A cloak of snow covers the winter landscape in the yellowing photo. Scrub brush glistens under icy veils in the foreground. In the background, slender saguaros stretch into the crisp February air, each spiny arm topped with a powdery white cap.
Saguaros and snow? Surely the image is an impostor, a Photoshop job, the photographic equivalent of a Paul Horner story (see page 35).
But no, it is real. In a climatic collision of fantastical incongruity, snow fell on saguaros in Coolidge, Ariz., and reportedly throughout the state 80 years ago. “A rare sighting of the Cactus Forest,” the inscription on the back of the photo reads. “This snowstorm, one of very few on record, occurred in February 1937. Photo by Paul Beaubien.” Reputedly an archaeologist, Beaubien documented one of Arizona’s record-breaking snowstorms, which migrated beyond the typical alpine territory of Northern Arizona to leave an inch of powder in the hotter, drier destinations of Phoenix, Tucson, Yuma and Coolidge. “I have a family photo of the 1937 snowfall taken in Tempe,” says Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble. “It also snowed an inch in 1933. It even snowed in Yuma on December 9, 1932.”
An inch may still mean shorts weather for hardy Midwesterners and East Coasters, but for Central and Southern Arizona folks it was monumental. “Winter subjected Arizona to an unrelenting barrage of bitter cold yesterday, sending snow flurries [to] Phoenix, Tucson and Yuma,” read a dramatic report in The Arizona Republic. The fact that it stuck around for a few days instead of immediately vanishing upon contact with the Sonoran sun made it historic.
“I’ve seen snow fall in the Phoenix Downtown area a number of times over the years, but don’t remember it sticking to the ground,” Trimble says. “It sticks quite often in the Cave Creek-Carefree area and North Scottsdale around Desert Mountain.”
So, while a repeat of a Central Arizona white winter remains elusive, at least we can remember the snowy magic of our white February in 1937.
– Leah LeMoine
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