When the first foot of snow fell on October 4, it marked the beginning of a winter of never ending storms that would eventually do their best to consume me. Once or twice a week, clouds gathered over the Zirkel peaks to the west, built into a billowing darkness until they could no longer contain themselves, then spilled across the North Park basin carrying coarse winds and shedding heavy snow along the way. We could see it coming — sometimes watching the progress for an hour or more — the animals and I gauging the time we had before being stung by needle sharp pellets and thrown off balance by the turbulent air that accompanied them.
It was the first winter in years to greet me without an accompanying crisis. No job or home loss, cancer, relationship disaster or death of a loved one was stamped across each day’s “to-do” list to obscure the simple demands of getting on with life. My time on the ranch settled into a schedule of waking to a few hours of writing, bundling up for bracing morning chores, a long stretch of telecommuting work, back to the barns to put the ranch to bed, then falling gratefully into my own.
By mid-November I could no longer remember a landscape palette of anything other than shades of blue, gray and white broken occasionally by streaks of coral on the morning or evening horizons. Between snows, the air itself was bright with cold and the white ground was soft beneath my feet. For weeks, the predictability of the days felt like a novelty. The part of my work that regularly travels me away for several days at a time, capped a blossoming awareness that I was actually living the life I’d been dreaming about since childhood.
Then the storms got serious. They lasted longer, brought more snow, howled down the chimney. They began to behave like a marathon training coach — gradually increasing the demands on my time and physical endurance. The daily list of ranch chores was rewritten as the snow began to sculpt itself into ever changing drifts that sifted up over windbreaks, through crevices in barn walls, into the corrals to form shape shifting, expanding mountains of ice.
A break in the snow meant a stab of cold. For four nights running, the temperature dropped to -43°, the only blessing being that even the wind was frozen into stillness. Frostbite ate through the top of the rooster’s comb, pushing me to triple the depth of shavings on their floor and to do the same with straw for Destiny and the llamas. Every day, I stapled more plastic sheeting over newly revealed cracks in the barn walls, shoveled paths wide enough to let me drag bales of hay inside to where the animals huddled and waited patiently for me to bring them ever growing portions of feed.
I rose to what the storms asked of me. In the beginning, it scheduled me for three hours a day. Then four, five and finally six hours every day found me outdoors bundled in heavy layers of protection. I heard words collecting in my brain to describe what I was doing. I plodded, trudged, waded, slogged, lumbered through the snow. I hauled 65-pound bales of hay, dragged the dead weight of a manure laden cart over ridges and through gullies, heaved 50-pound bags of feed, wrestled long lengths of quick-freezing hoses from the house to the animals’ heated water tanks. I slid, stumbled, tripped and fell. Finding my stride during the lulling repetitive motion of forking away soiled barn bedding, I sang.
Mostly, I was impressed with myself. I was pleased with the strength of my body after all it had been through, comforted by an unusual internal equanimity, and entertained by a surprising euphoria that swept over me just before I fell asleep at night.
The animals were stoic companions. Together we reveled in having our days revolve around when we’d be eating our next meal. They were content with hay and heat-producing grain supplements. For me, I cooked massive quantities of thick soups, vegetable topped pastas, a thousand variations of muffins and cobblers, giddy with the pleasure of knowing it would all be consumed by physical labor.
I only cried once.
It stormed every day throughout the week of Christmas. I was snowed in. No human being was going to make it in to see me, and even if I had found a way to take a break, there was no possibility I’d be getting out as long as it continued to snow and blow. For seven hours each day that week, I fed, watered and cleaned up after animals. By day eight it was canned beets, canned corn or canned green beans if I was interested in eating a vegetable. Morning chores and evening chores had begun to lose their distinction. It was all just chores punctuated by turning on my computer, valiantly writing my four pages, four sentences or often only four words a day, completing a work assignment here and there, but increasingly watching deadlines tick unproductively by.
On New Year’s Eve, a friend called to wish me well. I was mid-sentence in reciprocal celebration, when my throat closed up and tears spilled over. It was simple exhaustion. But in those tired tears, there was a hint of something more complicated waiting to snag me.
It was becoming the winter that wouldn’t go away. For days on end, there wasn’t enough time between rounds of chores to dry out my gloves, hat or boots. I would collapse into the armchair in front of the woodstove —computer in my lap, hot tea by my elbow — and watch the hard balls of snow slowly drip from the pant legs of my winter overalls to puddles on the floor.
I was losing the ability to gauge the progress of a particular storm by the design it made on my windows. The glass was covered in frozen crystal patterns so thick, I could no longer tell which swath of them had come during the night and which ones had been on display for weeks. Digging down through snowdrifts that continuously renewed themselves, I began to measure time by the receding line of the haystack rows buried in them.
On a ranch at well over 8000’ above sea level, January is the longest month. It stretches beyond the 31 days it claims on the calendar, and in the dawn of 2014 it held on like it was trying to claim the entire year for itself. January ate February, then March. It laughed in the face of the spring equinox, and by the time we tipped into April, I’d been walking on snow covered ground for six months. The only change was in the quality of the snow. The flakes had grown fatter. They fell from the sky in big wet globs that gathered in a heavy blanket to absorb sound and make movement seem slow. Which is how I’d begun to feel. Slow.
April became a winter spring, draining my enthusiasm for frontier living and compelling me to acknowledge a flaw in one of my most cherished character traits. I’m without a doubt the go-to gal in a crisis, an emergency, a disaster, but it turns out I feel rather lost in a world of repetitive predictability. As time continued to spend itself but the snow drifts refused to go with it, I began to panic over what felt like a growing distance between me and the passion for fix-it! that normally fueled me.
Did I have no access to a peaceful, steady core capable of simply doing work laid out for me? I started paying closer attention to the animals who were also enduring the winter that would not end. For half a year, they’d been denied access to the expansive fields that gave them fresh grass and room to roam. For days at a time they’d pushed through blinding blizzards just to get 10 feet away from their section of barn for a drink of water. Yet, the only sign they were growing weary of it all was an occasional round of spitting between llamas vying for a dry spot of bedding or a mouthful of fresh hay. Looking for lessons from them, it seemed to me that the only wisdom they might have to share was hidden in the way they lay, quietly chewing their cud, looking calmly out at the weather beyond them.
From time to time I found a taste of relief from other ranchers when I was able to make it to town for supplies. We fortified one another with competitive tales of “how high the drifts are at my place.” But even as they spoke about their winter weariness, they didn’t seem deflated by it. They wore the winter weather the same way they wore the heavy layers of clothing that protected them from it — they shrugged into the long months of snow like they slid into their winter bibs; annoyed by the effort and constriction, but content with the familiar comfort.
April was ending when I began reading Ann Patchett’s new book of essays called This is a Happy Marriage. It’s a collection of quiet writing made lovely by Patchett’s pure, delicious mastery of the craft. From folly in the marriage of her youth to making her way through reluctance to try such a commitment again, she writes beautifully about lives well lived. The essays eased my angst, although I wasn’t sure why — until I listened to an interview with her on the radio.
“It’s about getting the work done,” I heard her say. “These days, it’s all about getting work done.”
Yes, of course. After the emergency, beyond the crisis, comes the work. Once the dreams begin to come true, the list of chores necessary to actually carry them out is long.
The first storms of the winter brought my adrenaline to a boiling point that kept me running hard and on high. Rushing chilled llamas onto my porch for blankets and grain, repairing holes torn through barn walls by sub zero winds, made me feel heroic. But it was the hour after hour, day after day that was testing me. Manual labor produced nothing more than sweat that froze on my eyebrows, a snow encrusted mountain of manure, and muscle fatigue that interrupted my sleep. Those physical demands bookended the emails, proposals and conference calls of the armchair part of my activism work. The writing of Saving Elizabeth ground itself down into a laborious wrestling match between story details I didn’t have in any of my notes, and a narrative complexity I wasn’t prepared for.
There were moments while standing with my back to the fire, waiting for my hands to thaw enough to use the keyboard on my laptop, when stray doubts butted up against my determination. The voice knocking on my inner ear reminded me it might turn out that I really don’t have what it will take to grow up the dreams I’ve held close for most of my life. It was during those times of pure fatigue I began to understand that strength and determination aren’t just needed in a surge of power when crisis or emergency demands them. Persistence requires its own kind of courage.
On Mother’s Day, 30” of snow fell. It came without warning in the middle of the night, two of the llamas trapped by snowdrifts away from their barns. I had to thaw a helmet of ice off the face of one of them, and dig a hundred yard path through mid-thigh snow to free the other. Again, more than the emergency propelling me through the storm, it was spending the week tramping on snowshoes while dragging bales of hay behind me, that dug the most deeply into my resolve to see it through.
Throughout May, the western sky held on to winter. It draped the snows of Mt. Ethel in a soft wash of pink, blue and gray. Every day, I had to take a deep breath in order to feel the beauty of it while longing for the smell of thawing earth.
The winter that began in the fall and commandeered the spring, was a little bit like this blog of mine — a season of easy progress, followed by a round of storms that first slowed it down, then buried it in weariness and uncertainty. By the beginning of June, I knew without a doubt that the only solution for getting on with things was to just start digging. Do the work, I’ve learned to tell myself. Every day, just do the work.
Two weeks ago, the snow began to melt. First it left the fields, then the ditches and the willows, and now it’s starting to come down off the peaks. The pelicans returned to North Park, the entire basin shimmers with water, and the frogs sing their chorus from dusk to dawn. It’s time for a new list of chores. And maybe a little time for celebration.