The calm before the next vortex

03/01/2014 11:49 PM

03/01/2014 11:49 PM

The land, on that first warm day of the false spring, lay as tan and smooth as a lion’s pelt. No trace of snow remained, even in the road ditches. And the lake under its skim of ice was dark and still.

Nearly four months had passed since I’d been to the farm and cabin, and I wondered what damage time and the weather had wrought on that small corner of the world I consider my heart’s home.

So my friend and I had planned the 110-mile trip south just as the season’s initial onslaught of snow and ice was in retreat. And, by luck, the morning we finally set out was the brightest and finest in recent memory.

By midday, the temperature registered in the 60s. That area of the northern Ozark hill country is a mix of crop and pasture land. And after the monthlong siege of bitter days, cattle lay in obvious contentment all across the sun-washed fields, relishing the gift of warmth.

They could not know, nor did we, how brief the reprieve would be — a day only, or maybe two.

And then the weather savants would be enthusing again about a new savage front sliding down out of Canada — or perhaps something more wicked-sounding, maybe even a

polar vortex

.

There are other regions of the world that experience such weather — Siberia, for one. But, being well acquainted with unkind winters, folks there don’t deal in fancy terms.

When the thermometer dips to minus 70 degrees, they call it a hard frost.

And in one Siberian village — a settlement of 800 named Oymyakon, said to be the coldest permanently inhabited place on Earth — the term “hard frost” does not quite suffice.

There, on one snappy morning some years ago, the temperature registered minus 71.2 Celsius, or minus 96.16 Fahrenheit. And that, I submit, is a

real

vortex.

The cabin we found to be in good condition after the long abandonment.

The draining of the water system last autumn had prevented the breakage of any pipes. No evidence of mouse invasion could be seen. Apart from a few dead wasps on the bunkroom floor, all seemed in order.

And as always after an absence, it was fine to visit again with the longtime friends — some of them gone now, their framed photographs filling the walls with rich memories.

There had been, however, one near-calamity.

Next to the wood line on the cabin’s west side there had stood two oak trees 30 feet or more tall. Some years, a small branch or two have fallen from the less sound of them. This time it wasn’t just a branch.

The alert had come in a phone call at home from a neighbor.

“There’s a tree down — a big one.”

“Where? On the lane to the pond?”

“No, by the cabin. But it didn’t hit anything. Just fell across the drive.”

The mess greeted us when my friend and I arrived. The oak had been a large one indeed. Its trunk, hollow in the lower parts, was most of a foot and a half across. And the tangle of broken branches filled much of the west half of the yard.

But I’d been spared — by pure luck, or by a merciful wind. For the tree had fallen directly to the west. Ten feet to the north and the cabin would have been wrecked almost beyond hope of repair.

The friend with me that day is a man of rare capacity, undaunted by big challenges.

“We’ll clean it up,” he said. “All we’ll need are some good men — men who want to work.”

On that hopeful note — after a visit to our favorite local eatery — our country day ended.

But not a quarter hour later, as we turned onto the highway toward home, a dark gray cloud mounted up in the west, obscured the last light, and turning black as night flung down a rattling mix of rain and hail.

Only a day later the brief false spring was finished, and already the weather mavens were promising another

vortex.

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