Enough children live in Clark County, Nevada to build twelve metropolis-sized Neverlands. It’s the answer to a math problem: if the United States government considers an urban population in excess of 50,000 to be a metropolis, and if there are nearly 600,000 children living in the greater Las Vegas area, how many metropolises of children are there?
I start there because when I think Las Vegas, I don’t normally think of kids. (In fairness, I don’t generally think of kids when I think of any place—being childless myself, I’m hardly even aware of school districts until I’m driving through a school zone or behind a school bus.) But I daresay I’m not unique. Las Vegans are eager to point out that Las Vegas is more than the Strip, and it bears repeating: many visitors to our fabulous city fly in, stay briefly, and fly out without ever having left the Strip. And with the city beyond the Strip peppered with smaller casinos and resorts, and slot machines in most grocery stores and gas stations, it’s easy enough to mistake our adults-only industries for the city’s entire culture.
But for a few moments, let us stay in Las Vegas, but leave aside the Strip, and let us consider that on Thursday the 21st of February 2019, the children of the greater Las Vegas area woke up to this:
My niece and nephew have seen snow before, but never here in the Las Vegas Valley. The last time Las Vegas saw a snowfall like this was in 2008, well before either child was born, and the 2008 snowfall was the first of its kind since record-keeping began in 1937.
As the snow fell around them, my niece and nephew jubilantly informed my sister that she’d misled them. “You said it could never snow in our desert!” they sang. “You were wrong!”
The snow started falling Wednesday night and stopped late Thursday morning. By Friday morning, all traces had melted away in the clear bright desert sun.
In November 2005, I was a new freshman at BYU in Provo, Utah, having graduated from the International School of Bangkok earlier that year. During the course of my life, I’d lived in southern California; Bangkok, Thailand; southern Louisiana; southeastern Texas; and Bangkok, Thailand again—nowhere particularly famous for ski resorts. Growing up, my home saw snow only twice, both times in Louisiana, when the stars aligned just right to send a few moments of flurries. Both times, the snow melted before it had even reached the ground.
Now, I had seen snow—real snow, I mean. I’d visited my grandparents in Utah over the holidays a couple of times, and some summers there was significant leftover snow in the mountains. Our family had a summer tradition of hiking around near Bald Mountain in search of a shadowed patch large enough for a snowball fight.
Most recently for my 2005-self, I’d spent a little over a week in Finland. In February. I had never seen so much snow in one place, and haven’t since.
But borrowing snow during your travels is different from seeing it through your own window at home.
So in November 2005, when the first true snowfall of the season blanketed Provo, Utah, I launched into a full-scale harassment campaign about building a snowman. (Just one of many stories where my loved ones are relieved I didn’t have access to the Frozen soundtrack until I was 25.) For me, the snow was a miracle—every time I looked outside and saw a bit more of it settling over the trees and the grass and the buildings, my entire body glowed with awareness and such joy that I longed to open my arms and cherish every individual flake. This snowfall was the first that was truly mine. And I wanted to share that.
But I built my snowman alone. Nobody around me felt the way I did, and I was bewildered to discover that even those who claimed to like the snow didn’t want to have anything to do with it physically. So I bundled up late that afternoon and made my lumpy snowman by myself, behind my dorm building, using every bit of the inch-and-a-half snowfall across a several-yard radius. In the end, the lopsided snowman stood in the center of a barren circle of dead grass, bits of pine needle and dirt sticking out of his base, torso, and head. I wrapped a scarf around his neck and over the top of his head, stuck a few leaves on him for details, and stood back, expecting the glow of satisfaction.
Loneliness took me by surprise. I was cold and wet and exhausted from shifting so much snow, my breath visible in the gathering gloom. Pride in the accomplishment only deepened the hollow ache shivering in my gut. And I felt uncomfortable, almost guilty, leaving my snowman all by himself in his grass circle behind the dorm.
I haven’t built a snowman since.
Every year in college, I found a rhythm: as fall shifted towards winter, I’d anticipate the first snow, receiving it with joy and elation. Elation shifted into admiration through Christmas or so. Admiration turned to resignation through January, and by mid-February I was impatient for spring, jubilant as flower-bulbs started sending up shoots.
Because for all the wonder of snowfall, it’s also a hassle when you’ve got to wake up early enough to dig your car out from under it. Snow needs shoveling, and careful attention to every step. Snow needs trudging through when you’re getting from place to place, and even when you’ve got your jeans tucked into knee-high boots, you still manage to get your socks wet. Snow hides things for tripping over and snow breaks old tree limbs. Snow makes driving hazardous: it lowers visibility, it hides all the painted road lines and some of the signs, and it slips beneath your wheels and renders braking almost pointless. Snow is not all magic and joy and wonder.
So even my initial elation was often unwelcome to those accustomed to living in snow. The most positive reactions I often received to my bouncing joyful snow-induced euphoria were variations on the word “cute.” But still, for the eight years I lived in Utah, I loved the snow. I mourned it when I left for northern California.
I clung to my snow-wonder until Wisconsin.
Wisconsin’s winters are long, dark, and cruelly cold. Snow only shadows the sunless setting further, the endless white getting into your bones. You wake in the dark, chip your car out of the ice in the dark, drive to work in the dark. At day’s end, you leave in the dark, shovel your car out of the snow in the dark, and drive home in the dark. The first snowfall heralds months of twilight, and the threat of continued snow lingers into March and April. Three winters like that, and I was finished.
When I left Wisconsin in early March 2018, the ground was still covered in snow. Nevada’s desert spring was luscious and welcome after my three days’ drive.
I say all this because when I first saw snow outside my Las Vegas window on Wednesday night, I reacted viscerally, negatively, furiously. I had had quite enough of snow. My poor cat’s arthritis, I whined, getting a fire going for eleven-year-old Athena to rest beside, but missing the glorious hygge opportunity myself. I considered the bachelorettes in their club-wear on the Strip, caught off-guard by the snowfall. I wondered what all the Mojave cacti must be thinking. I posted a meme about the Vegas Golden Knights. But mostly, I grouched. It’s cold. It’s dark. It’s wet.
Hypocrite. I had forgotten everything. I had forgotten my whole snowless childhood. I’d forgotten scouring the summer mountainsides hoping for the smallest patches of snow. I’d forgotten dancing and whooping one morning at my Louisiana bus stop as the feeblest flakes fluttered down to speckle the sidewalk, flurries catching on my eyelashes and dissolving on my cheeks. I’d forgotten all about my lonely snowman.
And I had forgotten the 600,000 children living in the greater Las Vegas area.
Thank goodness for the people of Las Vegas. Grinning news reporters on Wednesday night showed off snowballs and snowmen, and ecstatic people playing in darkened parks. Coverage featured videos of snowflakes illuminated in the Luxor’s famous sky beam. CNN called the snow “the hottest show in Vegas.” When the snow was still falling Thursday morning, a local attorney told the Guardian that “when it snows in New Jersey, everyone stays inside. When it snows in Las Vegas, everyone goes outside and makes snow angels.”
“It’s because here, when it comes to snow, the people know it’s now or never,” I said to Andrew.
He nodded. ” ‘All Winter in a Day,’ ” he said.
Wednesday night, a friend posted a photo of her children on Facebook. The three boys are lined up in a dark, rocky yard, each with a snow-coated cookie sheet at his feet. Each is beaming, their hands deep in their coat pockets, hoods up against the slushy snow. My friend observed that this was one of those photos the kids would remember being taken.
Thursday morning, my sister and her kids built their little desert snowman, using sunflower seeds for the details. My niece and nephew insisted on putting birdseed out for the feathered friends who had come south to avoid the snow. They then headed to their neighborhood park for a snowball fight and exploration. “It’s like we’re living in Moscow!” my niece said, trying to catch snowflakes on her tongue.
I groused inside my warm apartment all day, the author of my own misery. By Friday morning, all evidence of the winter wonderland had vanished so completely that the bright sunny view through the window defied the very possibility of snow. The snow may as well have been dreamed, but for the digital evidence left behind by wonder-struck Las Vegans.
By this point I’d realized that the Las Vegas snowfall was my logical next essay, and I stung, knowing only a liar could portray my reaction as anything approaching wonder. What was the likelihood that my first winter in Las Vegas should be the first in a decade to see snow like this? What were the odds that the rare snow would wait until I’d launched my blog? And my reaction—far from my trademark combination of excitement, gratitude, and joy—was annoyance.
I’d denied myself joy in something I used to love more than anyone else did.
So I borrow wonder from the 600,000 Clark County kids who did not have to borrow snow this winter. My math-based rhetoric is skewed, of course—the 600,000 figure includes kids from birth to age 19, so some of them will remember the 2008 snowfall, and others are too young to remember this one. Still others are transplants from colder climes, for whom the snow is not so special—though perhaps still special in other ways.
This week’s snow fell unevenly over the region—my sister got several inches; other areas got upwards of seven inches; my apartment complex got perhaps one inch. Depending on access to parkland and personal yards, some kids saw less snow than others.
But for a fraction of those 600,000 children, even if it was only one metropolis-full, this snow was a miracle. They flew outside to make snow angels; they threw snowballs; they built snowmen large and small and left empty grassy circles in their wake. They longed to taste each individual flake, to let the flurries dissolve into their upturned faces. They watched it settle over the palm trees and the cacti and the casinos, saw it clinging to the red desert rocks, and they knew this one precious snowfall was truly theirs.
And when the snow had vanished, the memory of wonder remained, and that is perhaps even more wonderful than the desert snow.
Note: My title today references Ray Bradbury’s short story “All Summer in a Day,” which is a heartbreaking story about an imagined colony on a planet where the sun only shines for two hours every seven years. If you’ve read it, you know just how gut-wrenching the story is. If you haven’t, you can find it in PDF form online, and, well—you’ve been warned.
Has anyone else experienced the back-and-forth of wonder and exasperation with a physical phenomenon? Teetered between optimism and cynicism? Have you marveled at something others around you take for granted? Share in the comments below!