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Digging out from a spring blizzard is almost a point of pride for Black Hills residents.
Digging out from a spring blizzard is almost a point of pride for Black Hills residents.

Awaiting a March Blizzard

Mar 4, 2015

Editor’s Note: This column is revised from the March/April 2013 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

Last March it hit me. Those of us living in the Black Hills had become Vladimir and Estragon.

You know, the famous Vladimir and Estragon, main characters in Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece drama Waiting for Godot. The title of Beckett’s play is also a thorough synopsis. From the show’s beginning until its end, the two men wait for someone named Godot. SPOILER ALERT! Do not read the rest of the paragraph if you have tickets for an upcoming production of Waiting for Godot in your possession. Godot never shows up. Still, Vladimir and Estragon never stop expecting him, never cease speaking of his imminent arrival.

And that’s exactly how Black Hills people speak in anticipation every March about the approaching spring blizzard — the March Terror, the State Basketball Tournament Storm, the 36 inches except where it’s drifted 6 feet across your driveway. It’s the stuff of legend.

Only last year, like Godot, it never showed up. We still talked about it though, and that makes funny things happen later in your head. Like now, when people speak about the inevitability of a March 2013 blizzard and I remind them one never showed up in 2012, they give me puzzled looks. It’s like I’ve said no football teams got around to playing the Super Bowl in 2012, or the motorcycles didn’t rumble into the Hills in August, or November passed without Black Friday.

That’s because as big as March blizzards have been historically, the myths we’ve created about them are bigger still. Yes, myths on the scale of Super Bowls, Sturgis Rallies, and Black Fridays. The inevitability of March blizzards is central to the myth making, so much so that the absence of one in March 2012 doesn’t mean a thing.

Another part of the myth is how we’ve given these blizzards a range of personalities, as if there’s a family of storm siblings who take turns batting us around. Who will show up? The one who hates basketball tournaments? The sadistic one who takes pride knowing when calves are most vulnerable? The storm that approaches noisily, like a belligerent drunk, or the one that’s sneaky as a pickpocket? The sneakiest March blizzard of recent years crept into the Hills in 2009, a day after people were cavorting in our parks in flip-flops. It’s hard, emotionally, to switch instantly from flip-flops to insulated boots. It may or may not build character, depending on whom you ask.

If ever there existed a true love/hate relationship, it’s the one Black hills folks have with their March blizzards. We need them to grow grass for livestock, reduce forest fire danger and to extend the ski season at Lead. On the other hand, the storms disrupt life entirely for a day or two in an era when most of us structure our schedules with no wiggle room. Worst of all, once a big storm hits national news, we all begin fielding phone calls from friends in Texas and Arizona, feigning concern but really gloating.

So is there more love or more hate when we think in depth about these blizzards? It would take a highly qualified psychologist to unravel the complex relationship between South Dakotans and their storms. Not being a highly qualified psychologist, I’ll answer quickly and guess love wins out. A friend of mine observes there’s an extra bounce in everyone’s step here when a March blizzard enters the weather forecast. Suddenly even the most reticent men and women have something to discuss. Even the cheapest skinflint spends freely for groceries, “in case we can’t get out for a few days.” And if a big storm’s coming, we want it really big. That’s because if we’re going to end up with blistered hands and aching backs after shoveling out, we want our wounds to attest to a battle with a monster, not an 18-inch wimp with 15 mph winds.

I saw an indication of the perverse pride Black Hills people take in March storms last fall in a Spearfish coffee shop. A man remarked he was sure glad South Dakota will never know the wrath of a hurricane like Sandy, which had just slammed the Northeastern states. The man got an instant earful from his table mates about legendary March storms here that left behind buried cattle and sheep, collapsed barns, downed timber and smashed vehicles. And that was to say nothing of resulting floods that would rip through Black Hills canyons later. I’m pretty sure the coffee drinker will never again make the mistake of making a big deal out of a coastal storm in the presence of proud South Dakotans.

But what does the near future hold for our trademark March blizzards?

I notice the Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting early March 2013 will be snowy in our region. Far be it from me to pit myself against the Old Farmer’s Almanac, but I’ll believe that when I see it. It seems that in its early stages, the winter of 2012-2013 looked a lot like the winter of 2011-2012, when, incredibly, March was actually the driest month of the year in the Hills. If the current drought is as severe as some longtime observers believe, we may again be Vladimir and Estragon this March, waiting ... waiting ... waiting.

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