Fall 2006 - Volume 9 Number 4
|The Sophist and the Snowstorm
The snow was blinding this morning. As I drove out from the tiipii at 2:00 a.m., I could barely see the gravel road and nearly drove out into the newly harvested cornfields. Starting at dawn about thirty-nine hours before the snowstorm, rain poured down. It poured all day long, streaming down the lower side of the tiipii poles, gravity's dark and flowing stripes. That was yesterday. The flooring I use, blue and white rag rugs with occasional strips of red, larger squares of traditional carpet, tannish, beneath the rag rugs, and a layer of canvas over a layer of black plastic, was soaked. Last night, kneeling to start the fire was nearly a process of bathing. The wood was wet. The fire smoked, filled the tiipii and my lungs, making me cough. Dashing outside, out into the rain, out through the all too small, all too low doorway, more rain washed me, the water just a smidge too warm to freeze, smoke flowing out the opened flap, wind pushing the tiipii canvas in gusts, gusts heard as wet floppings against the poles. A black widow, wet and nearly frozen, wiggled and twisted on top of a log, one just dry enough to ignite within the outfitter's stove I use in the tiipii, eight legs twisting as tongues of flame licked its exoskeletal framework. The rain didn't let up.
After hanging the rugs to dry, I lifted the bright blue plastic tarp off my bedding, flipping the water away from precious blankets. Darkness had come fast under the thick of clouds. Rain, falling nearly unchecked through the smoke at the top of the tiipii vaporized as it hit the iron stovetop, but only smattered off the top layer of tattered coating that covered me. I replaced the blue tarp, covering all but a small section of the futon. Folding back the uncovered layers of blankets, I sat and prepared for sleep. The heat from the stove was too hot against the soaked knees of my overalls. The rugs began to steam and dry. I took my clothes off, layering them under my tattered Carhartt and the quilted liner that made for a coat, boots placed under the futon frame. As the hanging carpets continued to dry, I pulled the bedding up, followed by the layer of blue tarp, which just barely covered the entire futon. The rain began to pelt against the plastic. I was warm and dry before the carpets stopped steaming.
By morning, the rain had ceased, but northern air rushing down from Canada had iced the canvas flooring and carpet. Naked from the moment the covers were pushed aside, I rushed into my chilled overalls and socks. Soon dressed and shivering, I made my way to the car, started it up, and then drove down the gravel road and eventually to the paved road and eventually to the school. That was yesterday morning. Reports of the coming snow made their way around the department. The secretaries here, Betty and Sheryl, always get extremely worried when the weather people report snow, mostly because the weather forecasters tend to exaggerate. The exaggeration keeps worrywarts glued to the TV, which increases viewers and, correspondingly, commercial revenues. My response has always been to take a wait-and-see approach to the weather, but this time…this time I felt a bit of tension, the same kind of tension I felt when I rode an old bay pony up Mosquito Ridge and into the Frank Church Wilderness.
Hypothermia was grabbing at my body. The shakes had taken over in large, uncontrollable spasms. My teeth chattered. Before seventy-seven-year-old Slim Stucker and I stepped into our stirrups and planted our posteriors in the old worn saddles, I had one of those feelings. The clouds were just the right fluff, just the right combinations of white, gray, and black, just the right height. And the temperature was in that edgy area, just about too cold for rain. Twenty minutes or so into our ride, the sleet started slapping my cheeks, a mid-October, high-mountain cold penetrating my cut-off blue jean coat and thin summer shirt.
I had come to the wilderness four months earlier, in July of 1985, just after my discharge from the Marine Corps. The clothing I took to the mountains was summer wear, the heaviest coat a Bruce Springsteen imitation, cut off sleeves, the stuff of Hawaii where I had been stationed. Summer in the mountains was hot. Summer in Hawaii was hot. Plans for winter had not been made. Slim and the crew had clothing up at the base camp they would loan me. All I had to do was make the two-hour ride from the last dirt road that led to the edge of that part of the Frank Church wilderness.
I hugged that pony’s neck like a lover, buried my face in her fury mane, kept an occasional eye on the ass end of both slim and the horse he rode in on. I had a feeling that something like freezing to death could be a part of the trip.
The bay’s ears wet up. Slim stopped. I jolted up, not wanting the old man to know I was freezing. Slim pointed. A mature mule deer buck stared at us from about thirty yardsmajestic antlers, jaw slowly processing grass that would soon be covered by snow. Slim saw me shaking. He didn’t say a word, just twisted and untied the blanket roll behind his saddle. He hopped off his horse and led it back to me, the blanket in one hand, his horse’s reigns in the other. “Put this over ya.” I did. The shakes soon stopped. Slim’s backside moved up the hill, and the bay and I followed.
The sleet turned to huge, puffy, beautiful, floating flakes that took me back to my childhood and to the moments when as a kid I would open my mouth and ache for the chill on my tongue that would end in a bit of dirty but cold water. The pony’s neck was getting wetter, making the comfort of holding her close less pleasant. I lifted up straight, wrapped the blanket close, held lose on the reigns, and worshiped the Creation that just a few minutes earlier was threatening to take my existence.
Slim glanced back, smiled, his wrinkles furrowing, and told me we weren’t too far from camp. I nodded back, the brim of my red baseball cap lifting off the back of my neck just enough to allow a few flakes to melt and slide under my shirt and cutoff coat. Slim’s wide-brimmed black cowboy hat eloquently holding the snow off his shoulders. “Not too much longer…Not too much longer…Not too much longer…” The words repeated in my mind. I knew better than to speak. Slim, the horses, the whole of Creation humbled me. Soon there after, the bay’s ears went up again. We had finished our trip up the ridge. The base camp stock welcomed us.
The bad feeling didn’t shake lose all day. Students came and went. Classes began and ended. Bodies swirled. The bad feeling, the feeling that I wouldn’t make it up Mosquito Ridge just kept at me. But this time, this time I was different. That hunting season with Slim taught me respect. Respect is a big word that means having an edgy reverence for the ecology that surrounds us. Slim taught me that. Before him, Nez Perce people taught me that. Now that I’m forty-four, that edginess is a part of me, at least most of the time.
Work starts at about three in the morning most days. I get up and then drive the nearly thirty miles from the farm where my tiipii is to town. Then I grade papers, write, and fuss until five-thirty or so, which is when I go to the sauna and live out the daily ritual of sweat that is my form of worship. There are no reservations here in Illinois, no sweathouses near enough, no Nez Perce people. The Inland Pacific Northwest is a world away, Mosquito Ridge a memory. I go to the sauna instead of building sweat with NiiMii Puu . Most every morning, I take a break from work, drive the seven miles from the college where I work to the fitness center, and sweat. That morning on the way to sweat was when the bad feeling started, but I didn’t really pay attention to it until the secretaries started asking me if I was ready for snow.
Most folks here at the school know I’m living in a tiipii. It’s been nearly seven months now that I’ve been in it, the exposure getting ever more intense. I usually take the weather as it comes. The weather station is never on the radio. And my attitude toward forecasters is the result of asking Slim what the weather would be like. “Only fools and newcomers predict the weather.” he would tell me every morning in the outfitters’ tent, just after my question and just before his dram of Wild Turkey whisky, horse-bite medication, one shot only, taken at morning, noon, and night. With a wink one day, Slim told me the prescription was on the label. I take the weather as it comes. Having a bit of fear for it keeps me aware of the sky, the clouds, the temperature. The fact that the weather can kill if it’s too hot and kill if it’s too cold keeps that edgy awareness about me.
As I sat in the rain-soaked tiipii the night before, the thought passed that it was getting cold enough that a person could die as a result of the conditions. The spider, clutching to the log, too cold to drop off before getting stuffed into the fire, clued me before it met its Maker. The secretaries at the school reminded me to pay attention, as they always do when fearing their weather reports. But it was driving to the sauna in the blackness of that morning that set off my alarm. In retrospect, the temperature may have been the same that morning as it was when Slim and I started up that ridge so many years before.
Between the secretaries’ repeated warnings and my own edgy feeling, I wanted to leave work early. By the time I got out to the tiipii, however, it was nearly eight. Five colleagues and I read students’ essays from two in the afternoon until five-thirty in the evening, pushing through and finishing the second part of our writing assessment process, what we call the Retake Examination. Students who didn’t pass will be told they need additional support and will, generally speaking, spend another semester in English 101 or whichever of the basic writing courses the student weathered. It takes about forty minutes to drive from the school to my tiipii. When the assessment was finished, I then had to spend another hour and a half evaluating my students’ final research paper revisions. By a quarter-after-seven, I was beat, ready to call it quits for the day, ready to make the drive out to a cold, wet tiipii.
As I pulled into the gravel-covered parking area some fifty yards from where the tiipii stands, my senses went into high alert. The clouds, illuminated by the half-moon, were heavy, laden with moisture. The temperature had dropped to the feeling of freezing. The smell of it was in the air. Snow was coming. The next two hours were spent getting the tiipii filled with the wood I had been collecting throughout the summer. The wet rugs stayed on the ground. There were more important things to prepare for. By candle light, the wood was stacked, the bedding prepared, and eventually a fire made. The time had come. The wind was howling, the canvas flapping against the tiipii poles. With all the racket, sleep didn’t come easily, nor did it last long. Though warm and relatively comfortable, I slept, but only for short bursts, waking with a jolt every twenty minutes or so, the flapping of the canvas against the poles a disturbing alarm.
At one in the morning, my clock alarm went off. Mind dulled from sleep, I flung the covers off, scrambled from the bed to the door flap, and then dashed out of the tiipii. As I peed, the sleet splattered against my skin, soaking me. My bare feet ached and quickly moved toward numbness. The icy globules stung my rump. I’d made a mistake. Back in the tiipii, it didn’t take long to rekindle the fire from remaining coals. I had prepared well enough. The chilling soon passed. The warming covers and the fire returned me to a normal body temperature in short time. I prayed for my daughters while I warmed. If there was never another act for me on this Earth, I wanted the last to be for my children.
But that wasn’t to be my last act. The shivering stopped. I dressed. The tiipii was sealed. Wrapped in a blanket that covered my layers of warm clothing, I trudged my way through the drifting snow to the car. Then there was the drive from the farm to the school. It took more than an hour. By three-thirty in the morning, I was pulling into a parking spot I couldn’t see, guessing that I was between the lines. As usual, the janitor was there. Eighty-year-old Mr. Wendell met me and opened the door. Eighty years of being black in America, and he meets me at the door with a smile and kindness, with warming conversation.
He doesn’t have to do that. He could just let me buzz the control room manager. His forgiveness and kindness, his smile and gentle greeting, his hospitality made every stop to remove ice from the window-shield wipers, every slide, every near miss, every moment of the long drive in a blinding snowstorm worth the effort. And though I could never fully understand what it is to have spent the past eighty years being black in the Midwest, or being black in any other part of America for that matter, I do know what it is to be exposed. And because of that, I know what it means to have respect. As I walked up the stairs to my office, the idea crossed my mind that I must be like the weather to Mr. Wendell. For that single reality, it was worth risking my life to get to work.Acknowledgements
Many have contributed to this work in countless ways. In addition to the editors at College Quarterly, I would like to thank Dana C. Elder, Victor Villanueva, Erskine Carter, and Paul Lindholt for editorial advice. Of course, the essay would never have taken shape without the kindness extended by Nez Perce people.
Galen Leonhardy currently teaches English and humanities courses at Black Hawk College in Moline, Illinois. Prior to his current position, he taught English at Eastern Washington University, worked with incarcerated teens, and volunteered at Crosswalk, a shelter for street youth in Spokane, Washington. Mostly, Galen enjoys spending time with his two daughters, Sarah and Hallie. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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