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Not all North Dakota winters feature melting of snow that leaves significant bare ground visible. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Enjoying a Montana winter in North Dakota

On a recent Monday, I found myself strolling across the street in downtown Fargo, N.D. Despite the fact that it was an early January day in one of the coldest regions in the country, I had ditched my coat earlier that morning on my way to interviews and was comfortable in just a bulky sweater. I returned home to central North Dakota that afternoon to find my husband and father-in-law scraping manure off concrete slabs, a chore that can almost never be done in the dead of winter.

The next day, I was trying to cover every piece of exposed skin I could before venturing out of the house for the 15-foot walk to the garage. The temperature had dipped to the single digits, and the wind was blowing 800 mph (give or take).

And all I could think was, I sure do feel at home this winter.

"At home" for me will always be Montana, despite the fact that one more winter here will mean that I've spent as many winters in North Dakota as in my home state. Still, those early lessons in what's normal tend to hang on.

In my first trip to North Dakota to visit my intended college, the softball coach with whom I was speaking told me that he had found his Montana players, over the years, to be more likely to whine about North Dakota winters than his California players. The Montanans, he explained, thought they knew about winter, while the Californians had little frame of reference.

I didn't understand what he meant then — because I, like his other players, thought I knew all about winter. It wasn't until the next year, trudging between classes and practices and meals, that it dawned on me what the difference was between winter in the two states.

It can get miserably cold in Montana. And, as anyone who was around last year can tell you, it can snow heavily and often.

But, in south central Montana where I grew up, winter often is fleeting. One day you're bundled up and the next you're comfortably clad in a sweatshirt for a coat. My dad was out in the tractor doing fieldwork in December, and, while that is not the norm, it also didn't seem terribly odd.

In most of the North Dakota winters I've experienced, winter comes to stay. If it snows in early November, there may be snow on the ground continuously through spring (or that's how it seems anyway). The season is relentless and can seem unending. You come to expect the roads around towns to be ice-covered and bumpy for months at a time, and all plans are penciled in to the calendar with an understood "weather permitting" tag.

This winter started in October, with heavy, wet snow that threatened crops. But it warmed up, the snow melted and mild conditions returned. We have snow on the ground again now, but we also have some bare patches, where the dormant grasses poke out. For every bitterly cold day, we've had a glorious, sunny, relatively warm one to make up for it, like the light at the end of a frigid, windy tunnel.

We have three or more months of potential winter weather left, I suppose. Continuous bitter cold, wind and heavy snow could come and unpack their bags.

But I'm going to enjoy what we've had so far. It truly has been a Montana winter so far in North Dakota, and I welcome it.

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