I rode the lift, watching the swirling snow silently collect
on my motionless body, I had a strange feeling of deja
vu. I struggled to place the moment. Sure, the season’s
first lift ride at Wolf Creek had been a winter rite of
passage for several years. And I had ridden countless
chair lifts in my life. So of course all this would feel
Yet that wasn’t it.
After a few moments in silence, I finally put my finger
Just about five months prior, I had sat motionless, like
I was now, as white flakes fluttered down upon me. Much
like today, the thick cloud cover had erased the sun,
which at the time provided a welcome respite from the
relentless late-June heat. As a friend and I sat on the
patio of a local coffee shop, bemoaning our lack of jobs
and even worse lack of timing, I realized gray-white specks
were collecting in my coffee. But, unlike snow, these
didn’t melt. I glanced up to find that the air around
me was filled with the fat, floating flakes. It was ash
fallout from the nearby fires.
I suppose every local has his or her defining moment of
this summer’s fires, and this was mine.
In a brief epiphany, I thought this must be what hell
is like: hot, smoky, smothering.
The scene was surreal as I watched a few tourists walk
past, breathing the burning air. They appeared surprisingly
upbeat, perhaps trying to salvage their vacations. For
them, ash falling from the sky was likely a novelty; something
they could tell wide-eyed friends about at home as they
sported their new “Missionary Ridge Fire”
T-shirts. For those of us who had been living in it for
nearly a month, it was yet another slap in the face to
remind us who had the upper hand. The cruelest of nature’s
ironies, we had finally gotten the gift from above we
had all been praying for. Only problem was, the cloud
cover came in the form of a thick deck of smoke, and the
precipitation was burned remnants of trees and homes.
Yet, last weekend, as I sat in the middle of the forest
surrounded by deep snow, I found it hard to imagine that
just a few months earlier the same mountain range had
been awash in smoke and despair. The summer’s drought
and fires seemed a thousand years removed. And for the
hordes of skiers who showed up for one of the first powder
days of the season from as far away as Santa Fe, Crested
Butte and Boulder, I’m sure the feelings were similar.
Apparently, many people had to see the snow for themselves.
Ski areas across the state reported long lines as hungry
skiers turned out in droves. My guess is, it was more
than a need to satisfy a long-neglected jonesing that
drew them there. Rather, it was a need for catharsis.
And getting up early, making the long drive, standing
in line and paying for the lift ticket was time and money
well spent on what is probably the best form of therapy
In fact, the weekend’s storms immediately lifted
spirits, with regional and national news reports declaring
that four feet of snow had snuffed out the wicked drought
witch of the West.
How I wish it were true.
It was only a matter of time before the voice of reason
– like it always does – reared its ugly head.
The Great Dust Bowl, which this drought is being compared
to, did not end overnight, people soon pointed out. Rather,
it peaked in 1934, and lingered for years to come. And
with last summer being referred to as the low point for
the most recent drought, we could very well be in for
more years of hurt, the pundits say.
And while this may not be what we want to hear right now,
a good dose of reality is probably what we need the most.
There is perhaps nothing more forgiving and forgetful
than the human mind. While it has an immense capacity
for optimism, it also has an uncanny knack for glossing
over the bad and only seeing the good. And in the case
of this summer’s wake-up call, a return to average
precipitation could very well lull us all back to sleep
So while the prospect of more drought is disheartening
to say the least, we can take solace in the fact that
the worst seems to be over. The San Juans are back in
their rightful winter white, Wolf Creek has a mid-November
base of 62 inches, and the pleasing pain of achy quads
and glutes has once again returned to the smiling masses.
And as we cautiously make our way toward the light at
the end of the tunnel, let us not forget the lessons learned
in our summer of darkness.