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Taking diversity to extremes

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – August 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

I ONCE REMARKED that you really need a good reason to live here. And it’s true. This is my 11th summer here in the Wet Mountains. It is by far the longest I have ever lived anywhere, actually nearly twice as long as I have ever stayed in any one place.

I have seen a lot and learned a great deal in my decade here. But if one thing stands out, it is that this is a land of extremes and diversity. There is extreme beauty and extreme harshness, and something extremely beautiful about that harshness. Between the extremes there is a richness that I have not found elsewhere.

Foremost there is the weather. Of all areas of Central Colorado, Westcliffe itself has the most disparate of temperatures with a 148-degree spread between the record low and the record high. The record low temperature was -54°, set on Feb. 10, 1933. Those old timers who talk about “when we used to have real winters” aren’t joking.

That’s truly arctic. The record high was 96° on July 20, 1937. Because of the radiant heat due to the relative lack of atmosphere and moisture in the sky at this altitude, 96° here is something akin to a very hot summer day in the Mojave desert.

There are other extremes in the weather besides the temperature.

There’s the wind that can range from suffocatingly calm to gale force.

The usual winter and spring Chinooks come to mind. One winter a windstorm pulled a barbed-wire fence out by its posts and stuck those posts through the side of a house like spears. But I also witnessed a July 4th windstorm that took out entire aspen groves and overturned small buildings.

Precipitation and moisture also follow waves of extremes. Some years it doesn’t snow much at all. Other years we get a three- or four-foot dump on Halloween or Thanksgiving that sticks around and gets added to until it melts in April or even May. One year I remember mailing my taxes on April 15, then stepping into my skis on my back deck and skating right off the deck out over the tops of fences, and past the barely exposed roofline of the old line cabin that crouches below my property.

This year, on June 13, I recorded the latest snowfall in my personal history here. (The previous record was June 9.) The very next weekend a lightning storm set my TV on fire. Two weeks later I was sweltering through one of the hottest weeks I can recall. Walking across the dried grass in my pastures sounded like a stroll through crunchy pine duff.

THIS HEAT WAVE was ended by one of the biggest thunderstorms I have ever witnessed. It started with ¾-inch hail, mixed with rain and it poured for well over an hour. There was water standing an inch deep even on grassy slopes. My lower pasture ran like a small river and the runoff filled the pond behind the little soil-conservation levee which is bone dry most years.

I briefly considered getting my kayak out just to say that I had floated my property, but then remembered the melted plastic case of the TV. I opted instead for a glass of wine and watched as the thunderstorm ended in a blaze of glory with the sun burning out blood red and orange from under the black clouds far north on the skyline, like a huge wildfire rolling in off the high peaks.

Perhaps the extremes in weather explain the amazing biodiversity here.

But there are other factors, too — like altitude and geography. The altitude on my front porch is 8,800 feet, according to an airline pilot friend who has a really good global positioning satellite device. It’s a true ecotone, a geography of blended plant, bird and animal life from both lower and higher elevations and latitudes.

Just on my 35 acres, the plant life ranges from cactus and yucca to prairie grasses and other grasses found in high mountain meadows. Indian paintbrush grows near yarrow. Sage and rabbit brush co-exist with currant berry and mountain mahogany bushes.

Even more amazing is the diversity of the trees. Juniper and piñon trees common to elevations 1,500 feet lower grow alongside dozens of big ponderosas and a grove of smallish aspens. In the draw below the house lives a dense cluster of narrow-leaf cottonwoods, one a big, old tree.

With the diversity of trees comes a diversity of bird life. Songbirds of the prairies mix with piñon jays of the mid-elevations and Stellar’s jays and Clark’s nutcrackers of the higher elevations. Ravens croak overhead and mingle with any number of hawks, falcons and eagles.

This year I have noticed large numbers of kestrels. They seem to be everywhere I go, everywhere I look. I see them streaking past, or perched on fenceposts with freshly killed songbirds in their talons.

I’ve watched them fly into a hole in the big dead ponderosa on my property, carrying huge grasshoppers in their beaks for their youngsters. Weeks later I heard them teaching these same babies to fly.

The youngsters make a panicked cry and flap crazily as they learn to hover, unsure of their newfound wings.

ON THE GROUND are desert dwellers such as horned lizards and rattlesnakes, and colonies of prairie dogs that seem out of place in meadows that are grazed by high-country elk. Ermine are on the very southeast fringe of their range here. Bobcats are common, and coyotes are nearly an everyday sighting. An occasional pronghorn antelope ventures out of the valley to this elevation. Mule deer abound and with them cougars. Black bears are quite numerous. In the winter huge herds of elk blacken the ridges, and many of these stay and give birth to their calves here during the summer, while others migrate across the valley to spend their summers high in the Sangre de Cristos.

Just as interesting is the diversity of people. In a small area you can find people living in everything from teepees, trailers and Tuff Sheds to modest smaller homes like mine right on up to the $2 million ridgetop mansions. Cowboys, carpenters and heavy-equipment operators live and work alongside artisans, real-estate pimps, lone-eagle executives and retired college professors. Like the plant, bird, and animal life, it’s a diverse and possibly confused crowd.

I’ve thought about leaving. But I wonder if I would be disappointed with life in a less-diverse environment. Recently I asked my wife what would happen to me if I had to live in a place where there was less biodiversity, smaller subsets of weather conditions, and less variety in plant, bird, animal and human life. She replied simply: “You would die.” The answer was as extreme as it was true. I guess I’ll remain a part of this diverse landscape for a while.

From his home in Custer County, writer Hal Walter also enjoys the political diversity of Central Colorado.