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This essay was first published in Skiing Magazine in 2013.
There must be a technical term—a polysyllabic German word, I imagine—for the precise moment, snow begins to stick to the road. The ground temperature drops. The wind dies. Black dissolves into gray and suddenly there’s half an inch. Then an inch. Then three. The yellow line is gone, the shoulder just a subtle impression, a shadow in the sweep of low beams, the way forward distinguishable only by its perfect featurelessness.
Out of the black and glittering flurry comes a flashing orange light: Chains required. 4W drive with snow tires OK. Better than OK, you say to yourself. You know what your vehicle can do. You know how a certain amount of pull on the wheel, a dose of throttle, or a tap on the brake will translate into a certain amount of slide. You know when to use the slide and how to steer against it.
“Like being in a speedboat, only better,” Tobias Wolff once wrote in his classic short story about a father who, to get his son home for Christmas dinner (and to delay the impending dissolution of his marriage), poaches a barricaded section of snowbound highway. “If you haven’t driven fresh powder,” says the narrator, “you haven’t driven.”
You have a shovel in the back. And chains. You have skis and skins for chrissake. A half sandwich and a sleeping bag just in case. But for now you’re warm and dry, piloting your craft through hyperspace. The universe and time and all meaning collapse into the essential. The storm is raging and you’re in it, alone, hurtling forward at 10 miles an hour. There’s absolutely no place you’d rather be.
You’re past the motels with their snowblowers and no-vacancy signs. You’re past the jackknifed 18-wheeler and the highway-patrol checkpoint. The flashing light recedes in the rearview mirror. Thankfully, the plows are busy elsewhere. The music’s right. And you still have miles to go.
Hub-deep now, the snow brushes the undercarriage. It accretes on mud flaps and fenders. It seems to come from a single point somewhere out over the hood. A balance is struck between wipers and defroster and the deflection of flakes up and over the windshield. You will not allow yourself to be hypnotized. Soon enough, you will emerge into the vague suggestion of a town buried in snow. The rental shops will be closed. Lift chairs will sag on their cables like fresh marshmallows hung on a line to dry. There will be no streets, only wide-open trackless ribbons of white leading to a cabin in the woods.
Later, when everyone’s pulled up before the stove playing Battleship and suddenly a need is discovered for pork rinds or more beer, you will jump at the chance to go back out into it.