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Y2K: The sun still rises, the rivers still flow

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – February 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT OCCURRED TO ME mid-morning on the eve of the new millennium that hanging out at the Walter Manure Glacier and watching the meager snow cover sublimate was no way to usher out a year, much less a century or a millennium.

After all, what if the predictions of gloom and doom were to come true? This could be the last day of the world as I know it, my last chance to have any fun. Why spend it stoking the fire, pounding a keyboard, peering into a plastic box and writing nonsense like this:

‘Twas the night before New Year’s, and all through the house, everybody was freaking, ’bout the Y2K louse.

Actually nobody was freaking in this house. I knew intuitively that nothing would happen. For some reason humans like to attach significance to arbitrary numbers, dates, and words, and then create hysteria. The Bible comes to mind.

On one end of the continuum, science wants us to believe that an asteroid will wipe us out; on the other hand, religious fanatics want us to believe an invisible man who knows all your dark secrets is going to come riding out of the sky on a firestorm, and it’s going to be your ass. The former seems more likely to me than the latter. But give me a break — either way, the end of the world will come when it’s good and ready, not when humankind deems the date appropriate.

Still, I made what I call minimal preparations, justifying them with the pretense that this was stuff I should have on hand anyway.

Thus, before the big day, I drove down to Valley Fuel and filled a couple of gas cans and swung by the Valley Ace for two-cycle and chain oil for the chainsaw. I also filled a 10-gallon Gott cooler with water. Since I subsist mostly on wild game for protein, and planned to continue to do so if Y2K hit the fan, the only hoarding of food on my part was two bags of whole-wheat flour, a 25-pound sack of pinto beans and some frozen fruit and vegetables. If the power went out, I would merely push the freezer out on the north deck, a trick I learned when I lived in Leadville where I only needed to plug in my freezer from June through September.

I didn’t check out any cash from the bank, mostly because there wasn’t enough in my account to make it worthwhile. Also, I figured that since I can rarely find anything I’m shopping for in Westcliffe under normal circumstances, a Y2K disaster would render the spending of cash a rather moot point. A trip to a major metropolitan center like Salida, Cañon City or Pueblo, of course, would be completely out of the question.

Taking a few precautions is something any Central Colorado resident with any brain cells left should do even without the threat of Y2K chaos. Face it, if it weren’t for modern transportation and power lines, this geographical region would barely support life. Everybody from Leadville to Alamosa, from Gunnison to Westcliffe, lives a good distance from substantial sources of energy and food, beef cattle notwithstanding. There’s not enough electrical power being generated in our region to keep a dozen trophy homes in juice. There are no oil wells or refineries. With the exception of the San Luis Valley, nobody really grows any grain crops, and other vegetables are available only in late summer and in limited supply. Lichen soup probably contains various phytonutrients, but the harvesting could become very tiresome, not to mention the dining.

In celebration of all this fine knowledge, I gathered up some running gear, a flyrod, and Ted the terrier, and I drove away from the manure glacier. My first stop was a BLM road north of Cotopaxi, where I’ve noticed the weather is almost always pleasant, and where I rarely see another soul. As I pulled in, however, I looked in my rearview and noticed another pickup behind me. I parked in my usual space and the guy passed me with a wave.

TED AND I BEGAN WALKING and warmed up to a jog. About a mile up the road the guy who passed me was setting up some silhouette targets. A little while after we passed him, I heard the rat-a-tat-tat sound of semi-automatic gunfire, a somewhat foreboding noise with Y2K only hours away. I figured that if anything really did go haywire after midnight it would be with people, not computers.

The first golden eagle appeared just a few minutes later, hanging close to the ridgeline on the right. I called Ted to my side because I have seen goldens take out larger animals in a heartbeat. A few steps ahead, another golden lifted off the ground from around the next corner. This one flew not 15 yards directly over my head. When I rounded the corner, two more lifted off the ground and passed directly overhead.

The four eagles had been cleaning up scraps from a mountain lion kill. Judging from the tracks in the snow on the north-facing slope, the lion had killed a deer, dragged it down to the roadside to gnaw upon, and then dragged the remainder back up the hill in a slightly different direction. Findings like this tend to make you look back over your shoulder every now and then; though if a lion does decide to attack, you probably won’t know about it until the critter’s ready to sink its teeth into your neck.

What I like about the country north of the Arkansas between Salida and Cotopaxi is the high desert ecosystem. Piñon and juniper. BLM land, home of the free. Bright sky. White mountains as a backdrop. Rolling dirt roads. Turkey tracks in the dirt. Few people. Lions. Eagles.

On my return the eagles were gone and so was the gun nut. I decided to rig my flyrod right there, miles from the river, so as not to have to do it in a moment of impatience once I arrived at the water.

A few weeks earlier I was the guest of friends from Westcliffe for a fishing trip to the San Juan River in northern New Mexico. The river is a world-class rainbow trout fishery and mecca for fly-fisherman. I caught a couple of fish down there and thought I’d try out some of the flies and techniques — such as rigging up more than one fly to the leader — on the local brown trout.

I favor a stretch of the Arkansas west of Coaldale on the north bank. A tunnel under the railroad track leads to the water. When I arrived, I was amazed at how clear the Arkansas is running this winter. Other fishermen with similar Y2K worries were casting both up- and downstream from me. The trout, however, were not impressed with my San Juan offerings. While changing a fly, I felt my rod jiggle for the only time that day and looked up to find Ted chewing on the tip. Bad dog.

Actually, I think Ted was trying to remind me that if I didn’t get it reeled in soon, I was going to miss the party. Besides, the sun quits early this time of year. I tossed the rod into the bed of my truck and headed home.

WHILE DRIVING through Hillside and toward Westcliffe, I wrestled with the idea of stopping by the gas station to top off the gas tank. What if everyone was right and the gas stations were closed tomorrow? On the other hand, so what if they were? Where would I drive with an extra five gallons of gas if the sky did indeed fall? Against my better judgment I stopped and topped the tank.

But the world did not come to an end. Later that evening, at a delightful party hosted by Custer County newspaper tycoons Jim and Constance Little, the only non-Republican newspaper owners in the known world, I watched fireworks explode over Pikes Peak. First came a tiny spark of light as they were set off, followed by the multi-colored bursts that looked to be about one inch across.

The lights, phones and Internet stayed on. Somewhere a mountain lion was crunching on bones. Eagles with bellies full of venison they didn’t catch themselves were roosting in ponderosa pines. A crystal-clear river was running from the mountains toward the ocean, and trout were swimming within it. Somehow things seemed even more right with the world than before the magic hour.

I wouldn’t need to visit a grocery store or gas station for several days.

Writer Hal Walter enters a new millennium and his fifth year as a columnist for Colorado Central Magazine.