Column by Hal Walter
Cabin Fever – April 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine
This winter I’ve been half-jokingly referring to my life in the Wet Mountains as “The Struggle.” I coined the term one starry bone-chilling night after arriving home from a part-time newspaper gig after 1 a.m., only to have to trudge through the snow and ice to deal with an inside room temperature that was barely above freezing, and hungry jackasses that were loudly alleging negligence. This late-night survival drill clearly identified three necessary-for-life commodities that make “The Struggle” for real — firewood, hay, and money.
I heat my house with firewood and ideally I would have enough fuel on hand to stay warm from September to May. In reality, I was recently spotted slogging around my property during a late-February blizzard, toting a chainsaw, chunking up fallen ponderosa branches and eyeing my wife’s mission oak rocker with ill intent every time I returned to the house to dry off.
People who turn a dial to get their heat are prone to asking: “You have enough wood?”
Enough wood for what? Tonight? Next week? This winter? A lifetime? The Apocalypse? My canned answer is that there is no such thing as “enough wood.” Obviously, the same answer works well for similar questions about hay and money.
I know this from experience. Over the years I have burned just about anything and everything short of the back deck. I can tell you that well-cured juniper logs burn much better than dried donkey droppings, which, although an interesting concept in getting extra value from hay, tend to smolder and negatively affect relationships with downwind neighbors.
I generally cut some firewood myself and buy some more, though some years are different from others. Last year, for instance, I didn’t spend any money on firewood and heated the place with aspen logs my neighbor and I scavenged. He did the cutting and I did the loading. The year before, I bought some wood locally, then ended up buying some slabs from a sawmill in Cañon City to finish out the cold season.
Even if I happen to have a decent stack of firewood, staying warm is still a chore, since the woodstove doesn’t have a dial. Instead there’s the daily ritual of emptying and disposing of ashes, chopping kindling, starting fires, banking the fire for the night, sweating myself to sleep because I’ve gotten the house too hot, praying for spring, waking up at about 3 a.m. when the tightly dampened stove belches out a cloud of smoke, opening the damper, doors and windows to air the place out, and then awakening again the next morning after the indoor temperature has plummeted to approximately the outdoor temperature.
Hay is a lot like firewood — you never have enough, and even when you have some, it causes you pain. Twice a day you see the stack dwindle as you throw yet more of the money-colored stuff to your animals who bray loudly if you don’t. This winter, due to last summer’s drought, I’ve noticed semi-tractor trailers hauling hay up Hardscrabble Canyon. Usually it’s the other way around. This means the local supply is virtually nonexistent and that the price is very high. According to my usual run of luck, a low-supply, high-price hay market also portends that I am just about out of the stuff.
And while hay is an expensive commodity to rent (it’s like beer, you’re not really buying it), it also comes with the added irritation of inflamed sinuses and a wretched spine. The real story here is that I must pick it up and move it three times before my animals eat it.
The third commodity — money — is one that relates directly back to the first two, because if it were not an issue, the first two would also be moot. If I had a lot of money I could purchase and have delivered a winter’s worth of firewood and hay each year on September 1, when the price is right.
I’ve never in my lifetime had enough money. The heart of the matter, I suspect, is the lack of what most people consider real employment and subsequently I also lack the income that is usually associated with such an annoyance. On the other hand, I don’t seem to remember any overwhelming abundance of the green stuff even back when I had a full-time newspaper job. But that was before I developed a bad attitude about working long and bad hours for low pay, and developed those character traits that render me virtually unemployable by others.
Instead, I’m self-employed. I deal with the realities of the local economy by free-lancing in the regional, national, and global economies. I write for consumer and trade magazines, even an Internet magazine, and do some technical writing. It sounds good, but the hitch is there’s always a deadline for the work, but hardly ever a designated payday.
That’s why for the better part of a decade, I’ve worked some odd late-night shifts at the Pueblo Chieftain, filling in for vacationing editors. While this does pay on a weekly schedule, it is 50 miles away and makes for a hairy homeward drive that culminates with a curvy climb up Hardscrabble Canyon. I’ve had my share of strange experiences on these money-quests, and once I discovered a fatal accident at the base of this rocky, steep canyon.
John C. Frémont learned harshly about “The Struggle” back in 1848 when he led his disastrous fourth expedition out of Fort Hardscrabble near Wetmore in December. Frémont was trying to turn a buck by reconnoitering a railroad route across the Rockies. Somehow, without the advantage of a road or decent trail, he and his 30 men were able to wrangle 90 fully loaded mules up the rocky and steep Hardscrabble Canyon without losing a single heartbeat.
But then, Frémont’s men probably weren’t in as big a hurry as the guy I found by flashlight, badly battered, lifeless and upside-down in his truck. He had failed to wrangle his pickup truck down the paved Hardscrabble Canyon. Ironically, the unfortunate fellow — though I didn’t recognize him at the time — was someone from whom I’d purchased firewood from time to time.
Frémont’s crew didn’t fare much better, and most ended up dying slowly after eating — in this order — their starving mules (the explorers, of course, were fresh out of hay), their own boots and, finally, their colleagues. Incidentally, their own struggle for firewood is evidenced yet today by several topped trees that mark their final campsite above Saguache.
Of course, following this disaster, Frémont’s free-lance exploration career took a sharp nosedive, so sharp that he turned to politics and became the first Republican presidential candidate in 1856.
I suspect he had some of these aforementioned character traits that relate to employability, not to mention the surly demeanor that one likely acquires along with a taste for human flesh.
Even though I know history often repeats itself, I don’t feel compelled to give up “The Struggle” any time in the near future. Everybody has his or her own place in the world. This one seems to be less boring and, frankly — less work — than moving to town, getting a real job, and turning a dial every time I feel a chill.
Hal Walter, who lives, writes, and sometimes freezes his tail off in the dark near Westcliffe, wonders how many readers will recognize this essay as his annual dissertation on cabin-fever.