Tuesday, December 14, 2010

AMERICA - Winter in Creede

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"From the Delta to Winter’s Deep Blues" by KIRK JOHNSON, New York Times 12/13/2010


CREEDE, Colo. — Mary Jean Wallace has a stockpile of wood and a caulking gun to patch the drafty walls in the barely winterized cabin that she will be living in through her first winter in the Rocky Mountains. The wardrobe of her old life in Louisiana was tossed aside this fall — linen giving way to flannel, flip-flops to fleece.

But here is her real secret weapon against the dark and cold and loneliness in a mountain town infamous for all three since the first pickax struck silver here in the late 1800s: books.

As low temperatures and snow have descended on many parts of the nation in recent days, from Minnesota to Florida, Ms. Wallace’s plan to burrow in here in south-central Colorado with an author’s voice in her ear might seem less practical than, say, an extra pair of dry wool socks.

But most big journeys in life — a move to a new place, a new job, a first winter, all three of which apply in Ms. Wallace’s case — require in their own ways, a search for sanctuary. Books, she said, are as good as a psychic shelter as any, and better than some.

“I plan to read my way through,” said Ms. Wallace, 29, who is finishing a master’s degree in history at the University of New Orleans. She moved here to Creede, elevation 8,852 feet, in October, joining a younger sister, Sarah, who came last spring.

Both Wallace women spent summers here in an old family cabin built by their grandfather, a Southern Baptist minister named Emory Wallace who began preaching to the silver miners around here in the early 1960s. And both felt a powerful draw this year in particular, for personal and economic reasons, to make an effort at a permanent toehold.

Sarah, 26, who got a job last spring as one of seven year-round employees at the Creede Repertory Theater, a converted opera house, said she had been warned to have a coat and gloves in her office for when the worst cold came.

“People have told me you have to accept it as a process you have to go through,” said Ms. Wallace, who does marketing and volunteer coordination for the theater. “There will be moments when you go stir-crazy and it’s dark at 3 p.m., but you take it and you roll with it and know that it will end.”

Heading toward the winter solstice, high canyon walls at the west end of Creede’s Main Street bring nightfall early. Deep snows pile up from storms that surge from the south and smash against the stony face of the mountains. For four consecutive weeks last winter, the temperature never broke zero.

“You have to do a personal inventory,” said Jennifer J. Inge, who came here as a 23-year-old artist in the mid-1970s, bought a 500-square-foot miner’s shack and has been expanding it, and making art, ever since.

The real threat of winter, Ms. Inge said, is not the superficial stuff — the cold and snow and isolation. “It’s not the physical that gets you, it’s the emotional and spiritual — it’s how cold the emotional environment can get,” she said.

Creede’s population, which surges to 1,000 or more in summer, crashes to perhaps 250 to 300 this time of year, and the economy goes south with it. If it is after 5:30 p.m. and you want to buy as much as a stick of gum, you are out of luck, and the nearest town, not much bigger, is 20 miles down a treacherous canyon road.

“Creede is not quite the end of the world, but you can see it from here,” said Richard Brown, 63, who was born and raised here and worked 26 years in the silver mine until it closed in the mid-1980s.

In an odd way, winters got more pronounced here after the mine closed, longtime residents like Mr. Brown said. The day-to-day rhythm of the shift change whistle gave way to a seasonal roller-coaster of feast and famine.

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