It feels, this fall, like the snow has started everywhere but here. Even my South Carolina hometown, where the average temperature is vaguely reminiscent of a tropical rainforest or an oven, has gotten a few flakes.
But after going to college in the mountains, a few hours and a world away from the rest of North Carolina, snow stories live in my mind, and the slightest bite of cold can draw them out.
My first brush with mountain snow: It was late September, maybe early October, and the temperatures dipped fast. I could count my previous experiences with snow on one hand. Growing up, most of the kids in my neighborhood didn’t own gloves — when it snowed, once a year if we were lucky, we yanked socks onto our hands.
As the temperatures made their plunge that fall, I realized I was equipped with a pricey winter jacket and almost nothing else. I didn’t even own a scarf — I don’t think I ever had.
I trekked to the K-Mart in town for a few supplementals: a pink fleece hat and matching scarf; a pair of striped, sweater-knit mittens that would, ultimately, do little more than soak straight through and fill my 8×8 dorm, for hours, with the pungent smell of wet wool.
Transaction completed, I waited at a roadside bus stop, plastic bag crumpled in my pocket and new purchases wrapped around my throat and hands and head. And it started: fresh flakes, the fine-grained film that comes when it’s barely cold enough to snow in the first place. Backlit with the lights of town, they looked like glitter.
And not for the first time, but maybe for the strongest, I realized I was in a different place entirely, with who knew what ahead. It felt like magic.
Two weeks after that bus-stop glitter, we got our first real snow — big enough to blanket parking lots and roads, big enough to sink in past your ankles (but not, as it turned out, big enough to cancel class).
It was nighttime, again, when the flakes started falling, fatter and faster than any I’d ever seen. I let myself get swept up in the crowd of girls pouring out of my dorm, pulling on paisley-printed rain boots and the K-Mart scarf and hat.
We lived right next to the stadium, so that’s where we went. Hopped fences. Made snow angels. Then trooped back up to our floor, crowded into the bathroom, took hot showers that stung cold skin. We didn’t know we shouldn’t, almost all of us being new to this world of froth falling from the sky.
I was still so nervous then, so unsure of my reactions, convinced I was saying all the wrong things. That didn’t keep me from thinking, as the shower spray needled into my shoulders, that this was the kind of night you remember.
A few years later, when college was still sweet, but more worn-in, there was snow on the ground for a solid four months.
Snow blanketed the ground sometime in mid-fall, and didn’t melt entirely until mid-spring, late March or early April. (When it did melt, we all paraded out onto green hills and spread out blankets over the mud and, giddy with warmth, laid there for hours).
I visited home sometime in the middle of it, went for pizza with my parents, and begged them to eat outside. It was freezing cold and the patio was empty, but I sat there anyway, scraping my shoes back and forth to feel the clear pavement beneath them, head tilted back, eyes squinting up at the sun.
I went to college for five years. In the fifth, I lived with three roommates in a house outside town and worked an assortment of minimum-wage jobs — waitressing, handing out copies of lost dorm keys, punching tickets in a campus parking deck.
The first thick, October snow of that year, I realized I was growing up — and I realized I didn’t much like it. We didn’t live on campus or close to it, so there was no trooping through snow to fill up on “provisions” (this had never referred to anything practical, we usually meant frozen burritos and terrible movies from the campus library). I needed to pick up shifts at work, but at the time I drove a Toyota Camry that was totally unequipped to coast down four miles of ice-coated road.
We were stuck in the house, and I was worried about paying a rent bill that now seems laughably cheap, and this was adulthood and it all felt awfully grim — so disconnected from the snow days that came before, and from their magic.
Of course, as with all things, you settle in. You get used to being grown up, and the responsibilities stop feeling like individual, personal affronts. You learn how to keep whatever magic you can, to take it wherever you can find it, and to be — this is the trick, I think — to be a happy person who looks like an adult but has a child inside them.
Some things change, some things don’t. I still see pictures of parking-lot snow angels and ache for college snow days, but I don’t long to go back to that time in my life. I am here, not there, and I don’t want to regress.
If you’re still in that stage, though, when your snow days — any of your days — can be closed down to the world…
You should breathe it in. You should savor it. These days won’t come again.