Ah, snow. It's quite lovely outside right now, although give it another half an inch and I'm sure all of Boston will lose its shit again. For people who live within a few miles of an unreasonably gigantic body of water, they're entirely too terrified of getting wet.

I landed out here in late June, and that entire first year, as soon as people were told I moved from Arizona, they thought it was hilarious to tease me about experiencing my "first real winter". Then the cold time rolled around and they were all 'oh noes, a light flurry of snow!' and I was all 'wtf guys, it's not even up to my knees yet,' because -- and I mean no disrespect here -- Bostonians are total pussies about winter and would not survive December in Flagstaff.

I grew up in the Phoenix metro area. Most of Arizona is not really all that far off from the imaginings of that one book everyone remembers from Reading Rainbow, "Gila Monsters Meet You At the Airport". There aren't actually any gila monsters at the airport -- although there are plenty of black widows and scorpions right there in the middle of the city, have fun and remember to check your shoes! -- but there are roadrunners and jackrabbits all over the suburbs, and if you move into the housing developments right on the outskirts of town, you're advised to keep your pets inside at night on account of hungry coyotes. One of the many excellent reasons I did not bother attending my own high school graduation was that the ceremony was to be held outdoors, in mid-May, and it was already well over 100°F. It is, as popularly conceived, very hot and dry and altogether bleached out much too white by the unremitting sun.

In contrast, I went to college in Flagstaff. Here it is:

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Flagstaff is not like Phoenix. For some reason, the word "Arizona" prevents people from putting together the well-known facts that the temperature decreases with altitude (about 5.5°F per 1000ft, in fact) with the fact that Flagstaff is stuck halfway up the side of a mountain (just about 7000' above sea level, and only a few miles from Humphreys Peak, which tops out at about 12,500') and coming to the realization that it probably gets fucking cold there in the winter. The ball usually drops when I mention that there is a ski resort just outside of town. Or when I tell them about the time I got up to go grocery shopping one fine Sunday, opened the door to find that our courtyard was one solid pile of snow about up to my waist, and decided that I would be eating ramen and playing video games that day instead. It just wasn't Christmas in Flagstaff until I'd been completely snowed into my apartment at least once.

While it is a pleasingly picturesque place -- it's is what happens when you dump Bostonians out in the wilderness and tell them to build a town, literally, to the point where one of the outlying housing developments looks eerily like where my grandparents used to live in Harwich, which is on Cape Cod -- the city of Flagstaff suffers from a number of disadvantages when it comes to handling the weather, mostly that they are quite a small town (about 50K people at most, and at least a third of that vanishes when classes aren't in session), and they're located in a state full of desert rats who think that storm drains are unnecessary ornamentation. The university has steam tunnels under a lot of the sidewalk, which seem to exist solely so that Groundskeeping can spend half their time locking them back up after curious students have broken in. ADOT keeps a checkpoint halfway up the mountain, manned in severe winter weather by whichever highway patrol dudes drew the short straws that morning, who can and will stop you and send you right back down-mountain if you don't have chains or snow tires on your car. NAU has a couple of small 'cats to clear the sidewalks, and the municipal government has at least two private companies on call to dump volcanic gravel on the ice and make a half-assed effort to shove snow off the roads.

And that's about it, really. Aside from the above, you're expected to either cope with the ice and snow on your own, or at least be polite enough to crawl off and die of hypothermia in a drift that no one's trying to walk through to get to the bus stop. In many ways, the city services actually make things worse. The only way to get a fucking meter of fresh snow off the road in a hurry is to shove it onto the sidewalk. It's not uncommon to see that the communal walking path from campus to the nearest grocery store has been tromped straight down the unbroken crest of a two-foot pile of snow for several blocks, complete with divots carved into the ice at either end where people have kicked the toes of their boots in like crampons to climb on top of it. My feet are tiny and I used to just walk in other people's boot prints; I don't know what everybody else did.

Northern Arizona University is a state-funded school which receives money based on a lot of things, one of which is how many days per semester they hold classes, and is ruled by a budgetary committee that also handles ASU and UofA, both of which are conveniently located half a mile from the surface of the goddamn sun. They would sooner gnaw off their own frostbitten thumbs than cancel class for weather, even when the City of Flagstaff has issued a bulletin recommending you not drive anywhere if you could possibly help it. It's almost fun walking a mile into work -- uphill, because nobody ever flattens anything when building in Flagstaff, in the gutter, because all of the sidewalks are blocked with piles of snow higher than my head, through what the National Weather Service refers to as 'whiteout conditions', at a time of year when sunset is about five in the evening, and in a town where they only use sodium lamps in the streetlights because of the observatory -- in a surreal, Sir John Franklin sort of way.

Another thing you might notice on that map is that Flagstaff is in the middle of fucking nowhere. The next nearest towns are about 45 minutes away, at highway speeds. (That's the speed you actually drive on the highway, mind. If you follow the posted limits it's just over an hour.) Calling them "civilization" is probably giving them too much credit. Wikipedia has a list of ghost towns in Arizona, and probably a quarter to a third of those would not be considered ghost tows by local standards, particularly the people who have developed some sort of weird Stockholm Syndrome vis à vis the horrible uncaring empty desert, and still inexplicably live there. There's a reason the Eagles were singing about getting the fuck out of Winslow, Arizona. None of them are reachable by any means other than the interstate highway, either I-17 or I-40. The state closes these roads in severe weather. So if there are drifts piled up over your head, not only can you not get to anything useful in town, you are also physically unable to leave in order to get to useful stuff in places that do not look like the interior of a cheap souvenir snowglobe.

(They also close Pulliam, which calls itself an airport, but is really a glorified gas station for the NOAA planes and the medevac helicopters from Flagstaff Medical Center, which serves as as the regional high-level trauma center for the simple reason that there are no other high-level trauma centers for at least a hundred and fifty highway miles in any direction. Ron White does a bit in one of the recorded versions of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour that involves catching a flight on a plane about the size of a pack of gum from what he refers to as the "Flagstaff Airport, Hair Care & Tire Center," which is accurate enough that we all thought it was hilarious. There are also a fair number of private pilots there, practicing flying around mountain-y things up where there is almost literally nothing else to fucking hit if they mung it up and end up having Adventures In CFIT instead. Which just makes the hospital doubly convenient.)

So seriously, Bostonians, quit being weenies and whining when there's kind of a little slush on the ground and you get your precious feets wet running for the T. Thirty years of Victorian public works projects and landfill are the only things keeping your house from actually being in the ocean. I'm really not kidding about being used to winter. One of Moggie's co-workers is actually a Massachusetts transplant, and a couple of months ago he came into work and greeted everyone with something that Mog paraphrased as HOLY BALLS IT'S COLD, on account of it was 3°F that day. Not a typo -- it was sincerely three whole degrees Fahrenheit outside. (In contrast, when I was in grade school, the temperature in Phoenix hit a new record high of 122°F. Rather than declaring an emergency and lying motionless in front of the A/C like normal sane people, they printed commemorative t-shirts. The heat does things to your brain, I swear.) There is just a certain point after which no further drop in temperature will result in an increase in either the sanctity or number of testicles required to evaluate the weather, and Flagstaff in winter blasts right past that. I had to ditch a lot of my worldly possessions when I moved out here, but I was smart enough to keep all the boots and a couple of heavy coats.


  1. My native Las Vegan husband and my Upstate NY self still have highly varying reactions to the weather even after ten years of cohabitation in two different states and an entirely different country. This past week was a 50-year-record high-and-dry conditions for Wellington, with little wind and baking hot sun, and Aaron was out walking nearly every day (in full length jeans and t-shirt) while I stayed indoors with blinds drawn with iced tea and podcasts. Only when it broke and started drizzling and gusting again like a normal day in Wellington did I want to go out and feel refreshed, while he wanted to dash between the rain drops with hood up. ;)


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