Friday, January 26, 2024

The winter of our discontent

January has 31 days that last approximately 27 weeks. We intrepid Midwesterners are making good use of our time by shoveling snow, obsessing about that weird noise the furnace is making, checking water lines to make sure they’re not frozen, busting drifts to the LP tank to check the gauge and wondering what scientific principle causes snow to form the biggest drifts in the most inconvenient spots. 

By the way, that wheezing, gasping noise the furnace makes? Like its jeans are too tight because it ate too many sugar cookies over Christmas? Pay attention ‘cuz you’ll need to explain it to the repairman when it quits. Quits making the noise and quits making heat. Pretty much in that order.


That’s how we started the new year. Our furnace went AWOL on Jan. 1. It got fixed the next day but until then, there was about a week when the house was . . . chilly. I take a dim view of being chilly. Fortunately, I have a lot of clothes to prevent that condition. I put them all on and waddled around like the Michelin man.


The repair guy was prompt and professional. He ripped a lot of old furnace innards out and put a lot of new furnace innards in. He explained it all in great detail. The only two things I understood were “This is going to be expensive” and “You need to replace your 20-year-old air conditioner because the (insert technical explanation here) is screwing up your furnace motor.” I had a hard time thinking about air conditioners when I was swaddled in layers of silk, fleece and wool, topped off by my sexy new Carhartt vest. Hey, in farm fashion, form follows function and warm is damn sexy.


Aside from the furnace crisis, this winter got off to a slow start with a little snow here and a little snow there. In fact, we got zero snow in December which in absolutely no way prepared us for the second week of January when it started snowing and didn’t stop until sometime in March.


You may have noticed I am having problems with linear time. Winter messes with the space/time continuum and as a result, I am sure it’s been winter for at least six months and we may never see the sun again.


 As meteorologists predicted dire wolves around every corner with the coming winter storm, I did the traditional pre-storm prep. I went to the grocery store and bought milk, eggs, chocolate chips and bread. Or I would have if there’d been any bread. The shelf was bare except for a package of very tired looking hamburger buns. I guess everyone else had the same idea. I filled R2’s gas tank, which made no sense because if it snowed as much as they said it was going to, no one was going anywhere for a very long time.


Then I came home and de-pooped the dogs’ yard because I figured it might be June before I saw bare ground again. I saluted all the yard work that hadn’t gotten done in the fall, then went indoors to wait for the snow to start. I confess to harboring a secret delight while awaiting the approaching snowmageddon, like a 10-year-old, anticipating school being canceled. 


We got about 22 inches of snow, which amounted to something stupid like 75% of our normal winter snowfall coming over four days, complete with howling wind that dropped windchills to -30. Everything that could freeze solid, did. Except our furnace which chugged along like the happy little camper it was after we dropped beaucoup (everything sounds better in French) bucks on it the previous week and promised it a new air conditioning unit to keep it company, providing we didn’t freeze to death before it could be installed.


County road north of our house. (Photo by Taylor Hagen)

“No mosquitos, no alligators, no hurricanes” became my mantra as I shoveled open the back door so the dogs could get out to do their thing. For reasons known only to Ma Nature, trillions of tiny little snowflakes swirl over our house on the north wind and drop directly onto the patio in front of the back door.


Banner has always been a dog who will cheerfully pee anywhere, including on rocks, dirt, cement, asphalt and anything that is snow-covered. In an attempt to keep him from creating a frozen dog pee skating rink on the patio, I had to shovel that damn drift repeatedly. Which annoyed me. I spent a good deal of this month being annoyed.


The first round of snow was like shoveling water. The mercury hadn’t fallen out of the bottom of the thermometer yet and the relatively warm temps meant snow with a high water content and weighed about 20 pounds per scoop. I read somewhere the indigenous people of the north have multiple words for snow, depending on if it’s heavy, wet, dry, fluffy, marshmallow-flavored, etc.


I have one word for snow. Use your imagination.

The snow was pretty for about 10 minutes. And then it wasn't.
(Photo by Melinda Wichmann)


Snow before Christmas conjures images of sledding, hot cocoa, snowball fights and romantic walks with your sweetie through a forest of twinkling evergreens like a Hallmark movie. Snow in January is something that makes you swear and throw your shovel in a temper fit and start checking real estate listings south of the Mason-Dixon Line.


When it stopped snowing, winter got serious about getting its cold on. This meant the county snowplows were faced with miles of rural roads covered in eight- to 10-foot drifts the consistency of hardened cement. One county snowplow driver reported clearing two miles in an eight-hour day. Their standard operating procedure was ram it, back up and ram it again. They broke loose about six feet at a time.


We didn’t go anywhere. Everything was closed. All of it. The entire state.


 I routinely re-shoveled the drift outside the back door so the dogs could get out and so Banner wouldn’t kill us all when we slipped on frozen dog pee on the patio and wiped out. Dog owners know this is a thing. The struggle is real.


I wish I had taken more pictures but there was the whole frostbite issue, not to mention the dogs wouldn’t stay outside longer than it took to do what needed doing, so the photo ops weren’t great.


When we finally DID get out, driving was kind of like bumper bowling.
(Photo by Melinda Wichmann)

Just when we got dug out and the IDOT started using the term “normal winter driving conditions” with a sort of desperate optimism, here came the freezing rain to put a nice little ice glaze over the top of everything. And fog so thick even Rudolph would have filed a complaint with his union rep.


By some predestined marketing miracle, there were no cattle on Wichmann Farms’ yards for the first winter in 32 years when the shi-, um snowstorm, hit. This meant no twice-a-day livestock chores made more difficult by having to clear snow and deal with frozen gates, waterers, tractors, silo unloaders, feeder wagons and body parts.

The Farmer, who admitted to feeling kind of lazy (an unheard term, when applied to farmers in general and this Farmer in particular) without any cattle on feed in December when the sun was shining and the temps floated merrily in the 40s, looked out the window on the first -30 windchill morning with snow screaming across the plains, smiled broadly and sat back down to watch Good Morning America. 


And here we are now, amidst the over-hyped January thaw, slopping through the rotten snow and rain and slush and mush and everything is wet and cold and dirty and we’re all crabby.


The key to keeping my sanity? Garden catalogs. And maybe a little tipple of Bailey’s in my hot cocoa.


I think the HVAC guys are coming to install our new air conditioner next week.

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .
(Photo by Melinda Wichmann)