Category Archives: Mountain living

The San Juans near sunset

Mountain time

The San Juans near sunset
The San Juans near sunset

The sun always wakes me up. The cabin faces east, and as soon as the sun slides above the high peaks around 7 o’clock, the place fills with bright mountain sunlight. I’ve hung a thick wool blanket over the bedroom doorway to block it out, but it still creeps in and nudges me awake.

I trudge to the kitchen, open the valve on the green propane canister and light the stove with a wooden kitchen match. Nothing happens in my world before coffee. Cup in hand, I turn on the ipod and head out to the deck to ease into the day. Mornings are mostly clear and cloudless up here, with a pale blue mist that cloaks the mountains and settles into their folds. This morning, a single deer is grazing at the treeline about 50 yards from the cabin, popping up her head and twirling her big ears every 10 seconds. You gotta be alert if you’re a prey item up here.

After staring at the mountains over two cups of coffee, I fill the kettle to heat up water for the shower. It’s basically a thick plastic bag with a tube and a nozzle that I hang from a nail on the side of the cabin. I pour in a couple of kettles of hot water to top off the bag, hoist it up on a rope and shower in the open air (the deer, for the record, aren’t the least interested in this). It’s a little bit of heaven. Unless the bag empties while I’m covered with suds in the chilly morning air. That kind of sucks.

I’m easing into mountain time. The first four days in Pagosa were a little chaotic thanks to the daily burst of thunderstorms, which set off dozens of little spot fires all over the mountains. It’s been so wet that wildfire isn’t a major risk, but getting struck by lightning at 8,500 feet…

The storms were bad enough that my friend Larry – a retired American-Statesman photographer who moved to Pagosa with his wife a few years back – messaged me: it’s pretty rough out there, do you want to come over here? After that first epic night in the cabin (see my previous post) I spent more time in the condo and the local coffee shops than I did on the mountain, waiting for the storms to let up.

Yesterday the weather broke. Blue skies. I packed up, exchanged a last round of texts with a friend while I still had a cell signal, hit the grocery store for supplies and drove back up the mountain.

It’s a 20-minute drive, but it feels like going back a hundred years in time. About the only thing separating the cabin from the 19th century is electricity. Electricity is good. Electricity means a fridge and a microwave and plugs for the laptop and the ipod and the cell phone.

But without indoor plumbing, routine chores like showering and washing dishes become slower, more intricate, more deliberate. I have to haul my water up here in big 5-gallon jugs, the kind you see in office water dispensers. They’re heavy as hell. Too heavy to actually use for anything but storage. So I pour water from the big jugs into my stash of gallon jugs, then use the gallon jugs to fill the shower bag, to wash dishes in a little plastic tub, to fill my drinking water bottles. It forces me to think about how I use every drop of water. And it takes time.

But time seems to expand up here. I’m not stuck in traffic twice a day, I’m not checking email every 15 minutes or scrolling through Facebook or surfing the web, there’s no TV to suck me onto the couch after dinner. There’s just the slow arc of the sun overhead, the shifting shadows of the pines, the afternoon rainclouds massing over the mountains, then a sunset that washes the peaks with golden light. A few days up here slows the heartbeat and clears the mind. Clock time loses meaning. You lose track of whether it’s Tuesday or Friday.

Because it doesn’t matter.







Lightning! Hail! Fire! Coyotes! (and that’s just the first night)

The cabin with the green door
The cabin with the green door

When coyotes get together to party, they start this high-pitched yelping that sounds like deranged laughter. Or like hyenas in a feeding frenzy. In the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, it’s an eerie, nerve-wracking sound. Especially when it’s close.

Let’s back up a bit. After driving for two days and spending a night in Pagosa Springs, I headed to the cabin early Sunday morning. From town, it’s a bumpy, twisting climb over 10 miles of washboarded, potholed gravel roads that give way to a single-lane road, then to the steep two-track that leads to the cabin. There’s a scattering of other cabins and summer homes up here, two of them on the same road as the cabin, but they were empty when I arrived. The mountain gets very quiet after July 4 weekend.

Inside, everything was just as I remembered: the beige couch and matching easy chair, the black wood stove, the bearskin mounted on the wall, camouflage hunting gear hanging from pegs. My friend Eric and his parents built this place years ago as a hunting cabin. Most of the time it sits empty, and they’ve been kind enough to let me stay here for long stretches over the years. In exchange, I put in some sweat equity: clearing brush, building shelves, whatever they need done.

It’s cozy – 16 feet wide, 22 feet deep with a little downstairs bedroom and a half loft with two more beds that you reach by a wooden ladder. There’s a little kitchen area where I keep a propane camp stove. Eric’s parents put in a mini fridge a few years ago. Best of all, there’s a wide front deck with a spectacular view of the mountains.

The view of the San Juans
The view of the San Juans

I’ll be here until I finish re-writing my novel or until I see snow on the high peaks, whichever comes first.

The cabin’s also pretty Spartan. They hooked up electricity a few years back – before that, I used candles and kerosene lamps. There’s still no running water, no flush toilet (there’s a little chemical toilet that’s maybe 16 inches tall, which I use only for emergencies or in bad weather). No TV, no Internet. Cell phones barely work here – if you get a bar or two and manage to get a call through, it usually drops within a minute.

I did my usual quick cleanup – sweep up the dead moths, shake out the floor rugs – then unloaded the car and set up my little folding card table next to the window. That’s my work desk for the next couple of months.

The cabin’s at about 8,500 feet, and the altitude always saps me for the first few days, so I took a nap.

Thunder woke me. Dark clouds gathering over the far peaks. I made some coffee to wake up, and by the time I finished, the rain had started. Then the lighting got close. Really close. Big, pulsing bolts, followed by ground-shaking booms. Lightning storms in the mountains are no joke. And I’m in a cabin with a metal chimney surrounded by tall pines.

I was getting more and more anxious, so I jumped into the car (is it true that car tires insulate you from lightning strikes? I thought I read that somewhere) and drove 50 yards down the hill, away from the biggest trees.

The lighting was on top of me. Flash-flash. BOOM. Flash-BOOM.

Then came the hail. Lots of hail. Imagine being stuffed into a metal drum while a hundred pissed off kids shoot at it with BB guns. It was kind of like that.

A hail drift next to the cabin
A hail drift next to the cabin

Then it stopped. Just like that. The ground had turned ghost white. Instant winter. I went back in the cabin, made myself some soup, opened a beer and popped Goodfellas in the laptop (dinner and a movie, mountain style). When I went back out on the deck around dusk to take care of nature’s call, I spotted what looked like a bright light far in the distance, in the mountains that face the cabin. An orange flicker deep in the trees.


Then I saw a little plume of white smoke. Earlier in the day, I was reading the local paper’s one-year-later story about the big forest fire last summer: 110,000 acres burned after lightning strikes hit a forest full of deadwood (thank you, pine bark beetles). I reached for the phone. Please, please give me a signal.

The call connects. The operator takes my information and says someone will call. A few minutes pass. I get the binoculars. The flames look brighter now. The phone rings and someone with the local emergency operations office asks what I see and where I am. The call drops after 30 seconds. I call back and manage to give her my location before the line goes dead again. I look across the Valley. The flames have disappeared, along with the last of the daylight.

After a half hour I see headlights. It’s Thad McKain, the emergency operations manager for Archuleta County, trailed by two of his staff in another truck. The fire is visible again, a pinprick of orange against the dark mountains. Probably just a single-tree strike, he tells me. Too dark to go up there now. We’ll have a plane check it out in the morning.

I am not sure what to do with this information. I decide to stay in the cabin and hope the fire burns itself out (or at least doesn’t get bigger). There’s no wind, and it’s rained recently, so the ground’s damp and the vegetation is healthy. That’s something, right?

It’s after midnight when I finally decide to try to sleep. I take a last look at the pinprick of light. It’s faint, but still there.

Then the coyotes start their crazy laughter. I’ve heard coyotes up here before, but never this close. They sound like they’re just down the hill from the cabin. I hear a swirl of yelps and yips, broken by one long, mournful, spine-tingling howl. Their little chorus caps the scariest night I’ve spent on this mountain.

Yep. I’m not going to sleep worth a damn tonight.

(post script: Monday morning the fire appeared to be out. Good news. Now, after a stop into town to get on the Internet, it’s back up the mountain)