First Snow

By Bob Berwyn

It usually happens right around this time of the year, while the hillsides and trails are still flecked with gold, as if some careless miner spilled his bag of nuggets. With little warning, the first storm of the season rolls in, creasing its vaporous, white-gloved fingers across the crest of the range. The flakes fall fat and tantalizingly thick, but melt at the penultimate moment, just as they meet the ground. It goes on like that a while, a fine balancing act at the cusp of the seasons. But, eventually, toward evening, the rich, earthy sheen of autumn gives way to the silvery cool of winter and the snow finally starts piling up.

Outside the living room window, the orange glow from a street lamp helps me gage the intensity of the snowfall. I can eyeball the depth on the railing of the deck, and as the dusting gradually builds up, the familiar tingle of anticipation grows from deep within. I wake up several times during the night and make my way to the window to make sure it's still snowing. It's my own private ritual - a skier's prayer - which I've been following as long as I can remember.

Before drifting back to sleep, there are flashbacks to seasons past Chamonix, back in the mid-'70s, when, after two years of college, I gave in to the urge and took a year off to climb and ski. The summer of climbing was memorable, but as November turned into December with nary a flake in sight, I questioned my decision, wondering if winter would ever come.

The slanted roof of my tiny attic room - a converted broom closet - was decorated with old wrinkled posters of Sylvain Saudan. The only window opened to a hallway and when some anonymous passerby tossed a cigarette butt onto my bed, I seriously considered heading back to my books. But later that night I woke again, sensing a certain quiet that only comes when a dense curtain of falling snow filters out the clutter and noise of everyday life. I had to walk down several flights of stairs and step outside to confirm it, but indeed, the medieval alleys of Chamonix were awash in the ethereal light of a snowy winter solstice.

Years later I was living in a tiny adobe hut in Arroyo Seco, the last little village along the road up to Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico. Squatty, with thick earth walls, the house sometimes felt like a cave. The first storm of the season rumbled across the mesa in mid-November, with flashes of lightning illuminating hidden crevices of the Rio Grande gorge. The swollen storm clouds quickly hid the peaks of the Sangre de Cristos, so that when I peered out of the front door, all I could see was thick wads of snow piling up across the courtyard and coating the branches of a 100-year-old apricot tree.

I was in Taos the following year, too, living in another old adobe house on Kit Carson Road with a wood-burning kitchen stove the only source of heat and towering cottonwood trees in the front yard.

A passel of magpies took up residence there, living on the squash and pumpkin seeds we tossed out and taunting the cat into climbing higher and higher into the trees until it cried out for rescue.

The acequia - a century-old irrigation ditch in the backyard - froze in late October but the residual moisture crept through the walls of my north-facing bedroom to form a coating of blue-green algae on the inside of the room. Huddled in a thick down sleeping bag with a cardboard box for a nightstand, the frozen slime on the wall shimmered in the moonlight like jade.

The snows came in mid-December, just as people around the town began to set out the traditional Christmas lights. Instead of electric bulbs, we partially filled brown paper bags with sand and then put votive candles inside them. Thousands of these farolitos bathed the town with a soft glow, against which the flakes of the incoming storm looked like a twinkling universe of madly whirling stars.

I moved to the Sierra Nevada partially because of its reputation for prodigious, car-swallowing snowfall, and I wasn't disappointed. My first summer in Mammoth ended with a bike ride along the pumice trails of the San Joaquin Ridge on Labor Day weekend, watching a soggy gray Pacific cold front engulfing the Minarets. By the time I made it back to town, I was plastered with snow, and the drive north along U.S. 395 in my old van turned into a treacherous bobsled run.

I ended up pulling off at a rest area and crawling into my sleeping bag with a jug of wine to keep me warm, falling asleep to the sound of snowflakes pelting against the sheet metal walls.

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