A coastal snowfall is an illusion, a fantasy spun by sincere weathermen who send children to bed in highest hopes, usually to rise in abject disappointment.
Still, we coastal dwellers believe in the phrase “slight chance.” We imagine that, for once, the breezes will blow from the west instead of the sea. We envision flicking on the morning news to a litany of bridge closures and school cancellations.
We experience snowfall differently from the rest of South Carolina. Upstate snows follow the pattern of snow/thaw/freeze/thaw/freeze. I remember one weeklong event that produced such fat, long stalactites under the eaves that my sister and I broke them off and built a fierce-looking ice fence along our property line. As for the yard, we could skate on it.
Midland snows are quick to turn slushy. For college students, this translates to sitting through lectures with blue feet encased in soaked leather boots. Trudging a half-mile uphill, feet on fire, after one Columbia snow, I accepted a ride back to the dorm from someone I mistook for my friendly campus security guard. When he proved too friendly, I threw myself against the passenger door and landed once again in the snow—soaked but better educated. Two more days of slush simply drove the lesson home.
Coastal snows, by contrast, are ephemeral. Blink twice, three times, and they’re gone. But under rare and perfect conditions, they duplicate themselves like double rainbows. Once I saw my woods transformed by such a snow, as if all the contents of a luxury bedding shop had been airlifted and dropped there.
The First Snow had come in during the night—three to four inches that quilted the woods. But the morning breeze was too warm for it. By 9:00 a.m., it was thawing. By 10:00, a Second Snow was falling—not from the sky but from the trees—falling almost straight down.
The pines were first to let go. They cast down fat white pillows, panicking birds. A 30-foot holly tree lost half its coverlet in a single slide.
The young hardwoods below grew heavy. Leafless, incapable of generating green heat, they stood tufted and topstitched. Dogwoods and Bradford pears turned white before their time.
The temperature climbed. By 11:00, Second Snow was hurtling to Earth from ungreens and evergreens alike. Colliding with limbs, the largest clumps shattered high above ground and filled the air with snowdust—long, sparkling, translucent curtains billowing in the wind like sheers in a summer window.
Now under a perfectly blue sky, the woods snowed until noon…and then stopped. Another hour’s worth of melt and the linen shop was liquidated.
Of course, South Carolina has known several snows that defied all expectations. There was the blizzard of ’73 that stranded my father and hundreds of other motorists on I-26 while a stunned citizenry—from the mountains to the sea—discovered that heat pumps weren’t designed for such weather.
There was the Christmas Eve snow of 1989 that covered the refuse of Hurricane Hugo and transformed the landscape of Charleston into something hope-filled and exquisite, a reminder that beauty would rise again.
But most of our snows belong in the category of flurries: 10 minutes, 15 minutes of tiny flakes that jump-start the metabolism and cause near riots in schools. In my 15 years of teaching, I learned to usher my students into a hallway of long windows, seat them on the floor facing outward, and teach literature or vocabulary in the hushed tone reserved for natural wonders. I, too, was spellbound by it—the rarity of a coastal snow.
Margaret Locklair writes and edits books and magazine pieces from her home in Berkeley County.