Winter 2015, One for the Ages

Now that the 17 foot embankment of snow against my house has melted into a dirty little 3 foot pile and purple croci are sprouting around Boston, I can reflect on the winter of 2015.  The first thing to note is that the seemingly endless winter really was only from January 23 to March 8.  Roughly 7 weeks, and yet it seemed interminable!  I have been through Boston winters as a child, in Maine and Montana as an adult, trained on glaciers (which admittedly have way more snow mass, but the key to it all is the ability to cope, systemically) but I have never seen anything like the ‘endless’ winter!  For what seemed like an eternity, it was a sure bet that there would be a crippling blizzard every Monday, there would be parking bans throughout the cities, and the MBTA would fail miserably.   

One of the many jarring urban Snowpocalypse behaviors was of people setting off to work, 3-4 hours before start (ie 5 am), bundled up like inhabitants of Siberia, as the cold and wind was also brutal (a small blessing as it kept the massive snowfall feather light by New England standards.)  You may have seen the photographs of bundled humans of indeterminable gender, forcing their way through unrecognizable downtown Cambridge and Boston, heads down against the wind, hip deep in snow, disappearing behind the 7-15 foot snow banks to get to a bus, or sometimes simply walk all the way, if it was ‘easier’ than hoping the patchwork metro came through.  We only realized how much the city relies upon the shoddy public transport when it simply gave up entirely.  It was a deplorable failure which the service workers, and the restaurant and retail industry, felt the worst, although people of all income whose jobs cannot be ‘telecommuted’ struggled to the office daily.  The state is still assessing the economic damage of the storm to the city from lost revenue.

Suddenly our planning our urban lives of work, activities and social gatherings shrank down to a series of calculations more familiar when taking on backcountry expeditions.  A triangulation of the snow/ice footing already on the ground, how cold it was outside for safety reasons (generally very cold!) and what snow was forecasted for the next 24 hours (always certainly some.)  If you are a Bostonian and this equation doesn’t sound familiar, then you probably were driving, which means you were not truly in the city.  There was no parking anywhere, even if you had a driveway and could move your car (god, did I envy you!) the chance of finding parking at your destination was as likely as it hitting 85’ in Boston that day.  This matrix would then inform how far you could walk and thus your plans. Or Uber, but the complexity of this matrix was also directly reflected in the extraordinary Uber surge pricing-7x?!!  Most people’s worlds shrank down to a 1-2 mile radius.  Snow was always coming, as the Winterfell analogies suggest, and the temperature was always dropping, and the snow and ice already on the ground made the footing treacherous and slow.  (Remember through all of this, I am a lover of winter-!) 

Another fascinating first, possibly ever, was that the weathermen were accurate with alarming perfection.  We came to trust them implicitly, hunkering down with food, and changing plans, and preparing to dig out, knowing they that they spoke the truth.  Suddenly overinflated claims of “A Snow Emergency is in effect as of Sunday night, with a series of back to back storms, the first Sunday into Monday with 2 feet accumulating rapidly overnight, windchills below zero, gusts over 20 miles per hour, the second 14-18 inches Tuesday, the last with accumulation only 6-8 Thursday daytime,” was not something we mocked but instead planned around like clockwork, hurrying home before the start time with our food, checking in on friends and family, and knowing the forecast had accurately down to the hour.  If that isn’t surreal I don’t know what is.  These were appropriate fire drills occurred like clockwork, snow arriving improbly every Monday in masses that ground the city to a halt for 6 weeks, we learned not to plan anything on Mondays, or tuesdays… it was a bit tiring.

But the weatherman, like the plowmen and city workers, (with the exception of the cursed MBTA) saved us all so much trouble with their tireless work.  The ploughmen basically ran nonstop from the end of January through early March, as the scary state of our roads, with gaping car eating holes, now attests.  But at the time, in snow lulls when you were able to risk your parking spot and drive to places with parking lots, the tireless effort of the Cities of Somerville, Cambridge and Boston was remarkable.  The roads were still slick and ever narrowing, like a trippy dream, but the effort was somehow so comforting.  We were all in this crazy claustrophic impossible experience together, and people really stepped up to help each other, though by the end of February nerves were fraying.

I don’t remember the 1995-96 winter which held the previous record but that snowfall spanned 6, possibly 7, months.  I do remember the April 1 snowstorm, as my father gleefully told me school was cancelled.  As a teen (who am I kidding, I still am not a morning person) I did not appreciate the joke, but opening the curtains there truly was 15 inches of snow or so, and I celebrated the cancellation of school in April.  But those 6 months had the normal cycle of snowfall and melt, so the urban infrastructures was able to handle it.

Instead this year we literally watched the snow climb up the front of our houses daily as we shoveled walks and driveways, looking for new places to put the snow, while the city did the same, creating the infamous massive ‘snow farms’ seen in the news.  Witty folks rented out igloos on airbnb, built bars and kiddos dug snowcaves and tunnels.  We all celebrated the first blizzard and driving ban snowshoeing to pubs and meeting neighbors.  We cooked pastries and shared soup with neighbors as we dug out day after day.  But then the city inhabitants collectively started to have a crooked lean to our upper bodies from shoveling, after 48 inches or so.  Gyms were out of the question because there was no street parking anywhere.  It was a vicious cycle, no one was able to move their cars, for fear of not finding a space until May because of the 50% cut in space, with the parking ban, and really foolish people did not dig out their cars each round of snowfall.  Some of these utterly invisible cars, indiscernible from the also 15 foot banks around them got peeled open by the plow like an oranges.

Around 70 inches, when first floor windows started getting covered up by snowbanks and neglected doorways became barricaded, the collective sense of humor in the city was pretty much gone.  There is something so unnerving about opening a door to a wall, very Alice in Wonderland, and wrong.  Dogs who had reveled in the snow started to simply disappear into the depths when they jumped off snowbanks, going under as if it was water.  And others injured themselves doing so (a totally different story which I don’t want to go into here but she is doing well!) while humans slipped and fell just trying to do daily activities.  Nerves were shot, as well as plowing were running out.

At a certain point Somerville admitted defeat and shut down school for an entire week, instead of the traditional Monday Tuesday schedule.  To the horror of already worn out parents this abutted school vacation, but the flat roofs of schools were dangerously loaded and buildings were beginning to collapse.  I learned the word Ice Damn, which I am sure it is spelled dam, but this is how people felt, as the snow melted into houses, and into electrical fixtures causing expensive damage, sometimes even requiring people to move out.  There were articles about what is appropriate work attire in an endless winter, when you have to walk through thigh high snow banks, and even I tired of wearing long underwear and snow pants for weeks upon end.

Through all of this, friends who like me, love winter, struggled with the fact that this season grated on even our nerves.  People who look forwards to winter, are pleased by the heavy snowfall and see shoveling as a satisfying workout with visible outcomes.  But what it comes down to is being trapped in a place which is not built to take the repetitive hammering which this winter caused in Boston will cause claustrophobia and fatigue in even the most snow loving among us.  We were not snowshoeing across forested hills, because we could not move our cars to get there, or skiing (okay we did get in some turns, possibly the best powder New England has ever seen) but largely we were battling our way through life’s mundane tasks with the physical and emotionally draining barrier of an ever accumulating snow mass before us in all we did.

But then there was the beginning of hope!  The snow fall started to spread out enough that shoulders unknotted, a few days apart, and perhaps it was only 6-8 inches at a time.  We were reminded how truly life is relative, a forecast like that caused no pause at all!  Long underwear was worn under jeans not snowpants!  And we had a few bluebird days, negative cold, but bluebird sunshine.  And then a true miracle happened in my neighborhood, the city sent in industrial backend loaders to widen the streets by removing the snow walls on the non parking side of the street.  The city of Somerville had not turned off the parking ban lights, which hang beneath the stop lights, for weeks on end (there are many jokes, but I think you had to be there.)  The teams worked over 8 hours on my short block and removed 7, 18 wheeler sized dumpsters of snow, and it was as if our world widened, the 14 foot high wall which could not have been narrower then 10 feet at the base was gone, and we had a sidewalk and street again, and parking!  I bought the guys coffee and donuts, although I felt more like beer and a hug!  Spring might come someday afterall.

This is not to say it was all tough, but I tried to view it as remarkable and historic.  Most people here will disagree with me still, and god help us all with the cost of this winter, and the road repairs to come!  But as the sun shines down on us again and we stretch our legs, reveling in the sight of the resilient grass (crushed by more than 52 pounds per square inch it has been said,) the sound of birds, seeing the actual faces of neighbors, meeting up with friends beyond our radius, I know that like all things, this winter was an experience. 

And, I think, (!) we are far enough into April for me to safely say, I still love winter, but I would prefer it occur naturally across the entire season, and not drop on us like a cartoon anvil every Monday for 6 weeks.  At times it truly felt like one of those ridiculous end of the world film, not really joking as you can tell.  We all had our meltdowns, whether it was the shoveling & creatively packing snow into banks over your head to create new ‘space’ to put it, walking to business meetings thigh deep in snow, suit under snowpants, exiting the house requiring 20 minutes of apparel donning (I had never thought I would tire of snow gear, yup, it is possible), parallel parking into snowcaves whose height far surpassed the car, the thought of summer sunlight almost bringing on tears, the entire population needing chiropractic neck and shoulder attention, the anxiety of leaving your parking spot juxtaposed with the dire need to get the hell out of the city limits and just breath….there are too many things to list. 

It was, one for the record books, not just the inches, but the experiences and stories, good and less awesome.  And I am looking forwards to reading the books and seeing the movies that come out of this year, as they did out of the Perfect Storm, which I remember well, called the “No Name Storm,” around here.  But as all New Englanders have shown, the resilience here is powerful.  And even though there are dirty snowpiles in shadowy yards and parking lots the sun is out and people are out with sunglasses and flip flops (it’s 54’) socializing, running, cycling, breathing in the green smells of the world coming alive as the city stretches it’s legs and we will celebrate this spring and summer in a party, which I suspect, will be as epic as the storms themselves.  And that is life, right? 

You are challenged, you come together, you persevere, and you celebrate together.  Marathon Monday is soon, when true spring  comes to Boston, and the many festivals commence through spring and summer.  I am sure that this year will be among the most active and celebratory Boston has seen, and I'm still glad to be here.