In wintertime, when the North Pacific jet stream shifts southward from the Alaskan coast to Southern California, it becomes known, affectionately, as the Four Corners Freight Train. When it rains in LA, it’s comin’ our way.
The smaller storm systems carried on this atmospheric river, after crossing the Mojave Desert and Colorado Plateau, are often cloven in two by the Shandoka massif directly to the southwest, which in summer creates its own weather system by acting as a cloud magnet, sending their moisture northward to the Uncompahgre Plateau and south to the far side of Lizard Head Pass, often leaving local skiers ruing a blue hole called the Courthouse Donut.
The larger storms, though, of which we have been blessed by many the last two winters, swallow the massif like a steamroller over an anthill and advance in the form of gray curtains, turning the high alpine valleys of the San Juans into swirling snow globes and leaving behind sparkling carpets in which certain individuals are delighted to indulge. The accumulation also needs to be managed, be it with plow, broom, blower or shovel.
In our household, the two implements of choice are plastic grain shovels and blue scoops. The grain shovels hold a large volume of snow and the plastic blade doesn’t gouge the recycled plastic decking. The gray-colored shovels are prone to brittleness and cracking in cold temperatures and therefore are passed over in favor of the red blade.
First, the doorways are cleared, often involving a pre-shovel before the storm has abated, to ensure egress. Then the front, side and back decks are cleared, resulting in high berms on the perimeter that in the height of winter provide walls of privacy. Next the dryer and furnace vents are checked and cleared, if necessary; that carbon monoxide poisoning just gives you a crazy old headache.
The grill is swept clean, because when you gotta have barbecue, you just gotta have you some barbecue. A pathway, or at least the suggestion of one, to the propane tank is kept clear, the better to turn off the valve in emergency, check the fuel level and, once a season, to fill. Pathways to the shed and firewood pile are carved through the drifts, sometimes requiring the engineering of snow stairs up and over the summit ridges. Without a trail, the traverse of the yard with armloads of firewood is a bit of a struggle, even if a comic one.
Finally, the pathway in front, which meanders with the ebb and flow of windrows, is excavated, down to the main event: the driveway. This is where we call in the heavy hitter, the blue scoop. This is a push-scoop with six times the carrying capacity of the grain scoop, designed to be pushed along the ground with the arms and hips and save the back, especially the lumbar region. Winter-dwellers love them; chiropractors hate them.
Should one rise in the pre-dawn, the driveway snow can be left in piles in the road for the town plow to push to the end of the lane, where in a heavy winter arises a seasonal mountain, an impressive peak of collected snow and ice balls, favorite of neighborhood sledders, lugers and tunnelers. If the plow has already cleared the way, blue-scooped snow is deposited at the foot of the mountain, making a series of little foothills the envy of the Front Range.
It is in the coldest early hours of these post-storm mornings that an army emerges, exhaling great plumes of breath, working silently, save the squeak of snow underfoot and the occasional grunting of effort. From hundreds of yards apart the small figures look up momentarily and wave, or raise a fist, no words necessary. Diligently, they bend to the task at hand, to enable a commute with the greater world beyond the valley, to work, to cross-pollinate, to ski. This is the Blue Scoop Army.
Different life philosophies are reflected in their different MO’s. Some are strictly functional; get the stuff out of the way and get the heck to work. Others are more artful and deliberate in their removal. Chief among this set is Harry, across the street, whose two-car driveway is left perfectly level — you could check it with a laser — neat as a pin when he is through. His is the effort of a Japanese monk raking smooth the pebbled pathways of a meditation garden, the labor a reward in itself, an opportunity in the exertion and repetition to collect thoughts and channel them in a desired direction, bringing inner calm and peace. Yoga with a purpose. A graceful statement in a slothful and unruly world.
Fast on his heels is young Wyeth, the self-proclaimed Alpine Shoveler, an earnest young manipulator of snow who of his own volition creates an artistic pathway along the flagstones up a rise to the entrance of his family’s home, a proposition not recommended for the faint of heart. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, with the desire to make things neat, to make them look loved, but with the requirement to vamoose, in order, with a reasonable chance of a timely arrival at school, to face the morning rush hour into town, a maddening three-mile long winding dragon of cars, patrolled at the end by unrelenting cops.
If we make it on time, it’s most likely because a breakfast of fruit and yogurt has been consumed in the car seat and the Little One’s teeth have been brushed in the washroom at school. We wouldn’t have it any other way, though: Things just wouldn’t be the same around here if the Four Corners Freight Train didn’t pull into the station.
Sean can be reached at email@example.com.