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A HIKE ON SNOW AND ICE DURING THE TEXAS BLACKOUT



Tuesday morning, Parker, the police officer from Lynn County called me here in Austin and assured me that my grandparents were warm. “There’s no power,” he said in a West Texas accent, “but they’re warm.” He handed the phone to my almost 90-year-old grandpa, as they stood outside on the porch, in the wind, and grandpa told me in his heavily accented English, “Mijo, we are o.k.,” and “yes, the heater is still working. Don’t worry.”


I knew they were tough. But that’s what worried me. My grandma and grandpa used to tell me about sleeping in ditches and barns when they were farmhands following the crops in South Texas. My grandfather would say, “You wouldn’t believe the smell of strawberries in the fields, Bobby!” And grandma would say, smiling, looking into the air, “Mijo, the stars! We could see them! We could see the stars when we laid down at night.” I knew they would be steadfast in this storm. Staunch. Full of grace. But, like I said, that’s what scared me. Exposure can take a body so far it can’t come back, especially for the elderly. Their heater wasn’t working when we talked to them on Sunday, and I was 400 miles away. Monday night it would get down to below zero on those frigid plains. In that little town of Tahoka, power outages take out landlines, and it did so that Monday morning when I called him. Busy. My sister and I called and called, and I finally got through. I could almost feel the heat through the phone when he finally answered. Like an opened door. He proceeded to tell me that he was resolved to get that heater working, and while inspecting the thermostat, he tickled something loose and the wall heater kicked on like Godzilla. They were ok. He put the phone against the furnace so I could hear it knocking and kicking like a baby in the womb. I laughed (and cried inside, too). Turns out that heater is straight gas. Like the old days. The ones I loved to stand next to as a rotisserie kid, to singe my legs with hot pants just before they caught fire, only to immediately switch sides. We laughed. That night ended up being the coldest. A deadly cold prowling that little town on the South Plains. They would lose power again that Monday night and Tuesday morning, but that old time wall heater with its low roar and backfire was a hero, a knight swinging a fiery torch fending off the cold away, keeping my grandma and grandpa warm, and safe.


After Grandpa told me about his magic touch, I could calm down a bit. So my wife and I decided to go outside and brave the snow. We stepped outside Monday to strobe-light-bright, white snow. Any excuse for me to put on my blue lens Oakleys. If only I had blonde-tipped highlights and ski bibs. We stepped onto the crunchy snow and stomped slowly, just to hear that bubble-wrap-like crunch of packed snow. Felt like rookie astronauts in space suits nervously sneaking onto the sunny moon. After we got used to it, like getting the hang of a waterbed, we walked around faster, the footsteps becoming rapid like hoofbeats. We stopped. I heard a loud yawp from someone who must have been by Slaughter Lane, a very busy roadway near where we live. I immediately thought it was a homeless man yelling. We walked across our neighborhood to Slaughter to see what was going on. Ahead of us, right in the middle of the street intersection, a homeless man was pushing a shopping cart in the snow-packed street, in the opposite direction of traffic. There were no cars. Yet. But I was confused. I stood there watching him like a man that, frankly, didn’t understand what he was seeing. He trudged, shoes sliding on icepack, grunting, pushing his cart, and stopping every 10 yards to bring his rough, trembling hands to his mouth to blow on, yelling. Now, it was a fighting yell, mind you. Not like he was just taking it. He was fighting it. When I looked at the sidewalk, it was covered with six inches of snow. Of course he couldn’t push his cart across all of that. Still no cars on that bright Monday morning. I caught up to him. I noticed that he had some strange canister in the front seat of the shopping basket. I could hear it. Sounded like a jet, but I couldn’t see the flame. He had a butane torch turned on, standing straight up, to heat the air around him. “Hey, man!” I called out to him. He continued to slog forth, but finally turned around. He was a man in his late 40’s with leather skin, wore a trapper’s hat, and had an affable grin. “Do you have any gloves?” I asked him. He shook his head, no. I took mine off, handed them to him, and he put them on, smiling at me, and said, “Almost there.” He turned around and pushed his cart east on Slaughter Lane as cars approached and drove around him.


Later that day we hiked a short distance around our neighborhood and met some lovely neighbors, three girls, college-aged, who called themselves “The Snowbirds.” They were sledding down the hills on deflated pool floats in a drainage basin nearby. We were acting ‘quarantine-shy,’ but they asked us if we wanted to try. I volunteered my wife and she rode down on a pink sled skimming fast, across the shaved-ice-snow. It was good to see her lift her hands straight up in glee in the sunlight. We needed to get our minds off of what was going on for a little bit, while we could, before dark and another nerve-wracking night. My wife evidently got the bug. We went back to our garage and she dug up a heavy-duty leaf bag and we went back for more powder and butt slides.


The next day we invited our neighbors to join us to sled some more with their young child, but we hunkered down at home for the rest of Tuesday, and all of Wednesday. By Thursday, we needed to exhale. With unquiet minds, distressed by the topsy-turvy and heartbreaking news, I tried to come up with a homegrown adventure, like I always do, for my wife and I. Everything was falling apart in Austin, but we needed to exhale, play with snow, and bare our faces to the sun. There was a hidden waterfall near a busy street two miles from us, under a bridge, with very little access. I’ve driven by it many times and you can only see it from your car going one direction and just for a second, at that. I can’t say that it’s really a waterfall, just twin limestone bluffs where the water from Boggy Creek cascades over rocks. There’s also a new brewery right by it, across the street, and, well...I like beer. Alot. Sounded like two birds to me. And in my hand, rolling around the palm, was a stone.


Now we don’t have any real winter gear to speak of. This is Texas. But I do ride my motorcycle full time and I’ve got some cold weather waterproof pants and boots, and the rest is just layering. My wife was breaking out boxes from the attic like a war hero and taking out relics from the past. I tried to look away, look away from the loud colors and patterns before me. She ended up finding an old ski bib outfit, and we were off.


We ventured out, avoiding the icy patches, and stepped on powder for traction. We walked stiffly until our clothes broke in, and finally stopped sweating, the cold offsetting the warmth trapped within. The streets felt abandoned, the white landscape like new terrain. We made our way past homes knowing everyone was inside waiting for this ordeal to pass. Some of our neighbors were standing by their front doors in house clothes, arms folded, looking out into the distance. Others did a little bit of lawn work. We saw a couple walking their two young children down the sidewalk, one child stopping to bend down and inspect something on the ground, springing up to bring it to her mother and reveal her new find.


We passed a food pantry with air curtains, the largest one I’ve ever seen, and walked down a hill to a street bridge with flood gauges over Boggy Creek. The cold had seized the trees, and everything seemed brittle and imprisoned, dusted with the finest snow. The creek purled over the rockbed and funneled into a weak stream.


We walked ahead and found a covered sidewalk which led into a Glossy Privet grove, the trees appearing to bow before us, drooping with heaviness, the leaves shackled with ice. They reminded me of the way sunflowers, top-heavy and weather-beaten, slouch at day’s end, arousing pity. When we stepped in, there was more snow, and a busy thicket of frozen branches. There were so many, fine and slender as they were, it looked like a thousand cracks across a windshield, a thousand cracks of shattered glass. There were rows and rows of trees. They reminded me of sapling aspens, and I felt like I was somewhere else. The trees blocked our path and I spread them apart to pass, and they crackled, as I nudged them to the side like the necks of horses.


My wife and I started to realize this was a hive. Not of bees, but of birds. This was worth the hike by itself. So much life! Darting and diving, traveling from tree to tree. Robins splashed in pools of water and rooted out leaves, and above us, yellow-bellied birds perched on high. I counted thirty Cedar Waxwings in one tree. They looked like fuzzy Bartlett pears. I was so refreshed by this great display of life, despite all of the flora around us locked in ice and covered with snow.


I walked out of the grove and onto the sidewalk, roused by the sound of speeding traffic and a fire engine with flashing lights and sirens, racing past. I looked across the street and could see that the brewery was closed.


We had to formulate a plan to see the waterfall. It was under the grimy bridge of a wavy street with blind spots where people hurried across like racers on a HotWheels track. It felt like we were playing a game of paintball, running for cover. We made it to a safe spot and gazed on the bluffs in the distance, the water trickling over wrinkly stones. It still got me. The soft gray hues, the hazy separation of earth and sky. Treetops frosted with snow. The water glistened under the sun and we exhaled. Cars and trucks whizzed by.


We felt the temperature drop and the sunlight fade. We started heading back. The ice on the street was hard and crunched beneath our boots. My wife said, “I’m over it.” And I knew that she was. Those rain boots were hurting her and so were mine. She got quiet and I knew she had made up her mind. I picked up the pace and noticed that she had started kicking around a chunk of ice with her boot. She stopped looking both ways at intersections and just kicked that damn snowball around and wanted to pass it around to me. She kicked that one chunk of ice by herself for at least a mile.


We approached our home and noticed both of our neighbors outside talking in front of my house. One of them handed me a carrot cake wrapped in plastic which I held in my hands like alms. They were discussing water shut-off valves. I pointed them to where it was at and they lifted off the iron plate, throwing out dead leaves and twigs, dusting off the gauge, lifting the lens cover like an old watch.


I bid them goodbye and my wife and I stepped inside. I thought to myself, I want to tell my grandpa something, too. Grandpa, you wouldn’t believe the smell of all of the cedar trees I passed by on my hike today, lovely green cedars covered with snow.



 

{The author dedicates this story to Officer Parker and the fine people of the Tahoka Police Department who checked on his grandparents during the storm, twice. I can’t ever thank you enough.}

 


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