Winter for Wimps With Praise for Mrs. Howard's Grit

Last night two ants walked across my kitchen table while I was reading. I've heard about the January thaw all of my life, but this is ridiculous. The record temperatures seem to have thrown off the internal clocks of the ants and propelled them out along my kitchen floor in search of crumbs. I didn't have the heart to crush the life out of the two advance men, the Lewis and Clark of the kitchen recon. They will die of natural causes soon enough, I think.

I was in Medora over the weekend for an educational retreat, and each afternoon walked west on the asphalt trail that parallels old highway 10 and the railroad out to where the Marquis de Mores' goons shot Riley Luffsey in cold blood on June 26, 1883. On the first day the wind was blowing like a son of a gun, as we Dakotans say, so although the temperature was 38 or so, the wind chill felt like ten below. On the second day, I walked with my jacket unbuttoned, no mittens, no hat, and only twice in two hours did I think it might be smart to button up the jacket. On the third day, shirtsleeves were entirely adequate.

Before I left for Medora, I would have shoveled my sidewalks and driveway if there had been time, because they were covered with a fair amount of crusted snow where the winds have packed it up in the past few weeks. There just wasn't time to shovel. When I returned three days later every square inch of my corner sidewalk and big driveway was bone dry. The garden had emerged in the back yard from under the snowpack.

It's the mildest January I can ever remember. I know some severe weather is still to come, and winter is at least ten weeks from being over. This is not a state to get complacent in. I love North Dakota in all of its moods and seasons. In fact, I love a brutal winter. There is nothing like that early morning encounter with what Jack London calls "The North" when you step out of doors at 43 below, that somewhat anxious realization that we are living high up near the edge of the last latitudes of human habitation. On mornings like that you involuntarily scan the horizon.

I love not knowing for sure that the car will start. I love the dull sound of my boots on the 30-below snow. I love the camaraderie of the grocery store and the coffee shop when people stomp in and clap each other on the shoulders and do the standard North Dakota riff raff chorus. I love that moment in a calm night when the wind whips up suddenly into a frenzy and you can hear the grit grinding the surface of the siding on the northwest side of the house.

I can remember from my childhood on grimly cold mornings turning on KDIX on our battery powered portable radio to hear the litany of event cancellations. Mother would perch the radio on the bathroom sink or the kitchen table and tell us to "get dressed just in case." And then Stan Deck's KDIX baritone: "The Busy Bunnies 4-H banquet is canceled tonight at the Eagles Club and will be rescheduled at a later time." "The Knights of Columbus style show has been indefinitely postponed." "And now here's a little tune from the Monkeys to cheer you up." Once we learned—to our deep chagrin—that school had not in fact been canceled, though it might be let out early, we switched back to the Ole Reb on KFYR, where we belonged. School was hardly ever canceled in those days, but during my high school years the rural buses didn't always come in when it was blizzardy.

There is a paradox of inverse proportions in our time. Back in the 60s and 70s the cars didn't start very well when it got brutally cold. Parkas, hoods, gloves, and boots were much less sophisticated. But we all soldiered on through the bitterest weeks of winter with a kind of resigned stoic calm. I remember walking to and from high school, well more than a mile each way, on the worst days of the year and not thinking anything was amiss. Today we have infinitely better gear. Fuel injection means that most cars start every time. The doors and seals on vehicles are much tighter now than they were in my youth. I have three or four pair of winter boots, one of which is guaranteed to keep your feet warm to 100 below. The mittens and gloves are outstanding, if you spend enough, and for the wimps of the world there are chemical hand and foot warmers. The winter undergarments now wick the sweat away from the body almost instantly. And yet now our institutions seem to have a hair-trigger for cancellation. Sometimes it feels as if we North Dakotans have become pathetically squeamish—every superintendent now seems to fear "an incident on my watch" more than lost education.

Through the first half of my life they never really closed the Interstates, no matter what. No travel was advised, sometimes sternly, but if you were dumb enough to venture out, you could usually piece your way through to the other end of the state. Such lurching, low or no visibility, white-knuckle, "oh please, Lord, oh please" road trips are part of the joy of living in North Dakota, at least in retrospect. I remember once when my friend Philip Howard's mother drove to Williston to see her older son play basketball in blizzard conditions that were universally regarded as suicidal. She was driving a low-slung Chevy four-door with rear wheel drive. We reckoned we would never see her again. About midnight she calmly walked back into her house in Dickinson. "Yeah, roads were pretty bad," she said, and brewed a cup of tea. Nothing more. Today the big gates go down on the highways whenever serious storms blow through the state. 

If this winter remains mild (unlikely), it will be good news for stockmen, for oil workers, for every town's snow removal budget, for everyone's fuel bills, especially the American Indians who live on extremely tight budgets at out of the way places on the reservations, and for the state's wildlife. We need a few mild winters to rebuild the populations of deer, pronghorn antelope, and other wild creatures. A few mild winters would enable us to measure more precisely how much of the wildlife drawdown has natural causes and how much is the result of the intense industrialization of western North Dakota.

Even if this winter takes a harsh turn, we have broken the back of it already, and we'll will march forward with joy rather than grim determination. The light is returning. We are already 42 days past the longest night of the year. Already we get at least 9 hours, 27 minutes of light every day, up from 8 hours, 32 minutes on December 21. "Official" calendar Spring is now only 47 days away, and "Actual North Dakota Spring" is now no more than three months away. In other words, we're home free.

I'm starting to gather up my garden seeds. I'm going to walk five miles on the bare trails during the Super Bowl halftime, and see if I cannot stir up my own costume malfunction.

Will It Ruin Your Day If I Use the Word "Snow Blower?"

July is almost gone. Any day now the box stores will carve out large spaces for school supplies. We all know what's coming—what every North Dakotan knows must come—and it makes us want to linger outdoors in the evening, makes us want to schedule more picnics, more hikes, more days at the lake, more time on the river, more afternoons in the badlands than we would think appropriate if this were southern California and summer lasted forever. We cannot afford to pace ourselves here. North Dakotans have to squeeze in an awful lot of recreation between July 1 and Labor Day. It's use it or lose it on the northern plains.

My daughter and I were in Medora last week to see the Medora Musical with the great Sheila Schafer, now enjoying her fiftieth summer in the badlands.

Sheila's husband Harold Schafer (1912-2001) started with nothing in life, worked like a demon, made what was then a vast fortune by marketing Glass Wax, Snowy Bleach, and Mr. Bubble, and then gave it all away—to worthy young people who needed money to go to college, to fledgling organizations and institutions across North Dakota, to perfect strangers for whom he felt instantaneous bursts of sympathy. But above all to the broken down little cattle town Medora, which he began to restore in the 1960s.

After he had rebuilt the Joe Ferris Store and the Rough Riders Hotel, Harold more or less inherited the Burning Hills Amphitheater when the NDSU outdoor melodrama Old Four Eyes broke down. At the time, the amphitheater was just plank boards and a rudimentary stage perched on a steep badlands slope. No seat backs. When it rained, the hillside oozed down onto the stage, and Harold and Sheila could be seen, along with Gold Seal's Rod Tjaden and whoever else was handy, shoveling mud and bentonite off the stage to clear the way for the show.

Harold decided that what Medora needed was a music and dance extravaganza—songs with a western feel, a little dollop of "Teddy" Roosevelt, a little gospel, a little humor, some serious patriotism, and a celebration of virtue and the work ethic. Harold brought reliable family entertainment to the badlands, derivative, during those first years, of the Lawrence Welk Show. In the middle of each show he wanted a visiting "act:" acrobats, clowns, comics, or—if the gods were smiling—a dog act, like one of Harold's perennial favorites, "Victor Julian and His Pets." Nothing like a dozen poodles in pink tutus.

In the early years, a crowd of 300 was seen as a "stunning success," but even to achieve that, Harold sometimes had to round up nurses or bank tellers in Bismarck, bus them at his own expense out to Medora, feed them along the way, and give them free passes to the show. If you think about it, it's an inherently insane idea: to try to get a thousand people per night to venture west to a village with a permanent population of around 100, for the purpose of seeing an outdoor song and dance show during North Dakota's brief temperate season. Only Harold Schafer could have cooked up such an improbable notion, and only Harold Schafer could have persevered to make it work. In 1992, the current version of the Burning Hills Amphitheater was built, with its wide stage, sets and backdrops worthy of Hollywood or Disneyland, a state-of-the-art sound system, and comfortable seats. All it needs to achieve perfection is a second escalator. Average summer attendance is now slightly more than 100,000.

The Musical is always good and sometimes great. But I doubt 1000 people per night would venture into the Bismarck Civic Center to see it. The magic of the Medora Musical is that in order to see it you have to sit in the open air on a summer night in the badlands. You begin the evening under blue skies and end it under the twinkling stars of the northern hemisphere. Before the show, I like to linger up on the Tjaden Terrace, where you can look to the south and see North Dakota's greatest butte, Bullion Butte, off on the horizon, and nothing but broken badlands in between.

As I sat there Tuesday night, next to two of my favorite people in the world, in shirtsleeves, with happy, relaxed, and happy people seated all around us, I had that sudden realization that we North Dakotans get, "Hey, I'm sitting outside at nine p.m. It's still light. There are no mosquitos. The temperature is absolutely perfect. I'm in my shirtsleeves." But gurgling through the lower reaches of my brain was the grim knowledge that there are really only about fifty such shirtsleeve days per year in North Dakota, about one in seven. There are at least four months per year (November-February) during which no amount of protective gear would be enough to keep you in am amphitheater seat for two hours, four more (October and March-May) when you'd be in a pathetic group huddle under parkas, stocking caps, mittens, and blankets, and the Burning Hills Singers would be blue, stiff, lurching stick figures, blown off the stage from time to time, slogging not clogging to the sound of music. Actually, I have experienced such an evening at the Musical, two years ago, and it was in late June!

September is arguably the most beautiful month in North Dakota. In an ideal world, the Musical would start on June 20 and continue to October 12. That's 114 temperate days, outdoor amphitheater days. If we lived by "Summer Savings Time" rather than Daylight Savings Time, and the North Dakota school system would agree to cooperate, we wouldn't have to roll up summer (boats, cabins, picnic and camping gear) on Labor Day, and effectively shut down our outdoor life a month early. We North Dakotans need to savor every temperate day we get. It's a shame to move life indoors prematurely, when there is still so much joy to be banked in anticipation of the first ground blizzard.

In the course of my life, I have seen the Musical at least 50 times, most of them with Sheila Schafer whooping next to me, shouting out "hi, band!," laughing, wiping away tears, dancing in her seat, and single-clapping, as if she were sitting in the amphitheater for the very first time. All I can say is it's quite a show—and so is the Musical. When she is in the house, all the performers bring their best game to the stage. It's impossible, I realize, not to be carried away by Sheila's youthfulness (at 89) and generosity of spirit, but I do honestly think this is the best Medora Musical ever. The talent of the Burning Hills Singers is more uniformly high than ever before. Chet Wollan just gets better every year, and he somehow fills that whole wide stage when he steps forward to sing. Candice Lively has a perfect Medora Musical voice. When she sings about North Dakota, I just well up in state pride every time. Host Emily Walter is so major a talent that it is amazing she is willing to spend it out here on the frontier. And Bill Sorensen's buffoonery never fails to make the audience groan with appreciation—what could be better than that?

It got dark a little sooner last night. By my calculation, we have just 36 days until Labor Day. That's when we fire up the snow blower, just to make sure.

Not Exactly Giants in the Earth, But Pluck and Gumption

Last night, after a long stressful day, I ventured out to my garden in the back yard to take a look. The odd placement of Memorial Day this year has me disoriented. It's only the first week in June but it feels as if I've been tardy in getting things started. Several of my friends put their tomatoes out too early and lost some to frost. I planted most of my garden on Memorial Day weekend. So far my 41 tomatoes are alive but spindly and anemic. They need a steady train of BTUs.

The winter was so long and unsatisfying this year that I looked forward to the temperate season (May 1-November 1) more than in any year since I returned home in 2005. My hope was that we would glide sweetly into summer by way of a long series of gentle drizzly days with the temperature in the high 50s. Instead, one day the trees were barren and the next day all the cottonwood leaves had popped into a full canopy of brilliant verdant green. Not just "as if overnight." This year, overnight!

North Dakotans like to say that we have a seven (or nine) month winter, followed three days later by summer, with little or no spring in between. That has always seemed like a myth to me, but that's precisely what happened this year. According to my home weather station—an array of integrated weather monitoring modules that would have made Thomas Jefferson weep with joy—the last time it froze was May 16, at 28.5 degrees at my house. Since then the temperatures have climbed into the high 80s and even low 90s, and on several nights in late May I was almost tempted to turn on my air conditioner. (I just couldn't make myself do it).

I'm worried about drought. Normally, I till my 50 x 60 foot garden three times before I plant. Once I got my tiller working (more on that below) I crept it out into the garden, and with deep joy started to turn the soil. After I had made two rounds I couldn't quite understand why things were going so well. Then I realized that usually the subsoil is moist enough to clog the tines of the tiller every fifteen or twenty minutes, which requires shutting down the rig and clearing the tines with a wooden stick or screwdriver. Tedious work. In a typical spring I do this at least a couple of dozen times before the soil is ready for planting. This year I tilled the entire garden all three times without ever once clogging the machine. Even on first tilling the soil had the consistency of coffee grounds. Not good.

The tiller provided a home handyman challenge of a much graver sort this year. It's a heavy duty Sears tiller, my mother's housewarming gift to me nine years ago. It has been an extremely reliable machine. It typically starts on the first or second pull even after a long winter. This year it wouldn't start at all. So for two days the focus was a new sparkplug, some new bits for the carburetor, fresh oil, forcing air through fuel hoses, and other Hail-Mary remedies. By the time it finally started I was in a mood to churn the earth. But when it had turned precisely one three-foot swath of the garden, there was a sickening metal-on-metal sound, and though the tines continued to turn smoothly, the forward propulsion mechanism just stopped working altogether. In other words, if I wanted to till with the thing now, I'd need an ox or a mule.

Thus began a very long (and sometimes very frequent) series of trips to the big box hardware stores, specialty farm stores, the Internet, and Wal-Mart. It took five days altogether to fix the thing. I was tempted from the beginning of this ordeal to retire the tiller, and buy a brand spanking new one that I had begun to covet on the many journeys to the garden shops. But my advisers assured me that it could be fixed. I have been reading Thoreau this winter, and I knew he would be against abandoning my old tiller, 99% of which was as strong as the day it was born. Besides, that old rusted out black hulk has high value to me, in memory of some gardens past, and because my dear mother gave it to me.

To get to the drive train required taking the tiller almost entirely apart. This meant scores of screws, bolts, cotter pins, precise sequencing, and a growing pile of parts and bits that gave me great anxiety about ever putting the thing back together again. When the guts of the machine were finally exposed, in a blue-green trough of gritty grease, I discovered that a drive chain (like a bicycle chain) had broken. Trip to three box stores (hereafter TTBS). For the first time in my life I fixed a chain link (using some very interesting new one-function tools). Put the whole damn thing back together again at infinite cost to my knuckles. It didn't work. In fact, even the tines were inert now. Took it all apart. Discovered that the clutch system was extremely primitive and yet persnickety at the same time. Somehow managed to fix it. By now the drive train gasket was torn. TTBS. Fired up tiller. Seemed to work, but after thirty seconds the rubber transmission belt began to burn up before my eyes. TTBS. Installed new belt and fiddled with tension springs to prevent burning. Fired tiller up. Within seconds, second belt burned to a crisp. At this point my greatest (and possibly only) desire in life was to pour five gallons of gasoline over the Sears Best tiller and light a match. TTBS.

By the time I finally got the machine working again, my pride was pretty deeply engaged in the project. Fortunately, I had the help of an extremely resourceful geologist who has spent the last few years in the outback of Australia, where, if you cannot weld, operate a torque wrench, and machine a new bolt, you are going to die of starvation. My tiller now works again—I ponied it through three complete tillings of my garden, without a single subsequent breakdown. I cannot say it works like a charm. It works like thing on its last legs, with some odd metallic rumblings from inside that I never heard before, and it has a kind of internal combustion limp. Every time I fire it up, I can feel the low-tech fragility of its inner workings, and I'm gentle with it now as if it were operating with three stents, a transplanted pig's heart valve, and a pacemaker.

The good news is that everything's planted, and most things are now up (though barely). The Canadian thistle is thriving. If it were edible, I'd stop gardening altogether. So far I'm ahead of the weeds, though not by much. Last night I found that my sweet corn is an inch high, a gorgeous strait up pale green. That miracle—one dry wrinkled seed that will soon metamorphose into an imperturbable four-foot stalk with two bountiful ears of corn, each with 800 kernels!—is enough to make it all worthwhile.

The grace of God is in a garden—and redemptions of all sorts, and healing. And the essence of life.

The Rites of Spring in a Gale Force Wind

One of the things I love most about North Dakota is its rawness. You can create all the PR campaigns you want to show prospective workers that North Dakota is a quality-of-life paradise, but the plain fact is that it's an acquired taste and it is definitely not for the faint of heart. We've had a long, cold, unrelenting winter (fifth coldest in Grand Forks history), and every time you think it's about over, it wallops you in a new way. Three times I have put my shovels away for the year, and three times I have trudged them from their niche in the garage. I have damaged or ruined two pair of shoes by walking on what I assumed was at long last dry land.

So this is spring, is it? I've been more buffeted in the last week than I was all the long winter, perhaps because, like many of you, I started my annual outdoor life a little prematurely. Again. We cabin feverish North Dakotans explode out of our houses sometime in late March or early April, the minute it feels like spring, with white shins and a long list of planned activities, but we always see our shadow and scamper back inside for a few weeks longer. When was the last time you did not have to throw on a coat on Memorial Day? In North Dakota it is never reliably hot until the first week in July.

I'm deep into spring cleaning. On Saturday last I shoveled out the garage, not without some significant help. It was a sunny, warm day, thank goodness, but I found things in my garage that one should never encounter in such a place. In one sense it was like Christmas—wow, a brand new unopened socket set, wow, so that's where I put that buffalo robe. And in another sense it is like waking up in the third circle of Dante's Inferno. In that famous portrait of hell (14th century) everyone gets the eternity they deserve in an ironic karmic sort of way. For someone like me, who has almost never thrown away a sheet of paper or a notebook or a file, who has bought new toasters for every place he ever lived in, no matter how briefly, my hell will be to be buried under mountains of such detritus, unable to reach out to the New Testament just inches in front of me because I'm so heavily weighed down with a lifetime accumulation of pointlessness. How many boxes can you own? By the end of the day I discovered that there are things even the landfill won't take. Whatever happened to the old joyful anarchy of the town dump?

Last Sunday I drove deep into Indian Country and climbed a butte overlooking the Grand River in northern South Dakota. Saturday had been shirtsleeve warm, even t-shirt warm, so I was not prepared for the seasonal about-face that occurred overnight. When I got out of the car, wearing a coat that I had regarded as too thick back in my Bismarck entryway, I realized it was chilly. Ten minutes later I realized it was cold. And then I finally grasped, to my astonishment, that it was January cold, just this side of dangerously cold. The temperature had dropped at least fifty degrees overnight, and the wind was blowing like a sun of a gun. My brain is wired to discount the idea of windchill for the most part, and automatically after the spring equinox, but I actually found myself scrounging the back seat for a face mask and gloves on April 13th, the 103rd day of 2014.

I hiked up that butte with great joy. Unfortunately, I had to lug my out-of-shape, winter-sluggish body with me all the way up. This was already my second butte of 2014—it's going to be a great year—and the payoff, the view from the top, was spectacular. Not badlands, but broken lands in every direction to the end of the world, and in the near distance the Grand River cutting its way listlessly to the Mighty Missouri. Somewhere out in that vast open space, Sitting Bull's cabin site tucked into a perfect cottonwood bend in the Grand.

Eventually I found a hollow on top of that perfect box grass butte and lay down under the wind for half an hour. I even dozed off. There are few joys of Dakota life greater than that, napping on a butte under the radar of the rawness of the Great Plains.

Back home and steam cleaned, I reckoned that Sunday was just an example of those one-day throwback cold snaps you can get in any month of the year in North Dakota, but that the new week would be balmy and splendid. Over the weekend I heard from an unimpeachable source that the first pasqueflowers (crocuses) were blooming in the southern badlands. Are not those gossamer and infinitely gentle membranes of the palest blue, pure understated purple, a white that is more beautiful than white should ever be, the perfect Great Plains symbol of Easter, of renewal, and of resurrection? Every year at this time they press up unannounced through the gray dead grass of winter earth. It is worth a picnic trip to the badlands in the spring just to see the crocuses. You have to get down on your stomach and crawl up to one the way you would to the very lip of the Grand Canyon. They are that beautiful.

I woke up Monday to a winter wonderland, a perfect blanket of wet white snow in every direction. I literally did a double-take as I wandered out bewildered to the kitchen. By 11 a.m. it had snowed two or three inches, and yet it melted sufficiently by five p.m. that when I walked the long trail up by my house it was entirely dry, and it would be hard in a court of law to prove that it had snowed at all.

In the evenings I've been taking long walks, every day no matter what, which for me is the only way to break the sedentary habits of winter. But the wind has been blowing so hard and so incessantly that it has rattled my brains. It literally blew a set of headphones off of my head the other day, and a few of the gusts nearly blew me off the trail. When I stopped last evening to exchange calls with the meadowlark on the trail, the wind literally swallowed up everything each of us said. At night the wild gusts beat against my house as if it were a February blizzard. When the first calm warm sunny evening comes, 68 degrees and a 2 mph breeze, I'm going to slaughter the fatted calf and drink a glass of dark red wine as the sun slips over the western horizon.

The near-total lunar eclipse Monday night was magnificent. I got up four times to gaze in wonder.

We are fortunate to live out in the middle of nowhere, where there is so much to explore, and where you ignore the earth and the natural world at your peril. It's a kind of backwater paradise, if we have the will to keep it.

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.

The Light Returns, Can Spring Be Far Behind?

As far as I'm concerned, winter's over. I'll bet we have had the same experience sometime in the last ten days or so.

Last weekend I was in Florida, and I arrived home late last Sunday night. After puttering around the house for a while I slipped into bed (clean sheets!) with a book about the English explorer and courtier Sir Walter Raleigh. There is nothing quite so enjoyable as cheating sleep for an extra hour because the book you are reading is that good. It happens seldom and it is always a thrill. My eyes were drooping with road weariness and fatigue, and literally trying to close, but I was so engrossed in an account of Raleigh's 13-year imprisonment in the Tower of London (1603-1616) that I was unwilling to give in to the mere carnality of sleep. One of Raleigh's themes—because he was the epitome of the Renaissance man—is that the soul is divine and immortal, or at least in search of the divine, while the body is a base vessel, and therefore it is our duty in life to give our best energy to the work of the soul. So I read until well after 1 a.m., just to the point where you get that little sick feeling that you have cut a big hole into the next day's alertness and productivity.

These days when I go to sleep I silently summarize what I have learned today, silently out loud, if that makes any sense, not only because it is a way of retaining at least a little of several hundred pages of information from several books on several subjects, but because it invariably puts me to sleep faster than Sominex. My internal monologue had reached, "Queen Elizabeth had four principal favorites in the course of her 45-year reign: the Earl of Leicester, Christopher Hatton, the Earl of Essex, and Walter Raleigh," when at last I fell asleep.

Well, now you know why I live all alone!

The next thing I knew I was sitting up in my bed blinking off sleep and stretching, startled by all the bright daylight streaming into my bedroom. My immediate assumption was that I had slept late—another victim of the Tower of London—and that my whole day was going to be scrambly. You know how when the day starts out in a "time hole" things usually never quite calm down. But when I glanced over at the clock it was only 7:30 a.m. And then I said out loud, "The light has returned, the light has returned."

We may get some brutal weather between now and mid-April, but as far as I'm concerned, winter is essentially over the day you realize that the light has returned to the northern plains. That moment just happens, suddenly, when you least expect it, like the morning you wake up and feel the sudden urgent need to get a haircut. In the instant when you realize that the Light has triumphed over the Darkness once again (Genesis 1:3)—a primordial human experience that goes back to the inarticulate dawn of humanity, to henge structures or beaver totems—you actually find yourself lifting your head from the ground and looking around at the great plains with a renewed sense of life, and wonder. We spend the winter cast down.

The relativity of time is one of the great mysteries of life. A watched pot really doesn't boil. If you agree to have one more drink in a bar at 10:30 p.m. the next thing you remember is the bartender telling you and the other dregs to clear out. If you have an important project due at the end of the week the time hurtles by to punish you, but if you are waiting for your daughter to arrive home for the Christmas holidays the time creeps along, as Shakespeare puts it, like a "whining school-boy, with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school." You think you don't have time for a daily walk or a run, but if you carve out that hour the day expands mystically with the free gift of time. And of course you live longer, too. I read once, in a book on yoga, "He who stands on his head three hours a day will conquer time." At some cost to your romantic life, I'd say. If you are sitting in a coffee shop writing to deadline, complete strangers will sidle up to chat, and your closest friends will sit down to tell you about the Bobcat skid-steer they received as a Christmas present. Thus torturing you twice. It's the iron law of deadlines.

Last night I began to gather my garden seeds, and to make plans to bring in an astounding crop of tomatoes. The snow is receding from my yard, a little more each sunny day, evaporating rather than melting, and the black earth in one quarter of my garden has been exposed. It won't be long before I will be able to see where I abandoned my hoses when the snow blew in for the first time last fall.

In my neighborhood, most folks have stopped shoveling their driveways. "The heck with it, may as well just wait it out now," seems to be the weary refrain. It won't be long before my near neighbor fires up his lawnmower "just for fun" in his driveway. The day is coming, sometime in the next month, when it's 57 degrees and the streets are running like cricks, and every sap in the subdivision is out washing his car by hand, wearing shorts that should be banned even where men are tanned.

Back to Walter Raleigh (1552-1618). He named Virginia after Elizabeth the Virgin Queen. But he never set foot in Virginia, or the Outer Banks of North Carolina, for that matter, where his lost colony at Roanoke was planted. Between his epic voyages in search of El Dorado (on the east coast of South America), Raleigh was a prisoner in the Tower of London. But he cannot be said to have wasted his time. In the Tower Raleigh wrote The History of the World, more than a million words in approximately 1,400 folio pages. That book has been called "the greatest work of art ever produced in a prison cell." It is one of the supreme achievements of the Renaissance, written in the same exquisite English prose as the King James Bible. It was James who threw Raleigh in prison on trumped up treason charges. The History of the World is one of the greatest no-longer-read books in the English language.

Last year I held a folio copy of the first edition of The History of the World (1614) in my hands in a museum in the Outer Banks. I caressed it in silence with the lightest possible touch, like a sacred relic. For me, that moment was as satisfying as fondling a gold ingot or plunging my hands into a barrel of Bakken crude.

I mean to read the History through, between now and the coming of the first fall snowstorm. Out on my deck in the cool of the evening. Soon.

Starting the Car on the Coldest Day of 2013

Finally, more than forty below the morning I wrote this. Twenty-three below in absolute terms, wind chill minus forty. According to the U.S. Weather Bureau, it's the coldest it has ever been on December 11th in Bismarck. I love days like this. This is when you truly feel like a North Dakotan! The snow has a perfect blue cast. The air is absolutely clear, crystalline, electric, almost crackly. You feel that if you fired a pistol into the air on a morning like this, the whole sky (the Bible's empyrean) and everything under it would shatter into a trillion miniature ice crystals and just collapse around you in a prolonged tinkling. I watched the sunrise from my kitchen window well after eight a.m., but it seemed as if the real sun was vacationing in Australia and we were assigned a sub from the minor leagues. Plenty of light but no heat. The sun looked like a giant fried egg yoke congealing on the eastern horizon.

When you walk out of the house on mornings like this, the utter windlessness makes things a little eerie. We all know how to handle the usual North Dakota ground blizzard, the day's first bite of raw wind that feels as if it might rip your outer skin right off. But when you walk out the door expecting wind and discover that the great world is unnaturally silent, when you sense how incredibly cold it is rather than immediately feel it, that's a wonderful North Dakota moment. Suddenly you are a character in one of Jack London's Klondike stories—some survival instinct deep in your DNA below the tripwire of consciousness realizes that you are now in a potentially dangerous situation, that there is no room for error on a morning like this, that if you ran out of gas near Glen Ullin (as I did in August), you could die in short order no matter what you're wearing. For Jack London characters up on the Yukon in mid-December, it is always a life-or-death struggle to strike the last match successfully with numb clumsy fingers. For us the question is: will the car start?

My old used Honda has a remote starter. That's the sort of over-civilized gadget I like to sneer at, like heated car seats or hand warmers. I tried it twice from the kitchen window this morning, but my car just wheezed and coughed. So I ventured out to the crisp air, a mere 54 degrees below the freezing point. Silence. The only sound, the faraway crunch-thud of my feet on the snowpack, seemed as if it were miles away, or that it was coming from someone else's feet. It was so cold that when I pulled open the car door it felt as if it might just sheer off from low temperature metal fatigue. I sat down on the seat. It was frozen solid. It didn't give a millimeter. So it was that cold. The seat was as hard and uncomfortable as metal bleachers on New Year's Eve in International Falls, MN.

Normally, when you start a car you just do it without a moment's thought, because it is a habit so deeply engrained that it somehow just happens: key finds its way to ignition switch without aiming, key turns clockwise the instant it is fully inserted, car starts the minute it has the chance. But when it is this cold, particularly if you are out in the badlands or away from a ready back-up plan, you have to have a premeditated internal combustion strategy. I paused for maybe ten seconds before I turned the key. In the course of a long North Dakota life, I have been involved in half a dozen big winter car dramas. About average, I think. There is nothing quite so dispiriting as hearing the battery grind down and finally poop out on those few occasions when it really matters. At best it means you are in for a long day of cracked skin and foot stomping and probably bloody knuckles, and we all know how seldom an extreme-cold jumper cable transfusion works. When the engine does that eh-heh, heh . . . heh ……. heh . . . oh heh! thing and then you hear the click, click, click of system collapse, your heart just falls onto the floorboards and cracks into a thousand shards. "Here we go."

In those ten seconds, as I sat high up on (not in) the frozen solid front seat and watched my breath frost up the windshield on the inside, I reproached myself, for not having a better car, for not having plugged in the head bolt heater, for not living in Bermuda, and of course for having left the hoses out for another bruising winter because I reckoned the mild weather would never end this year. I knew I had to make some choices and get things right the first time. Just turn the key and hope for the best? Feather the gas pedal while turning the key? Press the gas pedal down to the floor once, quickly, and then turn the key? Go back to bed and forget the whole thing? Like an Apollo 13 astronaut, I began by turning off every potential battery drain: the radio, the heater, the dome light.

My trusty Honda started up on the second attempt, with at least half a minute of battery life remaining. When it is this cold, the just-started engine races for the first few minutes as if it's running on espresso not gasoline. The whole car shakes and snorts and rattles as if it is about to lift off or break up. But at least the car was running. Suddenly I felt a little smug and I smirked in praise of Japanese engineering. I turned on the radio and dialed it to KFYR—half-hoping to hear the Ole Reb yodel up the weather report. It was so cold that the speakers in my car buzzed and blared as if the cardboard membranes had cracked during the night.

The last remaining problem was the windshield, which was entirely covered with a thin, quite beautiful, but hard-as-steel frost curtain. This was not one of those occasions when I could just shoot an abundance of wiper fluid over the ice and cheat the frost away. My windshield scraper was buried somewhere in the back seat under many layers of holiday season strata. Rather than excavate it this morning, which would probably have involved getting out of the car and opening the back door, I decided to try to tough it out. I could almost make out the road through the gray crystal screen, if I squinted just right, and I reckoned it would melt before I killed anyone. I was running the defroster at full brassy throttle, thus pointlessly blasting 20-below air at the windshield (and my face) from within. If I bent over until my eyes were just above the level of the dash—a strenuous yogic posture made more difficult by the high frozen seat—I could occasionally find a narrow slit through which I could peer out at the roadway. It was like driving to work wearing a welder's helmet.

I'm happy to report that I seem to have collided with nothing as I drove—at least I heard no big thuds—and now that I have completed this report, I've started to get some feeling back in my fingers.

Welcome to another North Dakota winter.