Buried, with boots on: Notes from Michigan's snowy west

It isn't the Sochi Olympics, but Grand Rapids recently was awarded a provisional bronze medal as the third snowiest American city (with 100,000+ people) this winter. There's still a lot of winter to go, but I can already claim the best purchase I ever made was the $190 I spent in November for unlimited driveway plowing.

A few days ago was the first time I could remember in months when I didn't need to clean anything off my car. (We have a two-car garage, but I converted it into a studio for my artist wife. Please, buy some of her work so we can add on to it and put the cars back inside.) My daughter has asked when the sky is going to run out of snow. Here in West Michigan the answer seems to be, not anytime soon.

Not that I am complaining. I'd take a Grand Rapids winter – even a bronze-medal winning one – over a D.C. summer 10 times out of 10. But with weather like this, you see a side of your hometown that perhaps you hadn't seen before.

There’s the solidarity. We are all in this together. A colleague, whose snow blower isn't supersized, watched as his next door neighbor, who had seen him struggling with his driveway, came over and cleared it all. After my wife got stuck at the end of our driveway because the city plow had dumped a wall there, our across-the-street neighbors dug her out. In the East Hills neighborhood, my high school friend, Rachel Lee, took to social and traditional media to ask people to move their cars so plows could do their work.

I awoke one day to find my next-door neighbor had cut a path cut through my yard so my kids could more easily walk to our front door from the sidewalk and the letter carrier could more easily go about her route. I'm also noticing a lot of patience on the roads as drivers kindly flash their lights and let others pass first through roads reduced to single lanes. These sort of stories are legion.

And there is the quirkiness that the weather brings out. I love running (or, I should say, I love the idea of running). But Grand Rapids runners take it to a whole new level of crazy. There are two types – those who risk injuries by taking to the icy and impeded sidewalks, and those who think snow-clogged roads are the ideal place for a nighttime run.

Then there are the peculiarities of a place that gets this much snow. Not many cities have sidewalk plows. East Grand Rapids does. In fact, it has several of them. In an email written with the enthusiasm of fictional Pawnee's Leslie Knope, East residents learned about the "newest addition to the sidewalk equipment fleet, a Bobcat Toolcat," and were informed that we would "see different attachments on the front of the sidewalk plows – either a small 'V'-shaped plow, a snowblower attachment or a push bucket." The purchase of the new Bobcat to replace the broken one was big news around these parts. First-world problems for sure, but they the problems that come with a winter like this.

We've also begun to suspect a conspiracy between snowplow operators and local body shops. On Lake Drive, the surface street I take into work, there is a half-mile stretch where about 75 percent of the cars parked on the street have missing or damaged driver's side mirrors.

To give you a sense of how crazy this winter is, my kids, who are in the same school system I grew up in, have had more snow days this year alone than I had total in 13 years. But even the snow doesn't stop the hard workers of this city. Gov. Snyder would be proud. There is no quit here. My office hasn't been shut a day because of the snow and colleagues razzed me for even asking whether we might be having a snow day.

So that's the dispatch here from ice and snow-encrusted West Michigan. We are surviving and thriving – even if we are a bit stir crazy. As I gaze out at the two feet of snow on my front lawn, I realize another beautiful Michigan summer will be here soon enough, and I'll have the chance to watch another perfect Lake Michigan sunset. But I also realize there is a lot of beauty right now – though not a lot of sunshine – and despite only being bronze medal winners, this place is pretty golden.

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chris macinnes
Sun, 02/23/2014 - 8:54am
As your neighbor 130 miles due north and west, and operator of Crystal Mountain, I couldn't agree more with you, thanks and hope you and your family are finding time to enjoy our Pure Michigan Winter Playground!
Conor Dugan
Mon, 02/24/2014 - 11:29am
Thanks for the kind words Chris. I need to make it up to Crystal. Until moving back, I'd never been there but I've been there three times in the last year but never to ski. (June, September, and October). I'd love to get up there. Hear you have a great ski school. Maybe next winter. Thanks for reading!
John Q. Public
Sun, 02/23/2014 - 4:06pm
You attended law school, and even after having to remember untold useless information from both there and undergraduate school, you still know how many snow days you had in each of your K-12 years? Wow!
Conor Dugan
Mon, 02/24/2014 - 11:30am
John Q, There were so few that I knew that they'd already beaten that record but I cheated and crowd-sourced on Facebook with classmates and discovered the approximate number but everyone agree is was 3 or fewer times in our 13 years!
John Saari
Tue, 02/25/2014 - 8:23am
Visit the Western UP to see a lot of snow.
Conor Dugan
Tue, 02/25/2014 - 3:09pm
John, You guys definitely have us beat! I checked out the numbers in Houghton and was blown away by the totals.