From the Braver Institute
Lately there has been a little bit of snow in the air, and when that happens I am reminded of two things: first, how much I like the summer, and second how I haven’t seen a snowstorm in nearly 20 years.
No, this isn’t going to be one of those stupid stories about how winter isn’t as tough as it was way back when, and all of the blah, blah, blah that goes with such stories. No, this is about how winter where I am now is different from winter where I was then. What I call a little snow in the air, I have heard others call a blizzard.
I would argue that these people have never really experienced a blizzard.
The house I grew up in sits almost exactly half-a-mile from the shore of Lake Superior, just off of highway M-28, which runs nearly the length of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for those readers who are not familiar with the U.P.
The stretch of M-28 that runs between the towns of Munising and Marquette is rumored to be one of the most frequently closed stretches of road in the United States. I don’t know whether this is the truth or not, but I do know that it gets closed an awful lot during the winter. The high winds off of the lake can create white-out conditions with even a slight amount of snow falling. Every time the highway was closed, kids who lived on or around it weren’t able to go to school, even though the rest of the world could. I am sure that my reduced education is evident to everyone I meet.
That’s just the way it is on that stretch of road. M-28 takes the full force of a wind that builds for 150 unobstructed miles. At the lake shore, you may not be able to see your hand in front of your face, but a mile inland it could be a beautifully sunny day.
For at least one winter I tended bar at Mean Gene’s Lakeside Inn. As it’s name suggests, the Lakeside Inn was situated just a few hundred feet from the lake edge. The only thing that prevented it from being waterfront property was M-28.
Since I lived in a trailer behind the bar, I was able to get to work regardless of the weather conditions. Actually, being at work was preferable to being in the trailer. One insanely snowy afternoon I was standing behind the bar, looking out the front window. The highway was closed, and as a result there were no customers, so the only thing for me to do was shoot pool, smoke cigarettes, and stare out that window. Except there was nothing to see. Such was the quantity of snow coming down, being driven by the ferocity of the wind that it was simply impossible to see anything. As I stood there looking at the snow, I thought I saw a faint yellow glow. At first I thought I was imagining it. Then I thought I was seeing a reflection of the lamp on the wall behind me. Then there was a second one, and then another.
The source of these glowing lights, I would discover, were snowmobiles that had pulled right up to the window. I could not see the riders, or any part of the snowmobiles, just the lights. These sleds were less than ten feet from the window.
I do not think there ever was a time where I saw riders so relieved to be off of the trail. They could travel only at very slow speeds, and even at that they kept crashing into each other. They were riding blind. It was only a momentary break in the snow that allowed them to see the hulking structure that was the Lakeside Inn—and salvation from the storm.
This roadside haven was also a welcome sight to motorists who found themselves caught in less than safe travelling conditions.
One night during a storm a vehicle pulled in, and the family that arrived in it asked if they could wait inside for the storm to pass. Shortly after another vehicle pulled in, the occupants of which asked the same thing. These travelers told of the numerous vehicles they had seen in the ditch. They were afraid to keep driving for fear of running into another vehicle, yet they were afraid to stop for fear of being run into. They wondered why the highway had not been closed, and asked if I would call the State Police to let them know of the stranded cars they had seen, and that the highway should be closed.
The person I talked to at Central Dispatch informed me that the closing of the highway was a decision made by the road commission, and the State Police. As of that time a decision had not been made to close the highway. I was told they would send a patrol car out to investigate the conditions.
Some time after that, three more vehicles pulled into the parking lot. As these people walked into the bar, I asked if they knew if the highway had been closed yet. They said that they did not know, but a State Police officer had led them in, and had ordered them to wait here until the storm was over.
There we all sat like a big group of stranded strangers in some kind of sappy, family-feel-good TV movieof the-week. I made coffee and hot chocolate for everyone, and burgers and fries for those who were hungry.
After a couple of hours the wind had died down. Someone asked how they would know when the weather was clear enough to continue on. I walked out the back door of the inn, and down the driveway to the highway. Stepping onto the road, I looked out across the lake to the northwest, and I could see the lights of Marquette some fifteen miles across the water. I knew it was safe for my guests to be on their way—even though there was still a little bit of snow in the air.