Fresh Eyes: What Everyone Warned Me About
Lara Wisniewski | Wednesday Apr. 30th, 2014
When I first moved here last October, everyone warned me about the long winters. The chorus I heard in my first weeks here were: “Oh the winters are so long, and you have to get out and find something to do outside or you’ll go crazy!” I was assured it would be a challenge, like no winter I ever had been through. Aside from not being able to comprehend 25 Fahrenheit below 0, I wasn’t really worried, but you never know what your reaction will be until you are in the moment. So winter came predictably, and it was the coldest winter that has been seen here in years. It was so cold that a cowboy friend of mine who went to retrieve his bottle of Crown Royal that he had left outside to chill for an hour found the whiskey frozen solid. He said he never knew that whiskey could freeze.
After winter’s shenanigans had geared up, I encountered another Bozeman native who held out a trump even in the face of this exceptionally terrible weather, what could be worse than winter, right? They said: “Everything is pretty until April. Then the mud season begins and it’s just awful and long. It’s gray all the time, and there’s mud everywhere.”
As I stand outside in my yard these days, it couldn’t be more true, there is mud everywhere. I wash my car once a week just so my license plate is visible, always in slight fear that a Bozeman cop will stop me because my plates are hidden under several layers of mud. It is also true that it is gray a lot, the clouds hover over the landscape touting every point on the color scales of blue and black and white. And when it snows, there is no longer the anticipation of clean, sparkly swaths of white that make one forget about the freezing temperatures or the icy conditions. It’s just sleet, and it seems like it’s leftover and forgotten from some dusty box in the basement that has been pulled out in a last minute pinch. The snow doesn’t stick, and when it occasionally leaves a dusting, it melts as quickly as it arrived. Its biggest effect is that, like the rain that happens at least three times a week, it just makes everything muddier, and stickier.
The mud threatens a car getting stuck more than the snow, and can even magically float your car off a gravel road and down a hill. I find I am grateful for a cold night when the sea of mud in my driveway has been frozen into two feet ruts that could trip me up when I walk, but I can drive right over them instead of avoiding them so as not to get stuck. There are no more winter sports in mud season, or it’s hit or miss. I look at the backfield where I snow shoed in six feet of snow not two weeks ago, and wonder how my boots would fare in the mud back there today, is it frozen or would I be in a sea of stickiness?
And then the layering. Winter and spring in Bozeman has been a shedding and un-shedding of clothing layers. Last week I found myself back at Murdoch’s, as I am it seems every three to four months since moving here, looking for a new pair of boots to accommodate the change in the weather. The last couple of weeks I have been walking around, doing my errands wondering why I was having hot flashes. My black Bogs boots, up to my knees, I thought they were extra cool when I bought them in November because they stayed warm in -40 Fahrenheit, until -25 plus came. Then I thanked my lucky stars that the Bogs did exactly what they promised.
Lately I have been wearing them a lot because they are excellent mudslingers and I know I won’t end up on my butt, slicked up by a small mudslide, somewhere in the six feet between my front steps and my car door, which is mostly unpaved. But the hours I spend away from home running errands everyday, like a sped up change of the seasons from morning to high noon and back down, I find myself shedding down to my t-shirt everyday, wondering if I’m rapidly approaching that ‘special time of life’. I get hot flashes in the car waiting in traffic on 19th Ave., in the Petsmart as I’m walking the puppy around for social time, at the grocery store I can’t take it anymore and I squish my toes around in the checkout line. My feet are so HOT, they feel like they are steeped in warm mud.
At Murdoch’s, I end up in the ubiquitous Muck Boot section (a staple for Bozemanites). Muck Boots promise to keep my feet cool while warm, even in the cold or heat. Really, it makes no sense to me, and my feet are already warm in the cold with my Bogs, isn’t that what you’d be shooting for when standing in a snow field at 20 below? Where were the spring boots? I turn around and there on the shelves were the industrial rubber boots, a thick, impervious layer of molded navy rubber. I could have been a fisherman, a construction worker, or just me, a wife, an errand runner, trying to preserve herself against the muddy weather and save a few bucks, while double checking to make sure that her hot flashes were the result of insulated boots and not hormonal frenzy.
All this mud season mayhem…I hate to admit it, but I really like it. Even all the “weather”, it doesn’t scare me, it never did. In truth, when Bozemanites warned me last fall of what was to come, I secretly was jumping up and down with glee. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was so crazy as to want bad weather.
I crave the bad weather, the worse the better. I crave the mud that splatters onto my pants when I go for a walk. I am fascinated by the way the tires forge deep treads that freeze on a cold night like volcano ash did in ancient Pompeii. The mud turns everyday into a new shape, even a new color. Mud season reminds me of Renaissance paintings where the color schemes are sand and earth reds punctuated by bright colors. But it’s not just me, there are really amazing things happening right outside our windows that we can all enjoy.
The birds are going crazy. I noticed it the other day when I looked out my front door because of a loud squeaking commotion. Intensely blue bluebirds, like out of a Disney movie, flew around with some bright, and I mean bright, yellow breasted birds. They smeared a jag of electric color right above my head. I started looking for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to come walking down my driveway.
It really makes me want to get out of the house. The other day I found myself comparison shopping between the amazing range of bicycle stores in downtown Bozeman pricing the coveted Surley Pugsley, so I can ride a bike on the gravel roads around my house. I love that the four-inch tires can plow through the muddy elements without skipping a beat while escaping the potential bear or angry moose mothers I’ve been warned about.
A drive through Springhill or south of town down Jackrabbit, you will now see fields crawling with cattle, babies to mothers to bulls. In the fall, the herds had become uniform in size and sparse in heads. A farm I drive by everyday with a few sheep is now alive with babies and the adult coats are ready for shearing.
All this might be old hat to some of you natives, but I can’t get over how living here offers a literal visual of how life cycles out of grayness and mud. It’s living proof that when things are neither here nor there, the pressure of transition creates more life. The birds seem brighter, the grass greener, the animals more abundant. As the Buddhist monk Pema Chodron always reminds, uncertainty really is the normal state of life.
Speaking of uncertainty, I have watched my rancher neighbor have one of the worst years for his herd in a long time. This year’s cold winter and endless snow was not favorable for calving. And even now that the snow has melted, his entire herd is threatened by a virus that comes from perpetually moist ground. Calf scours, borne from the mud, can rapidly wipe out a herd. Most mornings, we watch him drive by in his truck, racing another calf to town to see the doctor, in hopes that he can save what hasn’t yet died.
Every morning when my puppies whine to be let out at sunrise, I stand on my porch, grateful that I am no longer shivering in my flannel pajamas. My half-sleep turns into wonder when on the hill above my house, I see a family of deer looking down on us. I watch my dog gnaw in blissful oblivion on the bony jaw of a deer she found in the nearby fields, probably one of their ancestors from years past.
Last week I had to leave town to go back to the city for work for a couple of weeks. It was another typically gray mud season morning, the same old rain and sleet. Focused on the logistics of travel as we pulled out of the driveway and away from my daily view of the Bridgers, today moodily half-clouded, I noticed my heart tug. Then as my plane flew west, over and away from Bozeman’s signature mountain range, I felt myself become a little less grounded, dislodged. I looked down from my circular window. There were those mountains and fields, all muddy, snowy, gray and green. What everyone had warned me about. And I wished more than anything that I didn’t have to leave my muddy new home.