Posted by: trevormeers | December 10, 2009

Snowbound

Days like today—horizontal snow, windchills far below zero, drifts sucking in nearly every passerby, including the occasional sand truck—make it easier than usual to connect with those who preceded us on the prairie. We’re going nowhere on these roads, and our power went out sometime during the night, practically waking me up with the silence of the missing white noise of refrigerator compressors, computer hard drives and central heating systems. No TV means no live shots of 20-something blondes standing beside the interstate, interviewing truckers and telling us that travel is a bad idea. If we switch off the battery-powered radio, the world shrinks to just us and the roar of the wind.

I go to the shelves downstairs to refresh myself on how the pioneers, and those before them, weathered such storms when the prospect of relief was measured in days or weeks rather than the hours we face. When the idea of simply surviving such storms was an open question. I go to the shelf reserved for books on the Great Plains. You can randomly grab any volume in that section and quickly find a passage on prairie blizzards. The term itself comes from German settlers in Iowa, who used the term blitzartig—lightning-like—to describe the icy gales that descended on their farms. I find a story from Gary Penley, who survived a plains blizzard when his 78-year-old grandfather tugged his Stetson down low, snapped the reins against the icy back of Jigs the Belgian draft horse and drove a hay sledge a mile through a blinding storm to reach the house.

I read to Allison from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of Pa going missing in a blizzard, taking shelter in a snow cave in a gully when he lost his way in the whiteout. When the storm let up, he stuck his head out and realized he was only a few yards from the house. Such disorientation is virtually inconceivable if you’ve never ventured out on a day when wind has magnified the effect of snow into a deadly force. Even yesterday, driving home, I came to a full stop more than once on country roads, grasping for any clue about the boundary between road and ditch. I recalled a drive Teri and I once made in Wyoming, where saplings stuck on the shoulders provided the only navigational hint in what was otherwise a white screen utterly devoid of boundaries, depth or perspective. I can see how a man could become lost in his own barnyard and wind up as a body someone discovers within sight of the barn when the sun finally emerges.

In the Long Winter, Wilder wrote that she, “lay awake listening to the wind’s wild tune and thinking of each little house, in town, alone in the whirling snow with not even a light from the next house shining through. And the little town was alone on the wide prairie. Town and prairie were lost in the wild storm which was neither earth nor sky, nothing but fierce winds and a blank whiteness.”

When you grow up in Nebraska as we did, such visions are the bedrock of your state mythology. The state capitol in Lincoln features a mosaic mural of Minnie Freeman, a teenage teacher leading her pupils to safety during the infamous “Children’s Blizzard” of 1888. The tile mural depicts the young heroine and her charges roped together like mountain climbers, clawing through the storm to refuge. Minnie insisted she only did what any responsible teacher would do, and some of her students dispute that the group tied themselves together. But the image remains one of the most vivid statements burned into my memory as a child about what it takes to be a Nebraskan.

All this gives perspective on our snow day. Electricity and heat soon return to our house. My cell phone still works, delivering messages from other managers griping about the work not getting done today because slacker employees claim they can’t get their Accords out of their driveways in town.

I’ll get some work done while the wind rages, but we’re also taking time to offer our own little salutes to those who took the measure of blizzards past and left their stories behind. Katie, Allison and I play cards by the gas fireplace. We bundle up and take plastic shovels to the drifts blocking the driveway. When we get to the end of the drive, I lean on the handle and gaze down to the flat floodplain of the Skunk River Valley, where the winds are stronger, the drifts deeper. I’ll think about what it would take to follow a stout draft horse down into such a place on a day worse than this, when a journey to the barn might as well be a walk in space.

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