by K.M. Zahrt
Here we are — mid-November, prior to Thanksgiving, the memories of last year’s Winter Storm Hercules have yet to thaw in our minds — and already we’re facing words like “polar vortex” again. Still, there’s something inherently glorious about the first snow cover of the year, even when it comes earlier than expected (like before Turkey Day), but blankets of snow seem to have a return that diminishes faster than driving a new car off of the sales lot.
When we were little, we bundled up inside-and-out, head-to-toe — long underwear, snow-pants overalls, coat, boots, mittens, and hat. If things were really bad, we’d opt for the full face mask, even though it never fit right, we couldn’t see, and our own drool could possibly freeze the mouth part to our faces. But, we didn’t brave the cold; we defied it. It couldn’t stop us. It was the first snow. We were going outside.
When we were in elementary school, we stayed out all evening at our sleep-overs digging a series of tunnels in the snow pile in the corner of church parking lot. And, sledding was the first and last thing we’d ever want to do with our lives. Was there anything more fun than going to the nearest hill, loading up everyone we could onto a inner tube or a plastic toboggan, and careening down the slope at speeds that we were sure approached the sound barrier (whatever that means)? We were confident our run was more epic than any previous attempt, and we were sure to let everyone know the play-by-play when we finally made it back to the top in sweaty, breathless glory.
When we were in upper-elementary school, we occasionally played ice hockey, with ice skates, on real ice, although our movements weren’t as much of a controlled glide as you might see on TV. It was more like we were hacking haphazardly at uneven, partially snow-covered frozen water with ice picks strapped to our feet. It was about that time when Mom bought us Go-Go Gadget-style contraptions for our feet. They had Rollerblade boots, but the soles could be changed between two options: in-line skates or snow blades. The snow blades were made of black plastic and looked like regular skis, but they were only slightly bigger than our feet. Judging from the pictures on the cover of the box, we were sure the snow blades were going to blow all other winter activities out of the snow bank. The trouble was, if we could find the right kind of slush the plastic would actually slide on, it would be too slippery to successfully stay upright for long. And, once our snow pants were sopping wet (Sopping wet? Oh, you’ll know it when you feel it.), the fun was over.
When we were in middle school, snowboarding was all the rage, or perhaps building jumps out of snow was all the rage. We spent more time trying to construct the next launch pad than actually launching. We wasted an entire Christmas Eve setting up a quarter pipe in the backyard that, by the time it was ready, it was too late, we were tired, and if we were lucky, we’d get one good run in when everyone was sure “huge air” was achieved. That was also the age when we could take a more independent role in snowmobiling. When middle school boys were turned loose on the machines with their friends trailing behind clinging to a home-made dogsled, there was no telling how much fun and/or injury was going to be had by all. But, mostly fun. Well, almost always at least one injury. It only takes one. That was when the snowmobile was put away for the day.
When we were in high school, snowboarding was still the rage. We could load everyone into someone’s mom’s grocery-getter and drive a couple hours north and be shredding up Chrystal Mountain by noon. On one snow day, left to our own devices, what did we do? Oh, nothing, really, we just built the largest snowman the world has ever seen. Thinking on it now, we should’ve called the Guinness World Records. In a stroke of genius, we leveraged gravity by rolling the giant snowballs that would make up our man down a never-ending ravine. The true feat of engineering, however, was getting the had-to-weigh-two-hundred-pounds-at-least headpiece all the way to the top. We couldn’t even tell you how we did it, but somewhere, there’s a picture to prove it. And, the snow football. Oh, the glory days! How quickly winter gear made us feel invincible as football fiends. Hard plastic Riddells couldn’t possibly hold a candle to the cranial protection of a knit hat with a big fluffy ball on top. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway; by halftime, coats and hats were discarded in favor of frozen-over, crusty sweatshirts and pants for all the padding we needed.
And, don’t forget the road trips. That’s right, mid-winter road trips. Now, we don’t even go to the grocery store if it’s snowing without checking The Weather Channel app first. But back then, an app with an ill-advised forecast couldn’t stop us anyway. How else would we find ourselves at the front desk of a EconoLodge in Holland begging the staff to let us sleep in the lobby for “just a couple of hours, come on!”
When we were in college, snow days maintained their mystique, if we were lucky enough to get one. (Kids in West Michigan these days receive theirs before Thanksgiving. We might as well give them all a trophy, too.) How else would we have the chance to abandon our studies without being too reckless and drive (ironically, or perhaps stupidly) an hour and a half to spend the day by the warmth of the fireplace in the poker room of the nearest casino? It was a no-brainer.
Where did all the fun go? Is snowy silliness simply set as an inverse function of age, when, by the time we turn thirty, it’s close to no more fun at all? Well, I think we can give age some credit for bringing about wisdom and hindsight. In reality, the memories of those isolated winter moments are probably more fun to relive as a daydream than they were as a snow day. So, we won’t apologize for being nostalgic. We won’t apologize, either, for saying things like, “It’d be nice to have a white Christmas, but after that, it can go.” We’ve done our time, paid our dues.
We’ll settle for sitting around a hot fire with a warming spirit to talk and laugh about, and pretend to wish for, the cold days of old. And, we’ll be sure to scrutinize the wintery ways of the next generation. They’ll never do it quite right, so we’ll be sure to tell them how. Or, maybe we shouldn’t.
Note: Our snowman was nowhere near 122 feet tall, the actual record holder. Oh, well.