Psychologists call it the solidarity of hostages, a way to describe how involuntary confinement can unify strangers in the crucible of shared hard experience.

It's not exactly prison, but this winter has certainly given us in northeastern Montana shared hardship. We are mired in 80 inches of snow, alternately numbed and brutalized by temperatures that have dipped to 40 below, and held hostage by the realization that half the winter remains in our future.

When we gather — at the grocery store's checkout line, at basketball games, or at church-hall chili feeds — the first minutes of every conversation address the weather. We discuss tractors that won't start, the impossible depth of drifted snow, the rate of hay consumption, the things we haven't been able to find since November — garden tools, sleds, cattle, our knees. What's unspoken is a sort of galvanizing unity: We're in this together, and if you don't live here you can't understand.

So in this spirit of shared experience, I wanted to pass on a couple of perspectives I've heard from my winter-weary neighbors:

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On our coldest morning last week a friend was late for work. She took an icy corner a little too fast in her little front-wheel-drive Toyota, slid on the snow-slick street and came to an abrupt halt. What happened? Turns out all four tires, thin-walled 4-plys, went immediately flat as the cold, inflexible sidewalls broke the bead on the rims.

Another neighbor e-mailed me a picture of deer droppings. Okay, you might think (as I did) that the winter had affected his sense of decorum. But then I studied the photo. The deer pellets were stacked on top of each other, one by one, like a string of magnetized BBs. The deer had evacuated these pellets while standing still, and the air was so cold that they froze in a long, fragile stack about 20 pellets high. Art, it seems, is where you find it.

And another friend told me the spookiest story of the season. Pulling into his rural yard at night, his headlights swept across a large gray wolf, watching his house from a distance. He parked, got a flashlight and a rifle and walked out in his yard. He couldn't find the wolf, and he couldn't find a single track in the fresh snow. Was it really there? Or was the cold addling his brain?

It's been a winter like that, with wolves — real or perceived — waiting and watching how we endure this together.

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