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Blowin' Smoke


This week, I’ve seen two pick-up trucks parked in town, each stacked with high with firewood. This may be a sure sign of the coming of winter in rural towns across the nation, but it’s an uncommon sight in downtown Telluride these days.

When I moved to Telluride in the 1980s, most every house was heated by wood. A quality wood stove is a worthy heat source because it can bring a room from freezing to blow-your-socks-off hot in a matter of minutes. I remember many a dinner with housemates, sitting around the table in only our long underwear, with faces flushed and the doors and windows wide open while a snowstorm raged outside. If we’d had a thermostat, I’m sure it would have hovered near 90. Of course we could have damped the stove to reduce the flame. But we didn’t, at least not until we went to bed and wouldn’t stoke the fire again until morning. It sounds profligate, but cut us some slack: We were 20-something-year-old ski bums, living in squalid shacks—heat was our only real indulgence.

They say that all good things must end, and so it was for most all the wood stoves in Telluride. In the late 1980s, the EPA determined that the quantity of airborne particulates in Telluride was higher than in downtown Denver. How could it be that a small mountain town had worse air quality than an urban center? Geography and meteorology were to blame. In this tight box canyon, temperature inversions would often set in, trapping chimney smoke in the valley like a lid on a pot. Town council tightened wood stove regulations initially, and then, in 1996, banned wood stoves in any newly constructed house and mandated their removal upon the sale of any existing structure. After the real estate boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, few stoves remain. Today, I know of only a handful of houses within Telluride town limits that still burn wood.

The good news is that it worked. A greasy gray cloud no longer blankets town in winter, and Telluride’s air quality is far better than it was 20 years ago. The bad news is that there’s no substitute for the heat of a wood stove. When I bought my house (and sadly removed the wood stove), I installed a freestanding gas stove, which poses as a wannabe wood stove in the living room. I’m warm enough, but it’s not the same.

Come fall, I miss the excursions into the woods with a chainsaw and the steady rhythm of splitting wood in the driveway. Stacking a good woodpile is perhaps the most gratifying weekend activity of all time, one that certainly confirms the old adage that “a wood stove warms you twice.” Getting ready for the cold—scurrying about like a squirrel tucking away nuts—is a physical harbinger of winter that isn’t fulfilled by paying the gas bill. During the coldest and darkest days in December, I long for that familiar crackling heat from a wood stove—and it’s then that I must remind myself to savor Telluride’s clean mountain air.

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