There once was the sound of snow. I first heard it at my aunt and uncle’s cabin in the Big Bear mountains, a place our family gathered for winter holidays. The old shake-wood cabin was painted forest green and snuggled against the hill side. A series of stair-steps lead to the front door. There was a wood stove with its smoky heat, a small living-room-kitchen, and the icy-cold outdoor bath tub. Sometimes, rain fell all day, but by next morning, a white powder covered the trees, the forest floor, and the cabin roof. Long, pointy-tipped ice-cycles hung from the eves.
I knew the snow would come. I heard it in the pitter of rain on the tin roof, how the sound would quiet to a whisper, then silence. The snow absorbed sounds. It turned down the volume of the world outside; it lowered the volume of the thoughts in my head to heartbeat and breath.
Years later, while backpacking in the Trinity Alps, I heard the sound of snow. It softened the sound of the rushing waters at Deer Creek into a gentle, bubbling babble. Instead of the icy crunch under foot, there was a slippery-slosh as my boots sank into wet snow. Blacktailed deer, and even Black Bear, remained active in the winter’s snow, but their sounds were smaller. The snow covered the branches and the leaves of the forest floor. No longer was there the snap of a branch or the rustle of leaves as the animals walked on their forage for food in the snow-globe-world of white.
Living off-grid in the Tahoe National Forest, large snow flakes fell throughout the night. In the morning, our trucks disappeared, hidden under heaps of snow. The snow circled our cabin, tucked it in tightly, like a child swaddled in blankets. My husband and I were cocooned inside where the wood stove hissed and popped, while the tea kettle whistled. Outside, the snow stacked higher.
When we lived in the Modoc Mountains, the snow didn’t fall from the sky; instead, it blew with a horizontal wind from the north or the south. Snow covered windows in delicate crystals. It threw piles of whiteness in front of the doors. The sound of snow was wailing wind, and when the wind calmed and the snow settled, there was the swoosh of the snow shovel, the thunderous crash of snow as it slid off the roof, and the sputter of the tractor as my husband plowed to uncover our long, gravel driveway.
But, the snow stopped. From the north in Modoc to Big Bear in the south, the snow fell in inches instead of feet, and the pitter patter of warm rain melted the tiny layer of snow to a thin slush. Hope came as a new winter storm was promised, but there was only timid rain. There was no snow pack to seep slowly into the earth to feed the forest. No snowpack to release its waters down into the dry, thirsty valleys in the hot summer months. Millions of trees died, and reservoirs were cracked-dry earth. Each winter night, I listened for snow, waited for the silence that did not come.
That was before the world turned upside down, and the river appeared in the sky. There was a thunderous noise as the rains poured down upon the earth. The water filled the thirsty lakes and stream beds. The water overflowed the river banks, spread mud and debris across the roads, punched huge holes into the asphalt. At home, in the Sierra Foothills, the water crept through the floors, filled the laundry room inches deep. The garden ditches were raging creeks. The news said, “Only travel in an emergency.” We were trapped inside, as trees fell in the wind, and the electricity stopped. A new quiet came. The hum of the refrigerator ceased, the ceiling fan stopped it’s whirl. Outside, the storm continued, but inside, the quiet was profound.
And this morning, after five years of waiting, I woke to the silence of snow. From my window, I watched it fall softly from the grey sky. Snow sprinkled the tree tops, covered my truck, turned the cabin roof white. I opened the front door, inhaled deeply, let the moist air fill my lungs.
Kandi Maxwell lives and writes in the Sierra foothills of Northern California. She walks through forests, soaks and splashes in rivers, lakes and hot springs, and bends frequently in downward dog. She is a retired high school English teacher. Her work has been published in Fair Haven Literary Review, KYSO Flash, The Raven’s Perch, One in Four, Foliate Oak, and others. Her work has been nominated for The Best American Essay series.
Photos by the author.