On The Temporal Nature of Loss

burnt house

Photo courtesy of B. Frank

Way I remember it, he was wearing a corduroy jacket, or maybe it was wool flannel — either would have stood out as old-school, since we were already living in the age of miraculously wicking fabrics with trademarked and patented pedigrees, available even to thrift-shop-haunting dirtbags like me. I’d been following his outbound ski tracks for a mile or so away from the snowshoe-chopped roadside trail. I was climbing with my partner toward a paradise best left unnamed, the better to keep trail-choppers from realizing how easy it is to reach from a certain over-used highway in my home range.

He appeared at the top of a hill and stepped out of his ski tracks. While waiting for us to pass, he pulled out a battered old thermos and poured himself a cup of steaming dark brew. As we neared and could see his white-whiskered chin and weathered face, I idly speculated that he might’ve started skiing these mountains before I’d been born.

After exchanging comments with the old man about the day’s snow and sunshine, as people tend to do about impermanent things, we skied toward paradise, he continued down his back-trail, and I forgot that day for years — until just now as I pass by the soon-to-be-forgotten hulk of yet another piece of my home range’s history.

To hear the mourning former regulars tell it today, without the Hollywood Bar, there will be no haven from the “ … hippie bar across the street,” no place a man can “ … get a cheap beer, shoot some pool and go smoke a joint on the patio out back.” You see, this is the story of the last days of the Hollywood, a bar with a reputation for trouble and comfort, for providing sustenance to sawmill savages, dam-builders, fire-fighters, dirtbags and bar bums of all stripes, so long as you kept your name off the 86ed list. One local remembers hanging out at the Hollywood as a child, while his mother tended bar and added a few more names to the list, some with a note that the ban would last a lifetime.

As with my version of skiing paradise, I’m not going to name the town the Hollywood called home, so you’ll have to seek it out if it’s that important. If you find it, though, nothing will look the same to you, because the history is different now — so let’s go back to those final days. The tin ceiling tiles wore a bronze patina of ancient cigarette smoke, and there were brown splatters above the ceiling fan from the time a guy got his throat cut at the bar below. (It’s said he lived. It’s also said that Cactus Ed Abbey drank here, but that might not be any special distinction, judging by the author’s self-reported reputation.)

A couple years back, I took a newly arrived resident of my home range to the Hollywood, hoping to show him a piece of the area’s history, but since I’d last been there, the bar had been bought by a Texan, who’d replaced the tattered tables and ripped chairs with polyurethane-smelling wooden booths. The bartender treated my friend (a scion of a still-wild place in another urban-wildland-interface blighted state that [you’re right] I won’t name here) like a tourist. I left with only the blood-splattered ceiling, the bar-top with generations of names carved into it and a silent television screen showing a burning oil rig as reminders that the Hollywood still had a bit of history in it. I never went back inside to witness its decline into yet another sanitized caricature of a mountain-town bar. Now, of course, I wish I had.

My partner and I walked by a day before the fire, noted that karaoke night was just beginning, and went across the street to the “hippie bar.” It’s a micro-brewery that serves good food, while providing a place for traveling musicians to earn a little gas money to get to bigger, more lucrative gigs on the other side of the mountains. At least a couple of local kids have grown up behind the bar and in the kitchen, washing dishes and helping make the place a destination for the area’s younger set, along with more than a few miracle-fabric-clad dirtbags. I’ve seen forest workers, construction crews, skiers, river-rats and rednecks mingle there. The brewery was packed, the band was good and the next time I saw the Hollywood, there was a bouquet of flowers in an old Jim Beam bottle on the sidewalk, in front of a burned-out hulk.

Crime-scene tape blocks the door. A sign says that arson is suspected and warns that trespassing is a felony. The old stone walls are blackened, the roof gone. Firefighters say the blaze was so hot that it almost ignited an apartment building next door. Local gossip says the bartender 86ed an unruly patron, who slipped around back and started the fire a couple hours later. The bartop, the ceiling, the list of 86ed lifers, the still-new wooden booths, the pool table — from the alley behind the patio, it looks like a total loss.

The owner of the hardware store down the street remembers that his wife’s family ran the place back in the sawmill days, but now the mill site is underwater behind the dam, and the people who remember those days are dying off, or selling out to new folks who are more likely to take their kids to a micro-brewery with live music than a bar with blood on the ceiling and karaoke Wednesdays.

I now have almost as much white in my beard as the old man who broke trail to paradise, and as losses keep piling up in my personal history, I’m spending less time with other graybeards lamenting changes in my home range. More often, you’ll see me nursing a good micro-brew while I eavesdrop on the multifarious life stories playing out around me. Here’s to hoping the next time I pass through that little town, at least a couple of the Hollywood’s old regulars will be bellied up to the bar with me.

Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” He splits his time between the Colorado Plateau and the Border Country.

G+W≠C±MG= MDTU — The Mountain Dirtbag Transportation Unit Formula

[Caveat to the Greek chorus: Some of the following may wound the sensibilities of traditionalists, neo-hippies/rednecks, new/used car hawkers and litigation-minded attorneys. While the MDTU conversion equation makes no attempt to correct for personal bias and inaccurately remembered historical details, even science-based, peer-reviewed computer models seem to provide ample fodder for change-denial-types, and are likely no more accurate. Please keep in mind that the writer still owns several mostly roadworthy MDTUs of sundry vintage, and drives them more than is prudent or defensible in this century. All models remain anonymous for their own protection.]

Volkswagon Bug

1972 — Ass, gas or grass

Gallon of gas (36¢)
Minimum wage ($1.60)
Chevron stock ($3.77)
Mountain Gazette (50¢)
MDTU equivalent?
A used VW Bug (or van if you want to risk being hassled by The Man).

Best I recall, my personal ride was the mid-’60s Ford Custom sedan-tank that would get me my first driver’s license — but stylistically, I was a bit of a late-bloomer.

Chevy Truck

1984 — Dirtbag-free “Morning in America”

Gasoline ($1.22.9) +Wage ($3.35)  Chevron ($8.75) ± Mountain Gazette (on publishing hiatus) =

MDTU (well-used 8-cylinder redneck caddilac, $1,000)

I was driving the 1971 Chevy pickup named Lucy from Canada to Mexico, while, back in Idaho, another dirtbag burned all the firewood I left at the funky trailer I sublet to him. He also didn’t pay the rent, ran up my phone bill, and had left the place a shambles when I returned travel-sated and broke a few months later, but we eventually made peace.

 

1992 — “The economy, stupid.”

$1.17.9 (Gas) + $4.25 (Wage)  $16.75 (Chevron) ± still MIA (MG) = POS K-car, 40 mpg (MDTU)

Gas Price Chart

Gas prices: U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Ah, Lucette K. Car, the Mountain Dirtbag Transportation Unit of my dreams. When oil embargos and corporate ineptitude almost sank Chrysler under the weight of its grandma-mobiles in the late-’70s, an upstart CEO authorized a startling innovation, the intentional design of piece-of-shit (POS) autos for the American proletariat and commuter class. I bought Lucette after her newness had been worn off by a seriously nervous (to judge by the worn clutch and cigarette-burned car seat) nuclear physicist commuting to Los Alamos lab. The ’71 Chevy became my domicile, and I towed Lucette to take-outs and trailheads so that solo river trips and through backpacks could be completed without practicing social skills.

Susie Baroo

2001 — Lucette is dead, long live Susie Baroo

(I know, I know — United We Stand; but with all above apologies, this is my POS MDTU formula)

G (1.64) + W (5.15)  C (45.25) + MG (now free in many fine mountain establishments) = MDTU (1986 4WD Suby wagon, $300)

By now, the field-tested data-set had led to locating a still-running 10+-year-old vehicle, telling the owner it was a piece of shit worth less than I was offering, and then finding a mechanic with a sympathetic streak for POS mountain dirtbags’ transportation units.

2011— Great Recession, continued

G (3.70) + W (7.25)  C (101.28) + MG (still free, but ya oughta have a home subscription by now, it bumps cred in mountain dirtbag society) = MDTU (1999 4WD 6-cylinder pickup, w/towing package)

Gas Prices Continued

Average Annual Gasoline Pump Price, 1919–2004 

(“On average, the price of gasoline was higher in 2004 than it has ever been before; however, when adjusted for inflation (constant dollars), gasoline cost more in 1981 than it does today.” Bush 2.0 et al)

Through asymmetric warfare, inflation, economic collapse and hope for change, MDTUs track the market, meaning the perceptive dirtbag will find ample “redneck Cadillacs” 10 years after love-bugs and hippie vans, high-mpg POS cars 10 years after oil industry terrorism cycles, battered POS Subys and Toy trucks after neo-hippies have tired of them and gone back to “real life” and family, muscled-up pickups and SUVs 10 years after the oil/politico conspiracy convinced the trembling masses that a 4WD mini-tank would be the perfect family mom-van. I hope this illustrates how a mountain dirtbag could justify acquiring a 22-mpg 4WD pickup, even while gasoline prices creep past record levels each year just as mud season brings an itch to hit the road.

2012 — Mayan calendar; what Mayan calendar?

Let’s review the formula: G (gas price per gallon) + W (minimum wage)  C (Sorry, Chevron, but you took over Texaco and Union Oil, so receive my cudgel blows by proxy) + MG (let’s keep it on the plus side, shall we) = MDTU?

Lucy and Susie Baroo live on, albeit reduced to occasional shuttles and roadside camps. My current 4WD MDTU involved hours of sweat and blood piecing second-hand parts onto a sweet-running hulk with a T-boned frame. As the odometer nears 300,000 miles, I’m eyeing a tandem bicycle that a young friend of mine was riding the other day, as a possible MDTU of the future. He and some buddies built it with salvaged frames of single-speed bikes, attached side-by-side to a common rear axle so that no matter how many dirtbags are going your way, you can add another pair of legs to the pedaling chores by welding on another frame. I figure with all the designer cruisers in mountain towns these days, there should soon be plenty of orphans lying about, and this century’s mountain dirtbags will know just what to do with them.

G+WC+MG=? Let the equation be your guide.

Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream: Testing the Ragged Edge of Machismo.” He splits his time between the Border Country and the Colorado Plateau. His blog, Ragged Edge, can be found at mountaingazette.com.

 

Talking Interfaced Red State Blues

U.S. Drought Monitor

Moderate Drought

Outside, three Ponderosa pines shed needles onto a yard that is dry as an old man’s fart, despite the feeble stream pissing from my hosts’ garden hose — our “best practices” attempt to maintain a barely green buffer that just may keep the deep research facility from going up like a totally interfaced candle, if fire comes down from the ridge. Across the state, several dozen houses went up in smoke the other day. To the south, the Land of Enchantment set a new record for acres burned. Close to home, the headwater ridges two rivers east send impressive carbon-laden columns skyward. Meanwhile, a Rep-rat fingers dead trees on roadless public land as the culprit and Dem-rats take the bait, howling that politicization of natural disasters is unfair, to which all good Rep-rats respond … well, you’ll have to follow all this on your quote-mongering media super-corp of choice, ’cause it’s about time to move the garden hose again.

Last year, the U.S. Drought Monitor map showed Texas redder than the great decider’s favorite election-map wet dream, while my home range delivered soothing acre-feet of watery manna to the Colorado Basin’s fret-filled real estate schemes. A Texas forest I pass through a couple times each year caught fire, and a few hundred houses surrounded by decades-old tinder didn’t stand a chance. Now, it looks like our turn.

While most of Texas fades to a comparatively soothing “Moderate Drought” beige and fire-insurance windfall dream home speculators build new fodder on the ashes, ever-growing patches of the interior Mountain West turn “Extreme Drought” red. We’ve been through all this before, of course — try any year of the current century (the drought map first appeared in the lame-duck season of the Clinton era). If you compare the statistics, you’ll see that, most years, more of the Mountain West is in some stage of drought than not. Whether human-caused (or cyclic) global climate change is to blame is another quote-generating dream match entirely, and will be lightly skipped over in this consideration of humans’ recurring interface with forest fire reality.

No matter how many houses burn this year, with attendant personal tragedies aggregated into prize-winning tear-jerkers for our browsing pleasure, humans will want to buy houses in a forest next year — thereby ensuring that ensuing years will have ample quote-generating “natural” disasters, and I’m wondering whether it’s a case of nature or nurture.

When their state is on the fire line, governors across the political spectrum line up for deficit-deepening federal bail-outs, and despite election-year posturing over whether to insure humans with pre-existing medical conditions (even the arguably-not-quite-fringe-enough Rep-rat candidate for President now advocates a corporate profit-protecting option of not insuring people who’ve ever been un-insured), neither party questions the economic wisdom of selling fire insurance on new houses built in forests guaranteed by nature to burn some day.

While leaving the defense of “no federal aid for disaster victims” and “no insurance=death” positions to a certain seriously fringe failed Rep-rat presidential candidate (who also proposes selling off all public lands and closing the Department of Interior to help “Restore America”), and preparing myself for howls of outrage and accusations of insensitivity bordering on barbarity from those of the kinder/gentler persuasion, I do humbly question the widening support for “mitigating” swaths of public lands so that housing developments can keep pushing the suburban interface deeper into fire-dependant Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine forests. Maybe, just maybe, periodic wildfires visible to urban centers could serve as fair warning, even as they renew the forests from bug-kills and over-harvesting growth cycles.

Woody Guthrie Woody Guthrie

(World Telegram photo by Al Aumuller, courtesy Library of Congress)

Now, I know all rants should lead to a grand solution for politicos and pundits to argue unto dust, but the talking blues isn’t about solutions. The masters of the genre — Guthrie, Dylan, et al. — only described the problem as they saw it, and then laid out a poor man’s survival strategy. It worked for them, and I figure it’ll be good enough for an itinerant scribbler sitting in a mobile deep research facility in the southwest edge of a Ponderosa forest.

Yes, friends and enemies, the facility is on wheels for this summer of our drought. In talking blues tradition, I’m leaving solutions to those with more ambition than me, and less desire for personal survival. Most fires in my home range move east and north, most of the time, so I’ll be hitting the road at the first smoke coming over the ridge to the west or up the river from the south, collecting all living things that will fit into my research facility as I go. Not much of a strategy, I know, but then I haven’t bought enough insurance or political capital to afford many unnecessary chances.

To cut through aggregations of disaster-spin politics, and find out how close this year’s wildfires are to your own personal facilities, I suggest regularly checking the InciWeb page for your region. To learn about wildfire ecology, you could start here, check out Ponderosa and Lodgepole fire cycles, and then take a walk in your local woods. Right now, it’s time to move that hose again.

River-folk in Academia-land

Colorado River
April 1907. Mud cracks in clay deposited by the Colorado River in Baja California, Mexico. Photo: C.E. Grunsky, U.S. Geological Survey

Before greed, avarice, obsession and sundry other humanly traits got him banished, Sméagol was one of the river-folk populating the Anduin (Great River) landscape of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” Then his cousin found a golden ring in the river’s mud. Instead of tossing the damn thing back, the cousin showed it Sméagol, who then killed him and stole it. Eventually the ring was stolen from Sméagol too, and he kept chasing it long after he should’ve just tossed himself in the river for one long last float.

A recent account from a couple of recent Colorado College grads who’d paddled the length of the Colorado River toward the Sea of Cortez has gotten me thinking of Tolkien, hobbits and lords of the ring. The two, Zak Podmore and Will Stauffer-Norris, recounted their trip in Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project 2012 Report Card, which describes student-led studies of the effects of agriculture, climate, environment, diversions, recreation and water laws on the Colorado River basin. The entire effort is well worth a read, though Podmore and Stauffer-Norris definitely get my vote for most bad-ass senior project. (OK, post-grad — but they had to schedule it around Podmore’s Grand Canyon permit, for gawdsake.)

Starting in a snowbank in Wyoming, they paddled or portaged about 1,400 miles of variously human-impacted Rocky Mountain landscape, and four months later they climbed out of an irrigation ditch in Mexico to the bemused stares of some local fishermen (quoting Podmore here, “The fisherman smiled sadly at the confused gringo. ‘El Rio Colorado?’ He shook his head and chuckled. ‘No hay agua en El Rio Colorado.’”). Judging by Stauffer-Norris’ pictures, our hero pair looked only a little hobbit-like after four months of navigating the river’s obstacle course of dams, reservoirs, trip permits, disappearing flows and (Podmore again), “… between the source and the delta, the river also happened to take us through some of the most spectacular canyons in the world … ”

Colorado River
February 2005 Colorado River in Arizona. Photo: USGS

Humanly traits long ago stopped the Colorado from reaching its natural outlet, and the Rockies are no longer populated by simple river and mountain-folk satisfied to leave golden rings lying in the river’s mud, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever again see fresh mud deposits on the delta like the one from 1907 I found among the photographic gems of the USGS library, but the river still flows from the Wind River and Never Summer Mountains, through canyons described, photographed, interpreted and exploited to a fair-the-well. If you live in or below the Rocky Mountains, the reports put out by Colorado College since 2004 are a good resource for deepening your understanding of how our landscape is faring under our decidedly schizophrenic stewardship.

Gollum
Gollum, illustration credit: Guillermo García-Ruiz Pimentel

“One Ring to rule them all. One Ring to find them. One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,” says the inscription on Tolkien’s “One Ring” that led Sméagol to kill, steal, change his name to Gollum and hide inside a mountain until he finally met his end in a volcano, still fighting for the ring. Reading through the findings of this year’s State of the Rockies with “The Lord of the Rings” in mind, I’m tempted to end this little exploration by drawing a parallel to the tragedy of simple hobbits grasping for overweening power — but I haven’t taken time to parse the volumes of academic-speak that would allow me to discourse on the literary merits and demerits of Tolkien’s allegories, so I’m off to float another river.

Destination Occupy! Your Principled Resistance Tour Planner

“For months the great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy
Land was chatted about in the newspapers everywhere in America
and discussed at countless firesides.”
— Mark Twain, “Innocents Abroad”, 1869

It started with a frustrated street vendor in Tunisia, who set himself on fire and ignited an Arab Spring. Or maybe it was Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Libya’s Benghazi-centered breakaway, Madison’s capitol take-over, Spain’s “Indignant” movement, Greece’s Aganktismenoi (“The Outraged”), or … — maybe you’ve already formed an opinion of the circumstances, but, by autumn 2011, a fair number of public parks and squares world-wide looked like Yosemite’s Camp 4 in the 1970s. A sometimes motley and contentious, always opinionated crowd of campers gathered into discussion groups and planning committees with as much passion as dirtbag climbers debating “first ascent” ethics.

After Wall Street’s bronze bull statue was briefly “occupied” by a group of American protestors and scenes from New York’s Zuccotti (nee Liberty Plaza) Park had become a nightly news-bite, one multi-millionaire presidential wannabe (former pizza-chain mogul, talk-radio host, “success gospel” preacher) felt moved to say, “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” while another (a mega-millionaire job-hunting ex-venture/vulture capitalist/governor) fretted, “I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare.”

While thinking of class warfare on the 10th anniversary of the opening of our apprehensive empire’s ongoing experiment in perpetual “extra-judicial” detention known as Guantanamo, I bought this little book that’s been touted as a philosophical grounding for the burgeoning protests of 2011:

Time For Outrage
"Time for Outrage," by Stephane Hessel (Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 2011)

The book’s red cover does looks a lot like the “Quotations from Chairman Mao” that a Fidel-cap-wearing, latte-sipping fellow revolutionary thought I’d found as I browsed the shelves of Tucson’s Revolutionary Grounds coffeehouse/bookstore, but in a tale of divergent career paths from the seldom-mourned Chairman/Emperor Mao, it was written by a French Resistance fighter whose life after World War II has been devoted to universal human rights and non-violent principled resistance.

Occupy! FUQs

After duly considering some Frequently Unanswered Questions:  Quis (who?), Quid (what?) Quando (when?), Ubi (where?), Cur (why?), Quem ad modum (in what way?) and Quibus adminiculis (by what means?) through many long winter nights, this out-of-seasonal-work warrior’s thoughts lightly turned to vacation planning.

Now, as mud-season rules mountain trails and High-Country powder slopes become time-sensitive minefields of corn and concrete, the editorial brain-trust has permitted me to share my resources for designing your own once-in-a-lifetime Occupy! Adventure.

“Indignez-vous” and its English translation, “Time for Outrage,” have sold more than 3.5 million copies world-wide since its publication in late 2010. Now 93, Stephane Hessel exhorts oppressed younger citizens to turn outrage into a force for change. Though some reviewers have disparaged “Indignez-vous” as reminiscences of an old man that lack examination of the extenuating circumstances of the oppression he cites, I suggest using it as a pocket guide to your own journey of resistance.

Here you may wonder, “Well, resistance to exactly what?” Good question, future traveler! Shall we turn to M. Hessel’s little red book? “The wealthy have installed their slaves in the highest spheres of state. The banks are privately owned. They are concerned solely with profits. They have no interest in the common good. The gap between rich and poor is the widest it’s ever been; the pursuit of riches and the spirit of competition are encouraged and celebrated.”

He continues, “The basic motive of the Resistance was indignation. We of the French Resistance and combat forces that freed our country, call on you …” — and I can’t help personally reflecting just a little on whether my dad came home from World War II with an “American Dream” of obscene profit for a wealthy 1% amid social insecurity for 99%; but I digress — back to Hessel: “Franklin Delano Roosevelt articulated the ‘Four Freedoms’ he felt people ‘everywhere in the world’ had a right to enjoy. Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.”

Points taken, and I could go on quoting old Stéphane until I get labeled a Francophile and placed on a “do not serve Freedom Fries” list, so I’ll just note that Hessel’s “Indignez-vous” and outrage led him to help write 1948’s United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and leave the rest of his story in his books and writings for further consideration. If you’re curious about what some Americans resent about the concept of an elite 1% pillaging the economy while everybody else eats humble pie, click on something called Wearethe99percent.tumblr.com. It had this graybeard 99%er mumbling worker-solidarity slogans.

So, let’s say you’re feeling outraged, indignant and want to know when and where to go. Ah, fellow traveler, look no further, for this is an election year in the empire, and the world-wide web of social networking is a dream date for any budding revolutionary, at least until evil corporate/empire genies take over the filtering technologies of your local internet provider. Facebooking protestors, cell-phone-wielding citizen journalists, tweeting reporters, adbusters.org and an on-line group called Anonymous (self-described as “a decentralized network of individuals focused on promoting access to information, free speech, and transparency”) have worked around almost every attempt to block information about protest times and actions. For the latest techno-wizardry designed to defeat jack-booted digital censorship thugs, my best advice is to visit the group of disaffected youths that haunt certain parks and internet cafes in almost every mountain resort town. Your source may have a hard time trusting anybody who doesn’t fluently speak the jargon, so approach slowly and with latte in hand.

OK, now you’ve done your networking research while finding common ground with some local rabble-rousers, and may be ready to book passage on the 2012 Resistance Tour. Since experienced “Occupiers” are already on the ground in most major urban areas around the world, climate considerations, the proximity of family and friends and your own “bucket list” of travel desires should be your guide. I do, however, have a few suggestions to offer, and some of them could re-define adventure travel.

According to one Spanish “Indignant,” some of the “Occupy Wall Street” organizers visited Spain in July to research techniques, and now we have a vast pool of experienced citizen-protestors on our own shores. Pick a city, and take an expendable tent. With proper timing, you could help shut down a port for a day, or get yourself YouTubed while overzealous authorities go all redneck on you. For overseas adventures, tread lightly in any country that doesn’t remember its last election, beware the zealots of any class, and the world is your oyster. Faded empires Britain (Olympics anyone?) and Rome have fresh “austerity measures” to keep the masses unhappy. Greece and Spain should be restive as always, and springtime weather on the Mediterranean sure looks attractive.

Closer to home, the Repubs will convene on Tampa, Florida, in August, and the week after that, it’s up the coast to North Carolina for the Dems. Meanwhile, all political candidates will be pressing flesh and pounding our eardrums in search of votes, and a little “occupation” theology birdie tells me that some should be facing uncomfortable questioning by an indignant constituency. I’m just saying …

A merry band of “occupiers” followed the Rose Bowl floats through Pasadena a few months back. Though national television didn’t see fit to leave the cameras running, by all accounts, the parade-watching crowd cheered them on, and several thousand joined in. This opens an entire season of civic-minded possibilities — just avoid steaming piles left by equine-mounted royalty and remember to keep waving at the masses as you pass. Don’t enjoy crowds? OK, consider helping a foreclosed neighbor re-occupy a bank’s “troubled asset” with resources from www.occupyourhomes.org.

Occupy Tour
Photo cred: B. Frank

IF YOU GO

For more ideas, search for 2011 word-of-the-year “occupy” on your favorite corporate search engine (two sites that come up on my searches are: www.meetup.com/occupytogether/ and www.occupyeverything.org), network with the home-grown resistance ideologues in your own backyard and then follow your conscience to a deeper understanding of an observation spoken during the year I first embraced principled outrage as a motivational tool: “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free!’” (Martin Luther King, supporting Memphis garbage workers on April 3, 1968).

The day after MLK delivered the above speech was a reminder that ideologues with guns can end lives and terrorize dreams, but 2012 can reaffirm the ineffectual nature of violence and intimidation against a citizenry grown indignant with the status quo. Now go “occupy” your own destination, and see what the FUQs are all about.

 

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “Snipe Hunting in the War Zone: A Diary of Peculiar Madness,” which appeared in #186. Frank, author of “Livin’ the Dream,” splits his time between the Four Corners and the Border Country.  

 

On Traveling Local — Etiquette for the Dirtbag Diplomat

Look at the face. Make eye contact. Smile. Nod.

These four simple acts may garner a return smile, invaluable advice, a conversation or at least a wider piece of sidewalk or trail from which to observe the habits of the local fauna. While wandering the urbanized wilderness of our too-often-fearful empire, extensive personal research of the above techniques of diplomatic behavior has led to free meals, drinks, lodging and more than my fair share of opportunities to participate in activities best described as “of dubious legality.” (Except, of course, from members of a techno-benumbed control group of cell-phone tapping, ear-budded zombies. These are best avoided like a leprotic orgy-crasher on a Roman holiday.) Oh, and the life stories. There is something irresistible about a friendly stranger when life’s good or bad days breach walls of discretion and inhibition, which can sometimes lead to sticky situations. Artful dodging skills are best learned early, lest the peripatetic dirtbag become a sedentary bit player in someone else’s tragicomedy.

The Artful Dodger, by “Kyd” 1890

(The Artful Dodger, by “Kyd” 1890)

A minor, usually pleasant side effect of “traveling local” is being mistaken for an actual local by other (usually better-dressed) fellow travelers. Often, good-sounding information just gleaned from an actual local can be re-packaged on the spot to improve your questioner’s day, and in some few instances may change his or her life. Sort of like backcountry guiding, without the tips or glory. In recent years, as my travels take me mostly to locales visited at least once before, being misrecognized as a seldom-seen local has wrapped me in a diplomatic pouch of graybeard immunity from suspicion. Even the occasional enforcement type smiles at me when I least expect it, and except for a scattering of embittered aging males who assume I’m disappointed with life too, most tragedians seem to lean on other, younger, broader shoulders.

There is another complication though, that budding travelers a la “local” should expect. Among the chaff of smiles, nods and pleasantries are a few unforgettable kernels. A face, a voice, a story that will come back on you during long night drives between the leaving and getting there. You’ll wonder how a life has gone, whether the tragedy or comedy you unobtrusively slipped away from at intermission ever had a happy ending. Short of seeking out the players later (seldom a good survival tactic for one’s own emotional equilibrium), the odds of closure are slim, unless your unforgettable kernel was a storyteller, able to evoke just how it felt.

While slipping through the stage-sets of my earlier lives, these days I’m hunting stories. In bars and cafes, in the yellowed pages of old newspapers or books, in magazines with dead addresses peeling from the covers, in names overheard from casual passersby and in current publications that are worth reading. Occasionally, a story connects to a remembered face, or tells of a universe where a traveler’s life has paralleled some parts of my own. Now it’s time to note that the tribe has lost another of our storytellers, and learning of this has me remembering an extensive life list of long-gone faces and landscapes, and the winding down of seasonal jobs and well-spent lives.

Some reading reminds me that all the kernels have not been lived yet though, that ever more people are now playing out their own dreamed lives on mountains and in canyons some of us thought, for a while, to have made our own. Peripatetic young dirtbag diplomats are even now massing along the ragged edges (the wildernext) of the empire’s sprawling urban/suburban/New Urban chancres, and some younger fellow travelers are telling stories by turns lyrical, outrageous and all points in between, on pages my own stories are sometimes privileged to precede or follow, and in the conversations and returned smiles that sometimes reward practitioners of the ancient diplomatic arts.

This spring, when a seasonal job or school year ends and the faraway beckons, go traveling local, and then let your story run free as Toby T. Tyler and his namesake.

Snipe Hunting in the War Zone: A Diary of Peculiar Madness

“Was thinking of taking a trip down to Big Bend last week of Oct.-ish, first week of Nov.-ish … wondering if you’d be inclined to ride along. There it is,” read the e-mail from a fellow traveler.

Being a man of uncertain career goals, with a history of seasonal labors leavened by spells of gloriously under-planned, lightly funded shoulder-season road trips, I wasn’t particularly surprised when the cryptic invitation showed up in my inbox. Though wrapped up with a family crisis involving a body organ in catastrophic failure, I sent him a “Shit yeah, pending a couple minor complications” reply, because I’d just waded through a wave of news articles about a proposed solution to a perceived national inter-departmental problem, to wit:

A Bill

“To prohibit the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from taking action on public lands which impede border security on such lands, and for other purposes.”

These words are the “enacting clause” of H.R.1505 (aka the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act), which then creates Department of Homeland Security autonomy for building roads and/or fences, doing vehicle patrols, setting up surveillance equipment, using aircraft and (quoting the text again), “deployment of temporary tactical infrastructure, including forward operating bases … ,” anywhere on federally administered lands “…within 100 miles of the international land borders of the United States for the activities of U.S. Customs and Border Protection…to achieve operational control…” — followed by a hit list of 36 agricultural, archaeological, environmental, recreation, Sidebarreligious, river, watershed, wilderness and wildlife protection laws the department’s honorable Secretary would rise above for five years after the enactment date (see sidebar).

“Sad want and pouertie makes men industrious,
But law must make them good, and feare obsequious.”
The queen’s argument in “Civil Wars” [1609], Samuel Daniel’s poetic history of medieval discord 

This Day — the nays weigh in …

I find myself in a National Park visitor center with a ranger in full “badge-off” frustration burn-out mode. To my “So, what’s up with this House bill to exempt the Border Patrol from Wilderness rules?” query, the ranger launches into a short legislative history spiced with outrage about “vacating the Organic Act,” ending with advice to, “Look at Google Maps,” to see how many trails the alleged horde of illegal border-crossers had cut through his beloved park. “You won’t see any, because they don’t use Big Bend much,” he said — and you’ll notice I’m not naming names, or claiming to quote the ranger verbatim, because I figure government employees and other sundry locals in “badge-off” moments have as much right as I do to voice passions, without fearing reprisal from the empire’s overlords. Besides, this particular ranger’s camping advice leads to a quiet evening of stars wheeling overhead and kangaroo rats scampering underfoot (sans border-crossers or enforcement types) a couple days later, so let’s leave him in whatever peace can be had in a war zone.

Next day, while fellow traveler and I are sipping beverages a coyote’s stone throw from the international border with Mexico as defined by a mighty little Rio Grande (aka Rio Bravo del Norte), a passing park biologist can’t think of any highly trafficked smuggling trails through the National Park either, but offers up concern over the effects off-road vehicle patrols would have on Wilderness Study Areas that are his responsibility.

As I drain my brew, I resolve to ask the next border enforcement type I meet about Homeland Security’s need to remove the Big Bend country from Interior Department control. Good plan, except we don’t meet a patrol in the three days we spend wandering along the dirt road that parallels the border for almost 100 miles. Our only official contact is with a couple of volunteers. One is in the park to manage the construction of Border Patrol housing, and in his spare time he visits inquisitive tourists and describes how difficult it is to get Americans to come build houses this far from El Paso. He notes that there is plenty of cheap labor just across the river, but … yeah, I know, I know — Border Economics 101, again.

Map of Area

The four impoverished villages immediately south of the Rio have been devastated by post-9/11 security measures in the not-so-Bravo Norte. Border crossings have been closed, and even when the Boquillas station re-opens this spring, south-side residents will have to travel to a U.S. Consulate to get the proper documents. The closest one is almost 400 miles away. Meantime, walking sticks, beaded jewelry, wire scorpions and hand-painted rocks appear on the north-side shore, with signs such as, “Please purchase to help Boquillas children go to school,” while the official Park newspaper The Paisano (complete with picture of sombrero-topped peasant in full fetal squat) warns, “Items purchased will be considered contraband and seized by officers when encountered.” Reading on in “Big Bend and the Border” I come to this statement, “each year, hundreds [emphasis added] of people travel north through the park seeking to enter the United States.” I winter in an area that claims to be the busiest sector of the entire border war zone, where each year several hundred people die of thirst trying to get to El Norte, possibly more than pass through this park’s 801,163 acres. I’m a little underwhelmed, and can feel any fears of unwanted encounters with desperate construction-work seekers dissipating along with the effects of one mid-afternoon beverage within sight of our threatened international border.

After sampling vistas from the rim of a 1,000-foot-deep canyon and an 8,000-foot peak, hiking desiccated hills topped by abandoned mines, and camping in multiple unsecured camps within sight of the Rio with no illicit tracks or security patrols obvious to my curious gaze, a few days later we retire from this fine specimen of the nation’s crown jewels for refreshment. Multiple conversations with variously lubricated denizens of a National Park gateway town to the west produce no concern with cross-border traffic, except that enforcement efforts farther west might force some drug smuggling gangs into using the Rio’s canyons to slip past tighter patrols elsewhere. As one veteran river rat sums it up, “In over 20 years of guiding on this river, I’ve had more trouble with bubbas from Midland than with any Mexicans.”

“‘Content thee, thou unskillful man,’ he said;
‘my madnesse keepes my subjects in their wits.’”
— Daniel quoting the queen quoting a tyrant in “Civil Wars”

A Different Day — the yeas have it …

After this cold bath of negative local reaction to what certainly can appear to be a one-size-fits-all border security solution imposed from the august halls of big guv’mint, due diligence has me perusing virtual reams of news-bites, congressional testimonies and official endorsements. A press release from H.R.1505 sponsor Rob Bishop (R-Utah) lists 17 organizations and one former think-tank analyst supporting the bill. A scorecard of the groups:

8 – [off-highway vehicle industry and users]
4 – [law enforcement personnel]
3 – [livestock industry]
2 – [multiple-use forest trails advocacy]
1 – [congressional staffer formerly employed by think-tank self-described as staffed by “policy entrepreneurs”]

Each news article about the bill is replete with statements from retired Border Patrol officers and worried border ranchers about the same smuggling hot-spots in southern Arizona, and I’m looking for answers about a need for vehicle patrol access to all the public lands between, in the 100-mile-wide swath along southern, northern and (in Alaska) eastern international land borders of the empire, as defined by H.R.1505.

After reading all the supportive statements and testimonies I can find, I’ve scanned the representative’s list for groups not already quoted to a media fare-thee-well, sent out queries and am picking through the fruitful replies. (Spokespeople will remain unnamed, since they already know who they are.):

Speaking for three OHV groups that use the same office address in California and “government relations office” in Virginia,  a staff member emphasizes that support “has nothing to do with increasing  OHV access” to roadless public lands, and is related to riders’ fears of smuggling gangs along existing trails. He mentions a Border Patrol officer run down on an OHV-accessible sand dune in California, and signs warning of smuggling activity in a national monument in Arizona, but is not aware of specific areas where vehicle patrol access to roadless areas will make riders feel safer.

Representing two livestock groups, another spokesperson sends a statement that supports, “preventing federal land management agencies from using environmental policies to restrict the U.S. Border Patrol from obtaining routine access.” Attached is testimony from a member living by a riparian area turned into a smuggling thoroughfare by tightened enforcement near heavily populated border zones. A promised interview with the group’s president becomes a political potato passed to an Arizona ranching group whose executive vice president reminds me that, “the border is a complicated issue.”

One multiple-use organization supports the bill so members will know it doesn’t oppose it. Their spokesman says he “opposes misinformation from the other side,” that the bill will interfere with recreation management by land agencies. He thinks my question about the bill’s application to a 100-mile-wide zone along the land borders with Mexico and Canada, “sounds kinda funny,” has “no comment” — and then asks me if I’ve checked with H.R.1505’s sponsor.

I’m on the phone with a pleasant-voiced PR person from Representative Bishop’s office, inundated in details. She recites a by now-familiar list of border-war talking points, all taking place within 100 miles of my own winter quarters. The still-unsolved murder of a rancher to the east, the gun battle death of a Border Patrol officer just south in a mountain range I roamed long before it became a war zone, trash along foot trails, a locked gate in a wildlife refuge, wilderness rules altering sensor placements and vehicle patrols, a several-hour delay in constructing a tower to wait for a herd of pronghorns to pass, land managers “extorting” (her word, not mine) habitat mitigation funds from the Homeland Security budget.

Would H.R.1505 address all this? It is meant to be comprehensive, she replies.

Does the congressman want vehicle patrols along all borders? Up to Border Patrol, but wants sensors in any areas not patrolled.

How many federally administered acres does the Representative Bishop think are affected by the laws his bill would waive? She isn’t sure, but says bill covers all land borders.

Including Alaska/Canada border? Yes.

How about tribal lands? She gets this clarification from staff that wrote H.R.1505, “While it doesn’t provide any new authority regarding tribal lands, it would facilitate access within the tribal lands.”

What does “access” mean? Intent of bill is to empower Homeland Security as defined in 2008 by then-Secretary Michael Chertoff. (I quote Chertoff’s “Determination Pursuant to Section 102 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996,” “… to waive certain laws, regulations and other legal requirements in order to ensure the expeditious construction of barriers and roads in the vicinity of the international land border of the United States.” [April 3, 2008])

Would habitat mitigation requirements, such as a current Homeland Security-financed jaguar monitoring project, be waived by the bill? She refers me to the border fence construction policies.

Why a 100-mile-wide zone along the entire border, rather than known hot spots? H.R.1505 language was “guided” by retired Border Patrol personnel, the still-pleasant PR voice tells me, and the bill is meant to address problems “… once and for all.”

I’ve already seen that the current management team at the Department of Homeland Security says they don’t want or need this blanket freedom from oversight, so don’t ask why the bill’s writers turned to retired staff for guidance.

“But well, I see which way the world will go;
And let it go — and so turns her about.”
— Daniel’s queen ends the argument to her king.

Just another Complicated Day in the War Zone — foxhole conversion, anyone?

To the west I see a tribal nation that has survived more than a thousand years of shifting borders and intermittent rule from distant centers of power. The mountain range to the east has tracks of a border-crossing jaguar, and to the southwest is a mountain-side where the oldest known wild jaguar stepped into a fatal trap two years ago. Both were likely repeat border-crossers born in Mexico. On the way to his practice across the border in Nogales, Sonora, my dentist bicycles past a canyon where a Border Patrol agent was shot with a gun supplied through a federal sting operation (begun by a Republican administration, and then continued by a Democratic one). Over the years I’ve known border country ranchers, Border Patrol officers, people who’ve traced kin to a time before written history on either side of the current line, and border-crossers bloodied by run-ins with Border Patrol and desert brush, so when a “once-and-for-all” solution to border smuggling looms on my horizon, I gotta admit a built-in bullshit sensor goes (to paraphrase me long-dead sawmill savage daddy) “fucking ape-shit.”

After dancing the PR/journalist mambo with talking heads from H.R.1505’s backers, I’m considering the complexities of these congressional testimonies:

From border rancher and veterinarian Gary V. Thrasher (supporting the bill last July), come fears over safety at his house just north of the border, outrage about ranching families left “… living in-between the border and the Forward Operating Bases of the Border Patrol,” and irritation that border wall construction in his area was delayed “… for an archaeological study and assessment after an Indian artifact was found.”

Dr. Thrasher concludes, “I beg you to immediately and aggressively take whatever steps are needed to secure our border. H.R. 1505 is an important step in that direction.”

From Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris (supporting a 2008 attempt to reverse the border wall-building waiver), concern that “… fragments of human remains were observed in the tire tracks of the heavy construction equipment.”  He reminds the House committee that his tribe’s residency on both sides of the current border pre-dates the United States, says, “… our land is now cut in half, with O’odham communities, sacred sites, salt pilgrimage routes, and families divided. We did not cross the 75 miles of border within our reservation lands. The border crossed us.”

Chairman Norris wraps it this way, “We know from our own experience living on the border that security can be improved while respecting the rights of tribes and border communities, while fulfilling our duty to the environment and to our ancestors, and without granting any person the power to ignore the law.”

These two men live within a mountain range of my winter quarters, disagree on logistics of border security and deserve a chance to continue being heard. In Texas, the border wall has cut wildlife refuges and ranches in two, leaving some family homes in an unpatrolled no-man’s land between border wall and international border. From the northern border come reports of unreconstructed libertarians and flaming environmentalists actually uniting in fear of a security agency controlling their local public lands, with any semblance of due process waived.

In response, H.R.1505’s sponsor added language to prevent Homeland Security from restricting recreational use of the lands and sunset the bill’s provisions in five years — but who will then patrol the newly built roads, and how will they be secured to control motorized smuggling and recreational use in formerly roadless areas? Most of the 36 laws to be waived were enacted to prevent irreversible damage to species, habitat, cultural artifacts and religious sites; and long-time border residents south and north know that local conditions need special solutions — conditions that change over time. Barring long-term occupation-style militarization of the 100-mile-wide border enforcement zone, patrols are doomed to replay a summer-camp hazing classic, hunting unseen snipe while smugglers run contraband drugs, guns and humans through the border nights.

I greeted the year of our empire’s next political spin cycle in a border-town bar, dancing among gray-haired iconoclasts and 20-something retro-flappers and hipsters. A woman in mourning dress sat lotus-style on the bar. The band, a mix of youth and experience billed as the Border Crossers, took a break and danced with the crowd to “Burning Down the House” from the Talking Heads’ classic album “Stop Making Sense.” A couple miles away, two men were shot outside a bar on the edge of town.

After sleeping at a formerly-grand hotel supposedly patronized by border hero/villain Pancho Villa in life (and by his ghost after death), in a nearby border-town economically devastated by current Homeland Security measures and well-publicized fears real or imagined, I’m standing on a ridge of public land (my land, your land) that touches Mexico. Here the borderline is still a stock fence. Back at the parking lot, a Border Patrol camera scans east and west while an officer sits in his patrol vehicle. Fences, walls, smuggling, insecurity and incongruity, this is border country, so tracks of humans and other animals point north and south, coalescing onto a network of unauthorized trails below my vantage point.

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for MG was “Cool Cats & Dharma Bums: How to Interface with Wildland Archetypes (and Enjoy the Experience)”, which appeared in #185. He splits his time between the Border Country and the Four Corners. 

A Paradise of One’s Own

There is a small Colorado town that masquerades, most of each year, as a down-scale suburb to a meth-and-Tea-Party-plagued low-elevation haven for refugees from the “neo”-liberal/conservative herd that infests nearby ski-industry-dominated counties. Sometime each winter though, a blizzard followed by a cold snap turns the potholed streets to ice. Like a chrysalis opening, an old-fashioned mountain town emerges, and one is best served by a good pair of felt-lined, fur-topped caribou boots until the weather changes.

A certain winter not so long ago, I found myself snowed in on the edge of town, snug as one down-and-out writer/guide-type can expect, in a 1966 Alaskan camper perched on the back of a 1971 Chevy PU (known by me and a select few for the last 27 years as “Lucy,” but that’s another story).

I’d parked the rig in a campground space while attending a WFR recertification class, and a second blizzard made sure I had ample opportunity to read a stack of old National Geographic travel books the owners had put in the laundry room. The previous summer, someone had given me a bottle of high-test booze of uncertain pedigree that tasted not bad if mixed with enough instant cocoa and hot water, so, while snow piled against the half-buried tires and blew through cracks in the Alaskan’s armor, I sat in front of an admittedly unsafe but vastly efficient propane camp heater, and whiled away several long, dark nights in misty contemplation of lands many leagues more tropical than the temporary polar zone outside. On the pages of a couple well-read copies, mountains rose in the background beyond sandy beaches, with enough barely clad nubile fauna frolicking in the foreground waves to fog up a photographer’s lens. I fell in love again, though not with any specific candidates among the nubile fauna, since experience has taught that time changes nearly everything. No, the object of my affection was an old childhood friend, the rediscovered ability to defeat winter doldrums with idle visions of unexplored paradise.

Right now I’m in another landscape, a desert that last year went through a year-long drought that had local cacti re-assessing survival strategies. As I write, the rain has been falling since yesterday morning, is predicted to last through tomorrow or the next day, and while I’m glad as all hell for my succulent friends, personally I’m dreaming of a mountain range I’ll never visit. I’ve been contemplating these mountains for a couple of days now, and here is what I see.

They are jagged (“Teton-like,” say some who’ve had longer to contemplate them than I have), young-looking as mountains go, though old enough that if they resided on the same plane as most of us, they’d likely have eroded down to stumps of themselves. As it is, they seem to have vast, unexplored frozen lakes at their bases, and glacier-carved canyons radiating from peaks where nobody has yet scribbled name, date and profound thoughts in a tattered journal, or built a cairn to say, “I was here!” to all who follow. In fact, these mountains have never been seen by humans, though “discovered” almost 60 years ago. The only visible depictions now are computer-generated models based on measurements taken from planes and from on top of the ice that buries them. They are the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains, named for a Russian scientist who thought of a new way to explore the earth’s crust, and their Alpine topography rises into the underside of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, while their roots (no shit, mountains have ’em too) extend into the earth’s mantle like the unseen base of the iceberg that made Leonardo DiCaprio a disaster chic-flick legend.

The Gamburtsevs are in the news these days because that pesky bane of the right-thinking industrial/extraction complex, science, has reared its head with some new theories on how these unseen physical features of our humble planet came to be as they are where they are, even why they are where they are, in a billion years of mountain-building and erosion processes.

OK, now that I’ve chased away all believers in the hypothesis of a 5,000-year-old-earth, along with anyone put off by the long sentence above that almost became a palindrome for a skinny-assed second there, here (close as my limited understanding of structural geology and mathematic proofs allows) is how it works. Start with several large chunks of our little planet’s crust. If you imagine the next layer of earthly material, the mantle, as a pool of hotter, denser liquid in the hot-tub shared with your favorite ever-desirably nubile and/or virile (fill in personal preference here) fauna after a long day of wintry frolic, it’ll make the next part easier to follow.

The crustal chunks, aka continents, displace enough mantle “liquid” to stay afloat, but not enough to sink, because of the difference in density — just like old Archimedes laid out in his Law of Buoyancy. If you and your imaginary friend(s) set one continent’s edge on top of another, the underneath one sinks, while the top one rises. Looking above and below the surface, you’ll see that one edge of the top continent is highest, while an edge of the bottom one sinks deepest under it. Congratulations, you’ve made the ancestral Gamburtsevs and their roots, circa one billion years ago, and created a supercontinent from two smaller ones. Earth scientists call it Gondwana. Good time for a sip of beverage, if so inclined.

Now wear away the topside for say, 800 or 900 million years, and you could have a mostly flat plain, with a ridge of remnant roots under the long-bonded continents marking the mountains’ birthplace. Then Gondwana begins to break up and causes cracks in the continent near the roots, allowing mantle liquids to warm the old Gamburtsev roots. Heat expansion, structural weakness and buoyancy help create a rift and bend the continent (I know this shit seems weird, but let’s just go with it). The bending may not break what’s left of your supercontinent in two, but it can cause one edge of the rift to sink while the edge above the ancestral roots pushes up. Have another sip, because we have now re-created the paradise of these winter contemplations.

The unfeeling cycle of seasons aboveground starts the erosion process one more time. But (and this is why the Gamburtsevs are how they are where they are today), this particular chunk of crust just happens to float into a polar region of our planet, collects a snow load that puts to shame a ski bum’s wettest dream, and then a massive glacier that would cause even a caribou to think about trekking to the tropics come next migration. Keep adding ice, time and an eventual evolution of exceptionally curious and inventive mammals who have found a way to stop fighting and work together just often enough to parlay thinking some shit up (hypotheses), investigating said hypotheses into theories, testing theories for proofs and then presenting proofs in peer-reviewed journals read by other practitioners of the ancient craft, into a way for one down-and-out writer/former-guide-type to slip through yet another round of cabin fever during our planet’s darkest season.

The sun has broken through the clouds outside my window, and is bathing the western slope of one of my favorite mountain ranges. A monolithic rock I’ve contemplated during many seasons is jutting like the prow of a ship into the golden evening light. Snowcapped peaks glow in the background as I feel the rubble-filled rift below my winter quarters absorbing the life-giving rain.

(Click away for peer-reviewed science about Antarctic rifting and the Gamburtsevs; an educated opinion using Archimedes’ and Newton’s Laws to mathematically prove that a mountain range has roots; and contemplations on using the Law of Buoyancy to fly and float [yeah, the last one is mine, but unlike a lot of peer-reviewed science, you can read it free and only buy the book if the story sucks you in])

Cool Cats & Dharma Bums

“‘… no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene) and to see the errors and wanderings and mists and tempests in the vale below;’ so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling or pride.”
— Sir Francis Bacon, commenting on Roman poet Lucretius in “Of Truth” (1597)

Cool Cats & Dharma BumsLet’s say you’ve driven up the pass from your favorite destination/snowglobe/resort town for a day of fun and frolic on a foot or so of fresh powder. You’ve parked your trusty PU/SUV/Suby/POS mountain car in a just-plowed turnout. Skis are skinned, board is tuned, sled cranked or waffle-stompers tightened to your satisfaction. As you look up from your preparations, stalking toward you in an unhurried way is a somewhat furry, low-slung, powerfully put-together specimen of what a certain number of days and nights “at altitude” hath wrought.

Right now, there are a number of considerations. Does the character look dangerous, hungry, displeased? Have you been seen, or is your visitor just passing by? If seen, should you: A. Jump back in vehicle, lock all doors; B. Step slowly forward, showing no sign of fear or aggression; C. Wait for the other party to make the first move; D. None of the above? It all depends, my friend, so read on …

“If the cat could talk, what a tale he’d tell …”
— Hoyt Axton, from “Della and the Dealer” (1979)

One night last March, I’m in a local establishment, having beers and a burger with a biologist buddy of long acquaintance, catching up on each other’s winter activities. He’s been working in a lynx study team, he says; not studying lynx exactly, but tracking people (voluntary participants all) as they cross paths with lynx, and he thinks my journalistic antennae might be stirring right about now. Tell the truth, in a pleasant fresh-brewed haze, I’m ruminating on a long-ago, failed mid-winter attempt to write a light fiction on a second-hand DOS-code piece of ’80s lap-top technology, concerning what might happen if a recently released Colorado-immigrant lynx were to get the bright idea to start walking back to its Canadian homeland, and of a snow-flattened skeleton I found a few years later, in a timberline meadow that had me thinking that this wouldn’t have been a bad place to die … better than some I’d known.

I’m just puzzling out whether I stowed the skeleton’s cat-like skull somewhere in my piles of abandoned gear and assorted flotsam, or if I had left it lying there in the newly sprouted meadow grasses, when my reverie is broken by the very instinct my biologist buddy thought might be killing my buzz. Damn it, he’s right, this might be a good story — except that I’m pretty sure I’m not a journalist, or (as one of my current favorite country-alt-singer-poets puts it) “a drunk with a pen,” but prefer to think of myself as a harmless sort with a lively imagination and a penchant for disappearing into wildlands unencumbered by uplinking technology.

He sets the hook by pointing out something to the effect that this study could add a little more scientific knowledge to the pyre of opinion-mongering on whether, when and where motor- vs. human-powered methods of recreation may (or may not) affect lynx usage of survivable habitat. Now, before too many excitable members of either fringe decide to clamor for heads-on-a-stick a la Gaddafi, let me hasten to add that participating in the group activity known as “citizen science” can be a democratic chance to add knowledge as studies are being conducted, rather than flinging insults, brickbats and lawsuits after the results are in.

How the story’s gone so far (wherein ol’ Uncle B. promises to keep it short and sweet as possible)

Though Lynx canadensis once roamed all the high mountain ranges of North America, the last confirmed sighting of a wild one in Colorado was in 1973 near Vail, via habeas corpus (a trapper produced the body). By the mid-1990s, the cat’s possible listing as an Endangered Species had become a political potboiler featuring multiple unofficial sightings, inconvenient tracks in the path of a mega-resort expansion scheme, the ELF, FBI, etc. — the typical alphabet soup of such shadowy intrigues. Here could begin a recitation of calls to rage at the machine, with responses fearing a scourge of eco-terrorists on our shores; but recalling my promise of short and sweet, we’ll be skipping lightly back to the High Country, circa 1999, when the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) brought Canadian-born lynx to the San Juan Mountains.

Three of the first four re-introduced cats came, saw and died. The release team re-caught the last one, and regrouped. The next releases went better, as biologists figured out how to fatten their captives for the necessary lean times of getting to know the lay of a new homeland upon release. Sort of a mountain locavore training session — with snowshoe hares, squirrels, voles and mice in place of memorizing all the “burger-and-a-pint” nights in a ski-town.

By 2006, CDOW was still releasing about a dozen newly captured lynx a year, and an adventurous few were wandering far from the release area. As is the wont of wildlife biologists, released lynx were fitted with radio collars, which showed immigrant lynx moving into the High Country near Vail and Summit County, and traced some venturing to lynx-unfriendly cultural climes. Think Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas. Some of the stay-at-homes were having babies, anchoring Colorado’s wildland population with a crop of 50 or so 1st-generation kits in 2005, and even a litter from a Colorado-born lynx the next year. Then a brush with disaster when no lynx births were recorded in 2007 or 2008, and hyperbolic press accounts started raising the specter of a failed reintroduction. Snowshoe hare populations had crashed, and female lynx stopped producing babies until prey was more plentiful, matching a cycle known from Canadian studies. 2009 saw resurging hare and lynx births, and, by 2010, a third of the radio-tracked lynx females in Colorado had litters.

Just before last winter set in, Colorado’s top political brass announced the recovery program a success. CDOW announced that no more reintroductions are planned, and that tracking would shift from radio collars to camera traps along known trails, genetic sampling and snow-tracking of lynx in winter. Also, a study of how human use of lynx habitat affects their movements, begun in the Vail area in 2008, would move to your correspondent’s home range for the winters of 2010 through 2011. This is how my biologist buddy came to be sitting there, eyeing me for signs of journalistic fervor over the heads of our next round of freshly drawn local brews.

Science and fiction (how B.’s dharma lynx tale turned out) …

One problem with DOS-code-based storytelling is that, as with all things digital, there is (to quote Gertrude Stein), “ … no there there,” until one hits a “print” button. As I remember, that particular ill-starred attempt at writing the Great American Novel, my piece-of-shit (POS) second-hand computer crashed just after my wandering lynx had crossed the border into its native homeland. I never was able to get the thing started again, and shortly thereafter gave up on the ancient craft of making imagined characters articulate transcendent truths, replaced by a continuing fascination with chronicling the strangeness of truth itself.

CDOW’s tracking teams have recorded a lynx wandering over the Continental Divide, bound for points east. One trip ended near Wichita, Kansas, when a tranquilizer dart started a long ride back to Colorado. The next time, the wanderer crossed Nebraska and made it to Des Moines, Iowa, before it ran afoul of the bane of all dharma bums, a driver who may’ve zigged when zagging was the only way not to run over a furry, low-slung, powerfully built archetype of feline curiosity. Another cat even made it back to the land of his birth, only to fall for a Canadian trapper’s wiles last year. Others are testing the edges of their habitat, in all directions.

“… but the cat was cool, and never said a mumbling word.”
— (Axton’s comment on the cat’s tale of “Della and the Dealer”)

No matter where you may head for the slopes this winter in the Rocky Mountain West, watch for adventurous travelers seeking a place to call home. With a little effort, you can even become an official CDOW “snow tracker” and have your lynx observations officially included without producing a body — a pretty cool advance from pre-reintroduction lynx science.

If traveling on a highway, slow down. If possible, smoothly pull to the shoulder, enjoy interfacing and wish your fellow citizen safe travels. If you are on a trail, or schussing, carving, even (shudder) high-marking a slope of manna delivered from the wintry gods/goddesses of all things good and pure and innocent as the newly fallen snow, and have taken to heart this little tale of the migrations of Lynx canadensis, perhaps the encounter will be a high point of your budding service to the renaissance of old Francis Bacon’s definition of the scientific method in a 1620 treatise: “That reason which is elicited from facts by a just and methodical process, I call Interpretation of Nature.

So you wanna be a scientist? (The “how-to-interface” part) …

Here’s a participatory exercise. Let’s say a somewhat furry wildland archetype approached you on a sunny powder morning last winter, and you chose action B or C. After exchanging expressions of mutual joy at being lucky and/or smart enough to be on this mountain, on this day, in this life, your new
acquaintance may’ve asked if you’d consider
taking part in a study he had the good fortune to be conducting that very day. He might’ve showed you a small device he hoped you’d consider slipping into your pack while you skied, rode or sledded through the wintry wonderland. Say you decided it couldn’t hurt anything, as you had no particular intention of engaging in shadowy intrigues with pro- or anti-establishment entities on that particular day.

Congratulations, citizen scientist! Your willingness meant your day’s travels — up, down, around and back — are now added to a knowledge base that just may keep Colorado’s lynx population healthy and growing. The device is a GPS unit, and you’ve joined a select host of citizen scientists and immigrant lynx in laying down real-time use patterns for future planners to peruse, parse, ponder and hopefully arrive at land-use decisions that rise above the pressures and fear-mongering of slogan-based politics-as-usual. You move to the head of our class of participatory democracy.

OK, OK, I know most of us have not had this opportunity, or maybe chose option A or D when my buddy or one of his cohorts in scientific inquiry approached on that morning. He doesn’t hold grudges, and just might’ve avoided a few conversations in his own time. It’s also not too late to consider being part of what I hope by now sounds like a fairly painless way to contribute to possible solutions, rather than problems. Research teams will cruise the high roads again this winter, searching for citizen scientists. If one of these usually pleasant, harmless and possibly burger-sated wildland archetypes approaches, now you know what that device he or she is offering can do, and the rest is up to you.

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “The Resurrection,” which appeared in #183. Author of “Livin’ the Dream,” Frank splits his time between the Four Corners and the Border Country. His blog, “The Ragged Edge,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. 

Confessions of a Down and Outer

No matter my security measures, a current trend has now breached the research facility, and it has me eyeing fellow patrons while wondering, “Does this one have satisfactory documentation?”

Surely, you’ve noticed the hordes edging closer, their eyes narrowed in acquisitive lust. One may have brushed just a little too close to your own private place, mindless of your discomfort, justifying the invasion with facile excuses of common good and homeland security. Maybe you handed over a few bills or an array of official-looking documents; maybe a copy of your property deed, or even (shudder) of your “rental agreement” to slip free of the invaders’ clutches, for a time — but for how long? How much will it cost you next time? Will your documents be enough, or will you have to disappear into the brush, covering your trail with the detritus of unfinished dreams and plans?

Of course (though this may be obvious only to that tiny minority who’ve been there, done that), I am speaking of the recent trend that raises a bar of documentation to an undocumented, lightly documented and intentionally vague underbelly of the red-blooded seasonal-workforce of American commerce. Some wash dishes. Some cook and serve. Others sweep and stock, while a lucky few figure out how to qualify for a coveted occupation that comes with cachet (and an increased chance of getting laid): backcountry and river guides, liberal arts students, poets, writers, soldiers, etc.

All are citizens (though some of some country other than the “Amurrica, Love it or Leave it!” “My country ‘tis of thee…” “…home of the brave” fantasy of a compliant citizenry of the sedentary empire), many are a bit unreliable in their personal chronology, some are deliberately evasive while trying to build a present unsullied by past indiscretions, and only a very few are of any danger whatsoever to anybody but themselves. When minions of sundry agencies and authorities ask for documents, some of these citizens are likely to get a “deer-in-the-headlights” look, and next be seen heading for the exit door.

Confession time here. For certain periods, at uncertain points in my checkered history of seasonal occupations, I have on occasion (for justifiable reasons and with no evil  intentions, I might add) found it expedient to fill in the “current residence” blank on application forms with a reasonable-sounding, if very temporary, location that established a sense of well-being in my interlocutor. Recently, while conducting routine maintenance on some necessary trappings of my current status as an ever-aging citizen of the empire, I was taken aback by a request for proof of residence (aforesaid deed and/or rental agreement). Another official agency demanded two forms of ID from my dearly beloved, with one being a credit card. I now read that the Colorado Secretary of State is trying to clear the chaff he calls “inactive voters” by refusing to allow counties to mail ballots to anyone who didn’t vote in the 2010 elections, leaving me asking if the biggest danger to participation in the noble experiment called “these united states” may be that amorphous demon, fear.

Fear of what, my friends? Of this and that — and of  “the other”; but if we succeed in eliminating a free-thinking fringe, what will the future look like? I imagine teeming masses crouched in political and behavioral knots, all afraid to move to the edge. Gone will be the scruffy, aromatic iconoclasts that test boundaries for a safety-conscious majority. The ones who’ll tackle an expanse of mid-summer desert with bad shoes and a water bottle, a 5.-next-to-fucking-impossible pitch with worn rope and bleeding fingers, a Class VI-rated river with paddle and personal choice of flotation device or the wilds under bridges and behind bushes in the midst of gentrified cityscapes. Some will not make it, but the survivors can remove boundaries, and maybe even alleviate nagging fears among those who will come along behind.

[Further reading on the many ways of being down and out can be found among the writings of Orwell, Tantric, Barnum-Reece, Dorworth, Welch and your humble correspondent, to name but a bit of available grist for consideration — and of course the edge is still out there awaiting all who dare to taste of the nectar for themselves.]