Sunday, November 7, 2010


Tuesday morning I returned to work. I took my usual route — the back way — and enjoyed the beautiful, “crisp” mountains. They stood out clearly in the autumn air with their powdered sugar peaks against the brilliant blue sky. There was not a cloud in the sky to mar the solid blueness. For those of you who have never lived in Colorado, let me explain. My unscientific view is that we have about 330 crystal clear days a year, with only a month or so spread out throughout the year of cloudy overcast. Colorado would be the perfect state for exploitation of solar power. It seems most days are clear and bright and nearly cloudless.

Our altitude is part of it, but more importantly is the very dry climate. After all, clouds are just moisture condensed, and this is the high plains desert with little moisture summer or winter. That gives us the snowy powder our ski resorts are so boastful of, the higher than average occurrence of skin cancer, and these bright, crisp, and beautiful mornings.

In previous centuries it was this very air that made Colorado a mecca for those suffering from tuberculosis and other lung and respiratory conditions. You came here for the “cure.” To this day we lead the nation in research on respiration at institutions such as Denver’s National Jewish Hospital and University of Colorado Hospital.

You start at the foot of the mountains, here on the high plains, at an elevation of a mile high. Then it is up to the many high country communities at 8,000 feet or more. Leadville is over 10,000 feet. And the mountains! Colorado has over fifty 14ers. Compare this to Alaska which only has 21 peaks over 14,000 feet, although it can brag of the highest peak in North America.

I consider myself to be in good health and excellent shape, yet I have to admit that when I reach the summit of Pikes Peak (14,115) the air is very noticeably thin, and I don’t feel like running up any stairs. The top of Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is 12,183 feet. There I’m a little more comfortable, although the lack of O2 is quite noticeable.

Funny thing about air. We can go weeks without food, and days without water, but only minutes without air. No wonder then that Genesis speaks of God breathing the very breath of life into us. Genesis 2:7 (NIV) — “the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

Proof of life: breathing!

I grew up in Montana. Back then the state motto was “The Treasure State.” It was on all the license plates. It was a very apt theme for Montana. I was told that every valuable mineral found in the US is found in Montana. We had coal and oil, gold and silver, copper, lead, molybdenum, and uranium, sapphires, diamonds, you name it and it could be found in the ground in the Treasure State.

(My mother had a beautiful sapphire ring my dad had purchased that came from the nearby Yogo mine in the Belt Mountains of Montana. Many decades later I had a jeweler special order a Yogo Sapphire ring for the love of my life. It cost me about half an arm and part of a leg, but such precious beauty deserves only the most precious beauty!)

Then at some point after the sixties, Montana changed the catch phrase to “Big Sky Country.” Now I agree that Montana is a realm of great vistas and big sky, but that slogan would be equally true for Wyoming or Utah or — especially — Colorado. We are truly big sky country here.

My dad was a weatherman. That wasn’t his primary title. He was an Air Traffic Controller with the FAA, but not what you are imagining. He didn’t sit at a big radar screen and direct airplanes — that is “air route traffic control,” and there is a big center here in Longmont. He didn’t sit in a tower and direct landing and departing aircraft — that is “tower controller.” He worked in “flight service stations.” These were originally located at small, non-commercial airports and he mostly worked with private aviation and pilots. They would come to him to file flight plans and get weather briefings. By the late 90’s these flight service stations had all be consolidated into big centers that communicated with small airports via telephone.

Finally, at the dawn of the 21st century, flight service completely disappeared, replaced by the internet and a few personnel at air route traffic centers. Fortunately, my father retired before his job was replaced by modern computer networks.

One of his duties was to take weather measurements. He would record wind and temperature and, using a sling hydrometer, he’d calculate the relative humidity. He would turn on a large spotlight aimed straight up and, using a protractor to measure the angle to the cloud illuminated by the light, he would calculate the ceiling. That’s the height of the lowest clouds and an important parameter to aircraft flying visual flight rules or “VFR.”

He would come home and tell me all about clouds. The low clouds: cumulous, stratus, and stratocumulus; the middle clouds: altocumulus and altostratus; the high clouds of cirrus and cirrocumulus; and finally, the king of them all, the great thunderheads that can rise from below 6,000 feet to well about 50,000 feet. To this day, even the big jumbo jets give these powerful engines of nature a wide birth.

He and my mom slowly moved west in his FAA job, living in Great Falls, Livingston, and Bozeman, Montana before moving on to Spokane, Washington and his final destination, Hillsboro, Oregon. Oregon is the exact opposite of Colorado. I estimate there are 30 days of clear sky per year. You can go outside day after day and never see a nearby mountain peak due to the haze and fog and clouds. Then, on one glorious bright day, you will sight Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker and the infamous Mt. St. Helens. These mountains too are over 12,000 feet, but they tend to be solitary mountains rising from a ground level of only 1,000 feet or so. Thus they do shame the many Colorado peaks. Still Colorado seems to retain the crown owing to the vast number of peaks populating the high country and this middle of the great Rocky Mountain Range.

So it is while living in Colorado that you come to appreciate most “air.” Clear blue, thin and dry, healthy and invigorating, and the word I always use: “crisp” air. A joy of creation, a must for life, the ocean in which we swim — AIR.

Michael W. Smith —

This is the air I breathe

This is the air I breathe

Your holy presence living in me

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