Our overnight low is seven below. It’s Sunday, church has already been canceled due to cold and snowy roads, and I’m heading out the door to join my husband feeding cattle. My two kids stay inside as usual, my fifteen-year-old daughter looking after her five-year-old brother. I pull on my muck boots over two pairs of thick socks; I have insulated leggings on with thick jeans over them, a t-shirt, sweatshirt, a zippered-insulated sweatshirt, and finally a thick winter coat over that. A neck warmer, a scarf, a stocking cap with a hood up over that, and ski gloves complete the ensemble. Getting dressed to go outside for chores or work in this winter weather is like donning armor for a battle.
Outside, the sun has risen into an icy net of gray clouds. No warmth escapes its hold even though light seeps through. I hop in the passenger side of the feed pickup and we leave for the Shubert to the north.
The day before, like so many this winter, brought fresh snow that drifted the roads shut again. “Can’t even find the road anymore,” Jon grumbles as he guns it in four-wheel drive to plow through drifts and deceptively deep snow. The cup of coffee I enjoyed this morning sloshes around uncomfortably as we jerk along the road or as near to it as we can manage.
When we make it to the Shubert pasture, we see the heifers have drifted through the fence into the adjacent pasture. Jon grumbles more—our morning just became a long one.
Jon sets out north, going through the autogate and into the next pasture. We call the heifers, about twenty-some head, and they turn and head toward us. One heifer is on the wrong side of the fence so Jon pulls the staples and pushes down the fence so she can climb over.
The heifers stopped at some hay bales and Jon had to step out and move them on foot while I drove the feed pickup.
After what feels like an eternity, we make it back to the Shubert with the wayward heifers. A tank full of snowy slush and ice awaits us. Jon chastises me as we walk to the tank, “look at the cattle tracks and walk where they walked. If you keep going where you’re headed, you’ll walk straight into the overflow pond.” I heed his advice and plod through snow, my legs already tiring. The tank is solid ice when we get there. I set to it with the ax, chopping the ice away from the edge of the tank, while Jon chops blocks of ice with the pitchfork then tosses them out of the tank. I become acutely aware of my shoulders. Every fiber, every sinew of my deltoids is soon on fire and an ache builds in my back and forearms. The windmill creaks under a light breeze and a small stream pours from the leadpipe.
After clearing the ice, we grain the heifers and head back to the granary to load feed for the steers. The steers are fed without incident and we repeat the process and head for the cows in the Webb. Everyday, the cows in the Webb have been hanging around the Merritt house and tree-break in this snow and cold. We see they are there again this day, but as always need to see that breakfast has arrived before being persuaded to leave their sheltered spot. Jon drives toward the cows, calling, when we suddenly dive forward into a blowout buried and disguised in deep snow. We are stuck. Our long morning just got longer.
Jon calls our intern and–thankfully–she is nearby with the tractor feeding hay. She comes and we hook on a tow rope so she can pull us out. The cows still need fed and ice needs chopped at this mill as well. We are battling through this day, at the end of a long, hard month.
After lunch, I start into those promised chocolate chip cookies while Jon heads down south to help with the cows at the Susan. I’m just adding eggs to the mix when he texts me, “I’m stuck”. I tell Abigail I’m off to rescue Dad and head out to the red pickup to see if it will start. A few protesting growls before the engine turns over and I head to Ellsworth to get the white pickup with all the tow ropes and head south. Will this day ever be done?
As I top a ridge, I see a Jon out walking, flagging me down. The blue feed pickup is stuck in the bottom of a draw. I pull the white pickup to where Jon directs me on top of the hill and he begins hooking on the rope and chains. He tells me to go get in the blue pickup while he pulls with the white. “Now when you see the chain go tight, give it full gas”. He gets in, I give thumbs up, and he revs the engine in reverse. The chain pulls tight and I step hard on the gas. The pickup jerks forward before spinning out in the snow, halting progress quickly. Jon stops and pulls forward, reverses, and we go again. Another jerk forward, followed by a halt. We do a herky jerky dance like this until the tow rope breaks, sending the end of the chain flying back toward me in the pickup. Startled, I put it in park. Jon gets another chain and hooks it up to the now shorter rope, and we begin again. Bit by bit, slowly the feed pickup creeps up the hill at the urging of the white pickup. This day has been a battle and we can’t say we are victors, but neither are we defeated. Still, we head home, calling it enough for today. This war of a winter is not a quick battle, but a long drawn-out siege.
Back home, Abigail has finished mixing the cookie dough and washed all the dishes. A pleasant surprise from my teenager and a lovely treat at the end of this long, difficult day in a long, hard month. I pop the cookies in the oven and watch as they bake, counting my blessings as the delicious smell wafts through the kitchen.