It is not, in fact, as cold as it used to be. In the twenty or thirty years leading up to 1980, Carbon County saw annual lows in the double digits every year, ranging from minus 15 to minus 30. Since that time, 1997 plummeted to 37 below. The winter of 2007 saw minus 29, and 2010 took us down to a chilly minus 21.
This may mean any number of things, but suffice it to say that temperatures in the 30 to 40 degrees-above-zero range do not meet the ideal conditions for snowfall. If we could tinker with the great meteorological machinery, or atone for our collective negative impact on the planet and its atmosphere, it would be quite nice to set the dial around 20 or 30 degrees Fahrenheit and hope for the right balance of moisture to swirl into the neighborhood.
What is winter, after all, without snowdrifts? Generally speaking, they are well-mannered things that form where they should – in protected areas alongside barns and fences, staying out of the way. But when the wind howls, they wash up onto the roads and into the driveways like beached whales.
After a good walloping snowstorm, we are somehow made new again, properly baptized into winter. It doesn’t matter how many previous winters we’ve weathered, how many sidewalks we’ve shoveled, or how many pipes we’ve thawed. Every snowstorm brings fresh rites of passage. The adventures are the same and yet different, and there are new stories to tell. For a few days, the landscape is pristine, glistening with the luster of pearls. High in a cottonwood tree sits a hawk, surveying the frozen pasture like a king. How did he get through it, we wonder. He did, however, and now he’s hungry, watching for the equally hungry field mouse.
There are dozens of kinds of snow—strange kinds like firn (snow that’s been lying on the ground for more than a year) or graupel (otherwise known as soft hail). Zastrugi is a snow surface that has been sculpted by wind into ridges and grooves. We Montanans see this regularly, although we may not go to coffee and talk of Zastrugi.
Sometimes, even when the nights are starlight-clear, we wake up in the morning to find a dusting of snow on the pickup or lying lightly on the driveway. Some folks call this baker’s snow, because it looks like powdered sugar or flour, fresh from the sifter. It doesn’t require a shovel. It’s so ephemeral it lifts away with the morning shudder of the engine or the first breath of wind.
Along about mid-February—even though we know winter is really just getting started—it occurs to us that spring is coming. The mornings are lighter now, and the seed catalogs are showing up in the mailbox. So we heave a collective sigh and work up a real yearning for snow. We watch the meteorologists gesture over their maps, and we pore over the ten-day forecasts, wrestling with the oldest riddle known to humankind: the weather. What can we do except think positive? Longfellow may have written the best mantra of all: Out of the bosom of the air, out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken, over the woodlands brown and bare, over the harvest-fields forsaken—silent, and soft, and slow descends the snow.