The secret of Wyoming winters is the snow-eating chinook

 

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 (though for some places, of course, close to three feet of snow a winter is too much). 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 February or March morning: We have to endure the wind.

These westerly 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 days.

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.

The chinook 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.

As am I. Hope springs eternal. After all, the chinook exits with the winter, right around the time that we’ve tired of its rough caresses. By May, the hard gusts give way to gentler breezes that whisper through the new-green cottonwoods. By full summer, the night wind sways the curtains, and a sensuous sizzle in the trees competes with crickets for the attention of the ear. And the world is drowsily stilled again.

For a few months.

Bill Croke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.