The Big Snow

Written By Barbara O'Brien

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this but I live not more than five miles from the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie books. Her life story is taught in the local schools and I drive by her family’s historic log cabin site every time I head down to Pepin to the little grocery store or the school.

When I whiz past the tiny cabin at 60 miles an hour I rarely think about what life must have been like for Ma and Pa and little Laura, Mary, Caroline, and Grace. But yesterday as I fought through eight foot snow drifts and the wind bit into my face and tried to freeze my eyelashes together, I thought about it.

Everyone in the region had been warned about the big snow. The weatherman predicted a snownami, a snowmaggedon, and a snowpocalypse. And, just as it does when he warns us about tornados, it went in one ear and out the other.  They are exaggerating, we Midwesterners say. 20-24 inches of snow? It can’t be that bad. They always say things like that. It will never happen. Life threatening wind chills of -25 to -35 below? We’re tough. We can take it.

And then we act like we had never even heard the weather guy. Even as the snow started coming down and it snowed for 18 hours straight people continued to try and go about their business. At least the big city and town people did.

Out here with our mile long driveways and dirt roads that amble and curve up and down the valleys, nobody is going anywhere. At least until the plows come. Our township roadman, Mr. Robert Stein, does a great job of plowing snow. But on days like this we understand that he has to keep the big roads open. And when there are 22 inches of snow and sustained 40 mile per hour winds it makes it a lot harder to get the job done. We are content to sit back and ride out the big storms.

Living on a farm and knowing that the snow was coming we prepped as best we could. Snow began falling late Friday night. By Saturday morning as we did chores we already had at least six new inches of snow on the ground. We were still able get the tractor out (thank you, John Deere), and we made sure that we fed twice as much hay as we normally feed to the horses so they could eat enough calories to keep warm. We put the older, more vulnerable horses in stalls thickly bedded with shavings and extra hay so they could handle the storm without being harassed by the younger, more dominant ones.

The sheep and chickens who normally bound joyfully out of the barn each morning, greeted me warily as I opened the door. The lead sheep ran out and, repelled by the blowing horizontal snow, immediately reversed himself and headed back. A few brave chickens who normally don’t mind the snow, stepped gingerly out, and quickly turned tail and fled inside. I put extra feed and hay in the sheep pen and filled the chicken feeders and told them they were on their own. With the door shut, the barn stays pretty warm from the heat generated by the nine sheep, three goats, and the 40+ chickens. Chores took longer than usual as we fought the wind and wet snow. We were happy to finish and go back inside to warm up.

The rest of the day felt like the snow days we had as kids. My younger boys were disappointed that it wasn’t a real snow day (it was a Saturday) but enjoyed having everyone home together. Even my oldest son, Wes, was home from college for a few days.

Because I own an animal actors agency and I am also a professional animal lifestyle photographer, I stay pretty focused and try to squeeze the work into every moment I have. But the big snow that had been falling for hours made me want to slow down and just appreciate the beauty of it from the warmth of my cozy farmhouse.

I didn’t edit any images, and the dishes and the laundry could wait as we watched It’s a Wonderful Life. Wes did his best to imitate Jimmy Stewart, changing the dialogue just enough to make us laugh, and the other boys said the all of the familiar lines with the actors.

As it grew dark, Wes and Warren started preparing dinner. This was a treat for me, as I am usually the chief cook around here. I smiled as I looked back on the relaxing day.

But being a farmer and an animal lover and responsible for our animals’ welfare, I knew it was time to go out and check on the animals one more time and feed our two recently rescued Morgans their second helping of grain for the day.

My two youngest sons, William and Walker, and I bundled up in fleece-lined hoodies, our Carhartt bibs and jackets, and double thickness rag wool gloves. Walker wore snow goggles, vestiges of Wes’s army service. William wore a Russian ushanka hat that ties under the chin to keep the wind out.

We headed out into the storm. The wind and snow hit my face and eyes like a frozen hurricane as I paused for a moment to survey the scene. Over 20 inches had accumulated throughout the day and the wind had whipped up drifts higher than the shed’s rooflines.

I sloughed through the drifts, making my way to the new barn to check on the mares first.  They seemed surprised to see me; all four were tucked into the shed. Beauty the Morgan, and the two ponies raised their heads and looked at me as if to say, “What are you doing here? It’s snowing out, Dummy. Go back inside!” And Jenny my rescue Morgan mare, snorted impatiently as if to say, “It’s about time you gave me my grain.”

I fed Jenny in her stall and broke the ice out of her bucket and refilled it so she would have enough to drink during the long night. I turned off their lights, and told them I’d be back in the morning. I didn’t need to climb over the wood fence as I normally do because the snow had drifted over it and most of it was hidden. I waded through the drifts and made my way over to the granary where the geldings can get out of the wind.

Although they had plenty of hay inside the barn to eat, most of them chose to continue to chew on the round bale I had placed by the granary wall that serves as a wind block. They looked like the bison you sometimes see in National Geographic. They were covered in chunks of snow and frost lined their delicate eyes and nostrils. The geldings don’t seem to mind the cold. As long as they had hay to eat and could keep out of the wind they would be okay. I checked on Jack, my other rescue Morgan, and made sure he was happy in his stall with his new buddy Louis, one of my elderly horses, nearby. I gave them fresh water also.

I made my way to the chicken coop, which is actually a small gabled barn that houses the chickens, sheep, and goats. It was surprisingly warm inside; their water had not even froze.  I gathered the two eggs that the laying hens had decided to give to me today and closed them up for the night.

Knowing that everyone was safe and warm, I started walking the 200 yards back to the house. In the distance, the house appeared to be smiling at me, as all the lights were on and I could see that William and Walker had gone in before me.

It was just me and the three dogs outside in the storm now. As I forced my way through the drifts it occurred to me how lucky I am that I could see where I was going. I glanced up at the powerful yard light that illuminated the farmyard and wondered about the people who owned this farm before electric power came in the 1940s. I remembered tales of farmers dying in their own yards by becoming disoriented in the blizzard and unable to reach the safety of the house.  They weren’t kidding when it was said that farmers would have to tie rope between the barn and the house so as not to lose their way.

About halfway up a particularly deep drift I got stuck. After working myself out of it by leaning forward and crawling out, I decided to rest for a moment. I began to wonder what it would be like to freeze to death.

I lay there on my stomach with my face cradled in my arm in an effort to block the wind. I wondered how quickly the cold that was just beginning to seep through my heavy clothes would chill me to the point of hypothermia. The wind howled and raged around me and blasts of snow came off neighboring drifts and hit me square in the face whenever I looked up. I wondered if anybody missed me yet and what would happen if I were truly unable to move for some reason.

It was the dogs that discovered me. Hawkeye the Border Collie, Apple the Aussie mix, and Lisle the German Shepherd all descended upon me with a flurry of kisses and much jumping back and forth over my prone body as they tried to get me to respond. When I didn’t move, Hawkeye and Apple gave up. But Lisle lay quietly down beside me as if protecting my head and face from the wind. So it is true that dogs will do their best to protect their masters, I thought to myself as I pulled myself up and told Lisle that she was very good girl.

I caught my breath and made it the rest of the way to the house. Inside, the warm air was a welcome change from the bitter winds outside. I looked around at the comforts of modern life: heat that pours off the radiators, music coming from the iPod® in the kitchen, food in the fridge, the world at our fingertips through our computers, and I smiled, gratefully. I’m glad I’m not Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family in that little log cabin with no electricity. I am happy sitting in my warm house and just imagining what life would have been like five miles and 140 years from here. Where’s my copy of Little House in the Big Woods?

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