On Snow Days, Then and Now

Infrastructure matters. Growing up in snowy, cold places with plenty of snow and ice, we got through winters easily, because you know, we owned mittens, and a snow scraper and heavy pants. We Texans are not being weenies about this week’s winter storm. People are being remarkably resilient here as we lose electricity and heat, pipes burst and flood our homes, or pipes freeze, and we have no water. Getting around is hard when there are no snowplows, and no sanding or salting being done even on the busiest streets. It’s starting to warm up after a difficult week, and it’s made me asses my feelings about snow and cold, and how wearing two pairs of leggings does not equate the warmth of a good pair of snow pants.

I grew up in Iowa. Iowa has outstanding snow days. I have fond memories of tobogganing down the rolling hills that cozy up to the Mississippi. Sledding never really worked out well, as the runners would get stuck in the deep fluffy snow, but on a toboggan, you could fly. My dad would climb on the back and then the rest of us neighborhood kids would pile in front of him. Shoving our heels in and inching forward, we’d gain speed and then whoosh down the hill. I loved being in the front. The snow would cut up over the curved edge of the toboggan, and hit me full in the face, the sharp of the cold dulled by the sheer joy of the ride. The ending was always the same, a slow tip and roll to the side to stop before we hit the trees at the bottom, then brush off, and start the climb back up to the top again for another ride.

We neighborhood kids did everything together, including trying to burn down the side-yard pine tree of the mean neighbors across the street, but that’s a story for another day. We walked four blocks to school together even on the coldest and snowiest of days (uphill both ways, literally). I may have fulfilled my heroic mandate here on earth early one morning in kindergarten on one of those walks. Little Anne, who lived next door to us in Dubuque with her six annoying brothers slipped on an icy patch at the curve in the road just as a car slid on the same patch and careened toward her. I remember the slow motion of watching my hand reach out as she fell, grabbing the hood of her coat and yanking her back towards me, as the car wheels missed her by a frozen eyelash. We both fell backwards onto the frozen sidewalk and slid down the hill into the legs of the parent who was walking with us that day. I’m fairly sure that was the first time I heard a string of swear words out of a grownup as she picked us both up and shook us to be sure we still had all of our bits.

Later, after a move to Kansas, being outside in snow took on a different meaning. It can be a mean snow there, wind-driven straight down from the Arctic circle with nothing but a few strands of barbed wire in the way. The wind is no joke in the Plains States, and made snow days a ferocious beast, but still beautiful after the winds died down. I walked to school both ways back then too, downhill to get to grade school, uphill for home. I walked alone instead of with a gang, as we had moved into an older neighborhood without a lot of kids in it. I was also that plump weird kid with granny glasses who liked to read. I’m sure that had something to do to create my solitary walks.

There was a pine tree on my walking route about half-way home. If you crawled underneath the branches you’d find a perfect sitting branch, curved invitingly. You could look up into green branches that towered above, and listen to their whisper as they moved in the wind. The branches would creak a bit too, the way an old rocking chair creaks, in a steady soothing rhythm. In winter, while there was never much snow under the tree, flakes would filter down like tiny pinballs in an arcade, catching snippets of light as they turned back and forth on descent. The base of the tree was crunchy dead pine needles, still releasing that pine scent. It was a safe haven and at its best on snowy days.

Snow as a teenager meant a long, but worth-it drive to the mountains of Colorado to go ski. It would take about 10 hours all told, more if the last bit from Idaho Springs through the Eisenhower tunnel to the other side of the Continental Divide was slick. We would ski my favorite, Keystone, or icy A-Basin, freezing cold and windy Copper or Breckenridge. We never really went all the way over to Vail, and Beaver Creek hadn’t been built yet. I learned to ski at the base of Peak 8 over at Breck. I had trouble learning how to stop and found myself drifting into fence and then into the parking lot beyond it the first few tries, but aside from a few moments of terror, I loved being out in the snow and the cold, and had the right clothes for it.

There is an interim between joyful memories of snow and how I feel about it today when I hated winter weather. I lived in Chicago and surrounds for college and a while after. It gets insanely cold and snowy in Chicago. There was a time back in the early 80s when I was still in college, when the wind chill was -80. Not a typo. Eighty below zero. I lived in an aging apartment with a cracked window in the bathroom, so in winter the water froze in there, me along with it. I slogged through thigh-deep snow drifts to get to the Belmont El to go to work downtown while it was still dark out. I have never been so cold as standing on that El platform, waiting for the train to come.

What I’ve learned over this past week of very cold temperatures and a good dump of snow here in Dallas, is that my happy opinion of snow has come back. I’ve reveled in the squeaking noise my Merrell boots make as I walk through it on below-freezing days. (Side note, these are great boots – I got them to hike in Colorado with, and they’ve turned out to be great snow boots too.)

I love the fresh cold air, and burying my nose in a scarf. I feel alive and happy, especially when the sun comes out and the sky is a brilliant blue, and the snow transforms into millions of sparkling diamonds. My old dog positively frolics in it, and that makes me happy too. What I don’t love is living in a place that isn’t ready for this kind of weather at all – it changes the equation into a difficult and dangerous one that would challenge anyone, even a snow-lover. So don’t armchair quarterback Texas too hard this week please, or at the very least, send down some long johns and de-icer, we could sure use some.

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