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TERRY WOSTER: West River’s early winter storms unbelievable

Terry Woster, Daily Republic columnist  A lot of people use the word “surreal” rather casually, but I think the storm that smacked a lot of western South Dakota last week and weekend was an experience that actually fits the dictionary definition.

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The definition in an online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (and I confess I’ve been slow to embrace definitions from a dictionary that doesn’t have pages to hold), says surreal means “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream; also: unbelievable, fantastic.”

Until I read that passage, I’d always favored “bizarre” as a good definition of the word. Either bizarre or “the intense irrational reality of a dream” would work for what was going on here in South Dakota on the first weekend in October.

The storm turned into a blizzard in some areas, with enough snow and wind to meet the National Weather Service standards for using “blizzard.” Places in the Black Hills may not have actually been in an official blizzard category, but with up to 4 feet of snow and strong winds, who’s going to quibble?

In the storm-impacted region of the state, things were less bizarre, maybe, than they were crazy, unbelievable and even obnoxious to the max. East of the Missouri River — in fact for a ways west of the river — people probably struggled to believe it was as bad as it sounded on the newscasts and in the weather reports.

Sure, folks had some rain and wind, maybe a few flurries of snow, but huge drifts? White-out driving conditions? Power outages? If you looked out the window from your home in, say, Pierre during that time, you didn’t see any of that.

That’s what made it surreal for me. I was helping some of the state response agencies with public messaging about the incredibly strong storm (strong for any time of the year, but for early October?).

What that means was that at work I was hearing descriptions of and seeing pictures of highways blocked by big drifts, cars and pickups buried under mountains of snow and cattle wandering the plains as free as buffalo, having walked over the tops of pasture fences that disappeared into the white landscape.

On the way home I was experiencing some annoying rain but nothing that would need to be shoveled or plowed after the storm passed. Once I got home, I listened to a strong wind that created an eerie moan down the fireplace. I watched out the window as gusts of wind threw a few dead branches from the trees to the lawn, where the sticks joined an uneven carpet of delicate, arrowhead-shaped leaves.

Coming and going, I paid attention to wiping my feet on the mat outside the back door, trying without complete success to keep the leaves from tracking in.

When the leaves from our trees get wet, they turn a rusty yellow and cling to every inch of the bottom of a shoe. They only release their grip on a guy’s sole when he steps into the kitchen where, as if someone had turned off a magnetic field, they fall all over the rooster-themed rug.

As I thought about it when the worst of the storm had passed out west, it occurred to me that it’s kind of surreal — in a bizarre definition of the word — to be worrying about tracking in a few leaves when folks only 200 miles away are worried about power, finding their vehicles and clearing enough snow from the front step to get the door open.

On Sunday, it was a little surreal to be working in bright sunshine and 55-degree temperatures here in Pierre when maintenance crews working to re-open the interstate highway system from Murdo to the Wyoming border were stymied a while by stray cattle that wandered across the plowed roads and along the shoulders of the highway.

Way back in grade school I heard South Dakota referred to as the “Land of Infinite Variety.” The past weekend was all of that and more. It was surreal, and by that I mean “marked by the intense irrational reality of a, uh, nightmare.”

My apologies to Merriam — and Webster.