When it's 25 below and dropping
I was playing poker the other day with a bunch of guys, mostly middle-aged and older, mostly native Montanans like myself. Every so often somebody would put on an extra coat, go outside and start the car, come back to play a few hands, then bundle up and turn the engine off. Nobody found this unusual. The temperature here in Livingston, Mont., was somewhere around 25 below zero and the wind was knocking the wind-chill factor down to about 50 below. This had been going on for a few days, and it made sense to keep your engine warm. The last thing anybody wanted was to be stuck in a poker game until a chinook blew in. God forbid.
Understandably, the weather was a topic of conversation that day. Montana hasn't had a winter like this one in a long time. Snowpack is twice normal in many places, and roofs in the Flathead Valley are collapsing under the weight of it all. In Yellowstone Park, trucks hauling bison to slaughterhouses wouldn't start. Moose have moved to Butte, the world's largest Superfund site, and elk are living among the strip malls of Bozeman. Somebody's trailer house slipped off the road and has been upside down out by the frontage road for about six weeks now.
Earlier that morning, a friend of mine had ventured into the back yard after his unruly beast buried one of his possessions in the snow. The dog wore fur. My friend had only a housecoat and slippers. "My legs felt like I'd stepped in boiling water," he said.
The card-room sages discussed these things and agreed that a bad winter is a good thing; it should help ease toward the border the tire-kickers and dilettantes, the ones clotting up the river in the summer and forcing attendance at things like zoning commission meetings in the winter.
Not that we hadn't all seen worse winters, we agreed.
I recall the winter I was in the eighth grade and started chewing snoose. On the way to school, I would spit and listen for a faint snap as the gob froze before it hit the ground, and watch it bounce when it landed.
There were stories about tire chains and frozen pipes, pulling ice plugs from a cow's nose and the time a Cadillac's leather seat shattered just because somebody sat on it.
In those days - back in the "60s and "70s - newcomers were individuals instead of a category, and they were a welcome diversion, mostly. Winter entertainment was hard to find then.
A friend from the prairies remembers chamber of commerce types in her hometown who filled a barrel with sand every winter, painted it orange and rolled it onto the Poplar River. They took bets on when it would sink beneath the ice and how far downriver it would go before it dropped. It gave people something to talk about, she recalls.
But when a guy started shooting his assault rifle in Cooke City a couple of winters ago, he actually got arrested. A few years back, somebody would have just hog-tied him until he sobered up.
I think most people find bad winters easier to survive these days, if you're not a cow or a bison or a rancher, and that makes us a little less tolerant of those who can't take it. The Internet lets you play Scrabble with people in Australia, and satellite TV brings things like Humphrey Bogart film festivals, which can help a lot when the cabin fever starts to simmer. Polar fleece helps, too.
People here eat a lot better than they used to, as well. I never saw a kiwi or an avocado until I was 20 years old. Portabello mushrooms? Give me a break. Prosciutto? Feta cheese? Ha!
So I'm not too optimistic about a hard winter - or even two or three in a row - thinning out the silly people, the ones who build in aspen groves where the snow piles up deep, who think four-wheel drive means they can't get stuck. And the serious dilettantes, the ones with the million-dollar cabins in the elk calving grounds, don't spend much time here in the winter anyway.
As for me, I'm going to stick with my longtime winter strategy: put on a prophylactic layer of fat and cook big meals for my friends. Good company makes winter a little easier for everybody. And, it'll make it harder for them to say no when my car needs a jump start, so I can get to the zoning commission meeting.
Scott McMillion works for the Bozeman (Mont.) Daily Chronicle.