I’m often asked by relatives and friends back East how I stand the winters in northwestern Wyoming. I put on a stoic facade and tell them: It’s tough, but we Cody folks can suck it up. What I don’t mention is that an average of 300 days of sunshine annually isn’t hard to take, nor are temperatures in the balmy 60s on the occasional Thanksgiving or Christmas. In fact, if you prefer a white Christmas, you can do better in the Northern Rockies than in Cody.
Thanks to a
frost-chasing wind called the chinook, Cody is spared extended
periods of frigid temperatures and heaping snows, averaging only
about 35 inches of snow annually. One of the reasons Buffalo Bill
Cody chose to plunk his namesake town down on the prairie east of
the Absarokas was his fondness for mild winters. He knew that Crow
Indians had historically wintered here.
"Chinook" is a
Salish word meaning "snow eater," and I’ve seen it eat six
inches of snow overnight, leaving slush and mud. In his book
Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner described it as "a
wind as warm as milk." According to meteorologists, the phenomenon
is the result of Pacific cold fronts traversing the Rockies and
dumping snow west of the Continental Divide. On the east slope of
the mountains, the now-dry air descends and warms. In Cody’s
case, it blasts down the South Fork Valley and through Shoshone and
Clark’s Fork canyons.
So there’s a price to
be paid for not having to shovel the driveway often, and not having
to warm up the car when it’s 50-odd degrees on a January
morning: We have to endure the wind.
gale-force winds, usually 30 or 40 miles per hour, can blow for
days. Two, three, four days. Relentlessly. It gets on your nerves.
Your eyes tear up from all the grit and dust blowing around.
Plastic grocery bags festoon the bare branches of the cottonwoods
like Buddhist prayer flags. The wind rips clothes from the backyard
line. And Cody is always in the top five Wyoming towns for bad hair
When the delivery kid tosses the newspaper in the
front yard, it sometimes ends up in the neighbor’s yard, or
even across the street. Letters blow out of mailboxes. After just a
few months, new flags look like tattered Civil War banners. Hats
abruptly fly off heads like a gag in a Marx Brothers movie. On bad
days, trees are uprooted and shingles peeled off roofs.
At my house, the wind thumps a cottonwood limb on a corner of the
roof, so that I sometimes wake in the night thinking that someone
is knocking on my door. My living room windows are drafty, and even
when they’re closed, the wind moves the curtains. Heavy gusts
make the windows vibrate with a weird buzz.
can seem downright apocalyptic at times. During the height of the
drought a few years ago, a portion of Buffalo Bill Reservoir dried
up, and a cloud of brown dust blew off the lakebed and over
adjacent subdivisions, causing some folks to seal up windows and
put towels under doors.
On the lighter side, one of my
neighbors spends autumn weekends tidying up her yard with a leaf
blower. She’s meticulous in cleaning the leaves out from
under the hedges, but if the wind blows the next day, she’ll
have new leaves that may have traveled miles to land in her yard.
Oh, well, Westerners are an optimistic lot.
optimistic Westerner myself, and aging baby boomer, I particularly
enjoy a windy evening stroll at Christmastime, when Cody is a riot
of windchimes and the surreal waving of ornamental lights. For
sheer psychedelic effect, 1960s San Francisco has nothing on a
Christmas Eve in Cody during a hard chinook. But, trudging head
down to the pummeling wind, such revels sometimes bring dark
In Canto Five of The
Inferno, Dante tells us that the Second Circle of Hell is
reserved for the libidinous, where they are tormented for eternity
by an "infernal hurricane that never rests."
As for the
multitudinous lusts of Codyites, well, let’s not go there.