Snowy Mountain Memories of Winter 1977

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For my money, no winter can top the winter of ’77.

Of course, I’ll never be 11 years old again, either, and it seems that our lasting impressions of the seasons are almost always forged during our growing-up years. I mean, present-day winters just can’t compete, right?

For me, the winters of my formative years happen to fall during a cold swing of the weather pendulum, when wintertime in the Blue Ridge Mountains could be summed up by one word: snow.

In the mid- to late-1970s, kids in my neck of the woods didn’t wonder what it was like to build a snowman or an igloo – they were masters at it. From Thanksgiving to practically Easter, life was a bright white blur of school closings, tire chains, ice-encrusted denim jeans and jackets, and boots lined up in front of the wood stove to dry. There were no video games, DVD players or satellite TVs. If you could clearly receive three channels, you were lucky, so kids spent entire days using their (gasp!) imaginations to create different ways to play in the snow.

In 1977, our family of five lived in an old farmhouse deep in an Appalachian hollow. The snows descended just after Thanksgiving and buried Ashe County, North Carolina – just across the border from Johnson County, Tenn. – for nearly four months.

For several weeks during that stretch, my family was practically cut off from civilization. I suppose my dad had provisioned us well with firewood and groceries, because my main memory of that winter is not of being cold or hungry. It was of the rusty hood of a wrecked 1960s-era Volkswagen Beetle.

Someone years before had rolled the old vehicle into a rocky gorge on our property, and – in a moment of inspiration – my older brother managed to climb down to the car and remove the curved hood. We flipped it over, attached a length of rope to the end, and instantly became owners of the greatest three-man sled ever to grace a slippery slope.

Who needed a fancy store-bought sled? Stamped forever into my memory is the exhilaration of that initial drop as we picked up speed, the sting of tiny snowflakes striking my face and the wind forcing horizontal tears from the corners of my eyes as the three of us rocketed down a steep incline beside our old house, screaming from behind our woolen scarves and ski masks as we disappeared into an adjacent snow bank with a powdery thud.

Though the temperatures often hung in the single digits, and gray skies continued to dump fresh layers, we went up and down that hillside until our cheeks were literally frozen into chapped grins.

I guess it’s natural for me to hold the mild winters of the last 20 years in disdain, but I’m sure my own three children will have their own fond memories. Theirs will be of faded fescue backyards, naked crape myrtles and spirited Nerf football games. They’ll laugh when they recall four-hour sessions of Wii baseball and bowling tournaments and reruns of Hannah Montana on days when an absurd dusting of something resembling snow precipitated a flurry of school closings. They will tell their grandkids about balmy, shirt-sleeve days of February when angry thunderstorms blasted through Tennessee, only to be followed the next week by crazy drops in the mercury.

Winter will always be about memories.  And, rightly so, it will always be judged by that most perfect snowman, most gratifying mug of steaming chocolate or, quite simply, the greatest three-man sled ever.

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