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dixie snowstorms
grab some beer and a toilet seat, we're going sleddin'!
by dirk cotton

It isn't news that southerners can't handle snowstorms. In fact, it's the quintessential tired joke. Still, nothing quite prepares you for the actual experience.

A few weeks back, we got a little snow in Chapel Hill. And, I mean a little. The non-traveled portions of the roads had a bit of white slush for a while, but traffic was light because the local TV stations had been warning people to “just stay off the roads” for the past two days.

Since the roads seemed barely wet, let alone icy, my wife and I drove our front-wheel drive minivan to Durham for breakfast at Guglhuph Bakery. Driving out four-lane US 15-501, we saw not one, but two four-wheel drive SUV's abandoned in a little mud in the median after having spun 180° in three-sixteenths of an inch of partly cloudy. Either they were unable to drive in damp dirt with off-road VEE-hicles, or they were afraid of getting their tires dirty, but either way they had just given up and walked away.

I wasn't there to witness these spin-outs. Sometimes, though, these incidents can be fascinating. Several years ago, a snowstorm hit Atlanta and video from a pileup on an elevated section of freeway made the rounds of the national news media. On a steeply banked, four-lane curve, cars would cautiously attempt to travel in the highest lane at about 5 mph. With no centrifugal force built up, each car would slide sideways down the other three lanes and crash into the side of the many cars that had already piled up against the inner wall.

And then the next driver would try it. Like four-wheeled penguins lined up at a hole in the ice.

Last year, we had a snow that almost covered the grass on our lawns, though you could still see sprigs poking through here and there. Still, it was enough to close the schools. Two kids across the street used the snow from their front yard, all of it, to make a small pile of snowballs. When they finished, they had maybe a dozen and their front yard was completely green again. School had been closed on account of twelve snowballs.

That same snowstorm, kids from the neighborhood brought those little round plastic sleds we used to call snowflakes to slide down the steep hill in my backyard. The hillside was still covered with fallen leaves and just the slightest frosting of snow. The snow disappeared after one trip down the hill, exposing the wet brown leaves underneath, but that didn't stop them. They just sledded down the wet leaves.

It was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. If they had tried to build a leafman, I swear I would have cried.

This week, and just after our camellias had begun blooming, we were hit with a major snowstorm. I measured 4” in our yard, though some reported up to 6”. Let the entertainment begin.

College students' choice of apparel is a year-round source of amusement in a college town, but it somehow gets better when it snows. When the temperatures drop into the forties, we see guys walking down Franklin Street wearing basketball shorts and flip-flops and a down ski jacket, and girls like to dress like they live in Chicago at the slightest drop of the mercury in the fall. (I think the coeds just have some cool winter clothes and they're afraid, rightfully, that they'll never get a chance to wear them.)

The snow outfit of the week award, though, has to go to the UNC student wearing a Russian fur hat that covered his ears and forehead like Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, and huge gloves and snow boots-- with jeans and a t-shirt. When your Mom said to keep your hands, feet and head warm, she didn't mean for you to stop there.

Sledding is dangerous anywhere, but perhaps because there is so little opportunity to practice, it seems to be particularly dangerous in the Southern Part of Heaven, as our town calls itself. The hospitals in Raleigh reported a rash of sledding-related injuries, some life-threatening, and officials were concerned that another day of school closings could make it worse. Wake Med offered some great advice: don't sled headfirst, don't sled toward trees, and my favorite, this being the South, don't drink and sled.

After two days indoors, we ventured out for breakfast once more this morning, this time to Weaver Street Market. The roads were not only plowed, but dry, as was the parking lot. Most of the snow elsewhere was already undergoing a serious melt under a strong winter sun. As my realtor told me when we were shopping for a house in Chapel Hill, it hardly ever snows enough to last more than a day here. The difference between shoveling snow from your driveway and not shoveling it is about 24 hours.

The Weave is a food co-op with a bakery and cafeteria and it is quite the local hangout. It usually opens at 7:30, but this morning there was a sign on the door saying that opening would be delayed until 9:00, for the safety of their employees. Only a handful of those employees actually made it to work though the frozen tundra even by the later time. I have no idea how the twenty or so customers who stood outside waiting for the doors to open had survived the trek. Maybe they drove.

There was a pretty good crowd of kids at the Weave because, amazingly, the schools had been closed. Even UNC had a delayed opening. It can be tough to drive on early winter mornings with all that bright sun in your eyes. No sense taking chances.

Not many people in the area have sleds because, well because it never snows enough to use them, but southerners are a creative lot. The story of Jim Taggart that appeared in today's Raleigh News and Observer is a case in point.

Jim was chosen to receive a tongue-in-cheek "ingenuity award of the weekend" for being flexible when he couldn't find sleds to buy for his 12-year-old daughter, Monica, and her friend, Jill. Around here, real sleds with runners are as rare as edible cornbread is up north.

Taggart went to Wal-Mart, according to the N&O, and got the next best thing: two toilet seats, which Monica and Jill used to zip down their driveway all weekend.

"We were looking for the slickest thing we could find, and let me tell you, those things are slick!" advised Taggart, adding that for most effective use as a sled, one should sit on the toilet lid and use the seat itself as a steering wheel. "They were just 10 bucks. I think that's less than sleds cost."

I'm telling you, you cannot make this stuff up.

We southerners don't “do” winter and that's fine. One of the reasons we live here is so we won't have to. My advice to my neighbors when we do get a little taste of snow is to heed the TV station's call to stay off the roads. If not for safety reasons, then do it for your self-esteem.

Seriously, people. If you go outside, you're just going to embarrass yourself.


Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.

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