Record Snow


Libby isn’t a comfortable traveler. It doesn’t matter how often she’s been someplace; she gets nervous before leaving home and a part of her stays home, pulling her back like a drafting compass, making her count the hours or days until she reenters her nest.

But she’s a tenacious matriarch, and she aims to see her descendants now and then. So she flies to Portland at least four times a year, for a long weekend with her daughter and son-in-law and their two kids. This year Tito has just turned eleven and Ruby will be seven.

Tito’s full name is Timothy Thomas. His dad called him “TimTo”at first, but Libby’s dad heard “Tito.” He was then in his fifth year of progressive vascular dementia; the family wouldn’t know how incapacitated he was until his death nine months later. Anyway, the nickname stuck: he’s Tito to everyone now.

Ruby is in fact Ruby. Libby’s daughter always loved the name and her son-in-law didn’t object. The parents are strawberry blondes and the baby was born with red silky hair, so the moniker fits. Tito is a blond.

Libby had cheap plane tickets for the long weekend. And she had the usual pre-travel anxiety (it’s a body thing, and if she could package it she’d cure any case of constipation), increased by the weather forecasts at both ends of the flight. No one is sure when the media formed whatever pact they have, to try to make incoming weather dramatic and scary, but they all do it. Libby resides in the climatically benign San Francisco bay area, beside the largest harbor on the west coast of all the Americas, within a mild temperature range of about thirty degrees year round, and the weather is never so bad that she can’t go out and walk in it. The annual rain starts in November. If Libby paid attention to the meteorologists, she’d rush out to buy batteries and water and tarps every time there’s a low offshore.

There was a shower forecast at her end. SFO is a notoriously frail airport, liable to close half its runways if there’s rain or fog or wind gusts. The prediction for Portland was clear and sunny but below freezing, after more snow than the place had gotten in almost four decades.

She checked flight status before she left home. On schedule. But she was experienced; it always looked on schedule before she locked her door and even en route to the airport. She never found out about a delay till she got to the terminal, and then the advice was to clear security and stay at the gate, because “we might get released early.” She had no choice but to proceed as if all would be well.

She locked up her place and walked the two blocks to the bus stop. No rain. The bus came in a few minutes and got her to the BART station right before the train arrived. She entered the ninth car of ten, found an empty group of four seats, set her rolling bag against the train’s side, her butt in the window seat facing front, her cross-body bag in the seat by her side. The trip was low key and without pauses. The views topside were through clean windows at sunlit, rain-washed neighborhoods. The half Vicodin she had begged from her brother kicked in.

When the train pulled into the airport she walked the length of the platform to the fare gates and went through the International Terminal to the United domestic side of things. She hadn’t scored TSA Pre, but the lines at regular security were shorter than she’d ever seen them. She cleared it in five minutes.

The stroll to the gate was pleasant, amid remodeled seating areas and well-behaved travelers. The half hour delay that was posted there was the first bad news of her day. She learned that the plane wasn’t around yet. It was coming from PDX, where icy weather delayed it. Uh oh…

But not “uh oh.” That plane touched down when predicted, twenty-three minutes late. All boarded without incident. Libby’s seat was in the back, of course – that’s always where the cheap tickets landed her – but that also meant there was space for her rolling bag overhead. And although the gate attendant made repeated announcements about the fully-booked plane, there was an empty center seat between her and the young businesswoman in 31D.

The takeoff was beautiful. The clouds were cottony and the sky a vast blue. Lake Shasta didn’t look as full as reported. It showed a tan outline at the shore like an emphatic border in a coloring book, but there was oceans more water than in the last five years. Mount Shasta was fully robed. The amazing view was snow-covered Oregon. White and ice-sparkling under January sun.

They landed close to the original scheduled time and Libby didn’t have to wait long for her son-in-law, even though he had to contend with heavy traffic and slow speed all the way to the airport, because of the snow. The day before, Portland received nine inches. That’s the most the city has had in thirty-seven years.

Portland doesn’t expect snow like that. The municipality owns no snow plows and has no organized way to strew salt or sand. Normally what sticks tends to melt away the next day. Even though two inches of snow can paralyze the place, the city hasn’t seen plows as a priority.

This time the snow didn’t melt. Precipitation ceased, skies cleared, and the temperature remained below freezing. The snow was turning to ice the Thursday she landed, and it only got icier over the weekend.

Traffic was moving so slowly that she could track the progress of her son-in-law’s silver van as he navigated the long approach. He skidded a little when he stopped, but the chains he’d just installed did their job. Whenever he touched the gas the van would pause and rev a little as the wheels found their purchase. Then it would bump slowly along.

Most other vehicles didn’t wear chains that day. And they slipped a little and skidded a bit. Even those with 4-wheel drive couldn’t maintain a straight line and whenever they came to a slope, of which there are few in Portland, they saw sedans canted almost sideways and coupes stalled akimbo, all with muffled down-puffy passengers around them, strategizing about how to move the car.

But none of it was bad news, even for those passengers. The sunshine was bright, the wind was calm, and no vehicle was moving at more than 35 mph. Nothing collided with anything else.

That night they all went out for dinner at their usual favorite. Tito and Ruby had fish and chips. They drove there slowly, crunchily, and returned (after the brownie a la mode) the same way.

By the next day, things were even icier. Except for the few mall tenants who paid for private plowing, and the bar owners who hired kids to shovel their walkways, all streets, freeways, and sidewalks were white and harder than the day before. One in every dozen steps was a little slide. But one could still stomp into it, with a satisfying crunch. The family took a good walk around the neighborhood, but mostly they stayed inside.

Libby helped Ruby with her science workbook. She had to identify stages of insect and amphibian maturity. She asked why people didn’t come in tadpole, larva, nymph, or chrysalis forms. Libby answered that people have those stages, and more; it’s just that humans don’t exhibit big physical differences while growing. Libby asked her to consider how long a person takes to become an adult: at least sixteen (thirty-four!) years. It’s that much time, Libby told her (marveling at how closely she appeared to be attending), because there are so many things for a person to learn. Libby reminisced aloud about how impatient she’d been to grow up, but how necessary all that time turned out to be. Ruby shook her red curls and smiled with her whole face. Then they went upstairs and played Legos. Libby and Ruby love mini-figures and assemble communities of them. They used to let Tito turn them into armies, but lately he’s too mature for that.

Saturday all ground surfaces were shining like uneven glass. Everywhere they went Portland sparkled. But it was still slow going. By then the snow couldn’t be shoveled at all. Some merchants were fed up with the dangerous sidewalk conditions and finally faced the white stuff. It had iced up so that it had to be hammered into slabs before it could be pushed aside. There were two-inch thick triangular tiles of frozen snow piled between shop fronts and parking lanes.

They ventured out again. They had to; it was the day of Tito’s birthday party at the nickel arcade. Slow was the watchword. Libby was charmed at how undangerous the hazards became. “It’s like the issue of playground surfaces,” her daughter commented as they rolled up the slope near the house, and they all for a moment thought of the bouncy ground-covering now obtained by grinding old tires or however that weird soft composite is made. “Studies show that the kids just ratchet up their risks. I read that the rate of concussions and bone breaks has stayed constant.”

The party was a success. Afterwards the family stopped for Indian food. Between the papadum and the naan, Tito pulled out his iPhone and attempted a quick text to his friend Jack. He’d just gotten the phone for his birthday and he seemed to find its operation irresistible. It was already a subject of contention between him and his parents. They busted him immediately.

“What the f…?” came from his father as “Tito! I told you before…” exited his mother’s mouth. Both acted confiscatory. “What were you thinking?” they asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I’m just dumb.” The boy seemed to be fast-learning sarcasm. Libby had noticed this sort of response all weekend.

“You’re not dumb,” her daughter began, and Tito stormed in with “Yes I am! I’m an idiot.”

Libby looked at her grandboy and saw the embarrassment in him. She tried to counsel. “Oh honey. I’m sorry you hurt.” He glanced at her. His eyes were shiny. “Sweetie. There are two kinds of pain. Mostly it’s a warning that you’re sick or injured. You know: your body screaming for attention: ‘Stop. Rest. Time to take care of yourself.’

“But there’s another kind of pain and it’s good. You get it when you grow. Remember when Ruby was a baby and cut her first teeth? It hurt. It always hurts to use something new. But it’s a good signal. A ‘pay attention and enjoy the new power’ signal. The embarrassment you’re feeling now is good pain. It’s not a sign that you’re dumb.”

Libby thinks she probably didn’t make the impression on Tito that she intended. But she noticed his father was listening. Tito’s father is now forty, and infinitely more humble than he was five years ago. She thinks he may have heard. Perhaps he’ll guide his boy.

They ended up enjoying that meal. And the next day, Sunday, they looked at icy snow from inside the house, while playing board games and watching anime, and crunch-walked around the neighborhood.

Libby flew home Monday. Temperatures were still below freezing and Portland was still glittery white, but the plane arrived from Chicago early and got to SFO on time. She was delighted to walk into her little place. But it had been a near-perfect trip. She had managed to ignore all dire advice and everything had gone well.

The big melt began the next day. Portland had a high in the forties and then came the rain. By Wednesday all the snow and ice was gone and there was local flooding from the water. Libby’s daughter reported that vehicles resumed speed and traffic accident stats returned to normal. There were four times as many collisions on Wednesday as there had been during the five days of Libby’s visit.

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