The whole terrible tale..
Not a snow for frolicking, this one. There is a sharp, brittle crust on a half foot of dry powder so that each step is like walking on an endless eggshell. At the last instant before stepping out with the right, the left foot sinks suddenly through the white veneer into an icy pit, and conversely with the other foot, step by ponderous step across the yard and pasture. The road is not much better. Scraped, packed, melted, refrozen and rutted, it threatens harm to auto and foot traveler alike. But this slickeryness is nothing compared to the worst-case ice storm a few years back that almost got me for good. I almost died -- laughing.
It was just me and the cat in those days. Ann stayed in Carolina to finish her degree, and I moved into a small cabin tacked on the side of a dead-end road. Walnut Knob is a peninsula of blue ridge-lets that are surrounded on all sides by steep valley leading off way below into the piedmont. The views and wildlife were spectacular. There were a dozen and a half dwellings on this road; only three were occupied over winter. Mine was one of them. The isolation was made more profound by the week-long fogs that singled out these particular high hills, especially in winter. I would often drive 12 of the 13 miles home in 'good' conditions, only to turn down the knob road on the edge of what my neighbor called 'the droppin'-off place' into an other-worldly microclimate. Sometimes the eerie fog was exciting and mysterious, and I felt comfortably remote and sequestered in it. Other times, it seemed like a curse and a punishment. I remember one storm notable for both ice and fog-- a deadly combination.
Almost dark as I came home from work, I groped along in four-wheel-drive from one fence post to the next-- this being the visible range of my headlights. Stay in the center of the road; don't brake suddenly or change direction any more than necessary. Get as close to the cabin as you can before abandoning ship. This was my mission and I was repeating it out loud to give me courage. The hill and curve beyond Max's house were just ahead. If I could make it up that one rise, maybe I would get the truck and me home in one piece. At least the freezing rain had stopped for now. There was a good inch of ice on the wire of the pasture fence that was my only guide in the frozen fog. It would have been beautiful if the adrenalin had not obliterated every shred of aesthetic care I'd ever had. At that moment, beauty was the farthest thing from my mind.
My body seemed to be consist of no extra parts or forces beyond tension in my shoulders, strain in white-knuckled fists on the wheel, and anxiety. These all melted away like an April snow when at last the truck slipped sideways like a drunken ice skater onto the edge of my driveway. I breathed a prolonged sigh of relief as I sat in place, gathering my wits. Finally, I grabbed up my briefcase and a small bag of groceries and began to think about the big crockpot of vegetable soup that was waiting for me inside the dark, cold little shack. I paused to thank God for the angels in ice crampons that had managed to keep me out of two miles of frozen ditch. But it turned out that I was counting my blessings a bit too soon.
During the drive from Floyd, the doors of the truck had iced shut. I turned sideways in the seat and kicked against the door while awkwardly holding the door handle open with one hand. The door finally crunched and creaked and stiffly opened. Free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last! I could almost smell the salty fragrance of soup simmering in the crockpot; I could feel the relaxing heat radiating from the soapstone woodstove with me curled up, cat in lap, contentedly watching Seinfeld in a mere half hour! I grabbed my things and started to the house, and it was at this point that The Bard's words came to me: "The best laid schemes o' mice and men Gang aft agley". I was most certainly ganging agley. And I was going there right quickly and on my ruddy rump in the dark.
The truck sat at the fork of two graveled branches at the top of the driveway; one fork went downhill a hundred feet to the garden, the other was level for fifty feet and ended under the deck at the house. My intention, of course, was to reach the cabin with all haste.
Alas, my feet flew out from under me after perhaps a dozen steps, and thereafter, inertia and freedom from friction quickly deposited myself at the top of the road less traveled, at the top of the path down toward the garden. And here, I might as well have had my skeleton removed, like Gary Larsen's boneless chickens, so futile were my motions to stand as I sprawled there at the top of the driveway. I had fallen with my first step and could not purchase a grip to save my life. What was worse was that, if I started to slide downhill at this point, I would most certainly build speed all the way down the garden road, ending up jolting to a sudden nauseating stop, straddling a tree, thereafter singing soprano in the heavenly choir. Each attempt to come up on my knees just greased the skids. In the end, I relinquished all efforts of control. I figured, like the drunk asleep in the crushed car who escapes injury by virtue of his relaxed condition, I would just go limp and let gravity and fate carry me where they would. A sledding bug on the windshield of life.
My canvas satchel preceded me; I had seen it zip past the fruit trees as I took my first taste of the ice. It wasn't long before I followed the exact same path, thankfully coming to rest without the tree twixt my frozen legs. I had body-surfed to 100 feet below the cabin on the ice. In almost total darkness, the boneless chicken could not find enough traction to do more than founder like a turtle on his back, if you'll pardon my mixed metaphors. Mercifully, I was giddy from fatigue and able to gaze down from up and outside this scene-- the detached and dispassionate watcher. I was able to see the humor in all of this, momentarily. I even laughed out loud in a nonchalant, macho, dismissive kind of way. Maybe the cat heard me; there was no one else for miles to hear me laugh in haughty disregard in the face of peril. Soon, the corporeal Fred regained full possession of his wet and cold, hungry, slightly bruised body that was undeniably and totally out of control. This was really not so very funny after all, he said quietly to himself.
Sprawled spread-eagle on ice in the darkness, all I could accomplish was to make slippery snow-angels on the ice. In time, momentum and my unproductive wallowing carried me even further down slope into what had been pasture. At last, I managed to grab a small ice-coated tree to pull myself unsteadily to my knees. The cabin was 150 feet up hill now; I could barely make out the silhouette of the roof against a gray-pink sullen sky. Pulling myself up the hill, tree to tree, mostly on my knees, was exhausting work. I soon became soaked with sweat, then clammy...small wonder, what with my blood sugar falling for want of food and the hormones of emergency surging against a cooling, slowing metabolism as my core temperature fell. I needed that crockpot in the worst way.
At last, I made it back up through the woods and onto the road; a fresh start. I was not about to step onto the driveway to the house and take a second thrill ride down to the garden. Clutching through the spindly Rhododendrons and Mt. Laurels between the road and the house, I eventually made it to the bottom of the steps. And there I stood, using the verb loosely, within 10 feet of the door. But there was no way I could get to the front door up those 8 small glistening ice-encased steps. So near and yet so far, I was on the verge of simply throwing a fit. I considered shaking my fist angrily at the heavens. Or maybe I would just sit right down at the foot of the steps to discover for myself if it was true that freezing to death was actually not so bad once you became numb all over and your metabolism reached the point where thought and pain were merely faint ghosts of awareness. A brilliant white tunnel of light would point to a place warm and safe, with steaming vegetable soup waiting in a golden bowl.
In a last twilight of consciousness before total indifference consented to defeat, I spotted an old shovel under the steps. I was able to reach it, though by this time I was not very well able to feel it in my frozen fingers. With considerable force, I busted through the ice enough to rough it up and expose a little of the wood underneath to give a wee bit of traction. Each step was one small step for man, one small step for man. I was grateful for each one I conquered, as if it had been an Alpine peak. At the top of the steps, I fumbled in the dark for some time with the key that did not seem to fit in the door lock and it occurred to me in my growing stupor that maybe I was even at the wrong house. The world was under a New Order for the last few hours, possibly under control of the White Witch of Narnia. I wouldn't know for sure until I got inside this door.
The lock turned in slow motion and the cabin door opened. I entered a dark womb of relative warmth, and began to reinhabit my former limbs inch by inch. It seemed vaguely familiar there, and I understood that I should be doing something. I stood just inside the door, dumbfounded by the trauma of the past hour, shaking involuntarily. About that time, the phone rang, although it did not occur to me what that noise signified until the 5th or 6th ring. Oh yeah. That's the phone, and I reached for it in slow motion. It was Ann in Carolina. She asked casually what I was up to.
"Oh, I had a little trouble getting home today" I said groggily. "Tell you what: how 'bout I call you back after I've had me a little soup? It is going to be the best soup a man has ever had." Yep. One giant step for mankind. I kindled the fire in the stove til it cast warm flickering light into the cold shadows. I ate my soup, the best I'd ever had, cupped in my hands around my favorite bowl, not made of gold but just as precious. The last thing I remember is crawling under the covers alone, sliding peacefully into a long dreamless sleep.