Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Mud Country Almanac

Column by Hal Walter

Cabin Fever – June 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

“The weather is here, I wish you were beautiful.”

–Jimmy Buffett

THE BIG HERD OF ELK spread out across the snowless hillside, grazing westward one chilly January evening. I braked my truck, turned the key one click to stop the engine, rolled down the window, and grabbed the binoculars from the glove box.

The cows were chirping as they worked their way across the ridge. I quit counting after 100 and started to look for antlers. There was one mature bull at the bottom of the slope, a couple of spike bulls in the middle, and two more mature bulls up higher.

Then amidst the cow chirps one of the bulls let out a rutting-season-serious bugle. I thought that I must be hearing things. Surely this was a slip of the throat, a rare case of Tourette syndrome in the animal kingdom.

But then it was answered.

The two bulls at the top of the hill began to spar; I could hear the rattle of antlers from my truck. Then they stopped. More bugling. Then the apparent winner of the ridgetop contest wandered quickly down to the bottom of the hill, scattering cows and calves in his wake, and commenced to pick a war with the big bull down there.

This was January, and something was truly awry.

For years I’ve set my calendar by events like this. Suddenly it was September again, never mind the sun setting right in the middle of the afternoon. I bought a full-spectrum lightbulb for my office to help me cope with the seasonal affective disorder.

But two days later I was out for a run and saw a pair of bluebirds. The bright blue male lighted from the fencepost and flew down the fenceline to land on another post. He awaited my approach, and then did it again, playing out this game of leap-post that I am seasonally conditioned to seeing in early March when the light is truly building.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise a week later when a local resident told me about the trouble she’d been having with a bear that did not seem to be at all sleepy this winter.

By February bluebird sightings were commonplace, and a pair had been seen checking out the digs in a bluebird house in one of my trees. Also, the flickers were back. Near an old cattle guard on the road, I saw a dandelion sporting a rather anemic flower; still, it was quite an impressive blossom for the dead of winter.

I just didn’t get it. It still seemed cold to me, my woodpile was intent on proving the reality of winter by diminishing at an unusually alarming rate, and the frost I scraped off my wife’s windshield some mornings was almost epic. I spied three standing-dead ponderosas on the way to my neighbor’s house, and one sunny afternoon I fired up the most dangerous device I own and dropped all three of these beetle-kills right onto his road. We cut them up and divided the wood.

By now the locals were restless and screaming for moisture. If something didn’t happen soon, there would be no hay this summer, the forests would burn to the ground, and our wells would all run dry.

And then the wind began to blow.

A life-long Custer County horse and hay farmer by the name of Virgil Lawson once told me the only local weather forecast I’ll ever believe. He said, “This time of year, it will blow and blow and blow, until it snows.”

Not once in the 15-odd years that I’ve lived in this county, has Virgil’s weather forecast failed me.

This year, however, the blow part was taken to an extreme, something that made me wonder if perhaps the wet weather that would soon follow would be extreme as well. The wind blew so hard in March that some days the sky was almost black with dust by mid-afternoon, clouding visibility to less than a mile. I suspect a good portion of this airborne dirt was from freshly plowed San Luis Valley farmland, carried over the Sangre de Cristo range by the wind.

On April 6, I bought a cord of wood with hopes of finishing off this winter and getting a head start on the next. After all, I had plans in the following weeks to escape some of the cruelty of April by fleeing to South Padré Island, Texas, one of the most southerly beaches in the United States.

All through the first couple of weeks in April the wind blew and blew and blew. Usually I can set my calendar to the return of hummingbirds in mid-April. Sometimes I even hear them during spring blizzards. But I didn’t hear a single hummingbird before I headed south.

Besides being a place where a pilgrim from Central Colorado can run around in April barefoot and almost naked, South Padré Island has a connection to Central Colorado that few people realize.

At our end of the Rio Grande there is currently a debate about pumping water from the Closed Basin aquifer in the San Luis Valley and piping it to the Front Range where development is largely unchecked. Some water is already being pumped from the Closed Basin in order to augment supplies in the Rio Grande. But even with this augmentation, by the time this river reaches the Gulf of Mexico it is but a mere trickle of its former self.

ON SOUTH PADRÉ one big environmental concern is erosion of this barrier island. Water projects along the Rio Grande, especially the system of dams in central New Mexico, are giant settling ponds that keep not only water — but also sand and silt — from reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Without this sand and silt, the barrier islands are unable to recharge themselves. As a result, parts of the Padré Island National Seashore are eroding at alarming rates. Behind this island rests Laguna Madré, a shallow estuary that is the spawning ground for a number of ocean fishes, a feeding ground for porpoises, and the seasonal home to millions of migrating waterfowl, shorebirds and the predators that follow them, such as peregrine falcons.

Greed sucks from both ends of the river, and from many points in between.

With a fresh sunburn from paddling and wading around in Laguna Madré in search of the elusive redfish, I decided to call a friend back home who was keeping an eye on my place. What I got on the other end of the line was a person with the worst case of cabin fever I’ve ever diagnosed long-distance. He was up to his hubs in mud and snow. It had been snowing and snowing and snowing since I’d left.

It was a difficult concept to accept, with a cold Speckled Trout Stout in hand and a sea breeze cooling the sunny, 85° day.

Snow? What a concept.

Cabin fever? What’s that?

The thing was, I couldn’t stay in Padré Island investigating the Central Colorado connection forever.

And so it came to pass. One week I was wading around in the clear, sandy-bottomed waters of Laguna Madré, wearing shorts and nothing else, and fly-casting faux shrimp at redfish. The next week I found myself wading around in ankle-deep mud, slush and manure, in a pair of Sorel boots and a lot of clothes, casting about for my sanity.

When the storm finally subsided, and the big orange ball returned to the sky, it’s safe to say that there was more snow on the high peaks than there had been at any one point during the winter. It was now May, and the morning lows were in the teens. The firewood pile was still shrinking.

I had yet to hear the first hummingbird of spring.

Custer County resident Hal Walter writes annually on the subject of cabin fever.