Slipping into the holidays

  • Paul Larmer


More than a foot of snow fell in our hometown of Paonia the week after Thanksgiving. It was fluffy, "powder dry" stuff to begin with, but after a week of sub-freezing temperatures, not to mention sub-par snow removal efforts, it turned into dense sheets of ice on the town’s sidewalks and streets. Geology students from around the state should have taken field trips (across well-plowed state and county roads) to come see Paonia’s famous glaciers form in a matter of days.

Many moments of dangerous comedy have ensued, with cars sliding uncontrollably into intersections or, tires spinning uselessly, not moving at all. More than one HCN staffer, walking to and from work, has found himself suddenly lying on his back, gazing skyward, steam billowing from his mouth like a prostrate musk ox. I didn’t fall down; I just put my car in a ditch on the side of a country road that felt as treacherous as the trail down the Grand Canyon. I was in low gear, going only five miles per hour, but halfway down I began a slow slide that seemed to last for minutes before it ended in a clump of sagebrush.

That’s the thing about storms; they make you slow down and look at the world a little differently.

Which is what Hannah Nordhaus makes us do in this issue’s cover essay. She slows us down in the middle of the Interior West’s largest ongoing storm — the natural gas boom — and forces us to pause and look at it afresh. Her credentials as both an environmentalist and a royalty-earning investor in a New Mexico gas field provide plenty of ironies, and raise uncomfortable questions about our roles as consumers, activists and moneymakers.

But what I like most about her essay are the people she encounters during her excursion, people she would never have met were it not for the energy storm around her. My slide off the road also had a rich human dimension. Turns out I was being followed by a tall young man in a pickup truck, who stopped the second I did. He was on the way to work at one of the local coal mines and was glad to give me a lift. In the two-mile drive to town, we talked about mining: the challenge of moving a longwall operation to a new seam of coal, the inability of the trains to haul out the coal as fast as it is extracted and the fatigue he endures working the swing shift.

An hour later, I was headed back to my car in an aging pickup truck, squished between a coworker’s husband and son, whom I hadn’t seen in months. We swapped stories about epic snowstorms we have survived; the husband told me about his latest job, constructing a large addition to a home 60 miles away over a treacherous mountain pass.

With one big push, and some sage advice about putting the car in neutral to keep the back wheels from locking up, I was headed back to town. It was so cold my breath turned to ice on the windshield, but my heart was warm from the storm.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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