I live in an area of New York fondly referred to as “the snow belt.” Just as the grain belt of the country has lots of grain, the snow belt gets lots of, well, snow. It’s due to a fairly innocent looking lake. Yup. Lake-effect snow is created by lakes. But not just any lake – little lakes don’t create snow. But big ones, in fact “Great” ones, do. The Great Lakes are snow-making machines in the winter time. If you live anywhere near the Great Lakes, you know what I’m talking about. If not, allow me to give you a brief lesson.
The Great Lakes are on the northern border of the U.S. When cold air comes roaring down out of Canada at just the right angle (sometimes referred to as an “Alberta Clipper”), and the lake waters are still relatively warm, the dry, cold air sucks up moisture from the warm lake. When the cold air hits land again, it drops that moisture, in the form of snow. Sometimes it’s an innocuous whisper of snowflakes. But often, the snowfall ends up being measured in feet in the localized, windswept communities in its path. Lake effect snow comes off the lake in bands, and those bands will sweep back and forth depending on the wind direction and strength. Some of those bands of snow can be just two or three miles wide. Some of them can stretch across multiple counties. One of the unique consequences of these bands of snow is that one side of a small village can be getting snow at a rate of several inches per hour, while the sun is shining on the other side of town. Seriously. I’ve left my house in a white-out blizzard of snow, only to drive into blue sky and sunshine less than three miles away. It’s weird.
Last week in upstate New York, the lake effect machine cranked into full gear, and dropped over FIFTY inches of snow in many areas. In five days. F-I-F-T-Y. We went from green grass and a historically long stretch of snow-free days (dating back to early March) to four feet of snow and counting, in less than a week. All thanks to Lake Ontario (and Canada, of course).
As a Baby Boomer, I have fond memories of incredible snow storms and blizzards that literally left us house-bound for days in upstate New York. No cell phones. No computers. No accurate forecasts of coming storms (“this could be the storm of the century, folks”). No natural gas generators. No Ugg boots. No “Thinsulate”. No snowblowers as we know them today. When the snow started falling, we just hunkered down for the duration. We always had a freezer full of food and a box of dried milk on hand for emergencies. But then again, my memories are those of a child, who was just filled with awe and wonder at a world that could go from green to white in the blink of an eye, burying entire cars in drifts that reached up to and above our windowsills. Not impressed? We had a walk-out basement, and I’m talking about snow over the FIRST FLOOR (not basement) windows. But as a kid, I didn’t have to worry about what to do with the snow, how to get to work, whether or not the roof would hold, how close the basement was to flooding, or whether we had enough milk and bread to get by. I just worried about how soon I could get out into the stuff with my sled!
But more than forty years have passed since then, and my attitude has changed towards snow. It took a while. I learned how to drive in this area, so snow frankly never scared me. Through my twenties, I just never blinked at it. Slap on the old metal-studded snow tires (long illegal), and my big heavy car would go through anything. Bundle up in layers and deal with it – that was my philosophy. In my thirties, not much changed. I’d lived enough life by thirty to know that bad things can happen. Cars can land in ditches.
Did you know that a Ford Mustang plowing off the edge of the road and down a steep slope in new snow can feel like you’re driving through a giant marshmallow, or a huge down pillow? Whoosh! And then the white stuff buries the hood of the car (and fortunately stops the vehicle before I connected with that telephone pole). Ice can land you on your fanny in a parking lot faster than you can even begin to blink. Driveways have to shoveled, one way or the other. Yes, stuff happens as you get older. And as I hit my forties, winter started becoming starkly less attractive. I think I began running out of patience with it by age forty-six. Pretty? Yes. Lots of lots of backbreaking work? Definitely.
I admire the elderly ladies I know who think nothing of sweeping off their cars and heading to the market in the middle of a blizzard. Nothing slows them down. Snow? So what? Take it slow, and you can clear off that sidewalk just fine. Neighbors pitch in. No big deal. For most of my life, I thought I’d be one of those feisty, independent women who shrugged in the face of lake effect snow and said “bring it on!” I thought “snow birds” were wimps for heading south every winter.
But I came to a stark realization a couple years ago, when we received five feet of snow one February week, and Hubby was in El Paso golfing with his baby brother. On the fourth straight night of shoveling snow alone in the bitter cold and howling wind, with snow banks so high I couldn’t get the snow over the top of them, and no end in sight, I came to an epiphany on my front porch. I don’t want to grow old here. I don’t need to deal with this year after year, and I’m not going to. No offense, everyone, but I’m outta here, and the sooner, the better. Any doubts about the decision I made that frigid night were erased the following morning, when I realized that another foot and a half of snow had fallen overnight. Again. I was DONE.
Fifty inches of snow is impressive. It’s awe-inspiring. And yes, it’s beautiful. But enough, already. The south is calling me, and I’m listening. Are proud older women to be admired when they stay in their northern hometowns and deal with one winter after another? Absolutely. They’re my heroes. But I’m not one of them.
I never thought I’d say it, but I’m saying it now – I’m not staying here. Lake effect has beaten me. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten was to “pick my battles”. Winter is just one of those battles I’m not ready to fight much longer. I’ll retreat, thank you, to warmer climes. I’ll hear about lake effect snow in the news, and I’ll smile with the wisdom of someone who’s been there, but was smart enough to leave.