Reclusive man plays standout role at lab
Billy Barr doesn’t see what point there is in writing a story about him.
“Not unless you send it to Meg Ryan,” the soft-spoken accountant at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory says with a smile.
The movie fanatic, founder of the Gothic Cricket Club and year-round resident of that former mining town doesn’t see anything particularly interesting about himself. But scientist after scientist doing research here speaks with appreciation about the importance of the approximately 40 years of weather data Barr has kept since he began living there. It has proven crucial as they look at climate-change trends and the resulting impacts on plants and animals.
Barr has tracked rainfall, snow depth, temperatures, the first arrivals of animals in the spring, and when the ground first reappears each year after snowmelt.
“There’s not a lot of animal activity in winter, so when there’s a change I’d notice it” and write it down, Barr said.
“Over a long period of time it became very helpful,” he said of the data he collected, even though that wasn’t the point of his gathering it.
“I didn’t have anything else to do. It was simple curiosity,” said Barr, quickly clarifying that he actually keeps quite busy living and working at 9,500 feet, but there’s still a lot of free time as well.
“When I was a kid I kept baseball statistics. There’s no difference,” he said.
Most of the record-low temperatures he’s experienced have been during the first 15 years he’s recorded them, and most of the record highs have been in the last 15 to 20 years, “and it’s not like a close call,” he said.
“It’s gotten a lot warmer, there’s no question about it,” says Barr, who has borne the impact firsthand. With less insulating snow cover on the ground during the winter, the buried springwater line feeding into his house has frozen more often.
“House” may be an overstatement for his 20-by-30-foot residence, but it’s got a greenhouse as big as his home, and a separate movie room to indulge a passion that helps the long winter months pass by.
Barr lived in an even smaller shack his first eight winters in Gothic. He first came there in 1972 as a Rutgers University environmental science student doing water chemistry research. He finished his last semester to get his degree and immediately became a year-round Gothic resident, working for the lab and happily giving up the urban life in New Jersey for the peace and quiet.
“I grew up in the city. It was too much for me,” said Barr, whose move to Gothic was a conscientious choice to walk away from people.
Barr is single. A thin, soft-spoken 63-year-old, with longish gray hair and a gray beard, he says he’s more social than he used to be, but always was nervous in social interactions, including among women.
“The natural environment can be pretty severe but you can also interact with it sensibly and you’ll be OK. You can’t say that about people,” he said.
Except for a few caretakers at the research lab, Barr has Gothic to himself in the winter.
“It’s not necessarily lonely,” he said of his life there, adding that that can depend on the winter.
Winter access to Gothic is achieved by a four-mile ski; no motorized traffic is allowed. Barr says it’s easy enough to ski when the trail has been broken, under an hour for him even after 40 years. He usually makes the trip two or three times a month so he can restock in Crested Butte with essentials like fruit, vegetables — and movies.
But the skiing route passes avalanche paths, and Barr got caught in one slide, breaking ribs.
“I was lucky I didn’t die,” he said.
He finds the winters less enjoyable than he once did, and has bought a place in Gunnison with the idea of being able to move there later in life. But he says he plans to keep living in Gothic as long as he’s healthy. Life’s not that difficult there, says Barr, who says some of his favorite memories are of returning from a hard ski to Crested Butte and watching a movie.
“I have wireless Internet at my house. How difficult is that?” said Barr, who considers his life far easier than that of a homeless person living in New York City.
“I couldn’t do that for a day,” he said.
Barr’s favorite movie is “The Princess Bride,” which he considers a clever, sweet film. During his interview for this story, he fingered a cricket ball. Over the years he has watched a lot of Bollywood films, and that’s what triggered his interest in cricket and led to him introducing it to people studying at the research lab.
“I learned a lot about the game and we started playing. A lot of people play,” Barr said.
He thinks part of the value of the climate data he has gathered in Gothic is that he wasn’t out to prove any point in doing so. There’s no hidden agenda behind his work, which began before there was much awareness that the climate might be warming.
He doesn’t see himself as a scientist on a mission. Rather, he thinks he lives a simple and boring life hardly worthy of a story.
“I’m just a cricket player,” he says with another smile, turning the cricket ball over and over in his hand.