When the January Thaw Strikes

WEATHER has become one of humanity's most reliable news items. Every year, when temperatures all across the Great Plains drop below zero, shivering television crews go out in howling winds and stinging snow to interview rural people. Weather forecasters make their predictions standing in front of photos of some miserable teenager with naked ears trying to start his car, or a cow with her tail to the wind, covered with icicles. Each year we act as if cold weather is a surprise, much as the first inhabitan ts of the place must have acted when the first arctic cold front swept down from Alaska a very long time ago.

During the annual weeks when cold becomes our primary topic of conversation, someone who lives in the country may confidently mention the "January thaw." Loud hoots of derisive laughter often erupt. But it always arrives, usually announced at midnight by shingles snapping off the roof and windows rattling. Within hours, great sheets of snow that have held down the land for weeks disappear; the frozen ground becomes mud, puddles of water collect on the floor of the garage as a month's worth of filthy ice dribbles down the tires, and children begin to discard coats on the lawn or in trees where they will not be found until May.

The precise date is seldom predictable, but nature always gives those who live on the plains a break in the middle of winter. Like the rest of our weather, it is usually a complete surprise to weather forecasters, and thus goes unmentioned by most historians.

Anyone raised on the plains instinctively distrusts weather predictions. A friend told me she stopped for one of her daughter's schoolmates, a lad of 12, who was walking to school on a frigid day wearing only a light jacket. Being a mother, she lectured him about his clothes. "I know," he said, shaking his head. "I listened to the weatherman last night, and he said it would be cold today, so I figured it would be warm; he's never right."

Once, I scheduled a star-watching party in January. On the appointed night, a telescope was set up on the deck, and we all stood around in our shirt sleeves, taking turns gazing at the stars. Folks astonished by the soft warmth in the night air accused me of using magic to manipulate the weather, but I insisted it just happened that way. Recently, also by happenstance, I have discovered why the January thaw has gone largely unreported.

The thaw hit on a Sunday this year.

I heard the wind in the night, and slept restlessly after it began; wind makes prairie folk nervous. It sweeps prairie fires along like runaway trains; horses and cattle respond to the wind the same way as people do, running along hilltops, sniffing the wind, hair standing on end; these winds can bring a blizzard as easily as they can bring a thaw.

As I do every morning, I got up early and hustled out to do my chores. My shoulders hurt; I was walking in the characteristic winter crouch of those of us who must be outside. It doesn't make us a bit warmer to wrap our arms around ourselves and hunch our shoulders, but we do it anyway. I was halfway to the barn, stomping along in my heavy overshoes, huddled inside my wool jacket, before I realized sweat was pouring down my face.

Slowly, I straightened up.

A warm gust of wind blew my hood back from my face, and my ears didn't immediately solidify. Cautiously, I unbuttoned my coat. I took a step, and my foot rose out of the heavy overshoe and waved around in the air, toes curling blissfully while I tried to find the ankle hole and shove my foot inside. Naturally, I couldn't do it. The ankle-deep mud in the corral was painfully cold, but it was liquid. Birds sang, and water ran from a hose that had been frozen solid since November.

I hurried through my work so I could take a leisurely walk; I wanted to observe what prairie animals did during the thaw. Then I'd clean house, I'd quickly scrub the layers of muddy human and dog tracks from the kitchen and dining room floors, and roll up the hose that had been lying in snow in the yard since mid-December. I felt as though I could write a book or two. I was filled with energy I remembered having the last time a January thaw struck. But first I'd have lunch.

Things become hazy after that.

I remember waking once to find myself lying across the bed; each time I raised my head I was struck by a shaft of sunshine like a blunt object. Once I noticed the dog lying on the porch, flat on his side as if he'd dropped in mid-stride when somnolence overtook him. I glimpsed the yearling calves lying on a well-drained slope in the field; nothing moved but the long hair on their backs, playfully stirred by a breeze. As I dozed for the third time, I pictured a great plain where sleep had overtaken everyo ne; ranchers sprawled across their pickup seats, or curled up beside their cows, snoring loudly.

When I woke, it was over; the sun was low in the Southwest, and a gray bank of clouds reared over the Black Hills; the wind had a slight edge. But now I knew why this phenomenon has been the subject of such disbelief when we speak of it to people from other areas. The January thaw always follows a period of intense cold, when our bodies have become so worn out that we don't even realize how exhausted we are. Throughout the frigid weather, plains people and animals survive because we have to. But when the

brief warmth arrives, some internal mechanism switches off; our bodies know we can truly relax for the first time in weeks. And we do. Everyone who tries to write or talk about it, or photograph it, has been struck by that wave of sleep. When they wake, it is over. They believe it was only a dream.

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