Thursday, February 17, 2011


Winter weather advisory. Winter weather watch. Winter weather warning. Every few hours it worked its way up the storm ladder, till we were under a full blizzard warning, with the road out of town closed due to severe drifts. The zero visibility might have had something to do with it, too.

Jack tried to keep his voice calm, but inside he was jumping for joy as he called in to work and told them he couldn't make it out. The kids would have been jumping for joy, but they were already on vacation. For them, it was a waste of a perfectly good snow day.

When I walked out the door to head to the grocery store, and of course to take a few photos while I was at it, the tiny grains of ice the wind hurled at me stung my face and eyes. It was a struggle to get to the car without blundering into the deep drifts crossing the driveway, especially with my eyes closed.

First things first. I wanted to get a photo of the road closure signs. It only took a few moments to realize that wherever the signs were, I wouldn't make it that far. Carefully and slowly, I picked my way along to the sharp left turn just past the last house at the edge of town. As I opened the door to get out, the wind ripped it out of my hands and wouldn't let go.
Hastily snapping a few shots of the nervous horses a few feet to one side, and the nearly obscured telephone pole on the other, I leaped back in the car. Pulling, tugging, and grunting, I finally got the door to shut. Barely.

Upon hearing a description of the brutal storm, Mom asked me to take her out for a spin and show her, too. Always happy to oblige, I swung by and picked her up, preparing to drive around that little loop again.

The best laid plans of mice and ladies....just before I got to the left hand turn by the horse barn, my windshield fogged up. With visibility of only a few feet, I didn't dare stop, even though I couldn't see. There were a few hasty moments of scrambling around to turn on the defroster, roll down my window, and stick my head out so I could at least see the yellow center line.

Once I could see the line, I could also see that I had just passed up my turn, and was headed out in a Very Bad Direction. We should have at least come to the roadblock by that time, but it was nowhere to be found. Finally, right by the big radio tower, we found a space with about 50 feet of visibility, doubtless due to some obstruction a short distance north of the road. It wasn't ideal, by any standard, but offered the only place to turn around for a mile or so.

About 3/4 of the way through my 9-point turnaround, Mom suddenly began emitting a
high-pitched squealing. At least I assume it was Mom, since it wasn't me, and Flipper seldom visits so far north. Someone in a pickup, who should NOT have been out on the road either but didn't have any fine excuse such as missing his turnoff, was headed straight for her.

In that cute little clear bubble on the road, he was able to see us in time to stop, then followed us back into town. Doubtless he and I were both muttering in unison, "They shouldn't've been out here anyway...what kind of idiot goes out on the road like this in a blizzard???"

The next morning, the sun rose warmly, the winds had vanished, the roads opened, and all that remained of the great blizzard were deep snowdrifts in some pretty inconvenient places. It gave us a little taste of what the pioneers must have been through back in the olden days, where you could get lost between the house and the barn, if you hadn't strung up a clothesline to hold onto. Even in 1931, the Towner Bus Tragedy cost 5 children and the bus driver their lives when the bus slid into a ditch.

Back in January of 1888, the Schoolchildren's Blizzard in Nebraska and South Dakota killed 235 people, many of them school children. The weather had been unseasonably warm, from 20-40F. Children went to school, adults went to town for supplies and to run errands, and none of them were prepared for the sudden subzero blizzard. One teacher in Nebraska was trapped in the schoolhouse with three students. By midafternoon they ran out of fuel to keep warm, and so they at last tried to reach the boardinghouse only a little more than 200 feet away. They became lost, the children all froze to death, and the teacher lost her feet.

In March of the same year, another blizzard struck the eastern seaboard. The Great Blizzard of 1888, also sometimes referred to as the Great White Hurricane, killed over 400 people. Around half of the dead were from New York City. Some aftereffects of the storm were the underground transit system, and utility companies began burying many of their lines to protect them against future storms. That blizzard, too, had been preceded by unseasonably warm weather, which had lulled the populace into a false sense of security.

How thankful we should all be for the warnings we receive. It's so easy to take them for granted, but there was a time not so long ago that we would have had no way to know what was coming for us. We are so privileged to have all this knowledge right there at our fingertips.

Until the next adventure,
Noni Beth


  1. You're doggone SNEAKY with that camera there, girl! >8-(

  2. What you saw there is also the context for the thousands of cattle deaths that sometimes occur in such blizzards. Even in the 50's, we were always careful to get the cattle JAMMED into the barns (if it was serious enough that just being in the corral with shared body heat wouldn't save them). If they were left in the open unprotected, they would gather themselves into a tightly packed group with their heads down, desperately trying to keep warm enough to live. Sometimes that worked, sometimes it didn't.

    I'm glad you've gotten acquainted with The Children's Blizzard: that book amazes me, even as a born-and-bred Montanan: the forecasters of that day certainly did their level best to anticipate and communicate what was happening. How heartbreaking those things must have been for THEM when they were unable to get the word out. I enjoy your blog (and your Mom!)...Sharon

  3. Now I'm going to have to try and find the book about the Children's Blizzard. I only read a short blurb online, but the story sounds really interesting. I'll try the library first, since they have a good-sized section on Montana. Failing that, Amazon has everything!

    Mom *snicker* gotcha! Fastest trigger finger in the West...