SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
February 19, 1968
Modern civilization does a flake-out at the sight of deep snow, but needlessly. There is a fine method for getting around in a blizzard, whether your destination happens to be Cat Holler or a liquor store
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February 19, 1968

The Only Way To Stay On Top Of The World

Modern civilization does a flake-out at the sight of deep snow, but needlessly. There is a fine method for getting around in a blizzard, whether your destination happens to be Cat Holler or a liquor store

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Every winter a few pairs of snow-shoes appear in the display windows of the better-class sports shops. There, artistically crossed, they serve as props, drawing attention to and presumably increasing the sales of wolfskin apr�s-ski parkas. Characters in woodsy-craftsy comic strips and Sunday afternoon hairy-adventure-type TV dramas occasionally wear snowshoes. In point of cold fact, a pair of elegantly shellacked bear-paws hang on a knotty-pine wall of a rustic recreation room in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. I have seen them.

Like the buffalo, an animal whose heyday was contemporaneous with them, most snowshoes in most places now lead a protected, artificial, museum-piece existence. They are kept around for symbolic reasons, to suggest for advertising or darker purposes that which is antique and arctic. Just as it is rare to encounter anyone who shot a buffalo out of a Pullman window, so it is becoming increasingly uncommon to meet anyone who can seriously accept the proposition that snowshoes were once commonplace tools, absolutely essential to life above the 43rd parallel.

This credibility gap is caused by the fact that our exposure to the natural habitat of the snowshoe has markedly declined. A snowshoe makes a lot of sense to a man who finds himself knee-deep or better in soft snow. Having little experience with this sort of environment, or winter itself for that matter, we have difficulty seeing the snowshoe as anything but a mythic, vaguely comical device on the order of the broadsword, soapstone bed warmer or copper still.

All of which is not to get into a digressive argument about the effects on the weather of nuclear testing, pesticides or psychedelic songs. Without doing extensive meteorological research the assumption is that there is about as much snow in the same places as there ever was. The point is that we are no longer where the snow is. Despite our vaunted conquest of nature, the last several decades have been marked by, among other things, an almost total surrender to winter. Nowadays when a gentle blizzard deposits a measly foot of snow on the ground we don't fight it, we run away. We shut down streets, schools and offices, withdraw into our centrally heated caves and wait for the sun, mercenary or mechanized snow shovelers and the governor's emergency proclamation to take effect. Abjectly, we have abandoned the ancient struggle against the troubles of snow. Like a tribe that pays tribute so as to be left in comfort, we have laid aside our arms against snow, such as the long-handled, drop-seated woolen underwear and the snowshoes with which our forefathers opposed the sleets and airs of outrageous winter. However, once in a long while, we are forced to think about the old ways and old wisdom. To wit:


During a recent February another antediluvian type and myself stopped by to spend a night with some friends who live a mile or so outside Waynesboro, a Shenandoah Valley town. Since we planned to go out for a few days hiking along the crest of the Blue Ridge, we had brought along our snowshoes. On our arrival, these shoes drew a lot of "It's-too-early-for-tennis" remarks. (Non-snowshoers feel obligated to exploit this vein of humor, apparently under the assumption it is virgin, in the same way short men are forever asking basketball players "How's the weather up there?") However, through an act of Providence, we shortly got complete revenge. That afternoon it began to snow. It continued to snow all night, and then it began to blow.

By morning the freak storm had laid down 16 inches of the cold white, and drifts across roads and against doors were six feet deep. Radio announcers, in an ecstacy of panic, began to report lost buses, old ladies marooned on their way to bird feeders, canceled church suppers, the collapse of transportation, education, industry, of civilization itself.

Our friends were skiers, having, as so many Southerners recently have, picked up the habit on the little hummocks of granulated, machine-produced ice that entrepreneurs are piling up all over Dixie. Two of the children, bright little tykes, immediately were struck by the similarity between the stuff that had fallen from the sky and snow that is blown out of nozzles. They reasoned they might even ski on this substance. To test this hypothesis they harnessed up and went outside. Since the drifts were light as well as deep, the children almost immediately disappeared, looking on the way down like small dinosaurs with sticks tied on their feet sinking into a white tar pit.

"Well," said our hostess after retrieving her offspring, "I guess there is nothing to do but wait it out. The worst of it is I was going to the liquor store this morning."

Thereupon my friend and I grinned slyly, like yetis who had just swallowed a party of National Geographic photographers. We strapped on our snowshoes and, purely for display, did a few turns over a drift that covered the mailbox and a Volkswagen. Shortly thereafter, neighbors began thrusting upon us pitiful little lists of things they had forgotten at the liquor store and making inquiries about where they could get snowshoes, the utility of which had suddenly become obvious.

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