Whirling Dervish

I don’t live on the prairie. I do live in Kansas, but not the part where Laura lived. My area of Kansas is very much like South Dakota, though … flat and treeless and yellow.

When I first moved here I’d hear my husband mention things I heard in the Little House books and my ears would perk up. “Really? You had blizzards where people couldn’t see enough to walk across the street? Blizzards like THAT?”

It was a twisted kind of fascination. I’d grown up in an area where “blizzard” meant Blizzard of ’78 — or snowbanks higher than cars and a week off from school. But it was days and days of falling snow, not bursts of swirling whiteness.

Granted, with the climate shifting as it has, those kinds of blizzards don’t happen like they used to. I’ve lived here for almost eight years and I’ve seen only one that’s come sort of close.

But you know what’s very much like a blizzard? Dust. Combine a dry season with furious winds and you can kick up quite a dust storm. Visually, it’s just as dangerous as a blizzard. A couple of Fridays ago, the wind was kicking up something fierce. I had to drive home from town (yep, that’s how we say it here) and my mother-in-law, who had just left herself, called my cell phone a couple of times to warn me of the situation on the roads. It took her five minutes to cross the intersection on the highway, she said; she couldn’t see. The second time she called, she recommended an alternate route. So I headed home with trepidation, gripping the wheel, my kids strapped in their carseats and quiet for once at my “This is dangerous and I need you to be quiet” warning.

I had only one close call, after I turned off the highway onto the gravel road about five miles from my house. A huge dust cloud swirled up in front of me and I drove into it. I was going forward, but for a moment it didn’t feel like that. All I could see was dust. If an 18-wheeler had come upon me going in the opposite direction at that very moment, I wouldn’t see it before my car was flattened. But within two or three seconds — brief, but a long time to be unable to see — I was on the other side of it.

A friend of mine was not so lucky. Almost home, he finally decided he couldn’t risk driving any further in the massive dust clouds and pulled over onto the side of the road not a half-mile from his house. Good thinking, except that others had the same idea. Including the truck that hit him from behind. And the car he was pushed into.

Luckily my friend, a father of four, walked away from the wreck, although his F-150 was totaled. But never again will any of us underestimate the power of that whirling wind.


9 Responses to Whirling Dervish

  1. Dakotagirl says:

    Being from the south, I have never been in a blizzard. I have seen about six snow storms in my 54 year old life. I am sure these storms would have made any self respecting northerner laugh heartily,

    The most interesting storm was around 1992. We had a thunder snow storm. I had never heard it thunder while snowing before and it was eerie.

    I want to make it to De Smet one winter and see the white prairie in the moonlight. i can’t imagine a more beautiful sight.

  2. sgaissert says:

    The power of nature is all over the news lately, isn’t it? All around the world. I got a day off from college during the “Blizzard of ’78.” I think it was one of the few days Rutgers University ever closed. I’ve seen pounding, sideways rain in Myrtle Beach, NC. But the wickedest wind I’ve ever felt is nothing compared to what you’re describing, or what Laura lived through, or what people have died from over the past few days.

  3. Jonni says:

    Everytime we drive across country we keep a close eye on the little dust devils whirling on the side of the road out across the open spaces. As you and your friend learned the other day, it’s dangerous to keep driving through a dust storm but maybe even more dangerous to stop. I’m glad everyone made it home ok, even if the F-150 wasn’t so lucky.

    Here (coastal California), and in Florida, we have similar experiences with fog. I was never so scared in my life as I was when driving into Orlando in February 2005 with the thickest fog I’ve ever seen all around our car. I certainly didn’t want to keep going, who knew what loomed up there hidden in the gray, but I knew it wasn’t safe to stop. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when after 20 minutes of white knuckle driving it finally cleared enough to see a bit beyond the hood of the car. Ir seemed like we’d been going through it for hours.

  4. Dennis D. Picard says:

    I didn’t get a day off for the Blizzard of ’78; I had to go in for my job at a “living history” museum. It is the only time I rode the Mass. Pike for free! All the toll booth workers were sent home. The worse snow situation I ever found myself in was a squall line three winters ago. I was in the Berkshires in Western Ma – again on “the pike” and I saw a wall of white coming at me. It got worse and worse and I slowed down more and more. There were no tail lights in front of me to follow BUT an 18-wheeler came up behind. I was scared to keep going with nothing to tell me if I was on the road or not, but I also didn’t want to pull over and risk getting plowed into. That truck driver kept a safe distance, mirrored my speed and we kept right along until we cleared the other side close to the New York border. I think maybe for his peace of mind, he was following my tail lights!

    I’ve been in another storm – or actually just after – where there were no other vehicles on the road, and no tire tracts. Just as in the stories of old, I used the fence rails and trees as my guides for the road’s edge. On that same morning I met a friend who asked if “those were” my tire marks he was following. He said there were pretty close for the most part to staying on the travel part of the road!

  5. Amy says:

    I always used to wonder exactly what a blizzard would be like. I grew up in Wisconsin, and we got heavy, heavy snow, but always with straight or no winds. Sometimes visibility would be poor, but I never really experienced a blizzard until I moved to Kansas. This winter, we actually had a blizzard, with whiteout conditions that kept us from seeing our neighbors across the street. It was eerie, and isolating. It made me rethink “Long Winter” all over again.

    BTW, I have a friend who “cools off” every hot summer in Alabama by reading “The Long Winter.” She says it works every time!

  6. Dakotagirl says:

    Amy, I am in Alabama and I do the same thing. When it’s 100 degrees with 50-60 percent humidity, the imagination helps sometimes.

    I hope to see one blizzard before I pass on to the great prairie in the sky.

    BTW, what part of Alabama does your friend live?

  7. Connie says:

    Sandra, welcome to the land of dust! Growing up in northwest Texas we had those kinds of dust storms quite often – at least I remember them enough from my childhood – and can in my mind’s eye still see the dust piling onto the porch and inside the garage and certainly not seeing across the highway. The wind carried the dust and never seemed to stop. Even now when I go home, I forget about the constant wind until I step outside and -whoosh – there it is, welcoming me back to the high plains. When I was finishing grad school, I had a job interview in Lubbock, TX, on the week of Easter, and the day of my interview there kicked up a real, dry spring dust storm. I decided that day that I would prefer moving to Colorado – duh! Well, the dust is here, too; I just did my house-dusting today. As I said, welcome to the land of OZ and dust!

  8. Amy says:

    Dakotagirl, my friend lives in Birmingham. I’ve never been there, but I have a trip scheduled for a conference in fall of 2009.

    There’s really something to be said for the power of the mind–especially when it’s time to “think cool.” 🙂

  9. Dakotagirl says:

    Amy, I was born in Birmingham in 1954 and lived there until 1980, when my husband transferred to Auburn University to finish his degree in horticulture. I am still in the Auburn-Opelika area.

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