Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Weather worlds

The commuting challenge continues. Here’s a new wrinkle: microclimates. I drive one hour to work. It takes 20 minutes from my home to Stowe, another 20 minutes to the interstate, and 20 minutes along the interstate and to the office.

The big surprise is that weather can be dramatically different from home to office. The day before yesterday I left a bit early to avoid the blinding snow squalls which were not only to hamper visibility but also to cause dangerous road conditions. For the first forty minutes there was almost no snow, but then at the edge of Stowe Village, it was as if I had dropped over the edge of the world into an arctic village. Snow, lots of it, blinding drivers and bringing traffic to a crawl. Twenty minutes expanded, I don’t even know by how much, so focused I was on the taillights ahead of me. At last, I could creep up my icy hill to welcoming dogs. Ahhhhh, home.

Yesterday, the reverse. The icy hill, always the first challenge, is plowed by two different towns, so conditions can be different between here and the dump half a mile away. Then messy roads in Morrisville, not so bad on the road to Stowe, and a terrible slick patch right in the middle of Stowe Village. I saw the car in front of me slide sideways, so I was prepared with a correction when my car did the same. Steady improvement in driving conditions eased my tense shoulders for the second leg of the journey, then the third was as if no snow storm had ever occurred.

In fact, there was only a dusting over there in the “banana belt,” warmed by Lake Champlain, as compared to another (yes, another!) six inches at my house. I suppose I must be more tolerant of the failure of area network news stations to accurately report what is going on at my house. It is not uncommon to see a storm with 2 inches of snow in Burlington, 6 inches at my house, and a foot in the Northeast Kingdom. They have area spotters who report on local accumulations, but it is not nearly so interesting to know after the fact how much snow came as it would be to know what was expected. Microclimates.

Still, I think I prefer living in the “snow belt” and commuting to the “banana belt,” rather then the reverse. If I am going to be stuck somewhere, I want it to be at home with dogs, food, and a big pile of wood. And it is comfort to know that if I make it off the icy hill, conditions will be better and better all the way to the office, with the exception of Stowe Village. For such a wealthy little town it is hard to understand how Village roads can be so much worse than the rest of my route, but I don’t spend a lot of energy trying to figure it out. Instead, I slow down, focus on the car in front of me, and try to breathe through Stowe.

At least a little, I can see now why people keep asking me if I will move closer to Burlington. Not yet, for sure, not until I have a better sense of what this new life will be like, and I really do love where I live. But I can see how the commute could wear. In a way, though, it is a lovely thing to have the world of work and the world of home be physically separated, whether by migration from microclimate to microclimate or—as I have had in past situations—by crossing water. The ability to draw that sharp line is, I believe, restorative to the spirit.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Plow guy says "Enough!"

We officially have no more room for snow. My plow guy says so. And he has had enough of plowing, never mind the financial windfall. I am grateful for his good cheer and heavy equipment, even baked him loaf of bread in thanks.

For reference, note the cross bar on the gate is four feet off the long unseen ground. And no, that's not the pile from the roof--that's base.

How whiny we have become in three short weeks since we had way too little snow!

So much to see

I have long held a theory that tolerance of commuting is carried on a chromosome. I can’t cite scientific evidence, but have observed that people who say that you can get used to long travel to work in fact can get used to it. Others, myself included, launch into new travel patterns with enthusiasm, but sputter and fail.

The last time I was faced with any significant travel to work was the fall of 1983. My husband and I lived in Princeton, and we each traveled long distances to work. I took the train north to Manhattan, and he took the train south to Philadelphia. Lots of people did it.

But the ninety minutes I traveled in the morning stretched to more like two hours in the evening, worse if I missed my usual train during budget season. On those occasions I spent an hour watching the rats run up and down the tracks, waiting for the next train. I was spending far too much of my day cooped up with stressed-out polyester-clad men and women, who streamed like cattle through the PATH train turnstiles then scrambled for seats on an overcrowded train. My husband fared no better. He hated his job, hated the commute even more that I did, if that were possible.

I tried to read, tried to sleep, tried to focus on the positive—that at least I wasn’t driving—but when I fell down the stairs of Penn Station that Christmas, I knew that commuting was not for me. By New Year’s, my marriage was over, and I was living in one room in Brooklyn, convinced that I was constitutionally incapable of commuting. For the next several years, I traveled one subway stop to work and back, then moved to Staten Island.

From my tumbledown Victorian on the north shore, I traveled almost exactly an hour, most of it on the Staten Island ferry. Now that was a great commute! Drink the coffee, read the paper, watch activity in New York harbor, nod to Lady Liberty, or just stare into the dawn—highly restorative. Come 1998, my job disappeared, and I had an offer in mid-town. An hour and a half away. I wasn’t sure I could take the commute, so I moved away.

Until now, I have avoided any commute longer than half an hour, especially driving. It’s not that I mind driving; often I enjoy it. What I mind is the enforced timetable gridlock, and I mind other drivers. Many people are at their worst when driving, although Vermont’s ration of road rage is smaller than more traveled places. Still, it’s a matter of probabilities. The more you are on the road, the more the probabilities are against you—probabilities that someone will make a dangerous, even fatal error. Since I have never held the illusion that I am any better than an average driver, and since my reaction times have deteriorated with age, I figure the probabilities are stacked against me.

All this weighs in against driving to work an hour each way, and yet I am now doing it. Opportunities in Vermont are not so rich as elsewhere, and I know myself well enough that once a job feels like a trap, it is time to do something different. So I am taking the calculated risk to commute, trading off the downside of much more time on the road against the certainty of new interests, new people, new horizons.

Having made that tradeoff, I find pleasant surprises in the drive. It offers quiet time to enjoy my own company. Gnarled thoughts disentangle themselves, as the Vermont landscape rolls by. Barns and fields, mountains and meadows. I haven’t seen a moose yet, although there are signs of moose crossing areas even on the interstate. I have even found some alternate routes to work, a startling achievement in a state with so few roads that there is generally only one route from A to B, if that. There is a lot to look at.

In another reminder that more time on the road brings new dangers, I was also—for the very first time in my life—stopped for speeding. Those of you who know me personally will not be surprised at this perfect record; I am the original Goody Two Shoes when it comes to authority. But yes, I was doing 37 mph in a 25 mph zone. Something I said must have struck a chord with the young Waterbury policeman—he let me go with only a verbal warning. Since then I have heard from others that Waterbury seems to have a revenue program, so perhaps I will trade that village for more scenic alternatives.

Were we expecting six inches more?

Friday there was a storm, dropping six inches of wet snow, sleet and freezing rain on top of what was left of the Valentine’s Day blizzard. And there was plenty left of the three feet of snow from that storm, even though it seemed lighter than air, that Valentine fluff.

When Saturday dawned, the storm had passed, and all around looked like a Christmas card. Wet snow clung to trees and bushes. A sky of blue, gray, gold and peach reminded me that Vermont always shocks with color.

We had a peaceful Saturday, errands and dog romps in the snow, pausing to consider the enormous pile of snow that whomped down onto the path so carefully shoveled for fuel deliveries. The path that is now a mound of wet, packed ice and snow. Well. That will need attention on Sunday.

It’s a funny thing about snowstorms. You don’t hear them. Unlike rain or sleet, snow comes in silence. And yet, you come to awareness that something is going on. There’s a brightness that intrudes on sleep. And an absence of sound, a hint that even the usual sparse traffic up and down the hill is not there.

Open the back door, and the puppy bounds up onto the mound. It probably isn’t a good idea to have to walk uphill on the snow from the back door…what happens when it starts to melt? Will water flood direct into the house? And why is the puppy sinking into what looks like six inches of fresh powder?

Were we expecting this?

Another ping to the consciousness. Perhaps I will need to start listening to news on the weekend. It might have been a good idea to be aware that we were expecting more snow. Not an issue on a quiet Sunday morning with plenty of food and wood in the house, but as I start to plan for long morning commutes, perhaps I should be more prepared.

I check the weather on the computer. Snow showers, with a dusting to two inches. I crave the Weather Channel. How is it that a place as obsessed with weather as Vermont, a place where the morning news has the same forecast six times over, how can it be that there is not Weather Channel? I try the local television stations—no hint of another winter storm. And yet, outside my window is white, white, white. The kind of white that says accumulation is occurring.

Weather forecasters have gotten so proficient, and they warn us so often that we come to discount their dire predictions. In an information rich world, unexpected weather seems a betrayal. I see my neighbor out for her morning walk, and I shout out, “Were we expecting this?”

“Two or three inches,” she calls back. “Isn’t it grand?” The puppy concurs--it is a grand surprise.