A Rain-geley White Christmas

You know those Hallmark Christmas scenes so snowy-white perfect you stare at the picture longer than you read the inside of the card? Where the snow blankets the cutesy log cabin, lays a flawlessly glistening path for the storybook critters lingering in and around the puckerbrush, and sparkles off a trim little balsam that somehow got all decked out at the end of the dock?

That’s how I figured it must be upta camp this time of year. Down in the flatlands, I’d sing along with Bing just knowing Christmas in Rangeley was white. Dreamy creamy white. With just enough frost on top of the fluff to glitter like a happy holiday wish from a friend who cared enough to send the very best.

Then I moved here year-round and changed my tune.

The year was 2010, well past what used to be closing up camp and heading home time. This was home, and I was doing my best to track winter’s arrival at my new latitude with photos and witty observation. “Lookin’ kinda grey with a touch of gloomy out there,” I’d say. “You’d think we’d have fresh powder by now this close to Saddleback.” It was pouring buckets. For days on end. And by mid-December, I said to heck with a white Christmas and started dreaming of a dry Christmas.

The sign at the builder’s supply said “Welcome to Rain-geley,” which I took as a sign that the weird meteorological pattern was a fluke. By next year, I bet we’d all be talking about it like “the white Christmas that wasn’t” and get back to enjoying real holiday weather inside our little snow globe. Well that right there was the start of my learning curve, my uncharted climb toward the cold, hard truth. Turns out that, in Rangeley, typical never describes winter weather. And the only pattern is that there is none. What you see is what you get. Until, of course, you try to dress or otherwise plan for it.

But twelve years of Christmas later, I have learned first-hand where the seasonal boundary in the local saying “down the mountain” starts. It’s on Route 17, a couple miles off the Height of Land, where the Subaru thermostat starts registering something balmier than 28 degrees as it navigates south onto bare, dry pavement again. I’d always known, of course, that these lakes and mountains generate their own weather pattern that outsmarts most AccuWeather technology. It took awhile after my Big Move to Rangeley, however, to realize how soon after Thanksgiving I’d find myself living just over the arctic side of the Great Divide.

And the Big Lake, I’ve come to find out, has its own set of wintery rules not covered in any physical science class I ever took. It doesn’t just “freeze over” sometime in the middle of the first cold spell like I used to picture in my Hallmark fantasies. “Well, the lake must be frozen over,” I’d declare from the obscurity of my living room in southern New Hampshire. Thirty-two degrees…snap…time to freeze over….I imagined the lake just laying there still, waiting for spring when I was ready to return and see it moving again. I now understand that, for my beloved body of water, changing from liquid to solid is a dynamic, fickle process not governed by holidays or thermometers.

“Look!” Tom demanded on one of our first Rangeley December mornings after we’d been blanketed in snow for a couple of weeks but could still hear crashing waves when we ventured outside. I was in my PJs, without my glasses and my first cup of coffee, so he could have been pointing out anything—from the neighborhood moose in my front yard to Bono at my breakfast bar. (Although the moose was more likely and I wasn’t dressed for the occasion, I secretly hoped for the Bono scenario.) “The lake finally froze last night!” Tom said as I squinted in wonder at the smooth sheet of ice that had miraculously appeared sometime in the middle of the night when neither of us was watching. Snowshoeing across to the island would still be a month away, but the lake was definitely frozen solid.

A couple mornings later, Tom woke me up with a new weather report and a different tone of excitement. “I really need your help,” he announced grimly. “We need to move everything off the basement floor. It’s flooded.” I wasn’t sure how dire our emergency was, but even without my glasses I could see there was no more snow coating the trees or piled up on the ground. And I was pretty sure that needing to put on waterproof pants and serious rain boots without ever leaving the house was not the start of a particularly good day.

As I outfitted myself for flood duty, I guessed where Mark Twain was when he quipped, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.” In Rangeley, in December, he wouldn’t have been joking. In a flash, I’d gone from hunkering down in the snow next to my frozen solid lake, to crouching next to my cellar steps, preparing to help salvage my possessions from the four inches of rain and melted snow that had surged through the foundation. I was peering at my husband hunkered down there, cussing and sighing and relaying orders, careful not to rap his six-foot high head on the five-foot low ceiling as he sloshed through the moving boxes we’d left down there until “sometime this winter.” They didn’t hold irreplaceable stuff, luckily, but tons of annoying little nicky-nacks that were too useful to throw away, but not treasured enough to go into safe storage upstairs. Plus CDs—hundreds of CDs and videos we were supposed to sort through “whenever.” As their cardboard containers turned to mush in the rising water, our priorities got shifted, and our day was suddenly repurposed. But, before we could schlep everything up the stairs to dry it off, Tom first had to tackle the most important piece of inventory stored there: our brand new sump pump. Installing it had also been on his “sometime” list since the old one was removed and we turned our creepy dirt cellar into a spiffy storage space with new concrete floors that “never showed any sign of moisture.”

“I knew I should have put that damn pump in when the cabin was rebuilt,” Tom said. I silently agreed. And I made a note to myself that, whenever Mother Nature is involved, “should have’s” need to take on heightened urgency—especially when you live 20 miles from the building supply store selling the extra parts you need for whatever it is you should have installed in the summer. The same store with the “Welcome to Rain-geley” sign out front.

“That’s probably why nature is called a mother,” I mused as Tom drove off to get those extra parts and I rummaged around for rag towels. “Like any mother, she knows you ignore ‘should have’ impulses and act like you’re in command of your own timetable.” You can try to blow her off, but she always gets the last word. Kneeling on my dining room floor, swabbing down picture frames and sponging out CD cases, I felt like a child who didn’t take her earth mother seriously and was now being punished with a puddled-up, pumpless basement.

That was years ago. And, fortunately, misadventures like that are short-lived in these parts—where I must pour my energy back into what’s actually hitting me in the face at any given moment. Could be anything from rain to sleet to snow to graupel and back again. Graupel, by the way, is a new word I added to my vocabulary somewhere along the learning curve. According to Webster’s it’s “small particles of snow with a fragile crust of ice softer than hail.” And it’s been in my yard more than once this time of year. Not right now, though. Right now, as of this writing, I see in my yard a trace coating of white that appears to be snow-like. It’s blanketing the path down to where the lake’s stopped lapping at the shore and gone really, really still. Couldn’t tell you whether it would sparkle off a lit-up tree out the dock because leaving your dock in for ice-in and ice-out is a teaching moment Tom chooses to avoid. And we gave up stringing lights on outside trees years ago—after we figured out lights UL-rated for outdoor use don’t take squirrels into account.

Right now, the sump pump is working when needed and so, supposedly, is the snow blower. And my White Christmas CD survived the flood to keep me entertained while I open those perfect holiday cards.

Happy Holidays, everyone. Be merry! 

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