Mountain Gazette/January 2004

By Alex Miller

So many images – from the snowy Rockwellian tableau that exists in our minds to countless photographs on postcards and in coffee table books – show snow sitting still. Parked in fields as the sun sets, reposing on the branches of trees, perched on telephone wires – you’d think the stuff never moved, got dirty or was every interrupted from its photographer-ordained duty of sitting around looking pretty, like a Hollywood starlet.

But like starlets, snow does have its dark side. There’s the avalanche, of course, where all that pretty stuff gathers for a big party and then crashes in with devastating result. But these events – while plentiful in the backcountry – are relatively rare in the world of we snow-dwelling  humans. What I’m talking about is the quotidian experience of living in a world of snow; the kind of everyday dealing that accompanies habitation in the mountains.

I mistakenly spent most of the last four years in the Los Angeles area, and was thus insulated from the world of snow and scraping windshields. Upon return to the mountains this year, I felt the tremendous build of anticipation as Labor Day passed and the aspen turned gold. We had our first decent snow in mid-September, which effectively purged us from three-and-a-half years of living in a place where it barely rained, much less snowed. Our oldest son Austin, now 13 and always on the lookout for money-making opportunities, immediately identified snow-shoveling in the neighborhood as his new cause celebre, and he quickly signed-up neighbors happy to pay the small amount he asked over what plowing services charge. He thought it’d be easy money.

Alas, he didn’t take into account the vast difference between shunting aside an inch or two and the great physical exertion it takes to deal with anything resembling a “dump.” When a Thanksgiving week storm deposited a foot or so in the driveways of his clients, Austin went immediately from wishing for snow to almost dreading it. Snow, he was learning in the School of Hard Knocks, could be a real pain in the ass.

I fancy myself something of an expert on snow removal, having done so “professionally” as a lift-op for two seasons at a large ski area – and after 20-odd years of living above 8,500 feet. And when my father owned an auto parts store in the mountains during my high school and college years, I was often at the wheel of the green-and-white Dodge pickup with the plow on the front (just about the most fun you can have with an internal combustion engine). And so it was that I turned to Austin one snowy day and imparted some wisdom about how he should deal with the situation which — as 13-year-olds are wont to do – he promptly ignored. He was, in effect, saying “Dad, I prefer to get my instruction from the School of Hard Knocks.”

He now has perhaps the equivalent of an Associate’s Degree from said School, particularly as it relates to what may be the Number One Rule of Moving Snow: Do it NOW! Because if you wait it will only get deeper and harder to shovel. Other rules and maxims include basics like using a broom wherever possible, bending at the knees rather than the back, and shoveling with the idea that the next big snow is right around the corner and you’d better make room for it. There’s not a lot to it, really; it’s just something that has to be done.

I’ve always found shoveling snow to be a mixed pursuit in that the joy I experience in casting an appreciative eye over a fresh deposit is nearly equaled by my delight in diving into it — destroying it — with a shovel. Even if heavy snow can really kick my ass physically, it looks easy to deal with at the outset, and there’s a certain satisfaction in the simplicity of it all: Snow in the way — shovel — snow no longer in the way. Repeat as necessary. When I was a liftie, I’d show up at my station on a big powder day just rarin’ to go. There was so much to do in so little time – from preparing the ramp and loading area to packing the enclosure to getting the maze lanes cleared out. And there would still be the business of starting the lift and dealing with skiers (who then reasonably expected us to sweep off the chairs as they came around).

I enjoyed all that snow work, and the process of grooming the whole lift area over the next day or two to make it look just right. To this day, I cast a critical eye over the ramps and terminal areas of any ski lift I happen to be at, and I fancy none are quite up to par with what my lifts looked like. Whether it’s a driveway or a ski lift staging area, my notion is that snow is this beautifully malleable substance – quite unlike dirt – that can be shaped and molded into perfect little edges, pathways and corners. It’s landscaping of an ephemeral nature, because it won’t be long before dirt from the road sullies the whole thing, or sun melts away some of those perfect delineations my shovel made. But nothing beautiful lasts anyway.

It’s snowing now, as I write, but not nearly so much as I’d hoped. The same way I did as a kid, I come down early in the morning and open the door to see what Ullr may have left overnight. I feel my heart lift if it’s above 3 inches or so, with elation at 6 inches or above. Dustings and traces feel like Bronco losses or the absence of a check I was hoping to find in my mailbox, but I get over it. That’s the thing about living in Snow Country: Hope springs eternal, and what doesn’t fall one day may just be around the meteorological corner.

And when it falls, I’ll be ready with my shovel – and maybe even a protractor, yard stick and jeweler’s loupe to make it all look just right.

Assistant editor Alex Miller lives in Frisco, CO.

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