Fall in the Pacific Northwest. It’s raining outside. Of course—some would say—this is Washington the Evergreen State. How do you think it stays this way?
But I know it does not always rain here. September’s brilliance is just passing from memory, with days that pushed 80 degrees, definitely lots of 70s and then 60s. The temperature is falling, darkness overwhelms by early evening now as we edge towards the winter solstice.
It was a Humpy salmon year. Fishers have lined the banks of the Skagit River since August, casting and dragging Dick Night’s and globs of salmon eggs and the occasional red-with-crystal-flash tied fly. The fish were plentiful this time, enough to linger in memory for two years until their migratory return. One of five species of salmon native to this legendary northwest river, Humpies have survived.
My California relatives have caught on to our weather—able to separate the rains-all-the-time-myth from reality. They have been here in December when it’s 60 degrees and sunny and December at 32 degrees with light snow on the ground. They have watched their grandchildren’s eyes light up because no, snow is not usual here. It’s a treat, a gift from the grey skies, an inconvenience, a bit of magic.
The first year I moved to Montana I spent an inordinate amount of time peering out the windows watching and waiting for snow. I studied the weather forecasts diligently, believing them to be true. Believing snow to be a weather situation that could transform my life, some sort of game changer making me tougher, more resilient. That it would beautify my surroundings or justify the purchase of two down jackets on sale at the Missoula Eddie Bauer store in early October, when a rare, early cold-snap froze leaves to the trees, never to fall, never to release until spring’s new growth pushed them off.
The Clark Fork River froze the first week of October in 2009. I took photos, never having seen a river freeze-up over three days. I expected this to be the beginning of a long and glorious winter. I worried about my car that slept on the streets at night. I worried about street people staying warm at night.
But after a few days the winds blew warm again, the river thawed, the crystalline ice on tree branches melted and life resumed. I replaced the down jacket with my rain coat and a sweater.
We were nearly snowless until January that year except for one evening in December when I stopped to watch snow falling ever so quietly outside the Liberal Arts building in the center of campus. I stopped long enough, feeling the enchantment that early winter snow can bring when you’ve been looking out your bedroom every morning for months now, and have been denied. I had a brief conversation with a young man–who may have been outside for a smoke, or may have just been outside entranced by the snow— a young man with Tourette’s, who struggled to deliver each word.
We mostly watched the fat flakes careen off the east side of the building, stick to the cement ground, and listened to the wind rush around the corner. We smiled, and lifted up our palms to catch a flake, dreaming of more. We shared a moment of silence and wonder and celebration. We parted ways. Six months later I would hear his voice again inside a fly fishing shop in West Yellowstone where he worked, make the connection and feel how small the world is sometimes. The memory still burned in both our brains. There was some magic in that snowfall. Sharing it with a stranger made it memorable, mysterious.
I was greatly disappointed with the snowfall totals that year, suffered the feelings of being cheated, somewhat like not receiving a gift you had prepared for and wished for and dreamt of. So I stayed another year.
Second chances can reward you, can overwhelm you with their generosity. Whether it be the return of a lover, recovery from an illness, or the gratification of snowfall in Montana, there is a time when the joy is boundless. And then the magic ends.
During the second year it took five months of continuous snow on the ground to stop me from peering out the window every morning for snowflakes. I acquired a snow shovel and gloves that came part way up my arms with an ice scraper attached. I dug out the snow boots that had travelled with me to Montana, stuck in some corner in a bin. I wore my clip-on Trax in the ice. I bought a longer, warmer down parka with a fake-fur collar on the hood. I marveled that a piece of black plastic anchored under my windshield wipers at night could prevent frost from clinging to the windshield. I held my breath when I walked across campus with the Hellgate winds barreling down through the cleft in the hills. I watched the white letter M vanish from the hill above campus, lost in snow, lost in the wildness of winter. I began to dream of rain. I missed it’s softness.
We had a storm last night—the rain heavy, the winds strong. The power stayed on, but our candles and battery-powered lantern were ready. We watched the Weather Channel and the Northwest News Network and studied the maps of expected rain totals. The areas of possible flooding. It’s the probable end of the Humpy fishing season, as the river is running chocolate and full of debris, whole trees ripped from their moorings now floating down, bouncing along.
Two bucks ran through my yard in the rain this morning, antlers still velvety, on the move towards the apple trees. They are my natural clean-up team, devouring four kinds of apples knocked loose by the wind. The wind does not offend them, nor the rain. They are of the wild and know how it works. They accept and continue.
I am of the rain people I suppose. My clans live on this side of the divides, the coastal side of the mountain ranges. It seems only right to own rain boots, a Gore-Tex jacket, and a few lightweight scarves.
But out of respect for my solitary memories I keep my box of warmer clothes near, remembering the weather that requires them— the feel of nylon and down and wool and rubber. The smell of dry wind. Snow falling.
Category: Indie It Travel