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Wandering through the golden days of autumn

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – October 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT’S FALL. I know this not by the calendar but by a certain blue color of the sky and the spray of white on the higher peaks. A select few branches of some aspen trees have begun to turn, and the first cold front has blown through, taking most of the bugs and summer with it.

I also know it’s fall by the almost primal instinct to start gathering necessary commodities. Firewood and hay are the two biggies. Wild meat for the freezer is another.

Money … well, I’m a writer/editor and I’ll gather it when and where I can. This fall I’ve signed up to teach a class in feature writing at the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo — a little extra cash for the Wet Mountain Center for Fiscal Irresponsibility.

Fall is also the time of year when my mind does not work the same way that it does the rest of the year. This is not to say that it is not functioning at all. But I become unfocused. It’s hard to find an idea for a coherent essay, for example. It also doesn’t help that a seemingly endless summer of writing marketing material — art for commerce — has turned my mind to mush.

You know you’re in a world of hurt when 50ยข for a copy of the Crestone Eagle with its ads for “core process energy work,” “all day quiet sitting” and “low-stress marksmanship” is the best investment you’ve made all month. John Nichols wrote an entire book of essays called The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, mostly based on the wanderings of his mind as this all-too-short surreal season descends upon the Rockies. So pardon me as I ramble for a few hundred words or so.

I decided to get into the fall swing of things by driving to the south end of the Wet Mountain Valley to buy hay. Here my friend Paul Schneider works land that his family has farmed since the 1800s. Paul puts up some pretty decent grass hay. He usually gets into full harvest mode by mid-September. I tried calling him twice but realized that it would be easier to find him in the hayfields. As I drove up to his ranch, Paul was driving a hay truck out of one of his meadows. He said to meet him over at the ranch and he’d help me load. No, he hadn’t checked his messages all day.

The Schneider Ranch is busier than downtown Westcliffe this time of year with haying equipment coming and going and stacks of baled Wet Mountain timothy and clover being dumped and tarped. This hay will be the ranch income for the next several months. The Schneiders prefer to wait until the monsoon season ends to cut their hay in order to minimize rain damage. They make hay while the sun shines and sometimes don’t quit haying until the first real snow flies, usually about Hallowe’en.

I backed the trailer up to one of the stacks and we began loading. With Paul’s help we stuffed 42 bales, probably about 2,500 pounds, into my small stock trailer. Then, sort of apologetically, Paul broke the news about how much the hay was going to cost.

I wasn’t surprised at all by the slight price increase from last year in light of the early drought, the late heavy rains and the insane price of fuel. After all, who can complain about the price of hay in Westcliffe when a new federal program gives Americans refunds on taxes they haven’t paid yet so that they can pay artificially high prices for gasoline.

“Tax relief for America’s workers.” Yeah, right. “Welfare for big oil” is what should have been typed across the bottom of the check. I don’t know why the U.S. Treasury didn’t just cut checks to BP Amoco, Exxon, Texaco, Mobile and the others, and save the rest of us the embarrassment of handing the money over, not to mention the cost of stamps and other associated paperwork.

I gladly paid Paul’s price for the hay. I’m glad he does what he does. If he didn’t, those hay meadows would be giant lawns for mountain mansions, and the water he now uses to irrigate his fields would be piped to Denver for watering medians. I’ll need to make another trip to the Schneider Ranch before winter arrives. Whatever he charges is fair.

FIREWOOD IS ANOTHER interesting commodity. You can cut it and split it yourself, or you can buy it. The more you cut and split yourself the higher your risk of injury. If you decide to buy it, having it delivered seems so much more expensive until you weigh the cost of gasoline and your own time. In years that I can afford it, I prefer to buy and to have it delivered. One fall I worked on a trail crew and ran a chainsaw all day. It was enough chainsaw work for a lifetime. This winter I’m hoping to buy two delivered cords and cut just one so that I don’t get too spoiled or forget how my chainsaw works.

Jim Austin has a little firewood business and he agreed to bring my first cord of ponderosa out to my house. It’s amazing how much easier it is to pick up the phone and call Jim and to write out a check than it is to cut a cord of wood. Interestingly enough, the price of fuel has not had much of an affect on firewood prices, even when it is delivered.

In the seventeen years that I have lived in the Wet Mountains, scrambling for money has always been harder than dealing in the local hay and firewood markets. But if you don’t do the former you can’t afford the latter. And it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. This year I found myself flying to Chicago for four days to meet and work with clients who pay me for writing and editing services, and then returning to start teaching my class at USC in Pueblo.

A city like Chicago can put someone like me into a state of shock. There’s a dull but deafening roar and a buzz to which I am not accustomed. It makes me wonder why there are so many for-sale signs in places like Westcliffe and Howard but so few in Chicago. Why don’t these rats want out of the cage?

DEALING WITH PEOPLE from the east can also be challenging for a westerner. There is an attitude that if you live in The West, and especially if you don’t have a routine or something else they mistake for stability that you are somehow of a lesser class. In his book On the Edge of the Wild, author Stephen Bodio says that they see us as “losers in the professional race.” I pity them because they will never really know the crisp blue of Colorado’s September sky. And because their minds are never allowed to wander as mine is doing now.

The next day the Chicago buzz was still in my head as I looked into an audience of seventeen bright eyes enrolled in my feature writing class, and fifteen of them told me they plan to go into public relations. This class offers instruction on writing for newspapers and magazines and is a requirement for Mass Communications majors. You can hardly blame them for going into public relations rather than writing. Public relations pays fairly well. Writing doesn’t. I know because I do a little of both.

But real writing is more fun, and that’s what I’m trying to show them this semester. In between the classes, there’s my annual primitive weapons quest for wild meat, anti-biotic-free, free-range, grass-fed, etc. The alarm sounded. I turned the alarm off and went back to sleep. Later I got up and ate breakfast. Slowly I got my gear together and drove up to the forest.

What a beautiful fall day.

I got out, put on my orange vest and hat — an official nimrod, but not that official. I shouldered my pack, capped my rifle, and headed off into the woods. Within 50 yards I realized that I had forgotten my license, and indeed, my entire wallet. I walked back to the truck and peeled off all orange quickly. I put my Hawken rifle behind the seat and drove home. There I saw a young buck browsing along my back fenceline, but I didn’t even consider hunting him.

In fact I never went back out. I opted instead for a day trip to Salida on tourist-free highways to shop for fencing supplies and indulge in microbrew, salad and a calzone at Il Vicino. So goes the fall.

Hal Walter is still putting up firewood at his burro ranch in the Wet Mountains.