This has been a most difficult year. About a year ago we all became aware that there was a deadly virus spreading around the world and concerned countries took various measures to protect their populations – with greater or lesser success. And the US, as we all know, was unfortunately in the latter category. And, again as we all know, the reasons were clear: lack of Federal leadership and action, the inability of the medical community, with its resources proscribed and limited by corporatized, for-profit systems, to respond sufficiently, and an ignorant and incompetent president who utterly failed to respond and lead.
As individuals, like the nations of the world, US citizens responded differently too. Some heeded the pleas of the medical community and followed the now dreary dicta of masking, social distancing and hand cleansing. And some did not but selfishly went about their everyday activities without protecting themselves and others. And over time it became apparent that states too, responded differently. Some required citizens to practice good medical hygiene and some did not. And many suffered the consequences of that differentiation. By summer and into the fall of 2020 some states, among them our home state of Arizona, were suffering infection rates among the highest in the world. And some, like my adopted state of Vermont (my spouse’s native state) were among the lowest. So, motivated by these differences, we decided not to return to Arizona in November as customary, but to remain in Vermont through the winter, thus making this already “most difficult year” even more stressful.
Yes, we chose to stay in Vermont because statistically it was “safer”. But I had never experienced an entire Vermont winter and my spouse had not experienced one since she was quite young. And this particular winter, unfortunately, has proven to be among the harshest over the last decade or so. Yes, we had visited our summer home during the winter several times over the approximately eleven years we have split time between the two states, but the experiences had been uneventful – some snow, some ice or some slush. But this winter, which we are still dealing with in early March, has added a devastating and depressing dimension to this already disastrous year. And at our ages, 78 and 70, dealing with a Vermont winter has not been easy.
After a beautiful October, usually one of the finest months of weather in Vermont, we passed through a somewhat unremarkable November – brown grass, bare trees, some rain, steadily increasing lower temperatures, but nothing unexpected. And we enjoyed a pleasant pandemic Thanksgiving holiday with our Florida daughter and granddaughter who had remained in Massachusetts for the same reasons we were still in Vermont.
But in the middle of December we experienced a truly frightening event – a snowfall the like of which I had never experienced. Beginning in the late afternoon of December 16, the snow continued all night, accumulating at the rate of a couple of inches per hour. I arose around my usual time of about four in the morning, turned on the outside light on the front deck and was astonished to see snow accumulations and drifts approaching the top of the four foot railings. And it was still coming down heavily.
In the morning as the snowfall slowed we began to explore what was necessary to get outside. I could not even open the storm door on the front porch because the snow had come almost up to the doorknob and I could not get the door open. The back door was somewhat better – even though the snow had come well above above the top step on the stairway, because there was not a flat porch on which it could accumulate, I was able to open the storm door enough to squeeze out with one of my snow shovels which thankfully were accessible, having been stored in the downstairs garage. In trying to come down the three steps I was astonished to realize that the snow depth was well above my knees and thighs and almost to my waist. I literally could not move, it was simply too deep. So to get anywhere I had to dig a trench in which to walk, so I dug my first such trench out from the porch steps and then around the deck toward the front of the house where my spouse’s bird feeders were located because I knew that she would want to replenish them especially in the midst of such a huge snowfall. Thankfully, despite its incredible depth and quantity, the snow was relatively easy to shovel, being more of the light and fluffy variety rather than the wet and heavy type.
Later that day, as the storm slowed and finally stopped, I gazed at the quantity of snow and actually felt afraid. What if one of us suddenly fell seriously ill, sustained a heart attack or a broken bone from a fall of some kind and had to get to a doctor or hospital. Forget it, there was absolutely no way. Dorset municipal plows had already cleared the road leaving a six foot mountain of plowed snow effectively blocking the end of our driveway. During the winter our driveway has routinely been cleared, even in our absence, by Jerry Merrow, a groundskeeper from Rutland who mows lawns in our area during the summer. Mr. Merrow handles the snow with a good sized gasoline powered snowblower so I wondered how he could handle a snowfall of this depth when the opening on the front of his blower was only about 18 inches high. For the rest of that first full day dealing with this snowfall, we did little more that express concern and wonder at the snows awesome depth.
The next day around noon, with the storm finally gone and a bright sun illuminating the monstrous drifts, Jerry arrived with not only his snowblower, largely ineffective in snow of this depth, but with a helper with a pickup truck and snow blade, along with the customary assistance of his teenaged grandson armed with his snow shovel. Starting with the massive pile at the driveway entrance, and pushing right and left, the pickup truck was able to slowly make its way up the hill toward the house. Now, before leaving in the fall and before the first snow, it has been my practice to insert four foot fiberglass reflective wands every eight or ten feet along the edge of the long curve of the driveway so that it’s marked for anyone plowing or snow-blowing the drive. In this case, however, the markers had virtually disappeared because of the depth of the snow. So the plow, unable to follow the curve of the actual driveway, missed much of it and shaved strips of sod from the lawn and picked up various rocks trimming the edge of the drive and the long curved flower garden, all of which were now lodged in the huge piles of snow created by the plow.
Eventually, the plow got close enough to the house for Jerry and his snowblower to take over, which was quite interesting to observe. His blower simply burrowed into the snow in many places, the depth and quantity even covering the chute blowing out the snow. However, with the help of his snow shovel-armed grandson and some additional shoveling by me, Jerry’s blower was able to create some space around our parked and snow covered Ford Taurus and space up to the garage door finally freeing up our little four wheel drive Suzuki Grand Vitara, making us feel considerably more confident about being able to handle an emergency. Because truly, before the driveway was cleared, we would have been totally helpless if we had to get out or get another vehicle, like an ambulance or fire truck, up to our house.
After the driveway was cleared, I proceeded to dig a trench along where I remembered our walk was, down to the stone steps to the driveway. Bobbie, armed with the other of our two snow shovels decided that she would attempt to dig from the other side of the driveway up to the front porch to free that up. Eventually she finally made her way to the porch and we both cleared off enough snow so that the front storm door could open.
I have to admit, looking back, that this initial snowstorm was quite exciting, despite its massive size and threatening aspects. Both Bobbie and I, along with Jerry, the snowplowing guy and his helpers, had been able to respond appropriately and restore some measure of personal safety. And after having done that, we were able finally to marvel at its remarkable depth and bright beauty, which had effectively obliterated all irregular landscape features, covering them with a smooth stark cover of white.
Wondering what would happen to all this snow was answered about a week later when we were blessed with two very oddly warm days above 50 degrees on which a southern wind blew intensely and we were blessed with large swaths of snow melting and exposing areas of brown grass. During this time I was finally able also to clear the lower deck of virtually all of the snow on it. However, even this big thaw failed to completely melt the huge piles of snow left by the plow on its uneven trip up the driveway. Those piles, full of rocks, driveway gravel and strips of sod from the lawn, remained.
The two days of thaw ended quickly and the real Vermont winter resumed, with all of its numbing cold and continuing snowfalls, beginning with a very deep, heavy and wet snow, which became a foundation layer of frozen slush, to form the first of many snow layers since then, and burying the afore-mentioned several huge leftover piles of plowed snow full of unsightly lawn, garden and driveway detritus.
Since that time in December and after a very quiet and lonely Christmas we have gone through over two months of additional (ten to be exact) snowstorms that required Jerry’s driveway and walk clearing, and dozens of “snow showers”, all of which have deposited their layers of new snow upon the old, in varying thicknesses. This constant blanket of snow has thickened and thinned, because of the sun and some evaporation but has remained at a depth of between one and two feet because of constant unrelenting freezing weather. We’ve had dozens of nights of below zero and single digit temperatures and daytime temperatures also in single digits and teens and even a couple of days when even the “high” temperature remained at or below zero.
And after each snow, we’ve dutifully shoveled as much as we could, again clearing the walks to the bird feeders and down to the driveway, again clearing the upper and lower decks and the front porch. These duties have not aged well and have gotten monotonous and burdensome very quickly. I can see little pleasure in shoveling snow when I know well that more will come again very soon and present the same challenge. And the repeated snows, accompanied by the packing, the occasional slushy wet version and the occasional sunny day contributing some softening and melting, along with the repeated very low nighttime temperatures, have caused what has remained on the walks and driveway to turn to solid ice several inches thick. We have not seen the driveway gravel or any of the flat stones or brown grass of our walks since that pre Christmas thaw. And simply walking down the driveway to get the mail has become a dangerous challenge. The lower deck too over this winter has accumulated unremovable snow and slush to become a coat of thick ice. Recently with some sun and temperatures near freezing, I have been able to pry some chunks loose and toss them off the deck into the snow. I must say, it’s been nice to see more and more of the deck surface reappear.
Our poor Ford Taurus has been coated again and again with a new blanket of snow, which I have brushed off each time, only to be coated again. I have periodically started the car and let it idle for a half hour or so to make sure the battery stays charged. In the meantime, our little Suzuki has stayed snug in our tiny garage beneath the living room and has faithfully taken us through the winter on necessary shopping trips, even a couple all the way to Trader Joe’s and Costco in Burlington.
And our propane furnace and radiator heating system has performed admirably all winter so far (knock on wood), striving mightily to maintain livable temperatures inside the house, although I have not enjoyed paying the last couple of monthly fuel bills of $400 plus which have come over the last months. Oh and incidentally, I have had to accommodate Dorr Oil and Propane’s deliveries by digging and keeping clear a trench from the road to the underground propane tank and marking its location.
The worst aspects of this winter have been the dreary boredom of it all. Sunny days have been rare and gazing out at the dull constant white and shades of gray of this eternal blanket of snow has been quite depressing. The time has passed far too quickly. For example, many times I have thought it to be Wednesday and it was already Friday, or have been astonished that February came and went so quickly and it’s already March. Unfortunately it is a fact that time flies by when activities are constricted and one day resembles another. For time to pass slowly, one needs new experiences, new scenery, new people, new travel, new challenges and new learnings, as it did in our youths or working adulthood. And what of these have we experienced here in this bleak and colorless Vermont winter when today is an exact replica of yesterday and this week was exactly like last week and same with he months?
And during this relentless sameness both Bobbie and I are fighting some depression – thankfully not the serious, debilitating, clinical kind, but the listless boredom, lack of interest in anything kind, during which many required tasks are rarely begun, much less finished and one no longer cares about very much at all. The days are spent in bored computer searches, occasional television news, getting the mail (consisting mostly of catalogues and other junk mail), opening it and allowing it to sit around in ever increasing piles. I mean what kind of life is it when the day’s highlight is going down to get the mail, or replenishing the bird feeders, or emptying the trash and navigating the ice to take the containers down to the end of the driveway to be emptied?
Meal preparation and consumption are boringly the same. Every morning for me it’s been my breakfast “smoothie” of water, yogurt, egg, “Orgain” protein powder and frozen berries and for Bobbie her oatmeal, yogurt, frozen blueberries and almonds. And for lunch it’s eggs in some form and then a salad for supper. Yes, all nutritious but frightfully monotonous. We seem incapable of departing from this simple norm for our meals. We simply have neither the creativity nor the energy required.
Same with the daily chores of maintaining our home – doing the wash, folding clothes and putting them away, filling the dishwasher, putting dishes and silverware away. All just as dreary as the meals, adding nothing different to our daily routines. And all constrained and limited by the boring white and constant bone chilling cold outside – the tasks and the environment conspiring to mesmerize our daily existence and sap our creativity and spontaneity.
Through all of this I’ve managed to maintain my exercise routine, despite developing a desperate hatred for every single phase. First, twenty pushups, then a specified number of arm and shoulder exercises with first, ten pound dumbbells, then the two twenties. Then twenty more pushups and finally climbing onto the elliptical machine for a tedious 30 minutes. But in spite of the relatively sensible diet and the regular exercise my aged and pitiful body has accumulated ten additional pounds of fat around its middle which is still with me and which will require considerable will power and effort to get rid of.
Looking back on this dreadful winter, both Bobbie and I are concerned about its effect on our daily lives. The terrible monotony of every day and every week seemed to smother energy and ambition. Despite having both of my scanners here in Vermont, one working with my Mac and the other with an older but still functional Windows PC, and piles of old photographs and slides to digitize and organize, I never really got going on this extensive project.
And the best I could do with my blog, to which I used to add pieces at a regular rate, is simply start new articles during rare spasms of interest rather than finish any of the dozens already begun. I simply did not have sufficient enthusiasm and concentration required to put the finishing touches on any articles. Several mostly completed were rendered useless and out of date by changing facts or conditions and had to be discarded. Others, with more timeless and universal import, I just did not have the motivation or energy to complete and publish.
Also quite oddly, I never read a single book all winter. Oh yes, the overall quantity and quality of my reading remained quite high, consuming the Times and the Post each day, along with other favorite websites offering a liberal or radical view and analysis of political, social and academic developments, like Common Dreams, Alternet, Truthout, Public Citizen, Pro Publica, Consortium News, Mondoweiss, Counterpunch, Jacobin and others. But whatever resolve it takes to simply grab a book from our bookcase, sit down and read it, I simply did not have. Oh, I tried but never got past the first several pages before giving in to walking aimlessly about the house looking for something else to interest me.
Although I cannot speak for her, my spouse Bobbie, who was apparently stricken by the same malaise, with each day’s activities so restricted by the weather and covid 19 isolation, virtually the only things she accomplished on a regular basis were replenishing her bird feeders and perusing items on her computer. We both killed considerable time watching television, mostly news programs on MSNBC and PBS and selected offerings from Book TV on CSPAN. Our Roku streaming stick offered some occasional respite from these offerings but even with access to hundreds, we watched precious few good movies. Again….little interest.
So basically, with all the time in the world, we wasted most of it and accomplished very little. Neither of us really realized what was happening, until we read a very interesting article from the Guardian about how the fateful combination of isolation and boredom can do terrible things to the brain. While the article dealt mainly with factors related to the lockdown isolation of the covid pandemic, our condition was exacerbated by the additional conditions imposed by an especially challenging and debilitating Vermont winter. Thankfully, the article made clear that in most cases, the “brain fog” developed under these conditions is temporary and with the resumption of more normal activity and socially interactive lives it dissipates and memory, feeling, passion, ambition and energy can return to former levels.
On the brighter side, things are finally looking up. Here in mid March, we are both looking forward to obtaining our second covid 19 shots and then at the end of the month driving back to Arizona for long delayed doctor and dentist appointments and to attend to the needs of our house and Bobbie’s little Honda HRV, parked now in the garage for nine months straight. Yes it has a charger on the battery but it should have been started and driven a few times. I hope it has not sustained any lasting damage from such a long period of inactivity. And our house, although son Conrad and special friend Tara have visited a few times, will likely need some serious inspection and maintenance.
And best of all, the weather forecast for this week, March 8 – 15 contains some awfully good news – temperatures in the forties and fifties and even a little rain towards the end of the week. Finally, finally, we may see this eternal blanket of dull white snow shrink in size and depth. And finally we may see some stones peak through the ice on the walks and gravel once again appear on the driveway. Perhaps we may see some areas of brown grass emerge from the white on the lawn. And perhaps we can break out of this snowbound and icebound isolation and take a long walk.
I do know this, even though flying would maybe make more sense, I am eagerly anticipating the drive to Arizona and back again in early May. It will be thrilling to again be on the road, watching the scenery, even if only Interstate Highway scenery, slip by and feeling in control of our own destiny again. And will we spend another winter in Vermont again? Absolutely not, we’ve learned our lesson. But will we happily return to spend the summer and fall here. Very definitely.