If you ever feel like inducing fear in the heart of a Chapel Hillian, simply say these two words: “wintry mix.”
The mild winters in Chapel Hill, NC are often what bring people here and why people stay. Occasionally, however, we do get ice storms and snow. And when that happens sheer panic ensues. As soon as local meteorologist Greg Fishel makes the slightest prediction of possible inclement weather, schools close before the first flake even hits the ground. Soon, every local business follows suit so workers can make it home while the roads are still safe to drive. Grocery stores quickly become mobbed with fearful shoppers desperately grabbing for milk, bread and eggs before they sell out and before the winter wonderland hits.
For us, this is just the normal protocol of emergency preparedness. To anyone who lives north of here and experiences snow on a more regular basis, this behavior seems completely ridiculous, unnecessary and extreme. Misplaced Yankees living among us find great amusement in the hysteria that a few flakes of the cold, white stuff causes. That is, until they see how we drive in it.
In 1986, the first winter after I received my driver’s license, we had an unusually powerful ice storm. Trees were coated in a thick shell of glistening ice and power lines were down. Thin sheets of invisible black ice on sidewalks and streets made walking and driving treacherous. Therefore the town had completely shut down and everyone was holed up in their homes hibernating and praying their power wouldn’t go out. Except my Dad and me. Growing up in Connecticut made my Dad fearless when it came to driving on ice. He decided that this ice storm was the perfect opportunity to teach me how to drive on it, too. We both bundled up, got into my 1978 white VW Bug, and Dad drove us carefully down to the University Mall parking lot. It was completely deserted of course, so there was no way I could hit any cars if I happened to lose control of my own car. I took the wheel and started driving. It didn’t take long before I began to skid. Frankly, as much as I love them, those original VW Bugs were so light, even a gentle breeze would push them into the lane of oncoming traffic. My car was no match for black ice. “Don’t brake! Whatever you do, don’t brake!” coached my Dad as I spun around this way and that, trying to turn my car out of the spin. After a good twenty minutes of practicing that, I was getting pretty good at keeping the car straight. Then my Dad said, “Brake!” “But you said I’m not supposed to brake!” I answered back, thinking this was a test. “What if you have to brake?” he replied. “You have to learn how to stop on the ice if you need to.” That proved a lot more difficult, but after about thirty minutes of starting and stopping on the ice, Dad was satisfied enough with my progress and we headed back home. This time, I drove, and I’m proud to say that I have been able to drive well on ice ever since.
The problem with any wintry mix falling in Chapel Hill, is that evidently some residents didn’t have my Dad to teach them how to drive on ice and snow. Or had anyone teach them, for that matter. The minute local road conditions get slick, numerous cars skid off the road or get stuck with spinning tires. The reality is, it does not make any difference at all if I know how to drive on ice, if other drivers do not. It is simply not safe venturing out on four wheels in winter weather here, and everyone in town tacitly agrees about this. Additionally, since we seldom get snow and ice, our road sanding and salting services are extremely limited and are reserved for major highways like I-40 and 54. For residents who live in one of our many secluded neighborhoods, sitting at home and waiting for the ice to melt is their only option. If you happen to run out of staples like bread, milk and eggs, your choices are either walking to the grocery store, possibly risking a sprained ankle if you slip on the ice and fall, or finding something else to eat. Which explains why you will find the entire population of Chapel Hill at Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, Food Lion and Weaver Street Market when the mere mention of a threat of snow is broadcast on WUNC and WCHL.
Panic-stricken purchases aside, what I find most endearing about us Chapel Hillsters is that once our fridge is stocked, our candles and flashlight batteries are at the ready, and those first flakes begin to float down from the skies, our childlike excitement knows no bounds. Young or old, we clap, jump and squeal with delight that our forecasters were right, and that soon every tree, bush, windowsill, car, mailbox and rooftop will be covered in a blinding white coat of soft powder. Winter coats are hurriedly donned along with wool hats, scarves, gloves and boots that haven’t been worn in months. We grab a makeshift sled made from a cardboard box, and head to the highest hill. Snowballs are thrown, snow angels are created, and our community of neighbors comes together, all smiles, as we celebrate this rare and seemingly magical event.
Today, Chapel Hill was all a buzz because according to Mr. Fishel, this afternoon might bring “a wintry mix for the Triangle area.” Wintry mix was all I needed to hear, and I joined the rest of the town at the grocery store to stock up on staples. It didn’t matter that he also said accumulation of snow would only be a few inches, and that the temperature was going to warm up to a balmy 40 degrees by tomorrow evening, so therefore any freezing precipitation that may fall would be long gone soon enough. All I heard was “wintry mix” and I acted in accordance with the procedures that were ingrained in me from childhood. Panic!