I always wanted to experience a blizzard. Before Oct. 4 I’d watch Midwest weather updates with bated breath, hoping the forecasted blizzard watch would turn into a warning. Wanting my blizzard to come to fruition.
I’ve called Rapid City, SD home for more than a month. And in these short five weeks, I can’t even count the number of times residents have referred to this portion of South Dakota as the “banana belt.”
Oh, our winters are mild, they say, it rarely snows here and when it does, it doesn’t stick, all the snow stays up in the Hills. So when meteorologists began predicting snow totals upwards of two feet, I figured it was just an exaggeration.
Those weathermen are always over predicting and under delivering. We’re in the “banana belt,” there’s no way we’re going to pack in two feet of snow during the first week of October.
Then Eugene called me at 6 a.m. Friday morning—the day the blizzard was due to strike—to say he’d been called off work at the Air Force Base due to weather.
Thrilled, I sprung out of bed to inspect the snowstorm’s damage. My balloon of hope began loosing air when all I saw was a thin blanket of white disrupted by bright green blades of grass. Never one to give up hope, I flipped on the radio to hear what the rest of the world had to say about this weather.
As strangers gabbed in the background, I couldn’t help but take note of the long list of closed schools and businesses, canceled events, and ominous warnings that things were going to get much messier.
But this was something I was used to. As a child of the Madison Metropolitan School District, snow days aren’t something I have a lot of experience with. We were those kids walking up hill both ways while icy snow battered our faces in every direction. When every other kid in surrounding school districts had the day off, we were stuck in class. I didn’t get a lot of snow days as a kid. So, while I don’t get my snow day hopes up, any potential adult day off due to “inclement weather” is something worth celebrating.
I proceeded to prepare for the day, but checked my workplace voicemail for weather closing updates no less than four times before heading out for my morning commute. I chocked the other closings up to the fact that I was, indeed, in the “banana belt.” These western South Dakotans just have no idea how to deal with winter weather. This October snowfall must’ve thrown them into a tailspin.
Being the tough Wisconsinite I am, I accepted my fate for a full days’ work, slipped my bare feet into a pair of ballet flats and tiptoed through the thin coat of snow covering the sidewalks. I got to my car before my better judgment kicked in—perhaps bare feet in ballet flats aren’t the wisest choice when commuting through a potential blizzard. You could find yourself stranded on the side of the road, I heard my mom saying.
I zipped back into my apartment and scooped up a pair of UGGs. (I would have preferred a pair of snow boots, but packing and moving your entire life leaves ample opportunity to forget things. As luck would have it, my snow boots were included on that ever-growing list of things that were forgotten. ‘It’s ok,’ I told my parents, ‘Rapid City doesn’t get much snow, just bring them out whenever you visit.’)
Makeshift snow boots in tow, I drove into work—much quicker than usual due to closed schools and subsequently empty roadways. I kicked the snow off my UGGs, hung up my jacket, got settled at my desk and forgot about the impending snowstorm for the next couple hours.
Then the Vice President of Operations began making laps around the building. I heard his booming voice declare that their shoveling couldn’t keep up with snowfall. We’d be closing at noon.
The snow day-deprived child within me rejoiced. I was looking forward to a work-free Friday afternoon and an adventurous pseudo winter weekend with Eugene.
I again traded my ballet flats for UGGs and ventured out into the winter wonderland. I was shocked when what looked like a peaceful snow globe turned out to be a take-your-breath-away, sting-your-face, high wind, heavy snow storm. I tucked my head into my jacket, trudged forward, and held my breath as I tried to scrap the snow from my car.
Safely in the driver’s seat, I applied a white-knuckle grip to the steering wheel and drove home at a cool 15 miles under the speed limit.
The transformation over the past four hours was hard to believe—tire tracks six inches deep crisscrossed roadways; highway stoplights were completely plastered with snow, rendering traffic signals useless; cars driving in front of me disappeared into the white abyss. Turns out these weathermen got their forecasts right. Never have I ever been so thrilled to pull into a parking spot and get the heck out of the snow.
What transpired over the next 46 hours was something I have never experienced. Eugene wasn’t able to leave his base. I had no cable, no Internet, no living room, no real food, and no direct human contact. I had a bed, a television, the first three seasons of The O.C., intermittent electricity, junk food, my cellphone, and Skype. I spent a good portion of my weekend talking to friends, conducting video chats, and starring aimlessly out the window into a valley of white. I toted my phone around and gave loved ones FaceTime tours of my apartment. I carried them outside and showed them panoramic views of the winter wonderland from my patio. Their unshielded gasps said it all—this was not normal Midwestern autumnal weather.
By 9 a.m. Sunday, I was starving for human contact and long, fast-paced strides in the world outside my tiny apartment. I donned a pair of snow pants, a down jacket, and a slightly less absorbent pair of boots, and I crawled—literally—through snow that was drifted higher than cars. As I crested snow mounds that easily exceeded 10 feet, I paused to take in that deafening silence that takes over with every fresh snowfall.
I slowly made my way down the steep hill that leads to my apartment and rounded a corner to Range Road—a bypass between two knolls. It was there that I got my first glimpse of what Winter Storm Atlas had done to my new home in the Black Hills. Like scenes from severe weather reports, no less than six abandoned cars rested in the middle of the road, almost completely covered with drifted snow.
I continued further to find entire trees bent in half, branches still ripe with summer’s green leaves lay buried in the snow.
In the following days and weeks, the expense of Atlas was apparent throughout our city. Endless streams of trucks and trailers hauled forests-worth of trees to drop-off sites that were already piled higher than buildings. Rogue branches littered the streets.
And more disturbing than the branches left scattered on the streets were the cattle that rested alongside the Interstate and remote roads. The blizzard’s true toll fell to the countless ranchers in this part of the state—men and women who lost a good portion of their livelihood because weather like this isn’t supposed to happen in the beginning of October.
Yes. I always wanted a blizzard. But once Winter Storm Atlas left me trapped in my own apartment and preceded to wreak havoc on Western South Dakota, I quickly retracted that decades-long wish.
In the end nearly three feet of snow fell hard on the Black Hills, more than 7,000 cattle lost their lives. Residents picked up the mess and neighbors in this new community of mine helped one another out.
Now when people ask me when I moved out here, they quickly follow my response up with a jovial just in time for the blizzard! remark. Indeed, it’s something we all weathered. A storm we all talk about. And a devastation that continues to make itself known.
Nearly a month later Eugene and I went hiking through Custer State Park. Throughout our hike, we had to climb over downed Ponderosa Pines, and push scattered branches from our path. Clearly victims of the storm, you can’t help but imagine what that pristine piece of nature must have looked like buried and battered by feet upon feet of snow.
Even today as I drive down Range Road, visions of whiteout conditions and buried cars play through my head. I always wanted a blizzard. Then I got one. Now I have one that continually plays through my head.