It had been snowing all day and now it was dark, the air thick with falling flakes. The world was muffled and soft in the way it only is when it snows, and after dinner my dad started getting our coats and snow pants and boots on. We were little and an adventure outside in the dark seemed to swirl with added mystique. My dad threw the snowshoes into our silver station wagon, my brother and I hopped into the “back-back”—the third row of seats that faced backward—and we were off.
The car wound down the hill, skating across streets slick with snow, to the wooded golf course a few miles away. My dad helped us strap on our snowshoes and poles and headlamps. Then we set out into the soft, deep night.
A snow crystal begins its journey as water vapor. It turns directly into ice when the temperature is at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and it falls to the earth. All snow crystals have six arms, but are all unique depending on the temperature and humidity present during their creation. Some have longer, needle arms; some, flat, wide arms; still others have thinner, branching arms. It all depends on the temperatures and humidities they experience. Even when they fall in silent, breathtaking unison, each snow crystal is distinct because each one takes a slightly variant path as they tumble through the atmosphere. Each one takes its own journey; finds its own way down.
I grew up skiing at a small, family-owned mountain in Maine, where lift lines were nonexistent and the T-bars outnumbered the chairlifts. We sang Dixie Chicks on the twelve-minute ride up the ancient double chair and skied between each other’s legs on the bunny slope and played endless games of cards on the long wooden tables in the lodge. We dropped our poles for the person behind us on the T-bar to catch and greeted the lifties by name and one-skied in the afternoons when we got bored of the trails we knew by heart.
After we were done for the day the kids would steal trays from the cafeteria and take them outside while our parents drank beer in the bar upstairs. We’d run up the bunny hill with our trays to slide down the half pipe, out of control and tipping over every few feet.
The evening air bit at our noses, but we stayed out anyway, running back up the hill until we could feel our toes again. Launching ourselves downhill on things that were not meant for snow numbed the cold. With our parents inside and everyone else packed up and gone for the day, the light starting to drain from the sky, turning the faraway peaks into silhouettes, the mountain was empty, and so it was ours.
In high school, we would toss our nordic skis in the storage compartment underneath the bus and get shuttled over to the trail system 15 minutes away. Practices were spent doing long laps through the woods and working on our poling and gliding technique and occasionally tromping off trail to hide in the trees while our coaches were elsewhere. We learned to stagger our pole plant on steep uphills, and pole every step on wide-open flats, to keep our weight centered over our boots and glide as long as we could on each foot. We did Indian sprints and relays and felt our lungs bursting with cold air.
Nordic skiing was hard work, but there was a satisfying rhythm to it, a gracefulness that came with years of practice and trying to go fast. With attention and carefully curated muscle memory, it started to feel a little like flying. In the winter it got dark between four and four thirty in the afternoon, and we would often find ourselves racing the fading sun back to the parking lot. The light would drop behind the bare, spindly trees, and we’d be left with the pale afterblue as we piled on to the bus, sweaty and rosy-cheeked. We sat with our knees up on the seats in front of us, talking to each other across the aisles, thawing slowly in the warmth of the bus, the warmth of each other. It was then that I began to equate winter with home.
In North America, the most dramatic cold snap on record occurred in February of 1899, when the temperature in every single state in the Union dropped below zero. Typically balmy states like Florida reported record low temperatures of -2 degrees, while Montana clocked in at a bone-chilling -61 degrees. This weather event was so significant not merely because of the low temperatures recorded, but because of how widespread and far-reaching the effects were. It did not isolate itself to regions in which cold normally reigns, but rather seeped into every part of the map, draping the entire United States in an impenetrable chill. A chill that left no doubt about what season it was, about what winter could do.
By the time I got to college, winter had lost some of its power. I spent most of the season bundled up in a knee-length down coat, walking between classes as quickly as possible in Chicago. Snow was pushed to the side and turned brown in hours, just something getting in everyone’s way. I had moved to the city, and spent far more time in high heels than I did in ski boots.
But for winter break my senior year, I flew to Park City with my classmates, to spend the week in the mountains. One of my roommates and I split the cost of the trip, which left her with a bed and me with lift tickets. I slept on the floor, got up early to ski, and she passed the days eating weed brownies and ice-skating: a true win-win. After dark, we would shower and put on flannel and take the shuttle to a bar in town, where we would order whiskey that hadn’t been watered down by the Mormons. The bar was all hardwood, with twinkle lights and old ski paraphernalia everywhere.
It was strange that being in a place I’d never been felt like coming home, but it did. I couldn’t know then that later my life would be like more like this week than anything else. That with the exception of the pre-aprés shower, I would spend a large portion of my twenties like this—in mountain bars after a long day on the snow, drinking whiskey. The future familiarity of the situation seemed to saturate itself backward into the present, and I found myself feeling a strange draw to stay there, stay put. I pulled my drink off the hardwood bar, looked around the room, out at the snowy street, at my frosty reflection in the window: myself as I once was, and one day would be again.
But here’s a hard truth: 20 of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1981. The ten warmest years on record have occurred in the last 12. The earth has experienced cycles of glacial advance and retreat, but it is widely accepted by the scientific community that humans are, in fact, causing global climate change on a large scale. Carbon dioxide traps heat in the atmosphere, contributing to a spike in average global temperatures. Since 1950 alone, C02 levels in the atmosphere have increased tenfold, and, correspondingly, the earth’s temperature has risen during that time by 0.8 degrees. Evidence of this is clear in rising sea levels, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreat, extreme weather events, and reduced snow cover. Scientists warn that a 2-degree increase would ensure that climate change is irreversible. In September 2016, global levels of carbon dioxide finally crossed the significant 400 parts per million threshold. The last time the earth had a level of CO2 this high, there were no humans around to witness it.
Winter, as a result, is changing. In 2015, the Sierra Nevada saw only five percent of its typical annual snowpack. Five percent. Rocks and trees that would normally be hibernating feet below the surface baked in the sun. Ski resorts opened late and closed early, or remained shut down entirely. Gone from the air was that cold white magic, the days when you woke up and ran to the window like a child, jumping up and down because there was a foot of fresh on the ground and because the floor was cold and you needed a pair of wool socks. The mountains stayed in their summer skin, and winter enthusiasts hoped it was a one-off. It was the driest winter in 1,200 years.
When I was 22, I got snowed into the Ashburton Glacier Valley in New Zealand. I was studying with the National Outdoor Leadership School, and it was snowing so hard that the helicopter delivering our re-supply could not get in. Our instructors told us to conserve our energy and stay in the tent and rest. But none of us had chosen to spend three months in the backcountry because we liked to lie around and do nothing. We crept out of our tents into the great sprawling white, where we plodded around the valley, the surrounding mountains shrouded in clouds and snow, until we made it to the creek in the center: smooth stones capped with white pillows, icy water rushing along to its own beat. I stared, mesmerized, understanding fully for the first time that this creek would move exactly this way even if we didn’t exist and never had.
Eventually, we climbed up onto a giant boulder and threw our arms out and our heads back. The snow still fell, rapidly and silently. We weren’t supposed to be out here, seeing this, and the landscape felt more expansive for it. We were impossibly tiny, figures that barely registered. And yet, we were here. We were in it. We were part of it.
You can feel it in the air, smell it, when the snow is coming. Even if it’s not coming that day or even that week, it’s palpable, what’s about to be. The colors in the sky change, winter’s palette smoother and more muted than summer’s. The windshield is fogged up when you get into the car in the morning, the air bites at your fingers and your nose. And when it comes, the snow, finally twirling down out of the darkness, there is a fullness, a stillness, a quietness, akin to no other season.