Weather is the quintessential superficial conversation topic. In Southern California, where I lived for many years, there’s not much to say about it. Sunny today, sunny tomorrow, sunny next week. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the weather is more varied, and certainly more discussed. When I first told friends about my plans for moving, once they got over their excitement about all things Portlandia, they’d invariably ask, “But what about the weather?” I was concerned too. My visits were frequent but short, and I always returned to my sunny beachside paradise.
Now I have four winters under my belt, and everyone asks, “So, how are you liking the weather?” The topic is important to me now, often dictating my daily activities: where to go, what to wear, and how to time my outings – with grandkids, the garden, hikes, almost anything that takes me out my door.
Every year brings new challenges, a bit of a learning curve, and some rookie mistakes, as my sun loving spirit adapts and copes with rain, snow and ice. After a record breaking rain last year, the joke was that we had just three rainstorms – each one lasting about about 45 days. There were landslides in the hills, fallen trees on streets and power lines, crumbling roads, and gaping sinkholes. An underground creek ran directly under our house, and so much water collected that it overwhelmed the storm drains and seeped into our (finished) basement daily, slowed only slightly by emergency trenching, damming and sandbagging. An inch of rain in five minutes brought water pouring in under the basement doorway, causing new damage on top of the old.
A lot of time and money later, we gained a new vocabulary and understanding of sump pumps, French drains, permeable landscaping and “atmospheric rivers.” This year was to test those new drainage systems, but there’s been remarkably little rain, and the basement remains dry. For now.
We’d been told, “It only snows a few days a year,” but last winter we had two week-long snow storms. The novelty and excitement of beautifully quiet snow days mostly outweighed the challenges, and later, everyone swapped stories about their adventures.
We’ll never live down our first big snowstorm, dubbed “Snowpocalypse” by the media. Still amateurs, we hadn’t caught on to the weather forecast’s unreliability. This particular December day the forecast was for heavy snow arriving after 3pm, so when we woke that morning to no electricity, we had the brilliant idea to go out for coffee. Then a late morning movie sounded like another good plan. We’d be out in plenty of time, and were only 5 miles from home.
We emerged from the theater at 2pm, and were astonished to find a deep layer of snow covering the car and parking lot, and fat flakes still coming down. Snow removal equipment and de-icing plans are mostly non-existent, and panicked commuters jammed the roads, hoping to get home before things got worse. But it was already too late.
To avoid the gridlocked freeway, we inched slowly through surface streets in congested hilly neighborhoods, watching in alarm as one car after another slid freely downhill into other cars waiting their turn. Chains were no use, and after
trying in vain to find a way out, darkness fell, and we thought the freeway might be the clearest route. We spent another hour negotiating the jammed streets just to approach the nearby onramp, and just as long to get up the slope to freeway entrance. From there we watched a slow motion-slapstick-horror movie unfold before us as the topmost car slid back and down into the guardrail. We watched in alarm as the next car maneuvered around and then slid into the first, continuing until there were eight or nine cars completely blocking the way.
We abandoned our car by the guardrail, and set out to walk the remaining three miles home. We trekked through dark ghostly neighborhoods, snow still falling. It felt mystical, magical, and a touch scary, not knowing what obstacles might lie ahead in the empty, silent streets. We passed an eerily lit Mormon church, spires soaring overhead into the mist. A guy in an oversized pickup truck offered a ride (he was out to rescue his wife), but the way was soon blocked, and we walked the last mile, making it home six hours after leaving the theater, feeling foolish and intrepid, full of adrenaline and relief. The electricity was back on.
So we learned to stay home in the snow, keep the cupboard stocked, park at the top of the street, prop up windshield wipers, and we got spiky shoe covers to walk in ice with less slipping. We thought about spending money we didn’t have to buy an all-wheel drive car for navigating the icy hills, (an ambulance even got stuck on our street one snowy night!) but we’ve managed to put that off. For now.
Part of our quandary is whether these extremes are just natural fluctuations, calling for a few temporary measures and a lot of hunkering down, or part of a larger climate change crisis that means creating an infrastructure that will survive the coming years of increasing extremes. One early downpour was referred to as “a 100 year storm” as in, it’s a fluke. Like the flood of 1996 when houses floated down the Willamette River, or the flood of 1948 when water flowed far into the streets on either side of the river. With all that in mind, our repairs and preventative measures have come incrementally. We’re in a holding pattern of “let’s fix this, and see what happens next winter.” It’s like being under siege, building fortifications against an unstoppable tide.
There are times when the northwest weather gets this California girl down, and it’s just too much winter. I walk around with a mantra rumbling in my brain: soggy, sodden, wet. Slushy, swampy, drenched. Sometimes I’m just saturated. I make plans and cancel them. I force myself to go outside, but with eyes cast downward I only see mushy messes of dead brown leaves, broken limbs after a wind storm, black ice waiting to catch me unawares, dirty snow, and sad snowmen. I head back to my cozy fireplace.
I know I have to come to terms with weather challenges if I’m going to spend the rest of my life here. I keep buying new layers for my wardrobe, this year adding rain pants, which I’d never heard of. I’m learning the difference between rainproof and water repellent outerwear, and I study the vast array of materials for various under layers. “It’s not bad weather, it’s bad clothes,” I repeat, sometimes maniacally.
Even under dark heavy skies the rain holds back for a few hours, and if you time it right (and don’t keep putting it off, ahem) you can get out for a walk unscathed. Simply shifting my eyes upward, I see that the now bare branches give me a less obstructed view of the horizon, opening up sweeping panoramic vistas. I see layers of hills and trees leading all the way out to the Coast Range many miles away, and fog drifting lazily up and down the slopes. Clouds continually shape shift, layering on top of the other, endless shades of grays and whites combine and separate, creating new forms, and every so often a patch of blue peeks out. In one direction it’s raining, and in another it’s not, so I aim myself in that direction.
A scant few fall flowers or bright red winter berries remain on some trees and shrubs, clinging to bare branches, accentuating their solitary beauty. Tree limbs scrape together, old bones creating a music of their own. And wait! Are those buds already forming on some trees? Hope is alive.
Old nests are visible high in the tallest trees, and birds on branches are no longer hidden by greenery. Flocks swoop down as one, covering the ground to forage, their black, orange, or blue plumage standing out against the dormant earth. The grass and moss are at their very greenest, a sharp contrast to the pervasive browns and grays.
A week in a warmer climate extends my tolerance for colorless cold, and the memory of warm sun inoculates me for months. When I hear longtime Portlandians talk about how OVER the weather they are, I’m smugly pleased to feel rather reconciled to it.
Perhaps growing older brings some equanimity to life’s challenges, but lately it seems that appreciating all kinds of weather is just part of the journey. I want to have a full, rich life, I want to be part of the world, part of nature, I want to experience whatever I can manage before dying, and isn’t weather just one of those little things that brings us closer to the core, closer to the magic, closer to whatever force made this amazing, gorgeous world? “There’s only bad clothes” is just a humorous way to look at the weather, but we could just as well say, “There’s only bad attitudes,” and an icy, decaying, sopping mess on the path can be just as interesting, beautiful, and worthy as low tide on a sunny beach.
Soon enough, daffodils and tulips raise their brilliant heads, the seed catalog orders arrive, and hope gives me a nudge, keeping me warm.
“Winter’s Come And Gone”
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
So long now I’ve been out
In the rain and snow
But winter’s come and gone
A little bird told me so