Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How to Survive a Blizzard


It wasn't as if the storm really snuck up on anyone. Meteorologists and weather-trackers had been talking about it and sending hourly email updates since 5 days before the great "Blizzard of 2011" was even supposed to hit. It was intended to cut a huge swath across the great mid-section of the country, blanketing countless states, shutting down air travel at numerous major airport hubs, and interfering with the normal day-to-day routines of millions of average citizens.

This was to be a big one.

So it's kind of surprising, in a way, that such a storm as this was still able to take so many people by surprise.

But perhaps I digress...

In preparation for the oncoming snow and wind, I scanned my memory for what it was, exactly, that a survivalist would need to make it through such a great and terrible winter storm. According to the news footage I saw on television in the days prior to the blizzard's arrival, it seemed a lot of people were stocking up on practical essentials such as groceries and batteries and snow-blowers and generators and gasoline for said snow-blowers and generators. I ignored such lemming-like instincts and followed, instead, my primal intuition: I filled up my car with gas (although, in hindsight--as it turns out--I wasn't going anywhere) and got $20 from a nearby ATM.

With that, I went home.

Now, it could be that--being something of a movie buff--I've perhaps watched Jeremiah Johnson one too many times. I don't know. But for some reason, I had images flickering through my mind of coming home to chop a pile of wood for both my stove and my fireplace, and to begin growing my beard out long, and to bar the door to my cabin (to keep out the weight of the snow that I knew would obviously pile up to my roof), and to load my Winchester rifle with ammunition to ward off restless bears (whose meat would see me through the long days and weeks of hungry isolation and whose pelts I could wear wrapped around me until I "became one" with the great, wild animal), and to quite basically "hunker down" in good old-fashioned survivalist mode.

*[Aside: A few obvious problems with that theory of course made themselves known rather quickly: 1.) I don't have a wood-burning stove, or a fireplace, or even an axe. 2.) I don't live in a cabin, and even if I did I wouldn't know the proper way to "bar a door" if my life depended on it, and 3.) I don't own a Winchester rifle, and besides, the last time I checked, the closest bears to me are sitting lonely and depressed and safe in their pathetic man-made "environments" at Brookfield Zoo about an hour away. Jeremiah Johnson can basically go fuck himself...]

In keeping with the "fear-culture" news feeds on TV of people frantically clearing the shelves of their local grocery stores and Wal-Marts--doing their 21st-century best to prepare for the inevitable apocalypse so close to their proverbial doorsteps--it was also impossible to ignore an interesting new word being thrown about from one meteorologist after another that (at least to my midwestern ears) had never been heard before.

Thundersnow.

Now, growing up as I did on a farm in the middle of Kansas (a.k.a. "the middle of nowhere"), I'm fairly familiar with what thunder is. I'm also familiar with the concept of snow. But "thundersnow?" Despite the countless meteorologists and their bone-dry attempts to explain this rather rare atmospheric phenomenon, I was at a loss to understand how such a thing as thunder and lightning could coexist with something as radical as a full-blown, head-on, no-holds-barred, whiteout blizzard as was supposedly headed our way.

I had to turn to other sources. I had to look this up while I still had the chance. Fortunately, the storm hadn't hit yet, and so all of the doomsayers who were predicting massive power blackouts in the wake of strong winds and wet snow were--at least for now anyway--out of luck. As I sat at home, looking out the front windows at the first flakes of snow falling from the sky and blowing hither-and-thither in the frozen February air, I noted that I still had electricity. I still had heat. And I still had the internet. All of this was a good thing, I figured, and a thing to take advantage of while I could.

I flipped open my laptop, logged on, and typed in the keyword search: thundersnow. Of course, our friends at Wikipedia (the inimitable font of knowledge that it is) were quick to answer my questions.

The term "thundersnow," as it turns out, refers to " a rare kind of thunderstorm with snow falling as the primary precipitation instead of rain" (wikipedia.org).

*[Aside: Thank you, once again, Wikipedia.]

But of course there was more. A lot more, as it turns out. It seems that while thundersnow is, indeed, that most rare of events in all things meteorological, it has obviously happened before. And one of the places it seems to occur the most--in that off-chance that it does happen--is around the Great Lakes area of the United States and Canada, famous as those areas are for producing their "lake-effect snows."

*[Aside: Lake Michigan. Chicago. Home of the Brookfield Zoo. Home of sad and depressed bears in their fake habitats. Also home of sad and depressed Bears football fans, as their beloved team lost this season in the second round of the playoffs to their much-hated nemesis to the north, Green Bay...also, interestingly, a city familiar with a Great Lake, and with snow, and with lake-effect snow...]

I turned back to my laptop and to Wikipedia and read on:

"From Lake Effect Precipitation: This type of thundersnow occurs after a cold front or shortwave aloft passes by, which steepens the lapse rates between the lake temperature and the temperatures aloft.... However there are several factors affecting its development and other geographical elements. The primary factor is convective depth: this is the vertical depth in the troposphere that a parcel of air will rise from the ground before it reaches the equilibrium (EQL) level and stops rising. A minimum depth of 0.9 mi (2.5 km) is necessary and an average depth of 1.8 m (3 km) or more is generally accepted as sufficient..." (wikipedia.org).

I quickly shut my laptop and poured myself a drink.

Whatever the hell "thundersnow" was would just have to bring itself on and do its best to impress me. After all, my birthday was coming up in just a matter of days, and I had lived through numerous storms. At this point it took a lot to impress me.

I figured I could wait this one out.

As it happened, of course, I wasn't going to have to wait long. When the "Blizzard of 2011" finally decided to hit, it hit with a fury. In no time at all the normal world outside turned into a raging monster. The wind was howling like Grendel unleashed, and the snow was falling and blowing at such a breathless clip, all I could do was watch through my windows in the relative safety and warmth of my living room.

That was about the time the power went off. (Actually, to be fair, it didn't happen quite that dramatically. There was a little bit of warning, after all. I had been watching a movie on my DVD player, and already the lights had flickered once, and then twice, both times causing me to take in a breath and to count to one, and then to two, and then to three, and then let it out with a sigh and say to myself, "Well, that was close..." When the power decided to click off for good, though, it did it with a grace and finality that was startling. And, again, a thought occurred to me, "This is not good.")

My first order of business, after the lights went out, was to check my cell-phone for its full battery. I had been wise enough to at least plug it in earlier in the evening. Suddenly my cell-phone had become my sole source of contact with the outside world, and I was going to have to be judicious in its use over the next several hours, or days, or weeks...

I stopped my mind from going down that track. That, after all, would do no one any good. Best not to think about what would happen if my cell-phone's battery went dead.

I didn't like the word "dead," so I made myself busy in the dark, first looking for a flashlight (that worked) and some candles, then rounding up all the blankets I could find, and finally pulling on my most comfortable sweatshirt and thickest pair of socks.

That done, I sat down again and listened to the wind hitting the side of the building. It was coming on with terrific force and pounded against the trees outside and roared along the roof and the windows, seeking to get in.

I wondered what time it was. From somewhere above the television set a wall clock ticked the time--its AA batteries obviously still working well--and I swooped the flashlight up to it.

8:03.

The power had gone off at 8:00 that evening, almost exactly. That would mean, if my math was correct, that the power had been off for only three minutes. Almost to the second. I held my breath and listened to my heart beating somewhere beneath layers of clothing.

This was going to be a long night.

I paced the floor of my living room, walking heel-to-toe, measuring out my narrow existence in mere footsteps. Why I did this, I don't know. Had I read it somewhere in Dumas, perhaps? Is this, after all, what one does when trapped in the dark? Imprisoned, as it were, between the couch and the recliner? Solitary confinement, with only my dog, Cooper, to serve as company?

"What are you looking at?" I asked the dog. I caught him in the act of looking at me, and I wasn't about to put up with that sort of thing. Not this early in the game. He simply continued to look at me and wagged his tail.

"Oh, and I suppose you think you want fed, huh boy?"

Again, as if knowing somehow I was talking about food, Cooper wagged his tail. Excitedly this time.

"Well, all right," I conceded. "But not as much as usual. We're all going to have to make some sacrifices around here. Ration our resources, and whatnot..."

I was talking to my dog about the necessity of cutting back on his dog food, and I didn't even notice that there was anything wrong with this. I filled his bowl with half-a-scoop of Dog Chow and then turned again to flash a light up at the clock on the wall.

8:07.

I lit a candle and sat down. (Just one, though, because I didn't want to waste the few candles that I had on hand.) I thought, then, as well, of that young boy, Chris McCandless, who was the subject of the book and subsequent movie, Into the Wild. How as a young man he disappeared into the frozen wilderness of Alaska. And of how he turned his back on family and society and "did his thing," living free without rules and strictures to tell him what was right or wrong. And of how he eventually ate the wrong kind of berries and made himself sick and slowly starved to death in the cold of an abandoned bus parked mysteriously in the woods.

I got up and paced around some more. I made a note to myself, too, that the next time a blizzard was on its way I would perhaps do well to watch a different movie other than Into the Wild. (In many ways, I suppose, this was akin to watching Titanic on a cruise or Castaway on a long international flight. There have to be better choices.)

Outside, the storm only seemed to intensify. How it was doing that, I didn't know. But at this point I figured it could pretty much do whatever it wanted. I picked up a book, a nice big one to get lost in and to while away the hours in the dark--Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth would do--and settled down by a candle to catch its dim reflected light to read. I opened the book (noticing, as if for the first time, how heavy it was) and removed the bookmark. I was on page 200 of a 973-page book.

I sighed. "Well, that's just fine," I thought to myself. "It's not like there's anything else to do right now. I have all night to read Follett's medieval epic if I choose."

I noticed instantly that the candle flickering near at hand was barely enough illumination to make out the first word at the top of the page. I turned the book, tilting it awkwardly. I held the book at an angle, but as soon as I did I noted the cramp in my wrist due to the ungodly heft being forced upon it.

"You've got to be fucking kidding me!" I said aloud. (Cooper, meanwhile, scuttled off to hide somewhere in the dark, his tail between his legs.) "I suppose Abe Lincoln seriously expects anyone to believe he did this shit for any length of time?"

The night was quickly growing intolerable.

And that was when I heard it and saw it. I don't know which was first--the seeing or the hearing--although according to science I guess it would have started with the brilliant flash of light in the snowy night sky, followed by an unusually explosive boom rolling down from somewhere high above, high up there in the frozen dark air where the snow was.

Thundersnow!

"Holy shit," I thought, holding my breath again and listening for my heart. "It's real! Some things you can't believe in, like Nessie and the Sasquatch. But thundersnow is real! Holy shit..."

And then it crashed again, the lightning and the thunder. Thundersnow. In the middle of a blizzard--the great and terrible "Blizzard of 2011," to be exact. And I heard it and saw it. I would always be able to say that I was there, and that I witnessed thundersnow, and that I survived.

That is, if I survived.

I shook my hands suddenly and clenched and unclenched my toes beneath my thick socks. Was that numbness I felt (or didn't feel) in my hands and feet? Were my extremities going numb? Was I losing feeling in my hands and feet? Weren't those always the first things to go when hypothermia settled in? That and your nose and cheeks, anyway? And your ears? I felt my ears and my nose. Or at least I thought I did. Was I touching my nose? Could I feel the weight of my hand on my nose, or was that merely a phantom weight in my mind? What was happening to me? How long had I been growing colder in here, my house without power, and with no lights and with no heat? How much longer could I endure this?

"Get busy living, or get busy dying," I said out loud to no one. And this was quickly followed with the thought, "Did I actually just say that out loud? Really? The Shawshank Redemption now? Jesus..."

I stood up and jogged in place, urging blood back to my freezing hands and feet. "Don't fall asleep. Don't fall asleep. Don't fall asleep," I repeated to myself, over and over in my cluttered mind. "That's the way hypothermia works on you, making you drift off quietly, never to wake up again."

Cooper sauntered back into the living room, hearing me suddenly break into an unexpected round of calisthenics, and he must have thought my mood had shifted and that I was now in an attitude of play. He barked and wagged his tail and danced around happily.

"Shut up, Cooper!" I said. He barked again. Outside the storm continued. Another brilliant flash of lightning was followed by another crash of thunder. For something so unique and so rare, this whole thundersnow thing was starting to wear out its welcome.

If worse came to worse, I knew, I would have to take a pocket knife to Cooper and quiet him for good. Of course I didn't want to think about that, but in the event of an emergency it was Darwin's theories at their finest in my living room. There wasn't much to him, to be sure, but I figured in the frozen night--if needed--I could at least curl my frostbitten hands and/or feet in the warm cocoon of his eviscerated guts spilling out onto my beige carpet. And after that, his pelt would make a nice, warm cap to wear over my head and protect my threatened ears.

*[Aside: Jeremiah Johnson, eat your heart out...]

I don't remember when I fell asleep, exactly. The only thing I was aware of next was waking in the middle of the night, buried underneath a mound of blankets on my bed. That and Cooper laying on top of the mound of blankets, breathing in my face. Lovely. I rolled over, then, intentionally knocking him from his perch. He growled only briefly, miffed that I somehow had the nerve to disturb his sleep.

"Get over it," I growled back at him, half asleep. "You have no idea how lucky you are to be alive."

Morning came quickly, and with it the sinking sensation of a cold house. No power still. No lights. No heat. No chance of survival.

I was going to die. I was sure of it. Much like my dog, I was lucky to still be alive myself, I guess, and figured at this point my hours were numbered. I was sure I was going to die. How did I make it through the night? How was that possible? And where was Cooper, anyway? Where did that damned dog go?

As I slowly, reluctantly crawled from beneath the relative heat of the blanket pile, I noticed right away, of course, that the house was cold. I'm not sure what else I expected--sans power and heat--but all the same, the house was cold. It was unavoidable. This was not going to work. I couldn't go through another day and night of no heat. And what if I was trapped, buried alive beneath a literal drift of snow from the blizzard the night before? What if I couldn't get out? What if there was no chance to see the sun? What if....?

I pulled open the blinds on my front windows and surveyed the scene outside. The sun was out. The snow had stopped. The wind had died down. The ground was covered, every inch, with what appeared to be perfect life-sized peaks of meringue. My stomach growled. I was hungry, and I was alive.

"Cooper, are you hungry?" I asked him. He wagged his tail and his eyes shone at me with love. How foolishly short-term was a dog's memory, anyway? "First things first," I suggested, grabbing his leash and attaching it to his collar. "Let's go outside. Bathroom break. Long night last night."

The morning air was frigid and crackled with the cold. My nostrils instantly began to feel as if they were freezing together. What an odd feeling that is. And I realized, with some sense of humility, that maybe last night's panic attack over frostbite to my extremities was perhaps a little hasty.

*[Aside: Yeah...maybe just a little.]

"Come on, Cooper. Let's go in where it's warmer." He barked with joy and ran around me in a circle, tying up my legs in his leash.

About this time my neighbor came outside to survey the scene herself. I noticed our breath hanging in front of both of us.

"Good morning," she said.

"Good morning, " I said.

"Quite a storm last night."

"Yes. Yes it was."

"Well, thank God the power just came back on..."

"What?" I asked her. "The power came back on?"

"Yeah," she said. "Just now. Just a minute ago. It flickered back on, just as unexpectedly as it went out last night."

"The power's back on?" I asked her again.

She looked at me as if perhaps there was something wrong. "Ummmm...yeah. I just said that. The power came back on..."

"Oh my God," I said, obviously unable to hide my joy. "Oh my God. I made it! I did it!"

My neighbor gave me another look, and then she turned quickly to walk back inside her house.

"Did you hear that Cooper? Huh? Did you? Did you hear that? The power's back on! The power! It's back on!..."

I knelt and scooped him up into my arms. He licked at my face, ready to burst with excitement. A wild animal domesticated. But an animal of the wild, at heart. Survival instincts just below the surface. All intuition and natural reflexes. Survivors, both of us.

"We made it," I laughed. "Good Lord, boy, doesn't the morning sun feel good? We made it through the long, cold night. We made it through the blizzard..."

My dog was starting to look at me askance, as if there was possibly something wrong with me. And maybe there was, after all. I laughed out loud. Yes, maybe there was. Maybe it was the untamed tone of my voice or the untethered look in my eyes or the uncontrolled appearance of my bed-hair and the wild grin, outlined--just barely--with a thin shadow of unshaved stubble left over from the day before. The look of a mountain man, after all, crawling from his cabin after riding out the storm. The "Blizzard of 2011." All instinct and intuition. Survival of the fittest. And wild.