The two boxes arrived
at our door without warning. They had made the fairly
routine postal trip from the East Coast, but still looked
a little haggard. Cracking the first one open, we found
out why. These gifts had actually been en route for more
than 10 years.
My grandmother meticulously kept every letter, postcard
and photograph her son, my father, sent after leaving
home. Consequently, the boxes contained stories of his
time in Europe with the Army, tales of teaching skiing
in Aspen in the late 1960s and letters postmarked from
Telluride of the 1970s and 1980s. When she passed away
just more than 10 years ago, the seemingly worthless
pieces of glossy paper and faded envelopes went straight
to the back of the shelf. By chance, they resurfaced
In a letter postmarked Nov. 5, 1971, with an Aspen return
address, my mother opened the most recent chapter, writing: “We
still have plans on moving to Telluride next summer,
which is a very remote old mining town with fabulous
mountains. They are opening a ski area next Nov. and
Bill (my father) could get a better job than this town
will ever allow him to.”
There were stories of holing up in a 600-square-foot,
two-room cabin, planting gardens in the spring, and of
course, many words on the kids. As with most letters,
the pen always devoted a line or two to the weather,
a relevant subject at all times. Drought weighing heavily
on my mind, these comments hit the hardest.
Lately, many of my friends have begged me to recount
stories of the days when it used to snow in the San Juan
Mountains. And while romantic urges had me fondly recalling
snowbanks rising overhead, my mom’s pen and paper
told a different story.
In our second winter in Telluride on Dec. 27, 1973, she
wrote: “The weather was 50 degrees and rainy, and
the tourists brought tons of pollution and the Asian
flu, which the baby and I got.”
Four years later, Telluride witnessed what was likely
the worst winter in its history as a ski area. “Well,
they had to close the ski area because there wasn’t
enough snow, but we’re having fun anyway,” she
wrote on Feb. 2, 1977.
On March 13 of the same year, Mother Nature cooperated
and reversed the tables. “The area has been open
again since March 1 with super skiing.”
Then just a week and a half later, on March 24, the forecast
flipped all over again. “The weather has been sunny
and springlike, and the boys just love to play outside
in the dirt and mud,” my mother wrote.
This dry spell continued into the next season as well. “We
are still waiting for enough snow to open the area but
are still having fun cross-country skiing. It looks like
it will be a better snow year than last year anyway,” a
letter dated Nov. 18, 1977, stated.
A few years passed where conditions ranged everywhere
from tolerable to excellent, and still a small, struggling
town, Telluride basked in snow and tourism. However,
a letter dated Nov. 28, 1980, offered more bad news. “The
ski area isn’t opening until Dec. 12.”
Five years later, on Feb. 25, another letter told a story
of tropical temperatures in the dead of winter. “We
are still melting away early here with 80 degrees in
Denver today and 60 degrees here! We hope the ski area
can make it another five weeks.”
After closing this final dusty envelope, my romantic
memories vanished, and I realized that the word drought
has followed me for the last 30 years. Contrary to popular
belief, the Telluride of the 1970s and 1980s wasn’t
always about free love, untracked powder and the party
never ending. The living got lean during a number of
seasons. It’s easy to forget that snowmaking is
a relatively recent invention. When the ski area closed
in 1977, workers were laid off in a town where skiing
was the only economic engine. When the ski area didn’t
open until Dec. 12 in 1980, people went without pay checks
for an extra month. In both those cases, the town effectively
shut down. Bars did the only business.
And while this winter and last seem like total, out-of-the-blue
disasters, they’re actually just the latest turn
in this extremely fickle climate. People living in these
high-desert mountains have been riding highs and lows
and living with disappointing winters for decades. This
is nothing new.
So sitting here squarely at the end of January, looking
at a snowpack that’s 65 percent of normal and hearing
cries of death by drought echoing up and down Main Avenue,
it’s nice to have at least a little perspective.
The good old days of deep weren’t always that good.
Even if things seem bleak, we can look forward. There’s
hope that the January thaw or at least January is over.
There are still many days of winter left. Above all,
there is finally a chance of significant snow showers
back in the forecast.