Sunday, December 7, 2008

Slip-Sliding Away

It's a grey morning here in the Greatland, a foot of snow on the ground and the air raw and wet with threatened rain. Now, being of Scottish descent, I love rain; I just don't love it in December and January, when it makes my steep driveway at times completely impassible, even with the hubs locked and studs on. I love where my house sits - on small ridge overlooking the lake, with spectacular views of the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains - but the downside is my driveway. It's long, and while it enters the property on the level, it takes a U-turn about halfway and goes immediately up the hill. The first part of the hill is rather steep, which means that you want some momentum, but the U-turn is pretty much a hairpin, which means that you're of necessity going kind of slow. This is normally not a problem to negotiate; in fact, in my old truck I had mastered the art of doing a deliberate fish-tail at the U, revving it in the turn, letting the rear end of my truck skid sideways and fetch up against the snow berm, so that the instant the side-slip stopped and the right rear tire was at the far edge of the ice, my momentum, combined with the RPMs and the small slice of traction at the verge of the snow berm, would conspire to get me past the steepest part of the hill. The new truck, which has a locking rear wheel differential, does not perform this maneuver (although it has many advantages over the old truck, not least of which being that it is 18 years younger.)

However, there have been times when I've come home to find literal sheets of water rolling down the ice on the steep part of the drive, ripples gleaming in my headlights as the rain falls, diamond-bright through my high-beams. This is a daunting sight. It means that I am highly unlikely to make it up the driveway in the truck, which would be no big deal except that A) whatever I need to take into the house I have to now carry up the drive, and B) if the truck in 4-wheel drive with good studded snow tires on it can't make it up the slippery hill, I'm not going to have a much better time of it on foot, being as how I have only two wheel drive myself, have no studded snow tires, and am carrying an undisclosed number and weight of items in my hands.

Usually I'll make the attempt with the truck; having failed the first time to pass the steep bit, I'll have allowed the truck to slide back down. I'll back it up as far as I can against the snow berm (there are trees behind that, so there's only so far I can go) and try to aim her as strait up the drive as I can, if possible grabbing a little traction from the rougher ice at the plowed edge where the berm starts. From experience I know that I may manage, after two or three failed attempts, to hit it just right and, by pushing the revs, crest the worst of the steep to where the drive starts to level out a little and the laws of physics are again on my side.

One night a few years ago I came home to the cascading water rolling down my driveway. I'd known I would find that on getting home - it had been raining hard for a few hours and I'd been watching the water pour down the sloped back driveway at work - but all the same, it was a bit daunting. I was tired after a long day, and disinclined to make three trips to carry my groceries (purchased at lunchtime in the foolish optimism that it wasn't going to rain, since at that time it was only 26 degrees) into the house. But along came a storm front heavy with moisture and warmer temps, with the result that I was sitting in my truck, worn from the day, looking through the sweep of the windshield wipers at my own personal Waterloo.

I tried it. Three times I made it almost to the break-even point, but had to put in the clutch and step on the brake, letting the truck slither backwards down the hill with as much control as I could give it. On the fourth attempt I fishtailed so badly that the truck was sliding sideways down the hill, a move that prompted me to start thinking about roll-overs (which would kind of wreck my day, not to mention my truck, besides which - and here put on your surprised faces - I thought it might somewhat inhibit my morning commute the following day.)

Bowing to the inevitable, I let the truck slide side-on to the end-of-the-U-turn berm and managed, maneuvering gingerly, to park it in a position where I hoped it would not start to slide on its own. The lake edge is mere feet from the edge of the drive, and if the truck started to slide, momentum might carry it further over the berm than I would like, potentially even onto the lake itself. It wouldn't likely go through the ice - which is thick enough at that time of year, despite the rain, to be just another parking lot - but I couldn't picture being able to get it back up off the ice without some kind of major help. Even presuming that it stayed upright on its tires.

I gathered what items could not be left in the truck overnight and stepped with extreme caution onto the ice. It was every bit as slippery as I had expected, and my boots skidded incessantly as I shuffled my way carefully to the front of the truck, using its bulk as a bolster to help me keep my feet. I managed to get into the snow berm without falling flat on my back, and after that it went a bit better; the berm, usually so hard-packed that even the snow plows sometimes struggle with it, was soft with rain, but it provided the traction necessary to get me up the hill on my own two snow-booted feet.

Big sigh of relief. Put away perishables and let dogs out, then in to shake their wet coats all over me and eat their dinners. Make something to eat and hope optimistically that the rain will stop and everything will be better in the morning. Carefully avoid wondering how the hell I will make it down the steep part of the driveway in the morning if it doesn't.

Which it doesn't.

In the morning it is still raining steadily. Not enough, unfortunately, to have eroded all the way through the ice on the driveway. From my window I can still see the pale gleam of the ice in the reflected light from the house. Sigh.

I gather my lunch and a paperback to read while I eat, and I go down onto the ice, which is visibly running with water. I stick to the berm nearest the house, which will get me to the front of the truck without having to twice cross the ice on slopes without any support. The driveway is bordered by a steep up-sloping embankment on the near side, as it is cut into the hill upon which I live. The berm is slushy with rain and collapsing under my feet. For the first little bit I have willow scrub to hang onto, and the going isn't bad; it's the shallowest part of the slope and the willows have protected the berm a bit. All is going as planned, even when I get to the steep part of the slope.

For a while.

About a third of the way along the steep, the berm is collapsing faster than I am walking. I am side-stepping up the hill, reaching for better snow, still moving forward, hoping to outpace the berm collapse. If I can just get past this section, there are more willows to help me out and then I'm at the truck, home and dry. I'm golden for about five steps... and then my right boot hits the ice.

Now I have no chance whatsoever. The laws of physics are now against me, since there is zero friction on the water-slick ice. The weakened berm has no more strength than a wet paper towel, and collapses under my left boot, which follows the right in a graceful arc onto the ice, sliding sideways like a skier in a tight slalom turn. My left knee skims side-down onto the ice, and then my left hip. In the speed-of-light way of thought, my brain is racing ahead, estimating that if I slide as I am aimed I will hit my truck amidships, either going underneath it, or fetching up against a tire. I am afraid to do either, since I'm afraid I will get hung up under the truck, or the impact of hitting a tire might jostle the truck into sliding toward the lake, or both (a very untempting option.) There's nothing to do but try to steer. I twist up onto my seat (in the 3 milliseconds it has taken for all that to go through my mind) and lean, changing my course and aiming my feet behind the truck. At the last second I twist slightly onto my side so that my feet hit the berm pointed 45 degrees to the left, allowing me to bend my knees to take the impact and throwing an artistic arc of water glittering into the air.

I realize I am laughing, laughing like you do when you're on a really great roller coaster, laughing like you do when you're hand-galloping a horse going just a little faster than feels safe. I am also soaked, not just wet, but wringing wet, with ice-cold water. I get to my feet. My lunch and my paperback have both escaped my grasp on the way down, and have come to rest along the berm, about a third of the way up the steep. I debate, but end up going up to retrieve them, using the willows on the lower third of the drive to help me and crawling on all fours when I get to the steep part (what the hell, I can't get much wetter). I think about changing clothes, but can't envision getting to the truck any drier than I am now. I think about sliding back down on my seat, since I am still laughing to myself, and it WAS fun; but in the end I just use the willows and extreme caution.

I laughed all the way to work, little fugitive chuckles bubbling out of me unexpectedly as I drove the rain-wet (but luckily not icy) streets. I was a bit damp and squishy, but I was mostly dry by noon, and in all it wasn't a bad experience. I get a good laugh out of it even now. Which brings me to today, when I have to put up 25 bales of hay for the sheep. Because I just heard the faint rattle of rain hitting my windows and my driveway is just as steep as ever. Not to mention the fact that the farm has a bit of a slope I have to negotiate to go up to it (as it is also situated on a hill), and - just to make things easier - the sheep (and their hay barn) are at the bottom of that hill on the back side. The side with the steepest slope and the deepest snow. Yee-hah. This ought to be fun.

As it happens, my hay supplier, JW, is also the person who plows (and sands) my driveway. She's a bit late getting to the farm, as she has thought ahead and asked her husband to precede her up the driveway in the sanding truck. That means we only have to off-load the hay from the truck to the 6-wheeler, 5 bales at a time, which R will then drive down the hill to the hay barn to be stacked. Only it turns out that Mr. W thinks he can drive the truck down there and - and here's the big feat - get it back up again. Well, okay, then. That's easier for US, but I'm dearly hoping he has not overestimated his driving skills or his truck. The snow is deep and wet in the falling drizzle, and it would be all too easy to mire down back there.

We offload the hay and stack it in the barn (and THAT'S a lovely feeling, let me tell you, having a barn full of hay for your stock). Mr. W turns his truck around and makes a run at it. And mires down, tires churning, about a third of the way up. He backs it up and makes another run at it. We are all - S, R, me, and JW - watching as he mires in a second time, and a third.

"He's packing himself a trail," JW says suddenly, grasping what her husband is up to. And she is right, as his fourth try takes the truck, straining and flinging clumps of heavy snow off its tires, up to the top. We all cheer and trudge through the heavy snow up in his wake, and I pay JW for hay - and for sanding, if her husband will go on over and do my drive. He will, a thought that makes me feel completely content with the world, although he has another drive or two to do before me. I have a barn full of hay, my sheep are snug and have food against the winter, and if I dawdle long enough, I will be able to get up my driveway when I get home. JW improves my good mood by giving me a tub of home-made hot buttered rum mix (which I can tell you, from experience, is excellent). She trundles off in her husband's wake, and I chat with S and R for a few minutes in hopes of letting Mr. W get ahead of me in his sanding truck, but they have a tub of hot buttered rum mix of their own, and a sudden driving need to go buy rum and fire up their hot tub. So I get into my truck and drive home. I turn into my ice-white drive but when I get to the slippery part, it looks like a dirt road. Mr. W, bless him, has been and gone, and my truck doesn't even hesitate as it climbs up the hill.

So now I'm sitting here, a mug of hot buttered brandy (since I don't like rum) close to hand, looking out at the fading day. Winter has its compensations - many of them, for me, as I like the cold weather and the snow, and I don't particularly mind the dark. One of the best is the fact that, as satisfying as it is to put up hay for your stock, it is that much MORE satisfying to do it against the brunt of winter. Even better to have been working outside in the cold, and to come in to a cozy house to sit with a border collie draped across your feet, watching the leaden sky fade to a smoky lavender as you work on your computer, hot drink to hand.

Kinda puts the slippery driveway blues into perspective, don't you think?


Jenn said...

I know that contented, comfortable feeling of having hay for your stock. It's a good feeling!

I will never, ever again complain about the little bit of ice and dusting of snow we occasionally get around here!

Anonymous said...

Mmmm. Yeah, nothing like comforts when there's a real risk outside the window. I haven't put up the hay for stock, but I am a larder/storage type person. I get a mild version of the same feeling from knowing that the stuff in the pantry has a reasonable balance for long-term consumption.

MaskedMan said...

And now we know why, whenever there's a hint of bad weather on the horizon, the stores have a run on milk, bread, and toilet paper! Nothing like that feeling of security that the necessities have been handled!

Truthfully though, I'd have likely gone right back out and stomped around in the woods a bit. Nothing like a cold, drizzly walk in the woods with a dog close at hand, to make the day come alive. I'm a touch crazy, like that.

We've got rain here, too... But the weather's insane. Topping over 70 degrees, today. Who moved my winter, and how can I get it back?

AKDD said...

MM: Move to Alaska. We've got your winter right here. :D

We had two days of howling wind (BRRRR!!!!!), and now the wind has died down to a thin, steady breeze, carrying on it a fine, driving snow. I LOVE this state. I love days like this. I'm going to go out and run errands and hoik grain about just so I can be out in it.

Interesting that that satisfied feeling of "putting food by" seems to be so universal. It's a visceral pleasure, almost physically palpable. Maybe it goes back to the roots of our species, when harvest and storage was the difference between life and death.

Oh, and BTW, Jenn, complain all you want! Ice is a right pain in the arse for certain chores, and besides, it can be dangerous. It's best not to lose respect for how hazardous it is, and if a little complaining keeps that in mind, then have at it! :D Besides, it's all in what you're used to. You should hear me moan and bellyache if it gets above 75 degrees! (It's really quite hilaious - for everyone but me, as I lay there wilting and dying.) :p

Anonymous said...

I have similar stories about ice but instead of the hill I have a very flat driveway area that is kinda bowl shaped so the water collects and freezes into an almost perfect skating rink. I went down twice the other night carrying the grain bucket. Luckily I saved the grain and didn't take too much impact on my butt. But just like you, once your wet, might as well stay wet until you are in for good!

Holly said...

"I get a good laugh out of it even now. "

so did I and I am glad it turned out well.

it is so satisfying to be able to feed stock and children.

But that hot buttered rum or brandy, now THAT sounds heavenly.

Holly said...

One thing I forgot to mention...

Yaxtrax. I have 2 pair and could not do without them, they are wonderous.

I got my last pair for something like $15 at WalMart, last year I think.

Reagan said...

I'd love to see a pic of your house/driveway!

Michelle said...

I'd love to hear more about the hot buttered rum mix... :)

AKDD said...

Beth, OUCH! I feel your pain. Be careful out there, girl!

Holly, thx for the reminder. I keep meaning to get a set of those. You have to actually HAVE them before they do any good, I'm told! :D (Mind you, I've lived in AK for 13+ years and I STILL haven't gotten around to it, so I guess that says something about either my sure-footedness or my procrastination skills....) :o

Reagan, it's too dark to get a pic of the house right now but I'll see what I can do. (Can you post pics in the comments section...?)

Michelle, I believe the mix has a pound of butter, a pound of brown sugar, a quart of Haagen-Dasz vanila ice cream and "the spices", which JW didn't detail for me. I'll see if I can get her to give it up. ;) I'm guessing cinnamon and nutmeg, maybe 1 to 2 tsp each for the recipe? Something like that. Then to make yourself a toddy, for a regular-sized coffee mug (not the super-jumbo one I use for tea), put in a large spoonful (maybe 2 heaping tbsp, I'm guessing), a shot or two of your alcohol of choice, and boiling water. Stir it up and enjoy. And don't tell you cardiologist.

Kay Lodahl said...

"I will never, ever again complain about the little bit of ice and dusting of snow we occasionally get around here!" Ditto!
Having a frozen pipe in the barn..thank god we have a barn. And it's full of hay. Yup! I am grateful.
I love this blog. Great journaling.

AKDD said...

Thanks, Kay. Glad you're enjoying it.