For wet or for dry

  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 it.

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.

It wasn’t 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 snow.

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 transparent.

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?

Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (emarston@hcn.org). He is senior journalist for the paper and its former publisher.