Column: I’ve seen America in winter and it is brown

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tim Engstrom, Pothole Prairie

&8220;Sea to shining sea,&8221; I said Saturday while facing the Atlantic Ocean in Newport, R.I. &8220;I’ve seen the Pacific and the Atlantic and a lot of the land between all within the span of February. Let me tell you,&8221; I said to two friends and my brother while standing there, &8220;America in February was not white. It’s brown.&8221;

Back in November I planned a ski vacation to New England for late February. I have an old Army buddy in Connecticut who likes to ski, and we wanted to head to the slopes in Vermont. My little brother came along, too.

We also wanted to spend Feb. 25 in Rhode Island &045; a very special day, my 35th birthday. It just so happens that I have an old reporter buddy who lives in Bristol, R.I., not far from Newport. Of course, nothing in Rhode Island is far from anything.

OK, here’s why it was special: Though raised in Iowa with family all over Iowa and Minnesota, I was born in a naval hospital in Rhode Island. So being in Rhode Island on my birthday was special. I hadn’t been in the state for 32 years.

That explains seeing one ocean.

The other came because I lived in Washington state before moving to Minnesota. My wife, Lisa, and I moved here the second week of February. Our home was in the middle of Washington, but I had been in Seattle on the first Thursday of this month. Seattle isn’t technically on the Pacific Ocean, but it is on Puget Sound, which is an inlet of the ocean. So that counts.

Don’t get me wrong. Lisa and I visited the actual Pacific Ocean many times, even in February. Just not this February.

Besides, for a Midwestern kid, Puget Sound is ocean enough. When Lisa and I drove across the country, we opted to take U.S. Highway 2 for most of the trip, instead of some bland interstate highway.

That explains the other ocean.

As a result of the move and the vacation, I’ve spent two out of the four weeks in February doing nothing but traveling and seeing the country. It feels odd to do so much traveling across the northern states in February, but it is pleasant to have seen the country at a time when most people don’t see it.

This month alone, in this order, I’ve seen Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island.

Let me tell you. All 10 of those states were brown. Havre, Mont., is a lonely outpost on the Great Northern Railway, a real-life rough-and-tumble cowboy town on the windy high plains. You’d think this place would be covered in snow from October to May. It was bare.

Wilmington, Vt., is a picturesque New England village nestled in the Green Mountains. Three weeks ago the city had been buried in snow by a blizzard. When we drove through last week, it had no snow. Fifty-degree weather the prior week melted the snow. Fortunately, light snow began to fall, which put a nice coating on nearby Mount Snow in West Dover. Plus, Mount Snow has an large snow-making system.

(By the way, skiers, the slopes at Mount Snow weren’t as steep as the slopes of ski resorts in Washington state, but they had snow on top of a sheet of ice from the big melt. Most runs were fine, but in some places the ice was exposed and it caused even expert skiers to weeble and wobble or fall down. There were serious tricksters there. The air skiers and boarders would get on the big ramps was death-defying. In Washington, people care more about taking a steep slope. In Vermont, they care more about taking a steep ramp.)

Strangely, brown America reminds me of the Led Zeppelin song, &8220;Kashmir.&8221; Robert Plant sings about the Moroccan desert: &8220;All I see turns to brown, as the sun burns the ground.&8221;

What happened to winter? The Columbia Basin was sunny. The Purcell and Bitterroot mountains were a snap. The Rockies going around Glacier National Park had snow because of high elevations &045; Marias Pass on Highway 2 reaches 5,280 feet &045; but driving through was not a problem at all. Blackfeet Indian Reservation seemed to enjoy windy spring conditions. Fort Peck Indian Reservation was cold at night for sure, but that’s all.

Williston, N.D., had plenty of white people but no white stuff. They even had a tavern called the KK Korner. Disconcerting, huh? Uh, we didn’t go in there &045; or for that matter in any bar there. We slept and got the heck out of town super early.

Kalispell, Mont. &045; at near 3,000 feet elevation in the Flathead Valley is the gateway city to Glacier

&045; had no snow. Kalispell. In February. No snow. None. Nada. Can you believe it?

No wonder U.S. Park Service rangers say the glaciers at Glacier are melting and will be gone in 20 years. The evidence is all around us.

The worst wintry weather we encountered while traveling was following a snowstorm from Fargo, N.D., to the Twin Cities. The only somewhat dangerous part was the slush kicked onto our windshield because the snow cover was melting already.

Strike that. The most dangerous part of traveling this month was riding in my reporter buddy’s Volkswagen Golf in Rhode Island. He needed new windshield wipers during the weather we encountered driving from Saunderstown to Providence and back to Bristol. The fat, wet snowflakes turned to rain. The Alberta clipper they were getting had turned into a pineapple express.

The sub-zero temps in Minnesota near the middle of the month were a good reminder of how the Arctic likes to see the Midwest sometimes. Yeah, sure, the cold was rough and the snow for some people a pain, but I was glad. That was the most winter America saw all month.

(Tim Engstrom is the managing editor of the Albert Lea Tribune.)