The Back Page with Bruce Steinberg,
Author John R. Powers wrote in his book “The Last Catholic in America” that, in Chicago, “March was the final fart of winter.”
I remember reading that passage while an undergrad at the University of Illinois. Unlike the required reading of English Lit. 101, works by Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats or Yeats (apparently there’s a difference), this seminal Powers’ line caught my attention and made me think: “Is March really that bad?”
Powers wrote about the sins of March weather in the context of Lent, and the agony of a Catholic child keeping a sacred promise to give up something important for forty days, like candy or thumb-sucking. Still, he also wrote this about March: “It would rain on us one day, freeze us the second day, and on the third day blow us off our feet. By the end of the month, we were globs of wind-wracked ice.”
In these years of climate change, Powers’ descriptions pretty much sum up Chicago-area weather from November through March. But, even now, March still wears the Winter’s Final Fart crown. March is the month in which, if you blow your Birkie effort, you search for a ski race to prove your athletic worth someplace not north of Bemidji. And I remember a time training to do just that, the morning after a 50-degree afternoon put melt-water on our area’s best stretch of asphalt for a long-hill workout. I sped downhill on roller skis only to find that the melt-water had turned to black ice by the 20-degree overnight temperatures. This was in pre-effective-speed-reducer days, the ice not seen ‘til I was almost upon it, with only enough time for me to say, “Dear God, if only … “ before I bounced my way to road rash.
Running in March at Nelson Lake Woods – my favorite local trail run – is one moment an exercise in crater-hopping frozen foot prints, then, a hundred yards later, a slip-and-slide of mud. It’s when Mother Nature regularly makes rain into sleet, sleet into snow, snow into ice pellets, ice pellets into hail pebbles, and hail-pebbles into hail golf balls I’d swear were being flung by someone I really must have ticked off. Sometimes the path – a changing mix of crushed limestone, grass and wood chips – slips under a lake of melt-water unable to sink into still-frozen earth. Then it’s a guess as to what lies below – a ditch or stone, a depth of several feet. Trying to go around will only ensure that the hands of mud at the watery edge will grab my running shoes by the heels and pull them off, swallowing them whole, before I, in my mud-clumped socks, can return to retrieve them.
It’s easy to see who in the park’s parking lot has returned from a run versus who has yet to start out. Yes, the sweat, the snot-drippings, the water-spotted glasses are there as the usual indicators. But a true March trail runner returns with either one side caked in mud from a fetal-roll fall, or a full-frontal mud pack from a face-plant. My car’s rear hatch in March is loaded with cloth and paper towels, a pair of post-running shoes and a flare gun.
In another stretch of woods across the street from my home, I began a wonderful cross country ski in abundant snow, last March. All that sun, tracks made by skiers the day before – wonderful! – then moving along more slowly on the return trip, slower still, until stopped completely when the temperature rose into the upper thirties. Instead of sliding over the base, snow sticky-buns gave me Herman Munster shoes for skis and a two-mile slog home through slush. Although my sloshed ski boots recovered, they maintained an odor particularly attractive to my cats.
Each time March begins, I look forward to its end. But with all due respect to John R. Powers, I’m reminded of that fateful call of April – “Honey, it’s time to cut the lawn!”
Oh March, how I suddenly miss thee!