Saddle Sore: Weather you like it or not
It’s happened — more clement weather has moved into the valley and there’s no excuse left for laying up where it’s warm and dry. We’ve been getting the work done anyway, through the rain and cold — sizzling brands placed on black bovine hides, presorting cattle for eventual range turn-out, harrowing the fields, burning the irrigation ditches and running shedding blades and brushes over the backs of our saddle horses. It’s the same every spring without change.
“What do you mean nothing’s changed?” you ask. To be reasonably precise, I sometimes take a historical look through the diaries that my grandfather and father kept during their years on the Woody Creek ranch. In my grandfather’s case, they go back to the 1920s. It takes a bit of reading and a lot of familiarity with the place to sometimes truly understand what they’re talking about, but it’s all there.
Some tidbits: The time in November when the thermometer hit 20 below for almost a week; the year it snowed so early and so much that my dad and granddad had to start feeding the cows before they got all of the summer hay put up. Or how about the year spring was so hot and dry the water commissioner started shutting off irrigation ditches June 24? I could tell you the years in which all these debacles happened, but then folks would be doing the old “comparison dance” that such information always precipitates. Remember when? Not really but maybe.
My buddy Stoney Davis sent me a pithy email the other day: “Why don’t you write an upbeat column about spring weather?” To which I could only reply, “Spring is the boiling cauldron of Mother Nature’s idiosyncrasies.”
My mother used to have a saying that “Aspen has two seasons — winter and August.” Someone objected to my repetition of such dry humor, complaining that July was a much nicer month than August. Apparently that person wasn’t here the year it snowed so hard on the Fourth of July that the fireworks display on Aspen Mountain had to be canceled (Hint: 1990s). We like to think we’ve witnessed some historical, weather-related distinction when reality doesn’t fit our memory, but a little peek into the past reveals our ignorance about such matters.
Of historical significance is the fact that potatoes used to be a big crop in the Roaring Fork Valley, more so in Woody Creek than anywhere else, but still a big crop valleywide. My forebears would buy hundreds of pounds of certified seed potatoes from some faraway place, the cruel joke being that each potato had to be cut, one “eye” of the potato making one seed. If a potato had four (or five) eyes, the spud had to be cut into four (or five, or however many) corresponding pieces.
For whatever reasons, this job fell to the women on the ranch, probably because they were better with knives but maybe not. They liked the camaraderie, a get-together that allowed for catching up on the latest developments, both personal and worldly. That much I do know. A kid could learn a lot hanging around the potato cellar while the women worked.
So one fine, warm morning in May, three women went to work carving up potatoes outside in the balminess of a sunshine-filled spring day, happily slicing along with their whetstone-sharpened knives, their hands covered in cotton gloves for protection. By 10:30 it was snowing, so my dad had the cutting box moved inside the spud cellar, a musty but dry space. The enthusiasm of the women was lagging, and by noon, they had decided to quit for the day, their fingers and feet so cold from the plummeting temperature that they couldn’t continue. My father’s entry into his diary the next day: “Beautiful snowstorm last night.” To their credit, the women, my mother included, went back to work in the melting snow.
Back in the days of the mighty potato, my dad would plant about 40 acres of spuds in the spring, which is a huge amount when you consider that each one of those little buggers had to be picked up by hand. The local schools generally let the older kids out for a week or two, depending on the crop size, so they could help the farmers pick up the tubers. It’s not a very fun job, but it sure beat going to school.
Within the past week, people have been complaining about all the rain, snow and cold. It won’t be long, those same people will be complaining about the dryness, heat and lack of humidity. And somewhere along the way, summer will come without much fanfare and before you know it, we’ll be getting either the last — or the first snowstorm of winter — depending on your perspective.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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