The Blues of Winter

Essay by Matt Hutson

Winter – February 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

I HATE WINTER. I realize that sounds pretty funny coming from a guy who lives in Gunnison County, the part of the state best known for its brutal winter conditions. But it’s true.

I think it all dates back to my teenage years. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, through a variety of mishaps and stupidity, I ended up having multiple knee operations. Somehow I spent part of five or six winters limping around Carbondale in a full leg cast. Mucking around in the slush in a cast is not a good time; the toes of the affected leg never quite seem to warm up. To top it all off, one is deathly afraid of slipping, falling, and enduring yet more considerable pain. I haven’t been on a pair of downhill skis in over 25 years.

Every time I tell people I live near Gunnison, they make some comment about how cold it is here in the winter. I always come back with “Yeah, but you don’t have to shovel cold.”

But this winter we’ve had to shovel the cold. And shovel. And shovel. Gunnison County is deep in the midst of a legendary winter. The first big storm arrived in early December and left 16 inches in its wake.

And this being Gunnison County, the conditions aren’t exactly conducive to said snowfall going away. The snow we get has a way of hanging around until at least the middle of February, when temperatures start to warm up a bit.

It has snowed on and off for five weeks at this point and there’s now three feet on the ground at my house. And we haven’t even gotten to February and March, the second and first snowiest months of the year respectively. Officially it hasn’t snowed this much here since the epic winter of 1983-84.

At least here we have real winter. Part of my disgust with the season stems from living in the Roaring Fork Valley for so many years, where the snow melts relatively quickly. The snowfall there is fairly wet and the temperatures fairly warm, which fast leads to lots of slush and mud. I came to call it “half-assed winter.” At least here winter is serious.

One year while I was in high school, I came up with a theory. I decided that if a body were to shun jackets and coats and simply allow the winter cold to ease up on him a bit, day by day, then one could adapt and go all winter without a coat and with little discomfort. And so I did. I only remember being cold one day that winter: when I walked to work in a blizzard. In my mind’s eye I can still see myself as a teenage boy clad only in jeans and a t-shirt, limping along the highway in that storm. But to this day I stay warmer longer than any of my friends.

So why do I call this frigid place home? Because most of what I love about western Colorado is nearby. My family and I spend each decent day in the spring, summer and fall high in the mountains. You can get to most of the best parts of Colorado from here within three hours, and a big percentage of the best is within one. It’s hard to beat a trip to the west portal of the Alpine Tunnel in the golden fall, a fine summer day spent shopping in Lake City, or a drive over Cottonwood Pass in late May with the snow cuts as much as twenty feet high on both sides of the road. We’ve spent countless days hiking miles of old railroad grades, or looking for ghost towns, or checking out abandoned mines.

My grandparents started our family tradition of racing off to the mountains every weekend. We’d load up my grandfather’s blue Willy’s Jeep (the ‘Blue Goose’ to us) and head off into the high country for a picnic. The Blue Goose was eventually retired and replaced by a red International Scout (into which my grandfather had stuffed a mighty V-8 engine), but the tradition continued for the remainder of their lives and lives on in us. To stay at home on what I call a “Perfect Colorado Day” is unthinkable, and to go to the Front Range on such a day is considered a crime.

So here I sit high in the middle of Colorado, freezing. But I know there’s a day edging ever nearer when we’ll load up our Jeep and go see how far up the mountain the snow has melted.

Among other pursuits, Matt Hutson maintains a garden railroad near Gunnison.