The Long Winter

This winter reminds me of the “Long Winter” that I experienced in South Dakota in the mid 1980s.  Now, I am 87491648sure that if you have read the Laura Ingalls Wilder book of the same name, you would have thought, at first, that I was talking about THAT long winter!

But, no!  Western South Dakota had a long winter in 1986 – 1987.  That was the year it started snowing in October and didn’t stop snowing until mid-April.  That was the year that my 80+year-old father-in-law said “I’ve never seen this much snow in my life!”

I do not remember how MUCH snow we got that winter except it was mega, mega snow!

Now, we lived 20 miles east of Rapid City.  The road to our homestead was 2 miles from the main highway and only about 1 mile of that was considered county road.  Our road was a no-maintenance road – the people that lived on the road did any maintenance needed.  And at the time of this big snow, there were 3 families that lived on it.  We had a large 4×4 3-quarter ton pickup with chains on all 4 wheels; Sue had a 4×4 pickup without chains.  The 3rd family, Holly and Michael, had a Suburban but it was not 4×4.  We also had a 4×4 Jeepster but it did not have the clearance that the pickup had.

The road went up a hill south to a flat ridge, and then Sue kept going on the flat, going south.  We turned east for a half mile, and then went back down the hill, north.  Holly and Michael lived a quarter of a mile down the hill from us, still going north.  From our house, looking west, we could see the road only about half a mile away, but there was rolling prairie between the house and the road with deep draws that could quickly fill with snow.

I was a stay-at-home mom with 2 grade school girls; on a normal day, I would drive them the 2 miles down to catch the school bus to town; I would then meet them at the end of the day.  Norm taught school in a different school district.  Sometimes he would be able to pick the girls up at the bus, but not always, so I needed to be ready to pick them up if he couldn’t.

Sue had no children but had animals that needed to be cared for.

Holly and Michael had 2 preschool children; both of them worked, so the children were in day-care during the day.

So, now we have the characters and the layout.  On a normal day, Norm and the girls would come home around 4:00.  Michael and Holly would drive by and honk as they headed home around 6:00.  If I were watching, I would see Sue head up the hill across the way also about 6:00.

In October, the snow started coming.  We were all excited to see the first snow of the winter.  But excitement soon became surprise when it kept coming, then resignation when it still kept coming and depression when it STILL kept coming.

By Christmas it was difficult-to-impossible to get in and out of our place.  It snowed almost every two days but at least once a week.

After the snow got impossible, the plan was contrived that everyone would meet down the hill to drive in together.  Michael and Holly arranged to leave work early, pick our girls up at school, pick their children up and meet Norm down the hill (his school where he taught was not in town so he came home by a different route).  Michael would then follow Norm in. Sue would come at the same time so that she could drive in behind Norm and Michael, although once Norm broke the path open, she could get in relatively easily if she came later. Norm left the pickup in a friend’s yard down the hill from us and drove the Jeepster into town so that he didn’t have to take the chains off the pickup.  Norm had 3 sets of chains; these were not regular “run of the day” chains but big “V-Bar diggers” which were stronger and heavier.  He would run a set until it was torn up, change to another set and rebuild the torn one so that he had chains available at all times.

The difficulty came from Michael’s vehicle; He had 2-wheel drive and could not get through the deep snow.  Plus, he was not a good winter driver and managed to get stuck in places that experienced drivers could go.

87478576If the snow was deep, Norm would break through, then Michael would follow.  If Michael got stuck, the two men would get out and shovel and dig, then pull the Suburan out with the pickup.  Sometimes it took an hour to get the two miles.  Many times I would have soup on the stove and feed the whole gang before the others headed down to their house.  They were required to call when they got home so that we didn’t have to worry about them being stuck along the way.

Because of the depth of the snow, constantly getting deeper and blowing in again after being cleared out, I had no vehicle to get to town myself.  If it were necessary for me to go, I would walk out along the road, take the chains off the pickup and drive that into town.  I tried to plan it so that I would get home about the same time as everyone else so I wouldn’t have to walk in.

During that long winter, the girls often wanted to have friends come to spend the weekend with them, but I wouldn’t allow it.  I was afraid that we’d get snowed in on a Monday (which often happened) and the parents would be upset if their children missed school that day.

We had snow and more snow and MORE snow until late in May.  My father-in-law who, at that time was in his late 80s, said he didn’t remember any winter having that much snow or lasting so long.

We did not suffer as Laura Ingalls and her family suffered in the 1880s, risking starvation or freezing, but we did suffer in mental ways in the 1980s.  The men were bone-tired of plowing / digging / pushing / pulling all winter long.  The girls were tired of not having company and sitting so long in a pickup while waiting to come home.  It made their days long and their time at home very short.  They even started doing homework in the pickup when stuck, to pass the time and also to be able to finish it in a timely manner.  Holly was tired of trying to entertain pre-schoolers stuck in a car; Sue was tired of worrying about her animals – would she be able to get home that night to care for them?  I was tired of watching and waiting and worrying about the others.

I actually had the easiest time.  I had a path dug to the barn for chores; I had heat, electricity and all the comforts of home while the others suffered on the way home.

Heading out in the morning was normally easier – most of the time the snow came during the day so any path that was dug by the 4×4 with chains would stay approximately the same by morning.

Then Spring finally came!!  Spring, glorious Spring!  The snow gradually melted, we got muddy roads that were difficult but more enjoyable, and easier, to manage.  I got my Jeepster home so that I could go to town when I chose; Norm took the chains off the pickup so he could drive that to work.  Our lives went back to normal.  Holly and Michael went back to the normal schedule for work and day-care.  The girls started riding the bus again; I took them to the bus in the morning and Norm or I picked them up in the afternoon.  Sue began, again, her extra long days at work (she was an accountant) without having to worry about getting home.

Back on schedule.  The long winter was finally over!  Draws were over-flowing with water, dams were bursting, clover and alfalfa and wild grass were growing to great heights.

A bonus from the stress we went through was closeness between all of us.  We were better friends, closer allies against the enemy, snow.  We had stories to tell, memories to share.

And, we MADE IT!!!

This winter is not as difficult for us, personally, and it has not lasted as long.  In fact, I think it’s over, for the most part.  But it reminds, me of that one nearly 30 years ago.  I have spent hours watching the drifting, blowing snow, hoping and praying that we will not have a repeat.  Now that the sun is shining and the snow is melting, I feel my spirits lifting; warm sun reminds me that, as in that long winter, Spring will come!

About cpthegreat

Connie (aka Spinning Grandma) lives on Ash Lane Farm in southwest Minnesota. She is an expert on spinning, weaving and knitting and a former history interpreter.