When a storm dumped eight inches of snow on Rome this winter, I pored over photographs of the coated Colosseum, Forum and Piazza San Pietro, thrilled to reports of Romans shoveling streets with wooden spatulas, and above all wished I’d been there to see it. My friends in Rome reported frustration over coping with the deluge, and while there were no fatalities, the storm snarled traffic and stunned a city that thinks it only rains in winter. It made me remember the old story about how the site for Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was chosen when the Virgin Mary appeared to Pope Liberius on the night of August 4, 352, telling him to build a church where a patch of snow appeared the following morning. Santa Maria della Neve, as the basilica was originally called, duly rose on the Esquiline Hill, ever after the scene of an August 5 pontifical Mass celebrating the miracle.
Snow when you least expect it—divine apparitions notwithstanding—always seems a miracle to me, even when it wreaks havoc for travelers. My brother and I once went back-roading in northern Baja’s Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. Stuck in a four-wheel drive vehicle on a rutted track leading toward 10,157-foot Picacho del Diablo, we set up camp, hoping to hike out for help the next morning. It had been a beautiful, sunny day, warm enough for shirt sleeves, but that night it snowed, leaving the two of us to shiver in front of a feisty little campfire until morning.
We’d forgotten a simple truth of geography and meteorology: the higher the elevation, the more likelihood there is of snow, in any season. It doesn’t take a genius to know that, but I forgot again on a trip to the Canary Islands, where I’d gone seeking sunshine while living in Europe a few winters ago—not an outlandish plan given that the Spanish archipelago is 100 miles off the coast of Africa at about the same latitude as the Sahara Desert.
My plane landed late at night on the main island of Tenerife, where I rented a little tin can of an economy-class car and set off for the Parador de las Cañadas del Teide on the flank of 12,200-foot Mount Teide, a 40-mile drive from the airport.
Up I went on a switchbacking road through lush forests of Canary Island pines that eventually yielded to ground-hugging broom and juniper, crossing razor-back ridges lined by steep precipices that offered heart-stopping views of lighted towns on the coast below.
Then it started to snow, at first softly and prettily. Alone on the road, I counted my blessings to be there to see it. But the dusting thickened and soon I was driving through whiteout conditions. I couldn’t believe it, but kept creeping along, eyes straining, fists glued to the wheel as the windshield wipers fought vainly against the onslaught and the car skidded. When another vehicle finally came by, headed down the mountain, I pulled over, flagged it down and hopped in the back seat, abandoning the rental to a snow bank and myself to the kindness of strangers. My saviors were a young man and woman who gave me a drink of good Spanish red wine to calm my nerves and ultimately deposited me in a hotel on the coast. I awoke the next morning to balmy blue skies, wondering if I’d only dreamed of snow. But the rental agency told me I was lucky to have made it down the mountain because the Teide road was closed, meaning I had to wait another day to reclaim the car in a tow truck.
Memory, which has some of the same white-washing propensities as snow, has resolved the nightmarish events of that night into an amazing adventure. I still tend to forget that winter is a frequent visitor at high elevations. And finding myself in snow when I least expect it will always seem to me the same kind of miracle that told a fourth-century pope where to build the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.