My First Snow Day – Queenstown

Looking down over the center of Queenstown, New Zealand covered by a layer of snow

I was born and raised in Minnesota, USA. The winters there are pretty intense.

I’ve been trying to explain what that means for the last several years, but I get the feeling no one really believes me. “Okay, but does it get to…minus 20?” they ask — as if I’m going to fold at the mere mention of such an extreme temperature and reveal that I made the whole thing up.

Honestly, I’m not sure most people can handle that conversation, let alone an actual Minnesota winter — but that’s not really the point.

What you really need to know when it comes to my home state is this: we rarely, if ever, get snow days.

Back in my student years, I worked as a barista at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Whenever we had groups from out of town holding events in the building, at least one person would ask me and my colleagues “do in the winter.” And each time, we’d hand them their cappuccino, force a chuckle, and respond, “The same things we do in the summer. But, you know, with more clothes.”

“Thanks-a-latte” humor aside: it’s kind of a silly question. While visitors from more temperate climates might find our winters a bit extreme, they rarely bring anything that Minnesotans aren’t expecting. It’s why we have the skyway system in downtown Minneapolis; it’s why University of Minnesota students can traipse across something like half of campus without going outside. Part of the reason snow days aren’t that common is we have procedures in place to clear the roads and keep things running.

And on a sidenote, just try to find someone on the street who will admit this is the coldest they’ve ever been — I doubt you can. (But come inside before you get frostbite.)

That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Icy roads pose significant dangers, and homeless people suffer horribly this time of year. It’s not unusual for the cold to reach dangerous levels. But even so, it’s highly unlikely you won’t need to report to school or work due to the weather alone.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I need you to understand where I was coming from my first winter in New Zealand — the first time I ever got a pass because of snow.

Snowy hill overlooking Lake Wakatipu with trees in the background

It was Queenstown in August. I was 75% of the way through my working holiday visa in New Zealand, and 50% of the way through a (very brief) stint as a call-center worker. That meant I had the gratifying job of ringing up Australians and trying to sell them funeral insurance — albeit, not trying very hard.

On the day in question, it snowed. (Obivously.) I kind of groaned and rolled my eyes — like, I left Minnesota for this shit? — but I rallied. What else could I do?

I asked my hostel roommate if I could borrow her boots (for all my big talk, I was woefully unprepared for this possibility), put on my sad little fake leather jacket (ditto), and headed out.

I arrived to a ghost town. A shell of what the call center used to be.

Once a thriving joint filled with apathetic young adults idly playing Sudoko while they waited for someone — anyone — to pick up the phone, now it was an empty room with plastic bags blowing in the wind and dust slowly blanketing the headsets.

“Oh,” said my boss, “we’re not working today. My best people can’t make it in, so the rest of you don’t have to come.” (Why he was there remains unclear.)

I’d have been insulted by his basically calling me useless, but that would imply I thought I was any good at this job (I wasn’t) or that I wanted to be (I didn’t). Plus, my head was too busy spinning.

I had a snow day. My first one ever — even if it was just a couple of centimeters.

Snow-covered trees and tables outside of a hostel in Queenstown, New Zealand

Being young and, let’s just say it, kind of obnoxious, I almost wanted to stage a protest. How could you let a dusting of white flurries dictate your life? How could he say others couldn’t “make it in”? I’d made it in! Granted, I’d only had to walk 100 meters and others had to drive, and Queenstown is far better at creating snow than removing it. But at some point, don’t you have to make a stand?

Maybe — but this day wasn’t it. If there’s one thing I took away from my childhood, it’s that you never look a snow day in the mouth.

So in a rather uncharacteristic turn of events, I kept my mouth shut and returned to my hostel. The other backpackers laughed with me when I told them what happened; but I knew most of them — those who hailed from similarly moderate climates — were thinking that it kind of made sense. Who works in weather like this? “The only place the English can find in the snow,” a few people said, “is the pub.”

But we didn’t go to the pub that day. And in another funny twist, it turned out that nobody goes to the ski fields when it snows in town; the roads aren’t good and the buses don’t run. And several others were in the same position as me: not able to get to work, or unneeded even if they were. In other words, the normally quiet hostel was packed full, all day long.

So. What happens when you take a group of restless people with nothing to do, snow that keeps coming down, and a back garden situated on top of a hill?

Group of people holding snowboards stand at the bottom of a snow-covered hill

Snowboarder about to ride off of a picnic table on a snow-covered hill while others look on

Person in a snowboard helmet holds a snowball in their hands, presumably about to throw it down the hill at the people standing below

They make ski jumps out of the picnic tables and throw snowballs at each other, of course. I guess that’s what you’re meant to do on a snow day.

I really wouldn’t know.

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