California Outback Report: Both Sides Now – the Highs and Lows of a High Desert Snow

If you want to test your self-sufficiency—or sense of it—get yourself snowed in, preferably while staying in a small cabin, in some remote woods. And then let the electricity go out.

And so recently, I was snowed in under almost similar conditions. I awoke in the morning and found a foot of snow on the ground, my vehicles were located on 500 feet of unplowed driveway from the unplowed county road. And then the electricity flickered three times and went out for several hours, with the outside temperature hovering at 10 degrees F.

Across the Warm Springs Valley, Modoc County’s Ballard Mountains rise from snow-covered fields.

Across the Warm Springs Valley, Modoc County’s Ballard Mountains rise from snow-covered fields.

As to the power outage, I had just finished making my breakfast of oatmeal and cooked apples, and had a cup of warm coffee to contemplate the cheeriness of my circumstances: Outside, the snow draped everything, smoothing down trees, bushes and weeds. The little butte across the road rose frosted white and speckled with juniper trees suitably flocked. A happy scene, really. Something that Robert Frost—bless that poetic name—would make worthy of ink and paper.

As a young man, I learned a beautiful tone poem called “Velvet Shoes”:

Let us walk in the white snow
In a soundless space;
With footsteps quiet and slow,
At a tranquil pace,
Under veils of white lace.

Even though I don’t own velvet shoes, walking outside after a snowstorm I am compelled to sing that song. If it’s going to be deep, deeper, deepest snow, then I feel laughter and joy must accompany: Because I’ll need it for the self-sufficiency part.

Ah, self-sufficiency. It harkens of Henry David and Walden Pond and Little House on the Prairie—which is exactly what my house is called by neighbors and passers-by I discovered a few years ago. “Oh, you live in the little house on the prairie,” folks say, when I describe its location. The little ranch is surrounded by larger ranch holdings—from wheat, to rice to cattle. The landscape is not flat, but pleasantly hilly and humpy, with mountains of various heights visible all around. The gravel county road edges along the side of that little butte nearby and then swoops down to the Pit River, a mile away.

I can see six houses from my property—the closest about a quarter-mile distant. I can hear my neighbors’ dogs barking and sometimes wisps of an argument or two. I am not isolated, but help is not that forthcoming. I often joke that in Modoc County, your likely first responder will be a coyote or vulture—picking at your bones!

Snow is the ultimate in landscape design—sweetly resculpting the gardener’s hard work.

Snow is the ultimate in landscape design—sweetly resculpting the gardener’s hard work.

On the morning when the power went out, I called a neighbor, Ben. He answered, asking if I were another of our neighbors. “Thought you were Mike,” he said. “He always calls first thing when the power goes out”—surprising since Mike is a retired cargo ship engineer. You would think that Mike would just walk outside and crank up a generator—which is something that I don’t have. I trust my power company—which I partially own, I am told, since it’s a “cooperative.” Indeed, about 11 a.m., a utility truck drove by and about a half-hour later, voila! The goddess Electra revived. I made myself another cup of coffee in celebration.

In my recent reading of the American Revolution—starring George, John and Thomas—what completely surprised me was how much of bad food, bad weather, bad roads, bad clothing, bad housing, a seven years’ war—you name it—they all endured and still managed to wring free themselves of tyranny and write a Constitution that turned civilization upside down. Me, I get rattled when I can’t light my propane heater.

Born in the city, I never really experienced big snow as a kid. But—ironically—one Washington’s Birthday weekend, my Uncle Bob took me to his cabin in the Gold Rush country. He needed a helper for various chores. The Sunday we were due to leave, it snowed. Lots and lots of it. More than I had ever seen as a boy living on San Francisco’s peninsula. So much snow, that Uncle Bob couldn’t get his 1962 orange, wide-track Mercury Monterey down the driveway to the county road. We were stuck—at least for a few hours until the snow melted. I was thrilled. The sense of being cut-off, surrounded, didn’t alarm me. We had a warm, cozy cabin as shelter—and a handful of good neighbors close by. The memory of the hot chocolate Uncle Bob made me that day—February 23, 1969—warms me all these years later.

Looking south toward the edge of the Devil’s Garden—now angelically clothed.

Looking south toward the edge of the Devil’s Garden—now angelically clothed.

Back to the present: With the electricity back on and that cup of coffee for new contemplations, I took stock. Earlier this fall, I had read stories that our winter would be deep. I had laid in a supply of food that would last me at least two weeks: canned juices and vegetables, soups, milk—so I figured I’m OK in the vittles department.

But lapses glared: That propane heater needed lighting, but that had to wait on buying a new butane lighter—a major fail on my part, since the propane jobber lit the thing last year when the tank was filled, but I forgot about it this year. Matches don’t work.

Assessing the situation outside, more fails came to light: The car and truck were blobs of snow and the drive piled full of it. Two days ago, I should have moved the cars to the end of the road and cleaned them off after every night’s snowfall. Also, I had less than a half tank of fuel in each one. Each tank should have been filled ahead of the storm. These might seem inconsequential, but in an emergency, could prove crucial.

So, as for weathering this Big Snow, I give myself a C+ grade in self-sufficiency. New storms are on the way, affording me extra practice—and more joy from that song:

We shall walk in velvet shoes:
Wherever we go
Silence will fall like dews
On white silence below.
We shall walk in the snow.

Photos by H.A. Silliman.


H.A. Silliman
H.A. Silliman is a freelance writer and communications consultant. He served as the VP of Communications for the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce and holds a B.A. from the University of the Pacific and an M.A. from Sacramento State University.
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8 Responses

  1. cody says:

    Great photos!  It nice country up there, that is for sure…

  2. Tom O'Mara says:

    Great story, and sounds like you learned the right lessons for next time.

  3. Karen C says:

    Great photos, good read and a reminder to us all.  Years ago, a friend of mine who was a Red Cross disaster relief worker gave me some tips.  Never let the gas gauge in the car fall too much below half full.  Keep an emergency bag packed at all times, when you go on the freeway, mountains or long trips . I 5 is notorious for closing down due to accidents or investigation procedures.

    We keep extra water in the house and rotate it out to use up within 6 months.  Even though we live in the city and do not have a mountain cabin, I feel the extra effort in keeping a well stocked pantry is a wise idea.  We learn from the experiences of others too.  Another friend who is an trained in  wide range of emergency medical issues was involved in a huge fire near Lake Shasta.  She knew what to do, but because this was her very own emergency she left her house with her flip-flops on, forgot to grab the dogs leash and had no idea what to grab first. Thankfully, her home was saved.  It was hardly no time at all that she had a grab bag made up for family members, including the dogs bag, and a handy list of what to take with you.  Now if I could just remember where I put my list!

  4. Marilyn says:

    I was raised in snow country, when we had a big storm we kept were out keeping the roofs shoveled off and driving out the road as often as necessary to keep a passable track. always a full gas tank and more in the shed.


  5. pmarshall says:

    Ithink the folks in Bend, Oregon are singing the same tunes.  Some of them are really snowed in and have not seen this much snow in  decades.  I’ll take the lowlands and no snow!

  6. cheyenne says:

    We do our monthly shopping after the first of the month for the best deals.  Unfortunately the Denver front range snow storm hit on the 2nd and the Wyoming winds, or the Colorado winds. pushed the storm North and Cheyenne got 12″ of snow.  In addition the cold, -39 wind chill here in Cheyenne and -62 wind chill in Laramie meant the snow wasn’t going to melt away.  We finally got out to the store on Thursday.  Makes me wish for Redding weather.  One thing I have noticed living out here in blizzard, tornado and hail storm area is we rarely lose power, something I couldn’t say about PG&E in Anderson.  But, like California, we need the snow or we could face our own drought.




    we do our

  7. Hope you got your pilot light lit. If you need help call…I have a nak with that.
    I’ve enjoyed reading your writing and share the love of the magic of Modoc. #lovelivemodoc

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