Whining the Long Winter from Heated Car Seats

Enough winter already. If you don't like winter you don't really like North Dakota. Still, enough.

I have a well-off friend who whines all through every winter as if some dark cosmic conspiracy existed to chap his lips and make him dread getting out of his car when he gets to the office. He could live anywhere in the free world—Arizona, California, New Mexico, Florida, even Colorado—but he chooses to dwell here. Keep in mind that he lives in a climate-controlled house. He has never had to shovel coal, cut firewood, or even light a pilot light for all I know. He has a thermostat, which means that he doesn't have to stoke the fire when he is cold or back it away when it overheats his house. He has indoor plumbing with designer fixtures, the kind you pay extra for when you buy a house.

In the morning he starts his car from inside his kitchen while reading the paper and making himself cups of designer coffee on his sweet digital coffee dispenser. In the background, his home theater system plays cheerful morning music selected by a cloud brain that monitors his choices over time and suggests new sounds for the royal ear. He does not have to face the outdoor air in order to get into his car, and when he gets in he is greeted by pre-heated seats. The garage door opens automatically to let him out and then closes behind him as he drives off. He has an array of electronic comforts to get him from his garage to the office—XM Satellite Radio, an inborn navigation system, hands free cell phone service (did I mention heated seats?).

So far as I know he has never fed (or pulled) a calf, never fixed fence in a sleet storm, never hauled a bale, never cleared a drain field on Memorial Day, never shoveled his way to the milk barn at 4 a.m. In fact, when it snows here in Dakota, he has a professional crew who spring into action in the night to clear his sidewalks before the sheer inconvenience of it can be noticed.

At any given moment, between October 15 and June 5, he basks in a climate-controlled shirtsleeve interior space, sealed off from the Great Plains. He could just as easily be in Honduras or Hong Kong. He has not had to get up to change the channel for thirty years, and these days he is never more than 10 seconds from a handheld device that would have made Leonardo da Vinci faint with delight. From the top of his flawless palm, he can tell you any fact at any time from a variety of online sources, text his sons in a faraway state without seeking or buying a postage stamp, Facetime with his granddaughters (for free, for ever, anywhere on earth), check his stock profile, buy tickets for a movie, pay his utility bills, make (and edit) a movie of his foot at the end of his Barcalounger, or even pull files through his phone from his work computer across town. And of course check the North Dakota weather using his weather app, and then post a whining lament about our horrible winters on Twitter or Facebook.

Ah, the strenuous life.

The funny thing is that his great-grandparents grew up in a sod house they made by cutting out clouts of prairie earth with shovels and axes. One of his uncles lived in a cave with a wooden front door. The interior of the sod house was 16 feet by nine, and the window (when they finally got one) was a translucent piece of sheepskin. They kept warm in the winter mostly by huddling, all eight of them, the pioneer "group snug," and the whole family slept in just two beds. They burned buffalo chips to cook and what scattered wood they could find in the nearby coulees. Occasionally they lit lamps at night, but for the most part when the night came they all just went to bed. The outhouse was a fetid gash thirty feet from the shanty; in the winter they just used old gallon-sized coffee cans in the corner of the hut and lugged it out in the morning. Someone hauled water into the house every day. When they bathed, two, three, or five members of the family shared the same water in succession. When they wanted to know where Beethoven was buried or how many acre feet there are in the Aral Sea, or what the highest peak in the Andes is, they pulled their battered copy of Funk and Wagnall's one-volume Cyclopedia of World Knowledge out of a trunk, browsed it for half an hour, and decided it was not really necessary to know what the highest peak in the Andes is.

We North Dakotans were once that people. That stock, as we like to say. That was a brutal life, or at least a very basic life, and they really did walk four miles through the snow to school. When they finally got a party line telephone they thought they had died and gone to heaven, but they never made long distant calls unless someone was dead or seriously ill.

We would never go back to lives of such hardship and privation. There is little romance in a world of that much pain and blood and loneliness. If you think I am exaggerating about the conditions of our pioneer forebears, read one of the most astounding Great Plains books, Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains. It's Laura Ingalls Wilder on steroids (or acid or strychnine).

In a sense, the oil field workers who have moved here from Arkansas and Texas and Louisiana are more like our pioneer grandparents than we are. They live for the most part in places of flimsy insulation and walls that rattle in the wind. The heaters in their dwellings make a lot of noise and don't regulate the temperature very evenly. They work outside, and though the gear is better now, they face the full-on brutality of the heart of North Dakota winter day after day. I feel sorry for them in a winter like this. They came for the gold rush opportunity they heard about back home, where there were no good jobs to be had, and they wound up in the most trying climate zone of their lives.

Last week when I took my long evening walk I heard my first meadowlark of the year. He was a loud proud lark on a power pole. He sang at me and to the best of my ability I sang right back to him in the same language: "sure sure, she sure, shuh sheh sheh." I have my seeds sorted. I buy a few more packets every time I go to the grocery store now. I haven't spent an evening out on my deck yet, a guy in a parka and mittens trying to spend an evening out on his deck, but I thought about it as I drove through the blizzard to Dickinson last Monday. And if I concentrated with all my might, I could almost re-call the smell of tomatoes growing in July.