Smoke and Rain: Dreaming and Adapting on the Western Slope

Nov 8, 2013 by     No Comments    Posted under: Features, Lifestyle

by Krista Langlois

My life is the story of water. My cells, my mitochondria and nuclei and DNA swim in pools of water. It drives me forward, pulls my feet toward its source: a waterfall in the jungle, a crystal pool high in the mountains. I drink it in deeply, let it fall over me, into me, around me, and still I lust for more.

IMG_1449Perhaps it’s because I grew up in New England, among trees and gardens fed by a generous sky, but for whatever reason I am drawn to the wet places of this world. After college I spent a year in the equatorial Pacific, and in a country of parched white beaches where nothing grows but palm trees, I was assigned to the one island with swampy taro patches and thick creeping jungle. While other islands suffered from drought, the seams of my clothing rotted in the humidity.

Since then, I’ve moved like clockwork. Every six to 12 months I go looking for a new job, a new adventure, and until now, I’ve always gone to places with heavy rainfall — the eastern shore of Hawai’i; the temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska. Last year I surpassed even my own standards, finding myself in one of the wettest places in the world: Fiordland, New Zealand, which receives an average of 22 feet of rain a year. After  six months there, though, I felt waterlogged and weary, ready for a chance to stay in one place for a while. I’d moved 15 times in nine years.

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So when learned I’d gotten a writing job in Paonia, I didn’t hesitate to fly across the world and pack up the car that I’d left at my mom’s house in New England. I headed West to chase my dreams, to find my own Big Rock Candy Mountain, following the tracks of others who’d made this migration before. The morning I left New England, tendrils of fog snaked through valleys and around barns, softening the dawn light. Then the rolling hills of the East gave way to the stubby fields and industrial cities of the plains, and I considered for the first time of how I’d adapt to life in an arid country. I knew almost nothing about Paonia except that one former editor had described it as “very nearly perfect.” But perfection, of course, is a matter of opinion.

The journey West was once a journey of no return, an exchange of the known for the unknown, the tame for the wild, cities for open spaces. But as the West changes, these truths become less and less so until only one remains: moving from East to West means moving from wet to dry. It means leaving a world of abundant water — water so pervasive you can feel it on your skin, see it beaded on every blade of grass — to a place where you cannot legally cache your own rainwater because it’s such a precious commodity.

800px-Crotaphytus_collaris_-Petrified_Forest_National_Park,_Arizona,_USA-8I had six weeks before starting work in Paonia, and I chose Durango as a home base. I roamed the Four Corners by foot and car and kayak, learning the shape and feeling of the place, learning that the name is misleading, for there are no real corners there, only dusky foothills and ponderosa valleys and sensuously carved sandstone; mesas and plateaus and mountains, washes and gullies and hoodoo rocks. Against all my training and better judgment, I stopped carrying a tent and raingear “just in case.” I grew accustomed to sleeping under the stars.

Summers for me have always been green, but summers here mean dry grasses and forests that go up like tinder boxes with a single spark. The last morning before driving north to  Paonia, I woke to smoke drifting in through the open windows of the room I was staying in. Drowsily, I thought to myself that if Durango was on fire, at least I was ready to evacuate, my belongings already crammed into the car. Then I fell back asleep and tossed in and out of strange dreams tinged with the smell of smoke.

IMG_0956It is slightly surreal to continue sleeping while smoke seeps through your window. When I woke for real, the first thing I did was turn on the radio, and learned that there were no new fires, just an inverted weather pattern that was sending smoke from the Pagosa Springs fire south to New Mexico then back north to Durango. Smoke that smelled dry and acrid, like pine needles underfoot on a hot day, was swirling around the region.

My drive out of Durango that morning was oddly reminiscent of my drive out of Massachusetts six weeks prior. My car was laden with boxes, and the hazy smoke settling over western Colorado’s ranches and fields looked almost like the early morning fog in New England. But one haze was born of moisture, the other of its absence. By 11 a.m., it was 99 degrees and the radio host called the weather “crispy.” I’ve never lived anywhere where the weather could be described as crispy, like a French fry pulled from the oven, but that’s exactly what it felt like.

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Years ago, when I lived in the sweltering, humid Pacific without electricity, I had a recurring dream of swimming in the ocean toward an distant blue iceberg, of treading water at its translucent base and licking it like a giant ice cream cone. Here in Colorado, my dreams are not of respite from the heat but from the dryness. I dream of walking out of a grocery store into a parking lot where water pours from the sky, gathering in miraculous puddles. In my dream I walk slowly, with my head tilted skyward, letting the rain fall over me, into me, gratefully soaking it up.

Arriving at my new home, I found a valley ripe with orchards and vineyards and farms – a pocket of green in a vast landscape of tawny browns and reds. To the east are the Rocky Mountains, to the west, the Utah desert. The first morning here, I woke to a sliver of gray sky through the curtains and stepped barefoot onto the steps. An unbelievable smell rose to greet me – warm moisture, green growing things, and a few fat raindrops splattering through the leaves. The rain didn’t even last long enough for me to roll up the windows in my car, but the smell it brought – the wetness of warm streets and gardens and lawns – smelled like my dreams. Like home.

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