This will be my first winter without snow. That sounds like the first sentence of a cerebral literary novel about displacement and finding connection (audiobook read by Ben Whishaw), but in this case it’s just a statement of fact. I moved to northern California this year, where in order to get a winter wonderland you drive up to the mountains instead of waiting for the weather to change. “We’re driving up to the snow today,” you say here, apparently.
I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life: Illinois till eighteen, Michigan for a few months, and then Wisconsin for the next three years. A classic Midwestern proverb is that we have two seasons, winter and construction. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois winters could easily mean six months without decent sunlight. And after that I was in Colorado for three years, which while technically “the West” has these undercurrents of Midwestern suburban cultural sensibility that they don’t like to admit. So, with some little changes in the last three years, this is my first winter outside Midwestern cultural influence.
This is all to say that these are all places where it snows extensively in winter and that trudging through the snow has had an outsized influence on my life.
Once, I returned to my university campus a weekend earlier than most other students for winter term, because I had studied abroad the previous term and needed to move into my new dorm. It was December and just started snowing when I arrived. It takes about three and a half hours to get from my hometown in Illinois to my Wisconsin alma mater. Pulling into my dorm parking lot, a two-inch layer of soft snow had already collected, and I was worried my bald-tired car wouldn’t get through it. But I parked without much difficulty, aligned myself into a spot as well as I could see. I got my key from the help desk in the student center then got to moving in. I elected to keep most of my stuff in boxes for the time being, just set up my TV and the DVD player, and then went on a walk to a greasy little Chinese takeout place downtown for dinner. I ordered lo mein and walked back through the gently falling snow and watched The French Connection. The TV was positioned next to a large window looking out onto the white-sheeted street, where barely any cars passed and the plows had yet to traverse. It was so quiet.
I’m not sure if I can ever fully communicate how at peace I feel at certain moments in the winter time in the Midwest. I might actually have to admit that I’ll miss it.
I had a similar feeling on the night right before I was heading back home after the end of a term, a year or two before the anecdote just described. It was snowing and along the main street folks were gathering for a nighttime parade (this particular town loved putting on parades). I had The Ice Queen by Hans Christian Andersen going in my earbuds. I don’t know why I was walking, probably just for the sake of walking, maybe to pick up a coffee or something, but I remember feeling so distinctly calm that night. I was still reeling from a bad breakup at the time, feeling uncertain about my place on that campus, but I felt so completely in tune with everything just walking that night.
It’s not even when I’m in a comfortable position, or appreciating the snow for myself. For example, Colorado snow is different than Midwestern snow. Colorado is extremely sunny, which is nice in some respects, but that means they slack a little bit on snow removal. They expect the sun to take care of it, which means one or two plow-throughs then slick roads and sidewalks for a length of time that would scandalize any Midwestern snow crew, as we wait for natural light to melt the remaining ice.
Anyway, my last job in Colorado was working for a small university as one of their two landscapers. In the winter, this required a fair amount of snow removal. So I would get up at 4:30 am, get to work by 5, and spend the morning shoveling and plowing in a skid steer and laying down ice melt. It was hard work, and constant, but satisfying in a way. It was work with immediate results, what was once inaccessible or hazardous now easy to cross and safe. And it was self-guided work, me by myself, barely anyone else even awake at that hour, much less out and about. Listening to podcasts or music, running inside every now and then to warm up, drinking coffee from a thermos. No problems beyond what was right in front of me, maintaining my body’s health and removing snow.
Not that this is something I feel only when I’m alone either. I remember a night at my university when a group of newly-made friends and I walked to a nearby park, chatting and wandering onto a playground, where we took turns swinging on the freezing swingset. Or the pleasant little strolls my partner and I would go on in local parks in Boulder after or during a snow. Boot crunches and red, runny noses, hot chocolate afterwards. The chill vibes are considerable. I remember once during a family trip to New York City, driving from Illinois through Ohio, my brothers, my dad and I took refuge during a particularly bad part of a snow storm in a donut shop off to the side of a road. Warm drinks, sweet pastries, chilly weather. Good combination.
And I remember this appreciation from a long, long time ago. Playing in the snow with neighborhood friends. Growing up, I lived on a street with no outlet, and the plows would push the snow off the roads into an enormous heap at its end. As kids, we would burrow through this hill, play games, amaze ourselves with how warm the tunnels we’d made out of something so freezing could be. We also had a forest behind our house (or rather, floodplains lined by trees, but it felt enough like a forest for us), which we would always romp through after a good snow. Snowball fights and the works. I don’t think I played outside half as much during the summer. Summers in Illinois are humid, muggy, full of bugs. The snow could be brutal too, but it was brutal in fewer ways. You knew what you would have to deal with in the cold and wet. Plus, it was easier to keep warm than cool, easier to defrost once inside.
Now, all that is gone in my day-to-day. Surely I’ll visit the Midwest in the winter at some point, but it won’t be for too long. Thinking even more long term, the winters will get increasingly unfriendly, unwieldy and brutal, more like those sudden Colorado blasts of snow, only for longer and with more intensity, thanks to climate change. There’s a number of reasons why I’m glad to have moved out of the Midwest and why I’m happy to be in California, but it’s no use denying how much ties me to the weather and terrain there. People make fun of the prairies and miles of cornfields, but damnit I like that. I like being able to see the horizon.
Okay, maybe this is more like that literary novel narrated by Ben Whishaw than I’d intended. Whatever. Going with it.
It was already different in Colorado. Snow made me more nervous there, for the aforementioned lack of protection against it on the roads. Colorado is, of course, much hillier than the Midwest. I was never terribly concerned about ice on the roads in Illinois because it was relatively tough to lose control if you were being smart ad just going straight on a flat surface. To get into Boulder, where I lived in Colorado, you had to drive down an enormous hill where cars would inevitably lose control and fall into a ditch off the side of the road. Inevitably my brakes would fail to connect if I got just a hair too fast and my heart would skip a beat. Plus, I just didn’t have the same amount of safety netting in Colorado. I was an adult now and had places to be. I needed to drive the twenty minutes to the Broomfield library in order to pick up my boyfriend after work. I needed to get to work in the morning before the plows had even gotten a chance to get the roads cleared off. Fewer resources and more responsibilities led more anxiety around the snow, made me understand it the way adults understood it, as a nuisance and a hurdle. My university was residential, so I never really had to drive much during bad storms. Even when the polar vortex struck a few years back and temperatures got below negative forty degrees, I would just sit in the car with the engine running for about fifteen minutes a day just to make sure the engine or battery didn’t freeze. I didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Thinking about these moments makes me miss them, makes me wonder if I’m in the right place. And to this I have to wonder in return whether it might all be a case of golden age thinking, or some similar phenomenon. Because while I definitely have a fondness for these memories, and while I do remember embracing them in the moment at least to some extent, always in my day-to-day, outside these moments, I wanted to be somewhere else, doing something else. I wanted to be grown up and on my own when I was a child, I wanted to graduate when I was in college, I wanted to live somewhere better and work a better job when I was living in Colorado. Despite these corny reminiscences of times when I felt blissful, I know that when observing at a macro-scale, my life has been a series of chapters where I’m waiting for something better. These moments in the snow offered something like an interlude, but I know that this feeling isn’t exclusive to this particular weather pattern. Maybe the winter rains here in northern California will bring me peace. Or maybe, with increasing drought, those rains will come less and less over the years, and merely the slightly cooler days will bring that moment of peace. Maybe I’ll increasingly find peace in idyllic moments by being with other people regardless of the weather.
Maybe these moments were meant to be appreciated for what they are: Simple, beautiful, tranquil. They don’t need to mean anything more than that. Rather, it’s the acknowledgment that these are only moments. Life can’t be sustained through these moments, for better or worse. Can’t be perpetuated. I have a certain unique fondness for certain unique moments in my life, and that perhaps colors the rest of my reflections on those stages in life. I have to remember all the uncertainty, all the bad things, all my failings during those stages, too. And learn from them, and understand that all stages come with the good and the bad. That these simple, beautiful, tranquil moments come and go. And that’s okay.