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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Plea for Snow: An Ode to the South Dakota Winter

I was born during the middle of a blizzard on a blustery, early South Dakota morning in January. If you've never experienced a Dakota Blizzard, you have no idea what you're missing. I know blizzards happen in other places (occasionally), but the upper-Midwest really has a monopoly on the concept. It's the only place I've ever heard of that has such bad winter storms that, included among the traditional weather watch/warning system, there is a "Winter Death Warning." A Winter Death Warning is issued by the National Weather Service when the blizzard is bad enough that the roads are designated as "closed" and driving is done at your own risk, because emergency services (like police and ambulances) flat out REFUSE to come and help you if your car gets stuck in the snow. It's their way of legally saying, "look, if you're stupid enough to ignore these weather warnings and road closures and go out there and try to drive in this, we're not going to risk our lives to come help you, and YOU WILL DIE." Now that's a hard-core winter.

In the four years of my high school career, we rarely had real snow days. Not for a lack of snow or terrible weather, but because we South Dakotans know how to manage massive amounts of snow - and drive through it. We did have a handful of late-starts, though, but less for the snow itself, and more for extremely cold weather. There was a rule that said if the wind chill was below -50° F (that's -45.5 Celsius, for those of you wondering), they were required to cancel school, since it was too cold for kids to be walking around outside. How considerate of them! But they rarely followed this rule, much to our chagrin. It would be -54°, and they'd still make us go. A wind chill that low usually means an actual temperature in the -30's. If you've never experienced temperatures that cold, you don't really know what cold means. Speaking of which, the coldest temperature I've ever experienced first had was a wind chill of -64°. Negative. Sixty. Four. I walked outside in that. It was cold. And yes, they did cancel school that day. (By the way, the coldest recorded temperature ever in SD was -58°. I can't even imagine what the wind chill must have been, as wind is also a ubiquitous feature of the South Dakota terrain.)

They also let us out early on multiple occasions when it was clear a blizzard was going to come through and would potentially trap us all at school. It always made for a fun afternoon to try and race home before the weather got too bad to drive. One time, we had such a terrible blizzard, they closed the mall in the middle of the afternoon. I was working there at the time and had to try and venture home in the middle of the blizzard. The regularly-8-minute drive took me over 45 minutes of terror, because, in a real blizzard, you can't see anything but a solid wall of white blowing snow. It doesn't make for the best driving conditions (hence the whole "Winter Death Warning" concept).

Our school itself also made for some interesting wintry experiences. We had an old, worn out heating system that would cut out on a regular basis. On days when it was really cold outside, it didn't take long for the interior of the school to become unbearably cold without a heating system. So the school decided to do something about it, to protect us children. They let us get our coats from our lockers and wear them (which was normally against the dress code). Generous of them. They also made a rule that, if the heaters were out for longer than 2 hours, we could go home (2 hrs being the arbitrarily established time for the heat-less building to become inhabitably cold). Inevitably, the heaters would always kick back on after 1 hour and 45 minutes. But it still takes a good amount of time for a building the size of a high school to get warm again. They let us wear our coats for another hour or so...

One of the most enjoyable parts of a South Dakota winter (to a kid who didn't have to drive in the terrible weather, that is), is that, once it gets cold, it stays cold. That means all the snow that starts falling in late October and through the rest of the winter rarely melts completely. It just keeps accumulating. By late January/February, we usually had around 3-5 feet of snow that is a permanent feature of the landscape. This made for the most awesome snow-fort building of all time. If you've never dug out and spent time in your very own real igloo, you're also missing out on what winter really is. It's amazing how "warm" you can be surrounded entirely by snow!

After nearly 4 years in Texas (first in the desert of El Paso, and then in the rolling hills of San Antonio), I thought I'd grown accustomed to life without winter. I was nervous to move to a place that has all four seasons (which, I should point out, South Dakota does NOT. It has 9 months of winter and 3 months of summer. It's one of 13 states to have a temperature variance between the coldest and hottest temps of over 170° (SD's record is 178° - it gets well into the -30's every winter and well into the 100's every summer) - not surprisingly, the others are all of the other upper-Midwest states, and California and Alaska). Fall here in south-central Missouri was quite a disappointment. While I was thrilled to see actual trees again, it would appear as if all the trees on the beautiful Ozark hills are the same species - and their leaves all just turn brown. But now I'm geared up and anxious for a real winter. We've been having temps in the 20's and 30's for several weeks now, and still no snow to show for it (though most everyone around us has already had at least flurries).

I'm hoping my wintry reminiscences will prompt Missouri to fulfill my anticipations and bring me some snow in the near future. I'm ready for it. And it would seem as if my South Dakota blood has re-awakened in my eagerness for a real winter. 27° doesn't feel cold to me, anymore. Husband thinks I'm insane, but I know I'm just a true blizzard-born South Dakotan at heart.

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