Climate as usual

As 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 familiar.

Yet that wasn’t it.

After a few moments in silence, I finally put my finger on it.

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 out there.
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 again.
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.

-Missy Votel




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