Last night, two ants walked across my kitchen table while I was reading. I’ve heard about the January thaw all of my life, but this is ridiculous. The record temperatures seem to have thrown off the internal clocks of the ants and propelled them out along my kitchen floor in search of crumbs. I didn’t have the heart to crush the life out of the two advance men, the Lewis and Clark of the kitchen recon. They will die of natural causes soon enough, I think.
I was in Medora over the weekend for an educational retreat, and each afternoon walked west on the asphalt trail that parallels old Highway 10 and the railroad out to where the Marquis de Mores’ goons shot Riley Luffsey in cold blood on June 26, 1883. On the first day the wind was blowing like a son of a gun, as we Dakotans say, so although the temperature was 38 or so, the wind chill felt like 10 below. On the second day, I walked with my jacket unbuttoned, no mittens, no hat, and only twice in two hours did I think it might be smart to button up the jacket. On the third day, shirtsleeves were entirely adequate.
Before I left for Medora, I would have shoveled my sidewalks and driveway if there had been time, because they were covered with a fair amount of crusted snow where the winds have packed it up in the past few weeks. There just wasn’t time to shovel. When I returned three days later every square inch of my corner sidewalk and big driveway was bone dry. The garden had emerged in the back yard from under the snowpack.
It’s the mildest January I can ever remember. I know some severe weather is still to come, and winter is at least 10 weeks from being over. This is not a state to get complacent in. I love North Dakota in all of its moods and seasons. In fact, I love a brutal winter. There is nothing like that early morning encounter with what Jack London calls “The North” when you step out of doors at 43 below, that somewhat anxious realization that we are living high up near the edge of the last latitudes of human habitation. On mornings like that you involuntarily scan the horizon.
I love not knowing for sure that the car will start. I love the dull sound of my boots on the 30-below snow. I love the camaraderie of the grocery store and the coffee shop when people stomp in and clap each other on the shoulders and do the standard North Dakota riff raff chorus. I love that moment in a calm night when the wind whips up suddenly into a frenzy and you can hear the grit grinding the surface of the siding on the northwest side of the house.
I can remember from my childhood on grimly cold mornings turning on KDIX on our battery-powered portable radio to hear the litany of event cancellations. Mother would perch the radio on the bathroom sink or the kitchen table and tell us to “get dressed just in case.” And then Stan Deck’s KDIX baritone: “The Busy Bunnies 4-H banquet is canceled tonight at the Eagles Club and will be rescheduled at a later time.” “The Knights of Columbus style show has been indefinitely postponed.” “And now here’s a little tune from the Monkees to cheer you up.” Once we learned — to our deep chagrin — that school had not in fact been canceled, though it might be let out early, we switched back to the Ole Reb on KFYR, where we belonged. School was hardly ever canceled in those days, but during my high school years the rural buses didn’t always come in when it was blizzardy.
There is a paradox of inverse proportions in our time. Back in the 1960s and ’70s the cars didn’t start very well when it got brutally cold. Parkas, hoods, gloves, and boots were much less sophisticated. But we all soldiered on through the bitterest weeks of winter with a kind of resigned stoic calm.
I remember walking to and from high school, well more than a mile each way, on the worst days of the year and not thinking anything was amiss. Today we have infinitely better gear. Fuel injection means that most cars start every time. The doors and seals on vehicles are much tighter now than they were in my youth. I have three or four pairs of winter boots, one of which is guaranteed to keep your feet warm to 100 below. The mittens and gloves are outstanding, if you spend enough, and for the wimps of the world there are chemical hand and foot warmers. The winter undergarments now wick the sweat away from the body almost instantly.
And yet now our institutions seem to have a hair-trigger for cancellation. Sometimes it feels as if we North Dakotans have become pathetically squeamish. Every superintendent now seems to fear “an incident on my watch” more than lost education.
Through the first half of my life, they never really closed the interstates, no matter what. No travel was advised, sometimes sternly, but if you were dumb enough to venture out, you could usually piece your way through to the other end of the state. Such lurching, low or no visibility, white-knuckle, “oh please, Lord, oh please” road trips are part of the joy of living in North Dakota, at least in retrospect.
I remember once when my friend Philip Howard’s mother drove to Williston to see her older son play basketball in blizzard conditions that were universally regarded as suicidal. She was driving a low-slung Chevy four-door with rear wheel drive. We reckoned we would never see her again. About midnight she calmly walked back into her house in Dickinson.
“Yeah, roads were pretty bad,” she said, and brewed a cup of tea. Nothing more. Today the big gates go down on the highways whenever serious storms blow through the state.
If this winter remains mild (unlikely), it will be good news for stockmen, for oil workers, for every town’s snow removal budget, for everyone’s fuel bills, especially the American Indians who live on extremely tight budgets at out-of-the-way places on the reservations, and for the state’s wildlife.
We need a few mild winters to rebuild the populations of deer, pronghorn antelope, and other wild creatures. A few mild winters would enable us to measure more precisely how much of the wildlife drawdown has natural causes and how much is the result of the intense industrialization of western North Dakota.
Even if this winter takes a harsh turn, we have broken the back of it already, and we’ll will march forward with joy rather than grim determination. The light is returning. We are already 42 days past the longest night of the year. Already we get at least 9 hours, 27 minutes of light every day, up from 8 hours, 32 minutes on Dec. 21. “Official” calendar spring is now only 47 days away, and “Actual North Dakota Spring” is now no more than three months away. In other words, we’re home free.
I’m starting to gather up my garden seeds. I’m going to walk five miles on the bare trails during the Super Bowl halftime, and see if I cannot stir up my own wardrobe malfunction.