Homesteading Report: Overwhelmed by the Colorado Winter

article image
Her mother's cabin was not up to the job of sheltering them from the worst a Colorado winter could offer. 

As my husband and I and our two-week-old son, Eric, rounded the last curve into our mountain valley, the meadow met our eyes in all its delicate beauty. The Colorado winter was only just releasing its grip on the land. Sloping down from a grass-covered hill, the aspen trees–as yet bare of their leaves–surrounded a small lake, and covering the mount were the firs that gave our valley its name: Conifer Hill. The property belonged to my mother, and was our new home.

Before we could get into the cabin, though, we had to chop through the ten inches of ice that had accumulated in front of the door. Moving in consisted of setting up a bed in one end of the house, shifting Mother’s possessions to the other, and building a fire in the stove. We were home.

That spring was idyllic. Larry didn’t have a job, but we had enough money for food and gasoline. While the snow was still on the ground, the picture that greeted my eyes every morning was soft and gentle and filled my heart with peace. Then leaves started to bud, and a pale green merged with the darker color of the pines. We saw the first flowers of spring, heard frogs begin their croaking from the lake, felt the world coming alive.

When our income tax refunds arrived in April, we bought a tipi kit and spent a few days putting together our summer dwelling. I was supposed to be the seamstress in the farm but Larry turned out to be more capable of handling the heavy canvas, reading the instructions, and not having tantrums at the sewing machine, so he did the work practically singlehanded.

Then summer came and we cleared ground for the tipi, set it up and moved in. I had an outside kitchen–wood stove, cabinets, and table–under a plastic tarp.

The major problem I faced that summer was keeping our shelter clean. Although I had our clothes piled in boxes, they usually overflowed onto the floor. The carpet we had laid over the dirt helped the housekeeping, but became damp and mildewed. Laundry was another headache. We couldn’t afford to take our wash to a laundromat and I hated imposing on friends for the use of their facilities.

In July Larry started to work, and that presented new problems. We couldn’t live up in the valley without a vehicle that could travel the road all winter, so we borrowed the down payment for a Toyota Landcruiser.

At the end of August we moved back into the cabin. It wasn’t intended as a winter dwelling, and we worked hard installing insulation and plugging holes. The house was T-shaped with the kitchen off the center, and the stove in the middle of the long room was supposed to keep the cooking area warm; fine in theory, but in practice my hands raw by the time I finished preparing a meal.

By October the autumn winds had started to howl around the cabin, and we made the awful discovery that we hadn’t located all the cracks. We were never warm enough. Eric should have been crawling by that time, but I couldn’t allow him to try because the floor wasn’t safe and there was no way to repair it short of major alterations.

Our mornings started at 5:00 a.m., when we awoke to a freezing house and took turns building the fire. Then I put breakfast together and we sat down at a table still covered with dishes from the night before. (The kitchen wasn’t heated enough to keep the contents of the 50-gallon drum from freezing, so I seldom had enough water.) We left for town before the cabin was warm. The return trip began about 5:30, but sometimes we didn’t get home before 9:00 p.m. There were weeks when we never saw the valley by daylight.

The life was hard, much too hard to endure even for the sake of living in a place we both loved. We realized our mistake when we found ourselves spending sixteen hours a day away from the valley in order to give ourselves a bedroom for eight hours. If we had found a way to earn money from our home without the extra expense of commuting, we could have enjoyed the life of woodcutting, water-hauling, and assorted homesteading activities. As it was, we felt nothing but hardship and fatigue.

Then, one morning after a storm, we got up early to head for town. The snow was deep and we were worried because we hadn’t been able to afford chains for the Toyota. We did have a set on the back wheels that Larry had jury-rigged from our sedan, but they didn’t fit very well and we threw one before we’d gone a mile. Shortly thereafter, when the Toy got stuck, Larry hiked back to look for the chain. No luck! Should we try to go on, or head back to the cabin? The choice was made for us: We couldn’t back up or turn around, but the winch would pull us forward.

So began four hours of nightmare. One of us would get out of the car, wade through two feet of snow and disengage the clutch on the winch. (This was a chore in itself. The only way I could do it was by balancing on the bumper and swinging my foot at the switch.) Then we’d climb through more snow ahead, undo the winch from the tree to which it had been fastened, pull the cable forward a hundred feet, hook it to another tree, return to the Toyota, operate the machine to pull us onward, and repeat the procedure. There was one point–when both of us were frozen and exhausted, and neither could summon the strength to leave the vehicle–when I wondered if we would really make it. Of the four miles to the highway, we winched at least two.

Once on the main road, we fared better. It was a relief to be sitting in the warm car and letting a machine do the work! Then, halfway to town, we came up behind a slower-moving auto. Larry tapped the brakes, they locked and we spun out. The Toyota started rolling. My arm had been around my son, but it didn’t stay there. I hit my head against the window, and we were still.

The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was Larry looking down at me from his seat. We were belted in and had kept our positions, but Eric was nowhere in sight. Then he started to scream, and I became hysterical. At last I found him … above my head! I pulled the baby close to me while my husband unfastened his seat belt and reached for the uppermost door. As he unlatched it, someone pulled it open from outside. Larry took Eric from me and passed him to waiting hands. My arm was hurt and I couldn’t move it without pain.

When I raised my head through the door, I was astounded to see how populated the road had become. A Greyhound bus had stopped, along with about five cars. No one could believe that we had come through the accident unscathed. My arm was only twisted, and all Eric got for his spin around the passenger compartment was a carpet burn on his forehead.

The next day we went to the parking lot where the Toyota had been towed and looked it over. In spite of a few holes here and there, it was still drivable.

By that time neither of us was especially fond of snow. Yet we couldn’t move down to the plains because buying the Landcruiser had taken most of our money. Larry voiced thoughts of going to Oregon where his family lived, but I didn’t want to leave Colorado.

About this time we ran out of coal and couldn’t afford another load, so Larry tried cutting more wood. His hands cracked from the cold, and he came back to the cabin with the chain saw covered with blood from his cuts.

In January I found that–despite precautions–I was pregnant again. That finished off my pioneer spirit. I could handle one baby under primitive conditions, but the thought of starting next winter with a newborn and an 18-month-old toddler was just too much.

During the month of February I fed us on $30.00. Which meant macaroni and cheese almost every night. We were undernourished (especially me, because I was nursing one baby and pregnant with another). Larry again brought up the idea of moving to Oregon and this time I agreed. One year after we moved into our dream valley, we packed our belongings in a trailer and left.

I still remember Conifer Hill as we drove away that night The snow was falling softly and looked lovely in the headlights. My heart was broken by the thought, “I am leaving my mountain valley. Will I ever see it again?” In spite of everything, I still felt an intense love for this place which held so many memories.

All the same, the move seemed the only way out of a dreadful situation. The good job Larry found in Oregon is improving our lives every month (although we still owe money to several people). I miss Colorado and the mountains, but I do enjoy the snowless winters.

I have a reason for sharing this story. It’s lovely and tempting to think of getting away from civilization into a simpler lifestyle, but here’s a warning for others who are so inclined: Emergencies happen despite the best precautions, and money to handle them is essential to true self-sufficiency. Granted, we made it through the winter, but only with the aid of our family and friends. It was unfair to force them into the position of having to help us. Both my husband and I want to leave the city again, but we won’t go back into a shaky situation until we can sustain ourselves by our own efforts. That’s the only responsible way to behave.

Despite all our troubles, though, we like to recall Conifer Hill: on an early morning in January, for instance, when the snow has just fallen and not a track has crossed the meadow … or just before dusk in March, when the fog has rolled in and everything is shrouded in mist. We are the only ones who have these memories, and we wouldn’t trade them for anything. This last summer I went back for a visit to refresh my recollection of the valley’s beauty. I needed to go home to the place that holds half my heart.