The Wedge of the San Rafael

The Wedge of the San Rafael
Someone has to live here, in the middle of desert beauty. Might as well be the Kellys.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Hard lessons in snow, that white fluffy stuff

So so late to write my blog. Mostly I have fun, briefly, on Facebook, between writing bouts. The one nice thing about my sporadic blogs is that you know when I'm not writing one, I'm writing something with more length to it. I just finished a 15,348 word short story called "Break a Leg," for Heather B. Moore, and her partners in crime (Tee hee, Heather). Heather et al. have been producing quarterly anthologies. Heather asked me to participate in an anthology of Western short stories. I know that she,Sarah Eden,  Liz Adair and Marsha Ward are participating (maybe others, too). I believe this will be out in June or July. "Break a Leg" is set at Fort Laramie, a venue I know well, in 1882, when things were slowing down there and boredom threatened (as well as fort closure). With a title like that, you know an actor is involved. This anthology will be available in ebook format, and perhaps paperback. I'm not sure. I've already agreed to write a Regency short story for a 2015 edition.

Right now, I'm reading for research for my next novel, and it's painful. I just finished The Children's Blizzard, a horrendous history of the Jan. 12, 1888, blizzard that struck the Great Plains as children were either in school, or just starting out for long walks home. Some 250-500 people perished, many of them children.

Author David Laskin did a good job. He starts out with several chapters on the many immigrants who came from the Ukraine and south Russia, home to many Germans from Russia who now/still populate North Dakota. The book bogs down a bit there, but moves on to more chapters on the infancy of weather forecasting, then under the control of the U.S. Army's Signal Corps. We meet, in particular, 1st Lt. Woodruff, a West Pointer from the Fifth Infantry who left his regiment to become a "weather indicator," as meteorologists were called then. He was worked in St. Paul, Minnesota, and noted a huge storm headed to the Great Plains. Trouble was, no one then had the scientific weather knowledge to truly grasp just how terrible this was going to be. And communications being what they were back then, the word got out just before the storm hit, which gave no one time to shelter, after an abnormally warm (for the plains) day.

What Laskin describes, from Woodruff's notes and others' information, is a polar vortex, which made its appearance in our own land not so long ago. Luckily, eastern Montana and what is now North Dakota escaped most of the 1888 storm's fury because it struck in the early morning hours when people were home anyway. As it roared east with inadequate warning, the storm landed with ferocity on what is now central/eastern South Dakota, western Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa.

Country schools were just that: schools in the middle of farming communities with their 160-acre farms. A walk home of a quarter mile to a mile was nothing to these children. When the storm it, they were frozen, blinded by flour-fine snow, and beaten down. Some survived through sheer luck or amazing courage. Others tried, and died. Some died with their teachers, who did their best to shelter them. Others died with fathers who had come searching. Others died alone. It's hard to imagine a more tragic set of circumstances.

When I moved to North Dakota in 1997, I heard of Hazel Miner, a 16-year-old student from Center, North Dakota, who sheltered her two young sibs under her own body during such a blizzard and died saving their lives. This one happened in 1920. Compound that by hundreds, and you have the Children's Blizzard of 1888.

I think one reason this book was so hard to read is because, for just a few desperate moments, I had a similar experience. I will never forget my own terror.

It was in 2001 or 2002, and I was working as a seasonal ranger at Fort Union Trading Post NHS, smack on the North Dakota-Montana line. It's an isolated place, about 24 miles from Williston, ND. The fort has white palisaded walls and sits on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. There is a long, sloping walk from the fort to the first parking lot. The other lot is even farther away. In the winter when there are few visitors, we tended to park in the closer lot, which was still not close to the fort.

I usually just worked there in the summers, but Richard Stenberg and I had been put in charge of an Elderhostel program, which meant I had to make some winter planning visits to Fort Union from my Valley City home, some 370 miles east. That day in November, I was at the fort for a meeting scheduled in Williston later in the morning. It was snowing hard when I left the fort and headed to the parking lot. We usually took the back gate, because it was a shade closer to the parking lot than the more-impressive front gate.

I couldn't see anything because of the snow. The path from the fort's "back door" starts out as gravel, which I could feel under my feet, even through the snow. I had made this walk hundreds of times. I knew that in a bit I would come to the wide concrete sidewalk that winds up to the fort's front gate.  Sure enough, I soon felt the concrete and knew I was on the actual sidewalk.

I knew how it sloped toward the parking lot, but by then, it was getting harder to feel anything but snow under my feet. I followed what I thought was the sidewalk, and discovered, to my irritation and then terror, that I was walking on grass and had no idea where I was. I was as lost as if I had been in the middle of a great plain.

I couldn't see the white-walled fort, and wasn't even sure of its direction anymore. Snow can be really disorienting, as I discovered. I took a few more steps. Grass under my feet. I truly panicked. There I was, between the fort somewhere and the parking lot somewhere. It was cold, but not horribly cold, and I couldn't see a thing. Where was the parking lot?

I stood there a few moments and forced myself to remain calm. When I could breathe regularly again, I turned around and tried to retrace steps I couldn't see anymore. Suddenly, I felt the concrete of the sidewalk again. I had not followed the contour properly. I continued down the sidewalk, and in minute or so, felt the curb drop-off to the parking lot. By then I could see dark shapes of cars of other employees. I was safe.

I cleared off my car and just sat in it for a while, relieved beyond words. Surprisingly, as soon as I negotiated the park road to the main road, visibility increased hugely. I made it safely to town. When I returned later that afternoon, all was clear. That is the fickle nature of snow and storm in the Dakotas.

My "ordeal" lasted only a few minutes, but I have never forgotten that feeling of utter terror. And reading about children who wandered the prairie in a polar vortex for six of seven hours makes my heart just ache for them and their families. Because the day had started out strangely warm, many had not even bundled up as usual. I can barely wrap my mind around the set of circumstances they faced.

My next novel will be about The Big Die-off, that winter of blizzards in 1886-1887 which was the beginning of the end of the open range in Wyoming. My heroine is a school teacher from England quite unfamiliar with winter on the high plains of eastern Wyoming, an area I know well. I have another snow story about that, but it'll keep. When I write about that 1887 winter, some of what you read will be firsthand experience. It cuts almost too close to home.