A passion for prediction

“The old bones are aching,” the old codger bellowed down the mahogany bar. “Feels about like good, old 1977, and I’m sure you all remember what happened in ’77.”

Wild eyed, twisted and bent by six-plus decades and reeking of bourbon, Rudy cut a classic Colorado figure. The long-time denizen of the San Juan Mountains, one-time Slovak miner and born-again ski bum was a striking piece of local color – a man most resembling a shaven, drunken Santa Claus, twinkling eyes and all. And even though most of us did not remember 1977, we always listened closely when Rudy offered up one of his weather predictions.

“It’s in my bum leg this year,” Rudy pronounced. “The bone ain’t only aching, I got a strong tingle in the toes. The last time I had this sensation was right before the 30 days and 30 nights.”

Ah, we smiled at one another, the fabled 30 days and 30 nights, a winter in the late ’70s when too much snow fell on our small mountain town. Whole buildings allegedly vanished under that load. Large vehicles were swallowed up by drifts. Let the tale go on too long, and you’d hear how the entire generation of ski bums and former miners survived on pretzels and beer because the grocery truck couldn’t make it to town. Rudy, himself, apparently disappeared for the entire month, but it was only down the neck of a bottle of Wild Turkey.

Depending on whom you asked, Rudy had predicted that mother of all storms. If anyone was going to hit it on the head, it was an old-timer like Rudy. But it also seemed like there was always a strong tingling in those left toes. Rudy had been known to miss the mark, and regularly. At least when the snow didn’t come, he was the first one buying rounds.

Unlike Rudy, I take a more scientific approach to weather prediction. I don’t go in for tingling toes, the height of skunk cabbage or talk of the Chinese butterflies with the whimsical flutterings. I don’t even pay heed to the old farmers and their almanac or barometers, isobars, fronts, systems and other tricks of that dark art known as meteorology. But I, too, have my own clear-cut and sure-fire way to detect a coming of the 30 days and 30 nights, a method I developed many Octobers ago.

I call it the Rodentometer (pronounced rohd-ent-om-i-ter). A rather large and expensive instrument, the Rodentometer is actually a mid-sized home sited on the outskirts of Durango city limits and near the wilds of La Plata County. The home is fairly dated, less-than-airtight and constructed of stone, all factors which encourage the flow of the device’s key ingredient – the rodent.

That’s right, total rodent mass is my alchemic secret, my magic way of predicting Durango’s coming winter. When the big one’s on the horizon the creatures flock to my home like Texahomans on pilgrimage to Graceland. Beaming with bright lights, soothing music and the table scraps only a 4-year-old can create, our home is a sanctuary for scavengers, a refuge for the rodent world.

During the Rodentometer’s first few seasons, we saw medium to light activity, an occasional field mouse here and there, easily wiped out by the instrument’s fail-safes – a pair of overfed, narcoleptic house cats. Outdoor living was still too plentiful during those relatively mild winters, the wind hadn’t shifted.

This year has been different.

In the lead-up to the winter of 2006-07, the Rodentometer has been flooded with raw material. Dozens of field mice have penetrated our walls, several deer mice have paid visits to the Sands Buffet, and a large family (I suspect it’s more than 10 strong) of pack rats has taken up permanent residence between the pro-panel and the tongue-and-groove. A pair of marmots and a bachelor ground squirrel have even moved in under our deck, just waiting for the party to get going. Like Midwesterners huddled in a fallout shelter, they prefer to face the felines – one of whom attained the label of “morbidly obese” during last year’s winter – the trap lines and the humans.

The good news is the Rodentometer has sent the strong message – “Brace yourselves, winter is coming.” The bad news is my machine is no longer under control, and I now have a Frankenstein’s monster on my hands. The scratching never seems to end; greedy fangs devour drywall, wiring and insulation day and night; and pellets, fur and nests have appeared all over our little piece of paradise.

What’s worse is that the Rodentometer is not always 100 percent. What if the sound, the nests, the missing crackers and cookies are all for nothing? What if, god forbid, Indian summer does finally arrive during the months of December and January?

In that case, I hope Rudy’s still out there somewhere. It’ll be my turn to buy the next round.

– Will Sands



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