Spring Breakup: Not What You Might Think

February 24, 2023

Daffodils are blooming all over these North Carolina mountains as February winds down. This past week, as I’ve alternated basking in welcome sunshine and listening to spring rains that bring out the scent of damp, awakening forests, I’m reminded why I chose to move here. In other places I’ve lived, spring normally arrives later, and much less gently.

Not everyone may be familiar with the term ‘spring breakup.’ It has nothing to do with a seasonal demise of romance between humans, although the hardships it can cause could certainly instigate such a collapse.

I first heard the term in the late 1970s, when I moved to North Idaho, wanting to try my hand at homesteading. Accustomed to the arid climes of the southern Rockies, I found myself unprepared for the long, difficult conditions of springtime awakening in the intermountain west.

My small cabin nestled in a birch grove on a dirt two-track, a couple miles off a graveled county road. The primitive byway seemed adequate from early May through the following March, although it got quite muddy when it rained. My little Ford Courier pickup maneuvered through or around even the largest puddles fairly easily.

By mid-December, extreme cold froze the roads solid, making them easy to navigate, as long as the snow didn’t get too deep. A neighbor with a tractor ran his blade along the trail after most snowstorms, providing decent access throughout the long, dark winter.

The days gradually lengthened, and by early March the snow started to melt. The dirt road got a little soft on top, but stayed drivable because of the ice remaining a few inches down.

Several long-established neighbors began making early morning trips to town, returning with loads of supplies before the sun rose high enough to warm the trail. One of them stopped and knocked on my door.

“You’d better start stockpiling food, fuel, and water,” he said. “Spring breakup’s comin’ fast.”

I gave him a blank stare.

“As the snow melts, these roads will become impassible until the ice underneath them thaws and lets the water drain away,” he explained. “That can last a good six weeks or longer. If you need to get out during that time, you’ll have to walk. You might want to park your pickup down by the county road.”

“Thanks,” I said.

As he left, I glanced at my half-full woodshed and smiled. I thought about my pantry, still laden with rows of home-canned produce from last year’s garden. It can’t be that bad, I thought. I’ll just bring in another load of drinking water and some extra flour and coffee. Things should be just fine.

I made that early-morning run to town a few days later. Returning home, I noticed that even the gravel county road had turned a bit mushy. I observed a half dozen of my neighbors’ vehicles parked in a wide spot on the county road near our mailboxes, and I wondered if this would be the last time I’d be driving home for a while.

My pickup struggled on the muddy two-track, although the sun hadn’t yet risen above the trees. Deciding to play it safe, I unloaded my supplies and drove back to the county road, where I parked alongside my neighbors. It took me an hour to walk back to my cabin.

A couple of weeks passed, and I’d seen no traffic on the two-track. The weather had been mostly rainy, but it often still froze at night. I had plenty to eat and drink, and my woodstove kept me warm. But cabin fever began to set in.

One day, under clearing skies, I hoofed it to the makeshift parking area and drove to town, just to get out. I lunched with a friend, then picked up a few groceries, but not many, knowing I’d have to pack them in.

I headed home, enjoying the bright sunshine. I turned off the highway on to the county road, surprised at the softness of the supposedly all-weather surface. Less than a half mile in, a school bus sat in the center of the road, buried to its axles in mud. Its doors were propped open and its occupants nowhere to be seen.

Scarcely a mile beyond that, I encountered a Volkswagen Beetle. It rested at an angle, buried in mud halfway up the driver’s side door. The passenger door stood open; again, nobody in sight. I kept moving at a good clip, fearful that my Ford would share the same fate if I slowed. I parked near the mailboxes and slogged home.

Another couple of rainy weeks passed, and it became apparent that my stocking-up efforts had been inadequate. I ventured out once again with an empty backpack.

This time, I walked through fog and constant drizzle in the woods alongside the two-track, because the deep mud in the roadway extended higher than my boot tops. The muck stuck to the soles, adding an inch to my height. The walk took nearly two hours.

Exhausted, I reached the parking area and gaped in shock at the sight. Vandals had attacked the vehicles, breaking windows, flattening tires, and denting hoods and fenders. My Ford sported a flat tire, and the smashed windshield allowed both rain and wildlife inside. Some critter had chewed the soggy, stained upholstery. I sat down in the mud and cried, questioning my decision to become a homesteader in the north woods.

The experience didn’t change my lifestyle (at least not then), but it did provide a jolt of reality. I lost my naiveté about the darker side of human nature, and I eventually got better at self-sufficiency.

Today it’s one of many memories that increases my appreciation of being here now, with the daffodils, in the western North Carolina mountains.

Photo by Михаил Павленко on Unsplash

7 thoughts on “Spring Breakup: Not what you might think

Carol Smucker says: February 25, 2023 at 1:46 pm

Oh my, what a learning experience! Great story, great writing, as usual. Thanks for sharing your adventures with us!

Evy Ost says: February 25, 2023 at 5:33 pm

Keep writing, my dear. You have the talent🥰

Sandy says: April 1, 2023 at 6:38 pm

Thanks, Evy!

Michael Douglas says: February 26, 2023 at 2:24 pm

Great story – true learning experience. It is amazing you did that homesteading while young.

Daffodils are (unfortunately) native to Europe… they have bloomed already in our yard in Oklahoma (we planted them years ago). I learned about Spring breakup in Alaska – we were told when to travel there to avoid it so I never experienced it personally.

I wonder why the vehicle doors were propped open… to let people in? In some places they recommend leaving your car unlocked so people don’t damage it by breaking in…

Sandy says: April 1, 2023 at 6:38 pm

Thanks for the kind words…I did a lot of crazy stuff when I was young. It gives me lots to write about these days!

I am presuming the doors were left open simply because everyone left in a hurry, but not sure. I thought it odd at the time.

I’d guess most of the bulb flowers we commonly plant in American gardens are not native. With a couple of notable exceptions, I think most of them don’t spread terribly, and haven’t been banned. They certainly perk up a dreary early spring day, though!

Voelker lisa says: February 26, 2023 at 6:07 pm

Wonderful, short story! I look forward to an expanded version as a story of your experience as a homesteader.

Sandy says: April 1, 2023 at 6:46 pm

Thank you!

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