Every time I wake up to snow on the ground, I get giddy. My upper body tenses and my breathing pulses in shorter, tighter cycles like I’m preparing for a great game to start. In many ways, I am. The excitement bubbles from a cauldron of magical childhood memories. A mix of daring snowballs thrown at my older siblings, violent high-speed sled races, precarious snow forts crafted with my dad, and adventures through quiet, cold woods.
Nowadays, my fresh excitement becomes rancid all too quickly. What was once a promise of joy is now a cold reminder of obligation. The first task after a significant snowfall is shoveling. This was once an epic undertaking with the level of difficulty depending on the quality of the snow: a few inches of wet, heavy snow could qualify as an Olympic strength and endurance competition while plowing through a foot of fluffy flakes made me feel all-powerful — at least until I reached the crusty bottom I had to hack away at. Now, the measly two-yard distance from my door to my car presents no challenge at all and leaves me wanting more.
The shoveling is followed by the car cleaning. At times it’s satisfying, but usually, it’s anxiety-producing. You never know what kind of car cleaning lies before you. As that first layer of delicate snow is removed to reveal a stubborn crust of ice the morning commute becomes significantly more stressful. If the temperature stepped ominously down from the 30s to the 20s the night before, the car likely has developed an armor of ice that only a premeditated defrosting and vigorous chipping can solve. It was much better when it was my mom’s or dad’s responsibility. And when being late meant less school.
The car cleaning is followed by the commute. With partial visibility, it’s off to work on roads filled with drivers too proud or too tight on cash for snow tires, impractical navigators in cars that lack four-wheel drive, and those who just never learned how to be sensible in the snow. Then the day is spent staring at a computer screen. As headache-inducing as the sun glinting off the icicles outside, but not nearly as enticing. Then, it’s home, to a city with slushy sidewalks and neighbors who will forever remain strangers.
What a bore. When people gush about how exciting cities are it betrays the fact that they didn’t grow up in the country where snow falls created a paradise of play. Snowdays, weekends, and even the dwindling daylight of evenings after school meant exploring, building, and battling.
A snowball fight seems like the first logical activity. However, snow quality will make or break — literally — your ability to have a good time. Too cold and the snow won’t stick together. Too wet and you risk knocking someone out with an ice ball. It can easily lead to a quick trip back inside. Whether a big wet lump breaks on your knitted hat and migrates down the back of your neck or a handful of snow gets rubbed in your face when hand to hand combat inevitably precipitates. So, to avoid all of this, snow forts were often the first order of business. These could be crude dugouts in the pile of snow left by our hero — the snowplow — or they could be meticulously built igloos that required hours of work. The dugouts provided us with a place to build pyramids of snowballs that could be heaved while under cover and made the snowball fighting experience a much more enjoyable and sustainable activity.
The igloos were pieces of art that required moving masses of snow into one place to provide enough raw materials for our construction. Like we were playing drums, we would pack it down, then carve an opening that could be crawled through. Eventually, this discrete entrance would lead to the grand cavern formed in the belly of the snowbank. In the end, you could snuggly enjoy the strange blue light of the hideout as you cooled down after the extended exertion. Like any primitive building, we enjoyed our work for just a spell. Inevitably, fresh snow turned us into archeologists and renovators. If the snow didn’t fill up our entrances or collapse the roof, the plow would level our masterpiece all together. The once heroic blade now cutting into our sacred space, ignorant of the walls we had meticulously and secretly smoothed within the nondescript mound of snow. A thaw meant disaster as well but always in the most interesting ways: a surprise sunroof might appear or a patch of grass might emerge at the lowest point of the grotto. No matter the method of destruction, it was always sad to see our craftsmanship turn to ruin. But, I realize now, it’s not nearly as sad as not being able to make one in the first place.
If the conditions were wrong for snow forts but right for sledding, that was the most fun. Of course, only if my siblings and parents joined in. Sledding was a competitive sport for us. We’d pile into two sleds and race down the hill — two people in one, three in the other. Each time we’d go a bit faster as the track beneath us turned from sticky or fluffy snow to smooth hardpack, which eventually became ice. The competition wasn’t just about speed and navigation, it was also about how far you could go once the hill leveled out. Most importantly to me, it was about cunning strategy and brute force. You’d have to use your hands and body weight to steer and keep yourself on the fast part of the track but you’d also have to pull on the scarves of your opponents, snatch their hats, shove, kick, tackle, and desperately grab the back of their sled to pull yourself into first place.
If my family was too busy to build a fort with me or risk their lives in a sledding race, and all I had was a friend or my imagination to keep me company, I’d wander through the woods. In the summer, they were hostile territory ruled by merciless mosquitoes. In the winter, they were my domain. Still, I wouldn’t enter without a hefty stick that could act as my staff, sword, bow, or gun. The woods were treacherous. Loose rocks lay like traps beneath a disguise of innocent-seeming snow. Inclines turned to slides sending me off of tree trunks like a human pinball. But the enemies I conjured in my imagination were the most dangerous. Squadrons of assassins sent to dispose of me because I knew too much, knights after me for defying the will of the king, spirits that waited for the right moment to drag me into the underworld, their shadowy forms warped by the waning sun. The quick onset of dusk made every minute in the woods a heightened experience. There was the sweet joy of lying like discarded gingerbread on the forest’s frosted floor, watching the golden light blaze through the treetops. And there was the drama of racing back home from the farthest depths of the evergreens to make it back before the way was fully obscured by the night. The warm yellow rectangles of the house watching expectantly as I trudged through the knee-deep snow towards the beacon of smoke rising from our chimney.
When the snow was coming down, there was an energy in the air like it was the last day on earth. I would climb rock faces, battle brittle tree branches, and pick my way from one island of reeds to another at the edge of the marsh. It was the constant cascading of shattered snowflakes that made me put on skis and ride down the biggest cliff on our property, careening through a narrow passage of ash and cherry. It was the blinding blizzards that made me dive behind a massive maple trunk and stalk my dog tirelessly in endless games of one-sided hide and seek. It was the chunky, lazy flakes that made me sprint until I collapsed, panting on a rock upholstered in crystal. It was the enchanting snowflakes that made me destroy them savagely with my searching tongue and hold them delicately in my mittened hand, stunned by their intricacy - melancholic when they melted into oblivion.
The slushy snow I see outside my window now reminds me that my memories aren’t dissimilar. I write this to try and preserve the shape of my recollections: the unique composition, branching associations, and connections frozen in time. I fear my burning longing will melt what little substance my memories still maintain and all I will be left with is an ambiguous nostalgia of my childhood joy. A joy that dissolves all too easily into my indistinguishable ocean of experience.
Though I know it’s impossible, I sometimes think my memories might be recreated some Saturday morning when I wake up to fresh snow on the ground. But, I’m too big for snow forts now. I can’t convince anyone to go sledding with me or have a snowball fight. Romps through the woods either feel too tame or too dangerous. My footprints through the snow, once stamps on the paperwhite fields where I recorded my adventures are now practical indicators of progress from point A to B. The excitement that built in my chest isn’t released with the exertion necessary to keep warm but instead hardens at its peak like a wave flash frozen on a lake.
Perhaps though, tonight, after eating alone in front of my computer, I’ll catch a glimpse of fresh snow renewing the salt, sand, and shovel scarred landscape. Perhaps I’ll put my boots on, the ones I usually reserve for visits home. Maybe I’ll get my mittens out that I once bought for skiing but now lay largely unused. Maybe I’ll bundle up in a few layers, put my hat on before stepping outside and I’ll test the quality of the snow by making an innocent snowball. Then, maybe I’ll go for a walk. Watch the snow stream through the orange glow of the halogen street lights as the city sounds soften with the increasing accumulation. I may even start running; until I reach the head of a steep street to see how far I can slide down on my feet without falling. Picking up speed before veering towards the sidewalk to stop myself from careening into the intersection. And as I walk home, I’ll pass a few unsuspecting strangers who will be too cold and self-conscious to notice my heavy breathing and my uncontrollable smile, obscured by the falling snow.