Notes on Reading from the Author:
This piece began after a trip home to Colorado; my partner and I got out of the car in Buena Vista, and I almost collapsed under the weight of the homesickness. There are just certain scents and colors from our childhood stomping grounds that scar us, for better or worse. I don’t tend to write about the land often, but I love writers who do. I love regional writing and writers, and I’m fascinated by the intersection of nostalgia and memory, how we navigate the truth of a space we can’t return to. I think that reading about the land where someone grew up, whether that be the sticky-hot streets of Birmingham or the wide expanses of Wyoming, is really telling. I love looking at the ways that we interact with the space around us. So with that albatross of homesickness around my neck, I felt compelled to put it on the page in some form. It wanted to be a poem for a long time, but eventually it found its way to essay.
What your favorite and/or strangest place to write?
I always want to write in cool spaces. I pack up my notebook (I still write long-hand for drafts) and try to perch on a cool river rock or at a swanky coffee shop. On a recent and overtly optimistic shopping trip I even bought a waterproof notebook so I could—I don’t know—I guess write outside in the rain? But I do most of my productive work swatting my cats always from my pen at my kitchen table or in my dollar store deck chairs on my patio. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time posing as a writer, and I think I still have an instinct to feel like I should be writerly—you know, be seen writing—but I’m at my best in frumpy sweat pants and a bandana at home.
GROWING UP, I often heard that Eskimos have over 180 different words for snow; it’s not true, or at least not entirely true. The Inuit language, spoken today by approximately 13,000 Eskimos, has, like the English language, just one word for a snowflake: qanuk. And, like English, Inuit has only one word for fallen snow: aniu. What is true is that Eskimos have over 180 words and lexemes for the way it snows, the rememory of it. I suspect the rumors about Eskimos and their many words for snow arose from a need to explain the importance of place to a people. Geography sits in our mouths and shapes our language, so snow, when you live in a geographic region that depends on it and is defined by it in equal measure, becomes all-encompassing. The language used for it does, too. Language becomes its own etymological being.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG, snow was not a material or an experience I ever considered craving. I dreaded frozen pipes and windshields; I loathed the seemingly endless days trapped inside after a blizzard. But homesickness and the slow drag through adulthood has a way of giving permission to romanticize things I once ached to escape. When I left Colorado for good, I thought I was closing a chapter—that I would love Los Angeles and her golden, glowing winters. I would wear T-shirts in January and sip coffee year-round at sidewalk cafes. Part of me did and was those things. But the land I was raised on left indelible scars that I couldn’t see until I examined myself under that storied Los Angeles sky.
I WAS RAISED in Park County, Colorado; the jagged Rockies were as responsible for my rearing as either of my parents. I learned to tell time by keeping vigil for the first crocus flower, velvety and hopeful, which poked through the thawing ground in spring. I counted by holding my breath in the space between a clap of thunder and the lightning that follows. Words were mine for the first time only when my mother read me Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I warmed my mittened hands over the big-bellied coal stove after sledding, the tea-kettle whistled on top, and I watched fat flakes fall perfectly imperfect to swaddle the frozen ground.
I was raised by that landscape. The lichen-covered bones ofthe mountains are in my flesh, my tissue; the vocabulary of mountain building, of orography, lives in my lungs and nests in my molars. My memories are organized not by homecoming dances or first kisses or crushes but by blizzards, by the electricity in the air above the timberline when a storm drew near, by the spring when I picked too many morels to carry out of the burn area and had to ferret them out in my pockets all week lest the Rockies feel dishonored by my gluttony. I have the language of that land. I have 180 ways to say snow.
I SPENT MY FIRST CHRISTMAS in Los Angeles at the Santa Monica Pier. I have been in love with piers since the 80’s teen-vampire thriller The Lost Boys, and I thought it would be a nice treat to ride the 720-cross-town bus out there for the holiday. It was a record-breaking year for rain in Southern California that winter. My apartment was damp and moldy, and I was sleeping on a permanently deflating air mattress. I owned one blanket—I was always freezing. Los Angeles was supposed to be sunny and warm. It was in the Golden State. Dreams lived there.
The pier was cold, dotted with a few tourists, but mostly empty. I stared into the surf, fast food wrappers and cigarette butts churning in the sea foam, and I reassured myself that Los Angeles was exactly where I wanted to be. I told myself how glad I was that I wasn’t back in Colorado listening to that stupid John Denver song about Colorado Christmas and watching the pines grow heavy with resinous snow. That night I ate dollar-store spaghetti on a cardboard box on the floor of my dank apartment and tried to memorize the new language of that foreign place. I tried to learn to speak in fault lines and deserts and Joshua trees. I strained to shape words about architecture and culture and diversity in my clumsy mouth. There are no direct translations between the language of the snowy Rockies and the language of the urban, coastal desert. I bought maps and atlases and hiking guides, hoping that I would find the words to talk to my new world. I read the city’s poet laureate, I stood on the Angels Flight railway, and I meditated on John Fante Square. I still needed a translator.
COLORADANS BRAG that the state sees 300 days of sun a year. Strictly speaking, it’s true. The sun peeks out for a moment 300 days a year, but a clear day in Colorado is rare, so the claim is a little misleading. The sun is predictable and can be relied upon, but the snow is a mysterious master. Snow is the currency in which Coloradans must deal, the language that must be spoken. Our industries are snow-skiing and sleigh-ride vacations. We are a land of Christmas cards and fantasy, and it all depends on the accumulation of those powdery flakes. Our lives are constructed around the seasons and the snow lines.
FOR SIX YEARS, I fumbled and failed to acquire fluency in the language of Los Angeles. I took the subway to the Flower District, and I got a job at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I eavesdropped and spied and listened. I picked up vocabulary, the way you do when you are immersed in a foreign language. I was taught how to order corn on the cob without mayonnaise from street venders. I neglected the words highway and freeway—ingratiating myself to the locals by instead adding articles in front: the 101, the 405, the 10. I learned to talk in traffic and to debrief this way every day. By the time I left, I could identify the subtle boarders between Little Armenia and East Hollywood, Hancock Park and Koreatown. Still, I stumbled. I realized I could never be a native speaker.
The population of Koreatown, where I lived, was around 125,000. The neighborhood covered 2.5 square miles. As of 2015, long after I had left, Park County, Colorado, had a population of 16,000 and covered 2,000 square miles. The geography of Los Angeles is measured in people and populace. My language would always be vast, uninhabited spaces with peaks that dwarfed language entirely. I learned that my language was the silence of snow; it’s a language without people, where I learned to speak in the spaces between human connections.
MY HOMETOWN sits southwest of Denver. At the county’s highest point, next to The Dinky Dairy, the elevation is 9,953 feet. Situated in a broad ravine, the Rockies encircle the town. My whole life I incorrectly named the crisp line between eleven and twelve thousand feet, where the pines and aspens stopped growing, as timberline. I would not learn until long after I moved to elevations in the triple digits that it was not a timberline but a tree line that formed a halo around my home and left the mountain summits snow-white and naked. Timberlines exist in all elevations; they can be manmade. Tree lines belong to the mountains alone.
The Colorado River meanders around Park County. Even at high elevation it’s still just a meander, pocked with ripples and sediment. It’s been staked and claimed all over the West. It will never make it to its original destination, to the Rio Grande, yet its namesake basin is responsible for supplying the whole great southwestern region with water for its golf courses and Hoover Dam and lawns.
The generational southwestern city-dwellers know to watch the snow line, the altitudinal delineation between summer and winter, the line between continuous snow cover and perennial open ground. Droughts will follow when the snow line creeps up the peaks. The Colorado River and her basin will chap and dry. There’s not enough water.
The Colorado region of the Rocky Mountains is a semi-arid climate, so while it’s not quite high-desert, it’s parched in summer months. And while the thunderstorms that rage over wildflower fields on July afternoons are ferocious, they do little to feed the river, the basin, or the river’s people. In the thirsting Southwest, in the Rockies, everyone is the river’s people.
The Colorado River is a river of runoff, and as such, snow is the language on which life depends. I remember years when the snow line crept toward the summits of the peaks. I remember the summers of wildfires and recurring evacuations, of the firefighters dead at Storm King. I remember the summers of trying to board bucking quarter horses, their nostrils flaring in the smoke and haze—the humbleness of watching flames reach over and across those mountains that surround the ravine of my hometown. This is one of the reasons we have so many ways to speak snow. We must incant it in the winter months to save us in the summer. The snow is a mysterious master; its power is long-reaching.
Even when we’re not thinking of drought and wildfire, or water reclamation projects and wastewater, snow is in our mouths. It’s spitting and blinding. Its flake size is measured by our imagination and retold in the tongue of actual currency—the size of a nickel, a dime, a quarter.
After work, or when travel approaches, we speak in snow’s language of safety: It is impassable. Just drive slow. I wouldn’t go out in it. We talk in all the nouns and adjectives that snow requires: 4-wheel drive, shovel, slick, icy, patchy. We say, You better put on your chains. Because we are old and stuck in our ways, we say, Don’t forget to lock your hubs. Did you check the antifreeze? For god’s sake, don’t forget to plug the engine in this time. Call when you get there.
But we remember, too, that snow line; we remember we need to conjure, so we also speak in incantations. It’s good for tourism; we need it. We’ll be grateful come June. The snow is silence. The snow is peace. It’s a reminder off all the promises we have to keep.
I DON’T REMEMBER WHEN, exactly, I started to miss the snow. I don’t remember if I ached first for the mountains, but ache I did. I appreciated the campy garishness of Sunset Boulevard all dressed up for the holidays. I loved that golden light. But I missed the snow. I missed how it was measured with rulers and yardsticks and discussed with familiar terms—higher than the deck this morning; over Jim’s car by the time we got home. In L.A., I had nothing to describe in these terms. I had no tangible words to hold onto, so I had nothing to hold.
Snow is my memory, its blizzards my substitute for dates. It is my scripture and my family lore. We survived the blizzard of . . . The one where Uncle Doug walked the last five miles to get to us on Christmas Eve, his arms weighed down with toys and Vermont cheddar cheese from Grandma. The one where we chain-smoked Merit 100 cigarettes and listened to George W. Bush reassure us that everything would be fine, the ashtray overflowing on the trailer floor.
To say I have 180 words for snow might be a lie. There is, after all, only one word for snow, but for me that word is more complicated than 1,000 other words. That word is a kaleidoscope; it’s synesthesia because it is only one word, but in many ways, it’s everything about me. It’s the smell of reading horror novels in my ice fort in January, bundled in my snowsuit, using a headlamp. Snow is my mother’s voice reading poetry. It’s my father’s calloused hand holding mine as we climb through massive drifts. It’s bowls of it covered in vanilla extract and sugar when we were too poor for candy, my first boss teaching me to make a White Russian—we broke icicles off the roof in place of ice cubes. It’s my first love and I stranded in our tiny cabin for days—having sex and playing Monopoly and sitting naked next to the too-hot wood stove, watching fat flakes fall in the field where the elk grazed.
Snow is the fear when my car doesn’t start, and I know a man has been following me. Snow is the hunger of being stuck in the woods without supplies, the weather much worse than predicted. It’s also the wet patch flanked by our shoulder blades while we fan our limbs in its accumulation making angels. It’s the only time we ever believe in angels.
THE PEOPLE I MET in Los Angeles felt the same way about their sandy home. Many of them had left at some point—packed up and landed in snow-covered places like my home—but they always seemed to return. The people born of the L.A. landscape battled skyrocketing housing costs and lived in one-bedroom apartments well into their 40’s because they couldn’t imagine not seeing the wildflowers in Death Valley after a rain storm, not spending their birthdays at Disneyland, not raising their children along the roiling Pacific. I once walked along the boardwalk in San Juan Capistrano with an acquaintance; it was a spring day, low and thick with fog. She asked me if I could imagine wanting to be anywhere else, and though I saw what she saw, I could. I don’t know if we can ever learn to speak the language of a foreign geography.
NO LESS THAN A BANK is cut by its stream, language, the beautiful stringing together of sounds that form a culture, is defined by its surroundings. Though I learned to pass as a good imposter, I never learned the language and geography of Southern California or Los Angeles. I also couldn’t erase the Rocky Mountain vocabulary I was born to. So if, like me, you grew up in a small town, in the bowl of the Rocky Mountains—if your first kiss was to the sound of crunching maple leaves under autumn in New England, if you can still see your grandma’s pastel outline as she pulls catfish out of the mighty Mississippi, if you ache for air so swollen with mist you can nearly drink it—and you are stranded elsewhere—in the sandy southwest, the sea-level rolling plains, a frigid winter or foreign craggy coast—you will come up with over 180 ways to say dispossessed, to say without a home.