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August 20, 2004

A Year in the Colorado Rockies

And when summer was stowed neatly away in the barn, we went onto the land and built bonfires. Bonfires to signal to our neighbors that we were in town, and home, and felt like drinking a single malt scotch or a shot of tequila. And maybe the neighbors would come and join the fire, and maybe they wouldn’t. But the fire was there…inviting; a signal that the seasons had changed, and that fall had arrived, and winter was fast approaching.


Summer

When the snow was mostly melted, I loaded up the 5 gallon backpack sprayer with a horrendously, lethal dose of Curtail and went out to wage war with the Dandelions, Knap Weeds, and Thistle. Even with my backpack mounted weapon of mass destruction, It seemed to be a battle that is waged, but never won. Like the war on terrorism or the war on drugs. I had imagined that my land would be free of these weeds by now. I had sprayed them into oblivion at the end of last summer. I had pulled and burned mountains of knap weeds and thistle. I had sprayed various sections of the property with Curtail every weekend that I had been home since the snows had stopped.

The dandelions appeared to be a green carpet covering several acres. Spraying them killed the plants that were visible, but in two weeks, they would be replaced by a new crop of fresh ones. They seemed to thrive in the dimly lit areas beneath the trees, in the poor mountainous soil. The dandelions, once sprayed, would release their seeds, as if by spite. I soaked the yellow flowers, deluding myself that the Curtail would render them impotent. I would pump up the pressure in the sprayer, lock the valve open, and methodically cover the dandelion carpet with Curtail. I imagined myself calling in a Napalm air-strike in the jungles of Vietnam.

Spraying the weeds is a like meditation to me...a mindless, consuming, task. Brain perpetually focused, searching for weeds, and spraying. It is a relaxing endeavor, a sort of therapy for a mind that is tired of thinking. There’s a weed…Spray…Problem solved. Move on….look for more weeds. Come to think of it, I don’t want to get rid of my weeds comletely. We are codependent.

But, after June, the rains ceased, and the earth dried and separated, creating cracks that seemed to run the length of my property and down to the core of the earth. The wells dried up and grasses died. All of the infirm flora passed long before the summer did. Somehow, the tenacious dandelions, thistle, knapweeds held fast, but everything else perished. When I walked across the yard, the brown grass crushed beneath my feet, never to rise again. I carried a cloud of dust with me as I walked across the property. The summer would go down in the books as the driest summer on record…the driest in over a hundred years.


Fall

In September, the rains finally came. The monsoon season brought some relief, but it was too late for the many of the trees. The aspens that had survived, began to blush. The yellow cascaded like waves down from the mountain peaks until mid-October, when it crashed onto the plains. And on the plains, the trees changed colors from the top down, so that it was possible to watch the yellow descend from the tops of the trees down through the lowest branches, as the chlorophyll drained from the trees. Where the green went, one could only guess. It was a question in the minds of the children and the adults alike.

One day in September, a strong windstorm came and pulled all of the leaves down from the trees, and that was the end of the fall. All we could do was sit around and wait for the hammer to fall. It had snowed already, but only in a modest, indifferent sort of way. The men of the mountains took out their chainsaws and felled the trees that hadn’t survived the summer, and cut them to exact lengths according to the width of their fireplaces. They stacked them neatly into towering piles. If they were killed by beetles, they would be burned this winter, if not, the following.

And in these mountains, the winters are endless. So the wood is stacked high and long. In dangerously tall columns and absurdly long rows. The boats are winterized, and the antifreeze is checked and rechecked. Snow brushes are returned to the trucks. Sorels and gloves. Chains and flashlights. The tires are changed or rotated. The construction season had come to an end. The days would be shorter now. More time would have to be spent indoors. Everything outside needed to be stored, stowed, and buttoned up.

And when summer was stowed neatly away in the barn, we went onto the land and built bonfires. Bonfires to signal to our neighbors that we were in town, and home, and felt like drinking a single malt scotch or a shot of tequila. And maybe the neighbors would come and join the fire, and maybe they wouldn’t. But the fire was there…inviting; a signal that the seasons had changed, and that fall had arrived, and winter was fast approaching.

The fire-pit was burned out for the first time of the season. And the inferno got antsy and wanted to meander though the fields like the summer moles. But the feet gave chase and snuffed the fiery tentacles that ran from the diesel soaked beetle-killed pine. And the bonfire gave warmth. Warmth that burned the cold air, and singed the legs and arms. And gave hope that, maybe winter wasn’t just around the corner. Maybe…just maybe…the fall would be a proper fall…moderate temperatures…rain instead of snow…benevolent instead of malevolent. Maybe…just maybe.


Winter

They say there are only two seasons in Colorado; Winter and the Fourth of July. One day in October we were swimming the DUKW in the reservoir. Two days later, the sky clouded into a prison of gray and there was a whiteout on C-470. People struggled to keep their SUV’s on the road…frequently failing…spinning like tops and careening through the guardrails and noise barricades that funneled the traffic.

Winter set in hard and fast. Colorado had the coldest Halloween in 128 years of recorded history. For two consecutive days in October, the mercury failed to rise above 20 degrees Fahrenheit. For three days, the sun refused to appear. For two more days, the sun made a brief cameo in the morning, but then quickly succumbed to the onslaught of clouds around the mountain peaks. Not until the sixth day, did the sun finally come out flog the snow like a rented mule.

And on the sixth night, it began to snow again.

The days are short in the Colorado winter. The whole of the Rocky Mountains seemed to hibernate through the winter. The streams froze in their eroded beds, hiding from the pale sunlight in craggled canyons; a peculiar vision to those more accustomed to the humid jungles of the Deep South.

By the middle of November, the skies had cleared and the snow had retreated to the shadows, but the mountain wasn’t fooled. The mountain knew it was winter. Outside the windows, all was deathly still. The trees, thin and thirsty, clawed at the poor mountain soil. Between the trees, no animals moved. In the summer, the woods were crawling with prey and predators. But in the winter, they disappeared like snow in the springtime. Who knew where they went? Some of the neighbors said the bears kept a den among the boulders at the top of the mountain and the foxes kept a den down by Turkey Creek. Maybe it was true. Maybe it wasn’t.

My temperamental pineal gland needed a vicious recalibration as my melatonin levels ebbed and flowed in the shortened days, wreaking havoc on my sleep patterns. During the day, I couldn’t drink enough coffee to stay awake. At night, I was incapable of sleeping. I resorted to sleeping on the couch, setting the sleep timer on the television, and then punching in another hour every time the television threatened to turn off, perpetually optimistic that just another hour would do the trick. I wasn’t sure where the animals were, but I was reasonably sure that they were onto something.

I spent my waking hours surfing Ebay and tinkering with my computer. I cobbled together an 802.11(b) wireless Ethernet LAN in my house, bought things that I didn’t need, with money I couldn’t afford to spend.

The packages came in faster than I could process them. Pictorial histories of the 10th Mountain Division, a Sony digital camera, another Sony digital camcorder, antique snowshoes, bogey wheels for the weasel, litter brackets for the DUKW. Even my five-year-old girl commented on the perpetual stream of conspicuous consumption.

I bought things on Ebay, paid with PayPal, and they were delivered UPS. UPS was the weakest link the in the chain. A little Mexican would drive up to my house, knock once, then hop back in his brown truck and flee the scene. He didn’t care about delivering the package to the rightful owner. He had no incentive to do so. His job was to run his route. That was all. I imagined myself aiming an M1 Garand rifle at the little Mexican from my bedroom window. “Set it down, vermin. You’re trespassing and that’s my property!? I’d be the first person to go to prison for robbing someone at gunpoint of my own property.

To solve the delivery problems, I rearranged my life around the little UPS man. Instead of working, I sat at home all day, waiting on the man to materialize. When I heard a knock, I’d grab my Colt .45 pistol from the mantle and run for the front door, clothed or not.

I slept on the couch fitfully and the days passed me by…a slow parade of desperate complacency; of urgent indifference. For want of crisis, my life seemed meaningless and the days interminably long. The days seemed to stretch out into weeks, and weeks into months. In the day I wished for the night and in the night I longed for the day. I’d wake at noon, struggling to stay awake. At night, I’d awake in the small of the morning, wide awake, unable to sleep.

For days, I’d stay inside. The mailbox would fill with mail and newspapers until one day, I’d go out and collect it all in a paper sack, returning directly to the confines of my self-made prison. I dumped the mail into a pile on the bare, hardwood floors of the room that should have been the living room and dining room. Devoid of any furniture, however, it resembled a school gymnasium, and Jennifer used it to slide around in her sock feet to music, piped in through the speakers mounted in ceiling.

And then, the snow set in. At first, it started out as a misty, February rain, but as the temperature dropped in the evening, it turned to a mix of fine sleet and pica-snow – those tiny, white spheres of snow that aren’t clear like sleet, but are too small to form proper snowflakes. The pica-snow coalesced into thin, slippery waves of improbably small marbles, making even the dirt roads as slick as black ice.

And the humidity became even dryer still, such that one was compelled to run the humidifiers at full throttle, and refill them at regular intervals. The withered forests wanted rain. Their needles littered the forest floors and the pine beetles knew that come spring, they would be feasting on the vulnerable tufts of ponderosa pines. Even in the dead of winter the pine beetles knew that they make a killing come springtime.


Spring

Technically it was Spring, but Spring never has been spread with a steady hand. Spring in the South is synonymous with thunderstorms, crawfish, and caterpillars. Spring in the Rockies means that the snowmen are short-lived, and you keep an eye out for bears and mountain lions when you’re making one.

Spring in the Rockies is when winter breaks its harsh, unblinking gaze on the mountains. It is loosely defined as the time when the snows begin to recede, allowing one to walk around the snow. A time when the ice can no longer be trusted, so you no longer walk across the creeks or the lakes any more. It is a fickle time of year, when the weather can change from snowstorms to sunshine and back again in a matter of minutes.

This past March, a blizzard came, and broke the spirit of the mountaineers. Many of them had already burned through their firewood when the blizzard hit. They’d burned their normal three chords, then burned the green wood that was put aside for the next winter, and finally the old rotted wood reserves, soft as tissue and covered with lichens.

The blizzard’s snows were thin and light, but incessant. It was a deceptively light, fine snow, that seemed incapable of turning the front range into a grid-locked, frigid wasteland. Against the gray skies, the snow was barely visible, but it snowed continuously for days until five feet of snow had smothered the front range.

People slept in their clothes, listening to the creaking ceiling joists, and fled into the night when the apartments collapsed up on Shadow Mountain. Ponderosa Pines were split down the middle, stripped of their limbs, snapped in half, or uprooted. The trees collapsed into the roads, severing the power lines and closing the canyons. No electricity meant the pumps couldn’t draw water from the wells, couldn’t circulate hot water through the baseboards, couldn’t power the cordless phones.

The dogs climbed onto the roofs and eyed their owners through the skylights. The children followed the dogs and flipped into the snow, sinking up to their necks, trapped until their friends dug them out. The locals lost faith in the county snow-plows, and shelled out hundreds and thousands of dollars to have their driveways plowed. The plow trucks got stuck. The front-end loaders blew their hydraulics and sat motionless, rusting and idle in the middle of the county roads.

The herds of elk awoke, entombed in snow. Desperately, they pawed at the snow until the found the frozen earth below. But the grasses had died from the summer’s drought and the ground was bare. Starving, they gnawed the bark off the Quaking Aspens as high as they could reach, and staggered down out of the mountains. The herd followed Bear Creek to Morrison and walked into the open meadows to eat the grasses beneath the snowmelt. The lowlanders stopped and took pictures from the freeway, as no one could remember when the elk had come down off the mountains before.

The people huddled in their cottages, weathered and emotionally scarred. Outside the blizzard ravaged the mountains. The houses that were originally built as summer cabins, had been assumed by inhabitants that couldn’t afford to winter in the tropics.

The stranded souls called the snowplow hotline at Jefferson County until the answering machine was choked and refused any messages. But the plows were nowhere to be found. They may have been hibernating. Their drivers may have fled to Florida, or been smoking crack down the hill, but the snowplows weren’t plowing.

In their absence, the free market economy kicked in, as Adam Smith had predicted. Price-gouging went into effect, as entrepreneurs began charging $250 per hour to clear driveways. After spending days imprisoned in their homes, people were shelling out hundreds of dollars to have their driveways cleared so they could drive to the grocery store for food and supplies.

Even after the blizzard had passed, it snowed every day or so for the three weeks. Spring officially started in March, but it was mid-April before the winter snapped, allowing temperatures to creep up gradually.

Finally, when daylight savings came, the sun found the sky and Spring pushed back the winter. The people waded into the sunshine, dried, cracked, and bleeding; sneezing in the daylight; racked by colds that ravaged the mountain homes in a perpetual campaign of germ warfare; waged entirely through friendly fire.

And as the snow retreated, it filled the cracks in the ground, parched from the summer drought. The melting snow turned the dirt into mud and ran down the mountain, carving little ruts. The snowmelt thawed the creeks and ran muddy over the snow and beneath the ice. The water rutted the hills and gutted the gullies, pushing the poor granite soils into the creeks. The brown, frigid waters cut away at the frozen surface. When the surface ice was melted, glaciers of snow collapsed into the creeks and jammed the driveway bridges that spanned the creeks. The water backed up into little ponds, and gnawed at the banks that supported the roads. Ice jams refroze each night, and thawed again each day. The roads relinquished their shoulders to the creeks, which rushed them downstream into the reservoirs in pulsating spasms.

The roads emerged from the snow, reluctantly revealing their lanes. County workers returned and fell upon the mangled canyon guardrails with acetylene torches and welding machines. The fingerling Brook Trout dodged their shadows in the creeks beds below.

And when the snows retreated, and fled into the creeks, the mountains found their colors. They blushed in repressed hues of green, lavender, and pink, unseen since the fall. The scrub oaks flowered and the tulips pushed up through the snow and betrayed the garden’s boundaries.

As the snows surrendered the mountains, they revealed the destruction of the blizzard. Rotting mule deer corpses, shattered ponderosa pines, flattened barns built in the gold rush in the century before last.

The mountains stretched and contracted as they warmed and cooled, sending rocks crashing down onto the roads in the canyons.

The county workers appeared and ran their graders on the sides of the canyon’s roads to test the shoulders. They’d drive the massive vehicles down the soft, narrow shoulders, searching for weakness, like a woodpecker testing a beetle-killed pine. These were the same crews that should have been plowing the snow. The same graders that should have opened the roads.

So, when the plows and their operators reappeared in the canyons, the citizens of the front range treated them with indifference. As they drove through the unmarked hairpin turns of the canyon, past the splintered forests, across the raging canyon creeks, and around the granite boulders, the citizens felt as ravaged as the land. The weight of the once-in-a-century blizzard had crushed their collective spirits and the only visible target for their wrath were the plows and their masters. The people drove past the plow drivers without so much as a nod, and went home and hammered For Sale signs into the liquefied soil of their land.


Posted by Peenie Wallie on August 20, 2004 at 11:46 AM

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