If water is the essence of life, then snow is its most playful expression. Consider the wackiness of snow: It’s one of nature’s most fragile compositions, yet its heft can cause great damage. Each flake so tiny—often .05 inch—but from one comes large swaths of blizzards! And while it’s certainly wet, fresh snow is 90% trapped air, all stuck within the lattice structure of the crystals. And of course, it’s just fun, unless, of course, you jibe with Carl Reiner’s humorous take on it: “A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.”
Either way, my guess is that we’re ready for the graceful dusting, the resultant silence, the wonder it engenders. Which is why I felt compelled to write 10 ways of loving Colorado’s snow:
One: Six corners. Always six corners! I’ve just learned that in 1611, Johannes Kepler was on his way to a New Year’s party when he noticed the snowflakes on his jacket always had six points, from whence came an obsession of his, to explain why. He later collected his theories in a book of musings called “The Six-Cornered Snowflake,” a fact I learned from a book called “Shaped by Snow,” a contemporary celebration of the white stuff. Here, I also learned other beauteous scientific facts, such as that snow crystals latch onto each other as they settle on small surfaces—the branches of an aspen tree, say—because water molecules not only attract each other (a property called cohesion) but are attracted to other atoms and objects via adhesion, allowing them to embrace those little branches, thereby capturing our attention. Via adhesion and cohesion, we get the delicate, intricate tangles of snow-covered trees, our winter wonderlands.
Two: Lots of names. Snow gets called a lot of things. There’s that urban legend that Eskimos have 100 words for snow, although, in fact, there’s no one Eskimo language, nobody knows what the true number is, and nearly all languages have multiple words for snow. The underlying idea is right, though. Take Coloradans, for instance: I’m guessing we have at least 1,000 words for snow, including “I can’t get to work today, I have a cold,” which roughly translates as “fresh snow.”
Ever since the early 1900s, skiers have created their own terminology to describe types of snow, including “powder snow,” “sticky snow,” “champagne powder,” and, my personal favorite, “mashed potato snow,” which is, of course, the thick, heavy, sticky stuff. I personally like the Spanish word for snowflake, Copo de nieve. It just sounds as beautiful as snow.
Three: We find our favorite snow places. I have biases, which I will freely admit to. Steamboat’s snow is not only deep, but also looks as if it’s rising from within, like a bread dough with plenty of yeast. Winter Park’s snow, on the other hand, always seems flat, like a pancake, and is a favorite place to cross-country ski because of a particular meadow with very orange willows.
The snow near Rocky Mountain National Park is always trampled by elk, but once you get past that, and past the tourist-created mush, the snow and incline demands snowshoes. Eastern Colorado’s snow is a drag when it’s windy, and diamond-esque gorgeous when it’s not. One glorious secret snow spot is the Stupa in Red Feather Lakes—a white Buddhist temple—white on white. And Garden of the Gods is rather the opposite, bright red-orange in white.
Four: Math. And here’s something else about Colorado snow, which I have just dubbed the 300-300 effect. Colorado has 300 days of sunshine and gets an average of 300 inches of snow in the mountains.
Five: Records. Related, we Coloradans also happen to have the United States’ record for a single day’s snowfall, which happened in 1913, when 63 inches of snow fell in Georgetown. Now we’re setting records of the other sort—the longest period of time without snow, as if Colorado has perhaps gotten itself confused with Arizona, which will make us all the more appreciative when the snow flies.
Six: Snow begets creativity in humans and other creatures alike. Snow forts are an important component of life. Snow creatures. Snow men and women. Snow angels. Sure, we also have to get creative and work harder to stay warm, but it also gives us plenty of chances to play. But also, think of the animals!
Some birds flee when the snow flies, some lower their internal body temperature. Some mammals hibernate, and others store up fat. Pelts shift to white for camouflage. All creatures tend to get creative with snow around.
Seven: Colorado’s mountain passes. Nothing like snow to remind us of our passes and Colorado has a lot of them: 49 mountain passes traversed by paved highways, 10 by improved roads, 16 by unimproved roads, and 29 traversed by trail. My least favorite is Wolf Creek Pass; Cameron Pass has offered me a snowstorm in July; Kenosha Pass is not bad; and Monarch Pass has a good name, if it’s summer and you want to think of butterflies. La Veta Pass, which reminds me of la vida, life, is probably a tribute to what you will re-appreciate when going over it. Rabbit Ears has the coolest rock structure, and Independence Pass is the highest at 12,103 feet.
Eight: Keeping Appointments with the Trees. One oft-ignored trait of snow is that it helps us see trees better. This is especially true if you’re staring at white aspen trunks when the sky is dusk blue, l’heure bleu. Or staring at a blue spruce surrounded in white; somehow that gray-bluegreen-grayagain color just isn’t as evident without snow.
Other smart people agree. Thoreau, for instance: “I frequently tramped 8 or 10 miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or an old acquaintance among the pines.” Amen, brother.
Nine: Slowness: There is no wealth but time. Snow and winter always remind me of this.
Ten: Wonder: Waking up to an unexpected snow is a lovely wonder, which is sometimes ruined by weather people, and speaking of weather people, some of you will remember weatherman Ed Greene, who I once heard say, “If you don’t have the urge to throw a snowball, something is wrong with you.” Or at least, that’s how I remember it. I was just a kid watching the local weatherman, thinking an adult finally had something intelligent to say.
I bet most of us can agree that snow makes us consider capital-J Joy, that larger Joy, purposeless Joy, experiencing Joy, finding Joy, throwing Joy around like snowballs. Joy is a good goal at this time of year. It’s simply hard to look at snow and not feel a twinge of it—and that, perhaps, is what I love best about snow. The nectarean nature of the snow, and of the joy it brings—well, it’s worth a love letter from time to time.