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Frozen in time

Recalling the crystallized winter of 1979



One day last week it was cold—really cold—but not quite record-breaking. The weatherman reported that the record for the day was set back in 1979: 31 degrees below zero. I checked my old ranch notebook, and yes, 1979 was quite a winter.

We'd kept the cattle on the range in Wyoming as long as we could, but by late November we trailed them to the ranch through crusted snow a foot deep. Fortunately, we'd bought extra hay, and our old friend and hired hand, John Ashton, stayed in his little camp trailer to keep an eye on things.

Then the weather went from bad to worse. At the recorded low that winter, the temperature was 52 degrees below zero. The snow never ceased and wind drifted our back road shut, so my husband Stan and I had to drive a 50-mile round trip each day to feed the cattle.

Some of my ranch journal went like this: Feb. 3, 1979: It's 32 degrees below zero. We are in a God-awful routine. Each morning we start the pickup that had been plugged into a head-bolt heater all night. We load the kids and two dogs, heater going full blast. We meet the school bus, then continue the trip to camp.

Old John, bald and toothless, waves through the frosty window to signal that he has hot coffee ready. His dog Cactus crawls out from under the step, too cold to show enthusiasm. We shake out of our coats while John pours the coffee. "Coffee with a bead on it," he likes to say. "Have a cigarette. You need your vitamins."

While we drink our coffee, we have the ritual conversations:

"How cold was it last night"

"How much hay is left?"

"How are the critters holding up? It's getting close to calving."

And, "When the hell is this weather going to break?"

Finally, the coffeepot's drained and the job can't be put off any longer. I have on all the warm clothes I own and still it won't be enough.

Outside we go, no dawdling now. Ice crystals hang in the air. The sun sits uselessly in a pale sky. We move to the routine. Dumb mistakes would be dangerous in this weather. I'll catch the horses, Stan will get the harness, John pours out the oats. The Belgian mares are glad to see us, nickering at the rattle of the oat pan. The white frost makes them look like huge, fuzzy toys. John curries, I place the collars. Stan heaves the harness up and we buckle the stiff leather straps. Bulky mittens make that almost impossible to do, but I know better than to take them off. Fingertips would freeze fast, touching metal buckles at 30 below.


I pull my muffler over my face and we start loading the 70-pound bales. This part of the job warms us, at least. No need to waste time deciding what to do or how to do it: Stack so many bales to a row, so many rows to a layer until the sled is loaded high. The horses stand in their traces, snitching bites of hay when there's any in reach.

Okay, we're loaded. When we pick up the lines, the horses lean into the collars and the sled groans as we pull away. The dogs have been scratching for mice as we move the bales, but now they take off, leading us to the feeding ground.

The cattle are bunched and waiting, their backs humped and frosty. They press toward us, hoofs squeaking on the snow. Every day they seem thinner and a little more listless. Even with mittens, there's no wasted motion: Grab the bale-strings with one hand, slice them with your knife in the other, push the hay off in flakes with your knee while reaching for another bale.

Finally, every bale of today's three-plus tons is fed. The cattle are eating like they might never see another bite. We stop to tie the last of the strings and clean scraps of hay off the sled while the horses blow. By now, my face aches. We turn the sled into the breeze and head back.

Cold though we are, there's no hurrying. Stan takes the ax to chop the waterhole open so the cattle can drink. John and I tend the horses. Remember, buckle front to back when you harness, back to front when you un-harness—stay safe. Collars come off next, then put the harnesses up on the sled and cover everything with a tarp, in case it snows again tonight. We'll take the bridles inside; no one would put a cold metal bit in a horse's mouth at this temperature. Turn the horses loose to feed and water. Then we can head inside, stomping our feet as we go.

We're all swearing at frozen buckles and weather and ranching in general; the trailer smells like wet dogs and dirty coats and overshoes. We'll drink the strong black coffee while John smokes another "vitamin" and then we'll head for home. We have more work to do at the ranch, more stock to feed, the school bus to meet.

We fed those cattle until Feb. 14, the day the haystack was depleted and the weather broke with a Valentine's Day chinook. By the end of February, the temperature reached an astounding 50 degrees—above zero.

Mary Flitner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a rancher near Shell, Wyoming.

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