The Patience of a Saint—Stranded in St. John’s, Newfoundland
Raymond was a salty old soul who would take five drags of his cigarette in between a single shovel’s worth of snow, huffing and puffing and regaling us with tales of how much snow he’s moved in his day. He wasn’t any help. However, given our situation, there was no option but to find it immensely funny. You see, just the day before, Reid Smith, Jake Durham, and I were nearly buried alive in Newfoundland. The sun had come out the following morning to reveal the true destruction that the largest storm in 100 years had done to the island’s capital city of St. John’s. While finding the absurdity in our downstairs neighbor was a way of dealing with our current scenario, with every shovel’s worth of snow and five drags of Raymond’s cigarette, we were very quickly realizing that we were indeed pretty damn fucked for the foreseeable future.
The trip had started off as usual. A mission to St. John’s, Newfoundland, the easternmost habitable town in North America. The reason Reid, Jake, and I chose this locale was the exact same reason that Maria Thomsen, Niels Schack, Ethan Deiss, Dean “Blotto” Gray, Malachi Gerard, Joe Carlino, Mark Wilson, Nick Erickson, Parker Szumowski, Seamus Foster, Marc O’Malley, Derrek Lever, Spencer Schubert, Tommy Gesme, Colton Feldman, and Jed Anderson also decided to pull the trigger. The snow conditions in January in the US were fickle to say the least, and rumors were swirling that it was even raining in street snowboarding meccas like Stockholm and Helsinki. Winter simply wasn’t working in our favor, and so, like many missions to areas that are holding, everyone headed to St. John’s.
I made it to our Airbnb at 2am, after a short Uber ride and brief history lesson from my friendly driver. I stumbled around in the dark and stubbed my toe a few times before finding the closest available bed and crashing, waking up the next morning to sunbeams streaming through the kitchen blinds as Jed prepared avocado toast, sat down at his computer and started planning the spots he wanted to hit that day. Durham and Reid rolled out of bed, we loaded up the van, and hit the road.
The landscape and architecture of St. John’s is among the most unique and beautiful that I’ve ever seen. Narrow roads and steep hills spiderweb through the city, which was settled by the British in the 1600s, and everything funnels down to the harbor. Brightly colored houses pepper the hillside in an explosion of blues, pinks, yellows, purples, reds. Rich, vibrant colors illuminate the cityscape and contrast the newer, more dreary office buildings that signal the industrial boom that the modern day has brought to this once pint-sized, drunken port town. As far as snowboarding is concerned, the city is a rail rider’s paradise. Unlimited natural speed spackled with features throughout the city make St. John’s an incredible place to stack clips. Think Boston, Massachusetts, but with more snow, more hills, and tighter side streets, though the local dialect is signiﬁcantly harder to understand than even the thickest Massachusetts accent. Locals, known as Newﬁes, speak in a staccato of stacked sentences with a thick Irish accent. For example, when our neighbor Raymond would rattle off what he believed to be relevant information to me, Jed, Reid, and Durham, it was incomprehensible and always ended the same way, with Ray walking off believing he truly communicated valuable information, while we would simply look at each other after he rounded the corner to his apartment. One of us would utter, “What the fuck did he just say?” before all shrugging and going about our day.
The first few days of our trip were incredible. It was the first time that Jed and Reid had ridden together and they synched up perfectly; on any given day, either one of them would walk away with two clips. The snow was good, the weather was perfect, and it couldn’t have been going better, as far as we were concerned. This is when things started to get interesting. Around the fourth day, we heard rumblings here and there of a storm—from our server at dinner, the random passerby asking what we were doing in St. John’s or the news stations who were frantically scouring the city looking for one of the crews to interview. It was the first topic of conversation throughout the entire city.
“You hear about the storm comin’ our way on Friday? It’s gonna be a big one.”
“Been hearing about it, yeah. I fly out Friday morning right as it’s supposed to hit, so I think I timed it right.”
“Oh, that plane ain’t takin’ off.”
“Ehhh. We’ll see. How bad could it be?”
For thirteen years, I’ve been ﬂying in and out of storms, so hearing rumors of a blizzard doesn’t really ever concern me. Still, we kept our eye on the weather. As the week went on, the locals’ tales seemed to grow taller by the hour and this storm seemed to strengthen with every adjective used to describe it. Storm of the century. Bomb cyclone. Hurricane blizzard. Apocalyptic whiteout conditions. Terms I had never heard lumped together to describe a winter storm. By Thursday, Jed had decided to pull the plug (smartly, may I add) and get outta town. We ﬁgured it was worth it to call the airlines to see if the rest of us could get on a ﬂight the same evening, only to be borderline laughed at by the customer service representatives as they informed us that the earliest ﬂights out we could get on were the ones we already had booked. We headed back to the Airbnb after dropping Jed off, packed up, and drank some red wine as this storm barreled down on St. John’s. Later that evening, almost simultaneously, our phones began dinging and buzzing, informing us that our ﬂights the next morning were cancelled. We called, waited on hold, rebooked for the following day and continued sipping red wine and watching Netﬂix. A few hours later, our phones started dinging and buzzing again. This time, it was a state of emergency declaration from the Canadian government. What the fuck? It wasn’t even snowing yet. Odd. At that point, there was no other option than to call it a night, see what the storm did, and head home on Saturday.
Reid and I were the ﬁrst ones up on Friday morning and to try and explain the pure power of what Mother Nature was pummeling St. John’s with is one of the tougher tasks in my career. The wind sounded like a 747 ﬂying 500 feet above our house at all times. The snowfall was so heavy that when we looked out the window, we couldn’t see the houses across the street. Every single car was buried under six feet of snow, and it was only 10 o’clock in the morning. This thing was supposed to last until late that evening. Nervously laughing, Reid and I decided to gear up, brave the elements and go have a look for ourselves. Unfortunately for us, we had a screen door that opened outward and when we opened the main front door, it was instantly clear that due to the six-foot snowdrift that had piled up on our front porch overnight, we couldn’t get out. In far fewer words, we were absolutely, completely fucked.
A quick text to Alex Andrews and the promise of a few beers had him on our front porch, shovel-in-hand, within an hour and when we ﬁnally got outside, we realized how much more fucked we were than we had initially thought. This was hands down the biggest, loudest, most violent weather event I had ever seen in my life, and there is no question about that. It was bad. Real bad. And at that particular point in time, there was nothing that we could possibly do aside from wait it out and see how much damage would be done. We headed back inside, took a quick inventory of our food that we had bought a few days earlier “just in case:” three bottles of red wine, a box of Chips Ahoy! cookies, a dozen beers, and some pasta for dinner that night. We hunkered down for the entire day and were quickly informed by the airline that our ﬂights would not be taking off the next morning. Fuck.
“What the fuck was that?”
Reid and I looked at each other the following morning. The sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was an eerily beautiful day.
We geared up and went outside to see what was going on. I looked up and saw an old woman, probably in her 80s, looking out of her top ﬂoor window. The neighborhood had gathered below her and everyone was shouting, “Close your window!” The transformer bolted to the side of her house was exploding. Unsure of what to do, she closed the window and came to the front door, which was buried in feet of snow. Eventually, the electric company showed up on foot carrying ladders, climbed up the pole next to her house, and cut power to the entire neighborhood.
The entire city was shut down as news reports started coming in. No restaurants. No bars. No food stores. No hospitals. All roads were closed until further notice. Turns out that for a city that gets hammered with snow, their removal method was loading it up into dump trucks and dropping it into the harbor. We were quarantined. Isolated form the rest of the world with nothing to do but sit inside and wait for the power to come back on. We dug our rental van out, which took about two hours and then helped our neighbors dig out their vehicles. Exhausted, we went inside, cracked a bottle of red wine and were again informed by our airlines that our ﬂights the next day would not be taking off. We called, waited on hold, rebooked for the following day, and then sat down and waited for the power to come back on.
This sequence played out for the next six days with varying degrees of differences, but it was pretty much an apocalyptic winter wonderland. On one hand, the city was shut down, so it was a paradise of un-touched and no kick-out spots, but on the other hand, the hospitals were closed, so if a rider were to get injured, a shitty situation immediately turns shittier. Rumors started swirling that the military was coming to the rescue, and they sent troops to help with the gargantuan task of clearing the roads and opening up the city. Slowly, grocery and convenience stores started to open and two-hour lines to get food, water, and supplies became a reality. The power was beginning to come back on in parts of the city and by the end of our trip, you could feel St. John’s breathing itself back to life hour by hour.
As for us, we bailed on our Airbnb on the second day of our isolation as soon as we heard that the Sheraton down the road from us had plenty of power, a plethora of beer, and a hot tub. Though we did manage to hit two spots in the handful of days when we were locked down, with more information came wiser decisions and at a certain point, it simply became too dangerous to keep riding. So we simply settled into the suffering, waited on the phone with our airlines and lost track of time in empty bottles of beer. For me, the purest moment of clarity came on the third day of being trapped on the island, when I fully realized that this was our new reality. After countless phone calls to my wife, my friends, United Airlines, Air Canada, and the multitude of outlets that I had at my disposal, I was simply not going to get home on my time schedule. All the stress, all the worry simply vanished. When I threw up my hands and admitted to myself that this was not in my control any longer, it was the best moment of the entire trip and I will never forget it.
The irony lies in the place where I sat down to pen this piece. Salt Lake City, Utah, at my home. Stuck in isolation for non-weather-related reasons. In fact, it’s spring. The sun is shining, the weather is beautiful and the days are getting longer. My family and I are doing our part to ﬂatten the curve of the coronavirus pandemic that took the world by storm. Everything’s closed. Skateparks, malls, bars, restaurants, you name it. It’s not open. The city is shut down. In some weird way, Newfoundland changed me more than any other snowboarding trip that I’ve ever been on and it’s due to this pandemic. While Newfoundland wasn’t one of the most exotic, exciting or beautiful places that I’ve ever been, it sort of prepared me for the current situation that we are facing. This virus isn’t going to go away on its own. It’s going to take the entire world to come together in unison to achieve our collective goal and get back to how our lives were before this catastrophic event. We’ve got to admit to ourselves that while this is not in our individual control, it is in our control as a community, and this virus—like all tragic events—will run its course and eventually, we’ll all be back to doing what we love. I’ll tell you what, though. I think of Raymond often and I hope he is doing okay.