Snowbirds

by Ava Casab (‘23)

Image courtesy of Terry Sohl.

On the drive from Metro Detroit to Toledo, the highway is somehow both the most exciting and depressing thing in view. It’s not that horribly long, at least not in relatively good almost-winter weather like today. But the overarching cold-instigated depression weighs down on everyone all the same. It’s not really down-jacket temperatures yet, but everybody’s car heater is  working overtime all the same to allow drivers to shed their jackets, as they race down I-75 at speeds they probably shouldn’t be going. Sometimes I wish I was a car heater, because if car heaters were people they would probably get super high overtime rates during the winter. And I work at least seven hours overtime every week at the cafe during the holiday season. Multiply those two together and BOOM. Profit. 

But back to the highway. Cars dance in and out of the lanes, some swerving through traffic in what I’m honestly shocked don’t end in an accident. Others politely shift right as they’re passed by impatient SUVs and big pickups alike. The highway ballet is a beautiful thing, but it also freaks me out a bit to see some of these drivers do the things they do. Last week there was a three-car pileup right by the southbound exit ramp because some guy in a BMW forgot how turn signals work. Not really surprising, but enough to convince me to take the backroads when I need to pick up stuff from the PetCo in the nearest town. 

There’s a decent variety of people on the highway today—so far in my shift there have been at least four families with young children, six senior couples, a few younger lovebirds (with no boundaries on PDAs), and of course the various solo travelers. In a little coffee shop like this, on the edge of what counts as the ‘main street’ of the highway town I call home, we get a lot of traffic from ‘The Road’ as we (or really just I) like to call it. This means a few things— one, based on the first hour of my shift I can predict with eighty-three percent accuracy how many lattes versus hot chocolates I will be producing that day, and two, I have the innate ability to tell when winter will actually start. I’m like a groundhog, but instead of predicting spring with my shadow, I predict winter using the customers who walk through the coffee shop door. 

And I know what you’re thinking: how in the world am I able to predict the coming of winter based on people walking through a door? And yeah, it sounds ridiculous when you put it like that. But really, it’s just using a common concept that anyone from any state where winter is a thing, or even where winter is decidedly not a thing, can probably tell you. I’m sure there’s some regional variation, but where I’m from we always called the people who did it snowbirds.

Snowbirds are people who migrate from colder states to warmer states in the winter, and from warmer states to colder states in the summer. In doing so, they theoretically live in a state of eternally good temperatures. They are never in the cold states when winter seems set on cryogenically freezing anyone in sight, and they are never in the warm states when summer decides to turn asphalt driveways into viable surfaces for cooking an egg. Snowbirds live on the edge of the weather’s ability to perceive them. I, for one, am convinced they are as close as humanity can get to being actual witches. My grandma is a snowbird, and she somehow always leaves Michigan in time to avoid any and all snowfall while also never being in Florida on a day with an average temperature above ninety degrees Fahrenheit. 

I guess by saying that people who can perceive the coming of winter are witches, I am inadvertently calling myself a witch. I’m okay with that, mostly because the implication behind me being a witch is that I can wear a witch hat 365 days a year without any questions being asked, but also because according to Devon Cole, a witch is a “Woman In Total Control (of) Herself”. I quite enjoy the idea of being in total control of myself at all times. Right now it feels like I am in half control, but maybe that’s just the four hours of sleep I got last night talking. 

I find it harder to sleep in the winter. Somehow I’m a million times more sensitive to cold weather than warm, meaning I sleep super well even when summer edges on being a little too muggy, at least muggy by Southeastern Michigan standards. But when the second fall hits, the insomniac tendencies lying dormant in my head rear themselves up every single year without fail. It gets worse upon the consideration that I probably spend more time at the cafe than at work during the winter. We open the doors at 7 am. There’s almost always a morning rush from ‘The Road’ around 8am as travelers scramble to find a coffee shop to keep themselves awake long enough to make it out of state for Christmas without having to pit stop again. And then, of course, our regular customers always make it a point to stop by before noon during the holiday season, sometimes even just to say hello. A few high school kids hang out here after school, some on dates and others just looking for a place to  gossip with friends over lattes(made up of two drops of espresso and three gallons of milk). And by the time we’re meant to close, there’s almost always somebody walking in, looking for a quick espresso boost. Not that I mind— at this point I’m confident my blood is at least 15% caffeine from espressos with how many I drink a day— but by the end of the day, I’m always exhausted. This is why I only work four days a week- my shift technically runs 7 to 2, but I’m usually running overtime for at least an hour every day. I have a horrible work-life balance; it’s my worst character trait. 

However, I would also argue it is this overtime which allows me greater accuracy over the coming of the snow season. I get to see what jackets are on and which ones are shed, how many psychopaths are still ordering iced lattes when the forecast predicts temperatures below 50 Fahrenheit, which high school boys haven’t quite left their middle school “shorts during winter” phase. And of course, the first hour after opening is when I put my prediction skills to the test based on how many lattes and hot chocolates we sell. 

We’re getting close to winter; the high school girls have started donning their puffer jackets like it’s a cult, and I’ve gotten significantly more hot chocolate orders than usual this morning- lots of kid travelers wanting to be like Mom or Dad with a hot drink in hand as they speed down the highway. Grandma is, of course, long gone from Michigan, and I won’t be seeing her here again until late spring at the very earliest. She’s right again this year— I look outside to see a few stray snowflakes drop down onto the sidewalk and dissolve like rain within milliseconds. It’s caught me off guard. I blame the broken side of the espresso machine. It’s probably the winter chill seeping into the metal a bit too early for everyone’s liking this year. With some luck, the groundhog won’t be any more accurate with its spring prediction next year than me with winter this year. 

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