By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Excerpted in part from A Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country
Ice storms in the Ozarks often have disastrous outcomes and warnings of them are often taken more seriously than those of tornadoes. Indeed, an ice storm can wreak incredible havoc. Besides making driving and even walking incredibly treacherous, as little as a half-inch of freezing rain can easily snap large tree branches, flatten shrubs and small trees, pull down power lines and cave in greenhouses, sheds and carports. Accumulations of more than that can, quite literally, snap full-grown trees in half. Yet, despite their potential for disaster, ice storms are not only beautiful, but often bring us humans closer together.
I’m sure I’ll catch all kind of grief for saying this, but I think ice storms are one of nature’s most beautiful incarnations. In a matter of hours, the world as we know it is utterly and completely transformed into an icy fairyland of shimmering glass that is as fragile as a snowflake and as strong as concrete.
When we were first came to the Ozarks in 1992, we were living in the hills of northwestern Arkansas between Rogers and Eureka Springs. Each of these towns were a good 14 mile drive from our rural country home. We had been in our place for less than a year and already had learned a lot about the unpredictable behavior of Ozarks weather.
In the spring of 1993, we were forewarned of a severe winter storm bearing down on the Ozarks. Having lived in the wilds of the western Rockies and northern Minnesota for years, we knew a thing or two about cold, snow and winter – but an ice storm was something entirely new.
Heading the advice of neighbors, we decided to drive to town and stock up on a few supplies. Even as we were driving home, the radio weatherman was predicting the first round of freezing rain within the hour. Just as we turned down the narrow winding road leading towards Eureka Springs, we passed a young man with a backpack on walking along the roadside with his face turned down against the frigid wind. He didn’t raise his hand or even look up as we blew past.
By the time we reached our driveway, not two miles away, we had already decided than we could not leave this unsuspecting traveler standing in the middle of nowhere on a one of the most dangerously narrow and empty roads in the Ozarks with one of the worst ice storms on record bearing down on him.
Without much discussion, we whipped the car around in the driveway and headed back. He seemed a bit startled when we stopped beside him and told him to get in – but he seemed happy enough to oblige. Once inside the warm car, we gave him his options. We could either take him as far as Eureka Springs – a mere 14 miles down the road – where he could try his luck on the slightly wider and busier road running through there, or he could come home with us and wait out the storm in our drafty trailer, which may or may not have heat and electricity for long. For whatever reason, he chose the latter.
It might seem a bit strange to many people that we would even offer to bring a total stranger home with us, but after years of living in our van and travelling around the country, we had met many people who were not “homeless”, but “houseless”, just like us. And like us, these people were often mislabeled as transients and bums. We preferred to be called nomads, explorers and vagabonds.
Having been befriended many times by this class of free people, we felt entirely comfortable offering this man – who obviously carried his entire life upon his back – a place of safety in an oncoming storm. And it wasn’t long before he shared his story with us.
While on a break from his job as a carny in a famous circus touring the US, Jack (not his real name) had been headed home to visit his family. When we came upon him, he had been hitching for two whole days without a single person stopping to offer him a ride. With very little money in his pocket, he was forced to sleep in the woods along the side of the road with nothing more than a sleeping bag to keep him warm and dry.
When we pulled up beside him, he had given up sticking out his thumb, which is why he was so startled when we ordered him into our car. Within a few moments, the danger of his situation became quite clear – for Jack had no knowledge of the coming storm and was as far from anywhere as one could be.
We had no idea how bad the ice storm would be, but in the end we got something like 3/4” of ice and lost power for an entire week. Without electricity we had no lights, no water, and no heat. All we could do to stay warm was huddle up in layers of blankets and occasionally turn the propane cook-stove on and off to help cut the worst of the chill.
As uncomfortable as we were inside, outside the world was fantastically beautiful. Every single thing – every twig, leaf and blade of grass was sheathed in a shape-hugging coat of ice so perfectly clear as to act like a finely polished glass lens. We could make out individual hairs on blades of grass and make out tiny insects trapped between the layers of ice.
Another remarkable thing about ice storms are the sounds. In addition to popping, tinkling, tapping, and crunching, it is not uncommon to hear branches and trees come crashing to the ground. When small branches break, the ice shatters like glass. Sometimes the ice gets so thick that huge branches and mature trees are literally snapped in half sounding like the report of a rifle or a small explosion.
Our guest was nothing less than pleasant and helpful during our time together. He kept us quite entertained with fantastic stories of his life as a circus carny. Because of his stories, I will never play another carnival game without thinking of our guest. After a few days with us, we were able to find him an onward ride with a daring trucker who was heading south. As we waved goodbye, I realized that we had just been added to his repertoire of wonderfully colorful stories and he to ours – a fair trade, indeed. But more importantly, we were able to help another human being in their onward journey in this life.
Just as an ocean or a mountain summit can elicit the feeling that we humans are but a speck in the grander scheme of things, an ice storm makes one stand in awe of nature’s power and beauty. And despite our constant desire to shape and control, we are truly at the mercy of nature – and of one another’s kindness.
© 2013 Jill Henderson
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.
If you long for the country life or love the outdoors, you will appreciate this beautiful and inspiring book. Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Available in print and eBook through the Show Me Oz bookstore.