More snow than we’d ever seen

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

News this past weekend of serious snow storms in the Sierra brought to mind the winter of 1982-83 when we lived in that mountain range along the eastern border of California. It started snowing on Sept. 14 – it was my son’s 17th birthday – and we got four feet right off the bat. We had never seen that many feet of snow that early in the season, first storm.Within a week, the piles of snow along the driveway were so high, I was no longer helping to shovel because I didn’t have the upper body strength to toss it up there. I took pictures of my son and husband working away in their tee-shirts, sweating little people next to snow piled high above their heads. (We didn’t purchase a snowblower until the next year, when our boy was in college. We never heard the end of it.)

Each morning the sun came up on another three to four feet of snow. The days sparkled, the temps between 35 and 40 degrees forming icicles that dripped right down our necks off towering pines whenever we walked up the skinny driveway. Every night it snowed another three or four feet. We’d learned how much it snowed the first winter we’d spent there in ’79 – dazzling sunny days in the low 40s on snow dumped during the night…but not every night.

We were charmed. For a while.

Soon, our driveway narrowed, shoveled just wide enough for the car. My husband had two jobs, one of which was shoveling his car out every day so he could get to work. The neighbor across the street hired his semi-circular drive plowed out each morning before dawn, the plow dumping his snow in our side yard, which sloped down 10 to 15 feet from the road. Within a week, the declivity of our yard was full to its brim with snow, and the snowplow mountain began to rise above the height of the street. It soon became the neighborhood sledding area, steep and deep.

It snowed all that winter – several nights a week – up through Sunday, June 19, Father’s Day of 1983. The weekend before had been our son’s high school graduation. Family from all over came into the Tahoe Basin. And they finally became believers; we’d been telling them tales of the snow, the late-night heavy snows, the piles, the tunnels of roads, the disappeared houses. They thought we exaggerated. “You don’t mean 30 feet, you mean 30 inches,” they’d say with a laugh at what they were sure was our mistake.

And then 35, 40, 45…50 feet by the time they arrived in June.

It was impressive; we’d seen nothing like it in our lives: the majesty of the 8,000- and 9,000-foot snow-covered mountains, the mystery of what those mounds of snow in yards were covering up, the challenge of maneuvering our vehicles into intersections piled so high with snow that no approaching car was visible until we nosed out into traffic. Cars creeped because of the lack of vision.

The picnic table on our back deck looked like a giant loaf of bread. Icicles hanging from the eaves were 15 and 20 feet long, thick as a thigh. So deep was the snow on our steeply-sloped roof that for months we hadn’t seen a leak of sun through the skylights.

Our son and his buddies were earning $10 an hour shoveling roofs. There was a snow weight factor for every roof built at Tahoe, but the authorities hadn’t calculated for a 50-foot winter, so shoveling of roofs was big business. I thought it was enterprising of the boys, and I know they thought they were going to be rich beyond their teenage dreams at ten bucks an hour.

Until one morning I sat at a friend’s house drinking coffee: we watched her neighbor shovel his roof, a steep one that apparently held too much snow for his comfort. Suddenly he was gone! Before our eyes he had slipped headfirst off the roof and into a deep pile of shoveled snow on top of many feet of fallen snow. We gasped; my friend called the wife. But within seconds, the fellow was pulling himself hand over hand up the rope that tethered him to the chimney. Sighs of relief.

Except for me. “I have to find out where Jimmy’s shoveling snow,” I said to my friend as I fled for home and phone numbers of possible customers where he might be working.
It was a frantic hour or so, I unable to find him, ready to scream or call the cops or something equally unhelpful; if you don’t know where someone is, how can you begin to find him? But he showed up for lunch with three hungry buddies, all of them so full of themselves — bravado, silliness and giant appetites. Unbeknownst to me, they had been using ropes all along. Whew. What kind of mother was I not to know the dangers of shoveling roofs of houses on the sides of snow-laden mountains with an accumulation pushing 50 feet? I was ashamed and humbled. I wanted to just hug them, but of course that wasn’t happening because of their age; feeding them was a good substitute for overt mother love.

Later that afternoon, two of them had finished shoveling our back deck so it wouldn’t collapse under its load, and they were diving off the railing into the snow which despite the slope of the yard reached nearly to the deck – not much of a dive. I was sitting in my living room reading when I looked out through the side window and saw them.

A sudden picture popped into my head of what lay beneath the snow in that backyard– an X-shaped contraption his dad had built to hold the tree rounds that he chopped each autumn to fit into the woodstove. What I saw in my head was my son and his best friend diving into that wood cradle, cutting their heads, blood on the snow. I ran down the hall and into our bedroom, flung open the door to the back deck, yelling at them to “Stop it right now!”

They were surprised at my shouting. I saw them looking out the side of their eyes at one another with that, What’s wrong with Mom? question on their sun-burned faces.
They could not have hit that x-shaped thing – it was way down at the bottom of the snow.

But I made them come in for cocoa.

Life is a hazard, especially when there are kids involved.

By the end of that winter, we were ready for it all to go away. I had fun cross-country skiing off my front deck and down the narrow road. The skiing, sledding, snowboarding were good through the days of bright blue skies and white, white landscape, bedazzling us in even our sunglasses. The roads were cleared efficiently because the county was well-versed in the Sierra snow load at an altitude of 6500 feet. People’s vehicles got bunged up, not by running into one another but from sliding into snow piles so hard-packed the car doors gave way on impact.

Fifty feet of the white stuff? A usual winter measured a mere 30 feet. Fifty was unusual, not believable; old timers had talked of the 50-foot winter of some year or other –1949 or thereabouts – but until ’82-’83, when we understood they were not telling big-fish stories, we, like our disbelieving relatives, had been taking them and their stories with a grain of salt.

In retrospect, it was an entire winter of adventure…no matter how sick of it we became. That’s what many of our memories do – turn into rosy days of a good life a long time ago. I’m all for nostalgia, even as I had to live through unexpected times then to get here.

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