Traverse City Sidewalks, Busy Sidewalks
Some people dream of sand between their toes, palm trees, frilly-drinks in hand. Some dream of being movie stars, famous and wealthy beyond imagination, a Bugatti Veyron flat-out on the Autobahn. Others, they dream of solace and quietude, alone in a cabin in the woods, no-one for miles around.
None of those dreams suit me. I’m a more practical sort, like a lot of us who choose to live in northern Michigan. With few natural disasters to challenge our comfort, we earn our metal each year withstanding the tornados of festival season, tsunamis of kayakers, and hurricanes of leaf-peepers.
For this migrant but hardened Michigander, only dreams of snow will suffice.
I have friends who’ve already transformed their garages into makeshift ski-tuning shops with custom built benches, hot irons melting wax, and cordless drills aligning brand new bindings, sure to give them that extra edge on the Vasa trail. You know who you are! My wife purchased her annual all-access pass to Crystal Mountain months ago, while we were still reading books on the beach. We are a fortunate lot, and for us the struggle to dream of snow is real.
However, some people in the community have a difficult time dreaming of snow with such positive excitement. They are too busy planning to do something most of us take for granted. These people are strategizing how they’ll get around town on snow-covered sidewalks and across streets piled high with scattershot piles of snow and slush. There are other people, shopping bags in both hands, standing atop an icy hillock where once their bus stop could be found.
My dreams illuminate the smiling faces of these grateful people after realizing that someone they don’t know has just spent an hour volunteering to clear a path for their commute.
Every winter day in Traverse City I witness hundreds of people trudging through snow-covered walkways to get to and from work. For most of us, it’s a simple task, a slight modification of our stride, some cleats on the bottom of our boots, or studded tires on that fat-bike. There are also those that move through town with a physical disability, use mobility aids, or have a lessened sense of balance. For these people, a few inches of snow or an ice-encrusted sidewalk can be crippling.
So, I dream of shoveling snow; really, I dream of it. Last winter I wore half an inch off our aluminum shovel working on the Cass Street bridge and a few other unkempt intersections. But it’s not just my internal control-freak that motivates me to scrape the sidewalks clean. It’s about literally leveling the playing field for those with less mobility than myself. In such a beautiful community as ours, no-one should fear going out their front door because they can’t count on their sidewalk being clear enough to let them pass. And yet, it happens every day during the winter, all across the city.
My friend Jeanne makes her way around town in a motorized wheelchair, with her service dog Lukie beside her. If the Cass Street bridge and the intersections aren’t cleared, Jeanne is forced to enter the roadway to get around obstacles in her path. The morning that moved me to action was a snowy day. It was 7 AM, and Jeanne and Lukie we’re headed to physical therapy at a gym on State Street only two blocks from their home.
I was walking on the sidewalk in front of The Firefly Restaurant. This stretch was perfectly groomed. But as I looked north towards downtown, I could see Jeanne in her wheelchair, red light flashing on her backpack, Lukie next to her, not on the sidewalk but in the middle of the street moving against traffic. They were making their way to the next ramp in front of Central United Methodist Church. The 50-yard space between the Firefly and the Church was impassable.
The walkway on the Cass Street bridge is left unplowed by the City due to it being too narrow and a bit unsafe to fit their tractor. On the bridge was four or five inches of fresh snow, covering a couple more inches of crusty ice left from a previous day’s snowfall. Jeanne, in her wheelchair, and Lukie had no choice but to find the only clear path which happened to be on a busy street. (Props to the folks at Firefly, Rivers Edge, and Central United Church for getting out early every day to clear their portions of the route.)
I was aghast at what Jeanne had to do and vowed that I’d get up early every day and make an attempt to keep that pathway open for her and anyone else who traveled the route. As I shoveled each day, often with my dog Tula standing guard, people would come by immediately grateful for the effort. Some thought I worked for the City, others thought I worked for a private firm or the church, but they always expressed gratitude.
Shoveling also helped me meet new people. At least once each day someone would strike up a conversation with me on the bridge. These folks represented the gamut of Traverse City; attorneys with offices downtown, churchgoers, hungry restaurant patrons, even my own neighbors from Midtown. But the interactions that made it worthwhile for me were with people like Jeanne in her wheelchair, or the homeless man that offered me a hug and a cigarette to warm my hands. There is no better payment for work done than the sincere embrace of hard-earned gratitude.
This week, as winter looks to make itself felt, I promised myself a treat. Like a little kid giddy at the approaching holiday season, I took myself to a local hardware store and purchased a new shovel. I’m sure the woman at the counter thought I was slightly off-kilter as I carefully tested half a dozen shovels for their heft, angle of attack, and durability. I pushed each shovel down the aisle, making mental notes for myself. After forty-five minutes, I emerged with my weapon of choice for the onrushing season.
With intentional allusions to Game of Thrones, I’m here to tell you winter should fear me. Bring on the white walkers and their ice blades. Because unlike John Snow, I do know something, and there are more like me standing in line to take on another season. In fact, last winter volunteers with Pro Walk/Pro Bike Traverse City and Norte took on over forty intersections around the City and kept them clear. We don’t wear suits of armor or wield magical spells. We do, however, carry shovels and hold fire in our hearts.
Most of us have never met in this context. We’re just citizens doing our part to make Traverse City a safe, more-awesome, place to live, work, and play. We know the City is doing what it can, but we also know we’re all part of this community. It’s our job to fill in the gaps whenever possible, to equalize the playing field. But we all get so much in return for our efforts.
You go ahead and dream of dipping your toes in warm Pacific waters, while holding that Mai Tai. I’ll be here, sound asleep on those cold winter nights, dreaming of snow, piles and piles of snow. And when I awake, my shovel and my dog and my fiery heart will be at the ready, looking to make someone’s day a little better. Feel like joining me?
Bill Palladino is a NYC native now thriving in TC. A husband, father, dog lover, bread baker, North Dakota State University alum, longtime community activist, Bill is also Executive Director at the Grand Traverse Food Shed Alliance and the first ever recipient of the Para Dorada award for his shoveling heroics last winter. Follow his adventures at instagram.com/mifoodshed
Get involved with The Great Traverse City Shovel Experiment HERE.