It was 7 a.m. when I picked up the phone in our Seattle hotel room and called home. Pam, who had been minding our house, feeding the dog and collecting the mail, answered.
"We're flying home today. How's everything there?," I said.
"It snowed last night and you have a bunch of trees down, and some giant branches broke off of some others," she said. "It's a mess."
"Ha-ha," I said, in an unconvinced monotone. "Seriously, everything good?"
"No, really," she insisted. "It snowed."
Did it ever: Bakersfield's snow day, the weather miracle of Jan. 25, 1999, delighted a half-million very surprised people. Minnesotans and Wisconsinites might chuckle or sneer at the idea that 3-to-6 overnight inches could paralyze a city — and paralyze it so happily. But in Bakersfield and throughout much of the southern San Joaquin Valley, that was the prevailing mindset that day 20 years ago.
Not for me, though. Not at first.
"Pam. Pam. Come on. I know it didn't snow. I just wanted to check on things before we head to the airport," I said.
We'd been in the Pacific Northwest for four days for my little sister's wedding. Jill and her cousin Sophia had been co-flower girls, impish and adorable. Ben had been the ring bearer, even though he was only 3 at the time, and conventional wedding wisdom states 3 is asking for trouble. But the kids pulled it off and their relieved parents beamed. The happy couple was that much happier.
Now it was the Monday-morning-after and our flight home was leaving in three hours. I figured I'd give Pam fair warning so she could cart out all of the empty beer bottles, or whatever.
But now here she was, trying to get me to bite on this ridiculous snow-day story.
"All right, Pam," I said, finally playing along. "I'll let you go so you can start shoveling your way out. See you at about 1."
"OK, Daddy Bob," she said. "You'll see."
The four of us flew into LAX just before noon, then hopped aboard a puddle jumper and headed back north to Bakersfield.
Most of us have seen the valley floor at night, descending the Grapevine: The ruby string of taillights heading north to the horizon, paralleled by the golden chain of headlights coming back south, toward us. It's actually kind of beautiful if you allow yourself to pretend it's some kind of terrestrial jewelry and not simply two lines of CO2-spewing cars and trucks, 40 miles long each way.
Our first glimpse of the serene white valley floor that day, from 15,000 feet up, had that same kind of majesty — times 100.
By the time we touched down a little after 1, the magic of those early morning hours — that peaceful, incredulous calm we'd missed by half a day and 1,000 miles — was starting to dissipate. But it hadn't completely. Children were still rolling up snowmen and skidding down the street on cardboard or whatever they could find. Neighbors were still visiting other neighbors' kitchens, sipping hot chocolate and taking pictures.
Ben and Jill commenced to building a snowman of their own, naturally. The snow was still plentiful, but it had that icy, slightly wet feeling that said "hurry." The price we paid for the privilege of witnessing Bakersfield's snow day from an eagle's point of view, and for having attended my sister's perfect little wedding, was steep: We'd lost eight hours of community-shared wonderment.
But it was not an altogether bad trade. Our view of the valley from the air that day was unlike anything we'd seen before or will likely see again.
I remembered that snow day for many months afterward — and not always fondly. I thought of it well into the spring, every time I took my chainsaw to another section of yet another felled eucalyptus tree. I had an acre of them.
I remember it more fondly now, of course. The kids were small and did cute, small-kid things. I had more hair, less middle and better knees. Things seemed simpler, even though they were probably busier and more complicated.
Now I sit around with 20-year friends and mutter things like, "Could that really have been 20 years ago?" Because, in addition to being a special, most unexpected delight, Bakersfield's snow day was also one of life's mile markers.
That's what any kind of 20-year anniversary is: Occasion to look back and reflect on the relentlessness of time, on the ways we've grown, on the memory of the people we've lost.
And to imagine where we might be 20 years from now — because, after all, the last 20 came and went like an overnight snowfall.