Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Get in the Bunker, It's Snowing Out! Our Relationship with 'The Elements'

The blizzard that has swept over the East Coast in the past couple of days has left everyone stunned. After Boston received over a foot of snow within a 24-hour period and another half a foot the next day, life came to a halt. The street plows were quickly overwhelmed, a snow emergency was declared, public transportation ceased, and drivers were asked to stay off the roads. What had been a perfectly functional city only a day earlier quickly turned into a desolate snow-covered landscape. Our Cambridge/Somerville neighbourhood in particular resembled a Siberian village by Sunday evening, with only the rooftops and the tips of pine trees peaking out under a thick blanket of white, as the darkened sky continued to dump more powder onto the abandoned streets. 

Our family phoned to ask how we were coping. Did we have enough food and was our heating working? I had to giggle at the imagery of being trapped in our home, eating canned food next to a space heater. After all, I had just returned from a mile-long trek to the grocery store, somehow managing not to perish in the process. I sympathise deeply with those whose travel plans were derailed because of the storm, and even more so with those who are stuck in airports. But I am surprised by the mass panic and the "hide in the bunker" sentiment of those who are merely staying at home in the city. We are not being bombed. The snow is not radioactive or poisonous (well, at least not significantly so). We can conquer it by... walking! and by wearing really warm clothing!

It seems to me that at least part of the problem, is that "dressing for the weather" has become a novel concept for so many people after years of driving. Despite living in a cold climate, a number of my friends simply do not own warm clothing. A thick wool coat and proper winter boots are not necessary for getting in and out of the car and walking across a parking lot, so why spend money on them? It makes sense, given an automobile-reliant lifestyle. But as soon as the car is unavailable or non-functional, you are trapped - and that is a horrible feeling for those who like to be independent.

I do not subscribe to the "you're not made of sugar and won't melt " line of thought: We can get sick if we go out in bad weather dressed inappropriately. But dressing appropriately is not difficult, and can vastly improve our relationship with nature. Remember the fun of "snow days"? A walk to the grocery store during a blizzard can be just as nice. There are parts of the world where this weather is normal and not a "snow emergency" at all. I have lived in such areas and found my winters to be more enjoyably spent there. But in Southern New England, the winter months are treated as something one just needs to tolerate until they are over - which, to me at least, is rather sad. While I miss cycling on the days the roads are impassable, I don't want to contribute to that mentality. I love snow, and I love the magic of winter. And I did see a mountain biker on my way to the grocery store! The streets were abandoned except for me, him, and the occasional snowplow. We waved to each other across the vast expanse of white and silver, each encouraged by the other's presence.

27 comments:

  1. "But in Southern New England, the winter months are treated as something one just needs to tolerate until they are over - which, to me at least, is rather sad."

    Man, I know the feeling, as I did grow up in Southern New England. When I was really young, snow was fun. That all evaporated when I was 13 and had to shovel our long, suburban driveway after each significant snowfall. Fun turned to dread each time I saw a snowflake fall from the sky. And when I became an "adult", I was expected to get to work no matter what, even if work was 30 miles away and the only option was driving.

    Nowadays I do appreciate snow, but then again I live in a climate where snow happens rarely in winter. It's fun to watch the city shut down after a couple inches of snow. It takes some getting used to, esp. since I'm from "Back East". I remember how my friend Carl (from Boston) reacted negatively when hearing how the city shuts down in snow, but then quickly turned around and enjoyed it when it happened.

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  2. I remember the blizzard of `93 in upstate New York pretty clearly. We lived in this old mobile home and the snow covered a quarter of the windows. In the rural area where I lived, I remember we only had a two-hour delay for school, which was just enough time to shovel a path to the road. It is almost comical how panic stricken people get lately, even with as little as three inches of snow. My comment to is usually "You live in the Northeast it shouldn't be a surprise".
    It is very beautiful to see the landscape covered in a white blanket of snow,that is before the plows and cars turn it into grey nastiness.

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  3. I have to admit, I'm a little bit jealous that you you got a foot of snow, and we only got 5 inches. I keep telling my husband that we've got to get out of the south and back to colder climates! Those photos make me wish that I had some skies still. They would be perfect on these hills!

    Since they don't treat or plow the back streets around here, I ended up walking to work yesterday. It was so lovely and quite with just the crunch of my boots in the snow. Even with walking, I was the first person to show up at work. Go figure. :)

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  4. This happened in Portland in 2008. We got about 2 feet of snow, and it actually stuck around over a week. There was mass panic, and within about a day and a half, grocery stores were running out of food because large numbers of people ran and bought like a week of food all at once because they were afraid they wouldn't be able to leave their homes. We had people cross-country skiing down the roads. I saw a guy in a low-riding Honda Civic drive straight into a 3-foot snow pile in the middle turn lane on a main road that had been plowed from the straight travel lanes and high-center his car. Having lived in Lithuania, it was all a bit comical. Our Lithuanian friends would have been astounded, both at peoples' reactions and how the city handled the snow.

    I do think that the over-abundance of car use here has led to a major change in how people dress, as well as the quality of clothing people buy - not only when it's snowy, but all the time. Men don't really wear hats anymore, for instance - an item which, while stylish, also protects your head from wind, rain, snow, sun, keeps you warm in winter, cool in summer, etc. I've had to wear hats just out of practicality since starting to ride a bike.

    The quality of most shoes made here now is also abominable. One of the major reasons? People don't walk enough to wear them out, and they definitely don't walk in heavy rain or snow. Even a well-known brand like Florsheim that has been around since the late 19th Century only has one model of men's boots that is not glued together. You have to really look for well-made leather shoes that are made with goodyear welt construction (not glued), and while those shoes might cost you $200-300, they will last over a decade without anything being done to them, and after that, can last nearly indefinitely by replacing the soles, insoles, etc (much like a well-made bicycle can basically last as long as the frame doesn't break).

    Anyway, I agree, it's not hard to dress for this weather, it just takes having a few things on hand - a good wool coat, some good thick-soled boots, and wool socks, gloves and scarf, and you're good to go.

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  5. I also think snow always showcases the versatility of human-powered transportation. The last time it snowed in Portland, it was in the afternoon, and the evening traffic reports were insane. People who had to get on the freeway at all were stuck for 5 hours not moving, and many of them just gave up, abandoned their cars on the freeway and walked home the 10 miles or whatever. Driving on the normal city streets wasn't as bad in most places, though Portland has some hills, and there were still quite a few people who had to simply leave their cars and walk. The snow added 10-15 minutes to my commute by bicycle since I was going slowly, and taking a few photos on the way. Even if I had to walk the 4.5-5 miles from work to home, it would be on sidewalks the whole way, and it would take me well less than 5 hours. One of the important things about creating density in cities, I think. If you have most of your population working in the center of the city, and living in the suburbs (where things like food and entertainment are also miles from home), then snow does become a major catastrophe. When everything you need is within a mile or so, it can be pretty fun.

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  6. lukeofny - Funnily enough, when I lived in upstate New York, cycling was the only way I could get around because I didn't have a car, buses were a joke, and walking you could forget about because of unplowed or nonexistent sidewalks.

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  7. Meanwhile, here in Vancouver, we've just been getting rain... I do love a good snowfall but around here when it does snow we usually get only one day of that lovely white blanket which muffles sound and makes everything serenely quiet. After that it turns to grey slush with an underlay of snow compressed into the functional equivalent of ice.

    Love the cross country skiing pictures!

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  8. Are those xc ski photos recent?

    NYC is uber-f*cked at the moment. The combo of Christmas holiday + Sunday + insane winds have created a truly awful thing here, the likes of which I have not seen in the dozen or so years I've been here. Cleanup, even after giant storms, is typically efficient, but this storm has stopped the city completely and people are so angry. It was the equivalent of a winter hurricane up the east coast, with NYC metro area bearing the brunt of it. It really looks like zombies have attacked us, with abandoned cars left right in the middle of major avenues in all five boroughs. My husband and I watched a plow get stuck and a giant sanitation tow truck get stuck trying to remove it. Well: ok then!

    I did venture out on my bike kind of as a lark, but also because it was the only way to obtain wine, which, frankly, was desperately needed after a Christmas holiday with both our families. :)

    I hate winter but living in a city where we walk/bike or use transit most of the time mean most everyone I know has the "right" clothes for winter and is not precious about it. I still hate it so much, though, fur hats and elegant winter coats don't make me long for southern Europe any less!

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  9. In Boston things are a lot more lively than they were yesterday and in Sunday evening, though still slow and abandoned. But on Sunday it really was like a zombie movie - everything abandoned, the wind howling, no cars on the road at all. My legs would get stuck in the snow up to my knees while walking on the sidewalk!

    The pictures are not recent. The ones skiing are from Maine a few years ago; on the latter I am skiing across en enormous lake. The very first picture on the post is of the neighborhood last winter.

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  10. Whoa! Are those things on your feet.......ski's! A multi talented gal for sure!!!!!! :))

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  11. Well, XC skiing is really just a slidy version of walking - so I don't feel too accomplished. I can't alpine ski to save my life!

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  12. Whoa!! cool winter bike traction Idea I just stumbled upon.......

    http://gizmodo.com/5719594/zip-tie-snow-tires-the-cheapest-way-to-blizzard+proof-your-bike

    From an engineering point of view this idea should work well on all but glaze ice!!

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  13. Whew!
    It's a relief to know that those photos were taken in Maine. I haven't been to Boston for 20+ years, but for a brief moment I thought that somebody had smuggled in some mountains while nobody was looking.
    You probably already know it, but cold-weather cycling gear works pretty well for XC skiing.

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  14. MT cyclist - I find that I need different clothing depending on what kind of XC skiing I am doing. My favourite skiing is to go in circles around a large track (like a groomed trail on a frozen lake), going as fast as I possibly can. For that I need just a pair of wool tights and a single baselayer under a windproof shell, otherwise I get crazy overheated. But if I am exploring in the woods, I need lots more clothing. We don't go skiing much since having moved to Boston, because all our favourite places are too far away : (

    Walt - zip ties around the tires... But isn't the plastic slippery?

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  15. Walt D -- the drawbacks to zipties as ghetto snow studs are:

    a) fixing flats becomes even more of a pain in the ass.

    b) won't work with rim brakes (you'll notice the bike in the picture has disc brakes)

    c) on extended pavement, the zip ties will likely abrade and tear off, scattering more plastic litter all over the roadways, or will abrade against your rubber and accelerate tire wear.

    From an engineering lab point of view, they're nifty. Practically speaking, kind of a non-starter.

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  16. I remember a blizzard early in 1996 very well. I was dating a woman from Sardinia, and that storm was the first snow she had ever seen.

    I had just gotten my Bontrager mountain bike (a Christmas present to myself) and couldn't resist trying it on Flatbush Avenue, which was closed to traffic, and in Prospect Park, where four-foot snowdrifts lined the drive. My then-amore was absolutely convinced she would never see me again. Imagine her surprise when I not only survived, but came in laughing with delight and exhaustion!

    As I write this, I'm in Florida, which is expereincing the coldest weather it's ever had at this time of year. It was 27 degrees last night, and with the wind chill, it was 18. Alas, no snow!

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  17. Portlandize--I agree about the versatility of human powered transportation in regards to snow. During the big snow (Snowpocalypse) in 2008, I got around fine, the first week on bike and the second mostly on foot, with bus/MAX thrown in when they worked. It took me longer to get to work (hour vs. 20 mins) when I had to walk the 3 miles, but I got there. (I wasn't one of the lucky ones to get work off when it snowed.)

    Part of the problem is that since so many people use their cars for everything, they will still use their cars in situations where not only will it not work, it can be dangerous. And since Portland gets a major snow once or twice a decade, there isn't the infrastructure to "dig us out" quickly. I remember how pissed off people got when Mayor Adams told everyone to wait for it to melt. Wait to melt? How dare he! We need to DRIVE!

    And when it snows, I always find it amusing that people who KNOW how to drive in snow because they're from Back East go out and drive, and forget that a)the roads aren't plowed and b)NO ONE ELSE knows how to drive in the snow. Doesn't matter that much if you know how to right yourself when you lose traction if the person who plows into you doesn't.

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  18. Velouria--get out to Great Brook Farm in Carlisle--no lake as far as I remember, but really wonderful groomed trails through the loveliest winter landscape (and at least one night a week when they light the trails for night skiing).

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  19. Doesn't the media feed into a bit? From the press the SoCal rainstorms are getting, you'd think we were sliding into the ocean, but for the most part everything's find. I might imagine that if a snowstorm is hyped enough, people might "panic" or whatever they choose to do. At the moment, I'm not prepped for an unexpected catastrophe, but a quick look into my cupboards tells me I've enough food to last at least two weeks.

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  20. I would love to be in some snow. Vancouver and pacific northwest is so bleah! It's been raining and raining-a miracle the sun came out today. Even in Canada the media is all about the scary storm with endless footage of people stuck in airports, people skiing in nyc etc.. I mean it is winter after all, you've always had winter weather! I remember winters in Ottawa being long and brutal although not on the same epic level as the prairie.
    The maritimes have been getting walloped with terrible storms, flooding, storm surges and now another snow storm which has caused endless damage-so that's news, but most of it is not.
    I used to walk or xcountry ski regardless of weather in the winter even if it was -30 celsius! I just bundled up and my body was also used to the cold and was able to tolerate it. Now I would have a hard time from living in Canada's lotus land. hee hee! But I definitely imagined part of the problem with the snow and cold in Europe recently is that people probably don't even have the clothes so it can't be much different here if people are used to being driven around. My stepdaughter has just come to live with us and her mom has a car so is used to being driven anywhere anytime and would not even go outside if it was cold or rainy. Kids should be outside all the time! Here we have bikes or the bus and she is so resistant to biking! Nor does she have proper boots or anything nor will she wear anything proper-you know wearing ugg type suede boots on hikes in the forest when I have a pair of gumboots for her.. She'd rather die than wear her 'poofy' winter coat! I know kids/teenagers are immortal and all, but I remember when I discovered how nice it was to be warm!
    I live in a damp climate, no central heating so my house is always cold until woodstove gets going. I have all my winter gear for the too rare brushes with snow.
    Heather

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  21. I think this post needs a "social commentary" tag added. ;)

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  22. And here in western Michigan we are starving for snow. We have normally had 2 of our 8 annual feet of snowfall and haven't seen half of that. The ski slopes will go broke from making their own! The horror, the horror...

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  23. Velouria,

    There's also a very nice place to XC ski out at the Lincoln commuter rail stop- I don't know the name of the preserve, but you get off the train, walk/ ski to the end of the parking lot and you're on trails for miles. It's not super groomed, but it's pretty well broken in by all the other folks that XC out there. I haven't gone for a while, but it's a lovely place and so easy to get to without having to dig out the car!

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  24. Velouria said...
    "Walt - zip ties around the tires... But isn't the plastic slippery?"

    Yes, plastic is slippery but in this case it would matter only on glaze ice since the ties will dig into snow well enough to work well.

    However, the points that "cris" noted are also very true. Like all homegrown ideas they always address the moment of need.

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  25. come to germany in winter. with the snow all around and with the smoking ban in restaurants and bars many of these places have some outside seating all year round. you sit in your arctic parka and warm boots, or covered with a warm blanket and enjoy an alfresco after dinner cigar (or not) and definitely a strong drink.
    quite lovely. - adds enormously to the winter city flair and also promotes a sensible choice of clothing.

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  26. Jens - I remember outdoor seating long before the smoking bans and in ski towns like Garmisch-Partenkirchen people would wait for an outdoor table rather than go into the nearly empty, smoking allowed, indoor serving space.

    You're already dressed for it, why go through all the hassle of undressing and then dressing again just to get a cuppa?

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  27. kfg, true. but funny enough i its very own way the smoking ban also brought more northern parts of germany closer to nature...
    -
    not completely related: reading 'harmony' by the prince of wales at the moment. a surprisingly interesting and charming book. a loving and eclectically informed global perspective from a rather unique point of view. - wonderful winter reading. - recommended.

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