The Great Bakersfield Snow Day of 1999

On Chester Place near L Street, Davina Williams, 11 (left) and Jamita Baker, 11, check out a 12-foot-tall snowman made Monday morning by their neighbors, Daniel Castellon Jr. and painted by his dad, Daniel Castellon.
On Chester Place near L Street, Davina Williams, 11 (left) and Jamita Baker, 11, check out a 12-foot-tall snowman made Monday morning by their neighbors, Daniel Castellon Jr. and painted by his dad, Daniel Castellon. (original cutline)

I don’t wake up well, never have. I have a friend from back in my college days who would wake up at 6 am, his motor running at full throttle. I always wanted to slap him. I’m the complete opposite. Waking up and having to be somewhere shortly after is pure torture for me, an experience in misery that ruins not only that day, but the day before because all I can think about is how I have to confront the horror of the next morning. If I have a shoot in the morning, I have to load all my gear the night before. Ditto for the clothes I will wear. I am so foggy, confused and disoriented when I wake up, if I didn’t do this, I just might show up without my gear. I don’t think I would show up naked, but there has been a time or two when I’ve arrived at work or on morning shoots to have somebody point out that a shirt was on backwards.

I was able to counter this by being the only Bakersfield Californian photographer who had a permanent work shift. We had five shifts; two early mornings – which to me were the equivalent of NATO-banned torture – two afternoons and a swing shift, where the photographer filled whatever shift was needed. The afternoon shift, 1 pm to 10 pm, was much despised by the Californian photographers. They all wanted the morning shift. I, of course, wanted nothing to do with mornings, loved the afternoons, so I volunteered to work that shift permanently. It worked out great for us all. I didn’t have to show up for work with my shirt on backwards, and the photographers only had to work the afternoon shift for two months at a time instead of four. I also loved having Sunday and Monday off, and volunteered to work Tuesday through Saturday permanently. Again, a win-win for all, as the other photographers got twice as many weekends off than they otherwise would have. I share all this with you so that you can take a little journey inside this head of mine and maybe get an idea of just how my brain initially processed my introduction to January 25, 1999.

It was a Monday, my scheduled day off, when I heard the first knock at around 9 am. I ignored it, as I always do when somebody knocks on my door at dawn. Then another knock. And another. Now they’re coming at rapid pace, each one louder and more forceful than the one before. And then the doorbell. That damn doorbell is really loud. DING-dong, DING-dong, DING-dong. Knock, knock, knock. And finally, a voice. “John. John. John!” OK, so whoever this was, he wasn’t going away. He won. I got out of bed, trudged down the hallway and to the front door. At the time, I had a substantial amount of foliage in my front yard. The walkway leading to my front door was lined with extremely large boxwood plants. I had a large, 80-foot-tall pine tree in the middle of the lawn, and my next door neighbor had another, right next to my lawn. When you looked out my front door, you saw a lot of green. A whole lot of green. I pulled open the door, remember, completely disoriented and quite annoyed just by the simple act of being awake, and blinked back what I was seeing. Complete, total, absolute white. The trees, the bushes, the lawn, all white. And standing in the middle of it was Californian photographer Henry Barrios. Why was everything white? And why was Henry at my front door? Henry’s saying, “You have to come to work.” I’m saying, “Huh, what?” Still not understanding. “It snowed. Look. We need you at work.” Finally I start to clear, I begin to see. I get it. And that’s how I was introduced to The Great Bakersfield Snow Day of 1999.

It is not unusual for Californian photographers to shoot snow. It snows pretty regularly close to town, and a 45-minute drive to the east or the mountains to the south takes us there. Once in a while, Bakersfield itself gets a flurry or two. But real snow? Snow that actually sticks and turns Bakersfield into one of those East coast or mid-western towns blanketed and even shut down by snow? Never. But it happened on this day. Six inches of snow fell and stuck in Bakersfield, to the obvious delight of just about everybody in town. It did cause a little bit of a mess, too. A 100-mile stretch of Interstate 5 was closed, there were some power – and I assume phone – outages, which would be why Henry came to my house rather than calling, and much to the dismay of thousands of youngsters, school was cancelled. I quickly made a pot of coffee, filled a thermos-type cup and headed out to do my part recording the historic day. I had a pretty awesome car at the time – an all-wheel-drive Plymouth Laser Turbo – and was able to easily move about the snow-filled streets. It didn’t hurt that this was my day off, and The Californian paid some pretty sweet overtime for working on an off day. My contribution to The Californian’s coverage was the photo you see above, and maybe one or two other shots. But, really, I wasn’t needed that day.

Henry Barrios' photo shot at Panorama Park in Bakersfield is "the" photo of The Great Bakersfield Snow Day of 1999. It was shared with the world that day, and continues to be the image we associated with that day.
Henry Barrios’ photo shot at Panorama Park in Bakersfield is “the” photo of The Great Bakersfield Snow Day of 1999. It was shared with the world, and continues to be the image we associated with that memorable day.

Sometime that morning, maybe on his way to my house or on the way from it, Henry Barrios stopped at a park in my neighborhood and shot the photo that would forever be the image associated with The Great Bakersfield Snow Day of 1999. His image of a family walking through the snow framed by palm treesĀ  would move to the Associated Press and within minutes arrive on the news desks of virtually every newspaper in the world. Photographically speaking, Henry Barrios owned the day. His image has been reproduced hundreds of times, maybe more.

It’s funny, the things that you hold on to from a career. Things of little or no monetary value but which hold memories worth more than any amount of gold. For me, it is a cheap 28-ounce plastic thermal coffee mug that Imug purchased at my neighborhood AM-PM and would carry with me everywhere. This is the mug I filled with coffee on that morning before heading out, and I remember it keeping that coffee hot and fresh for hours as I drove around looking for photos. And that memory makes that plastic mug, that I probably paid a buck or two for and still use today, one of my most cherished mementos from my shooting days. Cynthia Rawitch, my all-time favorite teacher at Cal State Northridge, once gave a talk about what makes news and what doesn’t, and about how the public’s interest in piqued. It was a lesson I never forgot. “Dog bites man,” she explained, might or might not be news. But “man bites dog” is always news. And The Great Bakersfield Snow Day of 1999 was the ultimate “man bites dog” story.

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