The Worst Drive Ever

Although we’re currently experiencing a few weeks of bitterly cold temperatures, it’s been a fairly mild winter with little snow – a few inches here and there, but nothing that requires shoveling and so far no major storms. Now with the Polar Vortex settled in, it’s too cold to snow, (very cold air contains very little moisture) but when I think of all those long brutal winters when I drove through hell, it makes me angry that now that I’m retired, there’s practically nothing. Last week in part one, I blogged about Snowmageddon – the storm of the century, now in part two – let’s talk about the worst drive ever.

Those of you who live in regions which experience the four seasons in all their glory, may appreciate snow when it first appears in December, that nice white fluffy stuff that makes you want to book an inn in Vermont.

These people sensibly took the train…

But by February most people are sick of it, and almost everyone dreads winter driving.   Oh, you get used to, but I bet you secretly rejoice when spring arrives and you don’t have to continually check the weather forecast for storms on the horizon.   If you’re working from home now, lucky you, you get to escape it altogether this year. 

Even if you’re a good driver, and have the ultimate heavy duty vehicle with snow tires and four wheel drive, you still have to worry about other people’s driving. And isn’t it always the worst during the first snowfall of the season, when it seems everyone has forgotten how to drive, and the police, called out to fifty or more cars in the ditch, are reminding everyone to slow down – winter is here.

If you do go slow, then inevitably there is someone on your tail, desperate to pass, usually a big truck. Once some impatient young man finally passed me on a bare stretch, then spun around on the next snowy patch, right into the ditch. I was tempted to wave at him as I drove past, but a farmer had already come out to help him. Why do people always expect farmers to pull them out with their tractors – get a CAA membership.

Snowmageddon made me think about my worst drive ever.   There are two in particular which stand out in my memory.

The first was when I was in my twenties and had a little two seater Fiero.  (Yes, I know, not exactly practical). I didn’t have much winter driving experience as I had gone to school in Toronto and took the subway. The Fiero’s engine was in the back for stability, but the car sat so low that you sometimes felt like you were plowing the road. 

It was late November and I had gone to London with my parents to Toys R Us to buy Christmas presents for the grandkids-who-had-everything.  It was a mild sunny day otherwise we wouldn’t have gone, as London is in the snowbelt area, but shortly after we got back to the farm, a storm came out of nowhere and I decided to drive home before it got worse.   It was dark by then, and the snow was that heavy wet stuff and by the time I came up to the train tracks just outside of town the windows were coated with it. The red warning lights were on so I stopped, but they had been having problems with those lights for quite awhile and they would sometimes flash even if there wasn’t a train in sight. By then I was having a hard time seeing any distance at all. I opened both windows to check if a train was coming and the windshield fogged up, but I accidentally hit the trunk instead of the defogger button so the trunk lid flew up obscuring my rear view.   I sat there for a few minutes, not sure what to do, until there was a long lineup of angry cars behind me, and finally some guy with a truck (it’s always a truck) blasted his horn. Maybe he could see better than I could? So I went over the tracks, too quickly and promptly spun out on the other side in front of an oncoming car but I managed to get back into my lane just in time. I arrived home quite shook up – not one of my better drives.

Is there a train on the track?

The other episode involved a particularly bad stretch of country road and a dark and stormy night.  I was working the late shift and it had been snowing heavily for hours, and was really getting bad out there as every second person who came in insisted on telling me,as if I wasn’t already worried enough about the drive home.   I should have stayed at the B&B in town, a newly restored Victorian with a skylight and claw-foot bathtub in the bathroom, but it was pricey and I wanted to be home in my own bed as I was off for the weekend.  Both ends of this county road would usually be plowed out, but the middle section was always a no-man’s land. With no houses or buildings to block the wind, just wide open fields, it was the perfect storm for winter white outs.  Luckily this section wasn’t well traveled as on many a snowy night I would often be the only fool on the road. 

On this night it was so bad I couldn’t even tell where the road was.  There was zero visibility.  Was I too close to the ditch? Where was the ditch? If you’ve ever driven a county road in the dark, there are no streetlights, only the light from your headlights.  I crawled along, plowing through the drifts, chewing gum (as opposed to clenching jaw) and listening to Pachelbel’s Cannon on repeat – my routine for those white-knuckle drives. I’m sure there was an angel on my shoulder that night. When I finally drove out of it, the road was still heavy with drifted-on snow but I could see the light from some of the farmhouses on either side – a navigation point , signs of civilization.

A friend of mine ran into a pack of wild dogs/coyotes one night in that same section. They must have become disoriented in the snow to have come so far out of the bush and refused to move off the road.   She finally drove through them and they parted – what a strange sight that must have been, a bunch of eerie eyes glaring at her, as if she had invaded their territory.

Hey, get off our turf!

 I’ve had other bad drives too (hey it’s Canada), and some thankfully, where I wasn’t driving.  Men always think they can drive through everything, and maybe you can if you have a big SUV/truck. At least then I could close my eyes and pretend to sleep or read a book to take my mind off the fact that we might be following a long line of red taillights right into a ditch.  I’d much rather drive in heavy rain than snow, more traction, but recall one horrible night drive in a fog so thick I could barely see the lines on the road. Where was Rudolph when you needed him?

Now that I’m retired, I’m grateful to be able to stay home when the weather outside is frightful, and looking back, I often wonder how I did it for thirty years? I’m not such a brave driver now that I’m older – I’ve become a weather wimp. If there’s a blizzard outside, I stay home and bake cookies, and say a prayer for those poor souls who must brave the elements to go to work.  

What’s the worst drive you’ve ever experienced?

Snowmageddon

The nor’easter which hit the US and Maritimes recently reminded me that it’s the ten year anniversary of “Snowmageddon” – the storm of the century in my part of Canada.  A  raging blizzard so bad that a massive dump of snow closed the major highway for two whole days.  Police patrolling the area on snowmobiles counted 200 tractor trailers and more than 100 cars trapped in the drifts, but the unofficial count put the number much higher, with estimates of 1500 passengers stranded and 700 rescued, with many vehicles simply abandoned on the country roads.

The storm started brewing on Sunday. Snow squalls coming off the lake usually move, but this one stayed stationary dumping over 40 cm of snow on the roads with 70 km/hr north winds making for blustery driving conditions. A state of emergency was declared on Monday and the national guard was called in, complete with rescue helicopters to airlift passengers who had been stranded in their vehicles overnight or longer.  

Send in the helicopters…

A snowplow towing a school bus was dispatched to collect people along the route and bring them to warming stations in the nearby villages.  By Tuesday night close to 300 motorists had been rescued from the worst hit section, but it took several more days for the plows and tow trucks to clear the 30 km stretch of highway and start in on the side roads. At the rescue centres, residents of the small towns and villages were generous with food donations, blankets and cots and some even opened up their homes to grateful strangers.  

Now, it’s nothing new for this highway to be closed periodically in the winter, usually just for a short period of time as streamers coming off the lake make the area notorious for sudden white-out conditions.   I should know, as I drove to work in this region for over thirty years.  As an essential worker, I was used to driving in anything, but even I did not go to work that day because all the roads in the area were closed.   People who had detoured off the main highway soon found themselves on roads less traveled but just as deep with drifts.   Friends of mine took in a couple who were stranded in front of their farm – for two days they fed them home-cooked meals, and played cards and told stories and so people from the city got to experience a dose of rural hospitality until their vehicle could be pulled out of the ditch.    

When I was working, I dreaded winter.   It might be bright and sunny when I left home, but by the time I reached the snowbelt area it would be a raging blizzard.   If you didn’t go in you were home safe but sorry, as you would inevitably feel guilty about leaving your colleagues with a skeleton staff and a 12 hour shift and you’d make up for your day off with an increased workload the following day.  But I was a dedicated employee who seldom even took a sick day, so I’d go in and the drive would be predictably awful and my nerves would be shot by the time I got home.   

When I worked at a rural hospital, I was lucky as I drove in daylight. If it was bad out, I might leave a bit early to get away before dark, and if it was an exceptionally wicked storm I was allowed to stay home, at my discretion.  This would happen maybe once a year.  As so many of the employees lived out in the country, the hospital had a contingency plan where the current staff stayed over, and someone’s husband with a snowmobile could always be counted on to go out and collect the staff who lived in the town.   There wouldn’t be a lot of admissions on those days, surgeries would often be cancelled if the surgeons couldn’t get out, (once one of the doctors had to do a C-Section by phone when even the ambulance couldn’t get there), but the ER would be busy with the usual disasters that such weather always brings on – heart attacks for the snow-shovelers (best stock up on clot busters) car accidents, (hopefully minor, but not always, hence my anxiety about winter driving), and once someone frozen under the ice in a creek overnight (miraculously he survived intact).   

After I changed jobs and started working evenings, there was no backup plan.  I drove through everything as the only excuse for not showing up at work was if you were dead.   Snowmageddon was the only time I ever remember my workplace being closed, and that was only for one day.   Even my boss didn’t go in that day, having turned down the offer of a snowmobile ride.   It was one of the few occasions where there was nothing open and nobody out and about. The hospital was open of course, so it’s not like people were without medical options.   In fact, ER was doubly busy with all the stranded people who did not have their insulin/inhalers/critical meds with them.   And just for the record, this storm had been predicted – there had been plenty of warnings and advance notice starting on Sunday, so it’s not like it came out of nowhere, but some people don’t pay attention to the weather forecast.   I always had the weather network and the winter road report on speed-dial, and my emergency car kit would go in the trunk in the fall and stay there until May 1st.  Once November skies darkened and the flurries began to fly, my snow anxiety level remained on high alert.

Although I was some distance from the worst hit region, I didn’t have a snow day. I offered to pick up a shift for someone who lived along the lake and had no hope of getting here – she actually started crying on the phone, so great was her relief.   I only had a short drive and once I made it out of my subdivision it was okay.   It always amazed me how busy we would be on snow days, but I’ve reached the conclusion that some people just cannot deal with the claustrophobia of a snowstorm.  They must be out and about in the worst of weather conditions – to the grocery store to buy eggs, the library to return books – any excuse will do.

Waiting for the highway to reopen….

The next day, when the county road was still closed, I called my boss and told him I was not coming in.   This was met with a stony silence (and probably some degree of shock) and then a small voice….well couldn’t you come in later, if the road reopens?   It did finally at 4 pm, but no, I did not, as I would have had a miserable drive home in the dark, and there would have been no hope of booking in at the only B&B with all those stranded passengers. I didn’t even feel guilty as there was no thanks for helping him out the day before, and it’s not like he was by himself as someone who lived in town had come in to help him out.  The next day the sun shone and my courage returned, but there was hell to pay, as we were still backed up, but personally I’d rather be safe than dead in a ditch.        

We’ve had very little snow this winter, a few inches here and there, but no major snowstorms so far, although there has been in other parts of the province.   When I think of all those years I drove through hell and now that I’m retired, practically nothing, it makes me mad.  It also makes me wonder about climate change.  Maybe blizzards will soon be a thing of the past?    Maybe I’ll be like one of those old people telling tales about walking ten miles to school in two feet of snow….and reminiscing about the big blizzard of 2010. (Next week – Part Two – The Worst Drive Ever)

PS:   Does your workplace have a snowstorm contingency plan?   It seems to me that some places are open when they needn’t be.  Like the library for instance – is that an essential service?   I wish administrations would think about their staff when they make decisions, especially if they are driving home at night.   Even closing early would help.

Easy Comfort Food

It there’s ever been a time for comfort food, it’s now, in the winter of our discontent. Eating well is one of the few things we have to look forward to, locked in our homes day after day and our favorite dishes can return us to a time when the world seemed a more secure and safe place.

Comfort food is defined as “food that provides consolation or a feeling of well-being, typically any dish with a high sugar or other carbohydrate content and associated with childhood or home cooking.” (Oxford Dictionary) We may feel nostalgic for a favorite dish our mother used to make. Wikipedia even lists a breakdown of favorite comfort dishes according to nationality. (link) I’m glad to see butter tarts made the Canadian list, but my childhood butterscotch pudding did not. While nursery type foods such as puddings and oatmeal are often considered comfort foods, so are more hearty dishes like soups and stews and macaroni and cheese. Calorie dense, high carb, high fat foods may trigger the reward system in the brain, leading to a temporary elevation of mood and relaxation. Whatever the mechanism, we take comfort in refueling our bodies.

Today’s recipe is for Easy Microwave Rice Pudding. I’m not a big fan of rice pudding, but my mother loves it and those individual packaged portions are a staple on her grocery list. Last week when I was confronted by a whole container of leftover white rice from the Chinese restaurant (they insist on adding it to the takeout order even if you don’t want it), I decided to look for a recipe online, something simple, nothing to do with steaming in a double boiler etc. I’m all about easy these days, when we’ve been spending way too much time in the kitchen, and also against waste, when so many people are suffering from food insecurity.

1/2-3/4 cup sugar (I used brown sugar)

2 tablespoons cornstarch (30ml)

3 cups of milk

2-3 cups cooked rice (I used 2 1/2 cups as that’s what was in the Chinese food container)

1 teaspoon vanilla

The recipe also called for 1/4 teaspoon salt, one egg and 2 tablespoons of butter (the butter is optional) – all of which I omitted. I’m guessing the egg would add a creamy texture, or maybe the microwave would just hard-boil it, but eggs were in low supply so I left it out. I also added the vanilla at the beginning instead of the end, so it acquired a nice vanilla flavor as it cooked.

Whisk the ingredients in a large microwave bowl. Add raisins if you want, (I added them at the end as some people don’t like raisins and I didn’t want to overcook them). Put in microwave and cook 1 – 1 1/2 minutes. Remove and whisk. Put back in microwave for another 1 – 1 1/2 minutes. Remove and whisk again. Continue above steps until desired thickness – but don’t let it get too thick. You want it a little less than desired as it will continue to thicken as it sits. I repeated this four times but mine was a bit too thick, but then I only used 2 cups of milk initially.

Add anything else you want, cinnamon or nutmeg. Serve warm, or you can reheat with a splash of milk if it gets too thick. Makes six servings.

I forgot to take a pretty photo of it but here it is packed up in a container to be taken to someone who appreciates it more than I do.

A form of bribery…

Hot chocolate is a comfort food I associate with childhood snow days, but now use as a reward after my daily exercise. Walking in such frigid temperatures (it’s January-cold now), definitely requires a treat.

Imported French brand

I put a teaspoon or two of a good quality cocoa in a mug, add milk and sugar to taste and microwave the whole thing for a few minutes, stirring frequently to dissolve. So much better than those powdered pods, mixes or heated chocolate milk with it’s six teaspoons of sugar!

Chicken pot pie with biscuit topping….

Chicken pot pie is one of my favorite comfort dishes this winter. I’m spoiled by the deli’s takeout version, (it’s rich as they use cream) but if you have leftover chicken and frozen veggies you can whip up an easy meal. I tried this one with a biscuit topping, but think I prefer puff or regular pastry.

Mom’s homemade chicken soup

Any kind of soup qualifies as comfort food. My mother still likes to make a big pot of chicken soup occasionally, but Campbell’s chicken noodle is always my go-to on sick days, and scrambled eggs and toast when I’m feeling better but not quite recovered.

Stouffer’s mac and cheese with bread crumbs…..

When I was growing up, my mother made wonderful macaroni and cheese from scratch, something I’ve never bothered with as my cheese sauce never turns out as good as hers. Stouffers frozen mac and cheese is a close second, and if you spread bread crumbs on the top the last twenty minutes in the oven and bake until they are toasty brown, it can mimic homemade. Served with a green salad it makes a comforting and filling meal. A hearty homemade chili or beef stew is also a nice wintry dish, especially served with some nice fresh pumpernickel bread.

Today’s menu was meatloaf, just because it’s January and below zero.

Combo heaven…..

But the ultimate winter comfort food award goes to that old favorite – grilled cheese and tomato soup. Best served after shoveling out the driveway.

Oatmeal with brown sugar is a particularly filling start to the day, but I sometimes like it before bed, especially if I’m in the mood for something sweet.

I hope I have made you hungry! What are your favorite comfort dishes?

Postscript: Don’t forget to give the birds a treat…..and all creatures great and small. (Is anyone else finding that mini-series just a tad disappointing? Usually Masterpiece is spot on in their casting, but the actors seem either too old or too young for the part. The best acting so far goes to the cows and last week, the racehorse. The scenery is beautiful though, you can’t go wrong with sheep in green fields with stone walls.)

The squirrels didn’t like the panettoni either.
Gourmet bird seed…..and not a blue jay in sight….

Snow Day

          There’s nothing nicer than a snowstorm in January, especially when the early morning news is telling everyone to stay home and take a snow day, and the local radio station is listing the bus cancellations, and school and business closings.   There’s no second guessing, should I go out or not, when they start telling everyone to stay off the roads.   When I was working, I dreaded winter as I had a long commute – it might be bright and sunny when I left home but by the time I got to work in the snowbelt region it would be a raging blizzard.    If you didn’t go in, you were home safe but sorry as you would inevitably feel guilty about leaving your colleagues with a skeleton staff and/or a 24 hour shift.   When I worked in a small rural hospital if it was an exceptionally bad storm, the staff who lived in town would be collected by snowmobile – no need to stay home, we will come and get you!    Many a snowy night I drove home in whiteouts over unplowed country roads where I was the only fool on the road.   A friend of mine once ran into a pack of wild dogs/coyotes on her drive home – they must have been disoriented in the blizzard to have come so far out of the bush and refused to get off the road.  After I changed jobs, it was even worse, as there was no backup staff or plan.   I only remember my workplace being closed once due to snow and only then because my boss had wisely but reluctantly made the decision…..but that was the year we had a snowmageddon and the national guard was called in to deal with all the stranded cars on the highway, many of whom had been there for over 24 hours.   I did not even get a snow day as I was called in to cover a shift near where I lived for someone who couldn’t get in.   It always amazed me how busy we would be on those days, and how many people would be out and about during snowstorms, even when they were telling people to stay home.   Of course, there would be the expected increase in emergencies – car accidents, heart attacks, pneumonia and such, but then there would be the others.    I reached the conclusion that there are people who just do not like being stuck at home during a snowstorm, they must be out and about…to the grocery store for milk, the library to return books….any excuse will do.    Personally, now that I am retired, I am grateful for the opportunity to stay home when the weather out there is frightful. 

snow

Who doesn’t recall the excitement of an unexpected day off school when you were a child.   I think we remember them because they were so few and far between.    Last year there were about ten days when the buses didn’t run here and another five or so when the school was closed altogether.   Snow, fog, freezing rain, some of which never even materialized but the school board must make the decision at 5:30 in the morning and there are liability issues.   I remember one year our rural bus was cancelled for several days.  We made snow angels, built snow forts and snowmen, played fox and the goose in the pristine whiteness and had hot chocolate (the real stuff with cocoa and milk) when we came in from playing, and usually grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch.       

My dad would plow out the lane-way with the front-end loader on the tractor but basically we were snowed in until the county roads were cleared, which was never a priority for the township.   My ancestors went to church in this old cutter when the roads were impassable.   

sleigh ride 3 (2) I guess you could say the one horse open sleigh was their backup plan!   (This picture is from the 1940’s when my dad still had the big Clydesdale horses).     

Wreath with snow

The month of January can be quite pleasant, once all the stress and merry-making of Christmas is over.   The days are quiet – it’s a good time for personal reflection, journal writing, and soup on the stove.    You don’t have to socialize if you don’t feel like it, you can read and watch movies and putter around the house with no agenda in mind.    You can bake and eat with no thought of exercising off those calories.   It’s much too cold and icy to go out, although you might be brave enough to shovel the driveway if no one volunteers to do it for you.  It’s a time of year to be savored.    All is white without, all is warm within.   You can go to bed at night and listen to the wind howl and be grateful for hearth and home. 

gingerbread house

While a snow storm can be a blessing in disguise, a forced stop to our constant whirlwind of activity, if the storm goes on too long cabin fever can set in.    I tend to feel a bit claustrophobic if the driveway and street aren’t plowed out after 24 hours.   I want to stay home but I like the idea that I can get out if I need to.    Of course, if the hydro or heat goes out or the pipes freeze that is a whole other story…..not fun at all.   And if the winter drags on too long into March that can be depressing indeed.  

So, what are the ingredients for a perfect snow day – comfortable clothes, but you don’t have to get dressed at all if you don’t want to, stay in your PJ’s.   A nice pair of thick socks is a requirement and you must have a stack of books or magazines.   I always have some books on reserve for just such days.

Snow pictures - AMc

A cozy chair in front of the fireplace or in front of a window where you can watch the snow softly falling is ideal.   Add some soft pillows and a comfy throw, plaid is perfect. 

A cup of spiced tea is lovely to sip while you read…and if you get sleepy while reading, simply move over to the couch for a long winter’s nap.   But first throw something in the crock-pot so you can awaken to the delightful aroma of homemade stew.    If you feel like baking, chocolate chip cookies or brownies are always a good choice and much appreciated by the neighborhood snow shovelers.    I always enjoy watching the kids on the neighbor’s skating rink from my kitchen window while I do the dishes, twirling around in their colorful Nordic coats and scarfs like a real-life Gap ad.    Somehow the weather is seldom too bad for a game of ice hockey.  Sometimes there is even night skating under the spotlights, the flurries falling, the slam of the puck against the boards, he shoots, he scores.  After supper, it’s movie time – and popcorn and hot chocolate.  Later you can watch the storm highlights on the evening news and be glad you are not out in it – and so, to bed.   Tomorrow all will be sunny and bright like a winter wonderland…..and regular life will resume, refreshed by this quiet moment of winterlude.  

Quote of the Day:                           

Brew me a cup for a winter’s night.
For the wind howls loud and the furies fight;
Spice it with love and stir it with care,
And I’ll toast our bright eyes,
my sweetheart fair.     (Minna Antrim)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Song of the Day:  Snow – from White Christmas – Bing Crosby & Co.