Monday, April 18, 2011

Ice Storms, Snowfall And The Last Man On Earth

Growing up in Scotland, I didn’t see much snow.  1979 provided the only white Christmas I remember. After that (with the exception of one year when blizzards closed school for a few happy days) you’d get two weeks of slushy stuff at the end of January/start of February, and that was about it.

In January 1997 I moved to Russia. I vividly recall the banks of deep snow in front of my dilapidated khrushevka in northwest Moscow. I waded through it with pleasure, astonished as I sank in up to my waist. Of course I was walking in an un-trodden area beneath the trees, which greatly confused the handful of Russians who were using the smooth, flattened path like regular people.

Eleven months later I was still sufficiently excited by Russian snow that one night I left my apartment on Leningradsky Prospekt and wandered over to the Moskva-Volga canal. There, my room mate and I made a snowman (or Snow Grandma, as the Russians say). The fun stopped at midnight when a cop discovered us, inspected our documents and informed us it was bedtime. We obeyed.

For the next ten years I saw so much snow that I stopped paying much attention. I’d notice when it first fell- for a few days Moscow would look beautiful, before the filth of the city turned it a grey-black sludge color. And then when spring came, and the snow melted, froze, re-melted… well that was really tedious. And dangerous, too.

When I moved to Central Texas I thought that was pretty much it for me and extreme cold. But at the end of my first year here something unexpected happened: Austin experienced an ice storm.

I’d never experienced one of these before, not even in Russia where I had encountered most permutations of cold weather. It was as if it had rained and then suddenly every drop of water flash froze where it had landed. Everything was coated in a thin layer of wet ice: trees, cars, flowers- even the dead armadillo by the side of the road. Most striking of all was the grass: each blade was encased in its own individual sheath of ice. I’d snap them off to investigate, only to have them melt quickly between my fingers.

As an experienced ice walker, I figured the storm would pose me few problems. But halfway up the hill to my local supermarket I realized my mistake. This was different from Moscow’s dense black ice. There was a layer of water sitting atop the smooth surface that made it impossible to get a grip. I aborted the mission. It took me ten minutes to walk the hundred meters home.

I haven’t seen an ice storm since. Last week, however, it snowed in Central Texas. We’d been warned it was coming, but I hadn’t quite believed the forecasts. Then I got up Friday morning, looked out the window and saw: snow… on top of cars, on the roofs of houses, covering the sidewalks and the roads.

Now I must admit, it was a pretty pathetic winter display. Even the mediocre snowfalls of my Scottish childhood looked like Siberian snowdrifts in comparison to this dismal sprinkling of cold powder. But even so I felt quite excited. The Texas landscape was transformed, in a quite surreal way. It was as if I had gone for a stroll in Antarctica and stumbled upon a date palm growing out of the ice.

Expecting the snow to vanish by lunchtime, I went out for a walk. Apparently fear of death by cold white powder had kept all my neighbors at home, for their cars were sitting in their driveways. School had been postponed too, but there were no kids out tossing snowballs around. There was nothing and no-one. I felt like the sole survivor of a neutron bomb.  Were Texans so shocked by cold that they couldn’t distinguish between a feeble snowfall and a serious one? What did they think was going to happen if they went outside? Still, I can’t complain. It’s a rare pleasure to be the first individual to put his footprints in a fresh snowfall.

So I wandered around, enjoying my moment as the last man on a moderately cold earth. After a while however my fellow humans got over their snow-terror and began to emerge. I heard kids laughing behind privacy fences, and mothers scolding them for playing too violently.

Alas for them, it was already too late. Within an hour the snow would be gone; the kids would be back at school; and everybody had jumped in their trucks and rushed off to work. And I was left alone again, only now I had a beautiful spring afternoon all to myself.

And that was it for the Great Texas Snowstorm of 2011.