As long as I can remember, winter and snow have almost been synonymous for me. I grew up in Southern Germany, and we always experienced the white load sooner or later. We built snowmen and igloos, went tobogganing down any slope we could find, had snowball fights, ate icicles, and simply enjoyed the sight of snow falling in the beams of early streetlights. The first snow never failed to make me feel enchanted and hope for more. Feathery light, it settles on the ground and fills the air with a crisp smelling blur of whiteness.
The first year I arrived here, I was totally disappointed to hear that the lowlands of Western Washington as good as never see any snow. A winter without snow?! Only in the mountains? Well, I guessed I would be able to deal with it. Trying to see the practical side of snowless winters, I was even beginning to like the thought of it. But then on First Advent that year, while my husband and I were enjoying a beautiful walk through the unique fallow-land of Nisqually Reach, it suddenly was upon us. It started with a few, almost countable flakes, shaped intricately and staying on my coat sleeve. And then it really started coming down. By the time we had reached home (which then was in Steilacoom), the ground was covered by a half-inch of snow. It didn’t last, of course, but it was enough to give me that Christmassy childhood feeling.
Last week Friday, the news reported a solid 14 inches of first snow in the Cascades. My husband suggested to go and have a look at Mount Rainier that weekend. I didn’t expect to be able to get fully around the mountain. In past years, we never made it to Chinook Pass when coming from the North. We usually had to turn around as snowplows made it clear that the situation was severe winter weather further up. But last Saturday we made it – all the way from Greenwater across Chinook Pass and through Stevens Canyon up to Paradise. It was a breathtaking world of bright golden and flaming red foliage contrasted by the dark green of coniferous forest, craggy, steep rock faces, and … snow. I couldn’t help it and snapped photo after photo. My first snow this year melded fall with the up-coming winter in simply stunning ways.
First snow, yet, is also literally a first experience for many people we see in the mountains these days. Not everybody grows up with the experience of snow. These days, we see entire families from other continents travel up Mt. Rainier and marvel at what is snow. They park in picturesque and not so picturesque spots to take selfies and group pictures in the snow. Often enough, their shoes are not snow-worthy, and they slide and glide through the white matter, laughing loudly, tumbling, getting a grip, finding the experience hilarious and utter fun. Once they have discovered what physical opportunities snow offers, they find plastic bags to slide on and frolic in the snow, children and grown-ups alike. It’s wonderful to watch that lightheartedness and joy about something that is taken for granted by so many.
But it’s not only people from other continents who experience snow for the first time when they come to the Cascades. We also drove past a car from Texas last Saturday, parked in the middle of the road. A family of three had walked to the roadside snow that was – in that place – approximately knee-deep. While the father stood looking on, the teenagers went right in and dug their hands into the white fluffiness. Then, the girl turned around, and I thought I noticed a solemn look of wonder on her face. As if she had just experienced snow for the very first time. They vanished in our back window after a moment, and I only hope, that this reverent look was soon replaced by joyful laughter and the same frolicking that I have seen with other people.
When we reached Paradise, the road through Paradise Valley was already closed, barred by hip-high snow. This has only been the first of snow in the mountains this season. Soon, there will be way more, and the passes will be closed again. The mountain world will return to wintry tranquility.