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Solstice 2010
by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
December 21, 2010

“Is there anybody
Out there please?
It's too quiet in here
And I'm beginning to freeze
I've got icicles hanging
From my knees
Under fifteen feet of pure white snow”

                                                                                    – Nick Cave, “Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow”

Nick Cave, the polymath rocker from Australia, has a song called “Fifteen Feet of Pure White Snow.” On one level, Cave may have been writing about his struggle with an addiction to cocaine. But with Cave, there is never just one level.

It is principally a song about alienation and the spiritual suffocation caused by a silent and invisible god. His song persona is left, alone and mute, with “icicles hanging from my knees”. The evocation is that of being gently smothered in a kind of cold, wet cotton batten.

The reality is a bit different. We all feel alienation and disaffection, and many of us struggle with addictions of various kinds. But relatively few of us have ever actually been under fifteen feet of pure white snow. I have, and it started on the Solstice in 1992.

My wife and I were still relatively new to Siskiyou County in the Mount Shasta area of Northern California. We had first arrived two years earlier, just in time for a record-shattering cold snap that sent wind chills to -45 degrees and destroyed the plumbing of about a third of the homes in the town.

We knew that it snowed here, of course. That was one of the attractions. We had lived in Southern California, and were tired of the endless summer. For the folks in Los Angeles who are protesting it isn't always summer, I'm sorry, but having it drop to a few degrees above freezing once or twice around this time of year doesn't exactly qualify as “winter”. We still joke about Pasadena's “Great Almost-Frost of 1988” when everyone dressed like bit parts for a movie about the German retreat from the Eastern Front. Wild ice—or at least frost—was very nearly seen on the green lawns of the stucco estates that horrible year.

But I'm from Canada, and my wife, from Scotland. We don't miss curling or haggis, but we found we did miss winter. It's jarring watching people spray fake snow on palm trees. Where we lived, they actually had a service to go around in drought years and paint your lawn green. Then one year, the rains finally came back, and horrified pet owners noticed that Fluffy and Fido were all set for St. Patricks' Day, because the paint, reasonably enough, was water soluble. Non-toxic, I'm happy to report, but the lady with the green dachshund remained unamused. My wife and I wanted a place where people didn't paint their lawns or spray snow on palm trees, and where Winter Solstice didn't mean the eucalyptus were budding. We wanted fresh white clean snow like we enjoyed when we were kids.

More fools we.

That first year, we got a couple of inches of snow up until mid March, and I began to doubt claims by locals that snow could reach the window sills in some years. Then on St. Patrick's Day – no green dogs or cats anywhere in sight, thank you – it unloaded, and we got five feet of snow.

OK, I was impressed. In eastern Canada, a “big snow” might dump two feet. Of course, any snow that fell in late November was still going to be around three months later, and anything crushed under tires before the ploughs came along was destined to spend a couple of weeks as treacherous white ice, but that was Canada. It's much warmer in California. Five feet was an awesome amount of snow, but within two weeks it was all gone. This struck me as a very civilized way of going about the whole business of winter.

The Solstice “Big Chill” of 1990 was an aberration. Good thing, too. Canadian or no, I think that was the coldest night I ever saw, when you factor in that horrific wind chill. A couple of years later, we had decided the “Big Snow” of 1991 was also an aberration. Locals assured us it didn't snow like that very much “any more.” That wasn't a reference to global warming, a concept still held with deep suspicion back then. Local lore is that when they built Shasta Dam, the local weather got much warmer and wetter, a result of Lake Shasta created directly upwind from us. Back in the 1930s, they had REAL winters, the folk lore went. I looked it up, and to my surprise, they were right. This town used to AVERAGE twenty-five feet of snow a winter. In February 1952, it got twenty feet in one two-week period. It wasn't unusual for the state highway between McCloud and Mt. Shasta to close for weeks during the winter.

That brings us to Solstice, 1992. It started snowing that day, and by Christmas, it was about three feet deep on the ground. Some locals considered this a bit early – January and February are usually our big snow months – but it wasn't extraordinary. It turned nice for a couple of days, and we dug the car out and took lots of pictures of our Samoyed dogs frolicking in the snow. Used up all the film doing that.

Then the snow returned, and by December 30th, we had about six feet of snow. We had actually had more than six feet of snow, but between compressing under its own weight and melting, it was “only” six feet deep.

A friend, Jonathon, visited us from Hollywood. He was awestruck by the amount of snow—some of the berm piles downtown were nearly twenty feet tall—and amazed that two people he had always considered rational could live in such primitive conditions. He didn't exactly SAY that, of course, being a friend and all, but he made it pretty clear he regarded this locale as being the spot on the map were cartographers liked to put their legend and the words, “Hyere bee dragons”.

So when the first flakes drifted down, he flew into a blind panic. He'd never driven in snow. And it was a rental car. And...well, was there such a thing as snow dragons? We assured him that he could spend the night, that our local snow clearance was excellent, and he would be able to leave to drive back to LA by noon tomorrow.

The sight of snowflakes sticking to my dog's fur did it. Jonathon hopped into his rental and sped off down the road, still slightly damp from the snow flurry.

We had a good laugh about that. But it turned out Jonathon had made a good choice.

He called from Redding to tell us he had just seen a palm tree, and thought he stood a pretty good chance of getting out of Northern California alive. I told him if he didn't call when he got home, we would send out the Saint Bernards to retrieve his carcass. An undertakers' assistant, he would have wanted it that way. I chuckled condescendingly as I hung up.

That evening, it began snowing in earnest. We could barely see the neighbor's house. The Weather Channel assured us we could expect “scattered snow showers”. Of course, that was how they described the last six feet of “winter weather event”: scattered snow showers.

We depend utterly on the Weather Channel to know when a big storm's coming. The minute it goes off the air, we know the weather is about to turn bad. It went off the air, false promises of scattered snow showers staining its electronic lips.

The next morning, when I woke up, it was still dark. I looked at my bedside clock, and it said it was 8:30, which was about 45 minutes after sunrise. I wondered if the clock had stopped, and then realized that digital display clocks don't “stop”. The time changed to 8:31. Had I slept the entire day away? My wife was still asleep next to me, and it didn't seem likely we both had slept 20 hours. I didn't know what sleeping that long would feel like, but it didn't feel like I had.

I padded out to the living room. We had big casement windows, eight feet from top to bottom, facing the mountain. I opened the curtains, expecting to see street lights and a few parked cars. It was completely dark. Except...

I looked at the top. At the very top, there was a faint blue glow running along the top of the window. I turned on the living room light. From top to bottom snow pressed against the glass of those big windows. It still hadn't sunk in what an extraordinary miracle it was that the power was still on. I was just reaching for the TV to see just how much snow we got the night before when the power died. For us, it was three days. Some parts of town stayed blacked out for three weeks.

I opened the front door and jumped back as snow cascaded in. We had a porch, but there was a lot of snow. I looked at the dogs. They looked at me. “This doesn't mean you assholes have permission to use the carpet. Start digging.”

They dug to open air and bright sunshine in surprisingly short order, and I came behind, blinking and pushing snow out through the route to the top they had made. I poked my head out and looked around. I could tell where the neighbor's houses were by the lumps in the snow. I could hear muffled sounds of generators and snowblowers, and utility poles stuck up out of the snow. Those were the only signs of civilization. Cedar trees leaned impossibly, tips buried in the snow, forming white and green arcs.

It took us two nights to dig out to the road. That digging out was a story in itself. At one point, I hopped off what I thought was the hood of my car. It was the roof. I suddenly found myself standing in snow three feet above my head, and for a panicked moment realized I could possibly suffocate or freeze to death in my own front yard. Apparently, I didn't.

A gigantic rotary plough had come through on the second day, leaving only a foot of hard packed snow on the street, and spraying another four feet of snow on my poor car. We didn't see that car again for two weeks. I parked too close to the high, steeply sloping metal roof of our duplex, and the plough finished the interment.

That night, New Years Eve, we walked out to the street in front. There were no cars, no visible lights. It was utterly silent except for the unexpected honking of some distant geese. My eyes adjusted to the light, diffused through clouds from the stars and a quarter moon. I slowly turned a circle. My neighborhood, as familiar as the back of my hand, was completely gone.

It was New Years. No horns sounded, no fireworks went off. The mill whistle remained silent. No cars moved. The town was buried.

Everywhere there were just the blank, featureless vertical walls of snow, twenty feet high, notched in places were people had cut access to the street. Most had simply tunneled. I had dug along the top and carved steps down. Easier to do at the time. Next time, though, I'll tunnel. It pays off. Immense walls of pure white snow. I could walk fifty feet up the road, and possibly not find my house again. There were no landmarks except the taller trees, and featureless mounds that showed where houses were.

The snow didn't melt for months. In early April, the snow melted enough that all the ruined Christmas ornaments reappeared, pale plastic Santas peering up from the rotting snow like jocular corpses. And while wooden fences all did well, there wasn't a single chain-link fence left standing. It was several years before I heard the Nick Cave song. But every time I hear it, I immediately think of the pale blue light at the top of the windows, and the featureless walls of my street. And I understand the loneliness of fifteen feet of pure white snow.

It's snowing now. I understand we're in for two weeks of scattered snow showers.

Don't lose hope.
Never lose hope.
Happy Solstice.

Posted: December 24, 2010

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