Sunday, November 25, 2007


I haven’t smelled the snow in years. You don't even know that snow has a smell until you've lived with it and been apart from it (geographically, seasonally). We know the smell of rain, the acoustics of a wet day -- snow has them, too, in a quiet, lovely way.

Arriving to 25 degree Fahrenheit weather in Colorado, the connection between the smell of snow and memory, both sentimentally and practically, returned.

All my snow habits came back. You have to walk differently in cold weather. Starting from the bottom: rather than heel-toe, or whatever the normal walking pattern is, you walk with a sort of a shuffle, placing your foot flat on the ice and taking that fraction of a second to know you aren’t going to fall before putting your whole weight on it. Experienced snow walkers don’t even notice that hesitation. And then, as you walk on the ice (looking to make sure you tread where it’s been pre-churned by others and not onto perfectly smooth ice) you listen and feel for that satisfying crack. When you crack the ice under your feet, you know you’ve mastered it, that it is giving way and providing you traction, rather than pushing back and making you slip.

Because you are shuffling, you’re working from your knees rather than your hips. In fact, your hips and upper body stay as still as they can be in order to reduce the number of variables in the physics experiment that is walking on slippery ground. Your arms move a little – because they have to in order to give you a little more speed and balance – and the only sound you hear in this muffled world, aside from the crunching of ice under your feet, is the swish-swish of your jacket sleeves as they rub against your sides.

The upper body is unmoving for reasons other than physics. We keep our heads perfectly still when we walk because our scarves are wrapped around our lower faces. If you move your head in a normal way (who even notices what’s normal until you’re cold?), you shake off the protection of the scarf.

(Having had problems with lack of flexibility in my neck and with my hip flexors, having been told that I walk too stiffly, I wonder if it is a legacy of all this snow walking.)

When you walk out into the cold, your glasses start to get cold and feel stiff, almost frozen to your skin. Or maybe as the moisture is sucked out of your skin (a sensation of instant aging, as if created by computer graphics) it freezes to your glasses. Because you’ve got a scarf wrapped around your lower face, the steam of your breath shoots upwards, fogging your glasses.

Sometimes your eyes water. Certainly, your nose runs. Another unforgettable aspect of snow walking: even as you keep your head still so as not to lose the carefully-arranged coverage of the scarf, your nose is running, creating a cold, wet spot on the scarf sitting right in the middle of your face and chin.

There is nothing that beats that moment when you’ve been inside, having put on your coat and hat and scarf and gloves and only then running around trying to find your keys or something you forgot to take … and then, overheated, you step outside. The freshness of the air gives you a rush of exhilaration. The smell of snow fills your head, clears it, presents your mind with images of white and clean and fresh and cold.

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