Yesterday it snowed in Seattle. This happens rarely enough that folks panic when the first flake hits the ground. Buses run less often. The stores sell out of milk and ice melt. Driving becomes an adventure on Seattle’s famously sloping roadways. (I swear it really is possible to walk through the snow uphill both ways.)
On Saturday I’m heading up to Anchorage, Alaska for a month in the frozen north. Which today happens to be the glazed-over north: Freezing rain on top of snow turned streets into skating rinks and hilly streets into luge runs.
The thought made me cringe, which in turn made me realize I’ve become a total weenie after nine years of Lower 48 living.
When I moved from Alaska to Chicago in 2001, I actually missed winter. Ice and all.
Snowshoes, ice grippers
Recently I found something I’d written in late January 2002, during a freakishly warm spell in Chicago. It was in the 50s that day, a Saturday so mild that I walked a mile to the post office even though I was pretty sure it had closed at noon.
It had – but so what? Hugging my unmailed packages, I strolled to the neighborhood grocery store rather than drive to a supermarket. I even sweated, a little.
For the previous 17 years I’d lived in Anchorage, years during which the worlds “stroll” and “winter” were mutually exclusive. It wasn’t that I was non-ambulatory from September through April. I was just a lot more cautious about it.
I slogged through snowdrifts and tiptoed cautiously along icy sidewalks. I strapped on ice-grippers and crackled my way down the sloping, smooth-as-glass parking lot at my old job.
I buckled on snowshoes and shuffled along pristine white trails marred only by the occasional moose nugget. And the only sweat I worked up was shoveling the porch, the driveway and the roof.
But stroll? Only if we were on vacation someplace like Phoenix or Seattle, a place with pavement you could see.
And there I was, in the last week of January, walking without a jacket. The sun was warm on my face. A mild breeze ruffled my hair.
Hoarfrost and frozen noses
I missed dry, crisp air that curled into vapor as you exhaled. I missed the hoarfrost created by days of sustained cold, and the way it sparkled when the sun came out from behind the clouds. I missed the Styrofoam squeak that snow makes when you’re walking on below-zero days, or nights.
I missed the way that snowdrifts shaded blue or purple as the low winter sun slipped out of sight. I missed the exhilaration of walking from a warm house into a sharply cold day, and the satisfaction of later coming back to a cozy dwelling that smells, if you’re lucky, of chili or freshly baked brownies.
Heck, I even missed the sensation of my nose hairs freezing. Forgive the bluntness, but that’s how Alaskans can tell if the temperature is zero or thereabouts: by that tickling, tingling feeling in the nostrils.
Oh, sure, I carped and whined and about thawing frozen pipes with a hairdryer, about the fear of ditch-diving on the way to work, about the rock-solid berms that snowplows left at the foot of the driveway. I grumbled as I took my turn getting up at 3 a.m. to start our cars during sustained cold spells.
Yet down in Chicago, I pined for that sort of thing.
We’re not in control
A good dose of cold weather keeps us humble. It reminds us that no matter how advanced we think we are, no matter what technological marvels keep us spinning in our self-contained, self-important little worlds, there’s not a cell phone or a snowplow in the world that can beat Mother Nature when she’s feeling frisky.
We might be able to fly faster than the speed of sound, but a good old-fashioned blizzard will close the airport.
And admit it: Isn’t it nice, sometimes, to be snowbound? As much as you hate digging out your drivewayyet again, part of you secretly longs for a snow day. If a major storm had the governor telling all non-essential personnel to stay home, you’d do the butt dance in your PJs in your living room. Then you’d check the cupboards for marshmallows to go with the hot chocolate – or to go on toasting forks, if you’re clever enough to have bought a house with a fireplace.
You’d keep up with the shoveling off and on all day, and maybe build a snowman with the kids. Mostly, though, you’d revel in how good it felt to be still once in a while. Our days have turned into stuff sacks, crammed with more data and obligations than any one person should really handle. That’s why it’s good, every now and then, to realize that we really aren’t in control.
So don’t complain if winter arrives with a bang. Don’t mourn it as the end of autumn. Look at it as the way things ought to be.
And if you don’t get much snow? Use whatever accumulation there is. One spring a co-worker and I took a short break to walk on the bike path that looped past the newspaper office. To our surprise it was snowing, covering the finally-thawed walkway with a fresh cushion of white.
Jokingly I dared my friend – a lovely, ladylike woman who always wore dresses to work – to make a snow angel. Shockingly, she did so. Just flopped down on the ground and started moving her arms and legs back and forth to make angel robes and wings.
Instigator that I am, I still didn’t quite have the nerve to join her. Now I wish I had. So if you happen to walk by a North Seattle apartment building and see a 50-something woman lying on her back, flailing her limbs and getting snow down her neck, stop for a minute and cheer her on.
Or join her. A little chilly frivolity is good for you. Especially if you know you don’t have to shovel your roof later.