If you’re ever in those mountains, I suggest that you stand perfectly still and listen to the wind, whistling or moaning or barely whispering ― but ever moving ― through the evergreens. I once took my kids across the country, including a white-knuckle drive up a one-lane, gravel “scenic route” through a corkscrewing Colorado pass. Somehow, through the sheer terror, one of my daughters thought to ask me, “Bops [an affectionate version of “Papa” from her childhood], why does the wind blow?”
Up here, I told her, it blows just about all the time. Even on a clear, sunny day, anyone who has ever flown in a small plane above the crests knows the distress of bouncing and dropping, and bouncing again, on churning ripples of air. Some wind currents can produce downdrafts so powerful that they smash airplanes into mountainsides.
Yes, but what makes the wind blow? (Hush, I’m stalling.)
OK, here’s my best shot:
The atmosphere would be deadly calm everywhere in the world, I’m told, were it not for differences in air pressure as measured on a barometer. When there’s high pressure and pleasant weather here, there’s lower pressure with unstable conditions somewhere next to it. Air is drawn from here to there, causing it to move like, well, the wind. The greater the difference in pressure, the faster the breeze.
Royal Gorge ― our destination that scary day years ago. It’s a slice 316 meters deep and only a few meters across, gouged into pure granite by the rushing Arkansas River.
Differences in temperature can stir the air as well. So, high in the majestic Rockies, you have just the recipe for strong, almost nonstop winds.
We made it safely to and across the gorge and on to even steeper country at Wolf Creek Pass, on winding U.S. Highway 160 near that Top of the World.
Save for the wind; the babble of a cold, rushing creek somewhere below; the cry of a hawk or rustle of an unseen deer; or the grind of gears shifting as older cars and motor homes labor to negotiate the 10-kilometer-long, 7-percent incline, it’s uncommonly still there.
Not all the snowslides come out of nowhere. The Colorado Department of Transportation sometimes closes the road and sets off avalanches on purpose. Men take aim at the mountain with old Army howitzers or newfangled nitrogen guns. Sometimes they drop explosives from a helicopter. A fun job for action-lovers!
All the long wintertime, highway workers and their families live up there in green metal sheds, right along the road, so they can get the plows moving before too much heavy snows build up. Imagine what it must have been like when there were no trucks, no bulldozers, no helicopters, and the road through Wolf Creek Pass was little more than an Indian game trail. Mules and wagons provided transport, and then only in summertime.
The Great Divide, Americans came to call this spine of the Western Hemisphere that runs from Alaska, through Canada, and all the way down to Patagonia at the tip of South America.
Look to the west, down into the San Juan National Forest, and the water from every river, every brook, every sewer pipe in pockets of civilization eventually runs to the Pacific Ocean. And to the east, down into another sea of green, the Rio Grande National Forest, every drop of water that does not evaporate finds it way into streams that head east and south, toward the Mississippi River or Gulf of Mexico.
Europe and Asia and Africa ― even Australia ― have continental divides as well: their own Tops of the World.
Durango, hub city of southwestern Colorado.
Legendary characters lived in these high, rugged places: men like Bat Masterson, a fierce saloonkeeper whose reputation was so nasty that, it was said, he never had to draw his gun; and Calamity Jane Cannary, a cigar-smoking drifter with a heart of gold. The outlaw Butch Cassidy, made famous generations later when Paul Newman played him opposite Robert Redford in a stylized 1969 movie, made his first unauthorized bank withdrawal hereabouts, up in the town of Telluride.
And then there was Alferd Packer, the only one of six prospectors who went into the snowy San Juans one winter and came out alive. He was found guilty of murder ― and cannibalism.
Up near the top of a red and tan cliff called Mesa Verde, there’s a wide, horizontal slit in the rock. For reasons unknown ― to defend itself, maybe, or to find shelter from the searing summer heat and winter blizzards ― a civilization called the Anasazi ― the ancient ones ― carved a secret, rocky trail down to this slit in the mountain and built a sophisticated city of stone. It had brick and stone dwellings with walls and windows, ladders and burial pits.
That was back about 1200 A.D., as the Magna Carta was being written in England, Constantinople was being sacked by Christian Crusaders, and the European trader Marco Polo was visiting Mongolia and the warrior Genghis Khan.
It would appear that the Anasazi lived comfortably. They dragged down small game and crops from the top of the mesa, and there’s no sign that enemies bothered them. In fact, there are few signs at all, for these people left no written language, no cave drawings, no carvings in the stone.
Not even anthropologists know why. Where did they go? Probably south, where it was warmer, where they blended in with other tribes. But who knows? It’s part of the mystery of Mesa Verde.
And of the charm of “Rocky Mountain High” country, as singer John Denver called Colorado.
I’m pretty sure he was talking about the view.
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Howitzer A large, high-angle, muzzle-loaded artillery piece that fires shells high into the air but for short distances. Its name, from the Dutch, first referred to catapult-like siege guns of the 1700s.
Newfangled Not just new, but a recent fad or fashion. From a Middle English word meaning “addicted to novelty.”