It’s not every day the assignment comes down: Find spring.
Especially when you’re starting at a North End home in Winnipeg, with the snow in the driveway piled up nearly two metres. The temperature at 7 a.m. is -17 C, with a chance of snow at noon. Wonderful.
You know what they say about March in Winnipeg — in like a lion, out like a lion with frostbite.
So it was that a Free Press reporter and photographer Joe Bryksa, passports in hand, pointed a Jeep Compass due south heading for... spring. Straight down Highway 75, which morphs into Interstate 29, with every intention of locating any sign of the season that was officially supposed to arrive in Winnipeg last week.
Morris: Of course, the first leg of our journey was rather uneventful. More of the same — kilometres of snow-covered fields that most years would have been black dirt or fallow. At our first pit stop, we ask the young lady manning the pumps where we might find spring. "Go farther south," she replies. "Spring’s certainly not here."
That wasn’t Morris code. It was obvious from the temperature, which at least had risen to a bearable -8 C at the U.S. border. Asked if we had anything to declare, "Winter stinks!" came to mind.
After all, even by Manitoba standards, the winter of 2013-14 has tested the patience of the most hardy residents. There’s long-suffering, then there’s suffering too long.
Blizzards. Stretches of nights when the thermometer never stopped falling before -30 C. Unprecedented street ruts that set records for Autopac claims. Frozen pipes. (Winnipeg might be the only city in the world with brown water in frozen pipes.) Then the potholes, of course, which not surprisingly were soon filled in with ice and snow from the next blizzard.
It was this kind of winter that led us, quite accidentally, to a pair of half-ton trucks pulling camper trailers, idling in a rest area about 25 kilometres south of the border.
Both vehicles had Manitoba plates.
And the drivers had a message.
"We’re driving until we hit the Gulf of Mexico," vowed Anneke Gillis. "And then we’re going to New Orleans."
Beside Gillis sat Kelly Hawkins-Anthony, who added: "It’s been a long winter. And we didn’t have water for 10 days."
So Gillis and Hawkins-Anthony packed up their kids and bolted from Winnipeg Wednesday morning, too. But they weren’t looking for spring, they were looking for summer.
In the next vehicle was Patrick and Amy Bowman and their three children.
"We said, ‘That’s it,’ " Patrick Bowman said. "Point the truck south and drive to Mexico."
But even fleeing Winnipeg in the depths of (still) winter has its hazards.
"We thought we were crazy packing the trailer," Gillis said, shaking her head. "It was 20 below. My hands were freezing."
But not when wrapped around the steering wheel of a truck headed for Mexico.
"Drive safe," she said.
"You, too," we replied.
Fargo: The lack of snow almost immediately across the border was noticeable. It was as though Old Man Winter had lost his passport at U.S. Customs. Fields for the most part were largely bare, with only small patches of snow. The median on I-29 was virtually a long string of brown grass.
But ask the locals and a different story emerges of the winter not completely in the rear-view mirror in North Dakota, despite temperatures rising to 9 C by mid-afternoon.
"It’s terrible, terrible," spat Allen Foster, a trucker cleaning the chrome-plated moose-protector grille of his Kenworth truck.
Foster is from Bemidji, Minn., where our American neighbours are also losing patience.
"I was seeing grass until last week before a storm came through," Foster lamented. "Lots of crazy weather."
Asked what he longs for most from spring, Foster’s face lights up.
"I have a Harley," he said. "I want to ride my bike. But that’s not happening right now."
Instead, Foster remains behind the wheel of his Kenworth, hauling liquid fertilizer up and down I-29, a moose’s worst nightmare.
Approaching Sioux Falls: The outside temperature displayed on our dashboard continues to creep up, reaching double figures almost the exact moment we pass into South Dakota. But it’s getting late, even for spring, so a quick stop in Watertown, S.D., to see if there are any tee times available.
"You’ve got to keep going a little farther," reported one local golf pro.
Word on the street in Watertown was Sioux Falls courses were opening Saturday. A few quick calls and we find the Prairie Green’s driving range in Sioux Falls, some 200 kilometres away, is open.
Bryksa hits the gas pedal. But in our haste, we realize, about an hour later, the gas tank is on empty — smack-dab in the middle of South Dakota. Not a pump or town in sight.
Fortunately, we find a little community called Flandreau just off the interstate and make it to a gas station on fumes. Back on the road and the sun is falling fast in the west, lost behind the haze of dirt kicked up off barren fields by a strong north wind.
Still, we finally make it to Sioux Falls, where we find Kirk Evenson, a software developer, just walking off the range, wearing a sweater and vest.
"This is one of the first days it’s actually been warm enough to hit some balls," Evenson said. "So I’d say you found spring, yes. It (winter) just kind of stuck around. Now it looks like it’s letting loose."
A few metres away, Jared Wiebe looks at two Winnipeggers and says, "At least you didn’t bring the snow here."
Buddy Michael Thompson, hitting a driver in a golf shirt, says he’s not cold. "Not when you’re swinging," he said. "It’s good."
Finally, we meet a burly man named Michael, in a thick plaid shirt with long sleeves, who claims "our winter (in Sioux Falls) was probably colder than yours."
"It was tough," he continues. "It was so cold you could barely play hockey outdoors. The ice froze like shale."
Perhaps everyone’s idea of winter can differ. Spring, too.
Are you going to go looking for spring? Or are you content to wait for it here? Join the conversation in the comments below.