Hornitos is not in the snow belt of the Sierras. When we first moved to the ranch twenty years ago, we would receive a few centimeters, maybe 1/4″, a few times a year. For the past nine or so years, we’ve had perhaps three or four days of snow. In all of those days, the snow would be fully melted by mid morning. Not Saturday (2/25). Like a sci-fi film with time machines, pods or shapeshifters, I went back in time and was inhabited by the joy I felt as a child. Acknowledging that the snow has been a major crisis for many people in my community whose electricity has been out or who have been trapped in their homes for days, at my elevation, it has been a different experience. It moved me to write this essay on snow days.
The weather report had been promising snow for days, but nothing. As a child
of the mountains, my DNA has been trained to quiver with anticipation at the
word “snow”. Alas, each morning I would awake, heart filled with hope
and throw open the curtains. Green, gray, blue…no white.
Driving home from a rangeland meeting Friday night, the rain continued to
increase the further I drove into the foothills. It was that thick type of
rain, the kind that if it was cold enough, it could move to solid form. I kept
and eye on the temperature…45…41…39. It was 38 degrees as I pulled into
my driveway. Not cold enough. Still, it was only 7pm. There was time overnight
for the temperature to dip. So – maybe… possibly…hopefully?
That night was a good night. I did some work, had a meal, watched a show
with my love, brushed my teeth and then went to bed with the sound of the rain
on the roof, great big quit pulled up tight, warm dogs curled on the floor
breathing heavily with sleep, a feline stretched alongside of me. I was asleep immediately.
A clinking woke me at 6am. Although reminiscent of Santa’s jolly jingle, I knew it was the jiggle of Jolee’s collar. The dogs were awake. Except for the collar, it
was extremely quiet, snow quiet. Like the child I was growing up in the
Sierras, I bolted out of bed. Now 52, I risked pulling a muscle…but the adrenaline protected me. I launched vertically, then made a diagonal trajectory to my large curtained slider. Jerking the curtains right, toward the wall, I had to catch my breath. It was white, not translucent white from a dusting of snow, it was thick, storybook white.
Poor David. I screamed. “David, it snowed! It snowed! Look darling! Look!” He fumbled for his glasses, grabbed mine, realized his mistake, then searched again for his. “D, do you see it?! There has to be almost three inches on the fences!” David finally with his bearings – and his own glasses – let out an audible gulp of air. “Whoa. That’s a lot.”
David does not get emotional. For me, it is a muscle memory of a child who lived on the edge of a national forest, 30 miles from Yosemite. Snow is fun, no
school, staying home, sledding, hot cocoa, and fresh baked goods if we were lucky – and we almost always were (Thanks mommy). Snow days were time with family. Snowball wars with siblings. Warm fires. Games. Storytelling. The adults in the house actually listened, cared about what I had to say, and I felt like I was important to them.
Fortunately, I slept in something warm – a holey cashmere sweater and old exercise pants – because I went straight out the door. I didn’t have time for boots. I pulled on my gray sheepskin slippers, dogs at heels, brain fuzzy with joy. It was snowing and cold…and I did not care. The dogs immediately began running and playing. They too know how remarkable it is to feel the fluff of frozen water, snowflakes delicately stacked one on top of the other.
I ran across the untouched snow like my winter ancestors in animal skin-clad feet. Those slippers are older than my time with David. They were a luxury I had to have at a time when I did not have as much. When I was a teen, I usually handed my paycheck to my parents. They were going through a tough financial time then. My father had fought in Vietnam, and I just don’t think he could shake the anger. Although he was good at what he did, it could be difficult for him to hold a job. The time I bought my slippers, he had been working steadily, so I kept some of my pay.
We lived at over 3,500′ elevation. In those days, the higher the elevation, the more affordable the home. It was so cold. Our house had electric heaters and a fireplace. Electricity was incredibly expensive, and we were absolutely forbidden from turning on the heaters. Fireplaces can only heat so much of a house, especially when there are two floors and the fire is on the top floor. I dreaded getting ready for school on winter mornings such was the cold. But, I knew if my feet were warm, the rest of my body could handle the temperature. So, with my extra money, I tentatively made the purchase – tentatively because those slippers were expensive, and that money could go to a multitude of other things, needed things. I decided I needed that warmth and bought them. Each time I slip them on, I say a quiet “thank you” to the sheep whose life it took to keep my feet warm. I have honored its sacrifice for over 30 years.
Eventually, the cold brought me back to the present day. I came back into the house, snowflakes in my hair and on my sweater but feet dry and warm. David was still struggling to get winter clothes on. Hey y’all, David is from LA so… two layers of sweaters, snow pants on top of sweatpants, double hooded, and snow boots. Love this man. He makes me laugh. Of course, I was already laughing with pure joy. I grabbed my waterproof boots, a jacket and hat and was out the door again, playing with my dogs, running in the snow, a child again.
After some snowballs lobbed, I set off for a long winter walk. David went back inside after he began to slip a little, preferring the view from the window than a precarious walk. It was just the dogs and I. Into the quiet we went, carefully watching for trees too labored under the weight of snow, avoiding stepping through the rushing, frigid snow melt water, but fully enjoying being the first tracks in the snow. We are connected to this landscape. Respecting it, knowing how it is built so we stay out of trouble. My people’s word for snow is sapam. It is built on the words ba’am (water), the verb sapa weche (to freeze), and connected through “weche” in kom weche (to fall down) -so “snow” equals frozen water that falls down. Our Indigenous language, like our minds, are structured to acknowledge the interconnections of our world, the relationships of how we all fit together. In this place, with my fur-babies, forests, creeks and hilltops, I feel like one creature, just as I did when I was a young person wandering through the snow-filled forests, sheep-skin slippers, dog, loving family, home.