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Celebrating Montana Winters - The test of a true grit pioneer woman...

by Joyce Johnson

I often think of our old timers when extreme weather hits. It has been dramatic, here, historically. Not only a blizzard or cold day or two now and then, but life threatening deep freezes that, for instance in 1936, sank to minus 22 degrees for the whole month of February and off and on through April. Fifteen deaths and countless life stock losses. How did they cope? I have my story too. Back in 1989, 6 months after I moved here from L.A., it was 40 below for many days which was only 10 months after the huge fires. (What planet is this?) In Dec. 2013, we had a deep freeze here in the valley, with 20 below for a few days and so my story is about that one and “coping,” more or less. We were not warned, and soon as Ron drove off to Missoula on business, we valley folks got the 4 or 5 coldest days since that extended minus 40 thing in 89. I was left alone with 3 shizoos, a parrot and a pile of logs outside.

Piece a cake...I kept tossing wood in the stove, of course, and had little electric heaters aimed under the sinks to keep the dripping pipes from freezing...but Ron’s pay-as-you-go, flip-top phone was out of time, so I couldn’t call him to ask what to do, or to just whine. We had frequent power outages in those days. We did not use propane heating except for the kitchen stove—but the sustained minus degrees for any number of days required keeping a wood fire going 24/7. Hauling in logs was back punishing, and I had to wake up several times each night to feed the woodburner. As it turned out I hardly slept at all anyway. We had a few...lets just call them... power “blinks,” and add minus 20, ongoing, is life threatening, and uh... keeps a lot of fair weather fans from living here full time I guess.

But, the one room that must be kept at constant 70 degrees or so here was the parrot’s room/Ron’s office, and the electric floor heater there lost power several times briefly...but how would I know it went off if I’m asleep, or if it was just going to be “brief?” In retro, my native friend said with a straight face, “put the bird cages in the room where the wood burner is.” Oh well of course...I knew that. The 3 shizoos slept through it all in front of the stove, the little layabouts...did their business very fast outside.

Late the first night, the wood burner started to smell strange. I looked in it’s glass window at the inferno, and sniffing, decided it smelled like burnt fruitcake. Not at all like smokey tar, which I read the dreaded Creosote smelled like. But I saw a slim crack of orange light in the pipe where it screwed onto the base. Real panic was born. I opened the vents so it would burn through up & out faster (?) recalling only that if the pipe glows red, it is not a good thing. So I watched it for a while, scared, alone, sleepless in paradise valley.

I creatively began to envision steps to evacuation in case of emergency and here it is: Put on boots and “Herbert” (a big man’s old heavy duty wool thrift store greatcoat), get 2 large parrots out of cage and put inside coat, button it, grab the key to absentee neighbor’s house from wall hook, and drop in pocket – no – pockets have holes in lining! Put key between teeth – no! First call 911! Ok, then call the dogs and hurry outside. Slow down! It is icy under the snow, and pitch black, dark, treacherous walk to neighbor’s house. Wait! Go back and get flashlight! So I mentally hugged 2 screeching and nipping parrots inside a heavy coat while me and shizoos tiptoed into my neighbor’s empty house... in my mind. I know you’re thinking “what a wacko!” but you’ll be relieved to hear that the smell in the woodburner had become much less, and the little crack of fiery orange seen in the stove pipe diminished some. I felt better having devised a plan, and gotten everyone evacuated... in my imagination. So I put the alarm on for 2 hours, laid down on the sofa and fell asleep.

Next day–The wood is getting low and I could not get to the wood pile because the door was frozen closed. Grrrr. I threw hot water at it of course. Didn’t budge. By now I’m getting a little mean, so I threw my body against the door and it jarred loose and I didn’t even notice the pain in my shoulder, but later found out I had broken the hardware. I carried in the remaining wood, and closed the door and it refroze again almost immediately. I’m so done with all this nonstop, frozen vs. fiery, disastrous, grunt work!! Ron is to blame for this whole thing. I tossed the empty wood carrier box outside the front door which he will have to climb over and read an accusing nasty note attached, when he got home...(but the poor guy would be driving home from Missoula tired, and not in the best or safest conditions, and I felt a small trickle of mercy and crumpled the nasty note.)

But everything looks better after a cup of coffee doesn’t it? Next morning I reached for the...I was out of coffee! Grrrrr. I went to boil water for last ditch Folgers instant, but the propane which we used only for the stove had run out! Naturally the electrical power was out too, I think I mentioned that. I couldn’t use the little single plug in burner. This is all just nuts. But then I got a vision of the Coleman camp stove stored somewhere inside the kitch which was good thinking by Ron, now out of the doghouse. I found and set it up, and when I saw the flame I thought it was a miracle. Then the little propane canister fast ran out and I was running on pioneer, wild-woman-bug-eyed, adrenaline now.

But I heard a voice inside my head, “call Emigrant General Store to see if they carry propane.” I did—and of course, they did! They seem to have everything. Get in the car and go to store. It took about 15 mins to suit up (another reason why fair-weather folks avoid Montana) 10 pounds and 7 layers of clothes later I was getting in the car when I heard another thought knock on my skull, “Joyce, don’t forget to unplug the car.” Oh yeah, I got out and tugged on the cord, but it was was old and perhaps corroded, and it took all my remaining strength to pull the prongs out during which I fell back on butt, wool scarf slid off my neck and took my thick fuzzy hat with it leaving my pony tail lying on my face. Grrrr! And brrrr! You’re thinking, “NOW she’s going to really lose it.” Wrong, I got up and into the car whose door was miraculously not frozen, and it started right up! I smiled and patted my stalwart Subaru on it’s dusty dash...and exhaled finally and fully for the first time in days of holding my breath. All was well.

Got Your Back–When Ron came home, happy, innocent as a little kid, and handed me a chocolate bar and 6 half-eaten, cold “to go” boxes from the Wok, I laughed, and said calmly, “So glad you’re home,”... about 6 times. I ate some cold low mein with shrimp while I told him my story. He was surprised and said he was proud of me, and that I did everything he would have. But you know what, aside from the absurd, I did do pretty doggone good! I am not helpless—learned that there are always options, and I stick my chin out now in retro and typical “jj” to myself I say, “be the hero within!”

Post Script: I cannot believe the wimpy thing that I did last nite, 1/10/24: I turned the burner on the stove to warm up some beans, and there was no flame. Oh no, I’ve just written about this!! I dash into the office and say “Ron! No flame on stove!” He came to the kitch, lifted the lid and relit the pilot, and said, “nice to have a man around the house huh?”

[Rewritten from the pccj archives of winter solstice, 2013]


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