Prairie Lights: Waiting for a Chinook, enjoying the snow

I might be singing a different tune by late March, but it sure feels good right now to be experiencing a bit of real winter weather.

After living in Montana for four decades, I still can’t quite get used to the regular, rapid disappearance of huge quantities of snow. The first big snowfall I saw in Montana was in Missoula in the mid-1970s.


Ed Kemmick

I think we were hit with something like three feet in 12 or 15 hours, and I, being a broke college student, saw an opportunity. I didn’t own anything as useful as a shovel, but I figured most homeowners did, so I set out, knocking on any door that lay at the end of an uncleared sidewalk.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people were relieved to be offered a way out of shoveling all that heavy snow. I would explain that I, ahem, needed a shovel, and we’d work out a price, based on how much work lay ahead. I think I charged a buck for an easy job, on up to $2.50 for a corner lot and driveway.

That might not sound like a lot of money, but in those days you could get a six pack of Bohemian Beer for $1 at Freddy’s Feed and Read. So I shoveled snow for five or six hours, until my pockets were bulging with a fortune that might have topped $20.

At the last house where I plied my newfound trade, I finished up just as the sun was going down, and all the sweat that had soaked into my clothing throughout the day was beginning to grow quite cold. When I was done, the homeowner not only paid me, he gave me a little more than we’d agreed upon and then invited me inside for dinner.

A home-cooked meal was even rarer than a pocketful of money at the time, so of course I said yes. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it’s true: my patron was a pastor, and joining us for dinner were his wife and his two beautiful daughters. They pretended I didn’t stink and I pretended I wasn’t starving and we all got along famously.

If the pastor had served up some alcohol my bliss would have been complete, but even as it was I could hardly believe my luck, and I couldn’t help thinking what a story it would make if I ended up marrying one of the pastor’s daughters. But no. After we ate we lingered a bit and I took my departure, with many thanks, never to see anyone in the family again.

But I was talking about snow, and what I will never forget was my shock the next day, when a warm, strong Chinook came scouring down the valley and disposed of almost all that snow in a single day. I remember thinking how wise I had been to go out in search of my fortune as soon as the storm ended.

Since then, I’ve seen countless repetitions of the same phenomenon, something I don’t know that I had ever seen growing up in Minnesota, where in a normal year (and it was easier to speak of  “normal” before climate change settled in for the long haul) the snow from the first storm might still be on the ground, though buried deeply, at the start of spring thaw.

Which is why, living here in the land of Chinooks in the era of climate change, I have taken such pleasure in the thick blanket of snow, especially on Saturday, when the sky was a brilliant blue and there wasn’t a cloud in sight.

I should also say, speaking of Chinooks, that when I moved to Billings, in 1989, it was still the unofficial policy of the city of Billings to plow a small number of the most heavily traveled roads and nothing more. It was always assumed that a warm wind would arrive soon enough, and usually it did. In those rare years when it snowed heavily and the Chinooks did not come, well, the deeply rutted side streets were the next best thing to bumper cars.

Now we’re becoming a big small city, where people expect things like having their residential streets plowed. And so we have a city experimenting with new ways of dealing with all the snow, and snowplow crews working seven or eight days in a row, on 12-hour rotations.

We owe them thanks, and some forbearance. They’ll get the job done eventually, if the Chinooks don’t get here first.

In the meantime, since we don’t know how long the snow will be around, I offer up (above) a gallery of photos of the aftermath of the latest big storm.

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