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As a Native New Englander ...

Michael Hillman

... I’ll be the first to admit, the Blizzard that descended upon the area on February 9th & 10th got my attention, and got it good.

Having grown up with snows that really did leave drifts too tall to look over, I’ve always been disappointed in the winters of the Emmitsburg area. Sure, the history books do talk of storms that caused life to come to a grinding halt for days at a time. And there have been the occasional storms that gave one pause, like the great storm of 1993, but nothing like that could even compare to a traditional New England Nor’easter.

It’s usual for the first snow of a New England winter to come in October. By November, roads have become snow packed lanes; the asphalt surface was in hibernation. The rest of the country would have flowers blooming before we would see it again.

In New England, snow falls upon snow. We didn’t keep track of how much snow a storm dropped; instead, we measured the ferocity of the winter by how deep the snow was that blocked doors from opening, or by how long snow mounds in shopping mall parking lots lasted. If come July snow was still present, then all agreed it was a bad winter.

Coming from that environment, living in an area where people panicked at just the thought of a light dusting, winter has always been a major disappointment for me.

Year after year, I eagerly anticipate a major storm, only to be disappointed over and over again. I grew jaded as weather forecaster’s hyperventilated into brown paper bags while prognosticating the storm of the century, only to wake up the following morning to a coating of snow. And when we were lucky enough to get a good snow, it was always followed by a stretch of warm weather which quickly turned the storm into a distant memory.

Let face it, winters around here just suck for a native New Englander, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

While the December storm got my hopes up that this winter just might be the one I’ve been waiting for, my hopes were dashed when any trace of it was gone with days. While January’s cold snap was reminiscent of the temperature one experiences in a New England winter, but the lack of snow made the cold pointless.

So when the weather channel once again became abuzz with talk of a major storm, I shrugged my shoulders; I would believe it when I saw it.

But just to be safe, I fired up the emergency generator which had sat dormant since last summer, and filled up the extra gas cans. It’s one thing to not believe a forecast; it’s something totally different not to be prepared in case it did come true. Having suffered through three days without power after the storm of ‘93, I wasn’t ready to risk it again, no matter how jaded I had become.

When the first flakes started to fall that Friday, I crossed my fingers. Maybe this will be the storm I had waited 20 years for. But by 11:00 that night, with barely 8 inches, I resigned myself to the fact that I would wake up the next morning to yet another disappointment. Boy was I mistaken.

It snowed all night, and by morning, nearly 20 inches covered the landscape. In the mountains above Emmitsburg, the snow was as deep as 43 inches. But I was happy with 20, especially knowing that the cold weather that was to follow would ensure it would be around for a while.

My wife, having gotten up before me, had already made the start of a path to the barn. I followed in her tracks to retrieve the snow shovel. My Jack Russell managed to put only two of his four paws out the door before he decided being an outside dog wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. My lab mix on the other hand, bounded into the snow drifts with all the glee one expects of a lab.

With the snow still coming down fast and furious, there was no doubt in my wife’s or my mind that this would be a rare ‘indoor’ day for the horses.

The first order of business was to free up the backdoor of the barn which was wedged shut by the snow. Once freed, the arduous task of clearing a path to the ‘muck heap,’ where the manure was piled, took priority. With four stalls to be cleaned, the single wheelbarrow filled quickly. The ability to empty it would mean the difference between being able to keep the horses inside, where they would be safe and warm, or outside, exposed to the elements. For my wife and I, there was no question what took higher priority.

When the storm finally ended that afternoon, and the sun made its guest appearance, I shoved a pathway to the paddock gate. Even though the snow was now more than two feet deep, I knew the horses would enjoy some time out.

The first to go was the oldest, at 23, he had seen a lot in his life, but nothing like this. He walked up to the wall of snow where I had stopped shoveling and turned and looked at me with an express that said, "OK, so now what am I supposed to do now?"

The next horse I retrieved was one I knew would plow right through the snow, and he did. But still the old horse refused to budge. He waited until the last and youngest horse had been turned out, and a suitable path had been made for him through the snow, before he dared venture out into the snow-covered field.

For the next hour I watched as the horses gallivanted about in the deep snow. My wife and I laughed as simultaneously we said, "We’re going to have some mighty tired horses tonight." And we did.

As the horses played, we busied ourselves with digging out and refilling the multitude of bird feeders. At times, the back yard look like LaGuardia Airport at its peak. Blue Jays were stacked up by the dozens waiting for their turn at the peanut feeder; Nuthatches, Chickadees, Finches and Sparrows mobbed the sunflower and thistle feeders.

For most of the afternoon, I watched as the horses played. It found myself thinking that, had I been younger, I would have jumped at the opportunity to ride one of them in the snow. "You’re not that old yet," I told myself, and like a warrior going off to battle, I hiked out in the waste deep snow and retrieved my youngest horse.

We gingerly walked about the field. His easy-going manner I had become so accustomed to during seasons of green grass, was replaced by a gawking way of going. But I persisted. I asked him to trot. He shifted his balance forward and my mind suddenly filled with the thought of him falling in the snow, so I did what anyone stupid enough to be doing what I was doing at the time would do; I asked him to canter!

We didn’t canter long before my senses regained control of my body. "Well that was a dumb idea," I thought.

Having proven to myself I wasn’t too old to be stupid, I untacked my horse and turned him free once more.

By dusk, both the birds, horses, and my wife and I had had our fill of excitement, and the farm went quietly to bed.

Sunday was spent digging out. The radio was abuzz with talk of a major storm on Tuesday, but I was happy enough just enjoying what nature had given us the day before.

By Monday, the storm which was now blowing outside my window was increasingly becoming more ominous. I cast a wary eye to the snow-covered roofs of my house and wondered how much they could take.

On Tuesday, with the forecast now calling for an additional 16 to 24 inches, I decided to lighten the snow load on the roof. Knowing my luck, I recognized that had I tried to clear the roofs while standing on them, I more than likely would have fallen off. So I pulled out the ladder and, placing it against the roof line, began to shovel them off.

All was going as planned until I dislodged one huge pile of snow; unfortunately, as I quickly discovered, the mound had been keeping the top of the ladder in its place. As it slid off the roof, the ladder began to slide sideways. It was a long way down ... too long.

I dropped the shovel and grabbed the rain gutter and righted the ladder. What to do next was the question of the moment. I had cheated death the day before by riding in the snow; could I cheat it again? If I let go of the gutter for a moment, the ladder moved. I quickly calculated that I would only be 1/4 of the way down before it would fall, carrying me with it. I thought about climbing onto the roof, but then remembered why I had opted to use the ladder in the first place.

With nothing else to lose, I leaned the ladder in the direction opposite of the way it wanted to go, almost to the point where it began to slide in that direction, then quickly made my way down the ladder as it swung back. I no sooner touched ground then the ladder fell.

"Well, that was a dumb idea," I thought.

Cold and tired, I retreated into the warmth of the house, vowing never again to regret the lack of New England winter storms. The first snowflakes of what will undoubtedly be called the great blizzard of 2010 were just beginning to fall. It was going to be a long night.

While the snow fell fast and furious at first, the much anticipated winds were absent. At ten, I took the dogs out. The air was still and quiet. A light snow was falling and not a sound could be heard.

A snow plow had made its way by a few hours before, so it was easy walking. As I walked, I found myself back in the late 1800s. This is what winters must have been like for the first owners of my house. It was peaceful, almost innocent in quality. It was at times like this that living in the country was worth its weight in gold.

But it wasn’t the blizzard everyone had predicted: just a typical New England snow falling upon a snow-covered landscape. I was finally had my wish. I was finally at home at my home.

Little did I know, as I turned my electric blanket on that night, that mother nature was just warming up for the big show the next day.

I woke up to the purring of a cat, not a howling wind as the meteorologist had predicted. Huh, so much for the big blizzard, I thought to myself.

Snow had indeed fallen through the night to the tune of twelve inches or more. I made my way out to the barn where I was once again shoveling the pathway to the muck heap. I was just about to step out the barn door when out of the corner of my eye I caught a solid wall of white bearing down on the farm. The Blizzard was officially on!

By the time my wife made the 30 foot trek from the muck heap back to the barn, the wind was howling. With difficulty we managed to close the door, but not before snow had made it halfway down the 60 foot barn aisle.

‘OK Guys,’ my wife said to the horses, "It’s another indoor day for you guys, so settle down and get used to it." Having learned our lesson from a near brush with death a year ago, the horses were given a warm bran mash for breakfast.

As I prepared to brave the winds and return to the house, I caught a glimpse of Riker, the oldest horse in a mad weave. This was clearly outside of his daily routine and he wanted out. "Sorry guy" I said to him, "you’re better off in than out."

By the time I got to the back walkway, the path I had taken out to the barn had disappeared. It occurred to me that I probably should bring in a load of fire wood, but thinking is about as far as I got. I would soon regret it.

Having ‘blown’ opportunities other snow storms had offered, I was determined not to blow this one. Having yet to lose power, I turned on my computer and began to write. It was a perfect day to write. No one was coming over, and I sure wasn’t going out. The wood burning stove in my study was going full bore and the room was nice and warm. No writer could ask for more.

My intention was to write about this storm, but I soon found myself sidetracked writing a story about the great storm of 1993. It was the storm that saw a neighbor’s house burn down, which led to one of the sweetest dog we’ve known coming into our lives. Almost six years had passed since Charlie had died, yet his story had remained unfinished. As the day was much like the day we first saw him, it seemed fitting to finally finish the story I had started the Christmas night he had died.

As I wrote, I kept a wary eye on the birds that called our farm home. With the wind now gusting to 40 and 50 mphs, our feathered friends sought shelter where they could. Fortunately, even with the deep snow, the many native plants of my wife’s garden offered refuge. Those unable to find foliage to retreat to sought shelter in front of the garden’s picket fence. As the wind whipped the snow against the fence, a wall started to grow, which created a hollow on the opposite side that provided some protection.

Around noon my wife informed me that she had just used the last piece of firewood in the wood burning stove. I glanced out the window and watched a chickadee holding on to a branch for dear life. Yes we needed wood, but not right now.

By two the fire was beginning to die, and with it, the temperature in the study was becoming noticeably colder. I could procrastinate no longer. The dogs, bored from doing nothing all day, jumped at the thought of going out. "You’re going to have to stay.’ I told my Jack Russell. He would never make it past the huge drifts that now blocked the pathway to the barn. And had he, I knew only too well that he would show no mercy for the birds that I knew had sought refuge in the barn. Their day was bad enough without having to deal with a stupid Jack Russell chasing them.

The wind nearly ripped the door out of my hands as I stepped outside into the gale. My labbie mix led the way. That is, until she came face to face with a six foot snow drift. Like Riker before her, she turned to me as if to ask what to do next.

"Go on,’ I said. With my encouragement, she made a mighty leap and came down in the middle of the drift. Then crawling for all she was worth she finally made it to the other side of the drift. I followed suit.

As expected, the barn was full of birds. A few gave flight at the sight of me, but I spoke softly and put them at ease. "Don’t worry guys, you’re ok. Just hunker down."

I spread some bird seed on the floor for them and they rushed to it with abandon.

I checked in on the horses, who greeted me with whinnies as if to ask: ‘Can we go out now?" "What? Are you guys crazy?" Horses, sometime they can be the dumbest of animals I thought. I threw each a flake of hay and headed to the back to get my arm full of fire wood.

As I turned the corner near the door, I saw a little Finch fighting the wind to make it into the safety of the barn. Reaching out my hand, I gently grabbed it in midair. It was clearly exhausted. I set it down on countertop, but then thought better of it. Picking it back up, I carried it into the main, and much warmer part of the barn, and set it down in a pile of straw, sprinkling some sunflower seeds for it to feast on.

"There you go," I said to him. "You stay here. It’s safe here." He looked up at me as if to say thanks. But I found it was me who wanted to thank him. His trust in me had made my day.

By four, the wind was dying down enough that I dared to venture out refill the bird feeders and waterer. By now the birds were so hungry, that they mingled at my feet pecking at seeds that fell as the feeders were filled.

Having noticed that many birds had taken refuge under my truck, I threw a handful of seeds under it. Back in the barn, I checked in on the bird I had grabbed from the air. He was sitting on top of a bale of straw. He chirped at me when he saw me, as if to say "I’m still here."

By now, with the sun setting, the horses had finally realized they were not going out. Dinner was all they had on their mind. I fixed them each a warm bran mash which they devoured with zest. Wesley, my youngest, was happily licking his lips as I closed the breazey way door for the final time that day. As I returned to the house, I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of watching them the next day as they once again pranced around the snow-covered field.

The sun has now set and with it, the wind has returned. Even though I am warm, I can’t help but worry about the birds that spent the day in a life struggle with nature, or the feral cats that increasingly have called our property home.

All I can hope is that they have found a safe spot to hide and will be there in the morning to greet me with the sunrise that will bring a much different day than today.

A day to recover, a day to dig out, a day to thank God that we live in a time where we can appreciate a blizzard like today from within the safety of a warm a house. But most of all, appreciate the opportunity to be reminded that all God’s creatures contain his divine spark.

As the winter winds once again howl, I find myself thinking of an age old poem, a poem fitting to conclude this tale with.

Scatter Out the Crumbs

Amidst the freezing sleet and snow,
The timid robin comes;
In pity drive him not away,
But scatter out your crumbs.

And leave your door upon the latch
For whosoever comes;
The poorer they, more welcome give,
And scatter out your crumbs.

All have to spare, none are too poor,
When want with winter comes;
The loaf is never all your own,
Then scatter out the crumbs.

Soon winter falls upon your life,
The day of reckoning comes:
Against your sins, by high decree,
Are weighed those scattered crumbs.

­Alfred Crowquill

Read other humor stories by Michael Hillman