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Off the Trail: First snow

October 12, 2012

Digging out after a big storm in Mammoth.

Twenty years ago this month, it started to snow.

And snow.

And snow.

By the time it stopped snowing, in June, 1993, the road over the Benton Crossing Bridge was lined with six-foot tall drifts. The piles of snow in Mammoth didn’t melt out completely until August.

I’d just moved to the Eastern Sierra that summer. I had free rent, free skiing as a volunteer for the U.S. Forest Service, and I knew I was in for an easy winter. I mean, how hard could a California winter be anyway? I’m from Montana, where they have real winters, winters where the sun doesn’t shine for six weeks at a time and 10 below is a heat wave.

This is gonna be cool, this winter, I thought. Easy.

But the first storm came in on Oct. 3 and didn’t let up for three days. By the time it was over, there were five feet of snow in the backcountry and my summer season was over.

By the end of December, storms were coming in at the rate of one every four to six days, staying for three to four days and leaving four and five feet behind at each dump. Every few hours, the howling wind would force the big Jeffrey pine outside my window to give up its burden of snow and dump it on the roof of the double-wide mobile I was living in rent-free as trade for my volunteer work for the forest service. The entire trailer would shake.

The nights were long.

In the morning, we’d open the door and the snow was higher than our heads. The dogs flew out the door and disappeared under the snow, then surfaced like seals, swimming through the whiteness.

One day, in late January, I got up on the roof to shovel the double-wide so the roof wouldn’t collapse.

The snow was at roof level and there was nowhere for the snow on the roof to go except up. It was just January.

I began, that day, to re-evaluate my perception of Californians.

By the end of March, we had become elegant dancers doing the Mammoth waltz. We danced to the tune of wind and white and pine and snowplow back-up beeps. We went to sleep with the wind, and woke up to the sounds of the big guns up on the ski hill.

By the end of April, seven long months after that October day, Mammoth felt like a town under siege.

Third floor porches were level with the snow. The snow was like an insulating curtain, separating us from the rest of the world, hard to penetrate. Despite the days getting longer, it seemed they had narrowed. Everything was so precise—dry this, dry that, move the cars first here, then there, don’t leave the car brake on, put the wipers up, dry the wood, dry the hoods, the gaiters, the snow pants, the gloves and mittens and jackets and liners. Clear the propane line so it doesn’t blow.

Wake up, and start the dance all over again.

On Thursday, it snowed for the first time since June—20 years later, the second week of October.

While no one is predicting a winter like the one of 1992-93, no one isn’t either. After a recent conversation with a meteorologist, we are given an equal chance of a normal, below normal, or above normal winter.

It’s that time of year, October, when absolutely anything is possible.

We ran to the office parking lot like children and danced in the snow, laughing, taking photos like we’d never seen snow before. This day only comes once a year and tomorrow, the white-capped peaks against the gold and scarlet aspens will give us that once-a-year vision that cannot be repeated.

We don’t know what this winter will bring, but right now, after last winter, it’s snowing and that means it’s time to celebrate.

But just in case—snow dance anyone?

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