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From the Mouth of the River

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From the Mouth of the River

A storm to remember

As winter drags on into spring I’m reminded that every time we get three or four inches of wet snow (in a cycle of every six or seven days), those poor people back east, who are on the same cycles we are, get three or four feet of snow with blowing winds and subzero temperatures. I wonder just how much more these people can take, because I lost count after fourteen weeks of storms. Then, on the national news last night, they announced that people were leaving the east cost in droves; not a single U-haul truck or trailer could be found east of St Louis. So we can start looking for New York/New Jersey license plates to start showing up here in Chipmunk Falls by spring. In all my 75 years I can only remember one storm that has been stuck in my mind all this time, It started on a typical winter morning on a ranch in Oklahoma.

I remember hearing my Dad breaking the ice on the water bucket and, using an aluminum dipper, he dipped water and ice into his coffee pot. As he lifted a stove lid and set the coffee pot directly over the flames he turned to me and said, “Stop turning around in circles and get your clothes on before you freeze to death.” I was standing on my overalls and wool shirt turning first one way then another next to the old tin heating stove. Dad had started a fire earlier and it was now huffing and puffing trying to get more air. The tin stove was starting to get pink on its sides as I turned myself on an imaginary spit. My talliewhacker would get warm then I would turn my shiny hinney side to the stove with my flap down on my long handles. It would get hot quick, but then the other side would be cold. Finally, I pulled my pants up and put on my shirt. Sitting in a cane bottom chair as close to the stove as I could get I pulled on my socks while I held my boots to the stove until they started to smolder before I stuck my feet in them. Dad used to tell everyone he could throw a cat out of our house and never open a door and that statement was never more appropriate than it was that day.

Our old coal oil lamp was flickering first one way then the other and the chimney was getting smoked up from all the wind blowing through the cracks on the north side of the house. I sat our granite wash pan on the heating stove to melt the ice and warm up enough water to wash my hands and face. I watched as it made sizzling sounds and danced over the top of the hot stove from all the leaks it had in it. 

“I think the oven is hot enough we can have some biscuits to go with bacon and eggs,” Dad said, “but we’ll have to thaw out some eggs first.” Dad poured his first cup of what was later to be determined as coffee. “Look at this,” he said, pointing towards the north side of the room. There on the floor below the keyhole in the door was a cone-shaped snowdrift that had blown through the keyhole during the night. We had an old lace curtain hanging over the west window and it was waving like Old Glory on the Fourth of July. “I don’t think you gotta worry about catching the school bus today or for the next two or three days,” he said. “This is a storm to beat all storms, and it’s a damn good thing you stayed home from school yesterday and helped me move them cows to the bottom pasture where they can get some protection.” 

Dad’s job was to look after four hundred head of mother cows over the winter until calving time the next spring, when help would show up from the ranch headquarters in the way of two men. In the meantime, Dad would use me if he had to move cattle and I looked forward to a day off from school, as some times you can learn more at home than you can in school. That was my take on it anyway, even though Dad didn’t see it that way. 

The previous day, before daylight, we had saddled our horses and headed north from the barn using a drift fence to direct us, riding in a long trot which is a traveling gait cowboys use when covering a lot of ground without tiring their horses. It was tiring on us, standing up in our stirrups to cushion the stiff-legged trot the horses used. It would be a long day away from home.

There were four pastures split at a center point in the middle of the ranch. We were headed to the northwest section of the ranch and would move all the cows to the southeast section where there was a creek bottom with lots of cottonwood trees and oak brush for wind breaks, as well as new grass. We rode to the northwest corner and split up, each covering half the pasture and moving all the cattle back towards the big open gate that led into the bottom land.

Traveling north I noticed there was a brisk wind coming from my back and not until I headed south did I notice just how brisk it was. Turning my jacket collar up didn’t help as much as I thought it would because I was pushing cows directly into the wind. They weren’t fond of traveling into the wind any more than I was and every once in a while some would turn back while I was gathering cows to my right or left. This made twice as much work for my horse and he didn’t like it either. He was hot, and in a lather when we finally met up with Dad and his drive and we could see the open gate. Suddenly the wind let up, the cows smelled something in the air and started running, bawling and bucking through the gate, crowding it so much that they broke over a gate post and strung wire everywhere. Dad and I just sat on our horses and watched as the cows strung off down into the bottom pasture, kicking up their heels and then disappearing. 

“I guess we have some fence to fix,” I said as a cold breath of wind hit my sweaty back. I looked at Dad just as he was pointing north. I turned in my saddle and as far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon, was the blackest cloud I had ever laid eyes on. The horses’ eyes had a look of alarm as their tails and mane began to whip in the cold wind. 

“What the hell is that coming?” I asked. “It looks like a tornado coming from all over the north.” 

“It’s a Blue Norther,” Dad said. “Come on, maybe we can beat it home. Leave the gate and I’ll come back and fix the fence in a day or two.”

We hit a long trot with tired horses, but they seemed to sense the urgency of the situation and didn’t protest. As the barn and corrals came into view it hit with full force. My Levi jacket was frozen to my back when we reached the barn and ice had formed every place the horses had sweated. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face as the wind was whipping up dirt and snow and it was sticking to everything. We had to feel our way into the barn and unsaddle our horses. Ice was caked in their manes and tails and we scraped as much off as we could. Dad said for me to hang onto the fence and follow it to the house and start a fire but stay in the house until he fed the horses and came home. 

I have heard old timers tell stories about Blue Northers they had been in and when I had turned in my saddle that morning and looked north over my horse’s back I knew exactly what was coming even though I had never seen one. It was the winter of 1949-50 where complete canyons were drifted over and wildlife and livestock perished in the thousands. There were newspaper clippings of cows dead in forks of cottonwood trees 40 feet above the ground in Wyoming, where they had drifted with the storm and been stranded. There were snow drifts as tall as buildings and the wind had driven the snow into drifts so compacted you could drive a truck on them. I don’t know how far north this storm started but the Denver Post had pictures of whole herds of antelope caught in box canyons and frozen to death. 

The storm eventually played out in a few days time. Most of that time I had spent wedging newspaper in the cracks of our house with a butcher knife. That Blue Norther was over 60 years ago and it is stuck in my mind like driven snow. Not a winter goes by that I’m not reminded of what Mother Nature can do when her skirt blows up.

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Boots Reynolds Boots Reynolds The "internationally-renowned cowboy artist" Boots Reynolds has moved his comedic interpretation of life into the writing field with his regular column in the River Journal - From the Mouth of the River.

Tagged as:

winter, weather, snow, storms, Blue Norther

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