Young: Stopping by the woods on a snowy day

February 3, 2014 

In his poem, “Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle (Received from a Friend Called Felicity),” poet John Tobias looks back on that summer “when unicorns were still possible,” and when thick, imperial slices of watermelon ruled.

“The bites are fewer now,” he laments, brightening with the notion that Felicity has preserved that summer in a jar of watermelon pickle, “and when we slice off a piece and let it linger on our tongue ... unicorns become possible again.”

Growing up in New England, my summer that maybe never really was, but has become more real than the one that was, was actually a winter. Tobias’ memories of climbing trees and knees meant to be skinned are my memories of snow forts and sledding down mile-long hills.

As I remember it, each snow was over my head, snow forts looked like Fort Sumter, and sledding hills were higher than Everest. Still, I promised myself that upon arriving in Chapel Hill in 1988, I would not lord over the natives one more Yankee’s tirade on winter supremacy.

Still, the best elements of the season, by my reckoning, are fleeting in Chapel Hill. Snow of any depth is a fickle and ephemeral guest, quickly retreating into shadows or melting away entirely into Carolina red clay puddles that stick around until July.

So I, like so many here, must work quickly if we are to try to resurrect the innocence of childhood winters by packing into a few hours that entire menu of activities obligatory to the occasion. For the uninitiated, here’s a primer, just in case we’re beset another blizzard:

First up, with snow in the forecast, is the trip to the local supermarket. Everyone is there, all in search of the same things. T-bone steaks could be on sale for a nickel apiece: no one would notice. Eggs, milk, bread... Is everyone making French toast?

Next is the long wait for school closing notices. It doesn’t matter that about six phones ring at our house with the recorded message. It’s not real until it’s on the television. So we sit with our chins in our hands and pretend to watch the TV show above the names of strange schools in exotic, faraway counties that crawl across the bottom of the screen...until, finally, our school’s name appears unceremoniously among the rest. We all yell the news and dog raises his head and gives us quizzical look as if to say, “Really? Big whoop.”

By the next morning, the world has been transformed, but no one can be the first to taint the picture postcard landscape with footprints. No, not until everyone’s dressed and ready to go outside and tear into the yard exhibiting the same zeal displayed by toddler unwrapping a Christmas present.

The first order of business in the snow is to harvest that first batch of ripe, untouched snow for snow cream. Clean, smooth, powder: a gallon bowl should do it.

Set the bowl aside in the shade, and we’ll get back to this later.

Time for the snowball fight, snow forts optional, depending, of course, upon the availability of natural resources.

The last requisite addition to the yard is the assembly of the obligatory snowman, for which last week’s snow was unfit (see powder snow suggestions above). Any true snowman standing taller than a fire hydrant will literally decimate any remaining snow covering the yard, so I tend to take any last photos of the snowy yard prior to this stage.

There might be a short retreat into the house at this point, to warm up and refuel on, well, snow—or snow cream, to be more specific.

Most say to add to a gallon of snow about 12 ounces of plain evaporated milk, vanilla extract, two raw eggs, and about three-quarters of a cup of white sugar. Serves four.

By mid-afternoon, with all the yard chores checked off the list, it’s time for sledding. Some remain close to home for his, opting for a slippery side street or a 20-foot hill. Sled marks scarred the shorter hills local housing communities last Wednesday, forsaking the search for higher or steeper hills farther from home.

Many locals can remember when sledding hills were the town’s major roads. Only a generation ago, lack of infrastructure left snow on roads and limited traffic. Sleds flew down then Airport Road (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard) from the fire station north toward Bolin Creek. Others rode sleds south down Airport Road from Timberlyne past all of the Maddry family homes.

Off the roads, kids took to the woods of Glen Hill (off Glendale Road atop East Franklin Street’s Stroud Hill), a hill so long and high, one couldn’t see from top to bottom. This past week, many still took to Glen Hill as well as hills Lakeshore neighborhoods. Another popular site was the hilly fairways of the old Chapel Hill Country Club (now UNC’s Outdoor Education Center).

UNC students didn’t even need sleds however. Last Wednesday, students rode anything from food trays to mattresses down Skipper Bowles Drive, though a couple sustained injuries in the process. While some may successfully duplicate the innocence of youth, they did not, apparently, reclaim its impunity.

Still, at the end of the day (literally) last Wednesday, I felt as if something was missing. There were the trappings of the quintessential snow day to be sure, but there were also the trappings of age, adulthood, responsibility making their own claims.

As filled as my day had been with visions of white, it had also been filled with visions of adverse weather conditions, road advisories, frozen pipes, supermarket lines, and operating “Dad’s Taxi.” I somehow felt as if I had been locked inside a snow globe with all the wintry elements, and shaken up good.

So I disappeared for a while. I went for a run in the woods of Carolina North Forest, the wooded area just north of Horace Williams airport where Horace Williams himself had once owned a farm replete with tall trees he called his temple.

There in the gloaming, I found my feet crunching into untouched snow and that unadulterated silence that can only come in winter, broken only by the long, insistent moans of proud bard owls above me, cast in silhouette against the last lavender tiers of twilight.

And while I might have had “miles to go before I slept,” I stood there for one more moment in the stillness, breathed in deep a last breath of snowy winter before descending again into the world of neon and news advisories, and thought maybe, just for a second, unicorns just might be possible again.

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