There is still a fair amount of winter left around here despite the unusually warm weather. The snow has been surprisingly good up high, which is hard to believe when slogging through the slush in the parking lots. It's not the champagne powder we all feel entitled to, but skiing at the top of the mountain has been fine.
We've already lost the permafrost on the road into my house. Every year, there is a careful process of plowing the snow in a way that leaves a smooth layer behind. The goal is to lay down parallel tire tracks to pack it down evenly. We cultivate a solid surface a couple of inches thick on top of the gravel. People who live on paved roads have lost that connection to the natural condition, but anybody who lives on a dirt road knows how nice it is to get that permafrost layer established, and how much more pleasant spring can be if it lasts.
It never lasts all the way through to spring. Every year, it will warm up, and suddenly there are wheel ruts in the ice layer, and then mud starts oozing through, and for a couple of weeks, it's a disgusting mess. Fall into the wrong ruts and you end up parked in somebody else's driveway. It usually lasts until about the first of April, and it's only really bad for a week or so.
But there's no way to hold the permafrost when it hits 50 degrees in the afternoons. It's gone. The ground is still frozen deep, so the top six inches has turned to quicksand. With some judicious grooming when it is still semi-solid in the morning, I've been able to keep it passable, but the car looks like it's been dipped in mud. It's going to be like this for a month.
I got a call from a neighbor who lives on a different road. They are not as fastidious about how their road gets plowed. Things were not going so well in his neck of the woods. His snowplow guy was off in a ditch with the truck completely mired, and but for the snowplow on front, may have rolled over. He plows with an old 4x4, with chains on all four wheels. Equipped like that, you can really get stuck, and a few minutes of profanity-laced wheel spinning will dig a big, deep hole in a hurry.
I drove up on the tractor to see if I could pull him out. I had my doubts. We assessed the situation and planned the attack. You can do a lot of damage with the chain hooked in the wrong position. After a lot of groaning and straining, the winch on the back of his truck successfully pulled the tractor into the hole. If the truck moved at all, it went vertical, sinking deeper. We tried a couple of other angles with the same result.
There is a glacier about 2 feet thick across the road. They couldn't have got it any smoother with a Zamboni. The tractor just spun its wheels. The truck was suspended over the ditch, wheels in the air. It had become part of the landscape. I didn't think it was going anywhere until June. I was ready to abandon in favor of breakfast.
There is a bigger tractor on the ranch. It's the last resort. There is a high stakes game on a farm that involves seeing how many pieces of heavy equipment you can get stuck at the same time. When you've put the biggest equipment you've got on it, and get that stuck, too, you're just plain screwed. You don't call AAA for that. It's $1,000 to get a Cat hauled in. The old John Deere weighs about 4 tons, and with that weight to pull with, we got the truck out of the ditch. No damage to the truck, tractor, or either of us. Nothing lost but a couple of hours.
The road is impassable. There is still more snow to come. That will only conceal the worst of the ruts, ditches and holes. So this story isn't over by a long shot. The neighbor at the end of the road has wisely equipped himself for the winter with a new Prius, though he has ruts that would swallow a Hummer. One of these days the Prius will fall into the crevasse and vanish without a trace. It will not to be found until the glacier spits it out in May like some Paleolithic skeleton.
But the redwing blackbirds are back. Difficult as winter can be when you are on the fringes of civilization, you know it isn't permanent. The redwing blackbirds are back, and spring will come. It's going to be OK, just not for another month.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.