We left town two days before Christmas, in a bus, at night, as the city filled up with snow. The bus depot was crowded with grim travellers clutching boxes and bundles and too many suitcases; some were overdressed in parkas and snowboots; many were accompanied by small overdressed children; all were determined not to panic. Would there ever be enough buses for all of us? Outside on the platform we shuffled into place at the end of a long line with our bundles and parcels and recited our destination to a series of worried young men in blue jackets who patrolled up and down asking everyone the same question and looking us in the eye as if to convince us that things were going to be all right, in the end. We could see the snow falling in big lazy flakes, into the vault of bright fluorescent light that washed over the paved yards and the big blue buses that would carry us away, out of the city and through the storm.
Snow was falling on the west coast, and the storm warnings were everywhere ahead of us: such were the meterological facts. But what was a storm of snow? What did it mean? This is what we had to remember. Our driver had white hair, very fine white hair, which he wore swept high in a pompadour cut. He was about my age, but slender, and completely unperturbed. (I hadn’t seen one of those haircuts since I was a kid, and then I’m pretty sure it was in a movie.) He smiled as he tore off our tickets and waved us aboard. Finally he hopped in and slung the door shut and rolled us out onto the dark streets of a city that seemed no longer to be ours, now that we were seeing it through smoked glass and a further screen of falling snow. In moments we had made our way out of the neighbourhood of dingy beer parlour hotels and were moving over the viaduct between two domed stadiums lit up with golfball lights, toward the steel and glass core of the city. The Santa Claus in front of the Hudson’s Bay was playing an electric guitar under the overhang. He had those gloves on with no fingers and his uniform was too big and he looked cold and rather desperate, but that might have been because we couldn’t hear his music inside the bus, where the only sounds were the low murmur of voices and the growl of the big diesel engine. The windows were damp with condensation and we had to wipe them with our hands to see outside. It was warm in the bus and soon people were taking off their coats and standing up to put them in the overhead rack.
In the big park at the edge of the city the grassy lawns were covered in snow, and the trees, always so dark and so green, were white too. As we sped through the park no one spoke: we were all observing the transformation taking place outside. When I put my hand on the glass it was cold, but I was warm, and outside everything was covered in snow. I began to feel childish, and safe, but uneasy as well: I was beginning to remember the snow. Out in the country the highway was reduced to black wheel tracks and then the tracks began to disappear and soon the road ahead was completely white and we were advancing into a vortex of swirling white flakes. Now there was silence again in the bus and we were straining to peer forward past the white head of our driver and into the blizzard as the bus dropped into low gear for the hills and then up a gear for the downgrade. We were drifting up and around and down in a featureless world from which visibility seemed to have been erased. How could the driver see where we were going? In the beam of the headlights an impenetrable whirlwind danced a few feet ahead of us. Occasionally the red glow of taillights would materialize in that tiny space and we could feel the driver determined to maintain our momentum as he geared down and pulled out to pass. Only once did he falter, as the bus lurched violently onto the shoulder and then back into the roadway: there had been something in the way, an abandoned car. No one breathed for a moment and then people began applauding the driver. We were frightened in the snow, we were in danger, and only he could bring us through.
Now there were no other vehicles on the road and as we pressed into the night, into danger, I felt wash over me an emotion made up of trepidation and excitement and I was certain that everyone else was feeling it too. (Would we ever see home again?—was this question not on everyone’s lips?) I looked around the shadowy interior at my fellow passengers and they seemed all to be concentrating together, eyes forward, heads up, helping the driver keep the bus on the road. I felt in that moment that we had been restored to an earlier, more elemental time, when the transformation of the world had been something that children look forward to; we had entered the mythological vast land that stretched forever to the east.