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The winter of my discontent

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain life – March 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

IMAGINE THAT your geographical environment — the place that you live — is a bi-polar psychotic with a tendency towards violence. I came up with that analogy after a particularly loathsome period during this winter of my discontent. I do not feel guilty borrowing this concept since Steinbeck originally stole it from Shakespeare, and as far as I know neither of them ever did a winter in the Wet Mountains. As for me, I’m on the verge of insanity in my 10th winter here.

You know the winter’s harsh when you find a bobcat checking out the digs in your barn. During halftime of the Packers-Rams playoff game I got up from the couch to scrounge a snack, in this case a portabello mushroom sautéed in butter. As the butter melted I glanced out the front window to see what the gale might be blowing past.

That’s when a young bobcat walked out of the barn door, not 20 feet from the house. As first I thought I was looking at the longest-legged, scraggliest, gnarliest housecat I had ever seen. Then I realized that it was merely a youngster whose body had not yet caught up with its legs. I scrambled for the camera but ended up with something that looked like a very blurry Sylvester the Cat postage stamp.

Actually the winter turned bad early when my sister Shelby’s husband was transferred out of the country and I found a home for their 9-year-old German shorthair pointer with some local friends who were looking for a trained bird dog.

After Thanksgiving with my family in Cheyenne we endured the emotional pain of watching my sister, her husband and my nephew John say their tearful goodbyes to Heidi. We were warned that she had a tendency to run off. I delivered Heidi to her new home and she seemed happy there.

Three days later on a sub-zero morning I received the call that Heidi had died quite suddenly overnight. We’ll never know if it was stress, altitude sickness, or just the prospect of living here that made Heidi decide to run away in her sleep. But I do know that the call I had to make to my sister was one of the most painful in my memory.

Very soon after that we were invited over to dinner at the home of Mary and Chas in Wetmore. I told the Heidi story in full and we talked about dogs, in particular their collie-black lab mix with the same name as my sister. I had this somewhat loathsome feeling about this dog. Only a few days later Chas reported that Shelby had disappeared.

It was also during this time that I began drinking for two since my wife Mary was eating in similar fashion. We have no children and our fourth pregnancy was somewhat of an accident, if two people who are 41 years old and married for 15 years can have such a thing.

But this child wasn’t to be either. I have described the feeling to friends as having all the emotions you experience with impending fatherhood played back through your mind at high speed and in reverse.

On the day we received the sad and awful news I accidentally ran over a black Ebert’s squirrel on the highway between here and Westcliffe. It started across the road and I hit the brakes, then looked for a place to swerve. But there was a car in the oncoming lane and it appeared the squirrel was actually going to cross the road anyway. Then at the last second he spun around. I tried my best to pass over the squirrel but he ended up under my left-rear tire. With that thud the sick feeling that I already had sunk even lower in my guts.

Somehow I could not stand to leave that squirrel there dead on the highway, and so on my way back from town I stopped. Then I myself dodged being hit by another vehicle while retrieving the tuft-eared critter.

BACK HOME I decided to place the squirrel on the hillside north of my house. As I walked across the meadow I saw a huge skidmark in the dirt and grass, and the tell-tale signs of deer hair, blood and no carcass. A mountain lion had nailed a deer only 50 yards from my house. After some searching around I found the deer’s tail but nothing else.

We received a visit from our friends from New Jersey, recent transplants who have decided to make their new home on the Front Strange. In the evening I thought it would be interesting if not impressive to show them the big herd of elk that has been wintering in the area. We drove over to Bear Basin Ranch and quickly located a big band of more than 100 elk. On the other side of the highway we counted another 55 head. I expected oohs and ahs but the back-east response was ho-hum: “So, does somebody own all those?”

And thus the winter of discontent continued. My pile of work was growing and getting out of control despite my best efforts. Spells of below-zero cold, minor snowfalls and extreme wind were broken up by the occasional picture-perfect bluebird day and punctuated by near-falls on the slick, hard ice.

One morning when it was 5 degrees on the sunny side of the house I noticed a lacey-winged, lime-green bug that looked to be of the mayfly persuasion flapping at my office window. “I can assure you that you do not want to go out there,” I said out loud, startled by how easily I had made the decision to talk to a bug.

That same day I received word from Chas that Shelby, whom he called the “dog of mystery,” had suddenly reappeared. She was matted and rack-ribbed after two months of doing what only she knows. Chas and Mary had originally suspected dog-napping or predation, but now wonder if Shelby might have simply been wandering the wilderness near Wetmore for all of that time.

A couple of days later, with several deadlines pending, I noticed that the wind was battering the west side of my house with such force that all the hard-earned heat was being sucked right out the east side. My mind was suffering similar symptoms. I simply got in my truck and left.

I ENDED UP SITTING in front of a butane heater that looks like a rocket engine in the milkhouse of a former dairy in Wetmore, talking to a rancher friend of mine. He was born in this area by my reckoning sometime in the late 1920s or early 30s. However he has always had the better sense to stay 3,500 feet lower in elevation. Much of my wisdom of this area, of animals and of agriculture has been gleaned from my not-often-enough talks with this character.

We talked about horses, jackasses both human and four-legged, mules, cows, the land and all the other usual stuff. When the discussion turned to my place high in the Wet Mountains, he said simply that not many people stay up there for long.

When I left the relative warmth of Wetmore I realized that I had made the decision to leave long ago, but had not succeeded in doing so. Upon my arrival home the cold wind nearly punched the life right out of me. I thought about the winters my rancher friend must have seen and endured in his life.

Deep down I knew I could endure too. This winter too shall pass.

Hal Walter writes from the Wet Mountains.