Archive for January, 2011

Winter in Minnesota. For some it’s a time to embrace Mother Nature and enjoy the pleasures of snowshoeing and skiing. Others take to their snowmobiles and ice fishing houses. And still others see it as a time to hunker down and catch up on their reading until they can make a break for someplace blessed with sun and heat. But we all have one thing in common – the challenge of getting from here to there when snow and ice blanket the roads. And the plow comes by after you shoveled!

Snow wall left by the plow

One resident tries to clear the street - and wall of snow from the plow - with his snowblower.

A few weeks ago – last year, actually – we had the fifth biggest single snowfall ever in the metro area. I discovered a few things about life in Minnesota and modern Minnesotans over the course of the following week. I stood for 45 minutes in the checkout line at the grocery store the night before the storm. For me it was a trip to pick up something I had forgotten in my earlier trip to the store that day, but for many it was clearly a trip to stock up on supplies (especially movies, chips, and beverages!) before the storm.

Afterwards there was the predictable conversation among strangers about the weather, shoveling, and poor plowing (this seems to be standard, even though it must be pretty hard to plow 900 miles of streets lined with cars). There were stories of people pitching in to help strangers get unstuck (I myself tried to help a couple who must not have been through a Minnesota winter before, since they were woefully underdressed for the weather, didn’t seem to know how to shovel snow, and didn’t have a shovel in the first place). My housemate, a native Minnesotan, had managed to get stuck overnight in Stillwater in a room with a jacuzzi. Now that’s what I call planning!

Neighbors pitched in to help each other. Thank goodness I was closer to the corner!

In any case, I was finally introduced to the joys of digging my car out for a snow emergency. Now there’s a feature of life that I missed growing up in a small town in Wisconsin where you just couldn’t park on the streets from November through April. In all my previous Minnesota winters I’ve had either off-street parking or a garage. I will never take these for granted again!

First you have to figure out when the snow emergency starts in your city.  Then you have to figure out where you can park in your city. And then you have to figure out how you will actually move your car so you don’t have to make the dreaded trip to the impound lot. You have to wonder what Minnesotans a hundred years ago or even fifty years ago would have thought of these “problems.” The internet is a blessing for getting current information on the progress of the plows.

I dragged myself out of bed early on a Sunday morning, giving myself almost two hours before the 8 am deadline for moving my car off the day-plow street. Here I was, in the cold and dark, working away on the drifts of snow that surrounded my car up to my knees at least, sometimes higher.

My footprints in the snow went very deep.

My footprints at the"crosswalk" as I tried to get into the intersection. Are they really footprints when you sink up to your hips?

Luckily I had had the foresight to do some basic shoveling down the sidewalk and around the car the day before, but I had discovered that the fancy ergonomic shovel with the curved handle did not work very well when you actually have to lift and throw the snow. So that Sunday morning I was reduced to using the shovel I carry in my car for emergencies. It stands just waist high. And my waist isn’t very high.

Once I had freed my car from its immediate snow prison, I looked for the escape route. And that’s when I made another discovery: my car’s low clearance was going to require me to shovel a path from where it was parked clear up to the corner. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the snow plow had left a wall of snow across the intersection blocking my path.

My car's final escape route.

The final escape route for my car. After several runs at the remaining wall at the intersection, I managed to overcome the barrier and slide around the corner.

A helpful neighbor saw my plight and rammed through the wall with his pickup a couple of times, but he got stuck and, once he had dug himself out, had others to help. In spite of the depth of the snow and the height of my shovel and the absence of my housemate (enjoying the jacuzzi, no doubt!), I made it out of the street only a half hour after the deadline. And then I enjoyed a well-deserved soak in the tub with Epsom salts.

The car is finally moved to the "clear" street.

Happiness is getting your car moved in time! And yes, all that snow in the foreground? That's the street.

I needn’t have worried: The first plow didn’t come by until about 1 o’clock Monday morning with another pass around 2 that afternoon. Even then I got stuck three times driving around the block to move my car again.

A snowplow passes by below my window.

A snowplow passes by below my window mid-afternoon on Monday. Thank goodness for big plows! And their drivers!!

What does this all have to do with history? One thing that kept me going during my marathon shoveling session was photographs I have seen of men shoveling out roads and railroad crossings in the 1930s and 1940s. What was it like to go through the Armistice Day blizzard of 1940? Take a look at some photos in the Minnesota Historical Society’s online database. At least I didn’t have to shovel the whole road! And when I was done, I could relax in a warm house, take a hot bath without having to heat water (many Minnesotans still didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing in 1940), and I maintained contact with the outside world through TV, cell phone, and the internet. Being snowbound wasn’t much of a hardship!

I started hearing about the Armistice Day blizzard from the time I moved to Minnesota in 2003, although most of the people who talked about it hadn’t been around at the time. It’s a storm that has become part of the collective memory. There was no warning in 1940 – no TVs, no satellites, no Weather Channel, many people lacking even telephones, and the forecasts for the upper midwest came out of the Weather Bureau Office in Chicago. In 2010 we were warned for days ahead of time that major snow was on the way; it shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone.

I remember the Halloween blizzard of 1991, although I don’t remember if there were extensive warnings. It was a surprise to me! But nothing dreadful happened to me during that blizzard except having to put off moving furniture into my new apartment and only being able to drive in the tracks of bigger vehicles for several days. I also remember Dave Dahl coming on the news and saying something like, “Folks, it’s snowing out there and it isn’t stopping anytime soon.” I would probably remember more if I had been truly snowbound…or had had to shovel my car out.

This time around the event made a big enough impression on me that I took the time to take pictures to record the event. They might not be as dramatic as the Metrodome roof caving in, but the do show that even today we are sometimes reminded that we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. But we are usually more comfortable in our suffering, if soaking in a jacuzzi can be considered suffering.


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