Whenever I need a good reminder as to why I moved to Utah 40 years ago, all I have to do is fly back to my childhood home state of Michigan around spring equinox. America’s Great Lakes region that time of year can really kick you in the teeth — or in the back of your head. It just all depends on which direction you’re leaning into the wind.
As you might have guessed, I’m talking about the weather there.
Two weeks ago, my wife and I flew to Grand Rapids, Michigan, to attend a memorial service for my wife’s late stepmother. When we landed at Gerald R. Ford International Airport on a Wednesday, the late afternoon temperature was spring-like: in the mid 50s with partly cloudy skies and bursts of sunshine.
Seeing the sun was an unexpected gift. Concrete gray is the usual color du jour of Michigan skies from November to May, thanks to the nearby Great Lakes of Michigan, Superior, Huron, Ontario and Erie — weather-makers all. The interminable gloominess has just about every Michigander complaining about Seasonal Affective Disorder and needing a SAD therapy lamp next to their desk or couch — not to mention plenty of anti-depressants, alcohol and/or chocolate — to brighten their mood.
If the picture in your mind about winter Michigan skies isn’t clear enough, perhaps this will help: The day-to-day gray for six straight months, with plenty of rain, sleet and snow tossed in, can be so gloomy it makes Utah’s January temperature inversions seem like a sunny, spring day in St. George.
While driving from the airport to the hotel, most of the trees along the road looked like they were coated in barnacles from thousands of swollen leaf buds ready to pop open. But I didn’t see any early spring tulips or daffodils in front of homes or businesses.
To compensate for the lack of spring color, I stopped at a grocery store and bought a pot of blooming daffodils and placed them on our hotel room’s windowsill like a peace offering for more sun and warmth during our stay.
But so much for peace offerings.
By that evening, news reports talked about a major storm could strike over the weekend with big winds, plummeting temps and precipitation of the variety most Midwesterners loathe — freezing rain.
From time-to-time, freezing rain visits Utah with usually spectacular results: toppled trees, downed power lines, power outages, and scores of dumbstruck motorists who get to experience a few laws of physics while doing donuts down a road or interstate. Those same laws, especially gravity, apply for pedestrians who dare to walk outside.
In Michigan, however, freezing rain is just part of the standard weather fare. It’s expected on a regular basis from fall through spring. Residents there know well that when freezing rain is in the forecast, you get home and tuck in before it hits. And in the fridge is plenty of food to last a few days.
How freezing rain forms is somewhat of a curious weather phenomenon. Most precipitation that falls from clouds drops in frozen form, like ice or snow. While plummeting to earth, if that precipitation passes through warm air, it melts into rain before hitting the surface.
But sometimes, a thin layer of subfreezing air hugs the ground. When the rain makes contact, it immediately turns to ice. But not like sleet. Instead, it coats everything in a thick layer of clear or translucent ice that looks like suspended water. Anyone who dares to drive — or walk — when such slippery conditions exist, do so at certain peril.
Sure enough, in advance of the approaching weekend storm, a south wind began to blow on Thursday morning, pushing the daytime high into the mid-60s. There was sunshine, too, but by late afternoon, the clouds began to roll in and the temperature started to fall. Meanwhile, other family members continued to arrive for the memorial service on Saturday.
On Friday morning, the sky over Grand Rapids was concrete gray and rain or snow appeared imminent. But it wasn’t until Saturday morning, just hours before the memorial service, when the real storm arrived. During the service, horizontal rain, then snow, then rain, then sleet, pelted against the mortuary’s windows, and the trees outside bowed from a hard northwest wind.
But fortunately, the freezing rain held off until early Sunday morning. When my wife and I awoke, our hotel room window looked like opaque glass for a walk-in bathroom shower (see adjacent photo). Outside, everything was coated with a layer of ice about one-fourth of an inch thick. Roadways and sidewalks glistened in silence.
Also, commercial jets couldn’t be heard overhead. With the airport closed due to freezing rain, family members who were booked to fly out that morning got nowhere. Many didn’t until the next afternoon.
Later that morning, after the rain stopped, I gingerly stepped outside to our rental car in the hotel parking lot. It was completely entombed in ice. Using the electronic door lock, I was able to get one door open. Thankfully, the car had an ice scraper in the back seat, and I began to scrape the front windshield — but the ice was so thick, scraping was futile. Carefully, I began to stab at the ice with the edge of the scraper to hopefully reach glass.
While I did so, it began to rain and a hard blast of wind swirled around my face and blew raindrops onto my glasses. It was mid-April, but it sure didn’t look or feel like it. Don’t get me wrong; I love my childhood home state. But evidently it’s a conditional love, or I suspect, I never would have left for a new life in Utah four decades ago.
I’m glad I did. And that episode of freezing rain in Michigan was reminder enough as to why I love living in Utah more. Life Elevated? Absolutely. And without the ice.