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Recent Writings V
In the early 1960s we were young and foolish and had a seven week old son when we came to my parents’ cabin on Big Owl Road on the 27th of December. I was an Air Force 1st Lieutenant and I had been the Officer of the Day at Amarillo Air Force Base on Christmas Day. I was low man in officer seniority. The cabin was then a summer place; no electricity, no telephone, no heat, no insulation, no running water. My wife had never been here. What was I thinking? I have no idea.
In those days there were no disposable diapers. Our son was in the bassinette that had held me and my brother. His mother rinsed his diapers in the trickle of water in Roaring Fork after I chopped a hole in the ice with a pick-axe. Daylight was brief and nights were long, our bedroom heated by a tiny tin wood stove not designed to brave a Tahosa Valley winter. Crammed with wood, it glowed orange through the night, warming us and our son. In the mornings we found him sweating in the bassinette in his swaddling clothes, oblivious to the cold while we shivered.
In the few nights that followed we lay in bed watching and listening as the winter winds came in a crescendo down the slopes of Mt. Meeker and slammed into the cabin, the boards above our heads rippling as the gusts passed. “The roof must blow off,” we thought, and then we remembered that the roof had endured such gusts for more than 35 years. It and we endured. The day after we left the temperature dropped to 25 below.
We did not see another winter on Big Owl Road for 22 years and we’ve not been brave enough to stay for several winters, now that we’re older. That son is a Ph.D. botanist who works for a company providing drought and disease resistant foods to millions of people. He is the product of risks. Some of them, like his coming to the mountains when he was just seven weeks old, not of his doing. But, like many who live in our mountains all year, he has taken many risks on his own since. His mother and I have always been risk-takers. We have encouraged our children to do the same.
Being here, climbing, hunting, being part of our mountains, living with what many would call deprivations and its risks, is essential to the fabric and history of this valley, that make it the very special place it is. Alonzo Allen took a risk. Otto Walter, Cathie Bird, Joseph Bosetti, John McCollister, Joseph Bunce, Sanford Buster, Joseph Tregamba, Bill and Stella Morgan, Gene Weber, Oscar Rubendall and host of others in the early part of the 20th century. Chick Jensen, Katherine Garetson, Charles Hirshfield and dozens more who came here risked their lives, their futures and the futures of their children. Many are here still.
It was and is a risk. Living here has never been a sure thing. Many have come and gone quickly for whom the risk was too much. Some have come who thought the application of enough money would insure comfort and certainty, only to find that the winds and cold of winter and its risks, in spite of the money, proved too daunting. A Tahosa Valley winter can be a challenge to the most intrepid.
We now live in a world that seeks to eliminate risk. Climbers carry cellular telephones and beacons so they can summon help quickly if they fall or are struck by lightning or are ill prepared and are simply wet and cold and hungry. Horse-back riders wear helmets, as do bicycle riders. Liability insurance is a must and waivers must be signed to do just about anything with the slightest amount of risk.
Still, we have a few hardy souls who, in violation of what purports to be common sense these days, and like those brave souls in the past, insist on living in our mountains all year. A Merry Christmas to all of them, who will see a beautiful valley most can only imagine and envy and in my case, remember.
One of the oldest axioms in writing is “Write what you know.” So what follows is mostly what I know and a little bit of a question about what I don’t know and would like our gentle readers to assist in enlightening me.
In 1973 I was a career Air Force officer assigned to a combat squadron, the 361st TEWS (Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron) in Thailand where I flew some 700 hours in combat over Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The war was supposedly over, but it wasn’t. I was there for 11 months, and I had been flying in and out of Vietnam since 1967, accumulating about 1000 flight hours of combat and combat support time. For much of that time I had been away from my family for only a few days at a time. But this time I was away for a year, and as it turned out, a little more.
During that time my wife and two boys, then 12 and 6, were at our cabin in our valley in our mountains. We decided that this would be a good time to expand and winterize the cabin, so we employed Charlie Baker, who, along with his father had built the cabin in 1919, to add some 700 square feet to the east side of the building. For Mary it was a daunting task. In addition to fitting her both sons into the Estes Park schools, she also had the job of overseer of the building project and coping with all the mess that entailed, while handling the money, cooking, cleaning and every other aspect of day-to-day living without the assistance of her husband.
Otto Walter was the postmaster and a good friend, and he made sure she was able to send and receive the mail that connected her with me. She sent me letters and I sent her tapes, some of which chastised our sons for misbehavior. But I was half way around the world and of no help at all in solving her many problems. I had problems of my own which I will not recount here. Suffice to say that the squadron earned a Presidential Unit Citation and everyone got some well earned medals, even though the war was over.
What bothered me most about that period was that almost no one gave Mary any assistance, inquired as to her health and well being or anything else. Yet in the middle of one night, because she was a registered nurse, she was asked to deliver a neighbor’s baby, which she did.
I have no quarrel with the way we were treated. It was the zeitgeist. One neighbor, whose name Mary has unfortunately forgotten came to the house one time to inquire how she was doing. She was on our party line and knew Mary was alone with the children. Beyond that she got no help from the Air Force, no help from the federal or local government, no help from anyone in our valley. And when I was injured and air evaced to the Philippines and to Denver and finally came back to our valley, not a single person came to bring a meal or to offer any kind of assistance, so Mary not only had everything else on her plate, but me as well, lying in bed and doing nothing to help. When I recovered sufficiently I was assigned to San Jose State in 1975 to an ROTC unit, where we were not allowed to wear our uniforms for fear of being assaulted.
The Vietnam war was fought mainly by draftees who were reviled for the faults of their superiors. In our most recent wars, now totaling 14 years of warfare, the volunteers and their families have been very well taken care of and routinely treated as heroes. Our own Hilltop Guild sends packages to the volunteers and if we had any relatives living in our mountains I’m sure they would be well recognized and cared about. I’m just curious about the way the zeitgeist has changed.
These are some things I know. What I don’t know is why. I hope someone will tell me.
In the last few months I lost two good friends of mine in our mountains, Marge McCulloch and Don Newton. Marge was a fixture in the Wind for many years as its premier columnist, member of the board and finally as president of the board of publishers. Her columns, often about the weather or her cats, were favorites of our readers. The members always looked forward to her shortbread at board meetings. But we knew very little about her life before her association with the Wind. She was a big deal in the YWCA for many years before she retired. As is often the case, we have many retired people who had significant lives before we knew them and it’s only in obituaries we learn about their families, work and contributions, their other lives before we had the privilege of knowing them. Marge was one of those.
Behind me as I write is a five foot tall tower of wood that holds some 200 compact discs, created in the days before iPods made CDs obsolete. It’s largely the work of Don Newton, another good friend and the husband of our brilliant business manager, Betty Anne. About twenty years ago I saw an ad for such a tower in a catalog and I knew Don did beautiful woodwork, so I took the picture to him and asked if he would show me how to do something similar. He did.
Don had a special relationship with wood. My relationship was mostly how to cut it and burn it in the fireplace. Don could turn the most mundane piece of wood into a work of art. Half of his two-car garage was devoted to his wood and his tools for the creation of beautiful commissioned pieces that were both useful and stunning. His house is everywhere filled with touches of his ability to make ordinary wood into the extraordinary: a bluebird on the peak of their roof, a little bear and a rabbit, just things he made, so expressive, so personal, so demonstrative of his being in touch with the medium he loved.
I miss these people. Of course nothing is wasted in our universe. They are still with us, albeit in a different form; we are all made of star stuff. But I know I didn’t tell them how much I treasured their friendship. I regret that. I didn’t tell Marge how much her friendship and her importance to this journal meant to me. I didn’t tell Don, who was a very private person and who would have shrugged it off, how much I enjoyed his company and how, for all these years, I have used and enjoyed the results of his teaching in helping me make this tower for CDs. It’s such a simple thing. Why didn’t I do it? I should have, but I didn’t. I often feel that way about funerals. Too late we praise our friends, rather than simply telling them, while they lived, how important they were in our own lives.
I’ve had so many opportunities, from Kathy Dever to Charles Eagle Plume, Marie and Cecil Armstrong, Emily Johnson, Walt and Marian Silkworth, Joe and Anne and Gene Mann, Bill Wait, Martin Schockley, Jack Zumwinkel, Otto and Marg Walter and now Marge and Don and many more, to tell them, before they died. I waited and I shouldn’t have. There really isn’t any excuse, and I’m going to try to do better.
The spate of snowstorms, mild here, but significant east of the Mississippi and as far south as Atlanta, has revived the claims of those who doubt that our atmosphere is warming. But there isn’t any doubt in our mountains.
I have lived long enough to see the signs all around us. When I was young we had two ski areas, here in Allenspark and in Rocky Mountain National Park at Hidden Valley. My children learned to ski at the latter. By that time the Allenspark run was just a bare stretch on a hill which can still be seen, and the memories of those who skied there.
It has been many years since the snows on Mt. Meeker remained all year. Today the last vestiges are often gone by late July. The snow patch between Mt. Meeker and Longs Peak above Chasm Lake was originally called Mills glacier and then The Apron. Today, it too is often bare of snow by the end of the summer. It is all that remains of the living glacier that carved out a significant portion of Tahosa Valley thousands of years ago.
In the Park the spot now called Lava Cliffs was originally the parking area for Iceberg Lake, a small lake at the bottom of the cliffs, covered with ice most of the year. It disappeared about 45 years ago when it didn’t get enough snow-melt to fill it.
The most painful evidence of general warmth is visible in our many trees destroyed by beetles, as our winters no longer are cold enough to kill them. We had a little cold spell this winter and if it had lasted a few days longer and had been a few degrees colder, all the beetles in our valley would be dead. But it wasn’t, and they aren’t, and it’s unlikely that anything will stop them save a lack of food.
As the warm winters creep higher our pikas, recently deprived of endangered status, will likely follow the marmots and beaver as late residents of our valley. The appearance of moose is yet another sign that the climate now favors those who were unable to live through the very cold winters at our altitude.
I have lived long enough and flown far enough to have seen the best and worst weather on the planet. Colorado still has some of the best, with our still relatively clear air in our valley, and some of the worst: we have more avalanches than any state in the union. But we took all the good weather for granted and it’s now too late to do anything but chronicle the changes, all of them bad, as they occur. The warming of our atmosphere is going to result in more weather like the odd snowstorms, floods, droughts and winds in places and quantities never seen before.
Before 2020 it’s almost certain the north polar icecap will disappear in the summers, revealing the fabled Northwest Passage, for whatever good it may do us. What all this will mean to our species and to those of us in our valley can only be guessed at, but what is certain is that whatever happens we might have prevented it, and didn’t.
We are going to read and hear quite a bit about wolves in the next few years. There is some evidence that that they are already in northwestern Colorado and soon there will be questions about whether we want them on the eastern slope and specifically in Rocky Mountain National Park. Quite a bit of ink is going to be spilled on this subject. The March 2010 issue of the National Geographic has an article about wolves, with the pros and cons clearly outlined.
When I was young I read a book by Dorr Yeager, the first Naturalist in Rocky Mountain National Park, “Grey Dawn, the Wolf Dog,” a splendid imagining about a half wolf and the man who became its friend. In the story, the man and dog eventually find…well, I’d rather not spoil the story. A few years ago we had a wolf-dog hybrid breeder in our valley for a short time. The Estes Park Museum is publishing the first of Dorr’s books for young people, “Bob Flame, Ranger” and in the fullness of time I hope they will publish “Chita, the Story of a Mountain Lion,” which takes place in our own Tahosa Valley, and “Scarface, the Story of a Grizzly Bear," as well as “Grey Dawn.” Wonderful tales, well told. For years I have been urging the museum to publish all of them.
It is the wolves that concern us at the moment, as well they should. We already have a few lions but grizzlies may never reappear. We have plenty of trouble with the black bears that supplanted them. Wolves would help control the bear population. The arguments against wolves we’ve heard around here for years no longer have much credence. In Yeager’s books those who raised cattle for a living were in favor of the eradication of wolves on the eastern slope and on the plains. In our mountains today the raising of cattle is very much restricted to a hobby or as part of a museum as at the MacGregor Ranch in Estes Park.
The crux of the matter is simply balance. The deer and elk now have only us and the few lions to fear. As a result we have too many browsers and not enough vegetation to support them. They have eaten the willows and other plants that shade the streams and provide habitat for birds. The loss of willows, a prime food and dam source, is directly responsible for the disappearance of beavers in our valley. We have sharpshooters culling the elk herds in RMNP, a job that was once that of the wolves. We have too many coyotes because they don’t have to compete with wolves. They have decimated the marmot population. The coyotes eat small mammals and deprive hawks, owls and eagles of their food sources. When was the last time you saw a red-tailed hawk in our valley? When was the last time you saw a big owl on Big Owl Hill?
Too often we forget that we are part of a system, and one that has a fine and delicate balance we have disturbed, if not destroyed. We are at the top of the food chain, temporarily, but unless we recognize our responsibilities within it, we can, at least temporarily, raze the entire system. Wolves had a place in our ecosystem 125 years ago in our valley, earned over millennia, a place that was part of the equilibrium. When we removed them, we created a imbalance that has now caused us to complain about bear intrusions and wonder why so many species we knew are no longer here.
In the coming months and years we will hear much more about wolves and whether we should allow them to return to our valley. It’s worth considering that if we disappeared from our mountains the balance would be restored in those same 125 years. We could, of course, restore the balance ourselves. The future, like all our lives, is full of choices.
May, and the streams are full. Some that have been dry all winter are now running. We go out and look at the stream, comparing it to this time last year, hoping the level will provide our water for the summer or a home for fish, or a supply for our guests.
I’m fortunate; I have two small streams on my property, thanks to my grandfather. I watch both of them for all those reasons. But I’m acutely aware that the Colorado State constitution says that “the water of every natural stream is the property of public and must remain dedicated to the people’s use.”
In fact, however, the water itself doesn’t belong to the public at all. Nearly all the state’s water rights were bought and sold about 150 years ago. The water in our valley is mostly owned by Longmont, and the little that isn’t is owned by ranchers and farmers and towns in Larimer and Weld County. Almost none of it is owned by anyone in our valley. Eventually we may have to fight in the courts to be entitled to what little water we use.
The same it true of mineral rights throughout the state. You can own the land, but you probably don’t own the mineral rights.
Now we have a developer from Texas who has bought two miles of land along the Taylor River, northeast of Gunnison. He wants to have a posh fishing destination and doesn’t want to compete with the rafters who’ve been using the Taylor for many years. Also, he doesn’t want the rafters carrying their rafts around his bridge that’s too close to the water at the very times when rafting is good. The legislature, up against lobbyists from both sides, is paralyzed and is trying to make it all go away. Probably it won’t.
We don’t have this problem here; we don’t have any navigable streams in our mountains. But it does raise the old question; is it okay to have someone you don’t know fishing on your property? It is if you say so and if you say they may not then they’re trespassing. But I can’t remember anyone telling someone to get off their land because they were fishing. We have other, much bigger problems.
The issue, however, is fundamental and the constitution is clear: until the water becomes owned by someone, it’s the property of the public. In short, you can’t own a navigable stream. I suspect the Texas developer is going to be trumped by Colorado rafting companies who have been doing it for years.
I have been writing for many years about what’s at the bottom of these quarrels. People think they own a piece of our valley, when in reality they just get to inhabit it for a very short period of time in the cosmic scheme of things. I don’t like fences unless they contain livestock. As boundary markers they imply that what’s inside is proprietary, when in fact whoever put up the fence is just a temporary custodian, and not a very friendly one at that. “No trespassing” signs are in opposition to the Lord’s Prayer, but often put up by good Christians. I have walkers and bikers along Big Owl Road who are in need of a bathroom and they sometimes try to use the ancient outhouse I’ve preserved. I don’t object to their being on the property, but using the outhouse is both rude and illegal. I had to nail it shut but people are welcome to walk on my land; I’m only here for a few years and so are they.
People forget about this when it comes to water and minerals and land. That sound in May of rushing water belongs to all of us, just as the air and sun and smell of new growth all around. We should enjoy sharing our good fortune in being here.
In the past few months we’ve been reading about disasters concerning coal and oil, and we’ve been hearing quite a bit about nuclear, sun and wind power.
Here in our mountains many of us depend on liquefied propane gas. We use it to heat water, mostly, or to feed our forced air furnaces, or to cook our food. Propane made living in our valley possible. Discovered in 1910, it’s a byproduct of the refining process. Sometimes called LP gas, because the way we get it is as a liquid. It turns into a gas when it leaves the storage tank. By 1922, 223,000 gallons of propane was being produced. That’s less than we use in our valley in a typical winter. Today more than 15 billion gallons are used every year in the U.S.
Prior to that, of course, we had kerosene, which has been around since 800 A.D. in Persia. Even then they had oil, they just didn’t know how to make the most of it. Kerosene has been made from coal, hence coal-oil, and in the 19th century when a way was found to make it from crude oil it quickly replaced whale oil, which had become expensive and was becoming recognized as a very limited finite resource. Today we use kerosene in lamps for nostalgia or emergencies, but its primary use is as jet fuel. We have wood, of course, but having enough to heat a house and water for a single winter requires more land than most of us have. Early settlers in the valley consumed huge amounts of wood, but burning wood has become an ambient luxury for most of us. We depend on propane.
The problem with propane is the same as the one with coal and crude oil and anything else combustible that comes from the interior of our planet: they’re all finite resources. Eventually they will disappear. The last barrel of oil and the last bag of coal will be museum pieces. Still, we try to ignore the inevitable. Our heirs will have to worry about it. For the time being we just have to worry about the prices going up. The prices are just going to go up until the last ton or gallon is burned and gone forever.
So it seems that electricity, produced by means other than a finite resource will have to provide heat and light and motive power in our valley by the end of this century if living here is going to continue to be possible. With more than 8 or 9 billion people on the planet, oil and coal and natural gas won’t last long no matter how deep we dig or how deep we drill. The writing is on the wall.
At the moment we have some fairly unsatisfactory options. Solar and wind power are in their infancy and without a sense of urgency they may not be well enough developed to save the idea of living in our mountains. Wind is intermittent and solar panels don’t work with snow on them or at night. Storage of power is a problem we haven’t solved. The abandonment of rural areas would create even further pressure on urban areas already dealing with energy and water limitations. It’s not a pretty prospect.
We do have the option of atomic power. Our country is far behind Europe, which produces much of its power with nuclear generators. Colorado does not have a single nuclear plant. We had one, and shut it down and converted it to coal. One cannot drive along the urban corridor without encountering the immense coal trains from Wyoming burning up that state so we can have electricity.
We still have our liquefied propane gas and we use quite a bit of it even though it costs twice what it did ten years ago. But we are likely to look back on these as the good old days.
Losing a Step
It happened to my father in 1955. He was 54 and had spent summers here since he was 17. He had climbed most of the peaks in the Park, some several times. He decided that he wanted to climb Longs one more time. My brother and I, then in our early 20s, went along. Just past timberline we saw that Dad was having a hard time. His lips were blue. He descended and never made the attempt again.
Of course, like almost everyone else at the time, he smoked and years later he had emphysema. But no matter the cause, it was a moment all of us who live here or who come every summer dread; the moment when we know we’ve lost a step, that we’re never going to be able to do all the things we once did at this altitude, that our days here are numbered and the numbers are getting smaller.
Every year, whether it’s a small cabin or a summer business, we go through the same routine of opening our places. So the process with which we do it is an easy gauge of our fitness. Was it easier last year? Am I breathing a little harder? Is there a little more fatigue in my legs? Did my back used to hurt like this? Is that knee a little stiff?
We have seen it for years. Our friends slowing down, out of breath, walking with difficulty, eventually needing oxygen and finally descending, never to return. And then we realize it’s going to happen to us. Will it be this year or next, or the one after that?
These days we tend to take better care of ourselves. Many of us live into our nineties and my brother is seriously thinking about climbing the Peak once more. I am not. This is the year when I realized I’m going to have to take things more slowly, that the tasks I used to take for granted take longer, seem more difficult and tire me more quickly.
I sometimes wonder when the time will come when I can’t do any of the routine jobs around the place. When will be the last time I can use a chain saw? When will be the last time I can safely get on a ladder and care for my roof? Like most of us, I don’t waste a lot of time on questions like these, but they’re there, just the same. No matter how careful we are, finally we just wear out.
This 1st of July marks my father’s 109th birthday. He came here in the summers for 53 years. He was one of six family members who eventually became too frail to come here several years before they died. We all know people who reached that point and if we live long enough it will happen to us. All the more reason to enjoy every single moment we have here, in our mountains.
There aren’t very many downsides to living in our mountains full time or only in the summer. If you get along with your relatives they are almost certain to visit in the summer, even if they live close by. If they live far away they have the perfect excuse to spend a couple of weeks with you. Family reunions are commonplace. The YMCA is pretty much booked solid with reunions. Of course the children and grandchildren want to do a summer’s worth of hiking, dining, archery, horseshoes, riding and fishing in two weeks. They wear me out just watching them. And visitors mean more work, laundry, cooking, finding places to store all the food choices and general abandonment of routines, but of course it’s all worth the effort.
If you have a cabin as old as mine it can always use some projects and extra hands to fetch and carry, do a little painting, a little fixing. This summer things got a “little” out of hand. My older son had a slight problem with a large rock while backing on our driveway, so he was in favor when there was a suggestion that the family should create something like 100 feet of new driveway to make it circular and avoid all the backing up.
I had been thinking for some time that I’m getting too long in the tooth to back a big pickup. I had recently proved that by backing into a tree. And then it was suggested that we could do it ourselves if we rented a Bobcat, a little earthmoving machine from Estes Park. Of course asking any man to think about running an earthmoving machine will make him salivate, and I was certainly no exception. The Bobcat needed new teeth for its bucket and wasn’t available, but a similar and slightly larger John Deere was, so we trailered it behind the pickup, very slowly, up the Baldpate hill and fired it up.
There really is something exhilarating about feeling the power to lift and carry large quantities of earth and stone simply by moving one’s hands and feet. Just starting the diesel engine gives one a sense of the latent power under the hands and feet. Eventually both sons and a grandson had a chance to work with it and all pronounced it genuine fun and something inexpressible more. No wonder our esteemed editor likes his job.
In less than three hours we had a level surface. The next day we had some gravel bought in and everyone turned to, shoveling and raking and in just two days we had a circular driveway. My teenage grandson added the finishing touches, lining the sides with the many rocks the Deere had unearthed.
The result? A family effort those who did it will be able to look at for many years, remembering the fun we had doing it and the sweat equity we built together and it’s good looking, sturdy and useful. What more can you ask for from a summer visit by children and grandchildren?
We’re looking forward to seeing them next year. I have some projects in mind.
Summer in the old days, as in “when I was a kid,” were predictable in that we could depend on beautiful mornings and brief afternoon showers, followed by gorgeous sunsets, often the result of forest fire smoke.
In recent years, however, we’ve had summers with very few days with that rain pattern. We had many days or weeks with high fire danger and the forest floor has been hard, dry and crackling under foot.
This summer was different. From June 12th to August 5th, I measured 8.49 inches of rain, and five inches of that was in one ten day period. We often hear the year ‘rounders say that only fools and tourists predict the weather here, and I must be both, because I like to predict it and I’m very often wrong. I sure didn’t have any idea we were in for this drenching.
The rain was accompanied, as usual, by lightning, which occurs when liquid and ice particles above the freezing level collide and build up large electrical fields in the clouds. The results can be cloud to cloud or cloud to ground strikes. We often have both, as the storm clouds form over our mountains to the west and the updrafts provide the energy for the electrical fields. Many astronauts have remarked that one of the most interesting views of our planet is provided by lightning, which is in evidence continuously. Certainly this past summer we contributed more than our usual share. Our place, in front of Mt. Meeker, provided an excellent view of storms and cloud to ground strikes on Horse’s Tooth, Meeker’s south ridge, which has strikes much more often than the north, as well as strikes on the valley floor.
In the past three years we have had two strikes within 100 yards of our house. One of them started a small fire when the electric line was severed and the wire fell into an aspen. This year we had a strike with two forks, both of which were within 100 yards. Besides scaring the living daylights out of us, it severed the electric line on Big Owl, about 100 yards south of the earlier strike and the other was on a pole containing an arrester designed to protect the transformer and insulators by diverting the electricity to the ground. Instead, that fork blew the ceramic arrester into small pieces over a 20 yard area. A little piece of those two forks killed one of our TVs even though the house is well grounded. We were without power for almost three hours as the power company was quickly on the spot, making repairs to the line and looking over the damage to the arrester, which, they said, they had never seen before. They did not have a spare, but restored the power and said they would be back.
They came back promptly, and after some testing, replaced the arrester, the transformer and the insulators.
Like most of us I suppose, we never think about the power until it’s off. But the Estes Park Power people come out in the rain, often with thunder still echoing in the distance or snow still falling, and quickly and professionally see to it that our time without power is kept to a minimum. They trim trees, cut down trees that threaten lines, and clean up after themselves. What’s even better is that they seem to enjoy their work keeping us supplied with the power we take for granted. We have come to expect some outages. Birds, squirrels, ice and snow and lightning, trees falling on lines, one time a car took out a pole, but over the years the outages are fewer and they’re much shorter. The people who keep our power flowing certainly deserve our thanks, especially when the lightning hits close.
Late in August I was driving down the South St. Vrain canyon when I passed more than a dozen police and sheriff’s vehicles, including a truck hauling a command post trailer, lights flashing, sirens wailing, headed up the canyon.
“What could it be?” I wondered. “A shooting? A hostage situation? Must be something pretty big.”
No, it was a marijuana farm, discovered by a hiker, right here in the weed capital of the front range, the People’s Republic of Boulder County. A few days later some 7,500 plants were airlifted out a mile from Raymond on Roosevelt National Forest land, presumably to be burned. And the farmer? Long gone. Must have been those sirens. Duh.
This was a relatively small farm. A few days earlier 30,000 plants were found about 7 miles north of Deckers in the Pike National Forest in Jefferson county. Street value $7 to $10 million. Discovered by another hiker. That farm was tended by 10 Mexicans, only two of whom were caught. Were they the owners of the plants? I’m guessing not.
Is the growth of marijuana plants among the top crimes in Boulder County, requiring a command post and a fleet of vehicles and SWAT teams? Apparently. And the result? Probably, at least temporarily, the price of local laughing grass will go up. Not for long; there’s plenty of the stuff available. After all, we have 27,000 potential customers just at CU in Boulder.
When I was teaching there during the day I had few students who seemed to be, shall we say, relaxed by the ingestion of a non-prescription pharmaceutical. But my night classes were a different story and many of my working students eschewed a preprandial cocktail in favor of a few moments with a bong. Their smiling faces were always nice to see.
The administration of CU Boulder long ago gave up the idea of trying to act as the marijuana police. When you don’t have enough money to wash the windows or clean the classrooms, mild drug use isn’t high on the priority list.
What’s high on your priority list? We still have the beetle problem, and the recent Four Mile Canyon fire and a little fire in Tahosa North the same day reminds us that we need to support our volunteer firefighters. Highway 7 is in dire need of repair in our valley, and many of us would like to have cell phone service and do something about all that motorcycle noise. If the Feds want to spend money on something constructive they could always work on the hiking trails in the Park.
So why are we spending a lot of tax money on helicopters taking 7,500 marijuana plants to an incinerator? Probably it’s because it’s easier and cheaper than dealing with higher priority problems. And it lets us know that our law enforcers are on the job, protecting us from the evil of illicit weed cultivation.
Smoking a little Sinsemilla if you can find it has been with us in our mountains for many years. Otto Walter and a fairly large group of his friends were known to have a toke and a sing-along now and then. In the late 60s and early 70s there were plenty of people with long hair, unruly dogs, sandals and granny dresses. We had births at homes. Some people had drinking problems and if you used marijuana at least you weren’t going to wind up in AA meetings or in the South St. Vrain Creek. Eventually some of them drank anyway, and alcohol use shortened lives and caused some traffic accidents and created family problems. Marijuana use didn’t seem to have that effect then and doesn’t seem to now. I wouldn’t be surprised if a WIND reader was enjoying a little toke while reading this very issue. Still, when a hiker finds what the law now calls a “grow,” it’s sure to become a cause for lights and sirens and SWAT teams, and the grower will just move on. Our National Forests are very big and so is the demand.
In our mountains we know quite a bit about trucks. We recognize them. Modern cars, vans and SUVs look pretty much alike and Subaru Outbacks and Foresters are ubiquitous, but trucks still have distinctive personalities. We know the propane trucks, the county dump trucks, the snow plows, the cement, plumbing and electric trucks, the UPS and FedEx trucks, the Forest Service and Ranger and forest contractors trucks, the Estes Park Power and garbage trucks and many others. We know them by their size, shape and color. We don’t need to see the signs on their sides. Sometimes we flash our lights or wave in recognition.
We know the trucks of many residents. No mistaking Keith Dever’s pickups or Chip Mills’ or Dan St. John’s or Robyn Lockwood’s, easily recognizable because the old Chevrolet is missing half its grill. Some are pretty venerable. Jack Zumwinkel had a beautiful old pickup, the same dark green as my old IH, but in wonderful condition. Everyone in the valley knew it on sight. My brother has a really dilapidated but fine running ancient Toyota that’s easily recognizable by the rust holes and graffiti that adorn it. Lots of personality.
I have owned only three trucks, all pickups. I had a well used International Harvester ½ ton in 1962 I used to carry my two greyhounds out to Amarillo Air Force Base (where I was stationed) so they could eliminate some of the jack rabbits that were often sucked into the engines of the B-52s when they took off or landed.
The second was a well used 1977 Jeep Honcho I acquired here in 1983 with a snow plow attached when we thought we would be living in the valley full time. My younger son ran it into a tree on a snowy curve on Big Owl Road. The Honcho is long gone but the scar on the tree is still there.
This summer that same son and I purchased a Ford F-150 Lariat pickup, well used, but with amenities I could not have dreamed of in the IH or the Jeep. A big engine, killer sound system, air conditioning, power everything, even nice carpet. It’s the usual red and silver paint scheme. And of course it gets lousy gas mileage.
Probably because we have so many dirt roads and driveways and garbage disposal problems a pickup here is a very useful tool. My son wanted one that could carry gravel or garbage as well as be a means of transport for up to five people to and from DIA for his family and anyone else in the family since rental cars have become very expensive.
I am hoping it will be around long enough to be recognized. It has a bug deflector that may help. So far, however, I can see as I drive around that it’s regarded as just passing through. Even when I get out of it people are a little curious; they just don’t associate the truck with me yet.
Times change. In the 70s there were numbers of old pickups, often with dogs in the back and they were all recognizable. Renters left two of them, not drivable, in my front yard when they left. And there are several like that around; Gary Williams has a couple of venerable pickups at his place with tall grass growing around them. When they reach a certain age they become monuments. These days we have large numbers of new and very big pickups, many with four doors. They don’t have much personality.
Eventually people will begin to associate the old F-150 with us and we’ll get the flashing headlights and waves that let us know the truck’s recognized and belongs. That will be a good feeling.
A Kalamazoo Prince
Many of us in our mountains have stories about our wood cook stoves: We have one, we gave one away, we had one that was worn out or one was sold (and we probably regret it).
When the cabins on our property were built in the late teens and early twenties at least two of them had the same model stove and you see it here, a Kalamazoo Prince.
This one is in our cabin and it’s the only movable thing in the cabin that’s beenin1919. It’s been raised a couple of times to put in new flooring, and it’s had two new stovepipes, the latest by our local stove person, Rick Debias. The new pipe cost quite a bit more than the stove but when the Prince gets going we really want a safe stovepipe.
These cast iron stoves were brought by rail to Lyons and then trucked to our valley. “A Kalamazoo Direct to You.”
It came in a wood packing crate. I know this because the packing crate wood was used as part of the original foundation of the cabin and is still visible in the crawl space. It cost $35. As wood cook stoves go the Prince is rather plain. Many more expensive ones had shelves above the cooking surface and porcelain facings.
Those of us who still use them know there’s nothing quite like a cold morning in the kitchen with the cook stove taking the chill off. We’re fortunate in having plenty of stove wood kept in an old fashioned wood box on the side of the cabin.
The Prince has probably been used for the equivalent of perhaps 25 winters, so it’s in very good shape for a 92 year old. One Thanksgiving Mary cooked a turkey in it. It took all day and a lot of wood, but it did the job.
My mother had a much smaller cook stove, even more plain than the Prince, purchased in 1927. The name on it was “Junior.” It finally burned through its firebox and had to be thrown out. Just at that time Charles Eagle Plume decided to get a modern stove and he gave his to my mother. It is still in her cabin, which now belongs to my broher, although it hasn’t been used as a stove for many years.
Our kitchen is small and we could certainly use the space, but it will probably be in the same place for a while yet. Even if the place burned down, the Prince would probably survive. Of course we have a modern range beside it, but visitors never admire the new one. They always admire the Kalamazoo Prince.
If you have a story about a cook stove, you might think about telling it to The WIND.
The Lunch Bunch
Back in the 1990s when Mary was first in the Allenspark Aging Services Committee and then in the County and then the State, appointed by Roy Romer, the Allenspark Lunch Bunch was one of her pet ideas. She thought it would be a good idea for Aging Services to provide an inexpensive lunch for seniors once a week. The Allenspark Lunch Bunch has been around for a while now. They often have guest speakers and they must be desperate because they asked me, so I went and found 15 people whose total years are probably around a thousand, but they seemed to be having a good time and the lunch is only $2.50 if you’re over 65 and it’s catered by Highland’s Camp and it’s really good.
I have often complained that even though I have neighbors all along Big Owl and Cabin Creek I actually know only about seven by sight, which is really pitiful and it’s my fault. It used to be more, but many have died and I don’t know who replaced them. Since I went to the Lunch Bunch I’ve added two.
Some of us, like Gene Mackey, who works on the roads, and Corrine at the Post Office and Dan and Robyn at the dump, sorry, The Solid Waste Transfer Station, know almost everybody, probably more than they’d like. But most of us have a too small circle of friends. Bill Wait had been a quarter of a mile from me for at least 30 years before I finally met him, just a few years before he left us. I really regretted that.
Of course we have our share of hermits, and many move to the mountains primarily to escape the crush of people on the flatlands. But the times are changing and the many activities at the Old Gallery are a sign that we may be thinking about being more social in person than we’ve been in the past.
In the 1920s and 30s our valley was a regular social whirlwind. Everyone visited everyone else. My grandfather’s guest book is full of dozens of visitors. No electricity, so no phones, no TV, no Internet, no email or Facebook or Twitter. People actually came to your cabin or you went to theirs and had tea or something stronger and they read books and had conversations and everyone on Big Owl Road knew everyone else by sight. Not everybody got along, but they knew each other.
All of that has been lost and it’s too bad. I don’t know if the members of the Lunch Bunch visit each other, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
In the winter the Lunch Bunch has only ten or twelve regulars, but the number can reach 30 in the summer. If you’d like to know some more old neighbors you would be welcome. There’s always a note in the Wind about the schedule and a phone number to make a reservation.
Why Our Mountains?
Feel free to correct me, but I think we have three kinds of Wind readers: people who visit on a regular basis, people who have property and summer homes, and people who live here all year. It would be interesting to know which of those three categories has the most readers. There might be a fourth: people who no longer come to our mountains but still want to stay in touch.
Alonzo Allen didn’t live here all year. Very few did before the days of the Clara Belle Mine and tourism. We don’t know much about what motivated those hardy souls and we don’t even know about the motivations of people like Kitty Linsey, who built a replica of a Kansas farmhouse in 1917 that became the What Not Inn and the Perkins Indian Trading Post and Eagle Plume’s. Why did she do that? Why did Charles (Eagle Plume) Burkhardt settle here in 1927?
Why did Augusta Mengadoht decide to come to Allenspark to buy the Fawn Brook Inn in 1935? Why did Otto and Margaret Walter come to Allenspark in 1947? Why did John McCollister move his family to Allenspark in 1921? Why did our own Marge McCullough retire here in her tiny cabin?
A fortunate few like Marge can afford to live here without work. Making a living can be difficult with a tourist, building and outdoor work season of less than six months. Some who live here commute to Boulder or Longmont. That takes real dedication. A few businesses are open all year and they advertise in the Wind. Some have summer and winter businesses.
We don’t know why people decide to live here all year. They very seldom tell us. We only know it must be a very strong desire. We do know that most children born here seldom stay. People here all year tend to move here as adults. And some who do don’t stay very long. Even with most of the conveniences of modern technology, winter’s long at this altitude and many who planned a lengthy retirement find life too difficult all too soon.
I knew Otto Walter very well. We were good friends and his paintings hang in my house and I admire them every day and I miss him. He was present at the creation of the Wind in 1974 and he worked as postmaster, logger, millwright, builder and although crippled by polio, was as tough as they come. Like many who still live here all year, Otto came to start a new life, a life different and, he hoped, better, even though he knew it would be filled with challenges. In the middle of the 20th century it was much more of a challenge than it is today. Otto wanted to live and die here and he made his dream come true.
People still come here to live all year, to begin a new life in a place so beautiful it can take the breath away of those who see it for the first time. Some build a new house, some winterize a cabin. All fulfill a particular dream and few tell us about their reasons. And whether their stay is many years or few, they leave, I think, with deep regret.
In September the hummingbirds give us our first indication that the summer is over. Our birds begin to arrive in the first week of May. In July the young leave the nests and the demand at our feeder grows. By the end of August they begin to leave for their journey to Central America and by the end of the first week in September, they’re gone.
Every September we look forward to the aspens turning, another sign of the end of summer, the growing season, and the tourist season. The quaking aspens are a sure seasonal marker. When they first appear in May the leaves are a translucent pale green that deepens with the summer sun. In late August we begin to see a few spots of yellow and gold and by the third week in September there are few green leaves remaining.
In some years the blaze of color lasts for many days and in others for a very few, as a cold snap will turn the leaves black or a high wind will quickly strip the trees. The amount of summer rain may hasten or delay the turning of the aspens, but by the middle of October they’re bare. They will remain so until May’s warmth brings them to life as the setting sun swings north along our mountain skyline.
The pines abide, except that the beetles continue to take a toll. We lost more than 50 trees around our cabin this year, including an ancient ponderosa that fought beetles for more than ten years before succumbing. We can only hope the worst is over.
Increasingly we find the bear activity is a harbinger of winter as they prowl the valley looking for food. All manner of squirrels, tree and ground, are busy gathering and storing in their dens. The coyotes too have been busy, and noisy, as they try to put on weight for the lean months ahead.
Our little streams reflect our seasons as well. This year the June flood lasted well into July and snow remains on Mt. Meeker and may last until the first snow. Still, by December we will hear only the slightest of gurgles under the ice.
I lived on a Pacific island where the seasons never change, where the temperature and humidity never varies by more than 20 degrees and 15 percent. Without a calendar it was impossible to know what month it was. Here we can look at our mountains and clouds, see where the sun sets, feel the air, listen to the birds, watch the animals and the trees and know within a few weeks the time of year.
Stepping outside on a September morning is finding a nip in the air and the prospect of a chilly wind or a hint of snow. It is the end of something and the beginning of something else and although we know the winter will seem long this high, we prepare for it and look forward to what a new year and a new spring will have in store for us. In May the aspens will have new leaves and the hummingbirds will return.
Squirrels are rodents and as a general rule I don’t like rodents, simply because the pine or red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), Bushy-Tailed Woodrats (Neotoma cinerea) and mice (Cricetidae Neotominae) like to spend the winter, and sometimes the summer, in my 92 year old cabin and equally old and even more porous workshop. Ben the cat, an excellent mouser, and I can deal with the mice and we haven’t had any pack rats for many years. The squirrels, however, tend to bring their pine cones with them, eat them all winter, and leave a big mess behind. They are aggressively territorial, almost like selasphorus rufus hummingbirds. They noisily fight over a pine territory as small as 20,000 square feet. They never seem to have any fun. In fact it’s rare to see any animals in our mountains engaged in simple play activity.
Unlike us, their lives seem to be an unending pursuit of food, shelter and procreation. This fall we had a herd of about 30 elk on our property, with three big males and more than 20 females. Not having fun. Definitely, lives with a current engrossing purpose. They never seem to have a vacation.
Abert, or tufted, squirrels may be an exception. These gentle creatures are quite different in behavior as well as appearance from pine squirrels. Sciurus aberti ferreus are named after Colonel John James Abert, an American naturalist and military officer who headed the Corps of Topographical Engineers and organized the effort to map the American West in the 19th century. Not nearly as fleet of foot as the pine squirrels, they are often chased by them, though not caught, and they lose contests with cars.
We are fortunate to have a pair of Aberts that have nested high in a ponderosa pine near our cabin. One, we think a female, is a typical grey with a white belly and the other, we think a male, is pure black, a subspecies found only in Colorado. Their life span is only seven or eight years, similar to pine squirrels. Ours have been with us for perhaps four or five years and we have seen no evidence of offspring.
It is their behavior that intrigues me. They seem to be having a very good time, even when being chased by pine squirrels. They are almost always within sight of each other and they communicate with bird-like chirps, quite unlike the chattering of the pine squirrels. I often see them taking time off from gathering mushrooms or pine cones. After eating them, their droppings contribute to the well-being of the pines by dispersing spores that facilitate water and nutrient uptake by the trees and thereby enhance seedling survival, forest regeneration, and growth. But they will drop a piece of food to play a game of peekaboo, in which they position themselves on opposite sides of a tree trunk, just off the ground, and play. And it is certainly play, as there is no contact and no effort to run away, just peeking and spinning around the trunk. Sometimes they use two or three trees of various sizes before they move on to more food gathering.
October is the first time in several months that those of us who live here all year and work hardest in the summer will have an opportunity to relax and play and have a good time. Like the Abert squirrels, it’s time to enjoy what we have stored up for the winter as the seasons turn and the first snows dust our mountains. Perhaps a game of peekaboo?
Somewhere to Go
In the summer of 1991 I went to the nursing home at the Estes Park Medical Center to visit Charles Eagle Plume. I remember the visit clearly, as though it happened yesterday. It was a two-bed room but Charles was alone, sitting on the edge of his bed, not facing the door but facing the other, empty, bed. He was looking at the floor.
When I walked in he raised his head slowly and looked at me. “How are you doing? “ I asked.
“What a stupid question!” he shouted. “How do you think I’m doing? What a stupid question!”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” He shook his head and looked at the floor again, dismissing me. I left and never saw him again. He died a little more than a year later.
It was a stupid question. But I dismissed it as just the wrong thing to say to someone 83 years old, in failing health, alone and in a nursing home. I was 56, still working, with grown children and in reasonably good health. I thought I knew how he felt, that he was just having a bad day, that I would go back and see him when he felt better, but as the days and weeks and months passed I didn’t want to risk another encounter like that. And I had no idea what I might say that would be an improvement.
I wondered for years how he felt. What was he feeling that prompted that outburst, that anger? Charles’ birthday and mine are in the same month, November, and now, 20 years later, I think I understand just how he felt.
Like most of us, Charles had worked hard all his life. Born with nothing on the Blackfoot reservation in 1908, he had earned an English Literature degree at the University of Colorado in 1932, lectured for years on the Redpath Bureau circuit, built one of the finest collections of American Indian artifacts, and made a good living for himself and many of his employees and traders. Every summer, in addition to his store, he lectured and performed dances at lodges in the Estes Park area. When he put his arms into the wings he had fashioned out of eagle feathers and sang as he performed the Dance of the Eagle, people stood and applauded. He said, “When you have an idea, you have something to work with-somewhere to go.”
A good friend of my family’s, the wife of our family physician, died in October. She was 103 and had been to her book club meeting two weeks before she died. She still had somewhere to go.
Charles did not. He had no place to go and he knew he would never do the Dance of the Eagle again. He knew he would never give another child, a future customer, a chicken feather and ask for the child’s friendship in return. An English Lit major, he may have known Dylan Thomas:
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.''
I just happened to be there. At some point, if we live long enough, we all have to face the fact that our Dance of the Eagle isn’t going to be performed ever again. It was a really stupid question and now I know why. you have something to work with - somewhere to go.” “When you have an idea, you have something to work with - somewhere to go.”
The WIND at the Pee Wee Ranch
Back in 1974 at the PeeWee Ranch where the first Winds were put together, it was, by modern standards, almost unbelievably primitive. People brought their own typewriters and the copy looked like it, with various sizes and shapes of type. The copy was put on boards and photographed by the printer and that’s how the first issues were done. Ten years later Steve Jobs introduced the Macintosh and I was teaching at CU in Boulder and that machine changed my life both personally and professionally.
By 1988 I was sure it would make the production of the Wind better. At that time it was still done by pasting stories onto boards, a process that took several people several days. So I convinced the board to buy a Macintosh and although we had teething problems with software and hardware and the PC addicts were none too sure it would work, we converted to the computer and we’ve never looked back. The Mac’s use of bitmapped fonts and its easy graphics ability eventually made it relatively easy for a single person to put the journal together and finally to deliver it to the printer electronically. We have bought new Macs at least five times, first with desktops and now with laptops and we’re soon going to do it again as they keep getting better, faster and easier to use.
Looking back, it’s hard to remember how difficult it really was. If we still did it that way it’s doubtful the Wind would still exist. This month our guest editor Edie DeWeese will get all the stories and columns and advertisements by email and she will assemble them with a template and send the whole thing to Master Graphics as a file and that will be that. It’s still a challenge, and it still takes dedication on the part of the editor and the support of the businesses that advertise, but it’s a long way from the days of cut and paste and typewriters, where every typographic error had to be fixed with white-out.
When Steve Jobs died it had special meaning for me because Apple’s computers, especially since he returned to the company in 1997, have made such a difference in the Wind. Those machines, along with the technology that has kept up with them, make it possible for me to write and send this column to Edie on short notice, since she asked for an early deadline. Thirty years ago that would have been impossible. Today it’s not only possible, but we think very little of the request. It may not be deathless prose, but I can see how many words I’ve written as I type and at least it’s spelled correctly even if I type it incorrectly.
Looking back at how it was when the Wind began, it’s amazing and almost unbelievable, but we now take it for granted as we send emails about the stories and columns and the Wind seems to go together as if by magic although it is still a challenge to the editor.
We had wonderful times at the PeeWee Ranch. It was a very social way to put the Wind together. We told stories and argued and discussed great books and great ideas and politics and gossip. I miss that part of it. It’s lost and it won’t be back. This way is less social, but it really is better.
The Force of Nature (2012)
People who live up here all year around know why this journal is called The Wind. The wind can be and often is memorable. About a week and a half into November we were reminded again, as the wind blew down the chimney at St Malo when they were depending on the fireplace after the power went off and it started a fire they’ll still be talking about fifty years from now.
Early in November last year we had significant wind. A few places in Allenspark suffered damage. An old ponderosa at Meeker Park fell on one of the Dever’s cabins. The largest number of trees downed were along Big Owl Road. Some of those were on my property. Although we had taken out a number of beetle trees the summer before, more than a dozen trees fell across Big Owl Road, around our cabin and across our driveways. My recording wind gauge said the top wind speed was 76 mph. Fortunately none of the seven buildings on the property was damaged. Still, the downed trees, some uprooted and some snapped off, had to be removed.
By the 1960s there had been about 55 years of unimpeded growth of trees in our mountains. By this year, it was more than 100 years. It’s simply common sense that the older trees will be more susceptible to winds. Although there are those who want to ignore the warming of our atmosphere, the number of weather events, hot, cold, flood, drought, wind, tornadoes and hurricanes, are a matter of record and will be harder and harder to ignore in the coming years. Whether our species has any influence on these events will be argued, but the events themselves are impossible to ignore.
My brother, who also lost a number of trees put it this way: “I always seem to find the Acres so similar to how it has always been because the changes have been so gradual and, almost all, improvements. We are going to do our best to see these changes as improvements too--the world working its way through time in the only way it can with serial destruction in order to make way for a new way of being.”
One of the things we cherish most about our valley is that it seems to be unchanging. The damage done by pine beetles offends us. The change seems too radical and we do our best to resist. We know in our hearts that the forest is always changing, but the mountains, we think, abide. We think of them as permanent even as we acknowledge that they have been shaped over millions of years and will be shaped very differently in the millions of years to come. We have little choice; the force of Nature trumps all else.
“The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”
One of the more delightful aspects of living in a rural enclave is our ability to ignore political advertising in a presidential election year. When the Supreme Court opened the monetary floodgates for Super PACs, people who live in cities and suburbs became liable to political advertising this year that will surely set records of all kinds. I’m in favor of free speech, but sometimes it can be really annoying.
This might be a good time to consider the few disadvantages and the many advantages of living in our mountains instead of down below. It’s true that weather can sometimes be a problem, particularly when we’re snowed in, we have high winds, or the power goes out. On the other hand, there’s really nothing so satisfying as being able to enjoy the silence of a snowy morning, a mug of something warm, the sense of safety when the wind blows, and the peace and quiet when the electricity disappears, as long as it doesn’t last too long.
In a world where almost everything is a war, our only conflicts, with the weather and our relative isolation, seem minor. Our country seems always to be at war, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, with drugs, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, higher taxes, poverty, Upper, Middle, and Lower Classes, religion, science, and pretty much anything else you can think of. We really like war or at least a fight. We are apparently looking forward to the military industrial complex’s support of war with Iran. We don’t really seem to be in favor of anything other than a new war and the American Dream, however anyone wants to define that.
Those of us who live in our mountains are mostly happily not aware of the miseries of commuting, which sometimes feels like at least a skirmish, if not a war. Some of us moved here just because we tired of the traffic and the freeway wars. In February it’s often possible to drive down the canyon without meeting or being behind another car. Commuters along the front-range I-70 and I-25 corridors will be depending on their iPods and CDs to isolate them from the barrage of the 24/7 political news cycle and the more than one billion dollars spent on political advertising for the next nine months as two political parties wage war over control of a government only nine percent of us approve of.
This seems to be the winter of our discontent. Rising gasoline prices threaten this year’s tourist business. Various disasters dominate the headlines. The nights are long and the days windy and chill. Still, when we look around us, even as the wind blows, at our trees and our animals and our mountains, we must surely be grateful to live amid such beauty and in wintery peace.
Last month I was again asked to be a judge at the annual American Legion speech contest. The national winner in April gets an $18,000 scholarship, which will pay a little less than half of one year’s tuition at a top tier college. Still, even the third place winner in Colorado gets $400, which will pay for about half of one semester’s text books. I was also asked, for the first time, to coach six students for an Oral Interpretation presentation at their elementary school.
The American Legion contestants are required to speak about the Constitution for eight to ten minutes. The kids could use any poem they might choose for three to five minutes. The kids chose poems about being eaten by a boa constrictor and The Island of Lost Socks, among other similar subjects. The high school students talked about American exceptionalism and how long it had taken for blacks to be counted as more than three-fifths of a person and for women to have the right to vote.
I taught public speaking at six colleges and universities for 43 years, but every student and speaker is unique and the differences are sometimes startling. In a general way the high school students are restrained, some with symptoms of stage fright, limited by the rules and mostly dressed in black. They are required to wear “business dress” which some embellished with flag pins and flag ties. I regarded those as props, which are forbidden, just to get a patriotic edge.
The 2nd and 4th graders are a different story. Too young to suffer from stage fright, walking into a classroom of these students is like confronting a band of whirling Dervishes. Their energy is without limits; it saturates the room with a power that threatens to reach overload at any moment. Harnessing it seems impossible and I did not really try to do more than nudge it into little more than a momentary direction. I know my limits.
I sometimes worry that Facebook and Twitter are robbing our children of their childhood, but I saw no evidence of it in either group. I am a little concerned about the change that takes place between the insouciance of the very young and the angst of the college applicant, but I have no idea whether one is better, more valuable or more instructive in later life than the other. I just have a sneaking suspicion that something worthwhile is lost between the near anarchy of the 4th grade and the solemn graduation ceremony in high school.
Of course adult life brings with it serious questions that require critical thinking and thoughtful solutions. Simply paying for a college education is serious enough and a scholarship is well worth seeking. A 2nd grader performed with his sister, a 4th grader, a poem about being kept awake by worrying about what-ifs, including worrying about parents divorcing. But it was clear neither one was really worried. They were just having fun. Soon enough they will have all too real worries.
It is probably a very simple and ordinary progression from the innocence of elementary school to the teen-age anxiety about what one is going to do with the rest of their life.
I was tempted to remind the American Legion contestants that no matter how important life seems at the moment they might consider reserving some time for simple fun; none of us is going to get out of this alive and we might take a tip from the 4th graders and revel in the moment.
Crime in Our Mountains
Almost every newspaper has a crime column; a police report. Of course we don’t have a have a newspaper or a police force, but we do have the Sheriff, and we do have some crime.
Just after World War II many residents came back to their summer cabins to find that their iceboxes had been stolen. It was usual to leave them outside so the water could drain into the ground. There were four iceboxes on our property and they were all gone. It was a mystery. Who would want an old icebox? They had to be replaced, and only a few years later they became obsolete when electricity came to our mountains in 1948.
Such a crime incident has been rare. And when it occurs nobody wants to talk about it. Charles Eagle Plume was robbed at gunpoint, but Charles wanted no publicity about it. Occasionally someone decides to commit suicide in what the papers call our “rural enclave.” Who wants to be known as a place where people come to kill themselves?
Crystal Springs’ donation box was robbed one time. We didn’t want to talk about that, either. Talking about vandalism, we think, only encourages vandals.
Then there was the time Margaret Walter became known as Chain-Saw Maggie when she cut down a billboard that offended her. We did talk about that one.
Somebody poached a bear with a bow and arrow in Allenspark a while back. That didn’t make our little journal. Somebody shot a horse at the Wild Basin stable. That didn’t make it, either. Then we had a guy assaulting people at trailheads, beating them with sticks. That got a SWAT team and drawn guns. Didn’t make the WIND, though.
Last September 15th Anna O’Neill stabbed Vicky Foster 12 times in the back at Vicky’s place on Ski road, and even that didn’t get talked about very much. According to the Boulder Daily Camera, O’Neill told detectives at the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office that she blacked out and had no memory of the attack. She said she has problems from a previous abusive relationship and had been prescribed anti-anxiety medication but hadn’t taken it recently at the time of the attack. Witnesses said that after the two women and other residents of the property had coffee that morning O’Neill asked Foster to borrow a shirt, followed her into the bedroom and then attacked the older woman. Vicky recovered.
O’Neill pleaded guilty and will be sentenced on April 13th to between 20 and 32 years in prison. Because she pleaded guilty to first-degree assault it will probably be closer to 32 than 20. You probably didn’t know any of that, either.
It’s been a long time, maybe never, since an Allenspark resident was sent to prison for so many years. Still, the story hasn’t been very high on the gossip list. We still talk much more about the weather, what’s happening at the Gallery or just about anything other than local crime. But as our numbers increase we are more or less certain to have more drunks, more people off their meds, more poachers and more guns, and, unfortunately, more domestic violence. Maybe it’s time the WIND had a police report.
It was a warm and dry winter. Fall River Road has almost no snow on it and will open early, as will Trail Ridge. Down south we’ve already had the Lower North Fork fire, a controlled burn that got out of control and killed three people and burned 27 homes.
There was criticism of the way the fire was handled, from its inception to notifications and evacuation orders and especially of the reverse 911 calls that reached 88% of the people and called some people far away from the fire. There were many questions about how three people, a couple and a single woman, died at their homes.
It turns out the woman had a chain across her long driveway that prevented a firefighter from urging her, in person, to leave. He had to move on to warn others. The couple was told in person to leave, but the husband insisted on packing his car and working on his fire suppression system. He died in his house and his wife in their car on the driveway. Some people, faced with fire vehicles blocking roads to prevent them from entering the fire path, drove into ditches to get to their houses, further endangering themselves and the firefighters.
Life is full of choices and those of us who have homes in a forest have to face the facts. It’s a privilege to live in Colorado and an even greater privilege to live in a beautiful forest with beautiful mountains, but it comes with risks we have to recognize and live with well beyond fire, although that is one of the most obvious.
We live beyond many of the low risk amenities of city life such as natural gas, police protection, close-by shopping, health services and transportation options. As we get older each of these becomes more important, and very often it’s older people who build a dream house and move to a forest. The three people killed in the Lower North Fork fire were older than 50, two in their 70s.
Our great volunteer fire department is always there for us, for medical emergencies as well as fires, but it has been more than a hundred years since a big fire swept through our mountains. No matter how many trees we cut or keep away from our buildings, the combination of growth and death from overcrowding or beetles will continue to make a big fire a real possibility. A building is just something that can be replaced and it’s important not to fill it with things that cannot be replaced. Ignoring evacuation orders is just plain dumb and puts fire fighters at risk. We must face responsibilities as well as risk.
When we think back to the people who came here in the early part of the 20th century our risks seem minor. Those who, like Katherine Garetson, lived here without electricity or running water or telephones, any way to deal with any medical problems or fire, faced risks we can hardly imagine. We try to minimize many of our risks with insurance. They did not have that luxury. I wonder what Katherine would think of only an 88% success rate of reverse 911 calls.
Everyone is aware of the drought and the high fire danger this summer. Everyone is going to be as careful as they can, and will do everything they can to avoid a fire. Everyone is aware of the effort and cost of cleaning up the results of last year’s windstorms that have added to the fuel available for a fire. There is an almost palpable feeling of anticipation, dread and foreboding.
Unfortunately the wind damage probably isn’t really over. According to Phil Taylor of Tahosa Forest Services and many others, trees weakened by last year’s storms will continue to fall when hit with much lesser winds this coming fall and winter. This spring I had a weakened forty-foot tree fall onto my driveway seemingly without any wind at all.
The problem of communication continues to plague us with regard to emergencies of all kinds. Wind and water also create emergencies. There are elaborate notification plans and systems in place and still people like the 62 year old woman in the High Park fire die, in this case because they could not reach her by telephone and her gate was locked.
Boulder County has almost 120,000 homes but fewer than 13,000 have registered with Emergency Services their home, work and cell phones. Many homeowners in our mountains don’t live here full time and the county has no way to contact them if their home is in danger. Register ways to be contacted at http://www.bouldercounty.org/safety/emergency/
Many people don’t know that fire mitigation work around their cabins is tax deductible to some extent. Many people clear trees and brush from around their homes and yet have roofs that aren’t fire resistant. And some of us don’t do very much at all. We seem to do a lot of talking without much action. And local and federal governments, already strapped for cash, aren’t as helpful as they could be. There are just nine large aerial tankers in the country to fight fires. That’s not enough and it will be years, if ever, before there are enough given the present mood of the public with regard to big government. There continues to be a disconnect between what we want and what we’re willing to pay for.
The High Park fire has burned almost 200 homes so far and it seems likely that the fire on its western side will burn all summer as it consumes the beetle-killed trees on National Forest land. More homes will be lost, but such a fire has seemed inevitable for some time, and it’s probable that similar fires will do far more damage on the western and eastern slopes before it’s all over if the drought continues, as seems likely. In the end the planet will always do what it must to maintain a balance. Too many trees? They will die or burn or both. We will be unable to thwart nature.
If all this seems pessimistic, we can only blame ourselves, because it is our own inaction that has brought us to this point. It’s simply too late. We have seen it coming for years and we have ignored it to our peril. There is a bright side however; earth abides.
Living in Paradise
August 11th will bring us the annual Perseid meteor shower. These remnants of the Swift-Tuttle comet’s tail appear to us to come from the constellation Perseus, hence the name of the shower. This year will be better than last, with less light from the moon to interfere. When I was a teenager I would take a sleeping bag outside and watch until I fell asleep. I don’t do that any more.
The opportunity to see a meteor shower is just one more advantage of being in our mountains, where light pollution is still not severe enough to make it impossible to see individual stars and planets and our galaxy. People who grow up in New York may have never seen a star.
The Perseids come every year and while sometimes they’re better than others, they’re always with us, and we like their constancy. We’re resistant to change. We work hard to preserve our cabins, even though we add and improve. But things do change, and sometimes it’s radical. The winds last winter changed many of our views. The beetles continue to kill our trees and a fire would bring even more drastic changes.
I often think about the changes since my grandfather built his cabin in 1918. So many changes, some of them better, some of them worse, but when I walk through the forest all the changes drop away and I feel what he must have felt when I look at the mountains and the sky just as he saw them. I hear the stream just as he heard it, and smell the pines after a rain just as he did, exactly the same. There is a connection to the earth we came from and where we will go that seems so clear when I stop and listen to the summer breeze through the pine needles. A paradise is a place of peace, prosperity and happiness. It feels just like that.
My grandfather picked up pieces of wood he thought looked like animals and wrote little poems about them. One of them was a bird of paradise.
The poem: This bird once lived in Paradise, with Adam and with Eve. It sat upon that apple tree when they were asked to leave. It sang to them in Edenese, a language that they knew—“I’ll make for you a Paradise, for I will go with you.” I found this bird upon our hills, where every view is bliss. I took it with me to my home, and Paradise it is.
My interest in theatre may have begun when I listened to “Let’s Pretend,” a radio program that dramatized children’s stories beginning in 1929 and lasting until 1953. I listened every Saturday morning. Eventually I became a theatre historian and taught theatre history for more than 30 years.
Theatre, of course, grew out of our species’ interest in play. Nearly all mammals have a life-long interest in playing. Our pets tell us when the end of life is near by losing their interest in play. We see it in our own lives.
We are apparently born with the ability to imagine things that never existed and things that may or never will exist. We daydream. We even have theatre in our dreams at night. Theatre allows us to see our imaginings on a stage or a screen, acted out by people or puppets or drawings. Early theatre depended on actors, singers or dancers wearing masks. Masks were replaced by makeup and paintings. Music, costume and settings added to the illusion. Many aspects of theatre have become accepted in daily life, allowing us to alter ourselves not only with makeup, but with wigs, clothing and jewelry and more recently with injections and surgery, all designed to try to become what we imagine ourselves to be, prettier, more handsome, younger, more attractive.
Theatre is everywhere. Video games allow us to be in a theatrical production, take part in a mystery, or a war or a fantasy. Play in the high tech world.
Much of the theatre around us is more serious. We see an old woman in a wheelchair being scanned at an airport and imagine that we are safer. We hear politicians tell us they have a bright vision for our future they want to share with us, and depending on our biases, we imagine that bright future, we see it clearly if only we will work for them, give them money, vote for them. We hear the music, see the signs and the balloons and the confetti, hear the promises, and we imagine it will come true. The conventions haven’t been required since 1972 and have become simply scripted theatre and free advertising for politicians. The paid advertising is more theatre, often starring individuals telling sad or uplifting stories. Most ads have a hero and a villain. Brief melodrama. Villains are shown in black and white, heroes and their spouses and children in color. Careful attention is paid to makeup and costume, background and music. Symbolism is rampant; flags, sleeves rolled up, eyes into the camera; “You can believe in me, I will lower your taxes.”
Pure theatre. Out on the sidewalk we have reality and we don’t like it as much as imagining. In the theater or on the screen is a better, happier world, a pretend world where everyone lives happily ever after, or sometimes a worse world we can be happy isn’t ours. We have reality television that isn’t reality at all, but we imagine it is. We suspend our disbelief. Theatre can be complicated.
Every four years millions of dollars are spent on political theatre, some of which we recognize as bad theatre, because it doesn’t make us suspend our disbelief. We know in our hearts that the promises, many of them, won’t be kept, but we want to have a happily ever after world to live in, so we believe, we imagine, we pretend. Let’s pretend…
The bears are finally asleep for the winter. Our bears are in no danger, indeed they are more numerous than ever and we have to be vigilant in keeping food away from them, particularly in times of drought when their usual food sources are less plentiful.
Polar bears, however, are apparently in danger because of the diminishing pack ice they need as a hunting platform. In recent years many bears have drowned, as the ice melted and the bears were too far from land. Some have predicted there may be no more in the wild by 2050.
When I was flying fog dispersal missions with the Air Force in Alaska we were given some arctic survival training and I don’t remember much of it. I do remember that we were told not to eat the liver of a polar bear since even a small portion would contain enough vitamin A to kill us. Since we were provided only a .22 caliber survival rifle I doubted I would ever be in a position to consume a polar bear’s liver.
Many of the animals I used to see in our valley are now seem very scarce or have disappeared entirely. It’s been many years since I’ve seen a raccoon, skunk, beaver or porcupine. Marmots and prairie dogs were common and are now rare. The increased coyote population probably accounts for that. We had a marmot family living in a big pile of rocks for many years but they’ve been gone for almost 40 years. Meeker Park Lodge, a mile and a half from us, has the closest marmots these days. Moose, on the other hand, have made it over the continental divide for reasons only they know and we now see them fairly often.
We’ve always had plenty of deer and I suppose everyone knows that elk had to be reintroduced in northern Colorado because they were hunted to extinction in the early years of the 20th century. Now there’s an argument about the wisdom of reintroducing wolves to control the burgeoning elk population as opposed to culling with firearms. That will probably involve at least committees or perhaps a blue-ribbon panel or even a commission.
Bird populations also seem to come and go. It’s been a long time since I saw an evening grosbeak or a crossbill or a camp robber and they used to be plentiful. Even nuthatches and pine siskins seem to be in short supply. We have plenty of ravens at the moment, and the hummingbirds are always welcome harbingers of summer.
I spent 25 years as an aerial navigator, mostly flying across the Pacific Ocean and into typhoons. But navigators are now as extinct as the great auk or passenger pigeon, a result of the Global Positioning System of satellites. I don’t mind being extinct as much as I thought I would. As I get older I appreciate the computer telling me the best way to get where I’m going.
Extinction is always a possibility for every species. I wouldn’t mind seeing the last of miller moths, mosquitos or horse flies. Then, of course, we wouldn’t have any bats. I would miss them. Pack rat populations rise and fall regularly and I wouldn’t miss them. I do miss the beaver and the marmots and maybe even the porcupines but not the skunks. Of course if our species becomes extinct they will all be back. I hope our bears sleep well.
The vast majority of the properties in our mountains were originally parts of homesteads. Our property was homesteaded by John Grant in 1912 and sold to my father and grandfather in 1917 for $600, about $10,000 today.
The first Homestead Act was signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and it was the result of slavery. Northern Republicans in the years before the civil war wanted to make land available in small amounts to farmers but southern democrats wanted lands west of the Mississippi for slave owners. When the South seceded in 1861 the bill was passed. The law required three steps: file an application, improve the land and file for deed of title. It was available to anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government, including freed slaves. They could file an application to claim a federal land grant. The occupant had to be 21 or older or the head of a family, live on the land for five years, and show evidence of having made improvements. I always thought they had to raise a crop, but that was not a requirement.
By 1900 much of the prime land along rivers had been homesteaded so an update called the Enlarged Homestead Act was passed in 1909. To enable dryland farming, it increased the number of acres for a homestead to 320. In 1916 the Stock-Raising Homestead Act was passed for settlers seeking 640 acres of public land for ranching purposes. The 1916 Act was responsible for the dustbowl disaster of the 1930s when the plains grasslands were plowed and then blew away in the worst drought of the 20th century. Our valley had land homesteaded under all three Acts.
About 40 percent of the applicants who started the process were able to complete it and obtain title to their homestead land. All told there were 1.6 million homesteads and 420,000 square miles of federal land granted for private ownership between 1862 and 1934, a total of 10% of all lands in the United States. Homesteading ended in 1976, except in Alaska, where it continued until 1986.
Almost none of the original homesteads in our mountains have remained intact. My grandfather in 1917 was offered the 640 acres of the Robinson ranch. $5000 was the price and I sincerely regret that he didn’t buy it but $5000 was a lot of money in those days, about $90,000 today. When the ranch was sold it was divided in many ways and various pieces have been sold many times. My grandfather gave some land away, some of which family members eventually bought back, but most of it was sold by the 1970s. Certainly there are many family stories in our valley about how little money changed hands many years ago compared to prices today.
Finally, in 1972 Colorado passed a law controlling wells drilled on less than 35 acres that decrees that water use must be in house only. No washing the car, watering plants or having a swimming pool. No fair using rainwater from your roof either. That belongs to Kansas, because it’s supposed to go into the rivers. And a 1973 law limits subdividing to parcels greater than 35 acres. Anyone who has tried to build another cabin on less than 35 acres has since run into that law.
One of our most popular Wind books is Catherine Garetson’s Homesteading Big Owl. Her homestead was next to John Grant’s. Pieces of her property, like ours, have changed hands many times along Big Owl Road over the years since Catherine endured so much in order to earn the title to her homestead. We’ve come a very long way from homesteading in Colorado.
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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