VIOLA - Holding tightly to a rope tied to my front door, I make my way into the whiteout. My mittened hands are quickly covered with chunks of ice and snow, my cheeks red from the stinging wind. I keep my eyes half shut to protect them from the blowing snow.
One red-mittened hand after the other, hanging on to the rope for dear life, I make my way to the barn that is half buried in snow. I have to get to the animals—and be able to find my way back.
But I don’t have a barn, or a rope tied to my door! My mind replays stories I heard during childhood, of people lost in blizzards and never found until spring. I do have outbuildings: the Snake Shed, the Duck Hall, the Goat Palace, and the donkeys’ three-sided shelter that somehow has remained nameless. This bleak image of winter survival came from my dad’s farming side of the family and has stayed with me.
Farmers and animal lovers have had their hands full this winter with blizzard-like conditions, ice storms, and temperatures reaching 40 below zero. Such weather can be life-threatening for the animals as well as the people who care for them.
I began making outdoor checks at three-hour intervals when the temperature dropped to -20. Each time, I’d refresh the animals’ drinking water, which meant smashing my boot into the heated water bowls to crack the ice that had formed on top; for the donkeys, it meant chopping a hole in the creek ice. I’d give the animals plenty of hay, too many treats, and a visual check before heading back indoors.
The night before our record-breaking coldest day here in the valley, chores became intense with the start of the blizzard.
I geared up and went out to put everyone to bed about 5:30 p.m., hoping to complete chores before the last of the daylight was gone.
I called Louisa, Luna, and Peepers and got them settled inside the Palace with bananas as a treat, but then I couldn’t shut the door to keep them in. While I scraped, shoveled, and kicked at the snow and ice, the pig and goats finished their bananas and came back out. Soon it was fully dark. I trudged back up to the house to find my headlamp, then out to the Snake Shed to fetch a piece of baler twine.
After luring Louisa and the goats back into the Palace with another banana, I held the door closed with one Sorel boot and removed my filthy Kinco gloves, tucking them between my legs so as not to lose them in the snow. My fingers quickly became numb and clumsy as I struggled to pull the twine through the door’s latch.
Louisa polished off the second banana and began pushing on the door. I leaned on it hard to keep her inside as I wove the twine back and forth, cursing softly, and stopping to blow on my fingers to warm them into functioning. I needed to get this door closed to keep the animals safe. I needed to get my cold, tired body back up to the house to keep myself safe, thaw my fingers and get under the covers.
I couldn’t get the twine to function properly, but it looked like it would hold. I whispered “Good night” through partially frozen lips and retreated to the safety of my house.
Crack! Pop! Snap!In the morning the porch deck groaned with every step I took into the deadly cold. I glanced at the thermometer. It read -40. My heart raced as I headed out to the donkeys, who are the most vulnerable in their open shelter.
Diego and Carlos tried to bray but their voices were hoarse and choppy. Icicles hung from the sides of their bodies, chins, and noses. I brought them warm, fresh water, more hay, and apples.
The ducks and geese wouldn’t budge when I opened their little door. Smart birds.
Before I reached the Goat Palace, I could see that my handiwork of the night before had held. But now I couldn’t get it untied, and my fingers burned within seconds of taking off my gloves. Louisa began squealing from inside as though someone was trying to kill her, and rammed her body into the door as I struggled to get it open. I stopped to warm my hands between my legs, envisioning a loss of my digits.
Hurrying back to the house, I grabbed my only serrated knife and a pair of scissors and headed out again. With sheer force, the scissors cut through the twine just enough to allow the two goats to squeeze out.
This infuriated Louisa and transformed her from a sweet pig into a raging, deranged hog, butting, slamming, and screeching without pause. In the commotion, I dropped the serrated knife and had to run to the house to look for my pocketknife.
Racing back as quickly as I could, I lowered my head against the wind, took off my gloves, and focused on slicing through the knotted twine. It gave way just as Louisa thrust her 250-pound body against the door, which slammed into my forehead.
While I felt brain-dead and fingerless, Louisa rushed past me to her mash. As I stumbled to the gate, I saw the missing knife hanging out of Luna’s mouth. My hands were barely capable of any movement but I managed to pry the handle out of her stubborn jaw. Fortunately there was no blood.
Heading back up the incline to the house, I marveled at my dad’s family and all the generations of farmers now and before my time. My head was bruised and sore to the touch, but I still had all my fingers. And I couldn’t help imagining, somewhere, someone frozen solid, one red-mittened hand still clutching a rope.