Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail…
From whose womb comes the ice?
Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens
when the waters become hard as stone,
when the surface of the deep is frozen?
(Job 38:22, 29-30)
We moved from Chicago to Colorado in November of 1992, towing a small U-Haul trailer behind our Toyota packed with essentials (warm clothes, a mattress, two place settings, a computer) just in case the moving van didn’t make its promised delivery. Sure enough, the van showed up five days later, so we wandered around an empty, echoing house trying to imagine our new life in the mountains, so different from downtown Chicago.
The morning after our arrival, which happened to be my birthday, I looked out the window and saw paradise. Five inches of snow had fallen during the night, coating the blue spruce trees and Ponderosa pines with a blanket of pure white. The snow-laden forest, backed by snow-capped mountains, formed a landscape of exquisite beauty. In Chicago, snow had called forth groans, complicating such everyday tasks as walking to the store and parallel-parking on the street. Within a day, city snow degrades to ugly grey slush. In Colorado, a dry climate where salt is not used on roads, the snow stays pristine white.
We bought snowshoes and cross-country skis, and for the first time looked forward to winter—a good thing, since our area averages more than a hundred inches of snow each year. Is there a better feeling than breaking trail for an hour or two of brisk exercise and then retiring to drink a cup of hot chocolate beside a crackling fireplace?
One year we toured Yellowstone National Park on cross-country skis , staying in a rustic cabin in the wilderness. The famous waterfalls were transformed into sparkling ice sculptures. We picnicked by hot springs, surrounded by bison and elk. In the winter, animals congregate around the geysers and steaming hot springs, where they can still find grass to eat. Conserving their energy, they ignore human intruders no matter how close you get.
Only once in our twenty-three years in Colorado has snow turned into an enemy instead of a friend. On St. Patrick’s Day, 2003, it started snowing heavily, and did not stop for three days. Seven feet of snow fell. The house turned dark, with all skylights covered and drifts blocking windows and sliding glass doors. Electricity went out, which meant we had no heat and no water (our well pump required electricity). I worked for hours with a snow shovel, digging a tunnel to the woodpile so that at least we could keep a fire going in the living room. I returned drenched in sweat from the exertion, and had no way to warm up. I couldn’t take a shower or bath, and our fireplace and a propane heater kept the inside temperature around fifty degrees, just enough to keep pipes (and ourselves) from freezing.
When the snow finally stopped, I tried hiking up the hill behind our house. Even on snowshoes I sank up to my crotch with each step and then had to lift my weighted snowshoe back to the surface. It took me forty-five minutes to climb a hill that normally takes five. I have never heard such silence. Snow muffled all sound except my breathing. I stood atop the hill, gazing at the smooth white mountains in the distance, until a retort like the crack of a rifle startled me. Who would be hunting at such a time? It was no rifle, but a huge branch of a Ponderosa pine tree giving way and falling to the ground, where it sent up a fountain of snow.
The sound startled a deer as well. I watched as the doe leaped, then leaped again, and again. She paused after each lunge, eyes wide with fright, sides heaving, trying to summon energy for the next attempt. Soon a herd of deer made their way to our birdfeeder, pawing through the snow in search of the sunflower seeds buried underneath. As I stood on the hill, another branch gave way, then another. Whole trees tilted sideways and toppled over with a dull crash. In all, we lost more than two hundred trees in the storm.
The invasion of Iraq began that very day. At night we gathered around candles and turned on a portable radio for just a few minutes to preserve the battery, listening to the sounds of war in a hot desert thousands of miles away. In Colorado, too, helicopters clattered overhead, in this case not to conduct war but to rescue mountain people who had medical emergencies. News reports told of five thousand passengers stranded at Denver’s airport, short on food.
In the daytime we worked hard, smacking evergreen trees with a long pole to relieve their burden of snow, struggling up a ladder to break the ice dams forming in our gutters. No snowplow could make it up our half-mile driveway, and Denver had already requisitioned the available heavy machinery. Regardless, no one could make it to our house until we chain-sawed the trees blocking the road and driveway. After two days a neighbor’s relative made it to the end of our dirt road with a diesel-powered turbo Hummer, but every time he plowed into the now-compacted snow the Hummer high-centered, planing on the snow, its tires spinning uselessly.
At first I relished the idea of an enforced vacation. I scheduled thirty minutes a day for email, trying not to drain my laptop battery. But I found it difficult to read a book or magazine in the snow-darkened house and, besides, it’s hard to read when you’re shivering.
We ate well, cooking on a gas stove the contents of our thawing freezer. On the sixth day of isolation, we finally re-entered civilization, the road-blocking trees cut into firewood, the driveway cleared by a costly front-loader. Gawking like tourists, we drove slowly on a county highway, with snow piled nine feet high on either side, to a fitness club, where we luxuriated in our first hot showers in a week.
As is true of most anxiety-producing calamities, in retrospect the snowstorm became a kind of adventure. Shops sold “I survived the Blizzard of 2003” t-shirts, and more than a decade later locals still swap stories about what they endured. The snow melted, producing a bumper crop of wild flowers that Spring; our house survived with little damage; in time we tidied up the forest. And after a few uneasy years we came to look forward to winter once again.
This past Christmas we spent two days in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, a mountain town that had already received 150 inches of snow, half its winter average. We drove across Rabbit Ears Pass, where evergreens laden with snow bowed as if in praise. We hiked to Fish Creek Falls through waist-high snow, on a trail barely wide enough to accommodate snowshoes. Animal tracks—deer, elk, fox, bobcat, is that a moose hoofprint?—were the only marks in undulating drifts. Hardy Mountain Chickadees darted from tree to tree, searching for bare branches on which to perch.
We watched brave souls climbing the frozen falls with ropes and ice axes. As we turned around, the afternoon sun tinted the snowy landscape a soft yellow, and then orange. A full moon rose on Christmas Day, shining bright against the clear blue Colorado sky. Snow was once again our friend.
Driving home the day after Christmas, on roads made treacherous by snow now hardened to ice, I found myself humming the haunting tune of one of my favorite Christmas carols, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” by Christina Rossetti.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
We don’t know the exact day of Jesus’ birth, of course, much less the weather forecast for that day. Rossetti caught the significance of the first Christmas, however, which came at a time when “Earth stood hard as iron.” One night the child born in a stable in bleak midwinter cast a different light on all creation. It gave earth a foretaste of transformation and hope. Like snow.