The Big Spring Dump of ’01

Essay by Martha Quillen

Weather – June 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

May 10, 2001

I CAN THINK OF at least a dozen more topical subjects for a June edition, but snow it is. That won’t surprise most Central Coloradans, however, because last week’s storm was pretty unforgettable.

Right about now, snow just keeps coming to mind. Perhaps, that’s because as soon as I finish this, I’ve got to do something about the mountain of broken branches stacked on my patio, and the big elm tree which is now in six or eight distinct pieces in the yard of our rental house (except for the huge section that’s still draped across the roof). Or maybe it’s because there are still huge tree limbs down all over town. Or chalk it up to the fact that Salida’s hot springs pool is closed indefinitely due to roof damage, and as I write this, the Highway 50 route to Cañon includes a scenic byway through Westcliffe — until the Department of Transportation can blast away all of the potential rock slides in the canyon.

This was a storm to remember, and The Mountain Mail is even publishing a special snowstorm edition to commemorate it. By the time you read this magazine, the snowstorm edition should be in homes all over Salida.

And yet, despite all of the snow and the damage, I suspect that in years to come, one of the most memorable things about this record-breaking snow will be how fast it came and how fast it went in the midst of a warmly fragrant spring. May arrived in Salida with seventy-degree temperatures; the grass was greening up; fruit trees were in full bloom; people were out in their shirt-sleeves tending to their yards.

[Same back yard, two days in May]
[Same back yard, two days in May]

[Same back yard, two days in May]
[Same back yard, two days in May]

(And on that last weekend in April, many of us in Salida were planting things that we shouldn’t have. In my case, it was a juniper, which with a little luck should survive — but the evergreen that just one week ago looked like a perky little Christmas tree now resembles an ancient twisted bristlecone).

On Wednesday, May 2, the weather changed. Wind came in that afternoon and it started spitting out a cold drizzle. That night it started to snow, and it snowed all day Thursday. By Thursday evening it was downright eerie. The wind had abated and it was quiet and snowing…and snowing, and snowing…

Salida is a dryer, warmer place than its neighbors; so notably different that some residents refer to it as the Banana Belt, but Ed usually calls it the “eye of the hurricane.” Not uncommonly, it can be snowing in Buena Vista and blizzarding in Leadville; Monarch Pass can be buried, Poncha Pass snowpacked, Gunnison frigid, and the canyon alongside Highway 50 misty and slick, but in Salida it will be as dry as toast.

This time, however, quite the opposite happened. Everybody nearby got snow, but the storm centered itself over Salida. When all was said and done, The Mountain Mail in Salida reported 50 inches of snow; The Wet Mountain Tribune reported 19 inches in Westcliffe with accumulations of two feet here and there in Custer County; Buena Vista got 31 to 32 inches; friends in the Valley, Leadville and Gunnison all reported abundant snow, but nothing to compare with Salida’s deluge. A friend in Leadville told us that many of her acquaintances were actually quite gleeful to hear about Salida’s woes — after all of the years they’d had to put up with Salidans smugly bragging about their “banana-belt” weather.

[Alpine Park on Thursday, May 3, 2001]
[Alpine Park on Thursday, May 3, 2001]

On Thursday morning I knocked the heavy snow off of my bushes and trees; a few hours later, I did it again; and a few hours later, I did it again. But by 7 p.m. or so, the snow had drifted into my lilacs so high that when I went to knock the snow off, there was nowhere for it to go. The bushes were sitting in a four-foot drift. When I tried to pull some of the snow out of the lilacs, icy leaves and limbs came with it, snapping right off in my hands.

Later that night, Ed and I walked over to our daughter’s house to watch the 10 o’clock news because the snow had totally consumed the satellite dish on our roof, (the only sign of it by Thursday afternoon was an unlikely lump — which might have been mistaken for a snowman if it had been anywhere else). The going on Thursday evening was slow, the snow came up to my hips, and the only other people out were in Xcel trucks.

Ed and I were by then quite astounded that we and our daughter still had electricity. Abby lives a mere three blocks from our house, and we knew she still had a phone line and lights — as did we — so Ed shouted, “Hey, good job,” to a passing electric crew without noticing that the block we were on was in the dark.

[East Third Street on Thursday, May 3, 2001]
[East Third Street on Thursday, May 3, 2001]

ONE OF THE MEN shouted back, “Hey, we’ll find it,” and I’m sure they did. I’m also fairly sure that he thought Ed was being unnecessarily sarcastic, but it was merely the truth; despite sporadic outages the electric crews kept things going. According to subsequent reports, the longest power outages were corrected within a few hours,so nobody ever got too cold. And the road crews were also diligent.

But by late Thursday evening, the accumulation was surreal. We took a walk after the news, and whenever we didn’t stride right down the middle of the street, we had to wade through several feet of heavy wet snow. It was not particularly cold, however, even at 11 p.m. Instead, there were huge slushy pools at the intersections, many of them unnoticeable under more than two feet of snow — until you stepped in them. Twice we were startled by what looked to be fireworks down the alleys, but were actually sparking electric lines downed by ice. And once a flare of light coming from at least a street or so away was accompanied by such a loud boom that we all dived in different directions. Although I don’t really know exactly what that was, we figured it was probably another tree trunk snapped in two. As we passed by Alpine Park, tree limbs were snapping off so frequently it sounded like gunfire.

And yes, it did occur to me that it was probably dangerous to be out. But it had also occurred to both Ed and me, by then, that it probably wasn’t all that safe in our 120-year-old house either. Actually we own two old houses in Salida which both have some flat roof sections, and at that point the storm was starting to seem ominous (a mere 24 hours into its four-day visit).

On Friday The Mountain Mail reported that emergency shelter plans had been established in case of long power outages and collapsing roofs, but for the most part, worst case scenarios didn’t happen.

[Downed Elm]
[Downed Elm]

IT WAS WET SNOW, melting as it arrived, and there was probably as much on the ground early Friday morning as there ever would be (about 3 to 3 ½ feet on the flat with numerous enormous drifts). Yet even so, the snow continued until finally, according to the local paper, more than four feet of snow had fallen — simultaneously supplying more than one-third of Salida’s average annual precipitation.

It just kept snowing, and snowing, and snowing. So by Sunday afternoon, when the storm finally fled, Ed and I were surprised at how little damage Salida had actually sustained. Although, some cable television and phone lines went down, most survived. Although required roof repairs and tree replacements will no doubt be costly, there were few reports of life-threatening incidents. Although there was ample damage to roofs, fences, decks, picnic tables, and lawn furniture (which had just been pulled out for the season), for the most part the trees seemed to take the worst beating.

ON SUNDAY, our lilacs looked like they’d been in a Braveheart-style battle — and hacked apart. That afternoon, I took a walk through Salida with a camera and realized that the storm had been highly selective; my yard, the grounds at the Catholic church, and Alpine and Riverside parks looked like disaster areas, but other locations looked fine. In many places, the snow had almost disappeared, lingering only in the shadows. Water overwhelmed the gutters and ran off the roofs in curtains; it ran down the streets and pooled at the corners. But I still had two feet of snow in my yard. Obviously, I’d gotten more snow than anyone else.

Was this some sort of sign? Why me? Why the Catholics? Why the City of Salida? What had I done?

By Monday some of my lilacs were springing up, and although our spruce tree still looked sadly beaten, after a little judicious cutting, its limbs started bouncing back. And rationality returned.

The truth is, Ed and I live in an old part of town where the trees are very tall, and we have a dozen lilac bushes, a dozen or so fruit trees, a half-dozen rose bushes, a half-dozen other trees, a score of other bushes, numerous saplings, and our yard is darkly shaded. The snow always accumulates a little deeper and lingers a little longer in our backyard. As for the church, they have a lot of elms — a tree which didn’t fare well anywhere — and a high steep roof and steeple that cast snow onto the bushes below. And the parks? Well, people with only a tree or two probably did fare better.

But Ed and I also have a fifteen-year old tomcat who despises snow, and he underwent a mini-nervous breakdown during this storm.

Whenever it snows, Hector demands to go out every couple of hours, but when you open the door he jumps in front of it so you can’t shut it again, and then he just stands there and meows (in much the same way he bellows when his food bowl is empty — as if we have control of the snow and the rain and merely mail-order wet weather out of spite).

The kids found Hector in the alley when he was four or five months old, and we said no, they couldn’t keep it, but he stayed regardless until we finally caved in, and got him shots and got him neutered. But we never managed to fully domesticate Heck, and he has never managed to adequately train us. So in all the intervening years, Heck has been complaining about the weather.

And as always, this time around, Ed once again claimed that the cat was obviously part of a ploy perpetrated by the utility company, which — according to his theory — left dozens of these animals around town to seduce innocent young children and thereby make their way into private homes where people would be left standing around with their doors open in the worst possible weather because their pets refused to either come in or go out, thus guaranteeing higher utility bills for years and years to come.

[same patio in May]
[Same patio, two days in May]

[Same patio, two days in May]
[Same patio, two days in May]

This time around, however, Hector’s customary anxiety graduated into neurosis. He was chronically pacing, intermittently crying, and hissing at man and beast. (If you’re wondering — as we sometimes do — why we’ve kept Heck all these years, suffice it to say that he chose us and gets even more distraught about us leaving him for a day or two than he does about rain and snow).

But by Tuesday, May 8th even Heck seemed to be fully recovered. And he is, at this point, back to normal (or at least as normal as he gets).

And so, the grass is greener, the sun more glorious, and for the most part the trees have shown themselves to be vigorously resilient (though after repairs many do sport new and curious shapes). Spring is back and summer is just around the corner.

May 15, 2001

The city hopes to open the Salida Hot Springs Pool sans roof in a month or so (meanwhile deconstruction is underway), The Mountain Mail snowstorm edition is complete, and the temperature is back in the 70s.

–Martha Quillen