The Magic of Winter in Kansas
Winter in Kansas
It’s winter in Kansas
rolling plains licked clean
by the brisk northern winds’
invisible frozen tongues.
nubbins of bare brown grass
shivering in the cold
white blanket peeled back
leaving them exposed.
Below freezing days
nights filled with bright stars
moments frozen by the season
images crisp, clear, and clean.
It’s winter in Kansas
pristine frozen beauty
like nothing I’ve ever seen.
- - -
Having pulled on a pair of sweatpants over my blue jeans, I slip on my coat and waddle outdoors. For a Saturday afternoon, it is awfully dark, as though the sun has simply refused to get out of bed. It hides beneath its blanket of low gray clouds which drape loosely over the cold earth. Occasionally the sky opens up, allowing several million more snowflakes to join the winter festivities. The stillness that has settled over the Kansas State campus rouses an invisible magic, stirring up childish excitement inside of me even at age 18.
My heart leaps as I run my gloved hand along a rail; the snow contains enough moisture that simply touching it pushes the flakes tightly together. They form magical cement, perfect for frosty construction projects. The sharp wind cuts beneath my nose and across my exposed cheeks, but I do not turn back to the warm building. Instead, I will spend the next couple of hours trudging around ankle deep in fresh, flawless precipitation. My shoes leave a subtle trail, evidence of my early-evening travels.
As I approach the Quad in front of Waters Hall, I admire the beautiful flakes drifting silently, illuminated by the streetlights. Few students are brave enough to face the chilly weather conditions; those who do are huddled in small packs like wolves, quickly scurrying to a warmer destination. I walk leisurely. Being alone among the untouched plots of powdered grass makes me feel as though I am stepping onto a sacred acreage.
- - -
Growing up in southeastern Kansas, I spent a lot of time during Christmas breaks outside in the snow with my siblings. We’d pull each other across our flat backyard on a sled, pretending we were a team of sled dogs training for the Iditarod. On occasion, we combined our efforts to build a snow fort with walls reaching to our shoulders and as wide as ourselves, complete with windows and a small opening through which we could wiggle inside. My sister was usually assigned to stocking “ammo,” and she was left forming mounds of snowballs while my brother and I packed extra snow into the cracks in the wall.
After a couple of hours, when we could no longer feel our toes, my mom would call us inside for steaming mugs of Swiss Miss, tempting us with mounds of mini marshmallows in an attempt to reclaim these triplet snowmen as her warm-blooded, bouncy children. We’d pull off our dripping layers of clothing and leave them strewn about the garage before quickly tiptoeing inside in just our shorts and undershirts.
- - -
The crunch of the snow beneath my worn tennis shoes echoes against the stone university buildings. In the distance I spot two individuals who already have an ideal foundation for a proud snowman. A young woman is pushing a mid-sized snowball around on the ground, increasing its size with each advance. I assume the lanky guy packing the foundation tighter and smashing the top for the next layer is her boyfriend. Pulling out my brightest smile as I approach them, I speak up, “Can I help?”
Both of them look toward me and immediately say, “Sure,” before introducing themselves as Lori and Adam. They aren’t dating, just friends. In fact, the girl is engaged.
“I love building snowmen,” I explain. Getting right to work, I pick a clear spot in the snow to begin forming what will become the snowman’s head. My hands scoop up a large pile of snow and I bring my hands together, carefully packing it into a ball. The delicate flakes fall away from the mass, clinging hopefully to the thick knitted fabric of my black Gap gloves. I kneel down to roll the ball around, glancing up to check the sizes of the first two segments to keep mine proportionally smaller.
- - -
When I was in the third grade, I read the Little House on the Prairie books. They described Pa using a ramp to roll heavy logs to the top of the cabin while it was being constructed. I remember feeling slightly genius when I propped two old planks I had found in our garage against the base of a wobbly snowman so my brother could help me roll the heavy head up to its place. My little arms weren’t strong enough to lift the masses of snow higher than my own knees.
- - -
My new friends help prop the head of our snowman onto its body and we pack snow delicately into the crevices. We all stand back to briefly admire our completed mass: millions of snowflakes clinging together to form an entirely new creation. Adam, Lori and I turn in separate directions in search of the perfect branches for arms and any type of pinecone or rock to serve as the eyes. Most of the rocks are frozen solid into the ground, so I break off a branch from a small tree to use as an arm. We pull off leaves for the eyes so brittle I am afraid they will crack and flake into dull powder between my gloved fingers. Adam collects small twigs from a bush to carefully piece together the outline of a mouth. I watch him work diligently, his warm breath visible in the late afternoon air. For the final touch, I remove my long purple and gray scarf and wrap it snuggly around our snowman’s neck. He is perfect.
- - -
Being surrounded by glittering snow makes everything perfect. Hours outdoors with my brother and sister bizarrely never resulted in fighting or tears. We cherished days off; my siblings and I practically prayed for snow days. No child wants to sit in a classroom all day when the roads are icing over and the hills are being covered with a dense white powder. On occasion, the superintendent of the school district would cancel; I’d sit on the end of my parents’ bed watching the ticker run across the bottom of the screen during the 7 a.m. news. The school closings were listed in numerical order by district, and I’d hold my breath until I saw “USD 244.” My sister and I danced around the bedroom shouting, “No school! No school!”
When my dad had the day off, he’d take us to John Redmond Reservoir where the dam provided the ideal slope for sledding. In kindergarten, my siblings and I received a Red Flyer sled: real wood and metal runners painted a bright holly red. A crossbar in the front provided ample steering and was attached to a thin white cord which the first rider could hold. It didn’t serve much purpose, but we held on to keep it out of the way of the sharp runners. All three of us piled onto the sled, our combined weights causing us to soar down the hill before leveling out at the bottom and coasting to a stop. We scrambled back to the top (my brother pulled the sled since he was the boy) and repeated the ride over and over. The wind hitting my face like tiny needles and the loss of all feeling in my extremities was well worth it. When I was on that sled, I felt like I was flying.
- - -
Lori and Adam tell me they have to leave, and they set off to the west. I head east back toward the residence halls, but stop as soon as they are out of sight. I’m not satisfied with only an hour in the snow. I pick another clearing in the Quad and begin rolling three more snowballs. I get carried away as the sun begins to set, and I struggle to get the second one on top of the first. It feels as though it weighs fifty pounds. I glance around at the intersecting sidewalks. One bundled-up student is walking briskly past.
“Could you help me?” I shout. He quickly turns and jogs toward me.
“Sure,” he says.
“It’s too heavy,” I explain. He digs his fingers into the bottom and we count to three before we lift it. I thank him, sorry that he isn’t wearing gloves; his fingers must have shrieked at the bite of the cold snow. He continues on his way and I remain working. By now, the sky is black and cloudless. Only the lamps lit along the sidewalks provide me light to finish. I carefully construct two long masses and place them on the top of the head. I add a small snowball to the backside as a tail. My “snowbunny” is almost alive now; it just lacks some detailing features. In front of Waters Hall is a plot of ivy, and I tear off a leaf. It is triangular, the perfect shape for my bunny’s nose. Under a tree I find some nuts for the eyes and a mouth, and I rip off a couple of pieces of bark, long enough to outline the inner ears of this white rabbit.
I can feel myself starting to sweat beneath my layers of clothing, and my stomach is starting to grumble. I pull out my digital camera and slip off my gloves to take a picture of my wintery friend. Then, I call it a night.
- - -
One winter, the snow melted enough in the midday temperatures to form a large, shallow pond in our neighbor’s backyard. That night, the entire area froze. We discovered our own neighborhood ice skating rink just across the street. No one had ice skates, but we slid around the ice in our tennis shoes, or lying on our bellies pretending we were penguins. We spent the afternoon imaging we had just been hired as scientists; we stared intently at the small organisms paralyzed in the ice.
For the entire weekend, my siblings and I collaborated with the other children in the neighborhood to perform our own version of the winter Olympics, twirling and gliding on the mirror-like surface with a gracefulness visible only among our group. A couple of days later, the man who owned the lot was afraid the area would melt and flood his basement. We watched curiously as he took a shovel and a hammer and chipped out a small opening in the curb. While we were in school the next week, all of the water drained toward the street where it wriggled into the drains. Our skating rink was gone forever.
- - -
The darkness covers everything and I trudge back on the hidden sidewalk to Moore Hall. I leave a wet trail of footsteps up the red tile stairs to the third floor where I peel off my damp shell in the restroom, allowing my coat and scarf to drip-dry from a hanger secured to the shower curtain rod. My cheeks re red and burning and my fingers tingle as though they are being licked by a cold flame. I shuffle down the carpeted hall to my room in my undershirt and shorts and socks. There, I wrap myself in a blanket and make hot chocolate. The steam meets my nose and brings life back to my chilled appendages. I think about which element of winter strikes such an enjoyable chord in me. Perhaps it is its consistency. Snow comes and goes every winter, sometimes stronger one year than another but always arriving by early December. Perhaps it is its ability to serve as entertainment, the hours spent outside constructing and making snow angels and sledding. Most of all, I think it is its unexplainable ability to silence the busy world, to soften rough edges of buildings and to draw people closer to one another. In early February I can step outside and hear absolutely nothing. The sound of silence is beautiful. All of the birds have flown to warmer places and even the clouds find the sky too cool: at night the stars are magnified against the blackest firmament. It’s magical.