If there’s one thing about Western New York winters I’ve found, it’s that the frigid season doesn’t just arrive all at once. Usually, winter takes a few false starts. For every one day of cold and a light snowfall there are several days of partly sunny skies and mild temperatures.
That kind of weather that makes for a difficult transition to winter mode.
For me, the switch to winter mode is marked by digging out the arctic attire from the back of the closet — the standard hat, gloves and jacket suited for -40 degree weather. Once the winter gear is in my outerwear circulation, it isn’t going anywhere for at least six months.
By mid-November, days begin getting noticeably shorter and nights are ice-cold. Going to work long before sunrise means braving the cold — how could I not wear a jacket? By noon, however, the frost on the grass and windowpanes has vanished and temperatures are pleasantly warm. Carrying around my jacket, consisting of 3 pounds of fleece and goose down, becomes more of an annoyance than necessity.
But the annoyance-vs.-necessity battle, no matter how irritating, does not trump the fact that winter weather could strike at any moment.
So long as my winter jacket is on hand, I wear it whenever I go outside. Twenty-eight degrees in the morning? Great. Fifty-three in the afternoon? Get ready to sweat.
Sure, I could suck it up and deal with the few minutes of cold and shivering in the morning. And sure, I could leave my jacket in the car when I’m not using it. Those are easy solutions for an incredibly trivial nuisance.
Easier said than done.
But regardless of how the weather shifts from bitter temperatures to those of spring, there’s always the “what if?”
What my parents were right all along? What if the “big one” hit when I was out and jacketless? Do I really want to risk meeting my maker from an untimely death of cold?
The “big one” I refer to always lives up to the grandeur of its name. It’s that freak snowstorm that strikes every year almost without warning and dumps 3 feet of lake-effect snow on the region and freezes every molecule of water outside. In most cases that means school snow days, travel bans and seemingly endless winter weather advisories.
As a kid, though, the “big one” never seemed to matter to me until it hit. How cold it was outside didn’t matter much to me. So long as there wasn’t any snow in sight I didn’t need a winter jacket. My parents’ opinion on the matter didn’t mean much either — I wasn’t going to wear a heavy coat until I was outside in the tundra building a snow fort or hawking snowballs at my younger brother.
Of course, any argument with my parents on the true need for a winter jacket was always short lived, regardless of whether it was late in the fall or early in the spring.
If my college days showed me anything, it’s that I wasn’t alone in that mindset. In fact, there seemed to be no transitional period out of winter mode. A soon as the spring thaw was on the horizon and temperatures reached highs of 40, winter was officially over regardless of what some Pennsylvanian rodent predicted. Winter jackets, gloves and hats were quickly put away, and shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops replaced the arctic gear. By the beginning of April, my college campus practically looked like it was spring break in Cancun, with snow substituting for white, sandy beaches.
Never mind the last bouts with the common cold or mild hypothermia. As far as anyone was concerned, any day close to spring when temperatures are higher than 34 degrees is t-shirt weather.
This week, however, I’m reminded of just how bad the “big one” can really get. Last week, it hit — hard. Throughout Western New York, many motorists were stranded on area roads and highways. Other area residents dealt with flooding and power outages.
There was nothing pretty about this “big one.”
Since then, the snowfall has become less robust and more sporadic, with no end forecast any time soon. In my neck of the woods — the Southern Tier — it seems as though the fleets of snow plows and salt dispersal trucks can’t begin to contend with winter’s first assault on the region. Nor can those who are just trying to keep their driveways and sidewalks clear.
Hours of snow removal are quickly undone by minutes of snowfall.
The snow gods have truly returned, bestowing their Sisyphean task of snow maintenance on everyone fortunate enough to live in the area’s snow belt.
Though the winter jacket burden is a tough one to get used to and an even harder habit to break, you won’t find me complaining now that winter has settled in for the long haul.
Talk to me again when the weatherman forecasts partly sunny skies and highs in upper 30s.
Chris Michel is currently a cub reporter in New York’s Southern Tier. He is a 2008 graduate of St. Bonaventure University.