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Know the West

How does snow melt? A test for all Westerners


"You can't be a sissy and live in this country," the old rancher told me, his German accent evident despite his being native to this mountain valley.

"Or at least you didn't use to," he added, looking me in the eye.

It was the 1970s, and I was new to the Interior West. The rancher was talking about his younger days, when people put their Model Ts onto blocks in autumn, because so few roads were plowed. And about the barrels of cabbage that were a dietary staple as they fermented into sauerkraut during the winter.

He remembered without nostalgia, and I listened without envy. Never have I hungered for sauerkraut, let alone every evening; what we were really talking about was the passing of a way of life.

His ranching culture dominated large expanses of the West for a century, and in pockets it still does. Like all cultures, ranchers have distinct dialect and lingo. Serviceberries became "sarviceberries," aspen trees were quakies or quakers, the creek a crick. Predators were a common enemy and private-property rights next to God.

These ranchers were intertwined intimately with the natural landscape even as they remade it. From this interaction, they knew how snow melts.

Other cultures, those of the miners, loggers, and railroaders, were hanging on when I arrived. Unlike ranchers, their work didn't seem envied or their dress imitated. How often do you see people swaggering around drugstores wearing carbide lamps on their head?

Skiing dominated the culture I blended with easiest. It was exuberant, if free-loading; friendly, if physically demanding. Clothing was casual, schedules flexible, and backpacking and fishing were spiritual adventures, the outdoors a cathedral. The outdoor types knew, and know, when raspberries ripen and where to find mushrooms.

Snow preoccupies this particular culture. It has words such as "crud" and "death cookies," "mashed potatoes" and "corn," all describing stages of snow metamorphosis. Skiers know exactly how it's created, if not necessarily how it melts.

Now, we're seeing another culture emerge in the West. From Seattle to Boise, and from Truckee to Telluride, this new culture is far broader. Skiing is just one of its many pursuits. Always, there is a proximity to public lands and vertical topography. Always, there are more urbanized amenities and more intellectual dimensions. Availability of National Public Radio is probably the best threshold amenity. What's most different about this subculture is its emphasis upon material comfort. It's the suburbs, amid scenery.

Microcultures can be found within this group. First, there's the picket-fence subculture. It's entirely middle class, and its life is built around schools. Connection to the land is largely through windows.

Then there's the new blending of adventure and sweat, like picket-fence culture but with a mountain bike atop the Subaru wagon. Ma does yoga before work, and Pa kayaks after work. If they have kids, they think about putting them in private schools, because they doubt the public schools are good enough.

Third is the gear-head culture. These folks are in the construction trades, pulling down solidly middle-income wages while building castles for the really rich. Instead of mountain bikes, they ride dirt bikes; instead of backcountry skis, they drive snowmobiles.

Fourth is the culture of retirees, mostly affluent and physically strong. They hike and ski, travel often and enjoy intellectual pursuits. This has been the fastest-growing culture, and it may get much, much bigger.

Fifth is the culture of closed gates, often found in proximity to a golf course. Except for that and an abundance of money, they're much like the other subcultures. (Admittedly, that's like saying Julia Roberts is like the girl next door except for her smile.)

Finally, there's an entrepreneurial class. Similar to the 19th century gold boomers, these people move to the newest hot spots of the West simply to make money. Mountains and deserts are incidental.

Collectively, these new cultures celebrate the landscape, but generally with less intimacy than the dominant cultures of the past. Children are less likely to know about gathering pi–on nuts, and their parents are unlikely to know how snow melts.

For the record: It melts from the ground up. Not knowing such things does not portend the decline of civilization in the West, but it does say that the relation of Westerners to their landscape is changing.


Allen Best, a Coloradan, once spent a night in a mountain valley when the temperature hit 62 below, but he's not sure if that exempts him from sissy status.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Allen Best