The Pennsylvania Turnpike runs like a cleanly swept gutter through the snow-covered ridges and valleys of the state's southwest, and not until you leave it do you get a sense of what this winter has wrought.
Suddenly the snowbanks lie four feet high along the village streets, and west on Rt. 31 the road carves through 15-foot drifts wind-whipped into peaks like fresh meringue. Out from hollows in the drifts peak the half buried homes of Somerset County, their eaves trailing rows of 6-foot icicles that glitter like the bars of some crystal prison. Blowing snow eddies across the highway in whirlwinds and slides.
This is not the worst of the winter of 1977 or the best, just a little weather that descended on western Pennsylvania on its Buffalo tour.
"Actually we were lucky," said Cass Lewis, 65, a farmer from nearby Trent."It's only got to 18 below here. Some of the lower valleys it's been 25 below. That's without the wind chill. With that, well, what the hell, maybe 50 below."
Lewis, a gnarled little man with a game leg, mused on the vagaries of winter as yet another snowstorm sifted down on Somerset County, a 354-square-mile section of rural southwestern Pennsylvania dotted with hamlets like Scalp Level, Savage and Crumb.
A normal winter may bring 10 feet of snow to Somerset County's mountains between November and April. By Feb. 1 this year the county already had 10 inches more than that, and with the natural gas shortage and weeks of sub-zero cold, winter is making inroads on an economy nicely diversified among farming, coal mining, light industry, retailing and tourism.
More than 2,4000 of the country's 80,000 people have been laid off jobs because of the weather. The gas shortage has shut down about half the county's schools for two weeks and forced sporadic cutbacks in the area's 60 light industries. The Big Drum Cone Co. is completely shut down, for example, threatening to add an ice cream cone shortage to the nation's other woes, and as many as 60 per cent of the employees have been laid off at times at the plant on Rt. 219 where the Coleman Co. makes pop-top camper trailers. But rural people cope with things if at all possible, and other plants like the Gilmore Hose Nozzle Factory keep regular hours whenever their employees can make it to work.
Getting to work in Somerset County, however, is no small feat.
Mary Lee Pletcher, a waitress at the coffee shop in Seven Springs, makes it five miles to work only because her husband has a snowplow mounted on the front of his four-wheel-drive Dodge power wagon.
"He just plows the roads as we go," she sighed, "but sometimes it gets so deep it comes back over the plow onto the windshield. One of these days he's probably going to plow us right off into a field somewhere."
The merchants of Somerset, forced by the gas shortage to cut back their hours, are hurting further because customers can't get to the stores. The snowy roads have also delayed diesel fuel deliveries, leading to shutdowns at some of the county's 40-odd strip mines where heavy equipment could otherwise handle the snow.
Even farmers like Lewis sometimes can't get to work.
Last weekend the water pipes to his barn froze but he couldn't get out of fix them: the drifts were 17 feet high.
Since his cattle stop eating if they have only snow to lick instead of water, Lewis "called a logger over to New Centerville who's got a plow on his machine. It took him six hours - from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. to clear that half a mile into my barn."
Once he got the water lines thawed in the barn, Lewis said, the temperature fell below zero and froze the pipes in his well outside.
Other water lines, utility mains and even reservoirs have frozen solid throughout Somsert County, leaving residents to thaw snow for their water with their limited supply of natural gas.
Still, the ill winds of winter have blown some good to Somerset, most of it toward the Seven Springs Ski Resort over in Champion, which is having its best season in 15 years.
Snow-crazed skiers by the hundreds from Washington and Baltimore mush their cars through the drifts for 5 and 6 hours to the slopes of Seven Springs, and daytrippers from Pittsburgh, just 55 miles to the northeast, venture through blizzards after work for an evening of skiing under the lights.
Carol Persichetti4, a Seven Springs sales manager, says she feels faintly like a war profiteer.
"I guess I sound defensive because I feel should, with everyone else having such a hard time," she said. "Business for us has been just phenomenal. But we've waited a long, long time for a ski season like this."
Seven Springs has had to cut back its energy consumption like everyone else. Rooms can be frosty. The handball and indoor tennis courts are closed off and they've shut down the heated pool.
"But most skiers are hardy people and philosphical about things like that," she said. "We've had almost no complaints. They make their way in here somehow. And even if there's a blizzard blowing somebody's always out on the slopes."