The past month, I’ve been reading Cold, Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places, a sort of smorgasbord of stories of cold places and cold things. Also in the past month, I waited for a blizzard in Northern Arizona and I landed in upstate New York in a snowstorm. It defied logic that a monstrous passenger jet could somehow safely land on a powdery runway teaming with lumbering snow plows. It was a high stakes, potentially explosive, snowy Frogger.
As a child in 1970’s Arizona, I was drilled in desert survival, told to wear hats, stay with the car, never reach for a spot you can’t see as clear of rattlesnakes. Big, blanket wrapped canteens on canvas straps bounced on our little hips as our teachers taught us we could cut open a barrel cactus and drink the fluid inside if we were dying of thirst. They made sure we knew what a barrel cactus looked like, just in case, nevermind the logistics of a lost 6-year-old bare-handedly decapitating a plant covered in three inch spines. Drinking barrell cactus “water” is now listed among survival myths that can kill you.
A pretty woman named Ida Baum whom my father dated after my parents’ divorce scolded me for running through a patch of brush—you know, rattlesnakes. My parents, both from Indiana, had never taught me that. My father did fall into an old hay rake in the 1930’s when the horse who was pulling it spooked. His little boy self spun and spun in the rungs like unspooling thread until the bolting horse passed through a gate, catching the hay rake and breaking the harness. As a teen he fell off the roof of a barn, backwards. My father never drew on these as cautionary tales, as methods of surviving the world. They had no application to the desert.
I saw my only Gila monster from the bed of a pickup truck on a dirt road leading out of
Paradise Park, a ranch where my parents boarded and showed Arabian horses. Gila monsters are the only poinonous lizard in the U.S. (scientific fact), big and fat and as attractive as a burnt meatloaf with jaws that lock and never let go (childhood mythology).
Last month while in upstate New York, I drove in the snow for the first time, from the sterile Malta Fairfield Inn, scenic as the inside of a paper cup, to Saratoga Springs, essentially Main Street in Bedford Falls. The boughs of spruce trees drooped complaisantly under heavy flocks of snow and fat snowflakes descended slowly through the air as if unsure of falling.
A friend drove me through Saratoga Springs State Park, where snugly bundled couples strode under the massive, white trees like miniatures in a snow globe, and people indifferent to the weather lined up to fill their empty bottles at the natural spring.
Back in Arizona, for Auld Lang Syne, my family and I observed the passing of 2014 in the little town of Greer, the town where my husband and I honeymooned and where we have taken our kids most years in lieu of—and not without smugness—Disneyland. The big New Year’s Storm of 2015 was due to hit the night before our departure. “Twelve inches expected,” said the man at the little art shop who sold me, speaking of survival, a copy of The Blue Tattoo. “If the snow topples the power lines, your well pump will go off and you could be stranded without water. Better buy some.”
Panicked, I breathlessly begged my husband to call the “cabin keepers” who rented us the cabin and ask all the questions I was worrying about—What if we can’t check out? Will the road in front of the cabin be plowed? Will we able to drive in this? The snow-panic of a desert dweller. He wouldn’t call. He’s from Chicago.
So I called. I won’t say how it went, but I hung up snippily, started crying, then yelled at my husband. A southern Arizona childhood had schooled me the mantras of survival: in the hiding places of snakes and gila monsters, the size of scorpion to be afraid of, the lethality of leaving the house without water. Last summer, after a hike in Saguaro National Monument, I gasped as our Swedish exchange student blithely emptied the last of his water bottle into the dirt. Water means something different in Tucson than in Sweden.
Snow is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the after school baby sitter taking a bunch of us in her cab-over camper to see snow in Payson, finding my bare butt when she went to change me into snow pants in front of the other kids (there was documented laundry dysfunction at my mother’s), a bus stop in Moscow in -20 wind chill, my pant leg frozen stiff with urine spilled at a home for the aged, the trees in Saratoga State Park, the Abominable Snowman in Rudolf. But I have no ancestral formulae for surviving in it.
In a college anthropology class, I wrote a paper on Hopi Sun Mythology. On the cover page, I incongruously typed,
“They dwell on the surface of the Aurora Borealis and pass their time playing ball with a walrus skull.” —Eskimo Heaven
Hopi Sun and Eskimo Heaven, hot and cold, yin and yang, life and death.
What is your childhood mythology of survival?