A snowball's chance in California

I live in an area of California that experiences just one season, and the weather throughout that season is warm. You can qualify that a bit, calling December "moderately warm" and July "extremely warm," but the key word is "warm." While my Midwestern relatives describe the fiery red leaves of autumn, I am resigned to the fact that my cactus tree stubbornly will not change hues - not even when I try to embarrass it into blushing.

There is a snapshot in my photo album that puzzles those relatives, a picture of a hailstone that once landed on my porch step. Accustomed to hail, they assume that it is an accidental shot - like when you are figuring out how your camera works and inadvertently take a dozen pictures of your doorknob. I considered it a very photogenic hailstone, well-rounded and dimpled. Because the picture was taken the last time it hailed here, 15 years ago, I view that hailstone as a rare gem.

But the rarity of the hail was exceeded one special day this year, a day when I woke up at 5 a.m. and, peering from my porch, saw rainfall. Soon I was rubbing my eyes in disbelief as white, fluffy specks started to replace the raindrops and dance in the breeze.

Was this eccentric hail? Was this Styrofoam packing material jettisoned from a passing aircraft? I considered many alternative explanations before concluding that, in this place of constant summer, when the calendar said late spring, it was snowing.

I wondered if I would ever be able to convince my neighbors that snow had momentarily grazed their palm trees and yucca plants, for the flakes were melting the instant they touched down. With dawn came the revelation that snow had collected at slightly higher elevations. A nearby hill was topped with snow.

"The sun will burn that off by midday," I said to myself. "I've got four hours of genuine winter, four hours to make up for all those 80-degree Christmases we've had."

I got into my car, determined to visit that snow hill.

Pulling away from the curb, I wondered exactly how to get there. Simple, I thought, just steer in whatever direction makes its whiteness grow larger. That strategy soon took me off the highway and onto muddy, bumpy trails forged by motorcycle hobbyists. Eventually a 90-degree rock wall stopped my progress. Although I was driving a rugged vehicle, it could not climb and rappel. A footpath where I parked led me to the hill's frosty crown.

At the top, I found that I was preceded by a half dozen early risers who were serenely enjoying the view of our community below. No one played in the snow. Instead, a hushed, "study hall" atmosphere predominated as everyone admired snow patches as if they were encased in museum glass.

It suddenly seemed poor etiquette to muss the snow. Because I was carrying an ice chest, into which I had planned to shovel a good amount of snow, I felt as if a large, neon sign was flashing above my head: "Snowflake Pillager and Hoarder."

I briefly considered hiding the ice chest under my coat, but a large rectangular box does not disguise well. So I carried the chest away from the main study area.

With each trowelful of snow that I tossed into that ice chest, I told myself that it was important to preserve proof of this historic weather. By the 20th trowelful, I was basking in my authority as the Self-Appointed Official Chronicler of Almost-Local Snow. In that capacity, I brought my snow home, photographed it, and packed it into my freezer.

Later our community newssheet reported that the snowfall had been the first in 35 years. Accompanying their report was a photograph - a picture of a snowman that had been constructed from inter-community snow. I was surprised that any snow had been collected at my home elevation. Then I read this quote from the snowman's creator: "It's in my icebox now, sitting on top of a bag of frozen peas. It's just an itty-bitty thing."

Haunted by the term "itty-bitty," I examined the photograph with a magnifying glass. There was no background object to provide a size reference, but the texture of the snow told me that the snowman was shockingly small, about the size of a dashboard bobble-head doll. My disappointment was comparable to when, as a child, I learned that the monster in the Godzilla movies was actually a doll-sized model - a fact that shattered my belief that somewhere there was a 60-foot-tall Jurassic thespian worrying about his motivation. Not only did our community snowman lack height, but also the traditional ample girth. Adjectives like "lank" and "wiry" came to mind, for it bore a vague resemblance to actor Don Knotts.

It was within my power to add substance to the figure by contributing my freezer snow, but I wrestled with the ethics of the situation.

One part of me said, "You know very well that your snow fell outside the community boundary."

A second part of me said, "But this is an emergency!"

"If you're going to use imported snow," said the first part, "why not just have 10 tons of it shipped from Colorado and build a colossus?"

"You don't understand," said the second part. "It's a matter of municipal pride. Our community snowman is a scrawny, emaciated dashboard figure. Something has to be done."

In the end, I decided to keep the snow in my freezer.

Thirty-five years from now when it snows again, however, I can in good conscience contribute my snow. Because by that time, it will have been a 35-year resident of this community. Then, to the amazement of my Midwestern relatives, we will fashion the tall, robust snowman that this community deserves.

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