On April 21, a surprise snowstorm blew into western Montana. Small by any standards, it was one of those peaceful, quiet snows, without any wind, as if Mother Nature was feeling nostalgic and had ordered it up out of a Robert Frost poem. I say “surprise” because I was working inside that day; at 3 p.m., I looked out the window on a steady downpour of sunshine, but by the time I quit for the evening and stepped out the door at 6, there were three inches of snow on the ground, and more coming down.
I stood in the yard and turned to the cardinal directions. I could imagine the sighs of the robins and the cursing of the gardeners. I knew, too, there were people all across the region commenting on the “crazy” weather, which wasn’t crazy at all, but entirely normal. I’ve lived in or near the mountains my entire life and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the weather is fickle, especially in the mountains, and especially in spring. Let me be clear: I’m not talking about global climate change, which is a real worry, but the simple fact that that morning I’d walked down the trail from my cabin avoiding the buttercups, and that evening shuffled home through a gathering whiteness, like a figure out of Dr. Zhivago.
When I got to my cabin, I lit a fire, warmed some soup and cracked a beer. This was going to be a good night. Then, at about 10, once it was as dark as it was going to be, I pulled on my boots, coat and a hat, and headed out the door. Hot damn, I thought — a fine oxymoron given the circumstances — I’d been granted one more shot at winter.
By the time anyone reads this, it may be high summer — gin and tonic weather. Winter will be far removed and sun block within easy reach. No stranger to hedonism, I enjoy the beach as much as anyone. I like flip-flops and shorts and the thoughtlessness summer brings, its “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” laziness. But winter — as maligned as it is — has its appeal. Annick Smith gets it right in her essay “The Rites of Snow” when she says, “When you can see your breath, you know you are alive.” Here’s to you, Annick.
With a wood fire set to idle, I stepped outside and let the hushed world bang into my ears. The forest at night is intimate. It’s possible to hear secrets you’ll hear at no other time. Partly because of a string of mild winters and partly through some faulty geography of my own, it had been a long time since I’d heard this noise — and I realized just then how much I missed it — missed the sharp intake of cold air and frozen nose hairs, the chalkboard squeak of dry snow, and the immense quietude a snowfall brings. Winter, of course, isn’t easy, but it sure as hell is pretty. Snow hung like garlands on all the trees.
Earlier in the week, a friend and I saw a small herd of elk just up the hill, and I headed in that direction. At my feet were the tracks of the nearly tame and ubiquitous deer, inscribing the snow with their heart-shaped indentations. I wasn’t worried about the ungulates, but I wondered about the sandhill cranes that had arrived the week before, and the flute-voiced meadowlarks; would they open their throats as sweetly in the cold? That afternoon walking home, I’d startled the pair of mountain bluebirds. Already two shades past brilliant, they were now set against a backdrop of snow and it was like they’d somehow turned their color up another notch. I thought of them as I shivered under my coat, hoping they hadn’t made a fatal mistake coming north this early.
Despite my good intentions, I didn’t get very far. As usual, my walk turned into a stand. All I did was walk down to the field below my cabin and stand there like a statue, taking it all in. There was a small moon above the clouds sending down a diffused light, and the ground, entirely white, seemed to glow. With the all-inclusive silence, it felt like I stood at the center of the world, and seen from the proper distance, it might have been true. I was a tiny member of the tiny human race: slipshod and timeworn, fleeting as a snowflake. It was good to be reminded of this, good to have some cold air up my nose. Without undue theatrics, I gave a silent “thank you” for this encore edition of winter. I could have done worse in any number of ways. For about 20 minutes, I just stood in that field, breathing in the cold air, breathing it out.
Charles Finn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the editor of the High Desert Journal.