For many of us in the Midwest, El Nino has been a kind and benevolent overlord this winter.  Sure, he brought with him some scary-ass storms and some flooding (more towards St. Louis really, but the Illinois River is pretty freaking high for this time of year), but he has also kept the frigid temperatures away…For the bulk of this season, I’ve been reveling in 40-50 degree days.  With the memory of the Polar Vortex  and it’s negative thirty degree windchills of a few years ago still fresh in my mind, that’s basically t-shirt weather.

(Images from the Polar Vortex)

Until this week.

This week kicked off our first round of single digits and negative numbers, and while no one I know likes those sort of numbers, it’s especially vexing for those of us who take care of livestock.  For me, extreme cold means that I spend about twice as much time outside every day.  My aging herd of llamas is locked in to the barn with their heat lamps.  When they’re locked in, they eat more.  They poop more.  They some how dirty their waterers faster.  Plus, I’m pretty sure they get super bored and annoyed with me.  (How dare I shut them in to prevent frostbite and exposure???  I am SO rude!)

All of the creatures, from the 4 lb chickens to the 1200 lb horses, require more care and more clean up when the weather is this wretched.  I feed more.  I clean more.  I go outside more often, and I stay there longer.

Most of the time, I don’t really mind.  It’s part of this gig, and I usually see it as an unfortunate but fair trade for my wonderful spring, summer, and fall days out here.  But there is one event that can turn it from generally unpleasant to downright nasty: Freezing Water Lines.

So far in our time out here, I’ve really only found one waterline to be truly unstable in cold weather.  Our spigot in the horse barn, which we usually depend on to fill our horses 100 gallon trough every other day, is quick to sign off in arctic temperatures.  I’m not sure why that spigot-which is nicely sheltered in the horse barn-freezes while our fully exposed spigots in pastures and along the road keep chugging along, working their little watery hearts out all winter, but this one apparently requires a vacation.

A few days ago, with our first dip into extreme cold, I was disappointed but not surprised to find that the little spigot that couldn’t had frozen and that the horses water trough was nearly empty.  I resigned myself to being late to work, grabbed two five-gallon buckets from the llama barn, and started hauling water.

The driveway was iced over, and with wind-chill, the thermostat registered -9 degrees.  Progress, 10 gallons at a time, was slow.  Gave me a lot of time to think.

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My wintery walk to fill the horse trough.  The spigot that still would is just to the right of the buckets out of frame.  The trough is a bit past the red and white barn.

 Stage 1: Sadness

Not surprisingly, the first stage of hauling water in -9 degree weather is to realize just how much it sucks.  You start have thoughts like, “How important is water anyway?”  “I wonder if this could wait until, like, Spring…?”  “My city friends are all inside right now.” “I want to be inside right now.”  “My face hurts; why do I live somewhere where the air hurts my face?”  “These are pretty heavy…I wonder how much water weighs…”

Stage 2: Pride

Does that seem like a strange leap?  It totally is, except that in the middle of contemplating how much hauling water sucks, I sheltered in the horse barn for a moment to Google the weight of water.  Turns out, each gallon of water weighs 8.34 lbs; I was hauling approximately 83.4 lbs of water every trip.  And I made trip after trip after trip.  “I want to be inside right now” was temporarily replaced with “I am going to have the best biceps.” For a moment there, I was feeling super strong and in charge, and I momentarily forgot that the air hurt my face.

Stage 3: Morbidity

Here’s the funny thing about 83.4 lbs of water: by about the fourth trip, that water starts to feel heavy…really heavy.  All thoughts of “I am such a badass; look how strong I am” were replaced with “I wonder what it actually requires for human arms to fall off…”  I decided that the answer was probably two more trips.  At that point, I got a little careless and found myself nearly slipping on the ice.  I pictured myself slipping, spilling the water, and flash freezing myself to the driveway, where the barn cats would inevitably find me when they started to wonder about their dwindling supply of kibble and canned food.  Then, you know, being cats, they’d probably try to eat me.

Stage 4: Irrational panic and anger.   …Possible insanity

This is the point at which you get angry at the water for sloshing, not because of the loss of water, but because you carried that water almost all the way to the trough before it spilled.  You become convinced that it SPITEFULLY conspired with the little spigot that couldn’t to make your life more difficult.  If it had any sense of decency, it would have spilled immediately, thereby saving you the trouble of having to carry it.  To be carried almost all the way and then spill is the greatest of offenses.

…Until you watch your mare walk up and drink a bunch of the water you just poured into the trough.  Aghast at first, your sensible brain has to remind you that this is, in fact, the purpose of water.  You WANT them to drink it.  That’s basically their job.

Stage 5: Acceptance

As you watch your mare drain the trough back down, you have two thoughts.  First, you are only going to get this thing halfway full.  Second, it will probably take the rest of your life to do this…Especially if you slip, fall, get a concussion, flash freeze to the driveway, and get eaten by cats.  Arms falling off or no, you turn around and trudge back to the spigot to fill up with another ten gallons of water.  You wonder if this is how Sisyphus felt.

Stage 6: Relief

And as you dump a final bucket of water into the trough with aching muscles, a slow grin of satisfaction spreads across your mostly numb face.  You did it.  Your horses will not die or colic or anything because you hauled hundreds of lbs of water for them in -9 temperatures all by yourself with the power of your own arms.  You rock!

Stage 7: Profound Sadness

…And you realize you will have to do it all again tomorrow.  Now to take your aching arms to the other barn and clean all the stalls.

***Update: I spent two days hauling water.  By the time I was done, I hauled the weight of one horse, or three llamas, to that trough.  The third day, the spigot unfroze with warmer weather, and I was able to refill the trough with the hose.  And there was much rejoicing.

****The cold comes back this weekend.  Wish me luck!