Winter’s quiet settles in among the cottonwoods. An evening snowfall gently lays a fleece over the meadows, frosting fence rails, and building crystal caches in bare aspen crooks.
I look out the window as I huddle over my hot oatmeal and think it will feel right to be inside at my desk today. But Pete looks out and says, “I never quite get all the fire wood cut before the snow falls and then I have to bundle up for the snow.” While we’re not surprised as we look out, we fiddle to reset our seasonal logbook to winter. We ask ourselves, “Is this really it?” And when we come to the realization that it is, we know that the hardest part is not being in it, but simply walking out the door. Once outside, we can be quite comfortable, the brisk air and crunch beneath our boots along the trail to the barn, invigorating.
Aside from the firewood and a project to renovate two manure spreaders, the ranch is fairly well buttoned up this year. The chores, now pared down to feeding the horses and cattle, and plowing snow when needed, feels like a relief. However, for Pete, it also feels as though the outside world has closed in: he can no longer ride and train his horses or work with his hands as he does from April to November.
However, the winter season does bring additional challenges to rural living. In our area of northwestern Colorado, we can see 300-500 inches a year fall in the surrounding mountains and three to four feet on the ground here at our ranch. So, driveways, hay sheds, and barn yards need to be kept plowed and every fence gate has to be kept cleared so it can swing freely. If it snows a foot or more, they have to be cleared either by hand or by the blade on a tractor. And sometimes, later in the winter, when there’s been a thaw and a return of freezing temperatures, the chore is made even more difficult by a mix of ice and hard packed snow.
In the depths of winter, when temperatures can go twenty and thirty below zero, keeping a tractor’s engine heated at night is a necessity and if one forgets, feeding time is delayed in the morning. Freezing temperatures also threaten access to water for our livestock. Waterers near the barn and access to river water must be kept open so the horses and cattle can keep well hydrated. If they don’t, their gut can easily become compacted and the risk of death increases. If they lack fresh water and must resort to eating snow, the energy it takes to warm and turn snowflakes into drinking water unnecessarily drains their energy reserves, as well.
Simply driving to town can quite easily be considered adventure travel. The greatest challenge is watching out for oncoming traffic and fearful drivers who hug the center line. Those of us who live here largely take it in stride. But many newcomers struggle their first winter to master winter mountain driving conditions and some, opt to live in town: the adventure traveling commute too much for their idea of the low stress life they’d expected in the country.
As I type, snow falls mute, the smallest of breezes causing motion in the tips of the aspen branches outside my window. The mares remain huddled around the feeder devouring the hay Pete gave them a short time ago. Griz, our Blue Heeler-Border Collie cross, carries on his love affair with winter and all things crisp and cool. He eats the snow, he rolls in the snow, and he jumps and races as though he’s choreographing a routine of joy.
Winter has surely slipped in and we are trying her on today. We will wiggle a bit, but the fit will settle in around us and we will look out the window again and know that it will comfortable once again, whether we are inside by the fire or outside, bundled up, clearing a spot for the comings and goings of the ranch in wintertime.
*This blog was originally posted in November of 2008.