The ghosts of winters past

I have continued my walking ritual even in this winter weather. It’s important for the sanity of a woman living out here surrounded by snow and horse poop.  Because I can get to feeling a bit stir crazy, a bit cramped in, tripping over my stuff a few too many times, scratching at the Christmas tree branches breathing down my neck and stepping on a couple of tails sending cats running for their lives and me cursing the day I uttered the words “kitten-good idea.”

The animals get to feeling the same way too, and even though they’re pretty good at sleeping, every once in a while the whole winter hibernation thing sends the cats scampering through the tiny living room, taking a flying leap to the chair, bouncing off of the couch only to land, dangling, off of the very top of my curtains.

I screech, scratch my neck and send  a few choice words their way.

The dogs whimper at the door.

And it’s time to get the heck out of here.

That was the case on Tuesday afternoon as I rose from my desk, stretched my arms out and hollered (in my head, I think) “I can’t take it anymore!” and began the ritual of bundling up.

Because oh, it has been cold here. Along with an uncommon amount of snow being dumped on the area early in the season, the wind has been blowing a bit harder, the temperatures have been below zero, and then, just to see if we are indeed on our toes, it warmed up enough to rain…only to return to its regularly scheduled programming in the morning.

So as you can imagine, as I stepped out the door and into the brisk evening, my winter wonderland was looking a bit crunchy, a bit crispy, a little less fluffy, a little more glossy. Beautiful.

So off I went, trudging in my snow pants and boots, crunching through the unreasonably deep snow, panting to get to the top of the hill, walking a few steps on the top of the hard drifts, only to be sucked down, in snow up to my knees when the ice broke under my weight.

The lab was in heaven, jumping on the hard stuff to bury his nose in the fluff underneath.

The pug thought it was the apocalypse and wondered why he even got up this morning.

The cats were probably hanging by their claws on the curtains inside.

But it felt good to be out in this. It was so quiet, so calm and white, the wind from the days before creating interesting drifts and shadows, the setting sun on the ice coating this world making everything sparkle warm pinks and blues. I spent the evening admiring my world, squatting down to get photos of the grass poking through the snow, shading my eyes as the sun sunk below the horizon, laughing as the dogs fell through the snow and then magically reappeared.

I was feeling lucky to be a spectator.

Because I chose to be out there, in the chill and crisp, under the setting sun. And when I walked through the door to my home, stripped off my layers of clothing and poured myself a cup of hot tea and went about my business, I could relax.  I could look out the window that night as the wind blew the snow sideways and tapped at our windows and not have to worry.

See, living out here on the ranch, a dot on this big, white, landscape, always gets me thinking about those who came before me–the men and women of this area who settled this land. These people leaned in against this season in order to hold on to their livelihoods, they watched the patterns of wildlife to predict the incoming weather, and, in the midst of a blinding blizzard, would tie a rope from the door of their shack to the barn so they could feed the horses and milk cows and not get lost on along the way.

When we complain about the snow and the ice because we have to get up out of our beds and start our car in our robes before we venture off to a heated building to earn a paycheck, I sometimes think about my relatives whose paychecks depended on rising each morning, rain, shine or blizzard, to feed the cattle, to break ice on the dams, to haul wood to heat their home, and to sometimes welcome a barnyard animal or two into their small home in order to keep it alive, or, in the places where trees for fuel were sparse, to help keep themselves warm.

I wonder, when I stand high above this white world, no sign of a neighbor’s light, what it might have been like for them out here deep in the heart of the landscape, fifteen to thirty miles from the general store and postoffice, their only link to the outside world, with no snow plows clearing a path for their escape, no plane tickets to purchase to send them somewhere tropical–only work, and faces chapped by the wind and an occasional card game by the fire at night to pass the time.

It must have been lonely for them and it must have been terrifying during those nights when the temperature dropped well below zero, the wind whipped through the cracks in their cabins and shacks, creating drifts of snow reaching high above their heads, making it nearly impossible to tend to their livestock, to get to the neighbors or to the store to stock up on supplies.

And I wonder on those eerie, cold, North Dakota nights how far away summer must have seemed. How desperate it must have felt out here, how helpless they were against the circumstances of the weather, how they just held on tight and did what they could.

I wonder if anyone went crazy with grief and desperation, loneliness and isolation. Because, life, like this landscape, was hard.

But really, I don’t think they stopped long enough to complain. I don’t think they wallowed in the hardship. They didn’t have time. They had to keep moving, they had to attend to the next thing, be prepared to weather the next storm. And yes, the storms were something, but I like to imagine that made the sunshine all the warmer, the evenings by the fire a little more cozy, the company of a neighbor a little sweeter.

My pops told me that when he shared the news with one of his aunts about how I was moving back to the ranch because I wanted to, because I loved it, she scoffed at the thought and wondered out loud why anyone would choose to live out here. So much work, she said. So much work.

Because that is what her life was, and although she picks at the struggles, I am pretty sure the good times, the picnics in the summer sun, are as fresh in her mind too. But it is because of her steadfastness and the hold on tight spirit of my great-great grandparents and their children and those who came after them that I am allowed the chance for a different life out here. A chance to stand on my favorite hill and see the world they called home and work through a different lens.

Oh, I see the work too. I see the reality of my plans, the fences that need to be fixed, the buildings that should be torn down, the roofs that need to be repaired–but that doesn’t have to consume me right now, in the middle of the winter.

Don’t get me wrong, the ranching and farming lifestyle our here exists in full force. We dig out hay bales to tend to the cattle in the winter, we break the ice the same way, we bundle up against the wind to feed the horses.  They coyotes still howl at night, the calves continue to be born in snowstorms and have to be warmed up in the basement. Some things don’t change.

But much has. Now we have big o’l tractors with heated cabs, 4-wheel drive pickups we can plug in to an outlet to be sure they start, warm outbuildings and shops to repair our modern equipment and the lucky ones have snowmobiles. The drive to town takes a half an hour if the plow’s gone through, we have computers that link us to the rest of the world and provide us with access to information, weather warnings and a chance to make money from the comfort of our homes if we so chose.

Because these days, we have a choice.

I wonder if the ghosts of winters past ever saw this coming. I wonder what they would think about the fact that if they were alive right now they might have the time to take a moment, like I do some days, to dig out from underneath the work and demands and stand with hands on hips, cold wind at their face, and instead of racing the sun, take a moment to watch it dip down and set below the horizon…

…and be captivated.

22 thoughts on “The ghosts of winters past

  1. Beautiful!! I have always thought that our ancestors must have had to be the littlest bit looney to survive out here in these harsh ND winters. That’s why we’re such a hearty people, and also so lovably, um, ‘quirky’! The photos are breathtaking!!!

  2. reading today reminded me of the Red River of the North series… by Lauraine Schnelling…the author does a good job relating those experiences the homesteaders had in North Dakota….the good and the bad. I am not quit sure just how they did manage it…probably no way to go back! J

    • I will have to start reading that series. The life and sacrifice and struggle of the homesteaders really intrigues me. Maybe it’s because we are living out here and can’t imagine our world without electricity and running water and all of the things that we take for granted…

  3. I know if I had lived 50-100 yrs ago, I’m not sure if I would’ve survived. I remember on the farm one winter/spring…we had a snow/freezing rain storm so we stayed in the basement (w/ mice, spiders ect). only because we had an old stove/oven that burned wood. This is how we survived for two or three days. My mom even made brownies and they turned out to be edible..kinda reminded me of Little House on the Prairie, only we only had a few days of it where they had months at a time. One truly has to be tough cookies to live in the frozen tundra …but in the end, we have warmer hearts despite all the complaining we do because we get out more now than our ancestors. Hugs and Happy Friday 🙂 Nicole

  4. I love this post!

    But what’s also crazy is to think about how many people in the world even today are living really difficult lives in truly primitive conditions. I see it everyday in Haiti–not the cold obviously–but the effort folks have to expend in order to endure the elements. Their struggle is enormous, the hardship, brutal.

    Congrats on being fresly pressed the other day!


    • Kathryn, thanks for the reminder of those throughout the world who are living in difficult positions–we are truly blessed to have shelter and food and a warm place to call home. Thank you for the work you do and I will keep them in my thoughts and prayers this holiday season.

  5. Beautiful post, as usual, Jessie! LOVE the pictures! I love to take pictures but can’t get mine to look that beautiful. WOW. I especially love the ones of the moon in the sky. So crisp and clear! Excellent!

    • Thanks. I am getting to know my camera better. Maybe someday I’ll be able to work it out so I can take the beautiful pics of the micro-world like you do. And the pug, oh the pug. He really doesn’t know what to do in all this snow. He just jumps around in our footprints and prays he makes it through (and more than likely curses his bigger, more able bodied friend the Lab in times like these).

  6. Pingback: A Monday report « Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

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