Today the temp is supposed to rise to 28 degrees (fahrenheit) and the Montana roads map shows clear and "green" all the way to Great Falls, but many of the rez roads are still closed and a formal state of emergency has been declared. There are a lot of daunting statistics and I haven’t begun to look at the road cams. One could do as well by looking at a sheet of white paper. Great Falls gets less snow than we do but they have five times more than usual this winter. When I was with Bob Scriver in Browning, we used to say that if we could make it to Valier, we could get “out,” meaning to Great Falls to a major airport. That was in the Sixties when snowmobiles had just been invented and people were giddy with the ability to move around locally -- esp. during calving, which is pretty well along now.
In the cities snow causes traffic snarls, school closing, and mountainous heaps of snow but there’s even more to it out here on the prairie. We’ve gotten into the habit of driving long distances; delivery systems come in over a hundred miles of highway daily. The newspaper gets here okay but the delivery person sighs. I hope my peanut butter (large jars of Adams because of low sugar content, crunchy for, um, texture) made it. Nevertheless, all the Homeland Security planning and systems are getting a workout which is a good thing. Heavy machinery is coming from other places, crews are checking homes. Sometimes the weather is the worst terrorist of all.
There are subtle long term consequences and some violent short term consequences. After the deep snow of the early Seventies, very like this winter, it was worthwhile to take big earth moving equipment to cut down the Y (2 & 89) where a ten-foot-tall V-plow got trapped and snowed under, marked only by the small round blackened hole in the snow the running motor left when the resourceful driver climbed out the window because his door was wedged shut. People will die of carbon monoxide if they stay in a buried vehicle with the exhaust plugged. The Fitzgeralds and their roomer died in a lesser storm than this one when a drift covered the chimney of their house in the Sixties.
On the other side of the ledger, the fortunes of the east side hinge on water and since the previous decade’s drought has been pretty well caught up by now, the recharged ground water will mean wells will be full (the water is much softer now, much less dissolved mineral), the creeks will be full (good for trout), there will be persistent snowbanks (not quite glaciers) in the mountains, and there will be a little more time before the re-allocation of the irrigation source water puts alfalfa growers out of business. (The Blackfeet Nation is claiming rights to water that they have not exercised since the beginning of the reservation.) It may change the formal plans of the Pondera Canal Company, which is the linch-pin of the Valier economy though we take it for granted a lot of the time. In fact, I don’t think we talked about it at our long-range planning meeting. Nor the wind farm you can see from town. The red lights on the snow at night must be visible from satellites.
The emotional and social consequences of a winter like this can verge on trauma. This is not a community of youngsters who see snow translated immediately into skiing. Rather we are one of those towns where the kids think they need good educations because they intend to leave. The population in July 2009 was 452, which is a nearly ten-percent drop since I came back in 1999. The median age is 42.7 years, which is five years older than Montana as a whole, though this is an “old” state. Household income is about $33,000 which is ten thousand dollars lower than the rest of the state. Estimated per capita income in 2009 was $20,436, but I’m thinking that’s in town. What is not acknowledged by demographers used to city density back east is that much of the population is in the webs and wagon-spokes of people outside the formal town limits. Their incomes might not be high, but their assets are formidable. The town, like the Pondera Canal Company, exists because of them. Another factor is that as soon as native people see a way to come back, they return in a rush.
Those who are still hearty are generous about digging out the frail. The EMT’s are heroic in getting to people who need help. Our streets get cleared with some dependability and the mail gets through. But in a year that we are snowed in a lot, older people sit by their television, drinking coffee. Here’s where my snob aspect kicks in: when I visit such households, they are most often tuned to the right-wing scare monger stations because they identify with older, more conservative values and because they self-identify as Christian. But those stations provide a steady stream of kidnapping, atrocities, allegations of terrorism, accusations against the president, and predictions of world collapse even as they deny global warming. Between caffeine and adrenaline -- with no way beyond shoveling the front porch to work it out of their systems -- a little liquid self-medication seems like a good idea.
I’m a snob because I listen to NPR: classical music, quiet jazz, much analysis of politics but usually in calm voices. Just the same, maybe because of the left wing, I’m far more aware of what Nassim Taleb calls “fragility in systems.” Because much of my work is on the internet, I’m far more dependent on systems that are in collapse due to technological shifts: publishing is rubble, schools are a shambles, churches are winking out, food has been industrialized to the point of poisoning the population. When I look out at my bermed-in driveway, trudge to the post office with my face burning from the cold, get up in the dark with torrents of wind pounding the house or sheets of snow flapping against the windows, thoughts go wild. Then it’s better to write than to read or listen to media.
I remember 1972, how Bob Scriver could only get into his house through a tunnel with a garbage can lid for a door to keep dogs out. On the inside one fell into the shed around the back door. Dogs played on the roof. Browning dogs are pretty adapted to this kind of weather: part sled-dog, part-wolf, maybe part bear. Things are so different with this much snow that the world has a sci-fi feel, like those end-of-the-world movies that are always showing Manhattan, not a little village out on the prairie. (Though there is one of the latter named Manhattan.)
That was the winter I could see I’d better leave because as a single woman the only way I could stay was by depending on the kindness of those who knew me. They didn’t all feel that kindly. March is the snowiest month of the year. We can hope that March came in February this year. Or we can get braced. No reason we can’t do both.