception to my “don’t fight it” rule during the Blizzard of 1996, which over three days dropped 4 feet (1.2 meters) of snow on the Northeast. My future ex of the time was pretty adamant about getting from NYC to her home on the VA/NC border, so we drove relentlessly through the snow. The NJ Turnpike closed behind us shortly after we passed beyond it. We continued in near whiteout conditions on Route 13 on the Delmarva Peninsula. There were no other cars on the road because, we later learned, this road, too, was officially closed. As far as I could see, there was no road. I simply guessed that there must be one between the buildings and trees on each side, and apparently guessed correctly. (A few years later we had a similarly ill-considered drive into the face of Hurricane Floyd, but that is another story.) Had we begun the trip an hour later we never would have made it – the snow on the road simply would have been too deep. As it was, despite our steady southward progression out of the worst of the storm, it was a squeaker. This episode was just one of various exceptions I made to my general life rules in the late '90s – a symptom of the onset of “middle-age crazy,” I suppose. I since have returned to them and have no plans to joyride in the next blizzard.

Despite the relative mildness of Monday’s reminder that I do not live in the tropics, however, the event raised the question of why, in fact, I don’t live in the tropics. The question occurs to me every year at the first significant snowfall, and I have yet to come up with a good answer. Humans are, after all, tropical creatures who emerged from East Africa. The only snow our far ancestors ever saw was the distant cap of Mount Kilimanjaro. Yet, our great aunts and uncles marched into chilly climes at surprisingly early dates. 780,000-year-old flint artifacts have been uncovered at Happisburgh in East Anglia in the UK. Hardly a balmy spot for a winter vacation today, it was nippier then. What were the flint-knappers thinking? I imagine they were thinking the hunting, fishing, and watercress were good, even though their toes were chronically cold. Did they have second thoughts when the first snows of the year fell? I’m guessing they did.

Inertia plays a large part in all my decisions, and it surely plays the dominant part in this one. I have investments in my current location of both the financial and social sort, so pulling up stakes for the sake of warm toes thus far has seemed like too much trouble for the benefit. Homo antecessor, the presumed ancient inhabitants of Happisburgh, probably made much the same excuse. Nonetheless, each time I chip ice off the front steps, the appeal of Tahiti grows. One day, I may listen to the toes.

Simon and Garfunkel Hazy Shade of Winter

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