COLUMN: Braving the elements

May 29—So, it appears I learned a big lesson this spring sports season.

It is for a FACT not nice to fool with (or lecture) Mother Nature.

At the midpoint of the spring sports season, I wrote a column lamenting the bad boogies we have received from Ma Nature this spring, especially when it comes to staying on track with a sports schedule.

With precious few exceptions, spring is a time for outdoor sports.

In the elements. The weather is part of the game.

And, perhaps unintentionally I may have offended the matron of weather mythology by admonishing her to "give us a break, Ma).

Rain outs are a pain.

Snow and clogged roads in late May are a pain in the behind.

This past Thursday morning, I headed out bright and early, (as bright as one can be with just a half cup of coffee down my gullet to that point).

My destination was my home town of Billings. Where, along with Laurel, a pair of high school sports state championships were being held.

First task: get there. The first game doesn't begin until 4 p.m.

One thing I found out right away: Mother Nature can apparently read.

It was raining in Plains, where it falls "mainly" in the (Wild Horse) plains.

And that rain, when you add cold air to it, can morph into snow.

Except, this isn't supposed to happen in regions not considered high mountains, like, for example, the rooftops of the upper peaks in the Mission Mountains.

Then, out of nowhere, came that inner voice reminding me: this is Montana.

After a quick stop for a grande mocha and a scone, off I went down Highway 200, heading for that endless black ribbon called Interstate 90.

It is 419 miles each way to Billings. The scenery is awesome...if you can see it.

I felt the first twinge of "uh-oh" somewhere around Dixon, which was getting a good mix of snow with the steady rain.

"Montana is a big state", I said to myself in one of my frequent one-person conversations. "The weather can change nine times between here and Missoula, not to mention here and the Magic City (Billings. Yeah, I know).

But as I approached the on-ramps to I-90, I could see far enough ahead to make me think the unthinkable: "what if it's like this the whole way?"

First sign of real trouble was how hard it was coming down by time I got to Deer Lodge, which would have been somewhere around 9 a.m.

"Butte got anywhere from 1 to 27 inches", said the clerk of a local convenience store where I stopped to refill my cup of coffee. "You're heading to Billings? Good luck with that. See you in about an hour when you come back through".

Dread filled my head.

It was getting worse by the mile, snow and rain wise, when I rounded the I-90 "bend" that offers the first view of Butte and the mountains that line its eastern flank.

I've been through a few "white knuckle" drives up and over Butte Pass, or Homestead Pass or whatever they call it. I've seen how fast the Interstate can go from okay to oh-no!

This was an oh-no day. Shortly after beginning the ascent up the western side of the pass, traffic came to a half. The snow did not halt, but it was a wicked precursor of things to come.

"About five miles up ahead, a couple of semi-trucks had tangled up in a bad road, and possibly bad driving, mess. When traffic finally inched by, I was not happy to see what looked like a couple tractor-trailers who caused what became an hour-long pause in my journey. No serious damage, and it didn't appear anyone was hurt.

But my newly implanted pacemaker was earning its pay at that point.

Wow, I muttered as traffic began to flow again. It would not be the last "wow" of the trip by any means.

With snow falling non-stop, albeit mixed with rain, I thought about turning back, thinking no track or softball events will happen in this kind of weather. But, my rational side said, Billings is still a long way off.

The Butte Pass incident would soon be equaled by the "Bozeman Hill" debacle. This one lasted only 30 minutes and off we go again.

With the snow still falling, yet another freeway freeze lay ahead, this one just outside Columbus.

Please, Ma Nature, please let me reach Billings.

Only 20 minutes later those of us in the traffic jam from pause number three, were being re-routed through beautiful downtown Columbus.

Back on the freeway and the first real glimpses of the sky over Billings and Laurel confirmed my worst fears. I just drove 400 miles to spend the night in a cheap motel.

Mother Nature 1, Chuck 0 (on this trip). All events, I soon discovered, were canceled for Thursday, with new times pending for Friday morning in what I'm sure was a rescheduling nightmare.

Friday morning I threw open the curtains to my motel room and saw an amazing site: blue sky overhead.

And while I photographed what I could from the Thompson Falls-Shepherd softball game before racing back to Laurel for what track pictures I could get, I realized how hardy Montanans really are.

But I know this for sure: it is not a wise or nice thing to try and bad-mouth Mother Nature.