Brace for the Race
Heavens, how we miss our home. We put our backs and our souls into it — it looking so confidently and, for us, welcomingly down the ridge, oveer the edge and out into the cove far belowl What a treasure it gave us in living the Blue Ridge mountain life.
Today, we are in a small home that is functional and right sized for us and Roxy and Lutz, our two German Shepherds (#s 6 and p7 since 2001 when Bruno came to us). This house fits our ages, but our hearts ache for the beauty, adventure, peaceful coexistence with nature — of almost 20 years. It was and will always be home for both of us.
A wonder and also a fright at times was winter on the Ridge. It drew out of us special efforts, at times more courage than we really wanted to summon up, and for me, advengture in service. And that is because winter brought me, The Old Plowguy, outdoors on this:
Me on my Yamaha 660 Grizzly ATV with 5’ steel snow plow blade
For most of my years there, the Grizzly and I plowed the snow off our 1.6 miles of asphalt and gravel. Sometimes I did another stretch of about ½ mile (guess) on a second stretch of rough gravel road.
Over the years, the exhaustion of several hours muscling around 800 pounds of Grizzly and blade wore thin. Sometimes it was admittedlly dangerous. I plowed when the first snow fell at temperatures just above freezing, in order minimize the inevitable re-freeze ice pack forming under the second fall. If you were out and about on that day, you had to be back coming up the mountain by 3 PM. Otherwise, you would be trying to drive on an uphill icerink under slippery snow.
Meanwhile, I would be out there dodging those who thought that they could handle uphill icerinks in rear axle drive cars. Their cars would be found either stuck in the inside ditch, off on a turnout patch, or just abandoned all the way down by the mailboxes. I gave lots of folks an interesting ride going up the icerink on the atv. Griz never needed chains, but my passengers did not know that. I think they found the ride invigorating at least.
I found it tiring. The atv with blade is front heavy and in total weighed about 800 pounds. That means that the atv could easily become dangerous with the blade down, under power that is just a teen big too fast and without that sense for what the snow would permit that only experience could impart . Too much gas, too much speed, not having figured out where to dump the plowed load safely and all of a sudden the atv becomes a pendulum attached to the pinned down blade. That is 600+ lbs swinging across an icy road that is max 12 feet wide. And swinging towards a sheer drop of lots of vertical feet. You could easily wind up down that slope and have the atv come down on top of you.
It was hard work that took skill and experience. I would come home soaked through the underclothes and into the snowmobile suit I wore. And at temperatures sometimes near zero. Then the next day out I would go again to plow it all over again, but this time pushing a good depth of snow off of the thin ice underneath.
Somegtimes the first of the double snowfalls would start at dusk. So, avoiding the accumulation of two snowfalls occasionally meant nighttime plowing with no lights except the two and (later on) an led light bar on the front of the Grizzly.
That was what led me , Griz’s to our nighttime near catastrophic, amazing victory over mountain and weather.
To roll the tape back a bit first: The Grizzly was a wonderful machine. I got it out of self defense and used it with great pride and joy, When we first moved up on that ridge, there were no neighbors at all anywhere near at all. You have to understand: we moved from New Jersey where one neighbor’s house was almost close enough to touch, the other housed a guy who thought it really cool to run the truck engine he was building — right: building — outdoors at 7AM . Two houses away was the fire station, where rhe guys thought is just hunky-dory to sound the alarm at 3 am fire or not. And then there was the collection of unwanted large items. If you wanted to lose something, you just put it on the curb in front of your house and the five finger discount folks came by at night while you were either asleep or distracted by the fire siren and took it. There was no such thing as no neighbors nowhere to be seen or heard where we had lived in Joisey.
It all changed so fast. One day we were sleeping our last night in a Civil War house in Joisey: —one we liked despite all the intrusion of our all too up close and personal neighborhood. Two nights and some hundreds of miles later, we were trying to sleep in our new house up on the ridge at about 3000 feet. No friends, no dogs in the house, no way out in bad weather and lots of hints of Unseen Things in the woods just outside our windows.
OK, so we were no heroes. It was an adventure but also scary at times, occasionally ridiculously so. LIke seeing at night the two red eyes peering into our solarium from outside and not going away no matter what we did. We knew what the dangers in Joisey were, but here, in the woods, at night, there could be Things Unknown. And for nights on end we sat up scared stiff at the two red eyes staring, staring, boring in on use from the woods maybe 15 feet from our bedroom on the main floor..
We finally threw in the towel and moved the bedroom to upstairs. But there they were, thjose two red eyes had followed us and knew where we were higding out. What if now it could get in while we were upstairs asleep? That may have been when I cast off my Northeastern liberal refusal to have weapons in the house and bought a 12 gauge shotgun with buckshot at WalMart. And for what? It turned out that the red eyes were lights from the breaking glass sound detector we had ADT install on moving in. They were reflecting off the inside of the solarium windows which we could see from the main floor or upstairs.
After all, in Joisey, They could be coming to break in. Right? When we told the off duty Sheriff Deputy, who checked on our house after closing but before we moved in, that we had an alarm system installed (No Deutsche Schaeferhund dogs yet at that time), I thought he would have a heart attack laughing. And over time it was very clear: where we were and with the steep, narrow old logging road we had, having al alarm system was as useful an addition as a life saver vest would be for a fish.
There’s a lot more stories where that came from, but I digress – -which by the way I do very well. Back onto the trail here.
Ol’ Griz Saves Ol’ Greg
We moved into our house in December. Not too long after that, In our very first Blue Ridge winter, we had our first Blue Ridge snow and sleet storm. It started later in the afternoon and kept on coming and coming. We could see it filiing up the abojut 450 feet of our drive, from the windows of the library room over the garage.
Now you need to understand: I grew up in Michigan. Snow? So what! Walk miles back and forth to school in blizzards, deliver a Detroit newspaper from a one speed Roadmaster bike in the wintertime dark, in ice storms, in snow storms: the paperboy always delivered. And it was an article of growing manliness that you delivered never dismounting, never missing a porch throwing the rolled up papers. And I shoveled out our home drive and walks. So: I could shovel with the best of them, I had my monster snow thrower which I”d brought from NJ, I had the right gloves and winter clothes. Ice, sleet, freezing rain, fog on ice, snow? No problem, you can take the boy out of Michigan, but you cannot take the Michigan out of the boy. Yep, I know snow, can handle snow.
Except that in MIchigan the boy knew snow that was much more on relatively level land, the boy relied for any help on the neighbors all over the place. I was not used to dealing with snow on ice on slopes so steep that even some pro-plowers would not come up to help us out. And God, being the ever aware instructor that He She They is/are, made sure I got the right tools for mountains, a powerful awd atv with locking differential, and then learned fast how to use it. By the time we moved, I modeestly say with full confidence, I knew it all about atvs on snow. The boy had added to his snow management repertoire..
As I watched the ice-sleet-snow stuff cascade down onto our very long gravel drive, that knot of fear began to tie up my guts. The slush was piling up on the drive and would turn to ice overnight. And I had no way to remove it: my showthrower brought from New Jersey was very heavy, unwieldy on slopes, and would have simply slid down the drive and over the edge just across from the apron of our drive several hundred feet down a sharp incline. And no way could I have shoveled any of it away.
This was apparently God’s first immersion course lesson in mountain life. As a friend once said, if you just can’t live any more with a chainsaw in one hand and your atv keys in the other, it’s time to move off the mountain. I was just learning that you had to do that.
Next morning our drive had 3 inches of ice on it. Three inches of frozen slush,– that much, I’d never seen before. How on earth were we going to be able to get out? Our supplies would soon dwindle away and, Oh my Gawd, WE WILL STARVE UP HERE AND NOBODY WILL KNOW IT !
I wish I could find pictures I am almost certain I had taken. Living up there brought endless and unexpected just great photo ops: that camera had very quickly almost attached itself to me as a new appendage. Which was just fine by me and has bought me wonders of gratitude now.
Long story short, across the cove, which was several thousand yards away from us, mostly nearly straight down from the outside edge of the road at the bottom of our very long gravel drive, Bob B who was building a log house a stretch up the mountain from us. Bob had an atv with a plow. I had heard him buzzing alonmg down on the road. He had established himself as The Lone Plowguy for our scattered, “gently sloping” (real estate-ese for steep inclines) community.
So, holding onto trees and frozen tall vegetation, I’d managed to get down to the road without falling. After waiting for a long time and freezing my you-know-what off, I saw him and hailed him for help. He’d been plowing a bit where the ice was not that thick but his atv would not handle that drive. Someone had in the meanitme hired a guy on a backhoe with a blade to scrape uphill…. After ;more frozen waiting, we got in touch with him when he came up our way and asked for his help plowing me out. He said no. He could not plow that but with the forks on the backhoe bucket,he could rip up the drive to let the chunks then melt over time. So he ripped up the drive surface in to large ice chunks and the pushed them over the side.
No charge. Mountain folks, real mountain folks, help each other –they are a very cooperative clan of highly individual, skilled, economical and just wonderfully friendly folks. All they ask is that you be willing to listen for a half hour after you greet them with Hey Billy, how’r yew? I came to value that immensely.
No charge that is except for paying another guy a lot to come up and regrade the whole drive.
So right then and there I decided, I was going to have an atv at least as powerful as Bobs, and then split up the road for plowing with him. I got the atv all right, — actually more powerful than Bob’s, but Bob would not share plow duty. He wanted the Lone Plowguy role for himself. He moved away however very shortly and that’s how I and the Grizzly became The Lone Plowguy. And came to feel just like he did about sharing the plowing on My Mountain Road.
The big test for the Plowguy and his old pal, Griz, came one evening some years later, in a two stage snow+ice+sleet storm. The weather guys had reported the Lone Plowguys Nightmare: wet semi freezing heavy snow with sleet and some ice coming down in buckets, starting at about 5 pm and going till about 9. And then starting up again in the morning with colder air and snow, a number of inches.
If that froze at night and then got covered in the morning with newfallen snow, we were cooked. Under that white blanket would be an icerink on a narrow, downhill slope. Not even chains would get you down. And we had had our fill of Florida residents who thought, no problem, I’ll just stoke up the Sequoia, hop in with my coffee traveler, and lope on down to the road which I know will be clear. Snow and ice? No problem, we will “adjust” –was how they put it the first time they tried it.
It did not happen twice unless they were unusually stubborn and had had their brains fried by too much sun and too many Pina Coladas,.
I had gotten real tired of getting either a cell call or having some snow covered Floridian knock on my door, after having trudged up the Ski Slope and up our drive, in deep snow, to ask me to stoke up mmy Sequoia or the griz and help him get his Sequoia out of the ditch halfway down thje ski slope. Because they had no idea at all how to shift the Sequoia into all wheel drive that could back that SUV backwards up a greased telephone pole. And ofcourse always blocking the road. Always before I’d had a chance to plow it despite my frantic pleas to wait till I let them know the road was plowed (also because packed tire tracks are hard to plow up without ripping up the road itself).. And always seemingly at some inconvenieent hour.t.
So at 4 PM I began donning the long johns, the insulated undershirt, the snowmobile suit, the cloth inside helmet head cover, the snowmobile gloves, the yellow goggles for evening, and the tall insulated rubberized boots that kept the feet from freezing sitting on the metal runners of Griz. It was a lot of work, and then I trudged out of the house, across the yard in deep snow, and down the flagstone path in deep snow to the unheated shed where Griz awaited –sweating like a dray horse on a hot day even before putting the key into the Grizzlys off and on switch..
You checked Griz all over: were the bolts on the plow tight? the contacts on the electric motor that pivoted the plow snug and still waterproofed? How about the winch rope that attached the 3,000 pound lift weight rated winch to the hundred pound steel 5 foot snow blade? Was the tank full and did I have extra gas, a shovel, some gravel, a rope with clamps, an engineeers hammer and steel spikes, a winch rope repair kit, my coffee traveler, and an extra set of keys? Was the bluetooth headset inside my helmet working to call Nancy if I slid into the ditch? If I slid over the edge, I woild not have to worry to call because 800 pounds of atv wouild tumble onto me as we fell and, well, you can guess the rest.
It always took Griz a long time to start. The shed was not heated and Griz’ oil was often like molasses in January. It seemed that he always decided to start just when I was about to kick him and give up. I think the profanily gave that extra needed spark.
Well all of the above transpired on that fateful evening. I have to admit, I’d never before plowed the whole road in the dark with snow and sleet falling. Nonetheless, I got down our drive and just plowed a lane through the near freezing slush, down the ski slope part of the road down to R’s house, cleared the left hand turn so that it would be less to push coming back up, and , went down that slope to tke hairpin turnaround, and from there, now on asphalt. down the hill — plowing all the way, with occasional turns to the left to push the snowmound I had accumulated in front over the drop off. I once calculated that Griz and I moved of tons of snow in a typical plowing episode.
I pushed loads of wet snow carefully over and down the outside road edge, often very near 90 degree straight down to the cove. Yes, cautiously, to be sure, but also confidently as I had done it all so often before. The lights on the atv to my infinite relief really lit up the road well.
I went down to the mailboxes –turnd around and stopped to take the dusk picture of the single lane you saw abo ve.
And then started pushing the heavy load in short bursts uphill and again off to the side. Griz was lifting, pivoting and lowering that blade like a champ..
At the top of the rise coming up from the mail boxes, on the left, was a friend’s house, He had a very steep and angled drive which was hard to shovel off by hand. He’d also had abdominal surgery and I knew that he would not be able to cleaf that off at all. He and his wife were also German Shepherd dog people — as were we, they also were owned by a couple of those great dogs. So I thought, what the hell, I’ll just take a moment and scrape it off for him.
At the top of his drive, where I’d first gone to get a bit of gravity help to plow down the sides, I raised my blade to back up and there was a loud WHACK noise and the blade slammed down hard onto the asphalt.
At first, belileve it or not, I was embarrassed and hoped that nobody would come out and ask, what’s wrong? I had no idea. The Lone Plowguy is, by definition, always in charge, always prepared, always cool calm and collected. That must have been another Lone Plowguy. The only thoughts in my mind were: what the hell just happened and how can I finesse this in front of my admiring crowds (none of which were out there of course)?
A quick inspection showed that the winch rope had snapped,and backlashed its frayed, wound cold steel lines into a Gordian knot inside the winch housing.. Now why peojple call that wound steel cable a rope I will never know. I sure could not tie it together like rope. I do know that men like that term and that it is especially a favorite of men who pronounce [asphalt’] as “ash-fault”, and with just a little bit of arrogant authority. Anyway, in a panic to see if I could repair it, I found that I had all the repair tools I would need, but none of the right cable clamps. Moreover, my cell was not reaching home from there, so I could not get a ride and leave Griz on trhe road to –do what with tomorrow: the damned blade was down, the cable snarled on he winch, and the socalled wintry mix was coming down harder. And really, was I going to remove my gloves in freezing sleet to try to unwind gnarled steel winch cable (take that ash-fault snobs) inside a still installed winch housing? Was I nuts?
Slowly it dawned on me with a bit of a combined chill and thrill: I would have to drive up 1.6 miles of road, ascending somewhere near 1000 feet, pushing through very weighty and unwieldy semi-frozen snow and ice mounds i’d left along the inside of the road coming down, on ice that had formed under rhe slush, on Griz without his ice chains and with 100lbs of blade locked onto the ground uphill in front of me. I was scared stiff that at some point the pushback from the accumulating onto the pinned down blade would cause me on the Griz to pendulum and slide backwards over the outside edge of the road.
Griz was about to show me his mettle or at best, I’d have a very long walk back home without a flashlight on ice.
I locked the differenrtial, put griz inro gear and shoved the throttle, as WW2 fighter pilots said about going into war speed in emergencies, “balls to the wall.”, (plastic balls atop the two engine throttles all the way to the firewall — sorry alpha males and imaginaative females, but it had no physiological meaning),
All I can say is: wow. Old Griz did not even-grunt in pain.! My boy just dug his rubber claws into the pavement, leaned up into the slope, and wrestled, punched, pushed and slammed the snow all over the place all the way to rhe garage door at home and in record time. After about one minute riding with complete trust in Griz, I just leaned into the incline with him and we had just a unmatchable victory adventure up that dark little narrow old logging road, riding in complete harmonious mutual control.
Man did I love it: the Lone Plowguy Rode Again! It never got better than on that night.
In all this story telling, however, I have missed one part of my life with the Griz: the sense of thrill going up and down the slopes on a bright, cold morning, slopes in such pristine, clean, white blankets of snow. I wished old Griz could ferry me and my cameras but leave no tracks:the newfallen snow is so utterly soothingly beautiful.
Hail, from the Victors
Well there you are, now a sort of digital Tonto to my equally digital Lone Plowguy. But you know, as I’ve been immersed in writing this, figuring out how to get video into a block but mostly closely examining my pictrures and videos to see where I want them to fit in this narrative, there has been very little thought angst about the maelstrom of maladies swirling around us these days. Mostly I feel–have emotion–and it is the emotion we call gratitude, although I guess there is thought there too. Do I care? No. It is just great relief. Thanks for reading my sharing.