The Joys of Shoveling Snow

I used to think of it as a chore, but now it feels like much more than that.

Cleaning Up After Another Winter Storm
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The smell of winter to me is a leaky two-stroke John Deere snowblower. My father bought it before I was born when a storm shut down most of our city, Rochester, New York. He took good care of it, still uses it today. That’s the smell, and the sound is a scraping shovel.

He’d call me outside to help him, starting when I was about six. He’d push the machine, shuffling in oversized Carhartt overalls, and I’d follow behind with a shovel, cleaning up the lines, brushing what was left off to the side of the driveway. When he finished, he’d grab a shovel too and push what I had missed into the yard. Then he’d grab the ice scraper to shave the stickier stuff off the blacktop. We’d do it until the driveway was as black as it was on the hottest day of summer. The rest of the yard, the road, our house, might be covered in three feet of snow, but the driveway would be black.

The rest of the yard might be covered in three feet of snow, but the driveway would be black.

As a kid, it drove me mad. We had vehicles plenty capable of driving over, maybe not three feet, but at least a bit of a dusting. My toes would lose feeling twenty minutes into the two-hour affair, my back would sing, my neck would stiffen. I’d start to sweat, then get a chill. And yet here we were, going for perfection.

But then I went to college, and it became someone else's problem. Even though I was in Vermont, I’d wake up in the morning, the walkways would be cleared, the steps salted, the parking lots plowed, and there was nothing for me to do. It was incredible. It was as if the worst part of winter were suddenly gone.

But as the months went by, it didn’t feel like winter. Something was missing. It was like summer without going for a swim, or the smell of cut grass. Winter seemed distant, even though I was in the middle of it.

When I returned home for break in March, I scoffed as I pulled into the driveway. There was a patch of white snow at the very end, either pushed by a plow or swirled together by the wind. These were not the standards I was raised on. I parked my truck in the driveway, grabbed a shovel and headed out to finish the job. It was a compulsion, I had to do it.

General Atmosphere At The 2017 Sundance Film Festival
Getty ImagesDavid Becker

And in that moment, I loved it. It's peaceful, an active meditation, in much the same way yoga is. The world is quiet, covered with sound-muffling snow. More often than not, with the short days of winter, it's dark too. You feel by yourself with nothing to do but a simple task. Your body finds a rhythm, time kept by the scraping of the shovel on blacktop and the huff and puff of repeated exertion. You’re outside, exercising while doing something productive, the fruits of your labor piled up on the edges of the driveway.

When I see the snow start to fall, I start to get a bit excited to grab that wood-handled shovel I took from my parents’ garage when I moved to Vermont, the same one I used as an eight-year-old. It’s a little ratty these days, the plastic blade is worn down a few inches, but it still gets the job done.

And now, when I finish, I feel that pride of a black driveway. It’s completely unnecessary, but it’s like making your bed. It’s an easy accomplishment, when those can be hard to come by, and it looks sharp. Plus, ice never develops from melting and refreezing snow.

Sometimes, though, the driveway isn’t enough. I have more energy to burn after being cooped up all day, I have something I need more time to think about, or I’m just having too much fun. So, I go to an older couple’s house down the street, or next door where the family just had a baby, and I shovel.

Even if there are snowplowing robots and heated driveways, if snow falls twenty years from now, I’ll make sure my kids are out there with me. Shoveling. Just like my Dad told me to.

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