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From snowy days to backyard chickens

Essay by Ed Quillen

Mountain Life – January 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

EVERY TIME THE SNOW starts to fall outside, I have this pleasant fantasy that the day will turn into a holiday of sorts. I will sit in an easy chair near a warm fire, as I do as I write this, and the porch will hold a huge pile of split, dry firewood, which it does not as I write this. In my fantasy, the refrigerator and pantry are full, and at hand is a pile of good unread books, along with a Coleman lantern ready to light, just in case the power goes out.

On this unscheduled holiday, I will not have to go anywhere, and neither will anyone else in town. The streets will not get plowed, but no one will mind because no one is driving. We do visit one another during this lull, but we just walk, snowshoe, or cross-country ski. There’s a vast, cold whiteness outside, but we’re inside, reading or playing cribbage or just competing with the cats to see who can get most comfortable near the cast-iron stove.

On occasion, I can make this fantasy a reality for a few hours. But then the firewood has to be replenished, which means donning heavy clothes and a trip to the rearmost part of the yard. I have a “wood pile,” not a woodshed, so I have to sweep off the snow from the split wood, or else split some wood with the maul, then fill the wheelbarrow for a trip to the front porch. That involves navigating the north side of our house, where roof run-off freezes into a treacherous pile of ice that makes for treacherous footing, and which occasionally requires hacking at the walkway with a shovel for awhile.

After I get the wood up, I haul as much inside as I can conveniently store, so that it can dry. It’s a horrible thing to get up in the morning and discover that although we’ve got lots of firewood, it’s all wet with snow and about as flammable as so many ice cubes.

Once I’ve put on the heavy clothes and snow boots, I figure I might as well tend to other out-of-the-house chores, like taking out the trash. And there always seems to be something we need from the store.

When the streets are snowy and slick (Salida appears to be quite progressive, in that the city often seems to rely on solar energy to clear the roads), the choice between walking and driving is difficult. If everybody walked, walking would be far safer; you might fall down, but the chances of serious injury are slight. But if you’re walking, and lots of people are driving, and they’re sliding around without full control when the snow makes it possible for them to hop curbs, then you’re quite vulnerable on the sidewalk, and even more so in the crosswalks. Since driving puts a ton or two of metal between you and everyone else, it should be safer, except you could easily slide into an accident.

It’s a decision I wish I didn’t have to make, and that’s one of the hassles of winter. I was enjoying the warm, dry fall that lasted into December. I know, it was hard on the people whose sustenance relies on Monarch Mountain, which failed to open on schedule, and that in turn was hard on local merchants, who need business from skiers and ski-area employees. It was also hard on the forests, which were looking pretty parched, and no doubt hard on the foresters and firefighters expected to protect those forests. And the nicer it is outside in late fall, the more you fear there will be a water shortage next summer.

The snow finally arrived, though. For me, a heavy snowfall would be a wonderful thing if I could just stay home and enjoy it. But life seldom works that way.


In national politics, the West was supposedly coming into its own for the 2008 election, but I sure haven’t seen much evidence of this.

The theory was that the traditional “Red states” like Colorado were no longer safely Republican, but had become competitive. Thus both parties would need to address Western issues. And political attention would be even more focused on the West because the Democrats would hold their national convention in Denver.

However, I haven’t seen candidates of either party address things like the Colorado River Compact or the Recreation Access Tax. Nor anything about whether it’s right for half the Forest Service budget to go to fire-fighting, which can mean little more than protecting trophy houses put up by rich folks who are too good to live near the rest of us. Nor mention of grazing fees; or subsidized irrigation water; or rampant gas drilling; or increasing competition for water; or the consequences of our new tourist economies (which have arrived in the wake of our wholesale export of ag, mining, and industrial jobs). You get the picture.

Republican candidates focus on some legitimate national issues, like Iraq and immigration. But they seem to forget that they’re running for a secular office. Meanwhile the Democrats focus on some pertinent issues like health-care and economic disparities. But they seem to think the winner will be the one who can prove that he or she was the first one to oppose the American invasion of Iraq.

There’s one candidate whom I expected to address some of our regional issues. Democrat Bill Richardson is, after all, the governor of our neighbor state of New Mexico, and so he must be familiar with Western issues. But he doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to bring them up.

I have to confess that I’ve heard Richardson speak, and I wasn’t spell-bound. He does have an impressive résumé, but he’s no orator. Hunter S. Thompson once observed that “Every successful politician needs a dark, kinky streak of Mick Jagger somewhere in his psyche,” and that seems to be missing from Richardson.


In a lot of ways, Richardson is the most qualified and experienced candidate, as a former cabinet secretary and ambassador, as well as a current governor. But I don’t know how much that really means.

Consider the two opposing presidents during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln had a few weeks of military experience that included being court-martialed. He had less than a year of formal education. He had served one term in Congress and a few years in the Illinois legislature.

Jefferson Davis was a West Point graduate and a hero of the Mexican War. He had an excellent education before attending West Point. He had served in the U.S. Senate and he was U.S. Secretary of War from 1853 to 1857.

Judging by qualifications, Davis was miles above Lincoln. Yet Lincoln was a far more effective leader than Davis. Leave the Civil War out of it for a moment, and look at how Lincoln got Congress to join him in forming the West with the Pacific Railroad Act, the Homestead Act, and the Morrill Act for land-grant colleges.

One might expect Davis, with his military education and experience, to have been the better war-time leader. Granted, Lincoln made his share of mistakes, but Davis was certainly no better. Planning to fight a defensive war, he went along with Robert E. Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. He supported inept generals like Braxton Bragg and John Bell Hood, and he carried a long grudge against a competent general, Joe Johnston.

Civil War arguments are fun for us history buffs, but the main point here is that “experience” alone does not make for a good president. Lincoln had a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish — hold the Union together — and that more than made up for his lack of qualifications and experience.


Another oddity of the presidential campaign coverage, at least to a Westerner, is that Mitt Romney’s religion seems so mysterious to the rest of the country.

I won’t pretend to understand Mormon doctrines, but I had no idea that Mormons were such a novelty to the rest of America. I grew up playing with Mormons and going to school with them. I worked with Mormons at several newspapers. They’re part of the community, in other words, and so I’m somewhat surprised that this isn’t the case in other parts of the country.

As for Romney, I’d be happy to vote for him if he was the same candidate he was in Massachusetts: pro-choice, pro gay marriage, and working toward full health coverage for all.


A while back, I read a piece by a British journalist, whose name I have of course forgotten, which argued that the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not a “war for oil” in the conventional sense. Instead, he saw it as a war for the oil industry.

Consider that the result of the invasion was to greatly diminish Iraqi oil production and keep it off the world market. The old rule of economics, supply and demand, meant that oil prices went up because demand continued while supply declined.

Who benefits from higher oil prices? Oil producers, of course. And what industry were both George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in before taking office?

We could, however, argue that the environment benefits from higher oil prices because people burn less gasoline when it costs more, and thus pollution declines, etc. Since shipping costs more, the price of just about everything goes up, so people buy less and thus throw away less, thereby saving landfill space. It seems to me that one could make a pretty good “green” argument for $5 or $10 gasoline.


Sometimes I’d like to think that we live in a remote, isolated area where national politics don’t matter. But we’re surrounded by federal land, and its administration is determined by national politics, be it timber sales or energy development.

I’d like to make some sort of civics-class argument that we should pay close attention to the presidential races on account of how much influence the federal government has here. But since none of the candidates is paying any attention to our issues, I have a hard time arguing that we should pay attention to them.

So I’ll move to something real local: Chickens in Salida. For some years it has been illegal to keep chickens in town. I certainly didn’t know it was against the law when I had a tenant who kept a few hens. (Or I surely would have pounced on it; the hens didn’t bother me; but the assortment of coops and cages she erected, the consequent loss of grass and landscaping, the stacks of flammable straw, and the mess she left behind when she moved on did.)

Nobody else seemed to know about the law, either, until the city hired a new code-enforcement officer who did her job and enforced the law. This inspired some chicken owners to complain to the city council, and the result is a moratorium on enforcement until the city can come up with a new ordinance.

The libertarian in me wants to say “Just repeal this stupid law, and let people keep chickens, turkeys, geese, rabbits, whatever will fit on their lots,” And my “green” side says we should be encouraging local food production, and that includes fresh eggs.

As for roosters, which annoy some people (and which many with hen houses admit they can do without), I remember living in Longmont 35 years ago. The only domestic animals which were illegal in the city limits there and then were swine. So on summer mornings, when the windows were open, I often heard roosters crowing the dawn. It was a good, traditional sound that didn’t bother me at all.

Given that some people would push things past common sense if Salida just legalized chickens, some reasonable regulation is doubtless necessary — maybe a limit of a dozen fowl, a half dozen rabbits, or a single goat or piglet?; and that the premises have to be clean, since manure is not among the more pleasant aromas; and that the accouterments of rural living be placed at the back of lots, away from human habitation, since the woodpiles, compost bins, and straw that some people use to to line coops and cages can attract rodents by the score (something I learned when I was cleaning up after the chicken tenant).

And won’t that make our alleys more interesting? Honking, clucking, crowing. Gardens, coops, and cages. Chickens, rabbits, skunks, weasels. It should be quaintly reminiscent of the 19th century, and what could be better for an historic tourist town?

Now, to enjoy a nap by the fire on a snowy day. Such pleasures are why we live in the mountains, right?