A Winter's Tale
Would the next idiot who says, "I wish it would snow," please pick up a snow shovel?
Some people are Scrooges about Christmas and the whole fa-la-la-la-la holiday season just past. Not me. I love every ho-ho-ho and bit of tinsel. No, it's winter that turns me into a Scrooge.
When people who've obviously never wielded a snow shovel in their lives say things like, "Oh, I just love it when it snows," I want to say, "Bah! Humbug!" When stores replace their stacks of shorts and Hawaiian shirts with sweaters and overcoats–in, say, July in Las Cruces–my wife has to restrain me from climbing atop the pyramid of corduroy slacks to shout, "Winter! Who needs it?!" When the thermometer takes its first plunge into freezing territory and the backyard pond gets a glaze on it suitable for teeny-tiny Peggy Flemings, I think fondly of fleeing to Australia, where it's summer when we have (ugh) winter. "G'day mate," I'd say. "Please pass the suntan lotion and throw another shrimp on the barbie."
Folks in the Southwest tend to blather inanities like, "I wish it would snow," because they're Winter Virgins–people who've never suffered through a real blizzard that piles snow up to your roofline. (My wife, by contrast, who like me grew up in South Dakota, recalls one year when she and her siblings went sledding off the roof of their parents' garage.) Either that or they've been down here so long (or have very short memories) that they've forgotten what real winter is really like. All those years in Fargo when there was snow on the ground–dirty, grimy snow, not the pristine stuff of Hallmark cards–from mid-October to early May have faded to a hazy, frozen dream to them, like a pot roast you put in the freezer and forget about until the power goes out.
Walking in a winter wonderland? Let me tell you what really happens when you go walking in a "winter wonderland" in someplace like northern Minnesota: First you begin to lose feeling in your fingers and toes. Then any exposed skin on your face starts to sting. Your heavily booted feet turn to lead as you think you can't possibly manage one more step through the hip-deep snow. Eventually, you collapse in a frozen heap, praying that some passing snowmobiler finds you and that he's not too drunk to realize you're a human-cicle rather than a snow mogul that'd be fun to jump over.
Go ahead, try making a cheerful holiday carol out of that!
Oh, sure, I had fun in the snow when I was a kid, just like all kids in northern climes. Sledding, snowball fights (though I was usually on the receiving end of these, which lessens the fun), building snowmen. But I was a kid–what did I know? While I was giddily risking paralysis or decapitation by sledding down the neighbors' hill, straight for an eye-gouging thicket of low-hanging tree limbs (whee!), my dad was battling to get the snowblower to start so he could tackle the white stuff piling up in the driveway. For the third time that day. Before the dang snow got higher than the mouth of the snowblower.
That's right, I said "snowblower." Of course, we had an armory of snow shovels stacked against the garage wall sort of like the wall of weaponry Q reveals for James Bond in every movie before M sends 007 off to save the world again. But, as I learned to my sorrow when I got old enough to stop sledding and help my dad, mere shovels were like toys against a real South Dakota blizzard. You need the big bruiser, the snowblower.
Many of you have probably never even seen a real snowblower, much less experienced the joy of steering one into a solid wall of white that this roaring gizmo flings right back into your face in the form of a billion sleety bullets. Your typical snowblower weighs about as much as a Chevy Suburban (OK, maybe a tad less) and has the temperament of an unusually stubborn mule. You must maneuver this bulk with heavily gloved hands (we had a word for people who wore mere mittens to protect from frostbite–"amputee") while it blinds you with windblown snow and turns anything in its maw–snow, pieces of your lawn, small neighbor children–into confetti.
When we moved back to the frozen tundra as adults and bought a house in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs, our first purchases were a four-wheel-drive SUV and a snowblower. On snowy days when I was at the office and my wife was home, she'd haul out the snowblower and clear the driveway two or three times–just like my dad!–so I'd be able to get the car into the garage when I finally crawled home that evening. Then there was the fun of waking up early on wintry mornings to plow out the driveway so I could go to work.
I haven't even talked about the cold. It doesn't get "cold" here in Southwest New Mexico. "Chilly," maybe, or "brisk." But if you've grown up in the Midwest, "cold" starts at the zero mark on the thermometer. Heck, when it hit 20 in January we'd start packing a picnic lunch and boys would seriously debate taking off their shirts.
I know I sound like one of those old fogies exaggerating their childhood hardships: "When I was a lad, it was so cold that the ink froze on our quill pens before we could finish a sentence in our schoolbooks." But it's true–honest!–that when I was a kid we went whole weeks in the winter without the mercury ever rising above zero.
One year when we were living in Minnesota, the governor cancelled school throughout the state–not because of snow, but because it was too cold. Schoolchildren would have turned into popsicles during the brief wait for the bus.
Another time, right about Christmas, when we were living in Dubuque, Iowa, it got so cold that the postal trucks wouldn't start, so there was no mail service. A bottle of wine my sister-in-law had sent as a present froze before it could be delivered. In one corner of our house, where the placement of a chair kept the furnace air from circulating properly, we had a patch of frost. Yes, frost inside a heated house. My parents were visiting us around the holidays that year, and their neighbor called from back home in South Dakota to report that water–which quickly turned to ice–was gushing from under my folks' garage door. It had gotten so cold, even inside their house, that water pipes had frozen and burst.
I have to admit, though, that the only time I worried about freezing to death was when we were living in the supposedly balmy Sun Belt. We spent a thankfully brief stint in Tuscaloosa, Alabama–long enough, though, to suffer through an ice storm that took out most of the flimsily supported power lines and turned the roads into skating rinks. Ours was virtually the only car that was going anywhere–we knew how to drive in this stuff–as we navigated to our apartment around knots of stranded and crashed vehicles. Without electricity (and therefore heat) or adequate insulation, though, the apartment proved not much of a refuge. Now this was one of the nicest apartment complexes in town, no cardboard crackerbox; Joe Namath had once lived in the place next door, courtesy no doubt of the generosity of University of Alabama boosters. But when a place that's not built for it gets cold–brrr. We huddled together in the dark and tried to keep the cat from wandering into the colder parts of the apartment, fearing we'd find her there in the morning frozen into a permanent prowl.
That's the trouble, I realize, when winter strikes the Southwest in even a pale imitation of its northern self: We're not used to it. Buildings aren't built for it–heck, our house here doesn't even have a furnace. (A fact we realized belatedly once we'd returned from our househunting trip to Silver City: "Honey, where was the thermostat?")
So on days like today, when the thermometer read 22 degrees when we woke up–torrid by South Dakota standards, break out the swimsuits!–and an inch or two of windblown snow covered the forlorn-looking lawn furniture, winter stings. I had to shoulder open the back door, scraping a pie wedge out of the snow, to get to the firewood I'd piled under cover the day before. Advertisers cancelled appointments, not wanting to risk driving in the unaccustomed white stuff. The pellet stove in the kitchen cranked away off and on all night just to keep the temperature warm enough that the pipes beneath the sink wouldn't freeze.
Most of the time, yes, winter in the Southwest is a laugher–downright pleasant, in fact. I can enjoy the bracing bite of the outdoors as I schlep out for firewood (not to mention the pyromania of lighting the fire itself). The occasional overnight snow makes everything fresh, strange and beautiful before, thank goodness, it melts and we can go on about life as usual. I still have a coat in the closet that makes me look like the Michelin man–never used it here and hope I never have to.
But please, spare me from rhapsodizing about winter or wishing for snow until you've spent a few decades suffering through the real thing. Winter isn't a wonderland; it's an ordeal to be endured until the warming, welcome blush of spring and the return of shirtsleeve weather. We sold our snowblower (along with our lawn mower) when we moved to New Mexico, and I trust I've shoveled my last sidewalk.
You want winter? Move to South Dakota for a few years–then call and tell us how you really like it. If, that is, you can dial with your fingers encased in gloves as puffy as dinner rolls.
I'll be out back in my shorts and Hawaiian shirt, firing up the barbie.
David A. Fryxell keeps warm as editor of Desert Exposure.