Hold back the sun; I’m on my way.
The past few winters in Washington, we didn’t need a full team of experts and eyes to track the snow. You’d simply look up at the sky sneezing a flurry of flakes or down at the white duvet cushioning your feet. But this season, I had to recruit other people, and states, to achieve the simplest of frosty feats: finding enough snow to build a snowman, -woman or -child.
What a sad, sad winter we are having. Even the National Weather Service says so: Many of the lower 48 states logged warmer-than-average temperatures in December and January; the first two months of winter rank as the fourth-steamiest on record countrywide. In Washington, we’ve trotted out our mukluks for a measly 1.7 inches of snow, almost 10 inches below the norm for this period. And Wednesday’s teaspoon of snow hardly sated my winter cravings. I want to construct a snowman, not a snowflea.
For help with my quest, I contacted NOAA’s National Weather Service, which pointed its antennae at Upstate New York. (I was short on time, so road-tripping to Alaska or Colorado was not an option.) To lock down a specific destination, I called Syracuse native Pat DeCoursey, who runs two snow-accumulation contests: the Golden Snowball Award, which crowns the snowiest of five Upstate New York cities, and the Golden Snow Globe, which expands the competition to 60 U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more.
Pat’s home town, about 40 miles east of Lake Ontario, has won the local trophy every year in the past decade, vanquishing the blizzard vortexes of Buffalo, Albany, Binghamton and Rochester. It also nabbed the national prize two years in a row but has a snowball’s chance in Hades of toppling Anchorage and Denver this season.
But the city does rank first in the local competition with 31.8 inches. Encouraging news. At the very least, I could fashion the patriarch of the snow family out of leftovers from a recent storm that had dumped eight inches. At the most ambitious, I could erect the entire clan, complete with estranged wives.
On the drive from Washington, a nearly straight-arrow 360 miles north, I established some rules of the road. Foremost, upon the first sighting of snow, I had to stop the car and start construction. I kept my instruments at the ready: gloves, a windshield scraper and a carrot as long as the fibbing Pinocchio’s nose.
Prospects were slim on the first half of the journey. I felt as if I were driving through a bowl of shredded wheat without the milk. The land was so dry, I started to see mirages. Ribbons of white in the trees resembled icicles but turned out to be strips of plastic bags. Sun-bleached rocks along the highway appeared as snow mounds, until the light shifted and exposed their true, hard skin. I tailed a blue car with white patches on its rooftop, hood and trunk, roadster designs inspired by the Arctic. I threw up my hands through the sunroof and passed the guy.
I glimpsed my first evidence of winter near Hazleton, Pa., about 100 miles from the New York border. Across the highway, thick ice clung to the rock face, the frozen tendrils defying the sun’s heat lamp. I got off the highway expecting to find a stockpile of snowman building blocks (or spheres). Instead, I discovered espresso Bavarian ice cream in the freezer at the Turkey Hill mini-mart. A perfect treat for a springlike day.
Come evening, I stopped near Binghamton, an hour south of Syracuse, to follow up on a tip received that morning. One of my trackers had phoned to inform me of a snowpile in a hotel parking lot off Interstate 81 that hadn’t fully thawed. Chances of snowman: very good.
I imagined white-trimmed Himalayas in miniature; instead, I found a few generous shakes of sugar crystals. Yet I was committed to winter. I kicked one of the ice chunks until it shattered. I arranged the segments against a lamppost, broke off the tip of the carrot and jammed it in. As I snapped a photo, a plow drove by, its empty shovel raised toward the clear night sky.
At the hotel, I called for reinforcements. Paige, who was working the front desk, sent out a signal to her people in the field. Delhi, Woodstock, Poughkeepsie, Schenectady — what’s the report? No snow. A woman who’d driven from Rochester to Binghamton hadn’t seen a flake. A man who’d flown in from Detroit hadn’t spotted a speck from his position in the clouds. The city of Utica was bare, although Paige’s sister had noticed some clumps in the deep backwoods, if you dare. The most positive feedback centered on the town of Fulton, which a week before had received 31 inches of snow. But evidence of that storm was quickly fading.
To reach Fulton, I had to drive past Syracuse, whose city hall puts the Golden Snowball award on display. En route, I picked up Pat, whose friend at the Syracuse Post-Standard had verified a snowpile outside his office window at Clinton Square.
“Last year, I shoveled 30 times,” Pat said as we drove into the historic downtown. “This year, I haven’t shoveled at all. But I want to.”
While circling the square for a parking spot, I spotted a lumpy hillock of snow next to the ice skating rink. Stately 19th-century buildings with Gothic flourishes surrounded my prize. If I had enough material to build a snowhouse, I would model it after the Joseph Lyman Silsbee-designed Syracuse Savings Bank (now the Bank of America).
I climbed the mound and started shaping the soft snow, which was a few grades thicker than a slushie. Much to Pat’s horror, I didn’t roll the body parts but shaped them with my ungloved hands. I recycled the carrot for the nose and enlivened the blank mien with a twinkling nickel and a penny. He was a one-armed bandit until Pat dug up a second stick, a challenging task in an urban setting. For the final touch, we needed a top hat, but I vetoed Pat’s paper Coke cup as a chapeau. Our Syracuse snowguy was going to have to brave the cold with a bald and bare head.
Fulton, named after the inventor of the steamboat, typically boasts higher snow accumulations than Syracuse because of its location on the Oswego River and its closer proximity to Lake Ontario. The town is a living diagram of lake-effect snow, in which cold air flows over relatively warm water, picking up moisture and eventually forming narrow bands of snow.
“This is where the snow band ended,” Pat said as we left behind a brown and barren landscape for fields of snow noticeable from Route 481.
The winters of yore, of canceled school, sledding and frozen toes, had clearly hit Fulton. Snowpiles dwarfed cars and blocked signs. Wide swaths of white stuff covered the Oswego shores, complementing the froth and churn of the river rapids.
We parked at the Ohio and Erie Canalway Towpath Trail, near a snowbank that obscured the lower corner of a mural depicting river life. The snow along the path was crusty on top, so we had to karate chop for three sizable pieces.
I’d lost my carrot and used a pen as a substitute sniffer. I installed vision with a pair of pennies. Sticks for arms and some coal that Pat found on the ground for buttons. Pat stuck his gloves on the branch ends, and I hung a V-shaped twig in the vicinity of the upper lip.
After studying our creation, Pat grabbed a handful of grass and dirt for a goatee. He pressed the detail of spring on the face of winter, and not surprisingly, it stuck.