Heat and Dryness, Cold and Moisture

July 12, 2013 § 2 Comments

I noticed two major things upon moving to Denver from Cleveland.

First: the altitude. Denver is called the Mile High City for a reason, while Cleveland is at sea level. The unacclimated visitor (or new resident) finds their breath going short and harsh with even such minimal exertion as walking up a flight of stairs. The air is thinner here, and even just a mile’s difference leads to unexpected complications. Water boils at a lower temperature. Yeast works oddly, such that baking bread is an experiment in frustration even with high-altitude flour (yes, it exists). Go high enough into the mountains and you can’t even cook rice properly – the liquid boils off at too low of a temperature, requiring a closed system. Even down at Denver’s altitude, rice can be tricky.

Over time, though, you acclimate to the altitude. It’s fun going back to Ohio each year. The air tastes thick and rich at sea level (last visit I was sick with it, dizzy and lightheaded, drunk on oxygen for the first two days), and you feel like you can run for hours and never tire. Nowadays I only notice the altitude when I go up into the mountains – 8000 feet, 9000 feet, and that’s just the foothills, not even proper snow-capped fourteeners. Denver’s height no longer affects me.

The second thing is the dryness. I don’t think you ever fully adapt to it. Lip balm, a water bottle, and hand lotion are utter necessities, as this is (essentially) a desert. Winter is the worst. I can go without hand lotion sometimes in summer, but in winter my knuckles turn red and cracked and chapped, requiring frequent hydration. It’s easy to keep to the recommended eight-cups-a-day of water here, necessary even; if I get less than three large water bottles of H2O each day, I feel dehydrated. I have oily skin, but since moving to Denver I’ve had to use facial moisturizer daily, at least in the winter.

You become keenly aware of fire and water. I never thought much about water before moving to Denver, never really took notice of its presence or use; northeast Ohio is rich in it, thanks to Lake Erie, the broad deep rivers, constantly cloudy skies with regular rainfall and snowfall. Here, though, water is rare and precious. There are lawyers who make their careers specializing in water rights. In particularly dry years, some counties set water use restrictions. Others simply set costly fees if you use more than a certain amount of water in a period.

We don’t quite have the four seasons of a classic temperate climate here. Spring is short, desperate, and late; fall is crisp and beautiful but equally short-lived. Winter is regularly broken with days or weeks of sun and warmth; summer is unpredictable and storm-ridden but with little rain. The growing season doesn’t last long enough to support much agriculture even if the soil and moisture levels allowed for it, which they don’t; livestock is far more viable here, cattle roaming the prairie like a more domestic echo of the once-great buffalo herds.

It’s easier to think of the Front Range’s seasons as “dry” and “wet”. Our wet season is January through April; we get an occasional snowfall before that, brief and pleasant, but the real snow – all the blizzards – are in January, February, March, and sometimes April. The bulk of our water comes from snow. It’s most valuable in the mountains, renewing the streams that flow to the thirsty urban valley. March sees some rain. April sees a little more. In June the storms come like clockwork, summer squalls sweeping down the mountains each evening across Denver for a brief downpour before sailing off across the high plains.

Then – it’s dry. Dry and windblown, which is worse. June, July, August, September: this is fire season, though it seems to begin earlier with each passing year. This year has been abnormally dry. March is usually the snowiest of all, but this year it’s the driest on record – and the fires began yesterday, fueled by hurricane-force winds. 100+ acres in Jefferson County, south and west of central Denver, turning the skies gray and brown until you could smell the smoke even in Denver proper. The fires aren’t improved by a beetle epidemic in the foothills, killing the pines and reducing them to tinder; it’s not gotten cold enough in years to kill them off like it once did on a regular basis. Climate change in devastating action.

In the dry season, fire bans are posted everywhere. There’s a joke that if you kill someone, all you have to do to get pardoned is put a gas can in their hand. It’s a black sort of humor because it’s not far from the truth – we take fire very seriously around here. It was a surreal experience to visit the Midwest again and see a towering bonfire in the middle of a grassy field, practice for local firefighters. My heart made it into my throat before I remembered how much wetter the ground was out east.

There are actually several upshots to the dryness, though. Heat is more bearable without the thickness of humidity. The temperature drops the moment the sun sinks behind the mountains, and a shaded spot is noticably cooler than a sunny one, with no moisture to trap and distribute heat. The arid climate leads to fascinating adaptations in the flora, creating a land defined by textures: cacti, sage, juniper, a waving sea of prairie grasses. It means sunlight, too, more days with sun than most of the country; seasonal affective disorder is so much more muted and bearable here than in wet, cloudy Cleveland. Lack of moisture means deep blue skies, vibrant and unobscured by clouds; it means spectacularly starry nights, especially in the foothills and mountains – you can even see the Milky Way with startling clarity when you’re 8000 feet up. The dust and dryness and altitude make for fantastic sunsets against the silhouette of the Rocky Mountains.

It’s not just grandeur and splendour – there are little mundane advantages too. Hair dries at an astonishing rate. With my short, fine hair, I never use a blow dryer anymore. Mildew and mold are rarely concerns. Towels and clothing dry within an hour or two. Mosquitoes are short-lived and sparse.

This is not a gentle land. It’s not fertile or hospitable. In the eastern parts of the States, the land feels tame, domesticated, fully turned to agriculture and small sleepy towns by generations of grooming. Here in Colorado’s Front Range, though, even the urban places don’t feel tame. The city has shallow roots, and the arid wild creeps in at the edges and through the cracks. We bow to the land’s demands in order to survive, rather than gentling it to our desires; there are too few resources for domestication to be a viable option. Fire reminds us when we overreach, and drought.

It is not a gentle land. It is rugged, sometimes brutal, and starkly beautiful in its own way. It’s an amazing place to live if you are willing and able to adapt to its nature – for the land here will not adapt to yours.

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