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July 13, 2020

Winter’s Snow on Blue Mesa No Match for Vintage SnoCat


   It may say spring on the calendar but it’s anything but as Blue Mesa resident Tom Stockton surveys the awe-inspiring expanse of snowfields looking out toward the West Elk Mountains and, to the east across the Cebolla, snow-covered Stewary, Mineral, and Baldy peaks. Stockton’s nearest neighbors are down the road in Blue Mesa Estates, and the drive “to town” is 42 miles via Powderhorn to Gunnison or, conversely, 30 miles up the Lake Fork to Lake City.
A retired engineer from Houston, Texas, Tom and his wife, Peggy, have spent winters at their spacious log cabin home near Blue Mesa Estates since they built it in 2004.
With a commanding view out over Blue Mesa looking toward the Gunnison Valley and, further in the distance, snow-coated West Elk Mountains, the Stockton home is accessed via a meandering, mile-long driveway connecting to Gunnison County Road 25 which wends its way from Red Bridge across Blue Mesa before connecting with U.S. Highway 50.
The high altitude, dirt-surface mesa road is maintained seasonally by Gunnison County but is closed and surmounted by drifting snow during the winter months. Vehicles now access County Road 25 from the lower Lake Fork past Red Bridge and can only travel as far as a communal parking area which is located at Blue Mesa Estates.
For the intrepid Stocktons, however, that means driving to the estates parking area and then firing up their vintage 1969 Tucker SnoCat to traverse snowfields between the parking area and their hillside house.
Drawing on his Oklahoma ranch boyhood and engineering methodology, Tom Stockton says “there’s not much I can’t fix,” smiling broadly as he adds, “and there isn’t much I can’t break.”
Fortunately for Tom, he says the 48-year old Tucker SnoCat “is sure reliable” and virtually indestructible, “the only thing I worry about in spring is getting it stuck in the mud.”
Stockton’s tractor is slightly more temperamental, however, and last last week it was temporarily out of action while he repaired it. He’s quick to say “it’s a workhorse,” however. After he and Peggy returned from a nine-day sojourn visiting Lake City friends in Arizona, he cleared perhaps a quarter-mile of the mile-long driveway before it conked out.
In the process of opening the driveway — and Tom optimistically declares he’ll have the entire driveway cleared down to ground level by next week — he encountered the deepest snow conditions since he and Peggy built their house in 2004.
According to Tom, this year’s 4’ to 5’-deep snow on the level, in addition to wind-borne drifts along the ridge as high as 8’ to 10’ across the driveway, “is even greater than the last big winter, 2007-08.” Despite predictable wind and snow during the winter months, Tom says there have only been two winters since 2004 — 2007-08 and this past winter, 2016-17, when he wasn’t able to keep the driveway open.
This year the driveway road remained open with near-daily maintenance through December before finally blowing shut with snow accumulation the second week of January.
Tom expertly maneuvers the Tucker SnoCat across the undulating snowfield at a brisk 10 miles per hour. This, he confidently says, is the location of his now buried driveway. Like a meticulous archaeologist, he describes how he uses the tractor making repeated passes across the snowfield, gradually working his way downward to ground level and the envisioned gravel driveway.
Coming to a jolting halt and from his vantage point behind the wheel of the SnoCat, he gestures out across the glistening white expanse. He points to the tops of two dimly visible steel pipe posts which protrude only a slight distance above the snow surface.
“Those posts,” he casually remarks, “are on either side of a cattleguard and are the driveway entrance.”
The 1969 SnoCat has an interesting history and is now re-incarnated as thankful winter transportation allowing the Stocktons to spend winters at their remote Blue Mesa home.
Equipped with a Chrysler six-cylinder flathead engine, the gas-powered SnoCat was originally owned by the U.S. Navy and stationed out of Norwood, Colorado, for use in winter training exercises. It was later part of a fleet overseen by Joanne Stone of Gunnison County Search & Rescue and, still later, was sold to Schmaltz Construction in 2002.
Opining it still had “good life in it,” Stocktons bought the SnoCat in 2005 with an eye toward occasional winter transportation.
As Peggy Stockton cuts a generous wedge of berry cobbler, yellow pad, the vintage SnowCat parked outside, and ongoing quest for journalistic enlightenment are momentarily forgotten.
“It’s been a godsend to us,” she says of the SnoCat, “it allows us to live here and, honestly, we can’t think of any place we’d rather be.”

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