There comes a time in every winter hermit's life when he has to venture out of his cave to see if the temperature has risen above 32 degrees F. The other day I did just that, and discovered that 21 straight days of subfreezing temperatures had come to an end. This also meant that it was time to do my pre-spring chores.
The first thing I did was wander out to survey the damage caused by the town's efforts to keep the road clear of the snows of winter. To my dismay, the fluorescent marker I use to find the drainage pipe (which directs spring-thaw waters away from my house, thus keeping my basement from turning into an indoor swimming pool) was either buried under a mountain of snow or had been deposited at the other side of town.
For a minute, I contemplated whether it was the right time to begin my search. But the weather person had predicted temperatures nearing 40 degrees. If this was true, all the snow would turn into torrents of water that had better be able to flow away from my home.
So I grabbed my rubber boots and shovel and put some rock salt in a bucket so I could melt the ice dam that was sure to be blocking the runoff pipe.
I then surveyed the snow that covered my front yard. The winds had scoured it into an Arctic Sahara of sculpted dunes. To my surprise, I was able to walk on the thick crust that had formed because of the prolonged subfreezing temperatures.
Halfway through my quest to locate the pipe, I glanced back at the house, observed my wife watching me from the window, and felt comforted that she was looking out for me. I paused to give her a wave, heard a soft crackling sound, and began to descend into the snow.
For some reason, all I could think about was how I shouldn't have eaten those last two slices of pizza the night before. I sank slowly past my knees, past my thighs, and kept going until I was all the way up to my waist. Then I stopped.
What stopped me was not my feet touching the bottom, but the saddle of crusted snow between my legs - which would not give way and, instead, began to transform itself, with increasingly painful pressure, into an ice-cold wedgie.
For a long, agonizing moment I hung there, suspended on a pinnacle of ice, while my weight kept dragging me down. The only good side I could see to my predicament was that I had no plans for any future expansion of my family.
I looked back at my wife and forced a confident grin and saw her shake her head in a way that I have seen many times before in our marriage of 30 years.
I attempted to move forward, then backward, but all I succeeded in doing was packing the snow into a narrower and narrower wedgie. I decided I would just have to claw my way out. I reached out over the snow, dug deep hand holds, and slowly hauled myself back out onto the crusty surface. I rolled onto my back like an old seal flopping onto an ice floe.
But now, instead of feeling alleviated from pain, I felt a chilling cold in my left foot. Afraid to sit upright in case I plunged rear-end-first back into the snow, I raised both legs into the air and saw that my right foot was completely naked.
I knew right away that I was in trouble - my foot was rapidly losing feeling and I couldn't hop through the snow back to the house. So I rolled onto my belly, turned, and plunged head first into the hole from which I had just emerged. All my wife could see was two feet paddling wildly in the air, one with a boot, one without.
She told me later that she'd thought of calling 911, but wasn't sure how she'd explain that her husband was stuck head first in the snow in our front yard. So she gave me another minute to get myself out.
Somehow, I was able to retrieve my boot, with the sock still inside. I emerged from the hole, brandishing it triumphantly - like an old seal that had finally caught a fish.
The search for the pipe had now become a challenge. I was determined not to give up. I crawled carefully across the snow on my hands and knees to where I thought the drainpipe was located, plunged in my shovel, and started to dig.
After about an hour I had turned my front yard into a kind of Arctic gopher town, cratered with small holes. Finally, the shovel blade clanged against metal. Paydirt! I had found the pipe.
At this point, what had started out as a chore that should have taken no more than a half hour had turned into a three-hour ordeal. My back ached. But, I told myself, I was almost done.
Another hour later, I had shoveled snow from around the pipe and used my fingers to pick through the cementlike mix of sand, salt, and snow that plugged its opening. That's when I bent down to look inside the pipe to make sure it was clear. Instead, I found myself nose-to-nose with a hairy mammal.
I don't know if it was as scared as I was, but I do know that I forgot all about my back and, with remarkable agility, threw myself backward out of the hole as the critter, whatever it was, scuttled back down the pipe in which it had decided to make its winter home.
Through the window I saw my wife looking in amazement. Her husband had come out of that hole like an old seal pursued by a killer whale.
I then realized I had left the shovel and the bucket of rock salt in the hole. I looked over the edge, calculated the odds, and decided to leave them there until spring.
The next time this winter hermit ventures out, it will be the day the temperature has worked its way above 70 degrees.