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The Smell Of Snow

Last week, it rained enough in Tucson for the riv­ers to run, however briefly. Only days later, the chan­nels dried up again, dry enough to be used by the condo dwellers to walk their poor dogs.

At the same time it rained in the desert, snow dusted the mountains surrounding Tucson. The snow sent the locals and their children up the mountain trails in hopes of seeing some of the white stuff first-hand.

I am not in Arizona to see snow.

Even so, I drove up towards the mountains a little ways to take some pictures of the pretty red rocks highlighted by pure white.

It didn’t go well. Even though I was several foot­ball fields away from the snow, when I got out of the car, put on my windbreaker and set up the camera, I could smell the stuff.

Yes, snow smells. You forget that when you are buried in it five months per year.

Actually, snow only smells when it is melting. Pretty much all snow that falls in southern Arizona immediately starts melting, so it all smells.

What does melting snow smell like?

Like all smells, the smell of melting snow is best described by the strong memories it conjures up.

Melting snow smells like March. It smells like bas­ketball tournaments. It smells like baseball spring training. It smells like a ninth-grade ski trip to Pow­derhorn Mountain in northern Michigan.

Melting snow smells like the crunch of frozen slush the evening after the first day of melt.

But the smell of melting snow is also the smell of winter’s debris——dog poop, sunflower shells from the bird feeder, dead deer carcasses in the ditch, the garbage in the entry——beginning to thaw and decay.

The smell of the melting snow is the smell of a big ice dam on the edge of the roof and the splat, splat, splat of a leak dripping on the carpet of the upstairs bedroom.

The bad memories overwhelm the good: The over­powering emotion released by the smell of snow is that of struggle.

March——and recently, at least, April and May——is a struggle in the northland. Pure struggle. The smell of melting snow is the smell of hopes raised, only to be dashed by the seventh winter storm of the season.

Lately, the smell of melting snow, at least for those in low-lying areas, has become the smell of spring floods. They’ve become the rule rather than the exception in the Red River Valley. Until something is done——until the Army Corps of Engineers dredges a huge channel down the middle of the valley to send the water via express to the border, the smell of melting snow will mingle with the smell of diesel fumes and sandbags.

Yes, the smell of melting snow is the smell of the long, slow labor pangs of spring: Chiseling a channel in the ice with a hoe to get rid of a massive puddle. Pushing the snow piles over the rise so the run-off doesn’t head for the basement. Tip-toing over a hip-breaking moonscape of frozen slush.

It is easy for me to preach this from the sunny com­fort of Tucson, but having everything frozen up solid and not melting and dripping and running can itself be a comfort. You can cuddle up by the furnace vent and read a book.

But when the weather warms enough for the snow to melt, there’s work to be done and it is some of the toughest work of the annual cycle.

So, I didn’t last too long up in the foothills of the snowy Catalina mountains which form the northern city limit of Tucson.

As Tucsonites flowed towards the hills to see and touch something rare and precious to them, I packed up my camera gear, got in the car and coasted back down the hill.

Yes, the red-clay mountains of Arizona are beauti­ful when dusted with a fresh coat of white.

Yes, the cacti stand out brilliantly when blanketed by last night’s frozen precipitation.

But I had to get out of there. I had to get back to the warmth of the desert floor. I had to go down the hill, put on a pair of shorts and sit in the sun.

The snow was pretty, but in the end, I couldn’t stand the smell.

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