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First Person

A Snowstorm That Insisted on Overstaying Its Welcome

February 15, 2001|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here in the San Bernardino mountains, we pride ourselves on our ability to deal with snow. We welcome it. We dare it. We are not surprised--like Pasadena was Tuesday night--when snowflakes fall.

Snow is part of our lifestyle and reason for living here. When our majestic evergreens are frosted in perfect white, when snow covers the ground and blankets our hearts, we feel alive. We frolic. We dress in layers and strap chains on our tires. We sit by the fire and sip hot chocolate.

Then, usually, like a good house guest, the snow goes away.

This past storm was different; it hung around for seven long days, like a cousin in need of a life. By morning of Day 6--that would have been Monday of this week--the majesty had worn thin. Plows could not keep up with the steadily falling snow. By midday we were held captive, snowed in. We were feeling the effects of days without sun, nights without stars, tuna without bread.

Our deck was covered by a good 3 feet of snow, and we could hardly see out our front window, the view hidden by a combination of snow drift from the ground and icicles from the roof.

We opted to cancel our cable television service six months ago, thinking it would improve our lives. Now, there was only snow on TV. Newspapers could not be delivered. Our only links to the outside world were the telephone, computer modem and spotty radio reception.

We rifled through our small stash of videos. In two days, I watched "Angels in the Outfield" at least five times with Rhuby, my 3-year-old daughter. I had shoveled snow and chipped ice until my hands were bleeding and sore. Well, maybe not bleeding.

With the climax of the storm still in the forecast, I drove on unplowed roads to the convenience store to buy milk. There were two gallons left in the cooler, and I bought them both. I saw potatoes, and I bought them. I saw eggs, and I bought them. I was having visions of Jeremiah Johnson, trudging through chest-high snow, fighting off frostbite and starvation. I saw bacon. I saw soup. I saw propane for the camping stove in case we lost electricity or gas. I bought them all. A trip to the store to buy milk ended up costing $40. And I forgot to buy bread.

When it snows that hard and that long, I speculate on the various ways I could die. We could lose power, run out of firewood and freeze to death. We could run out of bacon and starve. The roof could collapse from the weight of the snow, and we could suffocate in the ensuing avalanche. I could watch "Angels in the Outfield" one too many times and run madly into the wilds, my frozen carcass undiscovered until spring.

There also were reflective moments during the storm. Late at night or in early morning, when the wind blew hard, I sat alone, happy to be home and warm. Life sometimes seems to fly by, but a good snowstorm will slow it down so that you can view it carefully, frame by frame. I saw my life, and I felt lucky.

At least for a while.

Then, loneliness and depression set in. I can comfortably go days without interacting with other people, but even I began to hunger a bit for conversation by Day 7. I was delighted when a neighbor two houses down came to visit, delivering conversation and fresh videos for Rhuby. Later that day, I was shoveling snow when I heard voices, looked up and saw our friend Jessica and her son, Jake, walking up the road. They had hiked more than a mile from their home and appeared tired, covered with snow. Seeing them approach, I was reminded of a Christmas episode of "Little House on the Prairie."

On Tuesday, when the storm was strongest, I received hourly reports from my wife, Julia, who was working the phones, updating me on the status of our friends. Happily married couples were at each other's throats, then retreating to separate rooms. With schools closed and nannies unable to report for duty, children were driving parents nuts.

In our own home, daughter Rhiley, 19, was pacing nervously, downloading from Napster at a feverish rate--three, four songs at a time. What if we shoveled more snow? What if we put the chains on our four-wheel drive vehicle? Could we please at least try to get out of here, she pleaded.

Every couple hours, I bundled up and went outside, halfheartedly grabbing the shovel. Our cars were completely buried. Saplings were bent over from the weight of the snow. They looked cold, tired and defeated. I felt like them.

Eventually, one arrives at the realization that the best way to deal with a storm of this magnitude is to simply wait it out--ignore it. Don't let it know that it's getting to you. Laugh in its face. Then curl up in the fetal position until the sun returns.

It was 5:05 p.m. Tuesday when, finally, it appeared. "Look," I told Julia as I pointed to the northern sky, beyond the icicles and snowcapped trees, above the massive drift of snow on our patio table.

Darkness would be settling in soon, but there on the horizon was a patch of blue sky and hope.

Wednesday's sunrise was glorious. We basked in the sunshine--until afternoon. That's when a new bank of storm clouds descended.

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