Twenty Januarys ago, the flat monotony of I-80 delivered us to the foothills of the Wasatch Range of the Utah Rockies and the threshold of the Big Cottonwood Canyon. As Dad eased to a stop at the intersection leading to the canyon road, we saw a disheartening sign spray-painted on the face of a rock. Tall red letters issued a desperate plea: Pray for snow.
Those were the days before weather.com and the Weather Channel’s easily accessible ten-day forecasts and tales of doom. It was winter. In the mountains. Of course there would be snow.
There was. Sort of.
The slopes were white, but pocked by bare patches. I don’t know if any of us actually prayed for snow, but we hoped. Conditions were bad. We were there to ski, so we pulled out our gear, bought our lift-tickets, and slid into the lift-line. It was worse than it looked from the parking lot. The white was ice, not snow, and some of the bare patches were terror-inducing exposed rock.
We’d come to ski, but we’d also come to be together, a challenge for our family with three of the six of us in two different colleges. Time together–on the lifts, on the slopes, and in the lodge–was the main event. We would survive poor conditions.
On the evening of the first day, snow began to fall, storybook snow with fluffy flakes that floated straight down and cloaked the land in silence. A teacher from my elementary years had dashed our class’s hopes when a similar snow swirled by saying, “Flakes like this won’t last long.” Maybe not in Iowa.
They lasted in Utah and transformed the mountain. The lift-ride enveloped us in a world of dancing flakes that perched on our hats, coats, and ski-pants and clung to our eyelashes. Snow piled up, erasing the bare spots, the ice, and the rocks. It breathed life into the lift operators who laughed and visited with us as we waited for them to disperse the accumulating snow with a vigorous thwack from their cut-off brooms.
We skied until the lifts shut down and woke the next morning to the muffled stillness of falling snow–stillness broken occasionally by shots from the avalanche cannon. Our lodge, just twenty-five yards from the main lift, gave us immediate access to the slopes. Despite protests from our weary bodies, we dragged ourselves from our bunks and clomped our booted way down the stairs to finish waking up with hot cider by the fire.
Monika, the usually matter-of-fact German manager of the lodge, buoyantly informed us that the canyon road was closed due to avalanche risk but the mountain was open to the handful of us at the top. We donned our skis, climbed the little hill to the pine-lined path, pushed ourselves across the flat to the lift, and rode to the top. The powder was perfect.
Snow fell for four days. Avalanche danger kept the road closed every morning and the afternoon crowd added few to our number, so we spent four line-less days frolicking in the ever-deepening powder. We skied past pine boughs hung heavy with snow and moved to a lift further up the mountain, where the best skiers in the family cut and carved, throwing snow as they hopped around the moguls.
When the veil of snow finally lifted, five new feet of powder covered the mountain. We had hoped for snow, but not for so much. We wouldn’t have thought to hope for so much. It was beyond what we could imagine.
Twenty Januarys ago those five feet of snow were a delightful answer to a discouraged wish. Today they reside in my review mirror– a clear picture of what more than I could ask or imagine looks like. All I have to do is glance up.