Springtime in the Rockies

Published in the Mountain Gazette, April 2008 

            When it’s really, finally, at last, springtime in the Rockies, it’s actually a good time to be somewhere else. Mexico, maybe, or at least Moab or even the Mt. Princeton Hot Springs. Somewhere below 8,000 feet for sure, below 6,000 is better, somewhere where there’s a lot of leaf-green in the color scheme, not the dogshit brown, mud brown, desert-dust red-brown of the world turning to dirty water as the snow melts off the mountains.

            Springtime in the Rockies, above 8,000 feet anyway, is a construction zone – no, a scene change: in the grand old opera of earth, one whole scene – the big powerful scene that defines and carves the mountains – has to be moved out while another is moved in, and it is just a big glorious mess, water everywhere. Water you don’t even always see: I remember skiing home from town one day and plunging through a couple feet of rotten snow into an underground ankle-deep stream – with all the rotten snow caved in on top of my skis. South slopes sprout impossibly green patches of new grass with glacier lilies growing up beside, and even up through, the mounds and windrows of rotting gray-brown snow, and the whole thing held together by nothing but water.

            And the mud! When rain falls on dirt, soil, whatever, it beats it down a little – soaks in but also compacts it a bit. But when snow melts on top of dirt, it just turns the dirt to a thick liquid, like lentil soup. Unless you’re in ‘dobe country, in which case in addition to sinking into it when you step in it, you start growing taller as you walk through it, as it packs up on your boots in a mass that’ll dull your knife when you try to carve it off.

            And over it all, the question: what happened to the white? Where does the white go when all that beautiful snow starts to melt?

            But if the actual arrival of springtime in the Rockies is a mess, it is usually preceded by a series of false springs that might be the most wonderful thing the mountains give us. The false springs start with the first string of two consecutive sunny days in February – sunny, windless and warm (comparatively). You know, of course, in a dry Protestant way of knowing, that winter isn’t done yet; it’ll be back, but nonetheless the soul starts to thaw.

            You see that the sun – suddenly, it seems – is at an angle to start working on the snow. Even though the air temperature might still be below freezing, you can fairly feel the downpour of light rays slamming into the snow with serious intent, maybe still mostly reflected back out into space by the snow’s albedo, but lots of them (certainly the ones hitting the bare patch of pavement, or the dog turd on the cross-country trail) undergoing the instantaneous smackdown transformation from light energy to heat energy, and you can almost watch the warming dog turd disappear down into the snow, the bare patch of warmed pavement spread out into the surrounding ice.

            A couple days or weeks later, winter returns, but it’s more bearable, and it usually isn’t all that long before the next false spring. But where does that string of false springs begin to become the real thing? For me, it became the afternoon every year when the Bots got up (he didn’t usually get up in the morning in the winter) and came out into the newspaper office and said, “Time to go get some greens.”

            “The Bots” was Botsie Spritzer, christianed Rudolph but never called that, a lifelong inhabitant of Crested Butte, Colorado, where I did a lot of my time above 8,000 feet. Botsie was Sports Editor of the dinky four-page newspaper I edited and tried to manage in Crested Butte for a few years in the late 1960s; he was also the landlord for the newspaper which was located in the front end of his father’s former saloon building. The Bots lived in the back of the building, and so did I in my episodes of hating advertising so much that I’d go for months without trying to sell any. But winters were brutal enough in those living quarters to drive me back to work; with no one there to keep the fires going all day, the plumbing froze up from late November till mid-April (in a good year), and the illegal outhouse was the only alternative to remembering to go before we left the bars.

            But that afternoon every year in late March, early April, when the Bots came out of the back into the office and said, “Time to go get some greens,” I knew we were tilting from false spring to the real thing, even though the remaining snowhills around town were still at least partially white and the mud on the unpaved side streets had not yet become a chronic disaster.

            The “greens” were dandelion greens, and where we went was up the road toward the ski area where the south- and east-facing road cuts were all melted out, and the melt zone was spreading up into Rozman’s pastures above. There, in the soggy mat of greening grass, we would pick the new young leaves off the sprouting dandelions. They weren’t really “greens” at all; by the time a dandelion leaf is green, it’s too bitter to eat; we were picking “dandelion whites,” tiny little white things barely turning green at their base.

            There was something almost ceremonial about this that I didn’t really get for a couple years. Once we had a sack of them, we’d go back to Botsie’s digs where, for a change, there’d be a fire going in the kitchen stove, a pan of melted snow on it, and he’d set me to washing the little white “greens” while he fried up some bacon and hardboiled a couple eggs. Then he would put together a dressing made from the bacon grease with a little vinegar added and the bacon and eggs cut up in it, and pour it over a bowl of the greens.

            I didn’t think it was anything that special – the dressing was the best part of it. But the Bots would sit there just mumbling and humming over each bite, his eyes closed, shaking his head in unadulterated bliss.

            It finally dawned on me that this was as much memory as immediacy. The Bots had grown up in a time before fresh vegetables were trucked into the Upper Gunnison from California – or at least before they were affordable to Crested Butte coal miners. It was an era of kitchen gardens and canning in Crested Butte, sauerkraut in big crocks, carrots and potatoes covered with dirt in the crawl space, and a piglet in the spring that got butchered as a hog in the fall. That was all good substantial food. But by late March, I realized, the Butteans would have been five months without fresh vegetables. Those little dandelion shoots were the closest thing to a fresh vegetable they would see until the lettuce and spinach were up in June.

            So that annual dandelion salad became the point at which the false springs tipped into real spring. There were always the April, May and June snows – and really, you only have to step into the shade above 8,000 feet, even in the middle of summer, to know that winter is never really gone from the high country. But a few weeks after those shoots became to bitter to eat, the dandelions themselves were out – I know, an exotic, and therefore bad, but who could look on the slopes yellowing up as well as greening up and not rejoice in the spring? Even if it was snowing on them, they still seemed to give back the light of the sun.