The Slippery Slope of Winter ~ Part ONE (of 3)


Winter 2002. Not a snow for frolicking, this one. 

There is a sharp, brittle crust on a half foot of dry powder so that each step is like walking on an endless eggshell. At the last instant before stepping out with the right, the left foot sinks suddenly through the white veneer into an icy pit, and conversely with the other foot, step by ponderous step across the yard and pasture. 

The road is not much better. Scraped, packed, melted, refrozen and rutted, it threatens harm to auto and foot traveler alike. But this slickeryness is nothing compared to the worst-case ice storm in 1997  that almost got me for good. I nearly died — laughing.

It was just me and the cat in those days. Ann had stayed in Carolina to finish her degree, and I moved into a small cabin tacked on the side of a dead-end road just off the Parkway about a dozen miles from the bustling town of Floyd.

Walnut Knob is a peninsula of blue ridges that are surrounded on all sides by steep valley leading off way below into the piedmont. The views and wildlife were spectacular. There were a dozen and a half dwellings on this road; only three were occupied over winter. Mine was one of those.

The isolation was eerily forlorn, with week-long smothering fogs that singled out these particular high hills, especially in winter. I would often drive 12 of the 13 miles home in ‘good’ conditions, only to turn down the knob road on the edge of what my neighbor called ‘the droppin’-off place’ into an other-worldly microclimate.

Sometimes the eerie fog was exciting and mysterious, and I was comfortably cloaked and sequestered in it. Other times, it seemed like a curse and a punishment. I remember this one storm notable for both ice and fog– a deadly combination.

Almost dark as I drove the truck home from work, I groped along in four-wheel-drive, siting on one fence post then the next– this being the visible range of my headlights. Stay in the center of the road; don’t brake suddenly or change direction any more than necessary. Get as close to the cabin as you can before abandoning ship. I listened to my inner co-pilot for any wisdom she might offer.

This was my mission and I was repeating it out loud to give me courage. The hill and curve beyond my nearest neighbor’s house was my final challenge. If I could make it up that one rise, maybe I would get the truck and me home in one piece. At least the freezing rain had stopped for now.

A good inch of ice encased the wire of the pasture fence–my only guide forward in the frozen fog. This would have been beautiful if the adrenalin had not obliterated every shred of aesthetic interest I’d ever had. At that moment, Beauty was the farthest muse from my mind. This was genuine crisis. Survival had dope-slapped me hard.

Continued in Part TWO…

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I’ve read many entries about traveling to your house in different conditions and have a vivid picture in my mind of the trip. I can’t wait to actually make the drive. I am going to wait for ideal weather conditions.