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On spring travel, snow, and landscape

April 30, 2016

I recently heard a western Nebraska resident proclaim that they do not plan major travel in the spring – a wise strategy, given the crazy weather swings that can happen on the High Plains at this time of year. Bugman and I got caught up in some springtime travel craziness recently.

Bugman needed to fly to St. Louis out of Denver on a Monday for a training session and planned to return Tuesday evening. I had booked a flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul for Easter family visits, departing Tuesday morning. The plan was, I would drop Bugman at the airport Monday. Then on Tuesday, I would leave the car at the airport when I took off and send him the info on how to find the car so he could drive it home that night.

Well, with the weather forecast threatening crummy weather Monday night into Tuesday, I decided that, rather than driving back home and trying to drive down to Denver again early in the morning on bad roads, I would book a hotel near the airport.

I dropped Bugman at the airport and killed some time in Denver before hotel check-in time. I settled into my room, logged into the wifi, and . . . ew. The forecast for the next day looked worse. What if Bugman gets back to Denver tomorrow night and can’t drive home on snowy roads and all the hotels are booked up with other stranded travelers? I got an email from Frontier Airlines about likely delays and cancellations the following day. What if *my* flight doesn’t go?

I walked out to the front desk and extended my stay for another night, then I went for a walk around the neighborhood. It was a lovely, mild evening.


The moon rising amidst sunset-pinkened clouds was awe inspiring. I had good company among other hotel-dwellers pointing cameras eastward.

When I woke the next morning around 5, I could hear the wind hissing around the slats of the hotel room’s window HVAC unit. I looked out my window.

snow at 530 am

The snow was coming down hard and fast at 5:30 a.m. This did not look good.

After some hemming and hawing and dinking around online and an annoyingly unproductive phone call to Frontier’s customer service, I got logged in to the Frontier website. There were three seats left on the DEN-MSP flight departing the next day at the same time.

At 5:48 a.m., I canceled my original flight and snagged the next-day flight for just $14 more. (I had somewhat accidentally signed up for “The Works” ticket upgrade to get “free” checked and carry-on bags, so the $99 change fee was waived.)

Ten minutes later, snow was not just accumulating on the grass and cars, but on the streets, too, and, apparently, the trees and power lines. The power started cutting out at the hotel, plunging everyone into darkness, killing the wifi connection, and setting the alarm system ascreech – a pattern that would repeat for most of the morning.

When I went out to the lobby to cancel my shuttle ride to the airport, I had to dodge around clumps of unhappy spring-breakers clutching their ski gear. Is the airport still open? I’m sorry, the shuttle is running late. My flight was cancelled. The roads are really terrible. I’m sorry, sir, all of our rooms are booked up. I did not envy the front desk staff.

I passed the time texting Bugman and checking weather and status updates on my phone. At least the cell signal was still working! The Denver airport Twitter feed was very informative.

6:51 a.m.

651 AM

6:59 a.m. – Bugman texts me to say his flight home was canceled.

10:18 a.m.

1018 AM

At some point, the status of my original flight changed from “on time” to “delayed.” Bugman got rebooked from St. Louis back to Denver via Phoenix the following morning.

11:17 a.m.


About a half-hour after the airport closed (the first such closure in 10 years!), my flight status changed from “delayed” to “cancelled.”

1:25 p.m. – I heard laughter outside my window.

8 hours later

At least someone was having fun in the thigh-high drifts the wind carved around the hotel.

I dozed away the rest of the day, subsisting on food selections from a vending machine and a gas station.

Around 5 p.m., the snowfall slackened. The Denver airport announced that it would begin resuming operations at 7 p.m. I decided to go shovel off the car so Bugman could find it the next day.

benefit of portable snow shovel PM

BEFORE, AFTER. This was one of the times I was glad we carry an emergency shovel in the car.

The next morning, the hotel lobby was full-to-bursting again, the movement of the people standing nearest the automatic door causing it to open and close repeatedly. Everyone was waiting for the airport shuttle, which was running late on the still-slick roads. We made it slowly but safely to the airport, despite a few close, hard stops that caused the parents on the bus to clutch protectively at their kids.

An airport in the aftermath of a blizzard is a pit of misery.

There were mats, blankets and pillows strewn everywhere – some occupied, some not. Check-in lines were long, security lines were long. The seating areas at the gates were jam-packed with the overbooked and the hopeful, all trying to get onboard via standby. I felt bad for the gate agents. Many of them looked frazzled. I wondered how many hadn’t made it home the previous night.

I overheard one extended family trying to decide whether to hang out at the airport in hopes of flying home standby before their rescheduled flight on Tuesday (it was currently Wednesday!) or to try to rent two cars to drive home to Tennessee.

Bugman texted me to say that he had not yet been assigned a seat on his flight from Phoenix to Denver, and that there were 61 people on the standby list. (He eventually made it.)

My flight was delayed, but it went. After the final boarding call, two girls, faces flushed with pleasure and relief, bumped down the aisle – lucky winners of the standby lottery.

The spring snow was melting quickly in the strong sunlight, yet phalanxes of snowplows were still out there clearing the runways.

clear airport runway

I lost count of how many slowplows were in this lineup – at least six, maybe eight, ten? The Denver airport recently won an award for its winter operations.

As we ascended over the city, I could see crews working along the highways to extricate stuck cars from roadside drifts.

clearing stuck cars

The aerial view of the snowy landscape was beautiful.

snowy landscape

The blizzard-made patterns on the ground were fascinating.

pivot aerial snowscape

Pivot-irrigated land

dryland aerial snowscape

Strip-cropped land

It was interesting to see how irregular the blizzard’s whallop had been. Vast stretches of ground looked as though they’d been missed completely.

fickle blizzard

another dry spot

The Minneapolis – St. Paul area had been hit by heavy, patchy snow, too.

tidy farmsteads

These regular farmsteads, each of their tree-lined yards, made me think of the “Norwegian bachelor farmers” of Prairie Home Companion fame. Gosh, the Midwest looks square from the air.

We flew into the urban corridor of the Twin Cities, and the snow seemed a little lighter.

urban golf course

One thing I love about Minneapolis – St. Paul is the wilds of the Mississippi River cutting through its heart. You can have a bit of bucolic scenery in the midst of a big city.

wild river

A nice view towards downtown St. Paul!

downtown st paul

Heading home a week later, more travel anxiety: another forecasted winter storm! As it turned out, the storm bypassed Denver but set up shop to the north – right in my path home.

green pivots snow traces

Nearing Denver, only traces of the blizzard were still visible along the borders and edges of the landscape. The pivot-irrigated fields of winter wheat looked green again instead of white.

blue sky denver

Blue skies over Denver!

DIA clear

I could even see the airport (the main terminal building is the white comb-looking structure center left). All the runways were clear and dry.

foreboding clouds

As we landed, the clouds to the north – the direction of home – looked foreboding.

A friend who dropped his spouse off at the airport that morning agreed to pick me up and drive me home. The snowstorm was hugging the I-25 corridor, cutting off the interstate route through Cheyenne, but leaving the eastern “backroads” route potentially open.

storm clouds over ranch lands

Spring storm clouds over ranch lands

sunny in fort morgan

Sunny and pleasant at a stop in Fort Morgan.

As we approached the Nebraska border on Highway 71 through the sparsely-populated Pawnee National Grasslands, it started to sleet. The roads got worse, but not terrible – until we reached the Wildcat Hills.

wildcat hills snow road

The little boost in elevation over the Wildcat Hills often means it’s snowier and slicker up there than in the valleys north and south.

We managed to make it home safely. (Whew!)

Two days later, on April 1, as I headed to a meeting out east, I was strongly reminded of the fact that I live in a valley. The snow had completely melted away “down below,” but the Wildcat Hills still held onto a snow coat, looking more like mountains than sandstone bluffs, set white against the green of winter wheat.

april 1 wildcat mountains

Here in western Nebraska, we continue to vacillate between 80-degree days and icy ones. We’ve had hail and a couple of wet snowstorms.

Today, April 30, began with a sludgy coating of snow weighing down the lilac blooms.

snow on lilacs

Several people have found emerged cecropia moths languishing in the cold.


Bugman to the rescue! Photo courtesy of Legacy of the Plains Museum

Spring weather is crazy on the High Plains. It seems to get crazier all the time.

Copyright 2016 by Katie Bradshaw




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