From “Great Snow” to Dismal Drive by
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Prompted By Snowy Days

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The aftermath of the Great Snow, Feburary 1961, Verona, NJ

Since I moved to California in 1972, I have rarely missed snow. I especially don’t miss shoveling the driveway, the school bus skidding on black ice, and sliding around the Brandeis campus on a cafeteria tray because I’d otherwise take a tumble. In California, we can drive to the snow if we want to experience it. I remember fondly one series of snow days from my childhood, and, not so fondly, a harrowing mountain drive in snow.

"Uh, John," I asked, "have you ever driven in snow?" "No," he replied. "Is that a problem?"

In February, 1961, when I was seven, New Jersey had what my dad called “The Great Snow.” There was so much snow over a short time that school was canceled for an entire week, and my dad didn’t go to work. When not hunkered in their houses, people in on our block, even the adults, went sledding down the street. At first, the snowdrifts were so high that they not only were over my head, but were almost above my mom’s head. Shoveling wasn’t even an option for a while. I remember that week being a lot of fun (as long as I wore my sunglasses as pictured to prevent my eyes from tearing), alternately playing outdoors and returning home for hot chocolate.

Many years later, in late 1983, I was dating John, a native Californian. He invited me to come with him to Colorado for the New Year’s holiday. We were to visit his brother Michael and girlfriend in Denver, and then continue to a two-bedroom condo in Copper Mountain, where we could cross country ski, ice skate, and celebrate the beginning of 1984. All went well in Denver as we got our rental car, drove to Michael’s house, and acclimated to the altitude for a couple of days. However, I noticed that John wasn’t familiar with operating in the cold weather, for example, leaving doors open for the heat to escape.

A few hours before we were to leave for Copper Mountain, Michael announced that he had invited another couple to join us. Soon they tromped through the door with grocery bags. Although they didn’t appear pleased to see John and me, I thought it was generous of them to provide food to share, until I saw that the bags contained nothing but bottle after bottle of hard liquor and the occasional cocktail mix. Six of us couldn’t fit into one car, so John and I had to drive up to Copper Mountain in the rental car, following Michael and the others.

As we were getting into the car, Michael approached and said to John, “There’s a lot of ice and a prediction of snow in the mountains. Remember about how not to use the brakes.” John looked at him, completely puzzled.

“Uh, John,” I asked, “have you ever driven in snow?”

“No,” he replied. “Is that a problem?”

Driving in the Rocky Mountains to an altitude of more than 10,000 feet over icy roads? Yup, that’s a big problem, I thought. “Move over, John, I’m going to drive,” I said.

As I got in the driver’s seat, I rewound my mental tapes for snow and ice driving. It had been about a decade since I’d had to do it. Over the following several hours, I managed to follow Michael’s car a lot of the time. The Rockies lived up to their name with rugged roads, sharp turns, and huge cliffs that I tried not to look at. The mountains must have been beautiful, but I dared not look at anything except the road ahead.

Despite the occasional snow flurries and large trucks in our way, we arrived without incident. I was sufficiently drained not to be upset about being relegated to the living room’s pull-out sofa as the recently invited couple, after plunking the liquor on the kitchen counter, beelined toward the bedroom that we’d been promised.

The next few days were pleasant, as John and enjoyed the snowy scenery that was spectacular, despite unexpected bouts of altitude sickness. We were so short of breath that we couldn’t go cross-country skiing. Drinking alcohol in any amount was out of the question, as we endured the sneers of the hard-drinking couple and the smirks of the waitress in the restaurant (“lowlanders, I see”). At last, a few days later, I went ice skating on the huge lake surrounded by mountain peaks. We took a midnight sleigh ride through the mysteriously quiet countryside, with snowflakes falling on our noses.

Soon it was time to make the scary descent from Copper Mountain back to Denver, which frayed my nerves as I gingerly steered and rarely braked. Major gratitude when we arrived in one piece. We were eager to get away from the booze-soused couple, hop back on a plane, and return to the Bay Area, without any snow. After we landed in San Francisco, we drove back to the Peninsula and, in a gesture of rebellion, went to a Japanese restaurant and had sushi. Copper Mountain might have had magical snow, but at that moment nothing could have been better than the diversity of California.

Thank you to my father, who so assiduously annotated and dated the photos, including the featured image, that I now have from my childhood.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.


Characterizations: right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Wow Marian, how good and how gutsy of you for taking the wheel on that icy Rocky Mountain drive! And glad you and John had enjoyable days on that trip despite your problematic housemates.

    I’ve been to the Rockys only in summer with snow nevertheless still visible up on the mountaintops!

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great photo of you standing in that HUGE pile of snow in NJ in your youth, Mare! Love the shades and I understand. My eyes also can’t stand the glare off the snow and I wear sunglasses all winter long.

    Confession: I never went traying while at Brandeis. Clearly an omission in my college experience. But I did love to take long walks around campus during snowfalls. I remember doing that with a now-deceased friend during the first snow fall of our freshman year, while we sang show tunes; a very special memory.

    Your Copper Mountain experience sounds less than pleasant, from the harrowing drive up and back (driving under those conditions is no joke) to being bumped from your private bedroom by the hard-drinking tag-alongs. Ugh! The snowy scenery and ice skating sound delightful, but now sure it was worth all the aggravation. Sushi back in SF sounds better.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    Great picture! Thanks to your dad indeed. That trip to Copper Mountain does sound challenging, and good thing you took the wheel. When I lived in Bethesda, the entire city of DC would close for the merest hint of snow in part because no one knows how to drive in it. I agree that Bay Area weather is the best (and the cultural richness is fantastic)—and you can still drive to snow if you want that special beauty and aggravation.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Khati, and I’ll stick with the Bay Area weather. Better to shut down DC than to have all those terrified drivers on the road. Pre-pandemic, we would go to Lake Tahoe, in the spring and summer, and enjoy the lovely scenery there, sans snow.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    I love your featured image, Marian. And I am so impressed by your driving skills. I know it’s a bad idea to brake when driving on icy roads, but I find it hard to resist. These days I take it very slowly and stay on the main (more cleared) roads.

    • Marian says:

      I doubt I could do today what I did at age 30, Laurie, because now it’s been many decades since I’ve driven in snow. However, I still use a visualization about applying the brake as if there was a raw egg under the pedal–very gently. It works for early rainy days here when the roads are oily from months of not being wet.

  5. Suzy says:

    Mare, I have racked my brain to try to remember that great snow in Feb. 1961, and I just can’t! I’m sure my school was closed for a week too, so it’s amazing that it didn’t stay with me. I certainly remember always being overjoyed when we got “snow days” off from school, although it did mean that we had to stay in school later in June to make up those days. Love the pic of you in those cat’s eye sunglasses!

    As others have said, that Copper Mountain drive sounds harrowing, and good for you for remembering not to brake. My accident in Vermont that I wrote about in my Plymouth Valiant story occurred because I skidded on a patch of ice when I hit the brakes. Also turned the wheel the wrong way – after that, my mantra when driving on snow or ice was “turn into the skid!”

    • Marian says:

      Suzy, it isn’t surprising that you don’t remember that snowstorm, because there were many when we were growing up. I’m really glad that my dad annotated and dated the photo. There is another one that I’ve seen, but couldn’t readily locate, that has my whole family standing next to the snowdrift. It’s nice to have this “proof.” As a teenager I had one scary skid in the rain, when I spun the car, which had studded snow tires on it (shortly banned thereafter because they were dangerous), but luckily there wasn’t anyone on the road. After that I remembered to “turn into the skid.”

  6. I agree that it is wonderful to have the photos preserved and annotated. I feel sorry for young people today who have only digital photos which will most likely be lost as media becomes obsolete. Try looking at a floppy disc today.

    I’ve done a lot of driving in snow and, even if you know what you’re doing, it can be scary.

    • Marian says:

      Yes, Cynthia, it feels really good to have the photos in print. You can reproduce the feeling of holding something in your hand on a disc. I haven’t driven in snow in such a long time that I wouldn’t trust myself anymore to do it.

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