Code pink

At first I thought my eyes were deceiving me. Typically, the year’s first lung-punishing ride up Telegraph can predispose one to mild hallucinations. Or maybe it was my rose-colored sunglasses merely giving an unnatural tint to the snow-covered mountains in the distance. I peeked out from over the tops of the rosy-hued shades only to find it was not a trick of the mind, and no one had slipped a tab of windowpane into my water bottle. Plain as a sober, technicolor daydream, the snow-covered mountains were pinker than an Easter egg. By no means dayglo, but unsettling nonetheless.

Seems the dust storm the night before, the third in as many weeks, had left its ruddy stain on the area peaks. Instead of purple mountains’ majesty, we now had some sort of magenta mountain mutation. Of course, I could only wonder what the red smear had done to my insides. See, fed up with Mother Nature’s frequent forced home arrests as of late, I had ventured out into the Martianesque landscape anyway the night prior. Now, in typical morning-after fashion, I regretted the decision as my lungs objected to another bout of abuse.

Those familiar with year-round habitation in the Four Corners know that April is the cruelest month. This is not just for the way it strings you along, teasing with warm sunshine and yellow flowers one day only to smack you down with several inches of snow the next. I’m talking about the wind, the incessant howling of which dries out the land, pollinates your every orifice, rattles the windows and doors, and slowly, methodically, drives you insane.

Unfortunately, this rite of spring is a necessary evil, sort of like winter’s last dying breath. You put up with the onslaught, happily even, knowing it will soon end, giving way to shorts and flip flops season.

But this year, it’s been different. The wind has picked up a hitchhiker, red desert dust that settles in like a toxic blob, blotting out the sun and blanketing everything in its grasp. Sure, the red scourge is no stranger to these parts and has paid occasional visits over the years. But it seems it’s been getting a little too comfy with its accommodations in the Animas Valley as of late, making more frequent and longer layovers. You know it’s getting bad when you find yourself apologizing to visiting Californians for the hazy skies. “It’s usually not like this,” you sputter uncomfortably while trying to explain what looks like nuclear winter. “The sky’s never this color.”

Forgive me if I’m being overly dramatic, but there’s something about red skies and nuclear winter that hits a little too close to Armageddon for me.

Fortunately for most humans, however, a little red dirt never hurt anyone. We still ski on it when it soils the slopes on the last day of the season. We boat in its muddied run off, breathe it during our day-to-day activities and ingest as we ride our bikes across it. In fact, it’s even used to sell T-shirts in Moab (trademarked, at that.)

Alas, come to find, the red dustbowl is not as innocuous or anomalous as it seems. While no one entirely agrees where to place the fickled finger of blame, one thing is for certain. It is apparently human caused and is only getting worse. Furthermore, as the red mass barrels headlong into the San Juans, it comes to a screeching halt, raining down on the area snowpack and wrapping it in a dense, black crust. Think of it as a massive, solar-powered electric blanket, hastening snow melt and shortening our already far-too-brief run-off season.

Aside from the obvious issues of water shortages, the dust crust could have some not so obvious consequences. For starters, alpine loving animals may soon find themselves scrambling for shelter as their tundra gives way to timber, and timber to desert. Then there’s the whole self-perpetuating mess of it all, whereby dust begets more dust.

Of course, there is the argument that all this dust stuff is being overblown. Besides, there isn’t anything we can do about wind or dirt anyhow. No amount of cloth-bagging, bike riding, tree hugging or solar paneling is going to change that.

Or is it?

If in fact this phenomenon happens to coincide with the arrival of our modern civilization, whether by horse-drawn wagon or horse-powered four-stroke, then we, as the instigators, should quit brushing the subject under the rug. Because pink may look good on Easter eggs or sunsets, but when it starts showing up on our mountainsides (alpenglow excepted) it’s high time we all take off the rose-colored glasses.

– Missy Votel



In this week's issue...

July 21, 2022
Wildlife success or deal with the devil?

Land swap approved in Southwest Colorado, but not without detractors

July 21, 2022
Tapping out

The latest strategy to save the San Luis Valley's shrinking aquifer: paying farmers not to farm

July 14, 2022
Hey, good environmental news

Despite SCOTUS ruling, San Juan Generating Station plans to shut down