It was early winter in 1991, and I had just come from a meeting with my advisor at Utah State University about my transfer from the U. I remember crunching across the quad afterward in my thin Army surplus jacket—more of a thick shirt, really—wondering if every day in Logan was going to be as cold as this one.

And come January, huddled in Physical Geography 1010, I learned a word: “Inversion.”

“Inversion” is a meteorological term that every valley dweller in Northern Utah knows and fears. A layer of warm air sits on a layer of colder air, slamming the cold down like a meat locker door. During January 1992, my first term at USU, there was a period of eight days where the average high on campus was 23 degrees and the lows averaged 5. It’s a deep, soul-sucking cold. The wind never stirs. Ice crystals wander amid stagnant air. Nothing thaws, not even a trickle.

And it’s gray. The sun does not, in any sense of the word, “shine.” It flickers like a dim bulb. In Cache Valley, where the tighter valley walls exacerbate the effect, there are times when you can’t see 50 yards. A grim smoke fills in the edges of your vision, made worse
by the knowledge that every wisp from every tailpipe, chimney belch, cow fart or exhaled cigarette is floating in this toxic stew.

A prolonged inversion is a natural joke. The punchline? It defies Utah’s clean-cut, caffeine-free, low-calorie image. The Utah winter in the mind’s eye is snowcapped mountains soaring into clear blue skies, and besweatered families cuddling on couches in front of roaring fires while thick flakes fall in the moonlit night. Basically, a York’s Peppermint Patty commercial.

But each winter, the Wasatch Front and Cache Valley make the EPA’s most-wanted list. Children and the elderly are kept indoors. The curtain is drawn on the blue skies and snowy mountaintops and the roaring fires are extinguished by the Red Burn proscription. Utah routinely beats the smog capital of the world, Los Angeles, in this race toward the toxic.

It is difficult, once inverted, to not keep it from getting you down. We grimly check the newspaper for the “burn status.” We scan rooftops looking for violators. And we look hopefully forward to the local weather report that may bring winds and snow, and relief.


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