High Country News
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High Country News

Searching for winter in Palm Springs

As the West warms, hunting for snow becomes part of the adventure.

Jia Sung/High Country News

Winter — cold, snowy and blindingly white — has always been my season, my native home. Born just shy of the Canadian border on Dec. 25, I traded a cozy womb for a markedly less cozy hospital bed and never looked back. My childhood was devoted to sledding, my adolescence to climbing frozen backcountry waterfalls. Heck, when I graduated from college, my first job was to wield a shovel at the South Pole.

Your average sane person deems lumbar-busting labor in 70-below-zero temps undesirable, a major bummer — but I am not your average sane person. I am me, the Christmas Baby, and shoveling Antarctica’s drifts only reinforced my allegiance to all things shivery and severe. Winter, I realized at the bottom of the planet, is my modus operandi, my way of being. It’s a kind of crystallized joy sparkling inside my heart.

Odd, then, that a handful of years post-Pole, fresh off a two-week ski tour (numb toes, brittle tent, wonderful stuff), I pointed my car toward Palm Springs, California, intending to reside in that baking, sandblasted desert metropolis for a spell. Driving into the Coachella Valley — into a sprawling expanse of thirsty brown dirt unlike anything I’d ever encountered — I heard a voice snickering in my ear: Welcome to your new digs, Christmas Baby. You are so totally screwed.

Access to a rent-free writing hideout — a deceased relative’s empty condo — lured me to SoCal. I knew my passion for vast frosty silences and frigid storms was going to make it a tough go, but pretending otherwise, I set myself a schedule: long morning sessions at the laptop, long afternoon strolls through the weirdness of the place. Traversing a litter-strewn lot flanking I-10, I crouched to observe a creeping tarantula. (You’re not winter!) Exploring BLM lands behind the Vons supermarket, I stumbled on pink and purple flowers in full bloom. (You’re not winter either!)

The Sonoran Desert is fascinating, intricate and alluring, and Palm Springs has certain charms too, among them tacos, birdwatching and tacos. But still. By late January, there was no denying that I missed my snowy winters. Instead of blizzards, there was a parched arroyo abutting a waterpark clogged with shrieking (presumably urinating) kids. Instead of crystallized joy there was, ugh, air-conditioning.

Author Rebecca Solnit has written of “geographically contingent identities,” which is a fancy way of saying that we are required to become different versions of ourselves in different environments. Palm Springs threw an existential challenge on the table, a challenge that promptly leapt from the table and whupped my butt: Who are you without your beloved season, without snowshoes strapped to your boots and rime coating your mustache? Turns out I was a sad dude, a pathetic, sniveling, self-pitying Christmas Baby, not yet sure a different version of me even existed.

Read more of the essay here: https://www.hcn.org/issues/52.3S/special-weather-searching-for-winter-in-palm-springs

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