When I decided to make snow angels with the alpacas, I don’t know what I expected to happen, but the half-acre of untread snow in the pasture and my own curiosity were too enticing not to find out. I trudged out through the yard to where the alpacas stood eating hay. I had a new pair of snow pants, my first since I was a small child, ordered so I could keep up with my toddler and the farm chores in the snow, and I intended to break them in. As I approached, the alpacas barely looked up from their meal, but the smell of wet wool coats drifted over from their general direction. Before we started our small alpaca farm, it never occurred to me that this distinct odor that I associated with coming inside from recess was actually an animal smell.
Over a foot of snow fell. Or, to use my husband Julio’s favorite unit of measurement, the snow stood two and a half cans of beer tall. On the corner where our backyard homestead sits, the accumulated powder silenced the usual traffic. Someone overconfident with all-wheel drive took the bend in the road too fast and ended up in a snowdrift across the street, but the only sound I heard was the crunch of the snow under my boots. The silence felt restorative. As I passed through the pasture gate, I registered that the chickens had come out to voice their discontent, clucking about the cold.
When I plopped down in the snow, I discovered how much harder making a snow angel is as an adult. At my five feet eight inches of height, just getting neatly into the position and then getting up again was more effort than I ever remember. The cold snow that snuck down my coat felt more jarring after years spent protecting myself from the weather instead of diving into it. I spread my limbs long and swooshed them back and forth, creating my angel wings and heavenly skirt. After a moment, I lifted my head slightly, wondering if the alpacas had noticed me yet. They stood there, staring, confused.
I dropped my head again and resumed making my angel. The alpacas stared, pieces of hay hanging from their mouths. I decided to try again. Awkwardly standing up to avoid ruining my snow angel, I staggered to the side, trying to remember the poop pile’s outline underneath the layer of snow. I fell back into the snow dramatically, hoping I would get a response. Our most outgoing alpaca, Theodora, ran up the side of a small hill at the back of the pasture to get an areal view of my activity. Her curiosity not satisfied, she ran over to me, coming to an abrupt stop at my feet. Her best friend, Clementine, followed, sniffing my boots. Once they realized I had not dropped dead, they sauntered back to the hay. One of the worst parts of raising alpacas is how indifferent they are to us, even when they like us. Unlike my old dog, asleep on her pillows inside after a session zooming around the backyard, the alpacas were not going to play in the snow with me. But that is not to say that they don’t play in the snow themselves.
I started my simple snow day chores, keeping an eye on the alpacas as I moved around our acre. As I checked for eggs and made sure the chickens’ water wasn’t frozen, Clementine watched the hens pecking at the new icicles along the wire securing their run. After sweeping the snow away from the beehive entrance and brushing frozen bees off the landing board, I held my breath and pressed my ear to the hive, listening for the humming cluster of bees inside. The bees still buzzed. I exhaled, relieved, and looked up to see the alpaca herd lined up along the fenced run that overlooks our backyard. They watched me tend to the hive, enjoying mouthfuls of fresh snow off the fence. Alpacas have cleft upper lips, allowing them to grasp leaves, tasty pieces of hay, or snow. The feather-light touch of their lips dusted snow away from the rail and into their mouths or onto the ground, sending a sparkling flurry of powder into the air around them. I took the ten steps to the fence and watched them eat the snow. It is their favorite snow day activity, and I smiled when Clementine looked up from her snack, revealing a glistening snow mustache stuck to her dark fawn face. I had more to do and my feet were freezing, but I soaked in the moment as she nuzzled noses with me, her hay-scented breath warming my flushed cheeks.
The gift of a snow day is a bit of freedom snatched from the jaws of responsibility. I grew up in Indiana, which does not often get as much snow in a single storm as we do here in Colorado’s foothills, but there snow falls more regularly and sticks around for months under overcast skies. At a mile above sea level, the Denver metro gets such regular, intense sunshine, that snow melts away within days—sometimes hours—of accumulating. Not so in the Midwest, which means that some of my favorite memories are of snow days that turned into snow weeks. For example, when I was in the sixth grade, it snowed heavily day after day, closing school for five straight days. As an adult, I now know that the prolonged lack of childcare was probably an issue for parents, but my mother was a teacher, home with us, so it never occurred to me then. My father was a morning radio host, so we were among the first houses to hear that we could go back to bed. After a morning spent cozy and lazy, my brother and I hit the giant sledding hill at the front of the neighborhood, joining the mob of other kids, free for another day. By the end of the week, we should have been bored or worried about how many days of school we would have to make up in the summer. Instead, we existed in that suspension of responsibility for as long as it lasted.
In my first year of college, another storm produced such high walls of snow that my college campus canceled classes for most of the week. My friends and I pushed together the oversized armchairs in our dorm lobby and brought the comforters down from our beds, creating a sort of cocoon. We moved seamlessly between studying and chatting, enjoying big mugs of coffee and a potluck of junk from the dining hall. When the storm ended, I was three weeks ahead on my British literature homework. We were reading Jane Eyre—perfect timing that only a bookworm can fully appreciate.
I am no longer a person who can get weeks ahead on her homework. Juggling adult responsibilities, parenting, hobbies, and the homestead means I am always behind on something. When we grow up, commutes and shoveling teach us to hate the snow and all the hassle it brings. The animals on our little farm have restored some of my snow day joy. Watching them trot around the pasture or peck at ice, every snowstorm like a new experience, draws me into the moment and away from worrying about the mail carrier wiping out on our front walk.
I went inside, weighing my options for the last precious minutes of my toddler’s naptime. Would I curl up with tea and my notebooks, try to finish the mitten I was knitting from Miss Firecracker’s yarn, or read a scary book under a pile of blankets? Julio stuck his head out his office door, informing me that he had dinner covered that night and I had heaping bowls of his specialty, pasta aglio e olio, to look forward to. I decided to lean into the snow day freedom and made two mugs of cocoa, preparing for some time with the dog and a book. (The second mug was for Julio, not the dog.) As the kettle boiled, however, my daughter woke from her nap. The book would wait as I put all of Veronica’s winter layers on and took her outside to make more snow angels.
Since the days we dreamed of her, I have wondered and worried about how different the environment of Veronica’s lifetime will be from that in which I grew up. On snowy days, I try not to ask how many of them she will see on a warming planet. Not long before, the Marshall Fire burned over one thousand homes twenty miles north of our house. In the months prior, it had been uncharacteristically dry, and then, days after Christmas, 100-mile-per-hour winds rushed through, sparking and spreading the fire at devastating speed. We were traveling back from visiting family and came home to see semi-trucks overturned, blocking our exit. Our little farm was relatively unscathed by the winds, but once home from the airport, we put Veronica to bed without unpacking, unsure if the wind would change, causing the pre-evacuation area to grow to include our neighborhood. That night, as I responded to friends’ concerned messages, Julio scrolled his backyard chicken groups, looking at photos of chickens rolled in newspaper and towels like little taquitos to keep them calm during evacuation. We realized that we needed a plan for our animals if a wildfire broke out in our neighborhood Open Space. The next morning, a storm blew in, covering the burned homes with snow one tragic day too late. Since then, my appreciation for snow had grown. Sure, shoveling is a hassle, but the precipitation sinking deep into the ground as it melts away is precious.
Veronica and I toddled out to the pasture so she could experiment with the frigid water dripping from our rain barrels and watch the hens with Clementine. As she received tentative alpaca kisses on her head and repeated, “Hi, chickens!” over and over again, as if waiting for a response, I took a few deep, cold breaths, trying to look at the snow as a blessing, not for the moisture or the climate, but for the way it ground the neighborhood to a halt for the day, forcing people out with their children or inside for hot coffee and thick socks. As I breathed through my anxiety, I tried to accept the snow day for the simple gift it was.
Like the alpacas, Veronica was confused by the very concept of a snow angel. After she got her fill of her favorite activities—hunting pinecones and banging a piece of wood against a metal fence post—I introduced her to one of life’s enduring small pleasures, coming in from the cold. Rosy-cheeked and tired, we snuggled up to read The Mitten while Julio started dinner. As Salsa music and the smell of sauteed garlic and parsley filled the house, my whole body relaxed into the remainder of our snow day, savoring it (and the pasta) while it lasted.
Pasta Aglio e Olio (recipe)
by Julio Santana, inspired by Chef (2014)
This dish requires just six ingredients, no fancy kitchen equipment, and is much much more than the sum of its parts. Be focused and refine your technique over time, and you will be able to consistently deliver a delicious dish to your loved ones.
1 lb. spaghetti (a high-quality dried spaghetti will do)
1 head of garlic
¼ cup of Olive oil
1 bunch of Italian flat-leaf parsley
8 oz wedge of aged parmesan
Optional – black pepper, red pepper flakes, 1 tbsp of butter
A sharp chef’s knife and cutting board
A large saucepan
A cheese grater
Begin heating a pot full of salted water to bring to a boil for cooking your spaghetti according to package instructions. The goal is to have spaghetti that’s about 30 seconds short of al dente.
While the water begins heating, break down your head of garlic into cloves. You’ll need 13 cloves (give or take a clove). This will be most or all of the head of garlic you have.
Slice each clove of garlic thinly. The slices should be paper thin and translucent. Somewhere in the middle of this process, your water will start boiling. Add the spaghetti.
Once the garlic is sliced, wash the parsley, remove most of the stems, and mince it.
Add your olive oil to the saucepan and start the heat on medium-high. If you want black pepper and red pepper flakes, add them to the pan when you add the oil.
As the heat increases for a minute or two, add the garlic. It should gently sizzle when it hits the oil, and the sizzling should continue to increase in intensity.
When the garlic has turned a golden color (but has not burned), add the parsley and evenly spread the parsley throughout the pan with a wooden spatula.
If well-timed, your pasta should be ready to drain when you add the parsley. Drain the pasta, saving ½ cup of pasta water, and add the pasta to the saucepan about 45 seconds after the parsley hits the pan.
Using a set of tongs, immediately begin mixing the pasta with the parsley/garlic mixture in the pan. Add the pasta water you saved and the butter (optionally). Turn the heat off, and mix everything thoroughly.
Plate immediately, squeezing lemon juice and freshly grating a generous amount of parmesan cheese onto each serving.
Everyone should eat as soon as the dish is plated.
*Quality always matters with your ingredients, but this is especially important for simple dishes like this one.