Just like old times

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 this winter.

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.

-Will Sands




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