Late Winter Snowstorm

The Ozarks Herbalist; for The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine.
Jim Long

Early Spring Snowstorm

For many years I made annual trips to Tennessee, buying landscape plants from the wholesale nurseries there. It was a trip I looked forward to, driving a truck across Arkansas and Tennessee to the Warren County and McMinnville nurseries. I’d choose the plants I would use for the season in my landscape work and take a bit of time to visit the countryside around central Tennessee.

One year, in preparing for this annual trip, I waited a bit late. It was March, the weather had warmed, the jonquils were in bloom in drifts along the side of the house. It felt solidly like spring.

I had two half grown calves at the time, which required a five gallon bucket of water twice a day. I had two goats to milk, a dozen chickens to feed and water, along with six geese, a dog and cat. In order to be gone the six days it would take for the trip, I had asked a friend to house sit.

He, being a vegetarian, would bring his own food, so I intentionally used up the groceries in the house, not wanting to leave a stray ham bone or a pound of hamburger around in his way. I purposely didn’t buy groceries of any kind, not bread nor milk or even potatoes. The friend would live on rice and beans, tofu, soy milk.

Since warm weather seemed to be firmly settled in, I hadn’t cut any wood, either, which was my only source of heat. I was down to nine sticks of wood and it wasn’t even necessary to have the woodstove fired up at night.

I remember the afternoon well. It was in the 70s and I was shirtless, working outside making some repairs on the wellhouse. The radio was on, the music keeping me company. At noon newstime I listened to the weatherman who said, “Storm warnings and possibilites of heavy snow for Stone and Taney Counties in Missouri.” I laughed. In fact, I swore at the weatherman. “Look outside you moron,” I remember saying out loud. “It’s 70 degrees. Snow? Are you crazy? I already have early garden planted!”

I finished my outdoor chores and went inside to pack. I had at that time, a little 1976 hatchback car, bought cheap, which would take me to town where I kept my truck at work. I continued to enjoy the warm afternoon, even taking a shower outdoors, just to show that it was, indeed, springtime.

Around 4:00 p.m., huge snow flakes began to fall. Then clusters of flakes. Of course the ground was warm, so nothing was sticking, but the snowshower picked up. Again I laughed and went back to my preparations for the trip.

By ten o’clock that night, the ground was covered with snow and it was still snowing. The beds of jonquils and tulips were nowhere to be seen, their heads bent beneath the heavy snow. Still, I went to bed confident that I’d arise to melting snow and head off for my Tennessee trip.

But morning brought new surprises. The first thing I noticed was the house was cold. Since I was nearly out of wood, I had not been having a fire in the wood stove. I then noticed I had no electricity, so there was no radio to hear what was happening in the rest of the world. Outside, I could see that in level places, there was more than a foot of snow, with drifts where the wind had blown over night.

I checked the telephone and found it to be dead, as well. It wasn’t until I heard the dead silence on the phone line that I realized I might be in a difficult situtation. Never before in all the years I’d lived on the farm, remote, far from town, had I ever allowed myself to be out of food. But this time, with my housesitter friend coming, bringing his own supplies, I’d seen no need to stock up. I looked around at what there was to eat.

I’d spent part of the previous summer, canning, so there were a dozen jars of grape jelly. Half a dozen plum jams, eighteen jars of sweet pickles and two jars of pickled hot peppers sat on the shelf. Candied violet blossoms were there and a half dozen jars of tomato preserves, too.

That was it for food. No bread. No meat. No vegetables. Only pickles and jelly and jam, but no bread nor peanut butter. Well, I could surely miss a couple of meals without much difficulty, I thought to myself.

Then it began to occur to me that the two five gallon buckets of water I carried for the calves, and the bucketful for the chickens and goats, couldn’t be gotten, because the well had an electric pump. No electricity, no water. In fact, knowing there was no water on hand, I was immediately thirsty. I ate some grape jelly and a few old, stale crackers, making myself even more thirsty.

I could gather snow and melt it, I thought. But I didn’t have enough wood, and the snow on the ground was now at the fourteen inch level, in big drifts. I didn’t have a chainsaw at the time, nor even a wood cutting saw. I began to panic.

Each day I would use a little of the wood, and melt enough snow to keep the animals alive. If pressed to it, they could eat snow, like I was doing. I gathered broken limbs and kept a small fire in the stove, realizing that if I didn’t, the water pipes would freeze and I would have additional problems, even if the electricity did come back.

One day passed, then two, then three and four. On the fourth day, I was getting really hungry. I’d eaten jam and pickles until I couldn’t stand to eat any more. I’d eaten snow until my tongue was numb and yet I was still thirsty. I’d tried driving my little car but got only a few feet before the depth of the snow lifted the poor little thing so high the wheels were off the ground. Shoveling the heavy, wet snow, was useless as it would take miles of shoveling, up several steep hills, to make any difference.

Finally in mid afternoon of the fourth day, I decided I absolutely had to see people, to know how extensive the storm was, and to get food. My nearest neighbor was two miles away and I hiked slowly through the drifts in the woods, falling over limbs and rocks hidden by the snow. The neighbor and his wife lived closer to the highway and had a four wheel drive pickup. The neighbor drove me to town, where I bought four large grocery sacks of food. I bought a gallon of milk, a loaf of bread, five pounds of potatoes, lots and lots of canned goods.

The neighbor drove me as far as he could, but the rural roads hadn’t been cleared, so I still had about a mile to hike through the high snow, through the hills and woods, over barbed wire fences and through piles of broken trees. My brown paper grocery bags soon got wet, I dropped potatoes and canned goods through the woods, making several trips back and forth to carry home all that I had bought. But that night I ate well after draging home a few more broken branches to burn in the stove. I lit candles and ate close to the wood stove.

The next day the electricity came back on. By mid day, the telephone was reconnected. The following day the snow melted rapidly as the weather warmed back into the upper 60s. The jonquils and tulips began to slowly raise their heads and soon the world was back to normal. Never since, in the 29 years that have followed, have I allowed my pantry to become bare. One never knows when a 70 degree day might turn into a fourteen inch snowfall!