Winds of change

Before I dive headlong into the fray for this week, I would like to start with one small disclaimer: I like the train.

Being the mother of a small, train-obsessed child, I make frequent pilgrimages to the corner of 5th and Main to prop him up on the wrought iron fence so he can peer longingly into the train yard. I still wave sappily to riders as they pass on their excursion north, like Love Boat passengers, full of giddy excitement and promise. And, at the risk of eternal belittlement by my peers, I will admit that, on occasion, the sight of those antique war horses (by that I mean the trains, not the riders) venturing out on yet another run has brought me a pang of teary-eyed nostalgia.

And yes, I have ridden the train. Both ways.

But lately, it seems the relationship is on a one-way track.

That’s right, I’m one of those whiny south siders who has nothing better to do than complain about a little, harmless soot in the air. And before I moved to the south side several years ago, that is how I viewed the argument.

However, this all abruptly changed six years ago, after our first night as downwinders in our new home. Securely asleep on our paco pads in an otherwise empty house, we awakened to every homeowner’s nightmare: an oppressive blanket of thick, acrid smoke. Gasping for air, my mind immediately flashed to the 220-volt dryer outlet I had installed earlier that day. Nostrils aflame and every sense on high alert, I prepared for my flight to safety. And that’s when I detected not the scent of burning ozone but the unmistakable stench of burning coal.

“Train smoke,” we concluded simultaneously, as we both sat back in bed, giving our pacing hearts a reprieve. We weren’t so much surprised at the smoke’s presence – we were forewarned – as we were shocked by its potency. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought a locomotive was idling in my living room.

We laid there in vain, pillows over our heads, sneaking quick, calculated inhalations hoping the cloud would roll out as suddenly as it had rolled in. But instead, it settled in for the night, infiltrating every orifice and invading every breath. Finally, with no other choice in the mid-July heat, we battened down the hatches, closing every window in the already stuffy house.

This was my induction to life with train smoke.

This was my induction to life with train smoke.

Occasionally that summer, the winds were kind and spared our block. But more often than not, living in the lowest point on the south side (which I like to refer to as the “Third Street Sink Hole”), the smoke hunkered down directly on top of us. It knew no boundaries, sometimes showing up as an uninvited dinner guest, other times arriving for a late-night visit or joining me for an early morning jaunt with the dog. And, as I’m sure you’ve heard, it spared no surface, finding its way into every nook and cranny inside and casting a black pallor over everything outside, from patio furniture to picket fencing. Pity the poor fool with a white bathroom – or anything white for that matter. Laundry days

had to be calculated carefully, so as to get the stuff off the line before the black cloud settled in, and cleaning, something I don’t excel at to begin with, became a losing battle. Little black particles were omnipresent, finding their way into closed cabinets, water glasses, the inside of the butter tray in the refrigerator and even appearing as black smudges on the face of my sleeping baby. (I know some happy homemakers can shrug this stuff off with a Stepford smile. If you know one, can you please send her to clean my house, or at least tell me what sort of “scrubbing bubbles” she’s using?)

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not always this bad. In fact, there were even a few mellow years in there, when – whether it be due to newly installed scrubbers or competition from wildfires – the train smoke actually seemed tolerable. But just as I was starting to feel secure in the thought that black specks on my pillow case were a thing of the past, the insidious cloud returned – with a vengeance. In fact, I would venture to say this summer, for whatever obscure reason, has been the mother of all choke fests, offering little or no respite. The late-night arrival of smoke has become such a regular occurrence, I can set my watch by it.

This is usually the part where people like to remind me that the train was here first. It is a vital and lasting historical institution that always has, and will continue to, run on coal. Which is all good and fine. Although, I would like to note that Durango also once dumped toxic tailings into the river and allowed virtually every downtown house to be covered in asbestos siding – both practices that are no longer considered prudent.

Of course, this is often followed by the suggestion that if I don’t like it, I should move (which I am, but that’s a topic for another day). In my mind, this argument ranks right up there on the ridicul-o-meter with the suggestion “if you don’t like it, don’t breathe.” Not to mention that it’s missing the point all together. See, it’s not that I don’t like my neighborhood. To the contrary, I like it quite a bit. I like the big trees, the old, funky houses, the wide streets. I like being able to sit outside on my porch on a summer night, to play in my yard with my son, unfettered by noxious fumes. I like to be able to sleep with my windows open, taking in the breeze off Smelter Mountain. But most of all, I like and value my lungs, as well as those of my family, which I have tried to take good care of over the years.

I understand some smoke is an inevitable part of life on the south side. And I am willing to cope with that occasional intrusion, if need be. But, I am not willing to be a prisoner in my own home. I moved to Durango to enjoy the outdoors, not to be hermetically sealed indoors.

At the same time, however, it is apparent that the problem is not going to go away on its own. No matter how much griping south siders do, if no one is listening, we are merely yelling into the wind. A solution is only going to be possible with the willingness of the powers that be at the railroad. And perhaps now – with some promising alternative ideas on the table and the train’s parent company planning a move to Durango – would be the optimal time to clear the air. Because the summer tourist season may be winding down, but the issue is sure to only heat up again.

– Missy Votel



In this week's issue...

January 25, 2024
Bagging it

State plastic bag ban is in full effect, but enforcement varies

January 26, 2024
Paper chase

The Sneer is back – and no we’re not talking about Billy Idol’s comeback tour.

January 11, 2024
High and dry

New state climate report projects continued warming, declining streamflows