So, as many of you may be aware, we lucky Albertans have already seen our first snow. Yes, the calendar says it’s still summer, but Canada has always been something of a free spirit: it shuns all constraints and does what it damn well pleases. Conclusion? We have snow. And soon, it will stick to the ground, pile up in drifts, and hang around being a general nuisance until May or June.
Normally, this is little more than an annoyance: it’s harder to travel, whether on foot or in a vehicle, and we’re forever shovelling it aside. For a blind traveler, however—especially one who uses a cane—it can be an absolute nightmare. As silly as this may sound, enough snow can actually make the entire environment seem hopelessly unfamiliar. Not only does it turn the entire world white (as those of us who can see contrast always notice), but it also makes everything feel and sound different. Most sighted people probably don’t realize that snow changes the way a car sounds as it travels down the street. Instead of being crisp and clear, the sound is muffled and a little quieter than it should be. Cars themselves are quieter than they’ve ever been, so it’s even harder to hear them coming. Scary stuff!
Then, there is the snow’s uncanny ability to hide vital things like sidewalks. I’m lucky enough to live in an area where constant foot traffic insures that the sidewalks are cleaned regularly, but sometimes even I can’t find the sidewalks when I need them. Once, while bumbling around like an idiot, looking for the right path to take through all this new white fluff, I asked a passer-by, “Where did the sidewalk go?”. “There is no sidewalk,” he replied, in a forlorn voice, “…not anymore. Just keep walking in that general direction and you’ll be fine, I think.”. Comforting, indeed.
It’s also a bit of a trial to travel during a snow storm, at least for me. It’s hard enough to feel and hear where I’m going without wind and snow driving into my face on a consistent basis. Even if I close my eyes, put my head down, and charge on bravely like any good Canadian would, I still have to contend with the distracting barrage of harsh, icy flakes hitting my vulnerable little face. I find it difficult to protect my ears as well, because covering them makes it so much harder for me to hear properly. I can’t really win. This holds true for torrential rain as well. I once got lost during a tornado warning, and the rain was so disorienting that I completely missed a sidewalk and ended up lost for ages before I was rescued. Using an umbrella while juggling a cane can be a bit tricky, and that also messes with sound. Remember what I said about not winning either way? … Yeah.
Gregg tells me that when he was growing up in the suburbs of Hamilton, Ontario, his route to school involved walking down a road with no sidewalks. This wasn’t usually an issue, as he’d just hug the shoulder and keep an ear out for cars. When it was snowing, though, he could only really walk in the tire tracks, so if a car was coming at him, he had to book it out of the way before he became little more than paste on the roadway. Luckily, he has yet to turn to paste, so I guess there was lots of luck involved. As I mentioned earlier, the snow makes it even harder to hear oncoming traffic, so it really was a harrowing walk to school on occasion. You know you’re serious about education when …
Just when you thought you’d reach the end of the nasty obstacles snow can create, think about the two-foot drifts which line sidewalks and streets. Mostly, they’re fine: I trail my cane alongside them so that I can feel where I’m headed; in this way, it’s a lot like following a grass shoreline in summertime. The problem arises when I try to cross the street. It’s not a little nerve-wracking when you’re trying to find the sidewalk, and encountering only snowbanks because you’ve veered a bit. Guide dog travelers are lucky in this respect, but we poor cane travelers end up searching frantically for the illusive sidewalk, all the while stuck standing in the street as cars whoosh past behind us. Even though I’ve done this hundreds of times by now, it still scares me senseless every time.
Sometimes, those pesky drifts can make sidewalk travel—assuming you can even find the sidewalk, that is—a bit treacherous. I was once walking down a very narrow sidewalk, trailing the side of a building. When I came upon a very high pile of snow that completely blocked my path, I simply stopped, not knowing what to do. I had to resist the urge to burst into song: “Can’t go under it…can’t go through it…can’t go around it…I’ll have to go over it!”. Some kind soul came along and I asked him if there was any way for me to get around the drift. Without a word, this gentleman took my hand and literally lifted me right over the snowbank, depositing me gently on the other side. Normally I’m not big on people carrying me around without my consent, but in this case, I was more than grateful!
Perhaps the scariest thing about snow travel is the foreignness of my entire environment. Even if I know the area well, the whole world seems strange and frightening because everything feels and sounds so different. I’ve gotten lost a few times simply by veering a few feet left or right. The biting cold doesn’t help, either: getting lost in summertime is bad enough, but getting lost while you’re freezing is even worse. Remember those legendary prairie blizzards so fierce that you had to use ropes to get from your house to the barn and back? Remember poor little Laura Ingalls Wilder waiting hopefully for her Pa to come home because he was lost in the blizzard outside? Yeah, that’s going to be me one day. I’ll have to petition the city of Edmonton for some ropes leading to basically everywhere. (Don’t frown at me: you know you’d use them, too.)
Back when I lived in a rural area, winter was a good thing! The snow was a magical source of endless fun. In the city, though, it’s my worst enemy. As much as I love Canada, I do implore it to be kind to me this year, and keep the cottonfluff storms to a minimum. Will it listen? Stay tuned to find out! (I wouldn’t count on it, though.)