While reading recently about Kit Carson’s role in the settling of the West, I was struck by how mountain men more than 150 years ago dealt with the elements, particularly winter weather. Amazingly, they rode horses huge distances over unknown terrain without wearing Gore-Tex, Thinsulate or other advanced “technical clothing.”
They mostly ate bacon, beans and wild game, and jerky was their energy bar. Heat came from a real fire, and a person was twice warmed by cutting firewood. Four-wheel-drive was a mule. And the county plow crew definitely was not coming today. Nor tomorrow. There were no espresso bars. Self-defense was no laughing matter, and the firearms of the time were persnickety.
By comparison, we modern-day Westerners have it easy. We consider it traumatic when the power goes out, leaving us without NFL action and Internet access. Life is cozy in my house, writing on my laptop before the propane blaze.
Still, I have begun to find winter a pain. While some locals still get giddy over the cold and the frequent snow, I want it over, though that’s probably because for 16 years I’ve cleared my 85-pace driveway after snowstorms with a plastic scoop shovel. Some of these efforts have been memorable, especially since they followed a four-foot dump in November 1997, and a seven-footer in March 2003. This winter’s series of snowstorms has sent me shoveling day after day, and for some reason now that I am 47, this doesn’t seem as much fun as it did when I first moved to the mountains. While my neighbors gear up with snow-blowers, truck-mounted snow blades and tractors, small and large, I shovel away, wondering how much of this stuff has to fall to stockpile enough water for summer.
At the heart of this winter’s discontent is that I feel trapped. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are OK, but I’d rather just take off and run. Yet like a lot of people, both newcomers and old-timers, I forget how serious snow can be. During one heavy snowfall before New Year’s Day, my neighbor, Joanne, who was in the process of moving here from North Dakota, took ill. She called to ask if I could feed her horses since she was feeling too tired to do it. When I went over to help, I knocked on her door, but for some reason, she didn’t answer.
Back at home I explained this to my wife, and she tried to call Joanne. No answer. Later that evening I went back out into the storm and rapped on her door until she called out weakly, “Is someone there?” I spoke with her through a cracked door and grew more concerned.
The next morning, snow steadily falling outside, her husband in North Dakota called us, worried sick, and we decided that I’d drive his wife to the clinic. There, as we waited to see the doctor, we listened to talk about snowbound highways, jackknifed semi-trailers and vehicles sliding off the road. Finally, the doctor took Joanne back, and after more than an hour came out to say that she had a “whopping pneumonia” and was being prepped for an ambulance ride to a hospital in Pueblo, Colo., 50 miles to the east. Joanne was hospitalized for 12 days, then went back to North Dakota to recuperate. I’m not sure when she’ll be back, but I’m feeding her horses.
One Sunday after that, when the temperature was hovering at about 8 degrees, a neighbor called in an attempt to cure his own stir-craziness. I convinced him to go running and agreed to drive to his house so we could leave from there. On the way I realized the road was covered with a few inches of unbroken powder, making running tough.
In the warmth of my friend’s house we discussed the conditions until suddenly, his face brightened. The next thing I knew, I was riding shotgun in his pickup equipped with a snowplow, and we were clearing snow off a county road -- a little job that I’m sure would be frowned upon by the real road crew. Soon we’d plowed enough snow for a 3.5-mile jog in the cold. Compared to Kit Carson we might have been wimps, but at least on that day, we beat winter.
Hal Walter is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country news (hcn.org). He shovels snow and words from his home in the Wet Mountains near Westcliffe, Colorado.
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