Waiting for the Big One

by John Skow

No snow. Bootprints squished into the side-yard mud on a warm day two weeks ago are still there, fossilized, sandy brown, ugly to look at and awkward to walk across. The detritus of the fall season—a ruptured garden hose, a squashed tennis-ball can, a broken-off ax handle thrown away in a fury—surrounds the house as such junk always does in New England at this time

husbands perform astonishing feats of snowblowing, and formerly whiny wives produce marvelous flapjack- and-bacon breakfasts. Everyone is blissful. No one can be expected to get to work, and it is perfectly O.K. to stay home, snug and snowed-in.

On the other hand, an astonishing number of sturdy souls do reach their

of year. But the lovely, deceitful covering of snow that should hide it all until April, that should lead the eye across the sloping ground of the pasture, then into the woods beyond, has accomplished the ultimate deceit by not falling out of the sky. The car rumbles by on the dirt road in front of the house, and its wheels churn thick whirls of dust.

stores and offices, where they preen shamelessly in the knowledge that they are heroes. Citizens who own four-wheel drive vehicles circulate proudly, like victorious tank commanders after a battle. There is a lot of semi-malicious doing of good deeds.To pull

No snow. Not anywhere in New England, except for the stuff manufactured by desperate ski-area operators, at a cost exceeding that of fine carpeting. It is a clear, cold day in January, and the early morning light glows on the hills and mountains. Beautiful, but there is a wrongness to the look and feel of things. There is too much brown in the landscape, too much detail. Snow brings blues and purples, edits out corn stubble and fallen leaves, turns a landscape into a line drawing. Its severity is what this fine January light should be explicating.

No snow, bygod, since the four to five inches that fell in middle December. What we have had in Vermont and New Hampshire is a forlorn alternation of warm rain and iron cold. Since it is cold now, we go skating. Most of us are not very good at it. Some of the girls and women have had figure-skating lessons, and some men played hockey in school, but in well-behaved years the frozen lakes have three feet of snow on them, and so we are skiers, not skaters. I am conscious of resembling, as I skate, a bishop who has drunk too much at a garden party and is trying to appear sober. I totter along for miles, fascinated, accompanied by a dog who skates no better than I do and an assistant dog who loses control of her hindquarters when she tries to turn. We reach a cove where three boys skate in a big, shifting triangle, rattling a hockey puck across the ice from vertex to vertex.

But there is no snow. Winter has forgotten its lines. On damp, gray days at the beginning of December we said to each other, "It's coming" and "Looks like we're n for it," pretending to be worried at the approach of the first northeaster of the season. The fact is that everyone welcomes the melodrama of a big snow-storm. It's not just the sounds of the town and the highway that are hushed. The raging of ego and the clank of ambition are stilled at least for a while.

When the snow has piled chest high against the front door, when entire automobiles are buried , when Labrador retrievers submerge and reappear like porpoises, when it takes ten minutes of lunging to get from house to mailbox (a journey undertaken not to collect the mail but to establish the immensely satisfying fact that the storm is muscular enough to have prevented the mail from arriving)—when all of this has occurred, and snow is still falling, then money worries vanish, rabid teenagers turn reasonable, and mid-life crisis disappears like spit on a griddle. No one thinks about clamoring politicians or the decaying dollar. Formerly sulky

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

a neighbor's mired car out of deep snow satisfies base instinct, and to hook a logging chain to a neighbor's bogged four-wheel-drive truck and twitch it free sets up resonances of gloating that will persist for a decade.

No snow to mire cars, make heroes manifest, to wall out dread reality. No money in town, either. New England communities that once survived fairly well by passing one five-dollar bill slowly from hand to hand are now hooked on winter tourism, which means skiing. Half the town, it seems, is out of work—lift operators, snow groomers, ski instructors, equipment salesmen, bartenders, waitresses and cooks. These people owe money to the other half of town, and even if it snows two feet tonight (looks like snow, it's coming, we're in for it), the ski season will be a big loser. It is time to start passing that five-dollar bill around. Does anybody have one?

Still it does not snow. The days pass, and the mountains lit by that fine January light are as brown as they were in November. At Lake Placid, there is man-made snow on the ski jumps and the alpine trails set up for the Olympic Games, and worried officials are trying to find a way to cover the cross-country courses with machine-made snow. Could the drought last into February? If it does, there will be problems worse than the possibility of a bobtailed Olympics. With each clear, cold day, frost in the Northeast sinks deeper into the ground. Unless there is an insulating blanket of snow, water mains and house connections will start freezing. New Englanders will be brushing their teeth with gin, and in New Hampshire the state liquor stores do not give credit.

This sorry winter will pass into legend, of course. In some snow-clogged January to come—perhaps even the snow-clogged end of this dusty and confounding January—when the car won't start and the snowblower has broken a shear pin and the school bus has not arrived to drag the kids off and leave the adults in peace, it may even look good. Meanwhile, it is time for desperate measures, and they are being taken. In North Sutton, N.H., the Kearsarge Inn and Country Club is advertising that its golf course, normally used by cross-country skiers at this time of year, is open for golf. Weather, it need not be added, permitting.

(From: John Skow, Waiting for the Big One, Time Magazine)