Essay
4:30 pm
Wed December 11, 2013

Essay: Milwaukeeans Aren't Winter Storm Wimps

Snow piled along the street in downtown Milwaukee
Credit Dave Reid, Flickr

Essayist George Berdes reflects on snowfall in Wisconsin.

You’d think the residents of Wisconsin’s north woods, who are used to copious snowfall, might look with some amusement at our relatively modest snow depth. Not so, says Lake Effect essayist George Berdes:

Up here in the woods we pretty much take snowstorms for granted.

Oh sure, we cuss, sweat, and fret as we struggle with shovels and snow blowers in digging ourselves out of white caves. But then, in a periodic bravado, and with our big city cousins in mind, we strut the thought those urban folks don’t even come close to matching us when it comes to snow.

Yes, it’s good to be a survivor, a doer of hard challenges. We up-northers deserve to snap our suspenders over whittling down a big pile of snow. But I believe it’s a mistake to regard our big city friends as wimps when mean winter storms hammer places like Milwaukee or Chicago.

I base my plea on the experience of having been in Milwaukee during that fateful period last February when a rip-snorter of a storm dumped 12-plus inches of snow and then whipped it into wind-driven, swirling dunes that paralyzed the city.

It’s an amazing thing to see a busy-dizzy city come to a cold stop. It was so bad that city buses were pulled off the streets early. Schools were already closed in anticipation. Stores and offices quickly followed suite, shutting their doors early. People by the thousands began the long and dangerous trek home on clogged icy streets and expressways that were anything but express.

Out of the sprawl and amid its towering office buildings, symbols emerge from the driven snow. What they say silently and without boasting is, “Hey, you guys up in the woods, we’re just as tough as you.”

That fact was embodied in one small but gigantic example I witnessed about noon on the storm’s second day at an intersection on the northern edge of downtown. I had ventured out to a nearby grocery. To get there I had to climb/slush through/maneuver mounds of snow unavoidably pushed into those crossing points by plows making the roads safer for cars but far more challenging for walkers.

As I approached that virtually impassable crosswalk I came on a young woman standing at the edge of a towering pile of snow trying to decide how best to confront it, to get to the other side. However, she brought with her an even greater obstacle that doubled the challenge.

She was a youngish, small woman, early 20’s, I’d guess and no more than 5 feet tall. However, her body was twisted and gnarled by some unknown disease or accident. She carried a cane. I stood silently a few feet behind her ready to help if needed, but hesitant to intrude on her dignity and gutsy independence.

She started by putting one foot forward into the deep slush, nearly to the top of her boots. She used the cane to probe the target of her next step. Wavering as much by fear than wind, she made the second step - tottered - and then, ever so slowly, the next step that finally put her on the roadway. I heaved a sigh of relief and followed.

After we were both out of the snowy morass she stopped and pondered her next move. It was then she peered back at me and uttered what was assuredly the prize-winning understatement of the year: “Not easy walking out here.”

What that brave young handicapped but determined urban citizen of Milwaukee proved so forcefully is that we folks up here in the woods have nothing over our big city cousins when it comes to confronting snowstorms.

One thing for sure, winter snowstorms are not for wimps.

Essayist George Berdes spends part of the year in temperate climes of Milwaukee and the warmer months in the northwoods. Many of his essays originally ran in a weekly series on WXPR in Rhinelander, and are now at his blog, East of Eagle River.

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