High Country News: An ode to snow in Colorado
February 28, 2014
Snow's excellence needs no elucidation from me, and yet, in this snow-specific season (with lit-up snowflakes on city streets and large snowflakes dangling from the ceilings of department stores), it's good to revisit one's reasons for amor. Staying aware is how we stay in love, after all.
Snow, for example, helps you see trees better. This is especially true if you're staring at white aspen trunks when the sky is dusk blue, l'heure bleu. A blue spruce surrounded by white is equally thrilling: That bluegreen-grayagain color just isn't as visible without the white. Some of us like to talk to these trees. It's consoling to know we're not alone. Thoreau writes: "I frequently tramped 8 or 10 miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or an old acquaintance among the pines." Amen, brother.
Another thing to love about snow? The sub-genres. Snow has many names (Eskimos' 100 words for snow and all — although, in fact, there's no one Eskimo language, and nearly all languages have multiple words for anything that surrounds them at all times). I'm guessing we Westerners have at least 1,000 words or phrases for snow, including, "I can't get to work today, I have a cold," which roughly translates as "fresh powder."
Ever since the early 1900s, skiers have created their own terminology to describe snow, including "powder snow" and "sticky snow" and "Sierra cement" and the more creative "champagne powder," and, my favorite, "mashed potato snow," meaning the sticky-heavy stuff.
I personally like the Spanish word for snowflake. Copo de nieve: It's so lilting that it sounds like snow.
Technically, a snowflake is really a conglomerate of snow crystals.
Snow forts are obviously something to love — an essential component of life and a reason to venture to new locales. Last year, my son and I cross-country skied to one of Colorado's 10th Mountain Division huts. Forget the sauna up there; upon arrival, he immediately did what any good human should do, which is build a huge dragon-looking snow fort to guard us. It had a tunnel through its belly and everything. And although we were at 11,200 feet, and some of us had elevation-induced headaches, everyone pitched in. It was a wonder to behold.
There is no wealth but time. Snow reminds me of this. Something about the way it drifts down, sometimes right into your eyes, blinding you, evokes the brevity of life.
Another thing about snow: It makes one remember the importance of mountain passes. Colorado has 49 mountain passes traversed by paved highways, 10 by improved roads, 16 by unimproved roads, and 29 traversed by trail. That's a total of 104 passes. We Coloradans get to know them pretty well, of course: Wolf Creek Pass makes me wince; Cameron Pass offers snowstorms in the summer; Kenosha is lovely; Monarch has a good name but seems awfully steep on icy days; La Veta reminds me of la vida, life, which is what you will re-appreciate when going over it. Rabbit Ears has the coolest name, and Independence Pass is the state's highest at 12,103 feet.
Each year, Colorado has 300 days of sunshine and gets an average of 300 inches of snow. We balance out! I call this the 300-300 effect. Colorado also has the national record for a single day's snowfall, in 1913, when 63 inches of snow fell in Georgetown.
Waking up to unexpected snow is a wonder. The problem with life these days is weather people. They ruin everything, even though they never get it quite right. The exception is Ed Green, who once said, "If you don't have the urge to throw a snowball, something is wrong with you." At least, that's how I remember it. I was just a kid watching the local weatherman, thinking an adult finally had something intelligent to say.
Sociologists should study the role of snow in family gatherings. In years when there isn't much snow and holiday meals get served outside on the deck, we tend to get along better.
Likewise, someone should study the effect of snow on people's careers. Case in point: the mesmerizing qualities of frozen white crystals on one's windshield — and how they bloom out in the instant they melt due to your defroster — and how this can make you late for work. Or, a big snow. Which causes the immediate onset of ski-lift daydreaming. Which will make you miss work entirely.
Snow brings capital-J Joy, that larger Joy, purposeless Joy, experiencing Joy, finding Joy, throwing Joy around like snowballs. It's simply hard to look at snow and not feel a twinge of Joy — and that, perhaps, is what I love best about snow. The nectarean nature of the snow, and of the joy it brings — well, it's worth a love letter from time to time.
Laura Pritchett's newest novel, Stars Go Blue, will be released this June from Counterpoint Press. This article originally appeared in the Feb. 3, 2014 issue of High Country News (hcn.org).
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