I was pushed out of New York 30 years ago. I couldn’t take the city as it was, and I couldn’t change to meet New York on its terms. We moved to Colorado, where a mountain loomed in our backyard.
There were challenges,
of course. A tiny coal-mining town is alien to someone raised on
pavement. But after a decade, Paonia began to fit. I was pleased
with the city-for-country trade until the recent northeast storm,
and I saw people skiing on my former city’s streets and in
its parks. And until I heard from New York friends that trains,
cars, buses, dinner parties, work and noise had stopped. They loved
A New Yorker stuck in the Denver airport by closed
New York airports told a reporter that his city had more snow than
the Colorado ski resort he had just left.
always this way. On a December 1978 morning in Colorado, I was on
my way back from the printer with a few thousand copies of our
weekly newspaper, chains on, feeling my through the heaviest storm
I had seen. It was windless, but even straight-down snow piles up.
When my Ford Pinto finally clawed its way into Paonia, the awnings
over shops were collapsing and the town’s plow couldn’t
clear even the one-block main street. There was nowhere to pile the
This is how the world will end, I thought, under an
immense, silent blanket of snow. It didn’t end. But the
wetness persisted, and a chunk of the West came close to ending
five years later. So much snow fell in western Colorado and Utah
and Wyoming and New Mexico that the huge spring melt-off of 1983
almost ripped Glen Canyon Dam out. That would have let loose two
full years’ flow of Colorado River water, dug the Grand
Canyon deeper and toppled Hoover Dam.
That same spring, a
river ran down Salt Lake City’s main street. Utah raced to
install pumps to remove water from the Great Salt Lake, as it rose
to within a foot or so of Salt Lake Airport and Interstate 80.
Paonia sits at 5,400 feet, and in those very heavy snow
years, the foothills of the mountains just outside town would be
snow-covered. But even in normal years, once we began driving
toward the mountains, we could pull off almost anywhere and
cross-country ski in deep snow.
Now, the mountain snow is
like a toupee on a bald man’s head. We have to drive clear to
the top of 10,000 foot-high Grand Mesa -- the "world’s
highest flat-top mountain," says the Chamber of Commerce -- to ski.
Even there, winter is not what it used to be. The dog no longer
looks like a porpoise, appearing and disappearing as she swims
through the snow.
The kind of winter storm that hit the
East Coast has vanished from the West. It has been replaced by a
different kind of wildness: one that appears almost before the
brief winter’s end. Trees and grasses die for lack of water.
Forests burn. Smoke hangs in air that a few years ago was
Once, during a hunting trip that started on
a golden October day, we awoke to find the tent sitting in a foot
of snow, and the temperatures bitter. Our leader was happy. "All
weather is beautiful," he said. Within a day, I agreed. Maybe not
pleasant, maybe not easy, but beautiful.
The drought asks
a related question: Are all climates beautiful? Several million of
us migrated to Montana, Idaho, Colorado and Utah during the wettest
Western weather since 600 AD. Now we are in the driest three years
in recorded history.
Things could turn on a dime, but
weather tends to persist, and the most accurate way to predict the
future is to look outside. When I do that, it’s ugly: day
after day of blue, sunny skies, with a shallow snowpack on
11,300-foot-high Mount Lamborn.
There are policy
implications, as the experts say, to the blue skies and scant
snowpack. At the moment, we’re in the silly policy season.
The Colorado Legislature wants to build new dams and reservoirs,
even though we have more empty space in reservoirs than ever before
in history. But my question isn’t about public policy.
It’s about my life. Will I love a drier West, or will I prove
to be a wet weather friend?