The winter of 1946, Dad was managing a small outfit on the southwest flank of the Ruby Mountains, five miles from the hamlet of Lee, Nevada and thirty miles from Elko. Although 1946 precedes the haylift of ‘48, clearly Old Man Winter was building momentum.
You probably have your own snowed-in stories from your folks or your grandparents toughing out a hard winter. If not, I suggest you go to “Operation Haylift” in the Special Collections at the University of Nevada Library to be reminded that “the winter of 1948-49 was the worst in the Western United States since 1889. In Northern Nevada, sheep in the hundreds of thousands and cattle in the tens of thousands were stranded in snowdrifts without feed on their winter ranges. Ranch houses were snowed in as well. Read about it in the archives of the University of Nevada.
In those days, being snowed-in could have life-threatening implications, and my mother said they were snowed-in at the ranch for a month. However, one of Mom’s favorite stories was about the two young cowboys hired to feed cattle that winter and their comic dilemma. While the boys were spending their days at below-zero work feeding cows with a team of horses and a hay wagon, their girlfriends were spending their evenings at the Silver Dollar Club, the bar on Commercial Street in Elko. After supper, the two cowboys would get on the telephone and call the Silver Dollar to talk to their girls. Disregarding the embarrassment of neighbors listening in on the party line and the agony of hearing the girls shout above the honkytonk music, clinking of glasses, and laughter--well, it was driving them crazy.
To make matters worse, a heavy pogonip frost had settled in. Visibility was negligible. If you have ever seen a pogonip after the fog has lifted and the sun has come out, you know it is a breathtaking sight. Cottonwood trees, willows, even clumps of crested wheatgrass bunched above the snow are covered with frost crystals. The high desert landscape is transformed into a fairytale. During a pogonip, it’s a different story. Snow and sky merge into a cold, thick fog. It’s a treacherous situation. You have no sense of direction.
Finally, the boys had had it. They came to Dad to say they quit. They told him they were saddling up and riding to Lee. Surely, the county road was open and the mail truck was getting through. They would hitch a ride to Elko.
Dad let them go. He went to the barn and helped them saddle two of the ranch horses. The boys were apologetic, appreciative, and hell-bent on getting to town.
Through her kitchen window, Mom said she watched two ghost riders disappear. When Dad came into the house, she scolded, “Fred! How could you let those boys go? They'll get lost! They'll freeze to death.”
“Don’t worry, Helen. They’ll be back,” he said as he left to go to the barn.
Over the years, Mom told us this story many times. I can still hear her delight in the punchline. “And sure enough! About three hours later, here came those boys back into view through the heavy fog. Your dad knew those ranch horses would make a big circle and head back to the barn. That’s exactly what they did!”
Both my folks are gone. I don’t know how the story ended. I know that sooner or later, the sun came out and the road to the ranch got plowed. Did the snowed-in, lovesick cowboys get their girlfriends back? I hope so.
Nancy Harris McLelland taught creative writing, composition, and literature for over twenty years and Conducted writing workshops for the Western Folklife Center, Great Basin College , and the Great Basin Writing Project . An Elko County native with a background in ranching. McLelland has presented her "Poems from Tuscarora" Both at daytime and evening events at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko. Her essay, "Border Lands: Cowboy Poetry and the Literary Canon" is in the anthology Cowboy Poetry Matters .