'Driving snowstorm' has a new meaning for me

Driving in snow - especially when a storm is in progress - offers an intriguing mix of trepidation and invigoration. As long as one is judicious and doesn't put inordinate faith in a manufacturer's claims about the handling ability of its vehicles, driving through a layer of fresh powder has its own allure.

The world is forced to downshift into slow motion when snow is under tire. The audible crunch as one drives along is a signal that there is something interposed between oneself and the earth, something shifting, something that has its own capacity for growth as cold pavement and snow bond with one another.

Up here in Maine, where an automobile is, sad to say, indispensable, I've had to drive in nor'easters that have rendered both air and landscape a homogeneous white. When the wind shifts and a blizzard comes in from seaward, the landscape is changed into something that a resident of Alaska, or the Tunguska, might recognize as home. The world becomes all but featureless, and the only guide that one is still on the road are the tire tracks of preceding vehicles. Of course, there have been storms so bad that there are no tire tracks to follow, because there are so few vehicles on the road and their impressions are filled by drifting snow almost as quickly as they are made.

Several years ago I tried to drive "ahead" of a storm by leaving for home just as the first few flakes began to fall. Within the hour I found myself all alone on the state road, all but mesmerized by the gale blowing against me, the huge flakes illuminated by my headlights, flying by like the stars in those movies where spaceships are moving at warp speed. There were no tire marks to follow, and I soon drove into a ditch. Needless to say, my trip was providing far more trepidation than invigoration. This being Maine, though, a rugged pickup with a winch soon rolled by, stopped, and hauled me out. The driver didn't say a word, but only touched the brim of his hat as he roared away, quickly disappearing in the whiteness.

Another time I was driving through a nearby town during a storm when I realized that I couldn't tell street from sidewalk. I paid the price by driving right up onto a low wall, where my car teeter-tottered to the amazement of some passersby. I managed to get down off the wall by rocking the car until the rear wheels gained some purchase, but my exhaust system made the ultimate sacrifice for that one.

All of these calamities could have been avoided by simply not driving during heavy snowfalls. But because I have done it often enough without incident, I harbor the sense that I've got the technique mastered. Besides, there is that attractiveness about driving in snow that allows one to rationalize the necessity of one's errands, no matter how trivial.

Sometimes, though, one really does have to get someplace, despite the weather. Such was the case a few years back, when I left for school during a waxing snowstorm. I might not have driven the eight miles if I hadn't read the riot act to my students about not missing their final exam. In short, I felt honor-bound to set a good example for them. The first half of the 15-minute trip on the interstate was uneventful; but then I hit a patch of black ice and immediately spun off - one, two, three rotations - and plowed into the snow in the median (a mercifully soft landing). After being hauled out by a tow truck, I made it to school, 20 minutes late. "I'm sorry," I apologized to an almost full class, "I drove off the road and had to be towed out of a snowbank." At which point one student commented, "Oh, was that you?"

A recent newspaper report related that the winters in Maine are getting milder and less snowy. I greet this news with mixed emotions. I came to the north partly because, in the words of the author E. Annie Proulx, I "needed something to brace myself against."

Here in Maine, the winter provides this counterforce in spades. I don't know what I'll do should my home state come to resemble points south; but I have already begun to scan the map, however whimsically.

I wonder what the winter driving is like in Newfoundland?

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