Deep Snow

NB: Updated (see comments)

In the middle of the last century, Flagstaff Arizona endured a series of spectacular snow storms. First, a sizable blizzard socked in the city (which is about 7,000 feet up), and then for two days a second storm got stuck on the San Francisco Peaks (just outside Flag; nowhere near the city of that name; Saint Francis was never confined to northern Cali). The storm rotated around the peaks, and each time it had to lift adiabatically over the city, it dumped another couple of feet.  By the time I arrived to visit my sister on Mars Hill, the snow was well over 15 feet deep in many places. Interstate highway snow blowers had cut canyons through the main streets, and D-9 Caterpillars were building mountains of packed glacier-stuff in the larger parking lots. We drove up from sweltering Phoenix, and then down these white-walled snow canyons on a foot thick roadbed of packed snow. At intersections, where traffic was double, we drove carefully down onto actual concrete, and then back up onto the snowpack. There were tunnels above our heads, where people had crawled out second-story windows to get to the street.

When I lived in the Sierra Nevada mountains above Lake Da-ow-a-ga (“By the Lake” in the indigenous Washeshu tongue; “Tahoe” to us Euro-Americans), our driveway was routinely plowed by an articulated front-end loader, which deposited snow berms on either side, typically about 8 feet high, but often higher. On one occasion, we had to remove a couch from the second-story living room, but the staircase was narrow and required significant disassembly of the couch. Instead, we just cut steps into the snow drifts and walked it down from the upstairs balcony to the driveway.

When I was growing up in New York, on Manhattan Island, removal of even modest snow falls was a big problem. Where do you put the stuff? Some was just bulldozed into the East River or the Hudson, but a lot of snow was put in dump trucks, packed onto barges, and towed out to sea. There weren’t any “larger parking lots” to build snow mountains on. I remember one winter when some dim but enterprising bulb in the city maintenance department contrived a big snow melter to solve the problem once and for all. It was a brilliant idea, at first glance. Manhattan is of course completely plumbed, with hundreds of miles of drains and runoff pipes under every street. Why not convert an asphalt melter into a huge flatiron that would just turn the snow to water? It would run off into the drains, and go where all the rainwater goes (into the rivers, with a few hundred tons of accompanying refuse). Sadly, after melting ten or fifteen blocks of snow on a particularly cold day, the water all re-froze in the subterranean pipes and the result was an inch of black ice, which is a lot worse than a foot of snow.

Here in Iowa it rarely snows that much. Snow tends to be more of a nuisance than an actual event. It gets bloody cold now and then, but no worse than Vermont, which is fairly balmy compared to really cold states like Minnesota, Montana, Utah, and their neighbors. So we don’t worry too much about it. Today, however, we’re getting buried. It’s been snowing for 24 hours, and the temperature has been hovering around 32 degrees, so it’s that wet, cement-like snow that makes ice-balls with one squeeze, and if you build an igloo with it the thing will last until June. It’s already four feet deep, and the temperature is expected to drop 20 degrees tonight, with more snow all day tomorrow. After a brief respite, two more days of heavy snow are planned, bringing the total depth to about eight feet, twelve if you count drifts. Roofs are being reinforced all over town, and food packages are already being dropped off at every household without a two-car garage. Pickup trucks are throwing split firewood onto all the front lawns, but the logs are disappearing into the drifts, and I wonder if anyone will realize they’re available. By tomorrow morning, front doors will be sealed shut, and the emergency weather radio is warning us to open some upstairs windows a crack so we don’t suffocate. Yesterday’s newspaper had diagrams showing how to keep the air intake clear for your furnace. My snow plow guy has already called to say he’s stuck in a drift and won’t make it here until next weekend. When Thursday rolls around, the temperature drops to -10, turning all this soggy stuff into hardened concrete. We probably won’t be driving around again until just before income tax day. But it’s mighty quiet around here. I can hear my heart beating from across the room.

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