Bill Sniffin: How Does Minus 63 Sound? That Was 44 Years Ago In Jackson Hole

in Column/Bill Sniffin

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By Bill Sniffin, Columnist

So, you think this is cold?

Hardy souls in the Cowboy State are trying to stay warm this week as a Polar Express comes barreling through the state. Meteorologist Don Day says it will be the coldest in 33 years. It has not been this cold since 1989, he says. 

But it will not set all-time records. 

Coldest I can recall was Dec. 31, 1978, in Jackson Hole, when the mercury dipped to minus 63.  

Jump Starting Cars

My friend Tony McRae, a retired pharmacist, had just gotten out of school and was starting to practice. He and his wife Connie and his best friend, Mike Friemuth, and his wife Jeri, from the Lingle area, met at Snow King in Jackson for a New Year’s holiday of skiing.

They never made it to the slopes. It got so cold the power went out all through the valley. 

He recalls a few people getting their cars and trucks started and then those folks would drive around giving jump starts to stalled cars and trucks. Thanks to diesel #1 fuel, there were even some diesel trucks running around.

Most amazing thing he saw was the use of portable barbecue kits to warm up vehicle engines. Desperate people would buy them at the local mini-mart and fire them up and set them under their car engines, hoping to warm them up enough to get started. 

He said there were so many Good Samaritans. Everyone who managed to get their rigs started spent most of their time helping others get theirs going, too. With no heat at the hotels and motels, the warmest place you could find would be your car or truck. 

McRae knew some folks at Teton Village and remembers someone saying that the big cable used to hold the trams had shrunk 17 feet because of the cold. They were terrified it was going to snap. Obviously, there was no attempt to fire up that operation.

Jody Coleman, formerly of Riverton, was in Jackson that same weekend. She recalls waking up at the Antler hotel to frost on the walls. She said they started their pickup every hour to make sure it would keep running. She said they spent the day jump-starting other peoples’ cars. 

Some Meeteetse skiers related stories of blackouts, freezing motel rooms, and busted water pipes. 

Lots Of Snow, Lots Of Night

To me right now, I am thinking about black and white. 

Christmas is a time when you try to be cheery but as I write this, I am absorbed by the black and white of the situation.

The white is the 15 inches of fresh snow that fell recently. It is gorgeous and we need to appreciate the moisture. And yet it makes for treacherous walking and driving. And in my town of Lander when the valley is covered with snow, the mercury plummets to sub-zero temps. Thankfully, there is little wind. 

The black is the color of our amazingly long nights. I am writing this on Dec. 19, just two days before the shortest day of the year. The sun comes up at 7:19 a.m. and goes down just nine hours later at 4:32 p.m. We have 15 hours of night!

My dad always loved Dec. 22 since it marked the day when the nights got shorter and the days got longer. 

Lots of folks I know have seasonal disorder, where they suffer from depression because of the onset of early nights, cold weather and dark mornings. What makes it interesting is that this disorder arrives at the time of year when we are supposed to be our merriest. Bah, humbug!

But there is good news. This is the time of year when thousands of Wyoming people are reaching out and helping the needy, the lonely and the desperate. You have to love these unselfish people for wearing their hearts on their sleeves.  

From Sheridan to Cheyenne and Lander to Evanston and Newcastle to Kemmerer, you can find individuals and organizations in these towns trying to make the holidays a little more special.

Many People Need Help

Here is an important fact: Christmas is not a happy season for a whole lot of people. Death of a loved one, illness, poor economic circumstances, family strife and loneliness are just a few of the causes of these situations. 

Think of the lonely old folks in nursing homes and other facilities. I am amazed by the number of old folks who live alone in our towns. It always seemed like they should pair up, but they don’t. Then a big snow comes along and they cannot get out and go to the senior center or visit their friends. 

They just sit there looking out the window or watching endless shows on TV. With the short days and long nights and cold temperatures, well, these can be miserable times during what is supposed to be the happiest of times. 

Perhaps my favorite situation is where some healthy person is sitting alone wallowing in their own self-pity when a realization hits them. They can go out and ring a Salvation Army bell, or help stuff Christmas food baskets, and just check in on folks living alone. They can take action. 

When you give your time, you are really giving someone a precious thing. And pretty soon, you no longer are being depressed by your own circumstances. You have translated your inaction into an action that can literally save lives. If not saving them, you can seriously improve them. Now is a great time for action. 

I will never forget a time in the dark of winter when a Cheyenne friend wanted my opinion on some property he was looking at.

It was dark and we went to this lot with a small locked up house and some old sheds in the back yard. We could not get into the house so we strolled around the property. 

With a start, I was stunned to discover a person living in one of those old sheds. Surrounded by newspapers and all sorts of other debris, it was a disheveled older gal. She was friendly and said, yes, she lived there. She also had a regular job helping with some kind of local taxi service. Every night, she came home to this third-world hovel and that was home. She was not embarrassed and accepted her lot in life. 

But what a shock. This was over 25 years ago before the scourge of homelessness that has hit so many of our cities. 

But I never forgot that sight. I was able to go back home to my cozy house in Lander full of warm family and not have to deal with a third world existence like this poor soul. And I did nothing about it. 

That still haunts me. 

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