Have you been getting that good old wintertime-in-Missoula closed-in feeling lately? I know I have.
When the dull gray sky settles in atop us looking as if it is close enough to touch, the world gets a lot smaller than it usually is around here. The crusty snow that has uncharacteristically stayed on the ground for weeks adds to the feeling. In the neighborhoods, street lanes are divided by a barrier of plowed snow, and traffic creeps along with vehicles emitting a steady stream of greenish-brown exhaust that almost perceptibly lowers the confining ceiling.
This morning is better than some. The lower slopes of Mount Sentinel are visible from my living room window, and I can see some deer up there pawing at the snow to find last summer's grass. Those are the deer that haven't relocated to the valley bottom where they move through my neighborhood as if they owned the place, sampling shrubbery here and there and selecting the quietest yards to settle in for an afternoon snooze. When they decide to cross a well-traveled street, traffic stops in both directions and waits for them to pass in their own good time.
Down at the river, some channels are frozen completely across, and where there is open water, the ledges of stream bank ice creep farther and farther out into the current. The lone blue heron that got its picture in the paper this week stares into the water, waiting for the silvery shadow of a trout or whitefish to slip into view below. Ducks and geese, counting on the open water to stay open, huddle on the ice at the edge of the moving water, patiently biding their time and hoping, I suppose, for the sun to break through.
Every once in a while, we get one of these winters that reminds us of what we always thought winters were supposed to be like. And that, in turn, reminds us of why we look forward to spring.
When we have this kind of winter on our hands, I am also reminded that for many in this part of the world, winter has always been a time to come to grips with some of the more basic challenges of survival. Those who make their living from the land experience winter in an entirely different way than we pampered city dwellers do. I stumbled across an old letter the other day that puts our little spate of winter into perspective for me.
By way of explanation, this letter was written to my mother when she was away at college back in 1932. It was from her Uncle Sam who operated a sheep ranch up around Ledger. Sam's real name was Svenning, but when he came over from Norway to make his fortune, he changed it to Sam for simplicity's sake. I should also note that his letters were famous among his friends, and he knew it.
"I sometimes bleave that the resen for my friends cal on me to write is that they want letters as suveneers from the bummest speller in the world," he wrote once.
Here, in part and unedited, is his letter about winter:
"Now Hellen you may thank your God that you are not out on a farm Milking Cowes just now-It is so cold that the jack Rabbits is siting out on the portch asking to come in to warm themself- The snowdrifts here is several feet high and the sheep have to tunnell to get to the grass- Sometimes I have to pull them out By the tail I meen Tailstump when they tunnel to streaght down as they can't back op- Oh thes ranching is some cheer. Hope your future huspond if you have one well not have to look after sheep and well have monny anoff to ceep the house warm- Do you know that a great menny piople have goen back to Buffalo cheeps again for fuel only now it is cow cheeps and sheep what shall I call it? Just had a letter from your dad and everything as fare as I can figger out is allright at Dutton- We doent get the mail verry often so the world could come to an end without us getting the news."
Well, the world did not come to an end that year. Sam made it through that winter, and so did most of his sheep. And he made it through nearly forty more winters after that. His spelling never improved, and he never lost his sense of humor about the travails of life on the land. To the good fortune of my siblings and me, my mother found a husband who did not look after sheep for a living and managed to provide a warm house for his family.
And here, in gloomy old Missoula, I am reminded that we don't have it so bad, either. I know that a short walk up a nearby slope can carry me above all of this gunk, and up there, chances are good that the sky today is a rich, deep blue with hardly a cloud to be seen. Down here, when the haze thins for a while, I know I might be able to spot the bunch of elk that has been hanging out on the south end of Mount Jumbo recently, and maybe I'll even get a peek at the four-point bull that friend Dersu reported seeing tagging along with the cows and calves.
I know that if the day takes me out of town, I might likely escape the haze entirely. From Snowbowl, they tell me, you can find reassurance that the whole world is still out there. I know that down the Clark Fork corridor, it doesn't take long to find the sun most days, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of two golden eagles and a bald eagle feeding on a deer carcass out on the river ice like I did last week. Over in the Flint Creek Valley, one of the local claims to fame is an embarrassing number of clear sunny winter days, so the odds are good there, too.
So, if that cooped up feeling starts to get to you, try to remember that things could be a whole lot worse. You could have jackrabbits out on your porch waiting to be invited inside. You could be spending your days pulling sheep out of tunnels in the snow by their tails. You could be out there gathering buffalo chips to feed your pellet stove.
So, no more whining. If it gets too bad, do something about it.
Get out there and find some sun.