Joys of ‘Forced Nothingness’

My ever-hopeful and joyous “hound” Joe Pye found the blizzard much to his liking, leaping in bounds through snow as deep as his legs and digging his snout deep into the drifting. We were out for a short hike, me with a camera, he with his joy. Truthfully, this blizzard this week was a joy for us both. His was of a playful nature, of actually tracking down one of the sunflower thieves he can’t catch on bare ground, and me for the utter standstill of life, a time of “forced” nothingness, of reading, of conjuring up interesting dinners for a dear old friend “stuck” here with me, of us being able to concentrate on knowing one another much deeper, and really, just stopping.

That, in essence, is a blizzard. Just stopping.

It’s beyond beautiful here at Listening Stones with a deep coating of snow covering nearly every possible surface. Let’s call it what it is, a winter wonderland. We were caught in this two day (going on three) with the constant blowing) blizzard that began with a strong easterly wind that brought a coating mix of rain and snow four days before. 

My south lawn is a winter wonderland, a beauty only a blizzard can create!

True blizzards are somewhat unique to the prairie, and while it closes you off from the outside world I find it preferable to tornadoes that struck the southern portion of the country and included one of my favorite areas, New Iberia, LA. This town, a little ways south of I-10, has been a settling point for me for years of travels both professionally and personally. My late wife, Sharon, and I tent camped there in a small city park along the Bayou Teche in the 1980s, and I’ve been there several times since. Just a bit southwest of New Iberia is the home of Tabasco’s Avery Island, a 2,200 acre picturesque park where Snowy Egrets were given sanctuary in the early 1900s, back when the beautiful birds were near extinction due to the love of their “finery” feathers.

Here, and throughout the range and prairie regions of the “north country,” blizzards are somewhat frequent … with perhaps one or two of the “show stoppers” arriving each winter. Oh, there were times before moving to the “high, wide and lonesome” where we received what the television forecasters had called “blizzards.” Nope, those were snowstorms. And, sometimes, big ones. Dumpings, if you will. Although as a child I read stories and books that seemed to have a plotting moment concerning a blizzard. As a boy those mental images of blizzards were based solely on imagination. 

Joe Pye was beside himself with joy.

My first real experience on the frightening effects of a blizzard was when I drove from Denver across Nebraska to Des Moines in January of 1982 en route to St. Paul and an editorial position with Webb Publishing. I was fortunate, or perhaps extremely lucky, to reach a Holiday Inn in Des Moines, for once past Omaha I could barely see where I was going on the four lane interstate. Blowing snow came like waves, one after another, constantly whipping the small foreign made car as I tried keeping on the road. Eventually I “hooked” onto to the taillights of a slow crawling semi and stayed just safely enough behind it until I finally reached the outskirts of the capitol city and pulled off to find the motel. I was stuck for two days.

Ten years later we moved to a small prairie town where I would run a country weekly. It was there I learned both the beauty and full fury of blizzards.

With one forecast the following February I ventured into the local grocery store to find it uncommonly packed with anxious customers stocking up on milk and what the grocer called “blizzard meat.” When I asked Roger, the owner, what that meant, he simply said, “Ham. People buy ham because it won’t go bad if they lose electricity.”

I also quickly learned that “blizzard” also meant completely closing down. Like on my trip from Omaha to Des Moines, blowing snow meant no visibility on roads leading nowhere. City hall, school gyms, church basements and the town’s only truck stop were crammed full of snow bound “refugees” from as nearby as a dozen miles or less to far flung places found in an atlas. People who just couldn’t get home. Local churches would gear up their kitchens to feed those stuck in town. Prayers were uttered for those who might have been caught stranded on the highways.

Wind blown snow on the first hours of the blizzard cut across the prairie.

January of 1997 was particularly rough. Our local school was open for students all of five days. Some of those were partial days. Winds drifted snow into town from the “black desert” with no barriers and completely buried the house of the local baker. Drifts were house high on the northwest side of town with nothing to curtail a constant blowing northwesterly wind. On US 23 a single lane was eventually cut through such a drift that dwarfed semis that had closed both the highway and the adjacent rail line for much of a week. I was soon learning the truths of blizzards, facts rather different than the poetic plot lines of juvenile novels.

Now in retirement here on my small prairie “farm,” there is no going anywhere any time soon. Despite the physical beauty the storm has created and left behind, it has also contained us for the time being. Although I’ve had deeper drifts here, I couldn’t start my snow blower and I’m beginning to feel somewhat “antsy” in our isolation. Today is fine for we have no plans. This all changes over the weekend. 

Everything including this wind vein was covered deep in snow.

Yet, there is time to write and time to read. Chili is being readied for dinner, the principal ingredients were canned late in the summer for just such a moment. We call it “saving summer” and there is no better time to enjoy such savory treats. Hopefully we two can find as much joy and contentment as Joe Pye finds in his thrashing about in the deep snow … where his tracks from even this morning have already been erased by the prairie winds carrying ever more snow.

With freezers full and shelves of canned goods from the garden and farmer’s markets, we are in fine shape. Survival isn’t a worry. I’m halfway through the reading of two very long novels, and with the fireplace ablaze those winds beyond the walls seem rather distant despite their fierce roar. Hopefully we’ll be plowed out before noon tomorrow. By then we’ll likely be as pleased to find mobility as we were to face our “forced” isolation due to this  first blizzard of the season. 

Back in the years, back in our first prairie blizzard, the townsfolk called it “a shortened world.” And that has been so true here where for most of the week we haven’t seen the lower edge of the Listening Stones prairie. Those distant tree lines a half mile or so in the distance were oblivious thanks to the blowing white out. An ever compassing white out. Yes, we’ve occasionally seen the “snow globe” drifting flakes, although more common are these horizontal, wind-blown flakes so mindful of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s take so many years ago when she wrote, “… you can count the first three flakes, and the fourth. Then, language fails, and you have to settle in and try to survive the blizzard.”

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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