GOTHIC, Co. – A blue bird alights on the snowy limb of a spruce tree. Billy Barr rises excitedly from his rocking chair.
“There’s only been one Steller’s all winter,” he says of the jay outside his cabin window, where finally he has a view. Finally, after a record pileup of snow in Crested Butte and in this backcountry beyond, Barr can step outside.
And so he does on this sunny day, this respite between the storm that was and the one predicted for the days ahead. He slips a jacket over his knitted sweater too big for his skinny frame. He tucks a Denver Nuggets cap over his stringy white hair matching his flowing beard. It is a good day when Barr, 66, can step out to share bread with a feathered friend.
Conditions were anything but peaceful for the 13 days that he measured 124.5 inches of snow, managing to get out before sunrise and sunset to collect data. He’s done this for 45 years outside his solar-powered, woodstove-heated cabin, where he lives alone 4 miles from civilization. The recent storm was the second largest he’s ever recorded.
“I told him, ‘Man, if you feel overworked, please don’t go out of your way,'” says Zach Guy, director of the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, among the agencies receiving emailed reports from Barr. “Sometimes I wonder, you know, if maybe he enjoys hearing another voice on the other end of the internet.”
The duty is becoming more difficult, Barr admits. He’s more brittle with age. More daunting now is the hill that he skis over to get home from Gothic, the abandoned mining town with a field station that he has long worked at as an accountant for the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.
Every other week or so, he hauls up provisions from a sled strapped to his back. As weather allows, he skis more than an hour through a sloping canvas to retrieve necessities in Crested Butte – cereal for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly for the half-sandwich he makes for lunch, and pasta for dinner that is complemented with the veggies from his cabin’s greenhouse. He also brings back cookies, tea and newspapers.
In town, he is a legend. And he is quick for conversation.
“For someone who lives in the middle of nowhere, he’s very social and gregarious,” says Ian Billick, the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab executive director. “He’s really one of a kind.”
He’s an unlikely source of climate change research nationwide. Multiple studies have cited his data, including one in the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences regarding hummingbirds.
“Glacial lilies, the yellow flower, they’re a food source for hummingbirds,” says Barr, sounding concerned over the study’s findings. “As we get warmer, the snow melts away quicker, the lilies come up quicker, and they’re dying off before the hummingbirds get here. The hummingbirds get here and have no food.”
While his snow measurements have become valuable resources for some, they simply remain for him a hobby. He began the practice to fill time in 1972, when he was living in a tent in the place beneath Mount Gothic where eventually he would build his cabin. He was a 22-year-old out of Rutgers University who got a job with the nearby lab.
“I could interrelate with this intensely,” he says, looking out the window at the spruces, the mountain rising above a stream. “Out here, I mean, you could get killed in this, but it’s all very gentle if you don’t mistreat it.”
The woods were his escape from New Jersey, where he grew up feeling increasingly isolated. He saw society tearing over civil rights and Vietnam. And he lingered over his own perceived strangeness.
“I did not fit in well,” he says. “I was incredibly socially awkward. I could never imagine a woman liking me, and therefore I always backed away. . It’s really too bad because it was something I wanted all my life.”
Through his 20s in Gothic, he hid away. He started signing his name in the fashion he still does today, with lowercase letters. “Little Bs are little,” he says. “It looked more like who I was.”
He does not hide now. Years ago, he got townspeople to join his cricket club. The sport – “gentle,” he calls it – is another one of his hobbies, along with shooting darts and shooting baskets on the Nerf hoop tacked to his bedroom wall.
Another hobby: movie nights alone in the little projector screen theater of his cabin, through the door with a “While You Were Sleeping” poster. One night last week as the snowstorm raged, he watched animated kids’ movies. He has DVDs in packages he mailed to himself, waiting to be opened as a reward to himself. They’ll join his collection of nearly 2,000, mostly comedies and romance.
“No violence, no horror,” he says.