As the fog and rain lifted on Thursday morning, they revealed a magical sight: a healthy coating of snow along the eastern mountains over Calistoga, the first I remember seeing since 2011.
It may only have been the top few hundred feet, but it reminded me of cold snowy mornings back East, or the moody, misty snows of the high Rockies in Colorado.
I grew up in northern Virginia, on the edge of what might be called the northern snow belt. The great storms that bury Boston, New York, and Philadelphia tend to peter out as rain somewhere between Baltimore and Richmond and it is notoriously difficult for weather forecasters to predict where that rain/snow line will fall. Since snow is occasional and difficult to predict, the metro D.C. area tends not to have a very robust snow removal infrastructure, meaning even an inch or two is enough to cause traffic and commerce to seize up.
Fortunately, an inch or two was all we could expect most of the time, meaning the disruption of snow was little more than an inconvenience during most winters.
Once in a while, though, one of the great coastal rain storms that soak the mid- and southern East Coast in the late winter would collide with one of the great arctic air masses that freeze the north. And that collision usually happened right over our heads in the mid-Atlantic, dumping a foot, even two feet, of snow.
Anybody who lives in the area can remember those storms with the same specificity that Californians remember earthquakes and wildfires: The “Presidents Day” storm of 1979, the great blizzard of 1996, both bringing about a foot and a half of wet, sticky snow in the city and more in the western suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. Old-timers still remember the “Knickerbocker storm” of 1922, which dumped more than two feet on the city of D.C.
While such storms are romantic and fun while they are happening, the welcome quickly wears out: frozen roads, snowed-in cars, closed business get wearisome within a day or two. Fortunately, the weather in the area tends to be warm enough that snows melt away in a matter of days, a week at most.
I was glad to be done with snow when we moved to Los Angeles in 2001, but just three years later, my wife got a job transfer back to the East Coast, this time to Philadelphia. Although it was only about 150 miles north of where I grew up, Philly is firmly in the snow zone – accumulations of 6 inches or more are routine, and a foot or more is hardly unusual, during the winter months. That, accompanied by the howling, cold sea-level wind blowing across the Delaware River all season long made for an endless, miserable winter most years.
My sons and I would make the best of the many snow days, heading down to our favorite local restaurant for chicken wings and onion soup for lunch. But that fun quickly soured as snow would remain in huge frozen piles for weeks. In downtown, few residents have driveways, so digging out cars was tricky, and many residents would (illegally) use cones, saw horses, or lawn chairs to “save” parking spaces near their homes. Conflicts over frozen parking spaces regularly escalated to violence in the city, sometimes even death.
The combination of cold temperatures, road grime, garbage, and uncollected pet waste made snowy winters in the city grim and unpleasant.
When we were in the process of moving to the Napa Valley in 2011, the boys and I came out to visit my wife, who was already working out here. It was a particularly snowy and cold February back in Philadelphia, but in Calistoga it was warm enough that we hit the swimming pool. One morning, after a chilly rain storm swept through, I stepped out and saw on the Palisades a light dusting of white snow on the very top.
“That,” I said, “is how I want to experience snow for the rest of my life.”
There and then, we made plans to move the whole family to Calistoga several months before we had intended to do so.
Thursday’s coat of snow was heavier than that one in 2011. It filled me with wonder and nostalgia and let me see my new home in a strange and unaccustomed way.
But it was definitely about as close to living with snow as I want to get ever again.