By Dean Mauridis
They say that birds can sense the coming of a storm long before the barometer starts to drop or the radio warnings erupt in the emergency frequencies and certainly way sooner than we, people, realize that something is in the making. However, I’ll always wonder what was it that birds sensed on the night of May 7th, back in 1988, when the perfect snowstorm hit.
I had decided to get a job as a ranch hand that spring and my quest led me to L.L.,an isolated ranch up on the high plains of the eastern Rockies, nestled among absurdly high, forbidding mountain peaks. That place is so high on the Big Horn mountains in Wyoming that people and animals alike can barely live there all year round. To the south, the craggy ground breaks up forming an elongated valley 1500 feet lower in elevation. Although the ranch sits somewhere between the treeless alpine zone and the grassy meadows below it, the storms that hit that place are savagely powerful and literally, out of the blue.
1988 was the second drought year in a row for the region. The melting snow water of the previous year had bypassed the ranch completely. The unforgiving summer sun had hardened the soil so much that it had cracked all around the place. The dry fall was followed by a paranoid winter, so mild and snowless, that there were tornados billowing dust miles high up in the sky and not a trace of a snowflake all winter long.
Towards May, herds of elk and deer passed through the ranch’s withered pastures heading for feeding grounds higher up in the mountains. Early wildflowers had started to cover the fields and you could almost see a greenish suspicion of fresh grass when the sun hit the slopes early in the morning.
It was the heart of the migrating season. The local robins and gray back finch, that had spent the winter in the area, welcomed the migratory species during their northbound midway stops and in the alpine pond, two miles up from the ranch, Forster terns that had already traveled more than ten thousand miles, rested up before flying towards Canada. Birds and mammals had lost their excess fat, white plumage and heavy fur. Weasels and hare had swapped their white camo for gray and even two rattle snakes were spotted mating wildly just ten feet from the tool shed.
The storm came stealthily. No wind preceded it. The previous night I took a long walk under a sparkling starry sky, listening to elk climbing those craggy slopes in the dark. Next day, May 7th was the Kentucky derby and knowing nothing at all about horse racing, I had bet 10 bucks on a black mare called “Winning colors”. There was a vet coming by helicopter the next day to inoculate the cows and I, the newcomer, was going to play assistant vet. If you bear in mind that about a week ago the closest I had gotten to a cow was when I opened a can of evaporated milk, it would be a day of revelation.
I think the complete silence must have woken me up around six in the morning. That mystical, sound muffling insulation, snow brings along with it. There was some hustle in the house and suddenly the foreman burst in and hollered “Boys, you’d better saddle up, there’s a shitload of snow out there and still fallin’…more snow than ever seen in your lives and then some…it’s gonna be a big one…”.
Snow…, there was a weird silence out there and with one look I knew this meant trouble. It had already covered the height of the fence and kept coming. What particularly alarmed me was that it was heavy, moist and thick as cement and worst of all it seemed as if there was a fleet of giant snowplows throwing bowling ball sized snowballs from the heavens with deadly accuracy. We got up on the double, put on our snowshoes and got out.
Just last week we had driven the cattle to the high pastures so they had to be somewhere there. The question was where exactly and judging from the fact that the surface of the mountain pasture was 12 thousand acres, spotting them was a tough piece of work. My first thought was that the cows were already dead from asphyxiation, as the height of the snow was now over their heads, but we pressed on to find them, regardless.
We did not hear the animals at all, it was more like, we saw them coming. They were walking one behind the other, the calves followed their mothers, with other cows in tow, on the road that led to the stables and the haystacks. They were being led by a spotted cow that had been known as a troublemaker. For a cow, she was brighter and more enterprising than the other cows but she also kept to herself. She somehow enjoyed her own company and kept her distance from the crowd. That cow never went anywhere the other cows went but now she was leading them home in complete silence, as if in some pious religious procession. To break, the door of the stable, free of snow, took seven men twenty minutes of hard work. We had to shovel snow that was up to our chest and continued to fall unabated. The cows just kept looking at us patiently, making no noise, no movement. We just couldn’t work any faster. It was as if time had entered a slow motion capsule, that is, if there was any movement at all. After that, maybe an hour passed till we had opened a path to the stable coral and gate. The animals followed on our tracks with their noses high up in the air and just above the snow, to be able to breathe.
There were just ten bales of hay in the stable, so in the next few hours we did the best we could to feed the cows with that. The first bale disappeared in the snow as we threw it from the platform above so we laid down wooden planks and spread the hay on them. Even so, the animals couldn’t get to it easily and it amounted to just a hay mouthful per cow when, normally, they require ten to thirteen pounds of food per day. Two hours later, we had cleared a path to the waterhole a hundred feet away. As I was shoveling snow, a robin that had been trapped underneath its weight, broke free and flew away in a split second.
Around noon, we changed into skis to be able to get to the paths far from the barn as the snowshoes kept sinking deep in the snow. Six hours had elapsed since we had sprang from bed and the storm was still going strong, if not stronger than in the morning. On our way back to the barn we heard a loud crack from above. The roof of the huge barn had broken apart. That snow was so heavy that did not slip on the corrugated roof, it just stayed there and kept piling up. Now, we had the pressing problem of where the cows would spend the night. A night out in the open would probably prove lethal for all those young calves. Cracked roof or not cracked roof, we had to empty the barn of much needed equipment so we started pulling out the tractor and the 4WD pick up truck as fast as we could. While we were at it, loud noises coming from the roof verified that the crossbeams that supported the roof rafters were giving way one by one. We jimmyrigged vertical supports we “liberated” from an adjacent fence all around the roof bases without knowing if they would hold or not and got out fast. Once outside, with the roof secured, we decided to move the livestock in the barn for the night. It was crowded in there, but warm enough for the animals to make it through the difficult night ahead. As the cattle were moving in, Hank, our foreman, affectionately told them to keep their heads down as “it wasn’t over yet”. More fence material along with about a dozen two by fours and whatever else could be used to support the roof was nailed on beams, dug into the ground or tied onto the rafters and the roof held. By the time we were done, we had lost light and had to work by flashlight . It was way past midnight when we retreated into the house for a well deserved rest. We had been working for eighteen hours straight. Thank heavens, sometime during the early hours of the new day, the snow would break as abruptly as it had started 24 hours before.
The electricity and phone lines were cut. I looked at my watch and took a look at the mountain just visible in the storm. I wondered how many animals had not made it up there and then saw the spotted cow that was checking out the mountain too through one of the barn apertures. How she, the most antisocial of cows, had led the herd back to the barn, we would never find out, but to everyone’s surprise she had done a great job while at it.
Most spring storms are wild and sudden, they carry frozen hailstones, thundery showers, blizzards and rainbows but the silent might and lethal destructiveness of that storm showed me that you got to revere the weather. The following morning, we went to the north of the ranch to register the effects of the storm. It was time to count our losses. The overall destruction was indescribable. Almost all the apple trees were broken apart with some branches twisted in the most grotesque way. Most of the willows were flattened along the banks of the dried up creek and under a wild cypress we found a dead expecting deer. The sun was up and a foot of snow had already melted, drowning snowbound animals where they lay. We followed the tracks of the mountain lions and the deep paths the elk carved up in the mountain walking single file just like our cows. Hank, said that in a similar storm some thirteen years ago, 90% of the deer had perished. For weeks afterwards, we would find dead migratory birds whose fat deposits had been depleted.
A week later, another storm hit. Thunder and lightning echoed in the high plains like summer music in the deaf ears of winter. This time it was milder in all its beauty without the destruction of the perfect storm. Somehow, the snow seemed to belong in the past and barn roofs could be rebuilt and wounds heal. You just could not picture the ground covered with the white material anymore though it was just a week since the big snowstorm. Warm days and summer showers took their turn and cows and calves returned to their high pastures. When thunder came, it turned into green lightning, filled the air with green leaves and with the singing of birds the winter had chased away from our memory. With one swift touch of a magic cosmic wand, summer was upon us all over again.