TODAY, THE FIRST DAY of spring, hope springs that this long winter of too much snow will soon exit Minnesota. Most Minnesotans, including me, are weary of days marked by new snowfall that has accumulated, pushing this 2022-2023 winter season into top 10 records in our state.
But now, with the official start of a new season on March 20—the season of new life, the season of planting and budding and greening—I feel a mental shift. Psychologically, my mind can envision a landscape shifting from colorless monochrome to vivid greens. I can feel the warmth of warmer days yet to come. I can smell the scent of dirt released, breaking from winter’s grip. I can hear the singsong chatter of returning birds. I can taste asparagus spears snapped from the soil.
All of this is yet to come. I understand that. A date on a calendar doesn’t mean spring in Minnesota. That season is realistically weeks away. April can still bring inches of snow.
But we are edging toward spring. I feel that in temps sometimes reaching just past 40 degrees. I feel it in the warmth of the sun, shining brighter, bolder, longer. I see dwindling snow packs and exposed patches of grass. I hear spring in vehicles splashing through puddles rather than crunching across snow. I see spring, too, in the endless potholes pocking roadways.
On this first day of spring, I am reminded of a poem I penned in 2011, a poem which splashed across four billboards along a road just off Interstate 94 in Fergus Falls in west central Minnesota. To this day, publication of that poem remains an especially rewarding experience for me as a poet.
I submitted the poem to the now-defunct Roadside Poetry Project’s spring competition. Poems changed out seasonally in this Fergus Falls Area College Foundation funded contest. It was a bit of a challenge writing a spring-themed poem, as I recall. Not because of the theme, but rather the rules—four lines only with a 20-character-per-line limit. But, as a writer, it’s good to be challenged.
I suppose you could say the same about Minnesota weather. It’s good to be challenged by an especially snowy winter so we appreciate spring’s arrival even more. Yes, that’s a positive perspective—a way to mentally and psychologically talk myself into enduring perhaps six more weeks of winter in this official season of spring.
NOTE: I intentionally omitted any pictures showing snow/winter.
SHE WAS NOT QUITE 33 years old, this young mother of five living on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm in March 1965. It was an especially harsh winter, documented in a spiral bound notebook she kept.
She filled page after page with several-line daily entries about everyday life. She wrote about crops and household chores and kids and food and the most ordinary daily happenings. And, always, she recorded the weather—the wind, the precipitation, sometimes the temperature.
This keeper of prairie history in rural Redwood County was my mother, who died in January 2022 at the age of 89. I am the keeper of her journals, which she kept from 1947-2014, from ages 15 to 82. Sixty-seven years of journaling. Several years, when she met and fell in love with my dad, are noticeably missing.
Recently, I pulled the tote holding her collection of writing from the closet. This snowy winter of 2022-2023 in Minnesota prompted me to filter through Mom’s notebooks from 1964 and 1965. That winter season of nearly 60 years ago holds the state record for the longest consecutive number of days—136—with an inch or more of snow on the ground. We are closing in on that, moving into the top ten.
Mom’s journal entries confirm that particularly snowy and harsh winter on the Minnesota prairie. From February into March, especially, many days brought snow and accompanying strong wind. Two photos from March 1965 back up Mom’s words. Her first March entry is one of many that notes the seemingly never-ending snow falling on our family farm a mile south of Vesta. She writes of the weather:
March 1—What a surprise! Snowing & blowing when we got up & kept on all day. No school.
March 2—Still blowing & started to snow again. Really a big drift across the driveway. Mike came & opened up driveway. No school again. Milk truck didn’t come so Vern has to dump tonight’s milk.
Let me pause here and emphasize the hardship referenced in Mom’s March 2 entry. My dad had to dump the milk from his herd of Holsteins. That was like pouring money down the drain. I can only imagine how emotionally and financially difficult that was to lose a day’s income. But if the milk truck can’t get through on snow-clogged country roads to empty the bulk tank, there’s no choice but to pour away milk.
On March 3-5, Mom writes the same—of snow and blowing snow and efforts to keep the driveway open and no school. Then comes a respite from the snow. Dad was even planning ahead to spring, receiving a delivery of DeKalb seed corn on March 15. But then snowfall resumes on St. Patrick’s Day in this land of wide open spaces, where the wind whips fierce across the prairie.
March 17—Snowing & blowing. Got worse all day. Good thing the milk truck came. No school.
March 18—Quit snowing, but is really blowing. Huge drift across driveway & in grove. Almost all roads in Minn are blocked. No school. Cold, about 10 degrees.
March 19—We all went outside & took pictures of the big drifts & all the snow. Mike came over through field by gravel pit & started to clear off yard. Clear & cold.
Mom’s March 19 entry is notable for multiple reasons. First, my parents documented the snowdrifts with their camera. They didn’t take pictures often because it cost money to buy and develop the film. Money they didn’t have. That is why I have few photos from my childhood. That they documented the huge drifts filling our driveway and farmyard reveals how much this snow impacted their daily lives. In the recesses of my memory, I remember those rock-hard drifts that seemed like mountains to a flat-lander farm girl. That my Uncle Mike, who farmed just to the east, had to drive through the field (rather than on the township and county roads) to reach our farm also reveals much about conditions.
In the two days following, Mom writes of a neighbor coming over with his rotary (tractor-mounted snowblower) to finally open the driveway. But when the milk truck arrived at 4:30 am, the driveway was not opened wide enough for the truck to squeeze through the rock hard snow canyon. The driver returned in the afternoon, after Dad somehow carved a wider opening.
The weather got better in the days following, if sunny and zero in the mornings and highs of 12 degrees are better. At least the snow subsided. On March 23, Mom even notes that they watched the space shot on TV. I expect this first crewed mission in NASA’s Gemini Project proved a welcome diversion from the harsh winter.
In her March 27 journal entry, hope rises that winter will end. Mom writes: Sunny & warmer than it has been for days. Got to 45 degrees. Minnetonka beat Fairbault (sic) in basketball tournament. I almost laughed when I read that because Minnesotans often associate blizzards with state basketball tournament time. I also laughed because Faribault would eventually become my home, the place I’ve lived for 41 years now.
So much for optimism. On March 28, snow fell again. All day.
But the next day, Mom writes, the weather was sunny and warm enough to thaw the snow and ice and create a muddy mess. I stopped reading on March 31. I’d had enough snow. I expect Mom had, too.
DECIDEDLY NONTROPICAL MINNESOTA seems an unlikely place to find wild or captive flamingos. And it is…with the exception of the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley and Como Park Zoo in St. Paul and their resident flamingos. While those two zoos are not all that far from Faribault, we have our own flock right here. Not real, of course, but fake flamingos, which are good enough for me in the midst of a particularly long and snowy Minnesota winter.
In the storefront window of Fashions on Central, a fashionably-dressed headless mannequin grips the leashes of five plastic flamingos wading in a sea of gauzy fabric. With two fish among them and a starfish to the far left, I recognize this as a tropical scene. Yet my imaginative snowbanked mind drifts to snowdrifts enveloping those warm weather birds.
Enough of that thinking.
I appreciate the creative efforts at Fashions on Central, a women’s clothing store owned and operated by Buckham West. Proceeds from the sales of gently-used clothing, shoes and accessories go directly back to the local senior center. I love this environmentally-friendly mission of recycling donated, used clothing. I’ve shopped here and, in fact, found a like-new gray wool pea coat for a bargain $7. It’s kept me warm for multiple Minnesota winters already.
While I’m not in the market for beach clothes like those worn by the store-front mannequin, I know others may be as they plan spring break vacations. No matter, this tropical scene gives me a visual respite. If I focus hard enough and long enough, I can imagine myself ocean-side, hot sun warming my skin, leis layered around my sweaty neck, fish swimming, flamingos flaunting.
And then, if I walk several blocks south from Fashions on Central to Division Street and aim straight ahead rather than turn right to Buckham West, I can escape, too. Inside Buckham Memorial Library, books set in tropical locations await me. Yes, there’s always a way to flee winter in Minnesota, even when you can’t leave.
BEFORE THE RAIN OF MONDAY, which reduced our significant snow pack, I determined to document the snowy landscape of Faribault. Plus, Randy and I needed to get outdoors, stretch our legs and embrace the 30-some-degree warmth of a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Traveling around town these days requires a bit of extra caution, starting in our driveway. The towering snowbanks flanking the ends necessitate creeping out, all the while trying to see whether any vehicles are approaching. The same goes for many intersections around my community. It’s been a few winters since I’ve seen snow mounded this high. City crews are doing a good job of moving or removing snow to increase visibility. They were on my corner Monday morning to clear snow from the storm sewer drain and intersection.
Parking lots hold mountains of snow which take me back to just how much fun I had as a kid playing on the massive piles of snow my dad built with the loader on his John Deere tractor. Up and down the snow hills my siblings and I ran, playing Canadian Mounties or whatever our imaginations decided.
In Faribault on Sunday, I observed families scaling the hill by the high school after sliding down. I love seeing kids enjoying winter outdoors in Minnesota.
In a corner of the high school parking lot, the snow is pushed so high that I’m clueless as to how it got that high. It’s impressive. I don’t even want to think about how long it will take for that glacier to melt. June?
The same goes for the snow piled in the Faribo West Mall parking lot. Or maybe it’s the Walmart parking lot. The roofline of the discount retailer is barely visible.
Along and near the river in two city parks, picnic tables surrounded by snow remind me that many months will pass before anyone can picnic. Well, I suppose, technically one can picnic in winter, if you are willing to slog through a foot plus of snow to dine.
To my photographic delight, though, three ice fishermen slogged through the snow to fish on the Cannon River by the Faribault Woolen Mill Dam. Randy suggested I might want to walk out there for some close-up photos rather than rely on my zoom lens. No, thank you. At this stage in winter, especially, with snow acting as insulation on ice, I don’t trust the ice. These guys, with their portable pop-up fish houses, clearly think differently than me.
My thoughts about right now are those of being ready for winter to end. But, realistically, I understand that we have two months of winter remaining here in Minnesota. As a life-long Minnesotan, I can’t deny that. Onward, into March.
THURSDAY MORNING, 10:30 a.m. AND SNOW is still falling here in Faribault. But the sun is breaking through and I am hopeful the snow will soon end. The unofficial yardstick reading on our patio is 14 inches from this three-day weather event.
Randy is blowing the driveway open as I write. Just as he nearly finished clearing the end, the city plow arrived, blading a windrow of snow back across the driveway. Timing. Now he’s working on removing that ridge. This is not unexpected; we Minnesotans assume this will always happen.
Neighbors have emerged, too, blowing snow from sidewalks and drives. Across the street, neighbor boys are outside playing. I watched as one scooped snow onto his shovel, waited and then promptly dumped the load onto his brother’s head. Nearby, Dad continued working the snowblower.
This is a snow day for Minnesota kids. E-learning and distance learning or maybe no learning at all.
A mom and her two little ones are out walking the dog.
Businesses and public places—the arts center, the library, the mall, the shoe store—are either closed or opening late. People seem to be heeding the warnings to stay home and off roadways. Even Randy is staying home from work today.
Traffic, mostly non-existent earlier, is picking up along our main arterial street. Mostly snowplows and pick-up trucks pulling trailers loaded with snow removal equipment.
In the extreme southwestern corner of Minnesota, my native prairie, a portion of Interstate 90 remains closed along with many state highways. Wind whips this light snow, creating whiteout conditions, snowdrifts feet high and impassable roads. The National Guard is standing by to launch roadside rescues if needed.
As snowstorms go, I’ve experienced much worse, especially as a Redwood County farm kid. I respect winter in Minnesota, understand the dangers when a major storm descends. And today, although this storm was not quite the historic storm predicted, I’m good with that. With some 14 inches of total snowfall, that’s enough for me, and Randy.
TELL ME: If you live in Minnesota, how much snow did you get? If you live elsewhere, are you experiencing any bad weather? I’d like to hear your stories.
AS I WRITE THIS MID-MORNING Wednesday, the view outside my office window is one of a landscape layered in new snow, about five inches. The light snow of earlier has stopped.
All appears calm, until I look closer. I notice snow sweeping off my neighbor’s roof. I see, too, treetops swaying, a trio of exposed squirrel nests nestled among branches. Another neighbor’s political flags extend in the wind, bannering messages I’m weary of seeing long after the 2020 election has ended. Buffeting my front steps, dried hydrangea heads wave in the rhythm of the morning wind.
For days now, we’ve been lectured by weather forecasters and officials alike not to be lured into complacency. This lull in an anticipated historic winter storm here in Minnesota is expected. Southern Minnesota braces for storm’s second punch after overnight snow.That Minnesota Public Radio headline and similar headlines have played across media outlets for days.
I lean into believing the National Weather Service predictions about this multi-day event that could rank among our top five winter storms. It’s not only about the quantity of snow, possibly topping 21 inches, but also about the wind. As a prairie native, I understand how quickly winds of even 25 mph can create white-out blizzard conditions, making travel dangerous and impossible. Winds are expected in some places to top 50 mph. Our governor has already declared a peacetime emergency.
When my husband left for work Wednesday morning, I asked him to remain weather aware, reminding him that this storm is about the wind as much as the snow. He works as an automotive machinist in a rural location, typically a 35-minute commute. Unlike me, Randy leans into believing storm predictions are more hype than reality. Sometimes he’s right. Time will tell. Regardless, I inquired whether his phone was fully-charged and whether a sleeping bag was still in the van. It was and it was. And I asked him to text when he arrived at work and when he leaves later today. He did and I expect he will. Roads this morning were worse in sheltered areas, he reported.
By noon our winter storm warning transitions into a blizzard warning in effect for 24 hours. It’s not often my county of Rice, just south of the Twin Cities metro along Interstate 35, enters blizzard status. I expect this designation in southwestern Minnesota and other primarily open land area parts of the state, but not here.
Whatever happens, we’ve been warned by the National Weather Service, Twin Cities, on their Twitter page Wednesday: There seems to be some confusion this morning because the sun has come out. Does this mean all we got is a measly 3-5” and it’s over? Nope! As we’ve talked about for days, round 2 is on the way and it will pack a punch! Expect an ADDITIONAL 10-15” by tomorrow morning.
IF MY MOM WAS STILL LIVING, I’d apologize. I’d apologize for dismissing her connections between weather and an aching body. I laughed off that cause-and-effect as one of those ideas passed from generation to generation. More myth than truth. But I’m not laughing any more.
As I’ve aged, I’ve noticed an interplay between changes in weather and how I feel physically. Right now my body is hurting. A lot. I attribute that partially (mostly) to the winter storm. Anytime a storm is approaching, upon us and/or the weather turns bitterly cold, I experience more pain.
I’ve read that fluctuations in barometric pressure (lower in the winter) specifically affect joint pain, stiffness and swelling. Without completely going down the rabbit hole of self-diagnosis, that generality seems to apply to me.
I should provide some backstory here. I have an artificial right hip, implanted in 2008 after I developed osteoarthritis so severe I could barely walk or tolerate the pain. Because I was youngish, I was advised to hold off on surgery as long as possible. Much of the pain I experience now centers on the right implant side of my body and in my lower back. My back is plagued by osteoarthritis and scoliosis. As Randy has noted, my body is crooked and I can visually see and feel that.
Bear with me. I also have an implant in my left wrist, the result of a 2018 fall which shattered my wrist. Ten screws hold that wrist plate in place. When the weather changes, I notice discomfort in my wrist. Likewise in my right shoulder. I broke that in 2017 after missing the last step on a hospital stairway while on my way to donate blood.
What is my point in sharing all of this? Not to garner sympathy or give the impression of woe-is-Audrey. Rather, I’m interested in learning whether you notice, like me, a connection between weather and body. I recognize this question may be more applicable to those of you who are aging Baby Boomers.
So let’s hear. Share your personal stories and your insights and perhaps we can reach an unscientific conclusion. Was my mom right? Is there a connection between weather and an aching body?
WHEN A MAJOR WINTER STORM is in the forecast for Minnesota, we Minnesotans listen intently. And then we stock up on eggs, milk and bread. Or so the joke goes. But, in reality, grocery stores do experience an uptick in business. Liquor stores, too. And for anyone who owns a snowblower—and that’s most of us—having enough gas to fuel snow removal is a must, not an option.
So here we are, poised to get massive quantities of snow over several days. Faribault is in the 17 to 22-inch snowfall range, according to the National Weather Service forecast on Monday. That bull’s eye target of snow stretches from western to eastern borders across a wide swatch of southern Minnesota from around Mankato in the south to St. Cloud in the north.
And then as if the large amounts of snow aren’t enough, winds are anticipated to rage, blowing around all that light, fluffy snow. The 40-45 mph winds gusting up to 50 mph will create white-out and blizzard conditions in many regions, especially on the prairie.
This looks to be a doozy of a winter storm that begins on Tuesday afternoon, ends on Thursday evening. Forecasters seem quite confident it will play out as predicted. I expect closures of schools, businesses and more. I expect snow gates (yes, there’s such a thing) to be pulled across interstates and other highways. There will be winter storm (our warning starts at 3 pm today) and blizzard warnings, travel advisories, “no travel recommended” and most likely stranded motorists who need rescuing.
Randy and I are prepared. I have a stack of library books to read. We have 2 ½ dozen eggs (thanks to a friend who has free-range chickens), enough milk and nearly a full loaf of bread. The snowblower gas tank is topped. And the mini fridge in the basement is stocked with craft beer. Yup, we’re ready…
WINTER IN MINNESOTA can be decidedly difficult in the sort of way that challenges us to either adjust, adapt or embrace, or flee to Arizona, Texas or Florida.
That got me thinking. If you’re not from the Bold (Cold) North, you may be unfamiliar with our winter weather obsession and terminology. Wind chill is an oft-referenced word in Minnesota winter weather forecasts. Defined, that’s the feels like temp on skin when wind meets air temperature. The result is not pleasant with repeated warnings of exposed flesh can freeze in just minutes. That’s the time to layer up, don long johns, pull out the heavy parka or down coat, shove hands into mittens (not gloves), wrap your face and neck in a scarf, clamp on a warm hat and lace lined boots over thick wool socks. Or stay indoors. Just for the record, recent Minnesota wind chills have been between 20-35 degrees below zero.
YES, MINNESOTANS REALLY DO DRIVE ONTO FROZEN LAKES
Regarding risk, Minnesotans continue to participate in a sem- risky winter sport. Ice fishing. As absurd as this sounds to those who have never lived in a cold weather state, this is the sport of angling for fish on a frozen lake. It can be (mostly) safe if anglers follow basic rules for ice safety, the first being that no ice is ever 100 percent safe and know your lake. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources offers basic ice thickness guidelines such as stay off ice less than four inches thick. If it’s four inches thick, you can walk on lake ice. Nine to 10 inches of ice will support a small car or SUV. You’ll need 16-17 inches to drive a heavy truck onto a frozen lake and so on. Every winter vehicles plunge through the ice and people lose their lives on Minnesota lakes.
Yet, we Minnesotans continue to embrace the sport, exercising caution. Clusters of simple pop-up temporary day houses to homemade wooden shacks to fancy sleep-overnight factory models create mini villages on our frozen lakes. Anglers hang out therein, drilling holes in the ice, drinking beer, playing cards and doing whatever while waiting for the fish to bite. Decades have passed since I participated in this winter sport. But I did. It was the cracking noise of the ice that got to me.
PENGUINS, FIRE & UP ON THE ROOFTOP
Ice. I quite dislike that aspect of winter. And we’ve had a lot of ice this winter on roads, sidewalks, parking lots, every hard surface. As I age, my fear of falling and breaking a bone is real. I deal with ice by either staying off it or walking like a penguin.
Recently I observed my neighbor trying to remove ice from his driveway with fire fueled by a small portable propane tank. It was the weirdest thing—to see this flame in the black of evening aimed downward onto his cement driveway. It didn’t work well. The next evening, two of them were out chipping at ice the old-fashioned way with a long-handled bladed tool designed for that purpose.
Yes, we chip ice from our sidewalks and driveways. We shovel snow from our roofs in an effort to prevent ice dams (of which there are many this winter). Getting through a Minnesota winter, especially one as snowy as this season, requires fortitude and effort.
CELEBRATING PAUL BUNYAN STYLE
Winter here also requires plenty of flannel, our unofficial winter attire. I recently purchased two flannel shirts to replace two that I’d worn thread-bare. I love my flannel. It’s comfy and cozy and warm and makes me feel Paul Bunyan authentic. If you’re unfamiliar with Paul, let me explain. He’s a legendary lumberjack, a symbol of strength and endurance. And he wears red buffalo plaid flannel. My community even celebrates flannel with the Faribault Flannel Formal, set for 5:30-9 pm Saturday, March 11, at Craft Beverage Curve (10,000 Drops Craft Distillers and Corks & Pints)). And, yes, that means attendees wear flannel, sample hotdishes (the Minnesota term for casseroles) and participate in lumberjack games. Yeah, sure, ya betcha. This is how we survive winter in the Bold (Cold) North.
NEWS THAT VOTING has opened for the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s “Name a Snowplow” contest came at just the right time—as two clipper systems bring more snow into a state already overwhelmed by snowfall this winter. Voting comes also as the coldest air since mid-December is about to descend, dropping temps to below zero this weekend in most parts of Minnesota.
It’s been quite the winter. So this MnDOT contest is providing a humorous mental respite from the cold and snowy reality of January in Minnesota, with three months of winter to go.
Three years ago MnDOT launched its first snowplow naming competition, inviting the public to submit names for the big orange trucks that clear our state highways of snow and ice. This year 10,000 names were submitted, which have been narrowed down to 60 choices. Online voting is open until midnight, Friday, February 3. The winning names will grace eight snowplows in MnDOT’s eight districts.
I breezed through the names, quickly choosing my top three. Participants can vote for up to eight. I chose Blader Tot Hotdish (a reference to Minnesota’s culinary delight, Tator Tot Hotdish), Orange You Glad to See Me (picked for obvious reasons) and Spirit of ‘91 (a reference to the Halloween Blizzard of 1991, a multi-day blizzard which dumped single storm record snowfalls throughout the state; three feet in Duluth).
I love this diversion from talking solely about the weather, as we Minnesotans are inclined to do, especially in winter.
This contest also puts a positive spotlight on MnDOT, which too often delivers the bad news of road closures, crashes, road construction, impossible driving conditions and more. “Name a Snowplow” is, simply put, genius creative marketing.