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The Sublime Rite of Spring

Essay by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – April 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Folks who have lived in Central Colorado for a while have undoubtedly noticed that much of the snow that falls here doesn’t actually melt. It just sort of goes away.

Scientists call this process “sublimation.” It’s a fancy way to say that snow just evaporates without melting — the way that dry ice passes from solid to gas without ever becoming liquid.

Those of us who own dogs are painfully aware of this silly quirk of montage climates. It brings to the surface every pile that man’s best friend has deposited since Thanksgiving, turning your winter wonderland into a brown-studded sea of sugar.

One sunny day you notice this problem is beginning to work itself to the surface, layer by layer. Then you get a paper grocery sack and anchor it by dropping in a small stone so it won’t blow away while you hunt the grounds, wielding the shovel almost like a rifle. Most of the excrement is frozen to the next layer of depth hoar. You end up picking up twice as much snow as dog litter. And where there was a pile of digested corn millings from Wal-Mart, you leave behind a skid mark which resembles powdered brown chalk.

When you are thoroughly frustrated and bored by this process, you pick up the sack. The bottom falls out. Most of the less-than-precious cargo mixes back with the snow at your feet.

You curse at high decibels. The neighbors won’t hear; they live four miles upwind. You wade to the barn and look for a sturdier bag. You find a feed sack and try to shovel the new large pile into the new bag. But since the feed sack doesn’t have a flat bottom, it won’t stand by itself.

You start off by holding the sack at an angle, mouth windward, with your left hand and — choking the shovel by the lower part of the handle with your right — you spoon the doggie doo into the sack.

Sometimes, when the angle is wrong, the mess rolls off the back of the shovel and up your sleeve. It’s a wrestling match, but when it’s over, you’ve got 100 pounds of crud in a 50-pound bag. This a feat that many journalists take years to perfect.

By noon the next day, your yard is once again a brown-studded sea of sugar. Suicide is not out of the question. But you decide it would be more fun to contemplate how God could be so cruel — here in the moderate latitudes of the Rocky Mountains — as to make the sublimation rates of snow and excrement so radically disparate. If only it all sublimed at the same rate.

WINTER, MY FRIEND, is driving you crazy, and it was a short drive at that. You have cabin fever. The funny thing about this Central Colorado disease is that it isn’t funny at all. If you don’t believe me, look at the statistics for alcoholism, domestic violence and various mental health dysfunctions in this part of the world. It will make your skin crawl.

Take me, for example. I don’t drink much and my wife doesn’t slap me around too often, either. Even so, my mental health began to slide quite early — in late September, as a matter of fact.

I rode my burro to Goodwin Lake, just below treeline in the Sangres. There I caught the last cut-throat of the season, a fat 12-incher that fell for a beadhead caddie, a fly quite popular for fishing the Arkansas in early spring. Go figure. I guess even the trout want to depart this mortal cell when winter comes knocking.

Then the wind began to make casting difficult and my hands were nearly frozen. I gave up and got out. A certain chill in my bones reminded me that even a golden autumn day can become a red flag for what lies ahead.

By December I was already eying spare pieces of wood around the old ranch; they looked like raw materials for “FOR SALE” signs. What the hell. If land is selling for top dollar around here, I might as well cash in. I’ll sell out and move to … Salida. At least you can tell that the produce at Safeway was green once. Or, as some local philosopher remarked, “The mountains aren’t a bad to live, providing you can get through the winter without money or fresh vegetables.~

By January I began envisioning ng how my furnlture would look cut up and stacked like firewood. The annual property-tax notice came. With it was an announcment that outhouses and pit toilets had been banned in Custer County.

THIS SOON became the main topic in local circles, the general feeling being that this was a certainn sign of a police state. “Now they’re even telling you where to take a dump; next thing they’ll take our guns,” lamented the wags.

I tossed around the moving idea for a few more weeks. Finally, upon the advice of a friend, I got a haircut. Spring, after all, was only a few months away. And I have flush toilets.

That was the same week the Denver Broncos got again, in the wildcard playoff game. On our TV, it was snowing at the Los Angeles Coliseum. At kickoff time, a herd of at least 200 elk came rumbling through our property, destroying every fence on the place.

My wife and I watched in awe as the elk passed through like a buffalo scene from Dances with Wolves. Two of our burros were swept up with the herd and went over the fence. One took a rolling header and got his face cut up. The burros spun out of the herd as the elk slammed into our west pasture fence.

As we watched, I couldn’t help but hope we’d get some meat out of it; perhaps a yearling cow would impale herself on a T-post. In the end, though, there was no meat, just twisted wire, posts pointing at 45° angles in the direction the herd was traveling … and a lot of elk hair. All the better to make caddis flies with.

WINTER, IN PLACES like Aspen, Vail, and Breckenridge, is a pretty season. It snows enough to stay ahead of the sublimation rate. The skiing is great. The dog crap stays covered. Every one is young, muscular, blond, and perfect. When spring finally hits, it all melts at once, washing the dog doo away with the runoff while all the beautiful people who live there are on their annual vacations to the Bahamas. Life for them is perfect.

Here in Central Colorado, we get the by-product of their snow — Chinook winds. In Nevada on the leeward side of the Sierras, they’re called Zephyrs, and in the Alps, Foehn winds.

It’s another quirk of mountain geography, and it works like this. Most of our storms blow in from the Pacific. When a storm hits Colorado, it is lifted by the Rockies. As it rises, the air cools and snow falls out. Skiers in Vail, just upwind of the Gore Range, think this is great.

After the storm air clears the mountains, though, it runs downhill and gets warmer. It can heat 5.5° F for every 1,000 feet it drops, thanks to the latent heat of condensation and the compression of the air as it pushes down.

People in Bjüni, Salida, and Westcliffe are on the leeward flanks of the Sawatch and Sangre de Cristo ranges. The Arkansas valley from the Malta curve south, and the Wet Mountain Valley as well, are classic examples of what mountain climatologists call a “rain shadow” or “snow shadow.” In this shadow, the sky provides more wind than water.

Snow shadow or not, in late January we finally had enough snow for some cross-county skiing. There’s a Forest Service road nearby that I frequent during ski season. After the big snow some snowmobilers drove the road. This multiple use is fine by me. It packs the snow so that it doesn’t vanish with the next Chinook, and the packed snow can be “skated.”

Life wasn’t too bad around here with skiing as a diversion. A dozen or so friends were skiing the road as well. We had one of the “good things” winter has to offer. Then some motorhead with a four-wheel-drive went up the road, churning rocks and dirt into the tracks. Then another Chinook. Ski season was over.

But it wasn’t just the ski tracks that began to melt. Soon my driveway was a quagmire, too. In late February, I trenched around the mess; the groove ran like a small brook by day, though it was a slipper sliver of death in the evening when I went out for firewood. Just as this brook slowed to a trickle we received more snow, and the whole mud process began anew.

You’ve got to be tough and have a sense of humor to live in Central Colorado year ’round. I have friends who have taken axes to their television sets during this season of discontent. While most of the country thinks March 20 is the first day of spring, most of us are scrounging for another cord to get through April.

But when people upwind are spring skiing, we can rejoice that Mud Season is nearly over. Then the wildflowers burst forth from the moist earth. What gets us by is knowing that, sometime in May, the bottom will fall out of winter, just like dog dung through a flimsy paper sack. Only spring smells a whole lot better.

Hal Walter is spending this Mud Season at 8,752 feet above sea level with his wife Mary on their property near Westcliffe.