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VERY FIRST PERSON

The Politics of Snow Removal

In a Southern Sierra Community Where There's Only One Snowplow, Winter Is a Gorgeous Wonderland of Solitude, Bourbon and Driveway Diplomacy.

February 22, 1998|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | Michelle Huneven is the author of "Round Rock," recently published by Knopf

Taking a shovel and a broom, I started down my driveway, a couple hundred feet of asphalt with one sharp bend--our own private switchback. Snow was up to my armpits. The top two feet were powder, but the bottom layers were wet and then crusted. I kept breaking through and having to pull my legs up out of the packed snow. My progress was slow and exhausting. I fell sideways once into a suffocating world of white, and for a long moment could find no purchase, no way to climb up through what felt like deep, cold, granular sand. Remembering a cross-country skiing trick, I crossed shovel and broom and found a point of ballast.

In good weather, at an average pace, I could be down the driveway in 30 seconds. Today, swimming in snow, it took me a good 20 minutes.

Once on the road, I stuck the broom handle in the berm until I found my little Subaru. I dug and swept, exposing the driver's side, a bit of roof and the rear of the car. The snowplow had cracked a taillight casing. Once the car was semi-visible, I continued up the road to the Davidsons.

Although the plow had gone through two nights before, another two feet of snow had fallen and the road was not navigable by car and was slow going on foot. It took me another 20 minutes to walk the equivalent of one city block. From the Davidsons' driveway, a narrow chute had been cut to the front door.

The Davidsons had been our mountain neighbors for 20 years. Casey was a pale, mild man utterly devoted to Miranda, a tiny woman with thick glasses and the smallest hands I'd ever seen on an adult.

"Casey blew the walkway just for you," Miranda said, opening the door. She motioned me inside, directing me to the fireplace. "Casey, bring Michelle a drink," she said. "And bring me another drink and half a pill."

Casey and Miranda were cozily, happily, deeply into their cups, a state possible only after days of impassable weather in a toasty home, with a fridge full of food and an endless, steady flow of bourbon. Perfectly functional, they appeared much like sober people, only more blurred and slowed, with an intense, slightly wavering calmness. A lot of drinkers don't know how to get to such a sweet, well-modulated pitch of intoxication, let alone stay there. Casey and Miranda, after many winters of burrowing in, had the drawn-out, exquisitely pitched drunk down to an art. I had several unhurried drinks with them, the three of us gazing out the Thermopane while twilight gathered. Snow turned blue, and wind started soughing through the trees as if some great god in a corner of the sky were heaving huge, soundless sighs. Snow tumbled from nearby branches with such force that it hit the ground like rocks; we felt the impact inside the house. Another sound, grinding and mechanical, bled into the room, and soon the snowplow appeared on the road, casting its eerie gold light onto the high blue berms and sending a wing of snow high into the air.

"Stop by any time," Miranda said and handed me a shiny, unopened quart of Early Times. I made it home in about five minutes. Not only had the road been scraped down to a thin, gritty white skin of snow, my driveway had been plowed way up past its elbow. Although this bit of unrequested favoritism would again cost me socially, it seemed like--and, given my foolhardy state of intoxication, surely was--a miracle at the time.

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