Adventure People

Mountain Gazette was launched just as many of the crazy notions of the 1960s were going mainstream. One such notion was the realization that unregulated resource extraction and unbridled industry were taking a heavy toll on our planet, a situation that prompted, in short order, events such as the first Earth Day and the passage of the Clean Air and Water acts. Another was that, while good old Mother Nature needed some help via legislation and shows of power by the people, she also offered up the chance for spiritual sustenance, especially when under the influence of various plants and/or chemicals being sampled by larger and larger segments of the population — a cultural shift symbolized by John Denver’s iconic “Rocky Mountain High” breaking into the Billboard top ten in 1973, just a year after the founding of the Mountain Gazette.

As it happens, I was born the same year as MG, which meant that my childhood was colored by the themes many adults of the era were embracing. Toxic chemicals in canned baby food meant that my chow consisted of carrots stewed on the stovetop and thrown in the blender, a reflection of the rise of health food and organic farming. The fact that my mother thoroughly enjoyed reading “The Monkey Wrench Gang” meant that a picnic in the woods might also entail a long walk along the Denver Water Board road plucking out survey stakes. Changing attitudes toward the Earth went hand in hand with a reexamination of Native American culture, so I watched “Little Big Man” instead of “Gunsmoke” and grasped the evils of Manifest Destiny at a very young age. The rise of a sizable ski-bum culture meant that my friends and I learned to ski early, and we sat with our parents as they drank Coors and smoked a joint on the chairlift.

Suffice to say that the “back-to-the-land” ethic of hippie communes from Vermont to Hawaii was being lived out in less extreme ways by a huge chunk of “normal” American society, kids included. It was a big shift, and one that Fischer Price toy company was hoping to cash in on when they introduced the “Adventure People” in 1975. These were America’s first 3-and-3/4-inch action figures — the standard for more-famous versions that followed — and their rise and fall traces the arc of America’s first serious love affair with the great outdoors circa 1969 to 1981.

The first batch of these toys consisted of an “Emergency Rescue Truck” and “Air-Sea Rescue Copter” — more firefighter than mountain man, but in 1976 the company debuted “Wilderness Patrol,” a couple of backcountry rangers with search plane, sleeping bags and a motor boat, followed a year later by the “North Woods Trailblazer” — two rugged fellows (“Brad” and “Hawk”), a jeep, a tent and a canoe. Over the next few years, similarly themed sets were released: “Sea Explorer” (A boat, scuba gear and a dolphin, a la Jacques Cousteau), “Sky Surfer” (a “stuntman” with hang glider), a whitewater kayaker, mountain climbers and a skydiver, among others.

The toys were a big hit, but then came “Star Wars,” and action figures like Doug the Diver and Susan the Mountain Climber found themselves up against the likes of Han Solo and Princess Leia. By 1979, Fisher Price’s innovative and Earthy action figures had been left in the dust by the first-of-its-kind toy marketing juggernaut of the “Star Wars” conglomerate, so they countered by introducing a line of  motorheadish pursuits: a dirt bike team, dune buggy and a drag racer. When this failed to pull the kids away from their Millenium Falcons, the toy company jumped on the outer space bandwagon with a new round of Adventure People based upon robots and space ships, with some military swag thrown in for good measure.

It was a desperate move, and useless, for even the mighty “Clawtron” and his realistic, claw-like hands couldn’t compete with the array of movie-backed icons and ingenious spacecraft being churned out by the “Star Wars” machine (bolstered by two more blockbusters), and the military angle was soon eclipsed by the reintroduction of G.I. Joe — a scaled-down version of the American soldier that popular culture had rejected in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam but now embraced with open arms. By 1981, the same year that President Carter and his somewhat mindful “turn down the thermostat/wear a sweater” philosophy gave way to Reagan and his balls-out “morning in America”/James Watt (the original drill baby driller) regime, toy kayakers and mountain climbers had been phased out for good, while laser weaponry and machine guns were in full effect.

Looking back, the greatness of the early Adventure People was that they inspired play that hinted at the big experiences awaiting us in our own extended backyard. My friends and I would create dramatic scenarios with these toys then put them aside and invent our own adventures, perhaps climbing “Devil’s Mountain” at the edge of town or “kayaking” down the Fraser River on a raft made of milk jugs and plywood. Maybe we would have done some of this anyway, but the existence of action figures with names like “Hawk” or simply “Stuntman” surely led us to push our pint-sized selves to another level. Just as importantly, the toy sets also usually included at least one woman figure, which encouraged my younger sister to put aside her Barbie for an afternoon and join the fray, and none included any weapons, not even a spear gun for the deep sea diver … not due to any bleeding-heart liberal agenda, but because such weapons were simply unnecessary when exploring the great outdoors.

Fast forward a few decades. Much has been gained (Grand Staircase/Escalante for example,) but much more has been lost (gigantic swaths of everywhere else). Solar panels and organic farming are bigger than ever, but so are fracking and the acreage covered by chemically saturated Monsanto monoculture, and the whole shebang remains hopelessly addicted to oil. Closer to home, kids are spending, on average, over seven hours per day in front of some kind of electronic screen, and the term “Nature Deficit Disorder” has entered our lexicon, if not (yet) our list of official childhood maladies to be treated with pharmaceutical-grade medication — certainly the exact opposite of a Rocky Mountain High.

As born-again, halfhearted pagans, my wife and I do our best to instill our five-year-old daughter with some love for the Earth by checking out the critters in our neighborhood and the creeks in our mountains. She loves these explorations, but like any kid, she also plays with toys. Since we’ve been heavily influenced by the bygone era that inspired things like the Adventure People and the Mountain Gazette, we recycle our beer cans, invest in a weekly share of a nearby farmer’s harvest and buy our daughter’s toys from the local toy store, where there’s a variety of nature-oriented items to choose from.

But most kids in our town get their toys from the Big Box, often right out of a big box (assembly required), and THAT store doesn’t have much in the way of toys that might inspire kids to explore the outdoors. For the boys, just about everything appears to have stepped straight off of the electronic screen: Aisle upon aisle of comic-book or movie-themed weaponry, action figures and computer games, with the All Star Wrestlers (“Hurl your opponent!”) rounding out the media tie-ins. For the girls: Variations on the Disneyfied princess theme, with Hello Kitty and Barbie thrown in for good measure, and maybe some kind of winged “fairy” wearing a thong. Other than the bicycles, few of the toys look durable enough to leave the house, let alone inspire rough and rugged outdoor play in the non-existent sandbox.

But wait. Last aisle. Bottom shelf. Dangerously close to the books … a glimmer of hope. Cheap plastic, obviously. Made in China, of course. Not really built to last, but most assuredly meant to be taken outside: “BACKYARD SAFARI OUTFITTERS.”  Binoculars, a canteen, butterfly net, magnifying glass and, best of all, a “bug vacuum” that lets curious kids safely and gently suck insects out of their habitat and into a plastic jar with a magnifying glass built right into the lid. The Big Box doesn’t waste shelf space, so somebody’s buying this stuff. Somewhere in town, in every town, kids are flipping over rocks and searching out creepy crawlies to vacuum up and get to know a little better.

It ain’t the second coming of George Washington Hayduke, not yet, but it beats the hell out the “Special Forces Unit” or that pussy Hello Kitty, and it’s light years beyond sitting and staring at some form of the teevee. Not to mention the other possibilities … the strange things that can happen when a kid steps out into the sunshine. One minute, little John and Jane are peering closely at spiders and the next they’re all grown up and chaining themselves to the bulldozers, or at least taking in the view from the top of the mountain instead of the couch. Like the flap of the butterfly wing that churns up a hurricane, or the hope cradled within the last truffula seed of them all, a humble plastic plaything might end up being one of the threads that holds things together for another 40 years.

Senior correspondent Charles Clayton’s last piece for the Gazette was “Jesus and Joshua Tree, or How I Almost Became a Climber,” which appeared in #189. Clayton lives in Taos with his wife and daughter. His blog, Pagan Parenting, can be found at mountaingazette.com.

Tracking Down Bambi

 

Bambi

Not long ago, my daughter earned herself some cartoon time: She hiked to the local aspen grove all by herself, a couple of miles or so, stepping stones and all, which meant that Daddy Mule got to stroll the raspberry trail smooth and easy—not a single pound of the 40+ I usually lug around for at least a portion of any given hike. So, on the way home, we stopped at the video store for a bag of complimentary popcorn and — no princesses this time — a copy of “Bambi.”

We’ve all seen it. Cute bunnies. Cute skunks. Cute birds. Cute deer. The whole gang of them “twitterpating” just off camera when the sap starts rising each spring. And even if you haven’t seen it, the movie is so iconic that everybody knows that Bambi’s momma gets shot by a hunter — presumably anyway, as we only hear the gunshot and never see mother doe again — and that there’s a raging forest fire somewhere in the mix. And the rest is easy to imagine: forests, meadows, waterfalls and mountains right out of an Albert Bierstadt painting — real purty scenery actually, all of it hand painted and easy on the eyes.

Kids everywhere (or at least those kids with access to first world technology and lazy parents who occasionally resort to the electric screen babysitter so they can do some quick twitterpating in the other room) probably assume that the high drama they’re watching is unfolding within whatever mountains are nearest to them, be they the Sierras, the Rockies, the Appalachians or the Alps, or maybe just the nearest hills or bit of woods behind the tract homes. What kid doesn’t dream about a bit of wild nature somewhere close by?

Hollywood can crank out the special effects, but they are HORRIBLE at accurately portraying proper seasons or setting, especially in movies where it actually matters, such as westerns, road trips or anything set in the great outdoors. Saguaro cactus in Nevada. The Tetons of New Mexico. Covered wagons rolling through Monument Valley, Nebraska. Kevin Costner skinning a buffalo in the shadow of the mountains towering above Dodge City, Kansas. A montage of farm life — plowing, planting, irrigating and harvesting — unfolding entirely in the month of May. Such errors are the rule, not the exception, and rare is the movie that even bothers to take geography or basic biology into account.

Surprisingly, “Bambi,” a 70-year-old cartoon, is more accurate in many of these respects than the average trillion-dollar blockbuster, a rarity that allows us the chance to do a bit of scientific research. Where are those mountains? Where does Bambi actually live? By closely examining the cartoon’s geology, flora and fauna, we can determine just where the world’s most-famous deer made his claim to fame.

The original story, written in Austria in 1923, featured a roe deer, a species native to Europe and Asia Minor. In the movie, Bambi is a white-tailed deer, originally found only in the Western Hemisphere, although they have been introduced into Europe, which means Bambi could possibly browse the grasses of the Alps or Scandinavia. But the movie was made in 1942 — wartime — so even though Mr. Disney didn’t care for Jews, patriotism and practical capitalism surely dictated that old Walt didn’t make a movie about an adorable little ungulate from, say, the German or Italian Alps, the occupied French Alps, the Communist Urals or Siberian boreal forest — ditto for the flanks of Mt. Fuji. Bambi is certainly an American, or possibly a Canadian, deer.

Most of the story is set in the woods, and forest scenes reveal much about Bambi’s natural habitat. Large swaths of the forest are evergreen in nature, and the predominance of towering conifers rules out hardwood forests in the Ozarks and most of the Appalachians. These trees are big, but not mammoth in girth like coastal redwoods or the Douglas firs of the northwest, which points to forests farther east — most likely the Rockies or maybe the high plateaus of Arizona or Utah (unlikely — those aren’t big enough to be Ponderosa pines either), perhaps even the northern Appalachians. One could argue that the trees are small because Bambi roams a secondary-growth forest in Northern California or the Cascades, but the fact that there are plenty of tall dead snags in the canopy, as well as a complete lack of logging roads or clear-cuts shows us that this forest and its (relatively) humble conifers is most likely an unlogged forest featuring trees of medium girth, which sounds an awful lot like your average chunk of Rocky Mountain old growth.

I’m a Colorado boy at heart, so my first thought was that Bambi hailed from the Centennial State, for the dark green forest is a dead ringer for some of my favorite groves of Engelmann spruce and sub-alpine fir. But the utter lack of mountain bikers and trail runners points elsewhere. Somewhere with bigger wilderness and fewer people: Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, maybe even Alaska. Bambi hails from the Northern Rockies!

One problem with that hypothesis: Bambi is “Prince of the Forest.” Assuming the King of the Forest is some kind of large predator, then the Prince of western forests would be a large herbivore — an elk, or a moose or even a caribou, but certainly not a measly deer. And speaking of predators, there are none. No wolves. No bears. No mountain lions. Not even a bobcat or a coyote or even a fox. Bambi occupies a food chain devoid of top-level carnivores, which probably accounts for the outrageously long (spring, summer and fall) deer-hunting season.

At a glance, the missing predators rule out a home for Bambi out West, but things might not be as they seem. Mountain lions roam everywhere west of the high plains, including the suburbs, but how many of us have been lucky enough to see one? Not me. And wolves? I’ve backpacked a few times in prime (reintroduced) wolf habitat, both north and south, but, sadly, saw no sign of the creatures. My hometown in Colorado is chock full of wildlife now — bears in the Pizza Hut dumpsters, coyotes on the golf course, foxes denning under the garage — but, during my childhood (thanks to the nearly extinct ranchers who shot or trapped anything that moved), a coyote or fox sighting was a remarkable event, and bears were completely unheard of. Could it be that Bambi might live in a gentler patch of the Rockies — the Little Belts, the Salt Range or the Cochetopa Hills — circa 1940 or so, and the predators are just being elusive and avoiding redneck rifles?

Perhaps, were it not for some GIGANTIC oak trees. Not scrub oaks mind you, but majestic oaks with sprawling canopies and holes in the trunks where grumpy talking owls nest. As far as I know, the only Western state with oaks like that is California, one of just a handful of states with no white-tailed deer, which definitely pushes Bambi farther east. Plus the mountains aren’t actually that big: the only panorama in the movie reveals rolling green mountains with nary an acre of tundra, more like the “old” mountains back east. Not to mention the fireflies, technically found nowhere west of the tall-grass prairie.

So where does Bambi live? Mellow, rolling mountains. Some hardwoods and large oaks, but mostly tall conifers that aren’t too big. Plenty of deer and possums, but no elk or big predators. April rain showers instead of heavy late-season, pass-closing snow. Blossoming fruit trees in spring rather than mud and thawing dog shit. I hate to admit it, but bad-ass Bambi, Prince of the Forest, is an easterner who watched over a remote chunk of the Adirondacks or northern Vermont.

Jesus and Joshua Tree, or How I Almost Became a Climber

 

Jesus and Joshua Tree

Eight years out of high school and I was still trying to finish college and attain the much vaunted bachelors degree in Religious Studies. It had been an on-again, off-again ordeal interrupted by backpacking trips and general vagabonding, mostly up and down the west coast. And here I was again, embarking on an off-again session of wandering — just a semester this time — due to a duo of factors: my girlfriend dumping me for my good friend and the sudden appearance of a HARD-CORE cult of wandering Christians right out of the Old Testament: Long beards, prophetic pronouncements and vows of poverty and dumpster-diving asceticism as they waited around for The Apocalypse, which, to a stoned hippy who listened to way too much Bob Marley, seemed very imminent indeed.

Not to mention the fact that this was the era of my life when everything held some kind of “deeper meaning,” be it the muttering of drunk bums on the street (who surely grasped some sacred knowledge the rest of us couldn’t understand) or a tune on the radio (another Grateful Dead song? I’m obviously supposed to quit school again and travel!). So when the Christians literally showed up on my doorstep mere minutes after I had aced a final exam on the New Testament and a couple days after getting dumped, suffice to say that it seemed as if some higher power had willed it to be so, and that RIGHT NOW was the time to drop everything and follow these seemingly wise apostles before they climbed the ladder to New Jerusalem.

In the end, despite weeks of proselytizing by the earnest patriarchs and hours of long-winded circular spiritual discussions, some shred of common sense kept me from trading my wicked path of sin for a new life of prayer and homelessness, but the eager holy rollers still ended up disrupting my life, albeit not in the way they’d hoped: One afternoon toward the end of my six-week winter break, one of the Christian gang showed up at our house in need of sanctuary. Seems he had just left the “The Brethren” (the “REPENT” patch was missing from his baseball cap) because he had decided that he “still wanted to live like a pagan” and needed a place to stay while he figured it all out. Which was perfect, as a broken heart, a dangerously close brush with a creepy cult and the stresses of extended academia were wearing me down, and living like a pagan sounded like the perfect way to recharge. I boxed up my stuff — records, books and sentimentalisms, mostly — and stored them with my somewhat more responsible sister, explained the situation to my roommates, and the apostate and I hitchhiked north to Seattle to fetch his didgeridoo (right where he had left it when he ran away with the cult: wrapped in plastic and buried in a park) and loiter/explore our way to some kind of exciting experience in the great north woods, but the rain soon chased us back south, all the way down to Joshua Tree National Park.

For Southern Californians who occasionally get claustrophobic within the gargantuan Tijuana-to-Santa-Barbara megalopolis of 20 million people, the Mojave Desert offers a rather large expanse of space and sanity, and Joshua Tree — barely an hour outside of Los Angeles — is a convenient destination for urbanites looking for a change. Being a San Diegan, I had heard much about the place but had never been there, so when two young Canadian ladies en route to Mexico picked us up on the side of the road somewhere in soggy southern Oregon, I suggested on a whim that we shoot for Joshua Tree for the night. Many hours and a few hundred miles later, we gleefully dodged the shuttered entrance station and its fees, and rolled into Hidden Valley Campground. We nabbed an empty spot, set up tents, and headed over to the actual “Hidden Valley,” a football-stadium-sized ring of granite rubble, where we basked in the relative warmth and welcome dryness of the desert in February — a desert illuminated by a full moon. The Canadian girls uncorked a big jug of wine and passed it around as we marveled at a fine ending to a memorable day of travel.

The Canadian vixens stayed with us for a couple of days before turning their Thelma-and-Louise-style station wagon toward the Mexican border, but we stayed on, moving camp a few times before settling in on a good one nestled snuggly in the big rocks. Three days later, my traveling companion embarked on a quick journey to San Francisco, where he planned on scoring a few sheets of acid, which we could then sell to some of the other campers in order to fund our current round of travels. It sounded like a great plan, so I’d dug deep into my sock and invested all but 35 dollars of my leftover student loan money and let him borrow my better backpack for swifter travels. He figured he’d be back in 10 days or so, but if he didn’t show up by mid-March, then we’d rendezvous at a regional Rainbow Gathering near Yuma during the next full moon.

Of course, I never saw him again, which meant I was almost flat broke and stuck with an ancient external frame pack that was way too big for me, but I had a good tent, youthful vigor and plenty of time on my hands. Plus, I was ensconced in the midst of an amazingly beautiful national park with nowhere to go and nothing to do but explore it. Days were spent hiking in all directions, while nights were spent in the tent reading by candlelight or writing bad poetry about the desert and the meaning of life, or even worse poetry about my ex-girlfriend. Occasionally, I’d hitchhike the 20 miles into town for a supply run, which usually consisted of four tasks: spending a few precious dollars at a huge dent-and-scratch grocery outlet; filling up my water jugs from a tap behind the Chevron; diving into a handful of Safeway-style mega-dumpsters for big jars of Ragu, blocks of perfectly good cheese and plenty of fruits and veggies; and a final, ritual stop for a rigorous washing of the hands and the reluctant-but-joyous purchase of a single 59-cent bean burrito from Taco Bell. Thus was I able to make my 35 dollars last for most of a month.

In addition to my willingness to explore the less sanitary side of our food chain, another thing that allowed me to stretch my meager funds as far as possible was the fact that camping was FREE. Yes, free camping at an “improved” campground in a national park, something that had been phased out everywhere else decades before, and no longer exists at Joshua Tree, at least partially due to freeloaders like myself. Rumor was that the Park Service couldn’t charge for a dry campsite, which meant that, while the site was free, you had to supply your own life-giving water — a fine trade-off for a vagabond on a shoestring budget. It was high season, and the campground had a perpetual “CAMPGROUND FULL” sign posted at its entrance, but, late each afternoon, folks would cruise slowly through hoping to score a site, and since I was carless and had just a single tent set up, I’d offer up my site to anyone in need.

That was the other thing that made my adventure possible: the kindness of my fellow campers. Indeed, there was much in the way of solitude — after all, that’s what the desert is all about, at least to idealistic Religious Studies students who think they want to grow old and die alone while meditating in a cave — but, in reality, most of my time was spent in the presence of other people, all of them interesting and generous. As the weeks unfolded, my campsite played host to a parade of folks, and every few days, I would find myself  bound up in an entirely new chapter of random interactions with followers of the Golden Rule. Here’s a sampler:

″ A family of four fleeing the cold and dark of Alaska via a long, slow loop through the southwestern desert parks. They took me along for a driving tour of the entire park, topped off my camp stove fuel canister and loaded me up with a bag of fresh dates and a half dozen military-grade “ready-to-eat” meals.

″ A Korean artist who sculpted images of the Goddess. I used my single practical set of skills to tune up his rusted Volkswagen van for him and in return received all the beer I could drink, all the coffee I wanted and generous and repeated samplings from the big-as-a-human-head bag of non-culinary mushrooms he had brought along for inspiration.

″A pair of newlywed Mormons from Michigan on a very non-traditional Mormon honeymoon. They praised my brush with Jesus, explained that the “Joshua” that the trees were named after was actually a guy in the Bible, and gave me my very first (but certainly not my last) copy of the “Book of Mormon,” along with plenty of soda pop and hot dogs.

″Two carloads of Earth-First!ers, with names like Orca, Lichen and Ann R. Key, fresh out of an “activist conference” in the nearby San Bernardino Mountains. They drank cheap beer from cans, shared their own dumpster-dived goodies and instantly brought my humble little campsite to life with rollicking protest songs both serious and funny, including this one (to the tune of America’s “Horse With no Name”):

“I’ve been through the desert in van that was lame

It felt good to be out of … Texas.

At the conference you won’t remember your name

So get under this blanket and huddle up by the flames

blah blah, blah, blahblahblahblah blah … ”

But most of the time it was climbers — rock climbers — here for some big-rock adventures. Indeed, it only took a few days to figure out that the majority of campers, at least at Hidden Valley Campground, were of the climbing persuasion. Which made sense, as a quick glance in any direction revealed gigantic stacks of slightly orange-ish granite boulders, some of them hundreds of feet high, a fact which makes Joshua Tree a Mecca for climbers around the world, especially during the winter months.

They were everywhere, and despite the fact that I was a lowly hiker (a “groveler,” they called me), they took me under their wing and made me part of their shindigs, which, following each stellar day of vertical action, usually involved campfires, booze and rollicking “spud sessions” wherein anything that could be wrapped in foil was tossed onto the coals and baked. Every moment around these fires was chock full of swell conversation peppered with colloquialisms and jargon that made me wish there was a climber-specific dictionary I might consult. Eventually, I learned that “crimpers” were difficult, “scumming” was sometimes necessary, “cheese graters” were bad and “spraying” was inevitable when dozens of climbers gathered round a fire and started swapping stories about climbing, climbing and climbing. Sea cliffs in Acadia National Park. Sandstone in West Virginia. Limestone walls in western Utah. Lone Pine. City of Rocks. Notch Peak. Lost Creek. Cirque of the Towers. Names of exotic locales and challenging routes flowed from their tongues as if they were rattling off the names of family members.

There were climbers there from all over the U.S., as well as a few from South America and Europe, slumming it up in Joshua Tree for awhile before checking out Hueco Tanks in Texas, or the Organ Range in New Mexico or some other exotic and relatively warm desert rock oasis, and all of them seemed to have mastered the fine art of dirt-bagging. They had a connection at The North Face who could get you new tent poles, or knew somebody in town who provided showers, or a guy in Palm Springs who could hook you up with some work — indeed, for a few days, a large contingent of climbers disappeared into that nearby enclave of golf and wealth to sell concessions or park cars during a high-end tennis tournament. They knew where the firewood was, and occasionally they’d pile into an ancient Toyota Van with Maine plates and 300,000 on the odometer and cruise into town to gather some, which meant surreptitiously cruising behind grocery stores in search of shipping pallets — surreptitiously because it was illegal, and just a few weeks earlier, two unfortunate souls had been caught stealing and were hauled off to the county jail, which, in this sprawling county (largest in the lower 48) meant 60 miles and a world away to San Bernardino.

As I mentioned, the camping was free, but there was a 14-day limit — not a problem for your average family on vacation, most of whom would stay only a few days at the most, but a real hurdle for someone hoping to spend a couple of months living out of the back of a pickup truck. Since there was no fee, there was no registration that I recall, so the ranger would cruise through now and then and write down license plate numbers or make/model of vehicles. Due to the fact that I had no car, the rangers never caught onto my extended presence, but they were well aware of the climbing set, which led to a cat-and-mouse situation that forced the climbers to get creative. They swapped license plates and campsites, or covered their vehicles in tarps in hopes that the ranger wouldn’t bother getting out of his truck to investigate further. If necessary, they’d disappear for a few days and try again, maybe backing the rig in this time or spending a few nights parked at my site before being shooed away by the rangers.

As the weeks unfolded, I continued to explore, hitting the high points: south for a huge view of the Colorado Desert; east for a nice view of Queen Valley; west for a big glimpse of the snow-covered San Jacinto and San Gorgornio Peaks — 12,000-foot jewels separating the desert from the sea; and north at for a glimpse of the earthquakey Lucerne Valley and hundreds upon hundreds of miles of Mojave Desert. Often, I’d start my forays by following a gang of climbers out of the campground as they trekked out to a nearby climb. They’d set up and I’d sit and watch for awhile, curious about the life I was hearing about around the campfires. One such climb was called “Gunsmoke” — a low and horizontal traverse in and out of a big bend in a rock face. It was technical rather than vertical, just a few feet off the ground, actually, and, being close to the campground, it got a lot of traffic. But one fellow stood out, for he was always there cruising gracefully back on forth along the route like a monkey in the treetops. He was alone, never saying a word to anyone, and always had a faint smile on his face like he was in another world — rumor had it he was autistic or perhaps just majorly OCD, but he was amazing to watch.

Beyond Gunsmoke was the aptly named “MAGIC KINGDOM” — 20-or-so square miles of towering granite monoliths, cliffs and mounds of boulders that made you feel like an ant in a gravel pit. The Earth First! crew had shown me this area first during one of the most-punishing and amazing hikes of my life, a dawn-to-dusk trailless scramble right through the heart of the moonscape. This was ground zero for epic solo jaunts, and I spent day after day just wandering around back there. There were hidden amphitheaters, bighorn sheep, a single spring and a few grassy meadows, and, just when I’d find myself deeper than ever before, exhausted and bleeding at the knees and elbows, I’d glance up at a sun-exposed cliff face and see climbers halfway up a three-or-four-pitch ascent, effortlessly (or so it appeared from my vantage point) on their way to the top of any one of ten thousand possible climbs.

Indeed, during that month, I sat and watched climbers for hours. I marveled at the slow-but-sure effort, the teamwork, the gradual snail-like movement up a tiny crack in the granite. I was intrigued, but not enough to wish to partake in it all. To be sure, I loved clawing my way to the top of random rock piles, and I admired the climbers’ abilities, but felt no desire to join their ranks — I loved the simplicity of hiking, just me and a pair of boots, with endless possibilities in all directions. But, slowly, my curiosity grew and, eventually, I accepted an invitation and gear loan and tried it out: warm desert sun on my back; toes jammed securely into the toes of the nimble shoes; fingertips clinging to rock. This was not at all like the random rambling I had been experiencing on my travels and hikes; indeed, it was the exact opposite: extremely focused and deliberate. Adrenaline at a strangely slow pace. Time warping and sticking you right in the moment (with a big view at the top), which was the whole point of the traveling, the psychedelics and the haphazard study of religion.

Toward the end of my month in Joshua Tree, an opportunity came my way in the form of a van load of climbers headed south and east to Apache Fortress, a lesser-known but first-rate climbing destination a couple hours outside of Tucson. One of the van’s crew had just headed back to Israel for a mandatory stint in the army and had donated his gear — harness, chalk bag, rope and a pair of shoes — to his fellow climbing nomads. Everything was in place — extra gear (including shoes that seemed to fit me), a gang of climbers willing to show me the ropes and a ride to what would surely be another astonishingly beautiful place.

It was a charitable offer, but after giving it much thought, I said no thanks. The full moon was just a few days away, and, since my traveling partner had not returned, I felt obligated to stick to our plan and head down to the Rainbow shindig to make sure he was alright (and to retrieve my backpack and recoup my black market investment). Besides, the hippy fest involved drums and girls and a lunar eclipse/full moon smack dab on the night of the Spring Equinox, a combination that, at the time, seemed to hold more symbolic meaning than the fact that I was sitting in a rock climbers’ paradise and was being handed everything I needed to join their ranks.

I caught a ride out with them and got dropped off just outside of Blythe. They got back on the freeway and headed east toward their next big climbing escapade, and I started thumbing my way south. For the second time in as many months, I’d crossed paths with folks who offered to change the trajectory of my life, and for the second time, I’d gone against my “it must be happening for a reason” philosophy, and stayed the course, whatever that was. It was the closest I ever got to becoming a Jesus freak or a true dirt-bag climber.

Senior correspondent Charles Clayton’s last piece for the Gazette was “New River, Arizona: Three Glimpses,” which appeared in #181. His blog, “Pagan Parenting,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. Clayton lives in Taos with his wife and daughter. 

Read about one man’s experiences with divorce and how climbing helped him get through it.

Pagan Page Turners

Elsie reading

Like most of you, my wife and I are avid readers, and we’re doing our best to instill our daughter with an appreciation of books, poems and most anything else printed on a page (other than magazines with Hannah Montana or equivalent on the cover — that battle is still a few years away). So far, it seems to be working, as she’s always eager to visit the library or bookstore, and our half-hour of bedtime stories has become a nightly ritual that the whole crew looks forward to.

This is good for all of us, for a number of reasons. First, story-time provides mom and/or dad a chance to bond with their daughter in a quiet and intimate, occasionally even meditative, setting. No matter how crazy the day, or how absent (physically or otherwise) the parents have been, all of us can count on some quality family time at the end of the day.

Second, study after study shows that the most important indicator of academic success — more than quality of teachers or income level or anything else — is whether or not children are read to by their parents. To be sure, good grades and strong literacy don’t always translate into a high standard of living — check out “Wheel Well for a Pillow” or a hundred other essays right here on the Mountain Gazette website for example — but they do allow one the ability to indulge slacker/freedom-loving tendencies and make vows of poverty based on a full assessment of life’s possibilities rather than the limited options of television brain or straight-up illiterate ignorance.

Finally, these bookish moments give us a chance to instill our daughter with values that we — Pagan Parents — feel that she will benefit from throughout her life. If that sounds preachy, well, it probably is, as millions of religious-fundamentalist parents around the world saturate their kids with (what I think is) sometimes hateful nonsense for the very same reason, but that’s what loving parents are hard wired to do: Raise their kids to become the best people that they can be, and no two families or cultures are ever going to agree on the details of that monumental task.

That said, most of the books that we read to our daughter have little to do with “values” and everything to do with cuteness, or fun, or knowledge, or maybe just the blessing of being swept away by some good storytelling. To be sure, almost any kid book is going to have some kind of moral in there somewhere, even if it’s something as basic as being sure to brush your teeth or occasionally sending a letter to brighten Grandma’s day, but not many of them pack the kind of POWERFUL PUNCH that teaches kids about the big lessons — life, death, love and connection to Earth — in a beautiful and interesting manner. Such books can be found in New Age or local bookstores in remnant hippy towns, or at the gift shop at ye olde national park, but few of today’s best-selling or award-winning children’s books explore our relationship to natural systems in a meaningful way. A recent study that explored over 8,000 images contained in 70 years worth of award-winning children’s books (the revered Caldecott Medal, to be specific) revealed a marked decline in books that include images of nature. I’m not talking about overtly “green” books that try to instill knowledge about recycling or warn about species extinction either, but books that simply contain depictions of natural settings or even animals, wild or otherwise, within them.

Well, so, big deal? Kids can always get their dose of nature from actually going outside and playing, correct? I think we can all agree that building forts and climbing trees is more important than reading books about nature, but the problem is that kids are actually spending much less time outside than ever before. Overall, they spend more time engaging “electronic media” (primarily video games, the internet and television) than any other activity other than sleeping, and, increasingly, their recreational activities take place in an indoor setting (ballet lessons and gymnastics, for example). When they are outside, they aren’t swimming in the river or catching frogs so much as participating in organized (read: supervised) activities in manicured settings (soccer in the park, ski lessons at the resort).

To be sure, any physical activity is better than none, so I’m not knocking soccer or gymnastics, but the lack of hands-on time exploring actual pockets of nature, coupled with the urbanization of our culture in general (currently 80% of Americans live in an urban setting, compared to 50% in 1920) and a sharp decrease in popular children’s books featuring natural settings impacts more than just individual children. Over time, it leads collective lack of appreciation for the natural world, and a cultural disconnect from the creatures, habitats, ecosystems and natural cycles that keep us alive. Even worse, as society disengages from direct encounters with Ma Nature, our subsequent ignorance of it can spur feelings of fear — fear of the coyotes or mountain lions in the bits of forest at the edge of town (where kids used to build forts), fear of the homeless people who may be lurking in the creekside willows (where kids used to fish), fear of wildfires, or killer bees, or spider bites, or bacteria — all of which boils down to fear of the unknown. This dread isn’t likely to create kids who grow up to become conservation voters, let alone monkey-wrenchers or civil-disobedients, and may in fact do the exact opposite, as people who see nothing but dark omens in the woods or spooky swamps are surely more likely to cheer when they are bulldozed or drained to make way for a tidy tract-home subdivision.

The array of ecological problems facing our world have not been caused by a lack of panoramic landscape paintings in our children’s books, but one way to help stave off complete ecological collapse is to raise children in a manner that nurtures their natural love for all things wild and free, and one way to do so is to expose them to books that plant seeds of Earthly awareness in their impressionable young minds. To this end, I’ve compiled a list of ten books every Pagan Parent would enjoy borrowing from the library or purchasing for their midget eco-warrior’s bookshelf.

Keep in mind that my daughter is not quite five years old, so this particular list reflects parental read-alouds to very young children, although older kids can certainly read them on their own. They are generally chock full of illustrations, many of them quite exceptional in beauty and execution, and none of them should take more than 10 minutes for a read-aloud before bed; we average about four of these sorts of books during our half-hour of bedtime stories.

There’s surely an entirely separate list of books suitable for older kids that we haven’t come across yet, and I hope that other parents or nostalgic adults will fill me in on some worthwhile reads for elementary and middle school kids. Also, this list comes straight off of our own bookshelf or that of our friends or the Taos Public Library, and is not meant to serve as an official list of the best dirtbag/tree hugger children’s books or anything like that; it is simply a reflection of our own reading journey. There are surely hundreds of other good ones I’ve missed, so please feel free to share your own suggestions in the comment section below.

In no particular order:

“The Lorax,” by Dr. Seuss (1971)

The granddaddy of them all, and, fortunately, the one nature book just about every kid in America is familiar with. Dr. Seuss books often depict fantasy worlds rather than the real one (although, if you’ve ever wandered around Joshua Tree on a moonlit night under the influence of, well, never mind …), and the Lorax is no exception, but at the same time, beneath the surreal nature of the flora and fauna, this book is a concise summary of two centuries of ecocide in the name of making a buck, a.k.a. the Industrial Revolution, and a searing critique of the rise of multinational corporations like, say, Monsanto, Boise-Cascade and Exxon-Mobil, all of which have no qualms about devouring entire ecosystems in one fell swoop and leaving behind wrecked landscapes and ghost towns.

You all know the story, but here it is anyway: Old-growth Truffula forests provide habitat for a diverse array of mammals, fish and avian life. A pioneer-like fellow, the Once-ler arrives (Seuss’ version of the fur trapper, miner and mule or sodbuster) in his wagon and chops down a Truffula tree, which he turns into a thneed — a useless product that folks back in civilization decide they simply must  have. Before long, he’s built up a thneed empire that thrives due to mechanical advances that lead to wholesale clear-cutting of the seemingly endless expanse of Truffula trees that support the entire operation. There’s byproducts of course — toxic sludge, smog and habitat loss — but those externalities are borne by the wildlife such as the starving Barbaloots and the choking Swomee-Swans, who, faced with extinction, migrate out of the area, never to be seen again. But that’s all right. It’s a boom! Business must grow! Biggering, biggering, BIGGERING THE MONEY!

Biggering, that is, until the resource is gone and the market collapses, leaving behind a wasteland of stumps and shuttered Truffula smelters and thneeed sweatshops so common in boom-and-bust economies dependent on a single, non-renewable natural resource. Could be mill towns in Oregon. Could be open-pit copper mines in Arizona. Could be the dead dry farming towns on the High Plains. Or drought-stricken ski towns in the year 2040. Or Eastern civilization in general, grinding to a halt … the survivors wandering the Grickle Grass wastelands, wondering what went wrong.

UNLESS. And that’s the kicker. UNLESS. A glimmer of hope. UNLESS we decide to change our ways and heed the Lorax. Quit trashing the planet for 1001 varieties of discount thneeds.  Plant some seeds in the scorched Earth, some seeds of hope. This book hit me like a punch in the gut at age five or so. May it continue to punch kids in the gut for years to come.

“Mother Earth and her Children,” by Sibylle Von Olfers.
Illustrated by Seiglinde Schoen Smith (1906).

If the potential for ecological apocalypse prophesized by the Lorax seems a little heavy right before bed, then follow it up with this little gem — a simple celebration of the seasons. Written in Germany in1906, this poem follows the rounds of the Earth Children who awaken beneath the Earth (the story was originally entitled “Something About Root Children”) toward the end of winter and go straight to work readying things for the spring thaw. They sew flower petals, paint beetles and ladybugs and tidy things up under the watchful eye of Mother Earth (the quintessential old woman sipping tea and doing some needlepoint) before climbing out and into the spring sun … a parade of life emerging from the soil. They hang out with ants and bees, skip among the flowers and have a frolicking good time until autumn comes with a blast of cold wind and forces them to return to the Earth for a long winter’s nap.

A swell story, obviously timeless, but it’s the artwork in this one that really makes the book special, for the illustrations are actually close-up photographs of an elaborate quilt created by a mother grieving over the death of her son. In her sadness, she remembered this tale from her German childhood, and created a quilt that told the story using elaborately embroidered images from the original storybook. The result — the entire quilt is displayed at the end of the book — is an amazingly intricate hand-sewn depiction of the passage of the four seasons.

“First Snow in the Woods,” by Carl Sams and Jean Stoick (2007)

The cover of this books says it’s a “photographic fantasy,” but I only agree with the “photographic” part, as the story itself is a mostly realistic depiction of a young fawn’s experience of his first snowstorm. The story starts in late summer: bird songs, dragonflies, hummingbirds and the like, and moves into autumn and the first frost of the year, as seen through the eyes of the nameless fawn. There are big changes afoot, and all the animals are either leaving or prepping for some event the fawn can’t wrap his head around. Meanwhile, mother doe says nothing and just keeps munching acorns and keeping an eye on the fawn and the weather. One night, the Great Gray Owl swoops into the neighborhood and announces “creatures of the forest prepare! The first winter storm is here.” And so it was, and although our little fawn had been nervous about whatever it was that was coming, it turns out that he was, without knowing it, already preparing for winter (by growing a thick coat and loading up on nuts) and that his ma knew just where to go when the storm got rough.

Entertaining, at least if you have any interest in this sort of thing (and kids automatically do), and informational too, as it reveals the transition from fall to winter quite well, but this story really stands out for three reasons. First, this book consists entirely of photographs, and they are well rendered beauties that capture the essence of this particular place (somewhere in Michigan) perfectly: the northern lights; dew on a dragonfly’s wing; goldenrod glowing in the sunrise light; a family of deer in the snow. Second, that essence of place is shown in a nuanced way that reveals subtle aspects of the season (such as the first frost silencing the dragonflies) as well as lesser-known creatures that don’t always make it into the storybooks, like chickadees and woodchucks. Finally, the fact that the fawn is watching all of this unfold — watching and learning — is a lesson that’s sure to stick with your little Pagan and make him or her look at things a little more closely during your next foray into the woods.

“Sky Tree,” by Thomas Locker (1995)

Edward Abbey once said something to the effect that if you sat out on a slab of rimrock for a year, just sat there and soaked it all up — blistering sun, blizzards, starlight, floods, gentle rains, everything in between — you would become a god. I happen to agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, which means, by that measure at least, that we’re surrounded by all sorts of living creatures who have undergone that trial hundreds of times in their lives.

I’m talking about trees of course, those berooted and patient watchmen of the forest, the desert, the just about every ecosystem other than sand dunes or the truly tremendous grasslands of the world. It seems like a boring life, just standing there and watching the world unfold, but as this deceptively simple book explains, the life of a tree is quite adventurous. The book consists of 14 paintings of a non-specific deciduous tree growing on a knoll next to a river. Each painting captures an aspect of the four seasons and is accompanied by a sentence or two that tells a quick story about what is happening. It starts with summer — full green glory, then eases into a late summer storm, the changing leaves and the first frost, right on through winter and spring and back to summer. Birds pass through, stars sparkle through the branches. You get the idea.

The cover of the book says “seeing science through art,” and I suppose observing the seasons via the life of a single tree is actually quite scientific, but in reality it’s just that: Reality, and one that kids everywhere used to know without having to read about it in a book. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful book that tells a story that any kid will enjoy.

“The Little House,” by Virginia Lee Burton (1942)

In 1979, the cartoonist R. Crumb created a series of drawings called “A Short History of America,” consisting of 12 panels that began with an idyllic chunk of forest and meadow in Anywhere USA and ended with that same spot after it had been transformed into one of 10 billion possible roadside strips laden with mini-malls, fast food and all the rest. In between were panels showing each step along the way … roads, railroads, powerlines, and the last big tree unceremoniously giving way to a convenience store.

“The Little House” is basically a kids’ version of Crumb’s masterpiece of a cartoon, and is a masterpiece of its own. The book starts with — you guessed it — a little house on a farm way out in the country. The sun and moon pass over again and again. The seasons change. The kids grow up. And the lights of the distant city get a little bit brighter. One day the steam shovels arrive and force an arrow-straight road through the rolling hills and right past the house. Suddenly, there are cars and people rushing by, then houses being built all around as the farm get developed, followed by tenements, railroads, subways, skyscrapers, freeways … and the poor little house is abandoned and surrounded by the industrial age and all its trappings, unable to see the stars or even tell what time of year it is.

Fortunately, there’s a happy ending, as the great-great-granddaughter of the fellow who built the house recognizes it from a photo and decides to purchase it. After all, it’s a well-built house that simply needs a little love and some fresh air. So they halt traffic and haul it out of the nameless city and out into the country once again.

A Hollywood ending perhaps, since we all know that today’s farmland is tomorrow’s exurbs, or just as bad, today’s crystal methville, but kids need to know that there are some places left to escape to. Best of all, the tale is blatantly anti-development, but in an understated way. The house just sits there and watches the nightmare of 20th century industrialization and sprawl unfold (quite visionary actually, since it was written in 1942), never getting depressed or pissed about it all — just confused and a little sad. Meanwhile, readers do get melancholy, perhaps even a bit angry, for we know full well that something about this tale just isn’t right, and we breathe a collective sigh of relief when the house ends up back in the country again.

“Frog and Toad All Year,” by Arnold Lobel (1976)

I picked this one at random because ALL four of the “Frog and Toad” books should be added to your child’s bookshelf immediately. Frog and Toad are two pals who hang out and sometimes have adventures. None of the books takes place completely in nature — they sometimes sit inside and sip tea and tell scary stories or clean up a messy house for example — but in the end they are amphibians, so much of their life unfolds out of doors, and they have plenty of fun. They swim in rivers, plant gardens, go sledding, seek solitude on islands, climb mountains and generally live the kind of life any kid born before 1975 took for granted.

The outdoor adventures are good, but the “Frog and Toad” books use these adventures to teach important lessons in a very nuanced and non-preachy way. Sledding takes courage. Gardening involves patience. Lost buttons on the trail can reveal deeply rooted anger issues. Swimming in a silly bathing suit can cause others to laugh at you … but don’t let the snake/dragonfly/turtle/bird bastards get you down. And always remember that spring really is right around the corner.

“The Giving Tree,” by Shel Silverstein (1964)

You probably all know this short and simple tale, but if you haven’t, then STOP READING THIS RIGHT NOW and go find yourself a copy, as I don’t want to spoil it for you. For the rest of you, here’s a synopsis: A kid grows up in the protective and loving shade of a large apple tree. He climbs it, talks to it and eats its fruit, and the kid and the tree form a special bond not unlike that of a child and parent. As the boy ages, he visits the tree less and less, but the tree is infinitely patient and is always glad to see him, even if he comes with his girlfriend to carve their initials in the tree’s bark. As the boy becomes a man, he rarely visits at all, and one day he arrives and tells the tree he needs to cut her down to use the wood to build a boat. The tree obliges and gives up all but her stump so the boy can sail off. Years later, the boy returns as an old and weary man. The tree is glad to see him but says she has nothing left to offer. The man says he just needs a place to rest, so he sits on the stump, just him and the tree once again.

Like the Lorax, my ma read “The Giving Tree” to me at age five and it hit me in the gut in a similar way. Bam. We harm the Earth and its creatures and take and take and take. Bam. But there is a love that’s bigger than our selfishness and meanness, a love that transcends our pettiness and short sightedness. Bam. The One True Love. The unconditional love of our actual mother AND Mother Earth that gives all and keeps giving, no matter what we do to her, all because she knows that eventually we’ll come around and realize that The Love is the only thing that really matters. If Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet” is a concise summary of the best impulses of the world’s religions, than “The Giving Tree” is a perfect distillation of “The Prophet.” Read it and weep.

“Two Little Gardeners,” by Margaret Wise Brown.
Illustrated by Gertrude Elliot (1951)

Remember the “Little Golden Books” and the tell-tale golden shimmer along their spines? Well, back before Barbie and the Disney Princesses foisted themselves upon the publisher, these books were reliably good tales featuring a variety of characters exploring various aspects of 1940s and 1950s America. Pokey Little Puppies breaking out of the yard to see what they can see. Toy tugboats sailing down mighty rivers to the sea. Little Red Cabooses saving the train. Little Postmen delivering cards to grandma. If these books were a little bit white bread (and white skinned), well, they were more a sign of the times than anything, and while the stories may not be multicultural, they are worthwhile, and millions of Americans hold these tales and their images close to their hearts.

Although I didn’t own it as a kid, one of my favorite Little Golden Books these days is “Two Little Gardeners.” Nothing fancy: Spring arrives and a boy and girl haul their tools out of the shed and plant a garden. From there, the book just tells the story of the garden. Roots fattening up beneath the soil. Squash flowers blooming. Worms turning the soil. They weed it, water it, chase away the bunnies and eventually harvest it. They have a big feast and then can the rest, or store it in the root cellar. In the end, they sit in rocking chairs by the fire and sing a song about gardening. Who could ask for more?

“On the Day You Were Born,” by Debra Frasier (1991)

The title sums this one up nicely, as this book tells the kiddos what was happening on Earth and beyond on the day they were born. Not in a “on-this-day-in-history” way, but in a cosmically poetic yet scientific way that lets the little one on your lap know that he or she is part of something truly grand. It starts on the eve of the birth, when the good news is passed from the birds to the whales, to the salmon and all around the Earth, then the sun, moon and stars all move into just the right place to welcome the newborn to the new reality. Indeed, everything welcomes each of us into the world. Gravity promises to keep us from floating away. Waves wash the beaches clean for our footprints. Forests make the oxygen we’ll need. Clouds welcome us with rain.

As with our existence here in these bodies of ours, all the natural processes in this story — photosynthesis, animal migrations, solar flares — might well be meaningless and subject to no laws other than those dictated by physics and chemistry … we’re all islands of existential loneliness floating through space on a ball of rock with no rhyme or reason sort of thing. And that’s fine. I spend at least half my waking hours thinking that’s the way it is, not that it matters what I think.

But at the same time, the fact that we can imagine something different makes that something different possible. And that’s what’s great about this book: It offers up a deeply spiritual view of human life on Earth without ever sounding preachy or hokey. On the day you were born, the sun was fusing atoms deep in its core because that’s what atoms do when subjected to such intense gravitational pull, and the energy produced by that process took the form of heat and light. Or, maybe, the sun really did send out those waves of energy just to light your days as you make your way through life. On the day you were born, the moon was reflecting the light of the sun off its lifeless gray surface as it orbited the Earth because it happened to be in the path of the sun’s rays. Or, maybe, the moon really did promise to grace your windowsill each month with a full and bright face simply because it thinks you are special.

Of course, you’re not special. You’re just the latest manifestation of hominids with opposable thumbs, and you’ll soon be nothing but dust. The same goes for your children, who will figure that out for themselves soon enough. But, until then, read them as many books like this as you possibly can … because, well, a little magic and hope never hurt anybody.

“Books for Young Explorers,” by the National Geographic Society (1972-1982)

When I was a kid, these hardcover books used to arrive in the mail four at a time every few months, and believe me it was an exciting time. These high-quality, full-color nuggets delved into many aspects of the natural world and offered up a kid-friendly version of the same well researched information and amazing photographs you’d find in the magazine itself, minus the naked boobs and starving children.

With titles like these, you know you’re in for some hot Earth-loving action: “Animals That Build Their Homes”; “Life in Ponds and Streams”; “Animals of the High Mountains”; “Explore a Spooky Swamp”; “A Day in the Woods”; “Let’s Go to the Moon”; and the epic “Creepy Crawly Things.” Good stuff. Unfortunately, the last reprint of any of these books occurred in 1995, so they’re no longer available from the publisher. Fortunately for me, my own set of books were boxed up and stored away in my grandparents’ attic where I stumbled upon them just in time to read to my own daughter, who loves them all, including the creepy crawly ones. Fortunately for you, most of these books can be purchased used from the usual online suspects, just be sure you’re getting the actual “Books for Young Explorers,” by National Geographic and not something else. If you’re looking for a way to supplement your family’s nature outings with some good nature reads, then I highly recommend any or all of these books.

That’s it for now. Hope some of you check these out. Please feel free to post your own suggestions below, and happy reading.

 

 

Family Yurt Trip

Despite our love for the Rocky Mountains, neither my wife nor I are big fans of winter. We like it up to a point, somewhere around the 5th of January, but after that we start the countdown to the spring thaw and all the good things that arrive with it: gardening, hiking, easy camping and warmth.

Which is fine, or would be, if winter actually ended in January, but the Rockies aren’t known for short and easy winters, and even here in sunny Taos, New Mexico, not far from where the Southern Rockies disappear for good beneath the high desert sagebrush of the Galisteo Basin, the snowy season sticks around in one form or another at least until the official first day of spring, and much longer in the High Country. This means that we are forced, with increasing reluctance as the years go by, to partake in a bit of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, lest we spend the entire season overindulging in breakfast burritos and books and find ourselves flabby come hiking-boot time.

So, when some friends with a child the same age as ours suggested we spend a long weekend together in a yurt in the South San Juan Mountains, we were game: winter camping without the agonies of winter camping sounded like a blast, and the experience would provide the impetus necessary for us to rise from our asses and engage King Winter on some very agreeable terms. We met up for a potluck dinner, pored over maps and reserved the yurt for two nights. That was around Thanksgiving, and we planned the trip for mid-March, assuming that the odds of sunny weather would be fairly good by then and that the snow pack would be plenty deep and well settled. I also assumed — no, knew deep within my heart — that I would have plenty of time, nearly four months in fact, to spend weekends on skis and snowshoes so that I’d be ready for the big yurt adventure and all that it entailed, namely: dragging a sled laden with gear, supplies and my daughter through the frozen tundra, or at least up a snowbound Forest Service road.

Two weeks later, I dusted off my skinny skis and hit the hills for the first time, hell bent on whipping my rapidly atrophying March-to-November loving body into shape. I stuffed my backpack with 40 pounds of rocks and water jugs designed to mimic the weight of my daughter, strapped it onto my winter-stiff back and powered my way around the outer loop of the local X-country trail, sweating and glad to be alive amongst the Ponderosa pines and fully intending on doing it again in a few days. Christmas came and went, and the New Year, and January, and February, and suddenly the much-anticipated trip was upon us, and while the withering La Niña drought had actually allowed me to ride my mountain bike a few times, I had completely blown off my well-intended winter exercise regimen and was feeling pretty lazy.

Nevertheless, the day arrived, and the deposit was nonrefundable, so we carefully gathered our gear, double, triple, quadruple checked the weather, and caravanned the 90 miles to the trailhead, where we unloaded the car and attempted, for the very first time, to properly secure our child and gear onto the sled. It took nearly an hour to get everything packed and stacked correctly, and when we were finally ready, the wind was blowing kinda chilly and, despite their numerous layers of clothes and snowsuits, the girls — not quite four years old — were already a little cold. I snickered inwardly at my fellow dad’s silly sled, a lame metal saucer that was sure to slide uncontrollably in unexpected directions, then balanced my daughter into my own sleek sled in a cute little chair lashed behind a large backpack full of foodstuffs and camping gear. I hitched a towrope to some mysterious and never-before-utilized nylon loops on the backpack I was wearing and set off up the mountain.

Twenty feet later, the sled tipped over and my daughter tumbled helplessly sideways into the snow. I was proud of this sled — a purple plastic Walmart wonder I had bolted firmly atop my old Simms “Search” snowboard with our best wedding present of all (a industrial-grade cordless drill) — and was slightly dismayed at how quickly it had tipped. I righted my daughter, shifted her position ever so slightly, and blasted ahead, only to immediately feel some resistance from the rope, which turned out to be the sled tipped over and my daughter lying in the snow once more. Three times turned out not to be the charm, so as the rest of the gang watched impatiently, including my buddy with his stable, well balanced and seemingly dependable saucer in tow, I strapped my backpack (lower center of gravity) to the sled, dusted the snow off my daughter and placed her securely in her rickshaw-style carrier on my back, and away we went, across the glimmering white meadow and up the switchbacks of the trail.

On paper — which is to say on a map viewed while drinking beer around a kitchen table in a warm house — the trek to the yurt had looked relatively easy. It was less than five miles in, a distance all of us had snowshoed many times before, occasionally in blizzard or other questionable/psychedelic conditions, and we had chosen the yurt with the least elevation gain, this being a family-style trip and all. Perhaps it was the sedentary winter, or the combination of kid on my back/sled behind me, or just the fact that I’m getting older and slower, but, for whatever reason, the initial climb out of the meadow was grueling beyond all expectation, and by the time I caught up with the rest of the crew, I was huffing and puffing.

Fortunately, that first mile was the hardest part, and the remaining miles appeared to involve minimal contour lines on the map. The “trail” was actually a Forest Service road made even wider than normal by the passage of snowmobiles (some of them effortlessly towing huge U-haul sized sleds probably chock full of steaks and coolers of beer) headed into the hills for some redneck revelry. You would think this might make for easy sailing, this wide and well-packed road, but it didn’t. To be sure, it was easier than breaking trail in fresh powder, especially considering the load I was dragging along, but instead of smoothing the road out, a winter’s worth of snow machines had created endless ripples and icy ruts that kept flipping my pathetic sled on its side.

We trudged ahead, pausing every few minutes for me to flip the sled back to its proper position, and always thinking we were farther along than we were, ready for the next bend to bring us to a landmark or junction that actually turned out to be around another half dozen or so bends. We stopped for a lunch break and to give the kids a chance to pee. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t. They are girls — no easy access — which meant peeling off the snowsuits and layers of long underwear, pushing them as far down their legs as possible, then holding the little ladies upright/leaning them back just enough to avoid tinkling on the important bundle of clothes around their ankles, but not enough to dip their pink behinds in the snow — the whole process made even more challenging and insufferable (for the little girls) by the wind that was blowing off the ridge and whooshing through the woods and between their exposed legs.

We had planned on a leisurely lunch break, but, despite the fact that the adults were hot and sweaty, as soon as we stopped moving, we caught a chill, and this was doubly so for the kids, neither of whom had moved very much at all since we’d started the trek, and both of whom had just been forced to bare their asses to the malicious pinch of Jack Frost. So we aborted the planned luncheon, saddled up and made for the yurt.

The worst of the contour lines were indeed behind us, and the last couple of miles appeared to be mere gentle undulations as we made our way around the side of a hill, but since we were now somewhere north of 10,000 feet above sea level, every step I took required more effort than I had expected, and the slightest of climbs — especially the long and gradual pulls that made up this section of the trail — taxed my body and sapped my energy. Despite the rosy weather forecast, it was now overcast, and the kid on my back began to whine with understandable and righteous indignation about the cold, particularly in the limbs and digits that dangled almost motionless from the backpack in which she sat, making them easy targets for frostbite or at least some serious discomfort.

We paused to assess the situation: kids cold but not quite crying; sky gray and wind blowing but not snowing; closer to the yurt than the vehicles. WHEN IN DOUBT, GO HIGHER. That motto has always made sense to me, and it’s provided me with some of the most memorable experiences of my life, not to mention getting me out of many potential backcountry binds as “higher” usually amounts to a view big enough to figure out exactly where you are and how to get to where you need to be.

But does it apply when there are helpless children involved? On one hand, our concern seemed silly: there’s plenty of daylight left, we’re only a few miles from the cars, it ain’t snowing, and we’re trekking on a ROAD. Indeed, just a few years ago, I would have been embarrassed to be seen wasting my time on this kind of logged-over, snowmobile-laden, civilized sort of trail — a place for tourists from St. Louis rather than Rocky Mountain locals with ample adventures under our belts — and I certainly wouldn’t have questioned my ability to finish the journey. But on the other hand, there was a lot at stake: two little girls with little bodies that could get dangerously cold in short order, and who were still too small and clumsy to navigate the trail on foot and create some body warmth of their own. Of course, barring some complete and unknowable disaster, nobody was going to die, and, in a pinch, there would probably be more snowmobiles passing by before nightfall, but did it make sense to keep going?

We decided that it did, at least this time around, so we mushed along, sure that we were almost there. And we were, more or less. One last punishingly long incline, one final blue diamond nailed to a spruce tree, and we left the road and carefully made our way down a steep stretch of actual narrow snowshoe/ski trail and there it was: The Yurt, sitting stolid and quiet, radiating the promise of shelter and burden-free loafing.

We unpacked and settled in, then completed the handful of chores necessary for our comfort: fetch the (already-split) firewood and chop a bit of kindling; start a fire in the stove and haul in some buckets of snow to melt for drinking water; hang up the clothes to dry; uncork a bottle of wine. Meanwhile, the girls, suddenly freed from the clutches of their rickshaws, forgot all about their cold toes and began bouncing around like rubber balls and exploring every conceivable nook and cranny in the surprisingly small but sufficiently comfortable yurt. Especially exciting were the bunk beds, something neither girl had seen before, which meant that each wooden ladder had to be climbed over and over again, and each bed carefully jumped upon, all to the tune of creaking cast iron stove doors, a crackling fire and the joyous sound of non-stop giggles.

If the jaunt to the yurt had been a woeful tale of physical exertion and the perils of prolonged (almost) middle-aged inactivity followed by a sudden burst of athleticism, then the next 40 or so hours were pleasantly relaxing, or at least decidedly lacking in effort beyond trips to the outhouse or the woodpile. The dads did manage a mellow snowshoe down the hill to check out the creek and some remnant groves of old-growth spruce, and the moms each went on a short solo ski and did some yoga, but for the most part, we all just sat on the porch in the mountain sunshine and swapped stories, or lounged around the yurt and played cards, sifted through the newspaper stack in the wood box for an unsolved crossword puzzle, or made up silly songs to sing to our girls.

As with the tame trail that had brought us here — a trail I would have avoided at all costs at one point in my life — a day-and-a-half of sitting around doing nothing would have seemed horrible to me just a few years ago. In 2006, I’d have been chomping at the bit to get out and explore the area, and would have probably spent an entire day making my way up to the ridgeline for some hard-earned views of the San Juan Mountains, or, had I been forced to stay in the yurt, would have brooded grumpily over the fact that I was cooped up rather than churning out endorphins as I trekked through the woods and figured out the lay of the land.

But this wasn’t 2006, it was 2011, and that five-year span had brought massive transformation to nearly every aspect of my life. Part-time work and plenty of highway and trail mileage, for both my wife and myself, had been utterly derailed by the trinity of marriage, an unexpected honeymoon-prompted pregnancy and a bouncing baby girl, plus the sudden need to work full time, while simultaneously jumping through the hoops necessary to earn a teaching license and the real-world job that such professional licensure implies. Without warning, and long before I could wrap my head around the implications of it all, a life of abundant spare time and completely acceptable procrastination gave way to full-time employment and a busy routine that demand I pencil in rest and recreation, and even plain old exercise, in small, precious doses whenever I could.

It’s a life I’ve always dreaded — a life I didn’t think I wanted and feared I wouldn’t be good at, but, surprise surprise, now that I’m completely mired in the responsibilities and limitations of fatherhood, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Perhaps if I was a younger parent, I might feel resentment over the lost youth and lack of partying and adventure, or, like the twenty-something-year-old parents of so many of my students, would simply put my kid on the back burner while I continued to do what I wanted. Fortunately, I was fated to live out some serious slacker years before I was thrust into the dual role of provider and dad, which means that I was able to work out a few of my issues and visit some interesting places along the way, and now, most of the time anyway, I’m old enough to be aware of what really matters — my family — but still young enough, for a little while longer, to be able to strap a 40-pound child to my back and drag a sled laden with princess underwear, coloring books and other vital supplies over the river and through the woods for a little family adventure.

Looking back on that second day, our only full day at the yurt, I guess it wasn’t all just lounging around. We did manage to do a little sledding, the one thing my Rube Goldberg snowboard contraption excelled at, and we followed a few game trails through the woods, had some snowball fights and made a family of snowpeople: snowman, snowmom and a snowy little girl — the whole lot of them peering longingly at the mountains but plenty happy with the sunny glade that they would call home for the rest of their short lives.

That night, as we hunkered down in the yurt and feasted on s’mores by the light of the Coleman lanterns, the moon rose full and bright as can be from behind the crest of the Brazos Mountains. Our girls, wired on chocolate and marshmallows, ran to the window in the door and began to howl like the wild little wolves that they are. A few minutes later, a fox trotted across the moonlit meadow just outside the yurt, pausing long enough for the girls to step quietly out onto the porch in their pajamas to say hello.

Going to Hell in an Easter Basket

Pagan Parenting Going to Hell in an Easter Basket

or

YOU ARE A PAGAN!

Part One: frolicking, fertility, fecundity

When I was growing up, I always felt a bit sorry for the Jehovah’s Witness kids I went to school with. It may have been this way only in my small town, but the ones I knew were kind of odd — booger eaters, hillbillyesqe, either painfully shy and sullen or bouncing off the walls — and this oddness was amplified by the fact that they’d be the only ones in the class sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance, ignoring birthday cake or refusing to cobble together a cookbook for Mother’s Day.

I’m not sure about where the eccentricities came from, but the lack of overt patriotism and holiday cheer was due to the fact that their religion — one of ten billion sects of Christianity/Judaism/Islam that insists it knows something nobody else does — thinks that God, a.k.a. “Jehovah”, does not like sharing his heavenly stage or the attentions of his chosen people with governments, as represented by the Pledge of Allegiance, or false idols, as symbolized by everything from the Tooth Fairy to the Easter Bunny and beyond. Indeed, to a devout Jah Witness, the very existence of these holidays is proof that the devil himself runs the show here on Earth right now, for all of them, Christmas included — Christmas especially — are nothing less than the spiritually toxic remnant of ancient pagan rituals, a.k.a. DEVIL WORSHIP.

It’s easy to laugh at all this, for it sounds as farfetched and paranoid as terrorists hiding behind the couch or back-to-back La Niña winters, but believe it or not, those Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t just crying wolf. Although most of us aren’t consciously aware of it, our calendar — one of the pillars of any civilization — is a litany of pagan rulers and deities, as most of the months and all seven of the days of the week take their names from icons of olde: July and August named for Roman Emperors; March named for Mars, the Roman god of war; Monday is the Moon’s Day; Thursday is Thor’s Day, the Nordic god of war and thunder; Saturday is Saturn’s day, the Roman god of agriculture and civilization, and on and on, right up to Sunday, a traditional day of Christian worship that falls on the day dedicated to the Sun, that heavenly ball of fire usually personified as The Father or some variation thereof, a myth that predates the Bible story by uncountable centuries.

So it should come as no surprise that a calendar as demonic as ours is riddled with heathen celebrations, many of them rooted in pre-Christian fertility or sacrificial rituals originally designed/evolved to ensure The People did their part to keep the cosmic dramas — rain, sunshine, planting and harvest — rolling along smoothly. We may not sacrifice goats or virgins anymore, but, like it or not, and notice it or not, we collectively continue these ancient traditions everytime we string up the xmas lights, send the kids out on the town dressed as zombies or consult the groundhog to see what the second half of winter has in store for us.

All of which is, of course, fantastic, especially if you’re a Pagan Parent, for every holiday offers up a double punch of fun: the holy day itself and all its symbolic and joyous trappings, accompanied by the unique time of year in which it occurs — a perfect chance to teach the kiddos about our connection to this swell planet we live on via the pageant of the seasons as seen through the prism of celebrations big and small.

With that in mind, let us examine the next few months worth of traditional American holidays big and small: five bang-up heathen jam sessions parading as innocuous Hallmark holidays, their origins and deeper meanings hidden in plain sight and intuitively understood by anyone willing to spend some time out of doors.

GROUNDHOG DAY

As a new year begins, denizens of the northern hemisphere — birthplace of the Eurocentric culture most of us adhere to here in the USA — are duking it out with Old Man Winter. The darkest time has passed and the days are gradually getting longer, but the snow continues to pile up and the vast majority of North Americans lacking palm trees in their yards (Gore-Tex-clad Mountain Gazette readers notwithstanding) are sick of winter and all that it entails: ice storms, snow shoveling, windshield scraping and/or day after day of melancholy gray skies. How much longer will this dreary cold rain and snow last? On February 2nd, roughly the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, we arise, stoke the woodstove/crank up the thermostat and watch with bated breath as a furry rodent awakens briefly from hibernation and crawls out of his hole to check the weather. If he sees his shadow, then winter is going to last at least six more weeks, but, if he doesn’t, then we might be in for an early thaw, and sweet release from the cruel grip of Jack Frost.

It’s Groundhog Day of course, immortalized in the truly epic movie of the same name — a perfect Buddhist primer if there ever was one. At a glance, it seems like a silly holiday with no purpose other than to distract us from the roof that needs shoveled off and the frozen pipes that are bursting, but the holiday is quite old and is at least partially rooted in the ancient Celtic celebration of Imbolc, a celebration of the lengthening days and — at least at the lower elevations, where the holiday originated — the fact that winter is showing the first faint signs of fading. Fires were lit in the hearth, buttery foods were eaten and the weather was watched closely, for this was the day when the old hag Cailleach, the Queen of Winter, gathered her firewood for the rest of her season. If she planned on a long winter, the day would be bright and sunny, so she could easily find and carry the wood, but, if the day was dark and stormy, folks knew that she had blown off the search for firewood and decided to stay in bed, which meant that winter would be over soon.

Originally, in Ireland and Scotland anyway, the day was dedicated to the deity Brigid, or Bride — virgin goddess of the hearth fire, livestock, renewal and abundance, among other things — who was revered by poets, blacksmiths, midwives and beer brewers. In some traditions, she was the younger version of the old wood-gathering crone of winter, or was actually held prisoner by the hag during the dark months, an Irish echo of the Greek tale of Persephone and her annual six-month exile in the underworld. Her sacred day of Imbolc was later Christianized as Candlemas — a celebration of the Virgin Mary and a time to bless the candles — and she herself was canonized as St. Brigid (known as the “Bride of Christ”), a saint who, as it happens, gave away her family’s store of butter to the poor when she was a girl, founded a school of metal work and miraculously changed water into ale, deeds that echo those of her previous heathen incarnation.

If you’re a Pagan Parent, then stuff the kids in their snowsuits, strap on the snowshoes and head outside in search of animal tracks or other signs of life. Check for cracks in the ice of Old Man/Old Hag Winter. Are the icicles dripping? Birds chirping? Anything crawling out of its den or slithering out a hole in the ground? While you’re wandering, gather some (depending on your locale) dried grasses, willow branches, broken spruce twigs or last year’s dead flowers — woody strips of some kind a foot or so long. When you’re done, head inside for some hot milk chocolate (hot buttered rum or home brew for the parents) then kindle a fire in the woodstove (or light some candles), break out the craft box and use the goods you gathered to make a small cross — wheel of fire actually — to your liking. Hang it on your front porch or near the oven or hearth for protection or just as a reminder that winter will be over soon.

VALENTINE’S DAY

Valentine was a Christian saint cruelly martyred for refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus and convert to Roman paganism. He was clubbed and beaten, and, when that didn’t work, was finally beheaded, and today we celebrate this horrific torture and state-sponsored murder by scheduling the biggest date night of the year with our sweetheart, complete with candy, sweet nothings and a romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan.

Which — except for the having to watch Meg Ryan/horrific torture connection — makes no sense at all. More likely, our modern day Valentine’s extravaganza is rooted in Lupercalia, an older Roman holiday celebrating the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus (two feral baby boys suckled by a she-wolf) that took place each year from February 13th to the 15th  and involved the sacrifice of a goat (fertility) and a dog (purification). The goat hide was then cut into strips and soaked with the blood, after which priests dressed as wolves would prowl the city and whip the (often) naked female citizenry with the bloody straps in hopes that they would be blessed with fertility. Towards the end of the shindig, the unmarried women of the village would put their names in an urn, the bachelors would draw a name, and the two would be coupled for the rest of the holiday, and perhaps for the next year, or longer if they chose to marry.

Sometime around the 5th century AD, Pope Gelasius I created a holy day for St. Valentine and scheduled it to fall during Lupercalia, probably in hopes that it might shift the Romans’ attention toward the Holy Trinity and end their lingering fascination with the pagan holiday and its unholy trappings: blood, sex, wolves and whips. Despite the Pope’s efforts, and an outright ban on so-called “lottery” couplings, the spirit of Lupercalia lingered for centuries in folk tales and low-key celebrations and was eventually resurrected centuries later by the writings of Chaucer and Shakespeare, both of whom focused on the more romantic elements of the day. Soon, folks were composing their own romantic verse, or eventually, paying others to do it for them, and, by 1800, Valentines cards were popular enough to require that they be mechanically printed in factories.

During the daylight hours, Pagan Parents might want to stick with the modern-day version of the holiday by baking cookies, trading candy hearts and making handmade Valentine cards for family and friends. Later on, after the kids are asleep and the romantic comedy is rolling the credits, Mom and Dad can raid the kids’ chocolate stash, crack open a bottle of blood-red wine and come up with their own creative way to celebrate the day — perhaps even involving licorice whips and the wolf suit hidden in the back of the closet.

ST. PATRICK’S DAY

1980, second grade, and David Hartford is being chased around the classroom by a trio of girls dressed head to toe in green. David’s wearing no green, so the girls are doing their best to pinch him. They corner him, no escape, but, at the last second, he pulls up his pant leg and there they are: emerald stripes on the tube socks.

That’s one of the few vivid St. Patrick’s Day memories I have, probably because, like any good Swedish-American, I’ve spent many a hazy March 17th drinking too much beer and stuffing myself on corned beef and cabbage in celebration of something vaguely Irish … the invention of Guinness stout? Gold at the end of a midget’s rainbow? The best most of us can come up with is something about Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, which is actually code for Christianizing the natives and (spiritually) exterminating the pagans and their beliefs, as actual snakes never have existed in Ireland, at least not since the end of the Pleistocene. So puking up green beer after hitting on chicks with “Kiss me, I’m Irish” pins is nothing less than a sacred ritual honoring the efforts of Christian missionaries circa A.D. 500.

Sounds like something any good monotheist should be able to rally around: destruction of the heathens and the spread of the Good News, even if it was in the form of Catholicism. But like Valentine’s Day — a Catholic Saint Day scheduled by the early church to supplant a preexisting pagan ceremony — St. Patrick’s holy day was draped over a Roman fertility holiday: according to legend, St. Patrick died on March 17th, which, according to historical fact, also marks the date of the annual pre-Jesus Roman festival of Liberalia honoring Liber Pater (“Free Father”), an Etruscan god of fertility and vegetation, especially the grape and the wine that is made from it. On this day, devotees would drink copiously and march through the countryside carrying a huge phallus, which would later be crowned with a vagina-like wreath of flowers, the whole shebang intended to bring fertility to the land and protection to the crops, many which would already be planted and growing well in the temperate Mediterranean climate.

As the Roman Empire spread throughout Europe, holidays like Lupercalia took root in the farthest-flung reaches of the empire, albeit in forms tailored to local conditions and preexisting beliefs and rituals — a common occurrence religious scholars refer to as “syncretism.” Viewed through the stereoscopic lenses of changing seasons and the vital importance of agriculture, St. Patrick’s Day is likely a remnant of a holiday commemorating the end of winter (the Equinox falls a few days later) and the return of spring, this time for good, as well as the beginning of planting season. Viewed through the ancient worldview of sympathetic magic — that a person can effect a change by imitating it — the wearing of green was a way to honor the changing season as well as to help the process along, particularly in the chillier and grayer areas of the sprawling empire, such as Brittania and Gaul.

But, what about the corned beef and cabbage? The leprechauns and the drunkenness? The corned beef and cabbage reflects the realities of the late, late winter season: down to the dregs of food stash, with nothing left to eat but last year’s salted (“corned”) meat and a few cabbages and potatoes beginning to rot in the root cellar. The leprechauns are probably relics of the once-widespread belief in a variety of faerie folk who once held — in uniquely place-specific forms — spiritual sway across all of Europe and beyond. In this case, they’re foul-mouthed cobblers known for hoarding treasure and occasionally getting drunk and causing trouble. Which brings us to the drunkenness, which may stem from the fact that Liberalia was a holiday especially popular with the Roman plebeians — working-class stiffs and other riffraff — and evolved (some might say devolved) into a drunken festival of free speech and self-expression, as well as the breaking of social and sexual boundaries, and what better way to fuel that sort of revelry than getting wasted?

Pagan Parents can take this one easy. Encourage the kids to dress in green in celebration of the coming of spring, and point out the buds starting to pop out on neighborhood trees, or, if you’re in the High Country, the sphagnum moss hanging from the spruce and fir trees, all of which signify the fact that life holds fast even during the long winter. Feasting on corned beef and cabbage is a good idea as well, especially if you point out the fact that both are traditionally eaten at the end of winter, and that we should be grateful for the abundance of foods now available to us, as well as the fact that spring is finally here. Then, as on Valentine’s Day, once the kids are asleep, Mom and Dad can celebrate the phallus/vagina/fertility motif however they see fit.

EASTER

Easter is ostensibly a Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ after his death by crucifixion, a story everybody who hasn’t been raised in the most-inaccessible corners of the Amazon jungle or on another planet knows by heart. Due to the fact that Jesus was a Hebrew — folks who relied on a lunar calendar rather than one tied to the sun — and his crucifixion took place during Passover, a Jewish holiday, Easter (the earliest and holiest of all Christian holidays) originally shifted around according to the cycles of the moon, and does to this day, although no longer in conjunction with Passover. For a western Christian, Easter is a joyous occasion filled with prayer, sunrise church services, sacraments and feasting, a medley that brings more of the (sometimes lapsed) faithful into the fold, at least for this one day, than any other Christian holiday, including Christmas. Suffering, death, rebirth … the ultimate and permanent new beginning for those who believe in redemption and forgiveness via this miraculous moment in human history; a moment that happened ONE TIME ONLY and will not be repeated.

But, really, the resurrection occurs every year. It’s called SPRING — Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox — a time when the smothering white blanket of winter gives way to green shoots and pink blossoms. Robins arrive from down south. Warm chinook winds blow down from the High Country. The snow in the yard finally melts, revealing the first blades of grass and many months worth of frozen dogshit now on the thaw. By now, most everybody has a bit of cabin fever and is ready to go outside, maybe don a nice pretty dress or your Sunday best, carry a basket and search out the colored eggs that a magical bunny rabbit has hidden beneath last year’s dead grasses.

Eggs and bunnies have little to do with the story of Jesus and everything to do with the changing season. The very name of the holiday comes from the Old English “Eostre,” a long-lost Germanic goddess of dawn, springtime, and, of course, fertility. Eggs are a global symbol of fertility as well, for obvious reasons, and while Christians may have adapted the motif to symbolize the rebirth of their savior, the custom of coloring eggs to honor the Spring Equinox was practiced at least 2,500 years ago in places as far flung as China, India and Persia. The egg hunt itself resembles a search for the first flowers blooming here and there in the damp earth — think crocuses and daffodils in your front yard, or pasque flowers and glacial lilies in the mountains — while the bunny and her ability to give birth to as many as 130 precious fuzzy babies per year is a powerful symbol of procreation and regeneration: just say the words “hump like bunnies” and see what comes to mind.

If you’re a Pagan Parent, this one is a piece of cake: go with the flow. Attend a sunrise Easter ceremony if you wish, or just get up early enough to watch the sunrise and hide the eggs before the kids wake up. Feed the youngsters some chocolate bunnies for breakfast, then send them out in search of the hidden eggs (outside if possible — rarely possible during my own frozen mountain childhood), then take a drive and point out the newborn calves in the meadows and the baby chicks in the window at the feed store, or better, take a hike and watch for early-season wildflowers and new plant shoots down by the creek. Finally, return home for a feast, for, as with St. Patrick’s Day, the traditional Easter dinner offers a chance to discuss the seasonal aspects of the food on the table, i.e., this spring’s freshly slaughtered lamb, or last autumn’s cured ham, not to mention the eggs themselves, which, in the days before factory farms and 24-hour forced lighting, were hard to come by in the winter but were laid and gathered in earnest as the days began to lengthen and warm.

MAY DAY

Assuming you don’t live above timberline, by the time the month of May rolls around, the crusty snow banks and/or April showers have morphed into a proliferation of flowers and greenery, and signs of life are everywhere: creeks flowing freely, birds nesting, cottonwoods leafing out along the rivers and beautiful Yoga Milfs strolling the sidewalks in short dresses and sandals.

The first day of May is also the holiday known as May Day, which was coopted by commies a century ago and twisted into a celebration of workers across the world — an admirable goal, but one that has little to do with the original intent of the day, which was, of course, a celebration of all things sexy, nubile and full of life and lust, for, by now, Spring has sprung in earnest and the sap is rising, or as my Uncle Dragon used to say: “Hooray, hooray for the first of May, the outdoor fucking starts today!”

So, unless you’re a dedicated International Workers of the World activist, chances are that you associate May Day with springtime and flowers, and for good reason, for the holiday is based upon a number of ancient holidays that fell on the same day, including the ancient Roman celebration of Floralia, a festival dedicated to Flora, goddess of flowers, and Beltane, a Celtic/Irish/Scottish festival celebrating the hope inherent in full-blown spring. Bonfires were lit and livestock were driven through the flames in ritual purification before being shepherded out of the village pastures and into the fresh grass of surrounding hills and mountains. Sometimes naked folks jumped over the fires as well, or danced around the tall, stiff May Pole in celebration of the recurring spring themes of fertility and new beginnings.

As we’ve seen, all the spring holidays unabashedly celebrate aspects of fertility and the sexuality necessary to bring it about. Beltane was the last of these festivals, a big party celebrating the literal and metaphorical flowering of life, and it tended to be the most important, as well as the most brazenly sexual, complete with frolicking that would bring a smile to the face of wise Uncle Dragon: young women would spend the night in the woods to be visited by young men, and, in the morning, both would return to the village with twigs in their hair and garlands of flowers around their heads, the whole thing a reflection of  the larger union of the powers (cosmic penis, heavenly vagina) necessary to keep life going.

Pagan parents can take the family on an outing in the woods for picnicking and gathering flowers for the hearth and home, decorating and dancing around a May Pole in the yard (lop the branches off of last year’s Christmas tree and save the trunk), and, of course, kindling a raging evening bonfire and inviting over friends and family for a celebration of springtime and fire jumping — clothing optional once the kids are in bed.

***

Maybe it’s due to our agricultural heritage, or our penchant for  meat/potatoes/alcohol-centric feasts, or perhaps we’re just a horny nation, but whatever the reason, it seems as that Americans are particularly enthralled by these late-winter and early-spring celebrations and their associated foods and rituals: five good ones in just four months, making the February-’til-May stretch of our calendar the most-heathenish of the year. Much of Europe and even Canada celebrate ancient summer holidays, but our forebears in the Lower 48 must have been too busy with their hot-season chores (such as clearing the land of primordial forest and red-skinned pagans) to bother with mirth, for, while summer offers a handful of purely secular holidays — Father’s Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day — our Earth-bound shindigs fall away after May Day and don’t return for another six months. But that next one is a doozy: Halloween, perhaps the most paganesqe of all our modern holidays, and an easy one for Pagan Parents.

Until then, remember that the Jehovah’s Witness folks are correct: our holidays lean toward the demonic end of the spectrum, or if you prefer, they stem from traditions that predate our current dominant religion and its insistence on One God and a strict good/evil duality by centuries, if not millennia. None of which matters much in the grand scheme of things, for humans have been creatively marking the passage of time/plugging into the Big Picture for tens of thousands of years, and will continue to do so long after our current civilization collapses and we’re forced to return to our roots as hunters, gatherers and subsistence farmers. Besides, it’s not the particulars of the celebrations that matter so much as the fact that we’re paying attention to the cycles of life upon which all of us are utterly dependent.

The Lost Art of Treating Animals Like Animals

Charles Clayton's Great Grandfather and neighbor butchering a cow in Fraser circa 1918 or so.
Charles Clayton's Great Grandfather and neighbor butchering a cow in Fraser circa 1918 or so.

We think, perhaps rightly so, of our animals as extensions of our families, and we treat them like people. For my entire life, family dogs have slept on the beds, the couch and the recliner, never spending a single night outside unless we were camping. They licked the dinner plates clean, gobbled expensive dog food and occasionally received thousands of dollars in veterinarian care, even when they were approaching the natural end of their lifespan.

Such attitudes would have been almost unthinkable a century ago. My Grandma grew up with a series of dogs named Shep, short for “shepherd” of course, which is what they were used for. Shep, all of them, slept with the animals in the barn; the very same barn where cows were slaughtered, strung up by their hindquarters and butchered; the same barn where elk hunted in surrounding mountains were turned into steaks; and where thousands of local trout were cleaned — knife in the asshole, slit the belly, guts thrown to the dogs. I’m sure the family loved Shep, and they certainly valued the vital role he played in keeping the cattle in line, but they still made him sleep in the barn.

There were horses in the barn as well, used to supply HORSEPOWER: the power of a horse, which, for thousands of years, was how people and goods moved upon dry land. It sounds idyllic, until you remember the brute animal force needed to pull tons of freight, drag the plow, the hay rake, the logs — and the crack of the whip required to get the beasts to carry your burden. Indeed, it would have been difficult to have been too soft hearted toward animals in those days, because you would have been in tears much of the time — during the late-19th century, for example, 700 horses were worked to death in New York City every day just to pull street cars.

When I was eight years old, I had a friend in Tabernash, a tiny town not far from Fraser. There were a number of Hispanic families there who had come up from southern Colorado decades earlier to work on the railroad. Many of them still kept chickens, and slaughtered them, cut their heads off right in front of us. I had never seen that before, haven’t seen it since — the chopping block, the sharp hatchet, the frantic fluttering, and the final crazy dance of a bloody headless chicken. Later that afternoon, we happened to have chicken salad sandwiches for lunch. I ate my sandwich, reluctantly, but not without pondering, for the very first time, the animal I was chomping between my teeth.

Not long ago, customers of Whole Foods market decided that the live lobster tanks behind the seafood counter were cruel, and they successfully demanded the tanks be removed. Just imagine what those folks would have thought of my Tabernash chicken experience. Had that chicken been slaughtered in front of a Whole Foods market anywhere in America, especially in front of children, irate customers would have called for a boycott of the chain, and the ouster of the CEO. Just like those poor lobsters suffering in the tank — peering through the dirty glass, claws banded shut, waiting to be boiled alive — the sight of a headless chicken would have ruffled some yuppie feathers. Blood. Guts. Death. A terrible tragedy. Yet those same consumers, vegetarians notwithstanding, have no problem snapping up shrink-wrapped free-range chickens, ground-up grass-fed cows or filets of various fish, not to mention a bit of lobster tail when it suits their fancy, provided they don’t have to see the actual living creature beforehand.

My daughter and I recently watched “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” — a horribly cute movie that features a surprisingly harrowing scene where dogs are kidnapped and forced into an underground Mexican dog-fighting ring. It was a short scene, with no actual violence, but it made my daughter cry and her daddy cringe. I think we can all agree that folks involved in that sort of thing are among the lowest scum of the earth, and in my mind there is a special place reserved for them in hell, but at the same time, on some bizarre level, I have more respect for blood sport spectators gambling on vicious pit bulls than I do for sensitive do-gooders trying to ban live lobster tanks from grocery stores: at least the dogfighter vermin are witness to the carnage they’re responsible for.

We smugly think we’ve evolved into a kinder, gentler people, who treat animals in a civilized way, but really we’ve simply relegated the killing floor to some unknown place far removed from our daily lives, out of sight and out of mind, leaving the dirty work to immigrants whose names we’ll never know, and whose lives are as abstract to us as the meat that ends up on our plate. We don’t whip horses anymore — now we use refineries to whip energy from barrels of crude oil, and the trusty sheep dog has been replaced by soldiers (backed by billion-dollar weaponry), who herd petroleum into secure stock pens. Not to mention related externalities: drowned polar bears, poisoned groundwater, failed blowout preventers … we’re not kind, and we’re not gentle — we’re in denial.

Perhaps we need some blood on our hands. Not metaphorical blood — we’ve got plenty of that — but actual blood, warm and fresh from the animal we’re about to eat. Or maybe a whip in our hands, a mule in the driveway and an urgent need to get to work on time. Not so we can be cruel to animals, but so we can remember how utterly dependent we are on them (and their TEMPORARY petroleum substitutes) for our collective survival. Life feeds on life, and, for now, we’re at the top of the food chain, which makes us the biggest feeders of all. It would behoove us all to remember this next time we’re snuggled up on the couch with the family dog.

Frequent contributor Charles Clayton, a native of Colorado’s Fraser Valley, lives in Taos, NM. His last story for the Gazette was “New River, Arizona: Three Glimpses,” which appeared in #181. His blog, “Pagan Parenting,” can be found at mountaingazette.com.

Die, Bambi, Die

The loss of innocence If you’ve raised a young child, then you know that cuteness comes with the territory.  Indeed, parenthood is nothing if not an endless parade of cuteness — not just the child and his or her succession of outfits, facial expressions and silly “hurry-up grab the camera” inducing moments either, but every single accoutrement as well, from fuzzy feet pajamas and bunny rabbit toothbrushes to sequined hiking boots and little rocking chairs with butterflies painted on them. The list goes on and on due to the fact that Mommies and Daddies worthy of the title naturally want to surround their kids with an aura of love, innocence and safety, and cuteness is the easiest way to create just such a vibe — after all, other than hugs and kisses, nothing says “everything is going to be alright forever and ever” like, say, princesses on the curtains and unicorns on the pillowcases.

This is all well and good, except for one thing: things aren’t going to be alright forever and ever, and no amount of puppies or singing frogs (or dollars or real estate holdings) can change that fact. We can think all the positive thoughts we want, eat all the organic food we can afford, manifest goodness in every possible way and focus on the glass half full until the sacred cows come home, but none of these acts is going to do away with the cold hard fact that some portion of our existence is suffering, and that this suffering (pain, disease, loneliness) only ends when we die, an inevitable event so potentially horrible (car crash, tumor, snake bite) that we suffer even more just thinking about it, and do everything in our power (sex, drugs, rock and roll) to ward off the inevitable, or at least to keep our mind on other things.

Twenty years ago or thereabouts, my tie-dyed and slightly smelly bebackpacked self was traipsing through the City of Angels when I came upon a school playground full of kids. They were doing kid stuff. Sliding. Swinging. Sandbox. Terrorizing each other. I watched from afar as a girl, about eight years old, was brought to tears by the incessant teasing, dare I say bullying, of her classmates. Right then and there, I decided life was just too hard to bear and that I was never going to bring a child into such a world, and, at least partially due to feelings associated with this event (but mostly due to an extended period of self-absorbed navel gazing), I waited an extra long time to do so.

Of course, I believed in a lot of things at age 19 or 20 that seem laughable now — conspiracy theories, changing the world by getting stoned, forsaking underwear — and fortunately that solemn vow gave way to marriage vows and a subsequent little blonde bundle of joy that changed my life forever and for the better. But I still remember that moment on the playground, and want to do whatever I can to shield my daughter from ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that might cause her to experience pain and suffering.

At its core, that’s what all the cuteness is about: creating an island of innocence in the midst of a dangerous world so that our kids can avoid having to experience, or even become aware of, the darker side of existence. Daddy might be reading Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” before bed and watching “Apocalypse Now”  for the 78th time when nobody’s around, but he wants his daughter to live in a Never Never Land, where the horrors depicted in such stories never rear their ugly heads. All parents hope against hope that the smell of puppies might overpower the stench of burnt flesh in warzones. That picture books of baby dolphins will blot out starvation and disease. That frilly ballerina outfits and little pink cowgirl boots will prevent our children, for just a little while longer, from having to learn about racism, child molesters, serial killers, ecological collapse, extinction, genocide.

According to the Legend of Wikipedia, the Buddha was the son of a king, and his father, in an effort to keep him happy, hid him away in the palace and surrounded him with everything he could ever need or desire, while at the same time shielding him from religious teachings as well as the realities of human suffering. Like all kids everywhere, the little Buddha surely had moments of sadness and confusion: nasty tropical bug bites, skinned knees and the occasional wormy mango. Painful moments, but not existentially so — just a quick glimpse of the little facts of life, a momentary tearful breakdown, and, we can assume, eventual consoling in the loving arms of Dad or nursemaid (Mom had died in childbirth). Of course, the illusion couldn’t last, and one day the Buddha caught a glimpse of an old man and was informed by a servant that all people grew old, including himself. He started sneaking out of the palace and saw what it was all about: sickness, death, decay. He was changed forever, for he now knew that all the palatial beauty and wealth (read: cuteness) was a fraud,and spent the rest of his life trying to find some sort of solution to the whole mess. Young Mr. Buddha had an epiphany that shattered his childish view of the world and set off a chain of events — assuming there is a kernal of truth to the story — that affects humans thousands of years later.

Similar myths and legends are part of the foundation of civilization, and represent any number of awakenings we wish humanity had never had to experience, often involving a golden age now lost forever (or at least until some great battle occurs, or some great redeemer shows up to make it right again, or a devil’s bargain is struck). Pandora opening the box full of evil. Balder the Good killed by a dart of mistletoe. Naïve Persephone snatched away from flowery fields and raped by Hades in the underworld. Luke Skywalker glimpsing the charred remains of his protective Aunt and Uncle on Tatooine. And, of course, Adam and Eve lounging around the Garden until they glimpsed the BIG PICTURE and were cast out, suddenly ashamed of their nakedness and forced to toil for their survival.

Our house is hardly a garden of eden (daddy sometimes comes home grumpy after wrestling ADHD kids all day), or a land of perpetual spring blossoms (he cuts some mega burrito farts too), but we do our best to weed out what darkness we can. We peruse library books before bringing them home, and have chosen not to have any television channels in our house, opting for DVDs and the internet — two mediums which (for now) allow us to filter out violence, disturbing images and the barrage of gotta-own-this-right-now toy commercials or gotta-gobble-this-garbage-down-for-breakfast kiddie food ads. Despite these precautions, reality lurks around every corner, and darkness recentlydescended upon our house via a kind gesture by a family member and two seemingly safe vehicles of cuteness: Disney cartoons and the Hallmark Channel.

It all started with a visit to my hometown in Colorado, where one of my mountain-man cousins showered us with some elk and deer meat, all wrapped up in butcher paper and labeled: ground meat, round steak, chuck steak. Our daughter witnessed the conversation and the packing of the meat on ice for the car ride home, but said nothing. A few days later, we were back at home for a lazy Daddy Day Care day — sardines for lunch, for me and the four-year-old, followed by a couple rounds of Snow White whilst I mopped, napped and, uh, blogged. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, one of the hallmarks of Snow White is the fact that it pretty much set the standard for animal cuteness: birds, mice, deer, squirrels and more — all helping around the house whilst partaking in singalongs and just being unbearably adorable. Elsie loved it, especially the singing, and before my extended moment of lapsed parenting was over, she had watched it an undisclosed (to Mom) number of times … enough to be able to name all seven Dwarves and sing most of the “Silly Song.” Most importantly, she saw animals being exceptionally cute over and over again.

The final catalyst for the big, unwanted epiphany was nothing less than that innocence destroyer known as “Little House on the Prairie” —not the old teevee show, but a relatively new four-hour Hallmark Channel (I think) miniseries faithfully based upon the first book of the same name by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in which the family leaves overcrowded, hunted-out Wisconsin for a new start in Kansas, where they squat on Indian land and  await the inevitable march of cavalry and government agents who will clear out the Osage Injuns, survey the land and most certainly honor the family’s illegal homestead claim to the 160 acres (spoiler alert: they don’t, and the family is forced to move on). The movie was actually pretty good, and dealt with some complex issues in a very nuanced and balanced way. That’s what Mom and Dad (called “Ma” and “Pa” for the next couple weeks) saw; our daughter zeroed in on a series of adventures and misadventures involving two little girls and a menagerie of non-singing animals of all kinds: dogs, horses, cows, wolves, bears, mountain lions and deer. One harrowing scene involved a pack of wolves trying to run down Pa and Laura as they galloped towards home. Being the good environmentalists that we are, my wife and I did our best to explain that all creatures have to eat, that the wolves were just hungry, that wolves used to sometimes eat people but don’t do so anymore, and that there aren’t many wolves left and we have to protect them.

There were Indians in the movie as well, dressed in the finery of the times (1850 or thereabouts) and looking quite fierce with their war paint, animal hides and weapons. At one point, when the heathen tribes were starting to raise hell about the squatters encroaching on their no-doubt treaty-given lands and had begun to menace the settlers with threats of violence, our daughter asked us why the Indian had a gun. Hoping to steer away from the ugly truth — that the Indian was thinking about shooting the whole family, little girls and all — we told her that the fellow needed the gun for hunting animals like deer and elk. She asked what hunting was and we told her: hunting is when people take the lives of animals so they can eat.

She was quiet for a moment. Five, ten seconds. Then she burst into tears. A waterfall of tears and howls. “BUT I DON’T WANT THE DEER TO DIE! I DON’T WANT THE ANIMALS TO DIE!”

Mommy and Daddy momentarily stunned. Pause the video. Gather up some kind of caring response, an answer to this dilemma. Daddy blurts out: “Honey, all animals need to eat, and some of them, like wolves, eat other animals.You eat animals too … hot dogs, hamburger, turkey. We even have some deer meat in the freezer.”

Wrong answer. Totally, completely, utterly wrong answer. She begins howling: “BUT I DON’T WANT THE DEER TO DIE! I WANT TO PROTECT THE DEER! BRING THE DEER BACK TO LIFE!” Inconsolable. Howling. Shaking with anger, sadness, despair. “TAKE THE DEER OUT OF THE FREEZER! I WANT TO PROTECT THE DEER. I WANT TO BRING THE DEER BACK TO LIFE!”

Despite the fact that she had watched us pack up the meat when my cousin gave it to us a few days earlier, I realize she just might be picturing an actual unbutchered deer in our freezer, frozen stiff, hooves pushing up against the bags of frozen corn and blueberries, antlers stuck in the ice tray, just waiting for one of us to open the door, take him out and shoo him out into the driveway so he can thaw out and run back into the woods.

I also realize that this is no mere tantrum. This is not about missing a nap, or not getting a toy at the toystore, or feeling a little bit sicky or cranky, or bonking her head on the door jamb, this is her very first true glimpse of the nature of reality: LIFE FEEDS ON LIFE. Cute little animals die and we store them in our freezer and cook them and eat them. The first step towards the inevitable YOU ARE UTTERLY ALONE IN AN UNCARING UNIVERSE AND WILL EVENTUALLY DIE.

The sobbing and pleas for animal mercy lasted about 15 minutes. She eventually calmed down enough for us to wash her face with a cool washcloth and carry her into her bedroom, where the conversation continued. We sat down on her bed and tried one more time to gently explain that some of her favorite foods are made of animals, and that’s why we say a blessing each night to thank the earth and the animals for giving us food to eat. She wanted nothing to do with any of it. No more chicken legs. No more chicken soup. No hot dogs. No meatballs. Nothing made from animals ever again. We told her she didn’t have to eat animals if she didn’t want to, then we read her a couple of stories and she crashed out, utterly exhausted from the whole ordeal.

I was a vegetarian for most of the 1990s and a bit beyond, not for my health either but for reasons similar to those that had brought my daughter to tears: the sheer amount of industrial-scale murder and suffering  required to allow for civilization-scale carnivorism seemed unnecessary, especially since there were other options. Before that, I had been the sensitive kid who watched in horror as just about every other kid I knew gleefully threw rocks at birds or put firecrackers in toads’ mouths, and when I shot my first bird (a robin) with my new BB gun and saw the death stare in its tiny wounded eyes, I (temporarily) gave the gun back to my mom, crying as I told her I didn’t want it anymore. Eventually I became a teenager, and got a real gun, and like normal redneck offspring, I was soon blasting away at small wildlife for no good reason, but something about it never felt quite right. Suddenly, everything had come full circle, and it seemed to me as if our daughter had grasped some bigger picture about the world, had felt, if just for a few moments, the pain and suffering of all animals everywhere, and her little-girl vow not to eat them anymore seemed profound. I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe she was onto something, that adulthood had made me callous, had killed the compassion I once automatically felt for other living creatures. Maybe I should be heeding her advice. Maybe our household should jettison the meat and go vegetarian once again.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that my rekindled feelings of guilt and compassion had little to do with the suffering of animals and everything to do with the fact that my daughter had been forced to wrestle with an undeniable aspect of reality that made her sad, which in turn made me sad and desperate to do something to “fix” a problem as old as the hills, or, more precisely, as old as the ancestors of the bacteria living under rocks in those hills. Despite all the very legitimate reasons for giving up meat, I was unlikely to ever do so again — indeed, I’d subsist solely on baby bunny stew and kitten burritos for the rest of my life if it meant that my Little Angel wouldn’t have to wrestle with those existential moments of awareness that pull the happy rug right out from under her growing feet. I simply wanted to take her pain away, wanted to turn back the clock an hour or two to that time when she didn’t know that it was kill or be killed, wanted to fly away to that Great Toystore In The Sky where the lion snuggles with the lamb, swords become ploughshares and everything is as cute and cuddly as it can possibly be.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the passionate animal lover moved on, and within a few days she was once again enjoying chicken legs and roasting (all natural) skewered hot dogs over the last summer campfire, seemingly oblivious to just what she was chomping on. Like her Dad and his regret over the cold blooded BB-gun bird slaughter, she had gotten over her initial compassion and sadness and decided it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Just to make sure, I cautiously mentioned the animal origins of the food she was enjoying and she said she was okay with it, so I reminded her that it’s important for us to thank the Animals for letting us eat them and left it at that.

But as usual, Ma and Pa can’t leave it at that, not easily anyway, for here was yet another glimpse of the future: death of innocence by a thousand little cuts, and an ever-growing, ever-widening expressway straight to the hellishly long list of painful awarenesses and trials by errors our precious daughter will have to undergo before long: that glimspe of her first homeless person; the death of a friend or relative or pet; the pain of her first broken heart. Nothing we can do about any of it of course, for as the Buddha says, “shit happens,” and anybody lucky enough to grow into adulthood, including our daughter, will figure this out for themselves, but for now at least, we’ll try to cushion the fall by surrounding her with as much furry fuzzy cuteness as possible.

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Freebox Towns

Our corner of the world was parched. The normally reliable monsoon was late. Carson National Forest was flat out closed to all activities due to stage-3 fire restrictions. Just upwind, the largest wildfire in state history was burning uncontrollably in the Jemez Mountains — 300-foot flames were dangerously close to the nation’s largest nuclear laboratory and its 30,000 barrels of “low and medium level” nuclear waste — and we were wondering about what may or may not be floating around in the thick gray smoke we were inhaling. Plus, the weekend happened to be my 39th birthday, my daughter’s 4th and America’s 235th, reasons enough for an impromptu trip. We packed up the family wagon and headed for Colorado in search of cooler weather, fresher air and a taste of the good life in the town of Telluride.

My family and I reside in Taos, New Mexico, right at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost spur of the Rocky Mountains proper. There’s a ski area and lots of tourists. Telluride is nestled at the head of a glacial valley in the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, a few miles up valley from where the Rockies give way to the mesas and canyons of the Colorado Plateau. It also has a ski area and tourists. Both towns have municipal bus systems named after historic regional train lines — the Chile Line and the Galloping Goose. Both have a rich and iconic history emblematic of the great and ever-unfolding tale of the American West, as revealed by their architecture and stellar local museums. Both are epic locales where one can spend a few years working menial jobs and indulging in all the rafting, climbing, skiing, mountain biking and backpacking you might care to partake in. Finally, both towns have a FREEBOX.

In case you haven’t had the pleasure of digging through one, a Freebox is just that: a box full of donated items free for the taking, primarily clothing but other things as well, running the gamut from books and kitchenware to couches and sporting goods. America’s first official Freebox opened for non-business in Berkeley, California in 1969, at the very height of flower power, and the fact that both Taos and Telluride have one epitomizes the way each has been influenced by the hopes of that time: sharing, recycling, generosity and a host of similar hippy-dippy ideals.

Common ground to be sure, but the Freeboxes themselves are very different, and each Freebox is a symbolic microcosm of the town itself — perfect reflections of the unique towns in which they exist.

SPATIAL CONSIDERATIONS

Due to geographical restraints — mountains, mine tailings and designated open space — Telluride is hemmed in on all sides. There is no room for sprawl, so the buildings are tall and packed fairly tightly together in an orderly way, and the streets themselves are smoothly paved and platted out on the classic American grid system. Land is always at a premium — an empty lot might sell for a couple million bucks — so the tiny million-dollar homes are in tiptop shape and all the yards are well tended.

The Freebox reflects this reality perfectly: it sits right downtown, was handcrafted with care, and takes up little space. It’s within walking distance of everywhere else in town, which allows for a spur-of-the-moment perusal, and the organization and lack of clutter makes for easy browsing. If you’re looking for books, check the bookshelf. If you want men’s clothes, look in the men’s box. If you want shoes, then browse the shoe rack. Everything is in its proper place, and dedicated volunteers run it well.

Taos has plenty of room to grow, and was busily doing so right up until the current recession took hold, spreading rapidly outward and across the rolling sagebrush llano. The historic downtown area is fairly dense, but plenty of empty lots are available, and beyond the edge of town, there are acres upon acres of jackrabbit habitat just begging to be bulldozed into another “green” subdivision or slumlord trailer park. The streets are full of potholes and vaguely follow the contours of high ground and rivers; there is certainly no grid or naming pattern to speak of.

So it goes with the Freebox: out in the warehouse district far from downtown, disorganized, and fairly large. In all actuality, there is no “box,” for, like some of the local digs, the Taos Freebox is more akin to an old shack on the back of a dirt lot, and both the shack and the lot are littered with piles of clothes, appliances and furniture sprawling willy-nilly onto the sidewalk and parking area.

SETTING

Telluride has an abundance of postcard scenery. Nab a 20-dollar spot in the town campground. After setting up shop, grab a coffee at a local beanery, sit on the patio and take in the view: waterfalls, aspen groves, cliffs and towering jagged mountains on three sides, all close enough to touch it seems. Indeed, order a burrito to go and start hiking up one of the many well-marked and well-maintained trails at the edge of town. By the time you reach some stellar alpine tundra, that burrito will still be warm. Notice the families riding bicycles down Main Street, and even young kids riding all by themselves. There will also be purebred dogs — poodles and Labs (the official ski-town dog) — being walked by beautiful folks who spend a lot of time outdoors.

When you’re done with your coffee or your hike, stroll around the corner to the Freebox (right across from a real estate office) for some easy pickings: a brand-new pair of Carhartts, leather jackets, barely used hiking boots, brand-name dresses and sweaters, silk shirts. Like the scenery, the Freebox treasures are pretty and easy to see. Just drop by, skim the brand name cream right off the top and go on your merry way. And don’t worry about the weather, because everything is covered by an awning providing shade from the mountain sun and shelter from the rain and snow.

Taos has better coffee, if you can find it hidden in the jumbled mess of stucco and fast food outlets after scrounging for free camping out on BLM land, but the view from the patio is quite different: cement trucks grinding gears, battered low riders blasting hip hop and some burned-over hills in the distance. The burritos are better too, so be sure to get one, but don’t bother trying to hike from town: by the time you scramble up the rutted-out, unmarked (signs instantly knocked down or shotgunned into unreadability) ATV-mangled foothills trails to the first scenic ridgeline, your water bottles will be empty and you’ll have to turn around. You won’t see any kids cruising town on bikes due to the fact that some drunk driver (perhaps even a drunk cement truck driver) would run them down in broad daylight, and the only purebred dogs you’ll see will be pit bulls being walked by scary looking dudes with tattoos on their shaved heads.

Hitch a ride to the Freebox (next to the battered women’s shelter) and see what you find. It ain’t pretty: razor wire, chain-link fencing and garbage, plus entire families huddled in rusted cars and peering through cracked windshields, ready and waiting for that mythical pickup truck load of castoffs to arrive. Go through the gate and start exploring. If you want books, then start digging. If you want women’s clothes, then start digging. If you want shoes, then start digging. Expect to get sweaty and sunburned, and if a summer monsoon rain rolls in, then grab what you want and get out — soon the whole thing will be a giant mildewy mound of soggy polyester and forlorn broken toys.

CHILDREN

From a parent’s perspective, Telluride is like Disneyland: safe, clean and full of fun things for the family to do. For starters, there’s the aforementioned bicycling and hiking right from town, including a lush river trail perfect for strollers and chock full of wildflowers and birds. There’s also the free gondola that offers huge and easy views of this corner of the world, including a glimpse of Utah’s La Sal Mountains far to the west, and when we’re in town, our daughter asks (and gets) to ride it multiple times each day. The town park is well maintained and full of families swimming in the pool, tubing in the river, climbing upon an expansive wooden castle or fishing in the kiddy pond. Many of the adults are responsibly and legally drinking alcohol right in the park while playing riotous games of kickball, a fact that seems to cause no problems. Even the public library is an experience, and the children’s library is flat-out dreamy: a two-story clubhouse, rows of working computers with plenty of interactive reading games, a huge selection of books right at kiddo eye level, dozens of children’s magazines and an engaging story time every other day.

Telluride’s Freebox is as child friendly as the town. There’s a “children’s” section chock full of pint-sized Chacos, frilly French (as in made in France) dresses, designer sweaters and overalls, North Face kids’ gear and plenty of great story books — including, miraculously, two wildlife pop-up books that some parent had painstakingly patched up with scotch tape. There’s even a beautiful mosaic on the wall next to the Freebox, created by local students and funded by local businesses, which lends the place an aura of community and respectability.

Taos isn’t quite so family friendly. As I mentioned, bicycling can be deadly. Beer cans and liquor bottles litter every roadside, and there’s not a single stretch of public trail anywhere in town. There is a town park and it’s got some stately shady cottonwoods in it, but there’s gang graffiti scratched or “tagged” on every flat surface, and the stinky pit toilets are a bit too close to the playground, if you know what I’m saying. Plus, the town maintenance crews don’t seem to make the park a priority: some thoughtful soul spray-painted “EAT PUSSY” and “JESUS FUCKS” on a very visible wall right next to the kids’ baseball fields not long ago, and it took the town months to cover it up. And don’t even try to crack open a can of beer in the park — it’s illegal, and for good reason, since alcohol consumption at a little league game would likely lead to a stabbing or shooting. The public library? Well, let’s just say that the children’s library is tiny, the reading games nonexistent, the staff desultory and the weekly story hour boring due to the fact that some well-meaning but stuffy volunteer reads in the most monotone voice imaginable.

Likewise, the Taos Freebox is about as kid friendly as a dogfight. There are plenty of kid items to be sure, but they’re almost always broken or missing important pieces, and few needy mothers have the time or energy to dig through the clothing, especially when a town ordinance requires that kids be left in the car — seems a two-year-old darted out into the road last year and was promptly crushed and dragged (hit and run) beneath a muscle car driven by a coked up construction worker — hence the no-kids rule, as well as the impromptu shrine set up in the parking area. That heartbreaking shrine symbolizes our completely dysfunctional local society: a little girl gets run down by a drugged up high school dropout while a poverty-stricken single mother tries to score some free clothing for her family.

No kids on bikes because it’s too dangerous. Gangs, drugs and drunk driving galore. Failing public schools. Grinding poverty. Corrupt local governance that brushes problems under the rug. High cost of living yet poor public services … Taos is a horrible place to raise children, and as much as we love it here, the facts of life in this town often lead to thoughts about packing up and fleeing to some sort of magical land where the streets are safe and a kid can still be a kid. Indeed, every time we visit Telluride (or Colorado in general), usually during the peak of summer wildflowers and tundra greenery, we decide that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We look into art galleries for my wife, teaching positions for myself, schooling for our daughter, and by the time we’re packing up to head back to Taos, it’s with every intention of returning to the Centennial State, this time for good.

But it never happens. We get back home, settle into our lives, and gradually remember what brought us here in the first place: elbow room, four easy seasons, conversation about things other than skiing and a unique mix of cultures and people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds. Unlike Telluride, where the early hippies won their culture war and pushed out the locals (only to be pushed out themselves a couple decades later), Taos hippies who stuck it out in the face of violent hostility were forced to become part of the existing community. The freaks didn’t stand a chance of winning in Taos, but they never left either, and their tenacity and ideals shape the place to this day. Artists visit the destitute trailer parks so immigrant children can work on a painting project. Rock climbers take at-risk youth out to the local crags. Organic farmers invite school kids out to the land to learn where their food comes from. Midwives keep the birthing process affordable and real. Nothing comes easy in Taos, but folks here rise to the occasion and do their humble bit to make the place just a little bit better, a little bit brighter.

Telluride is idyllic, but, like the local Indians, who were shipped off to Utah, the working class and social problems have been pushed down to Norwood, or all the way to Montrose. If you can afford to raise a family in Telluride, then you don’t have much to worry about, for like the town itself, you’re clean, white and at least moderately well off — certainly able to occasionally pass on some material wealth to the Freebox. Taos is dark, dirty and all mixed up, and most of its citizens struggle to make ends meet, but, like its Freebox, it offers plenty of hidden gems that reveal themselves to those willing to stick it out long enough to see beyond the proverbial dirty laundry. Hidden meadows along unnamed creeks. Cowboys that still herd cows. Chats at the trailhead with John Nichols. That first invitation to a feast on the Pueblo. A handmade fiesta dress as a gift for your daughter. Misfits living in yurts, teepees, school buses and caves — things you’d be hard pressed to find in a high-fallutin’ Colorado ski town.

All this, plus the sunsets. No matter where in Colorado we’re departing from, by the time we make the final turn east towards the Sangre De Cristo Range, the mountains are turning their namesake color, the sagebrush is glowing buttery gold, and I’ll be damned if there isn’t ALWAYS a rainbow or flashy lightning storm hovering right above our adopted home town. At that moment, life in the Land of Enchantment seems downright glorious, and my wife and I know we picked the right place to put down some roots.

New River, Arizona: Three Glimpses

New River, Arizona: Three GlimpsesRanch

It’s late July on the north edge of the Valley of the Sun, and things are dreamy as the roosters crow at false dawn. I’ve got beery memories of crystal meth cowboys hitting the glass pipe before furiously hammering together a tack room in an old wooden shed … white light white heat instead of ye olde white lightning, Metallica instead of Willie and Waylon, but cowboy hats and boots all the same. I was drunk and trying to help but ended up on my back in the desert dirt watching night lightning explode silently beyond the jagged black outline of thirsty mountains north, west, and east. Not a drop of rain though. Not for 100 days or more.

The cowboys are still hammering away. I can hear them loud and clear from my cave in the back of my truck, where I’m sweaty and covered with flies fresh off the manure pile. I’d sleep in my Dad’s trailer if I could, but need a few hours respite from the permanent clouds of cigarette smoke that have gradually stained EVERYTHING — ceiling, can opener, framed photos, false teeth, curtains — a yellowish brown color. He’s in there right now, finishing up his morning prayer and getting ready to light his first smoke and pour the day’s first shot of gin at 6 in the morning. No savings, no retirement, nothing but lost years, a disability check and an ancient trailer to house his broken body. A youth spent riding bulls and whores now just riding it out — hard living and a long decline punctuated by a monthly trip to Safeway and the daily ritual of cranking Hendrix and the swamp cooler up to full blast round about 10 a.m.

The sun rises from behind the Mazatzal Range, instantly nudging the thermometer into the mid-90s and forcing me out of my sanctuary. I slip on pants and shoes and crawl out of my truck, ready to kick the rooster that attacks me every morning, but he’s nowhere to be seen. I relax and piss in the gravel between a mound of old tires and the remains of two vintage satellite dishes. Such wreckage is everywhere: Pickup trucks without engines, engines without trucks, piles of pipe and fence posts, bent bicycles and broken toys, rusted horseshoes and barbed wire, bullet shells and beer cans, and tumbleweeds impaled upon the perimeter fence line. Not to mention the scrapped singlewides at the edge of the property, windows shot out, chock full of black widows and bad memories.

The brand-new doublewide (only one window busted out) right next to Dad’s place is all closed up, but the television is blaring already. It’s probably been on all night. In a little while, that trailer door will open and a toothless tweaker grandma will stand on the rickety stairs and holler endlessly in the most-grizzled and raspy voice imaginable: “GODDAMN IT PEANUT, GET BACK HERE PEANUT, GODDAMN IT PEANUT” — Peanut being the family Chihuahua who’s yipping at a rattlesnake coiled beneath the monster truck in the driveway.

But, for now, things are peaceful, and other than the hum of distant traffic on I-17, I hear nothing but the sounds of animals: the coos of mourning doves, chickens clucking as they peck at scraps thrown from all the front doors, packs of cattle dogs stretching and scratching fleas, a few dozen cattle staggering toward feed troughs and the snorts and whinnies of horses demanding to be fed. I wave to a tiny Guatemalan woman as she steps out of her windowless shack along with her three young children, all of whom quickly begin filling water barrels, distributing hay and oats and grooming the horses like they’ve been doing it all their lives. Maybe they have been. Her husband was swept up by La Migra three months ago when they raided the racetrack where he cleans the stalls of thoroughbreds and nobody knows when he’ll be back. But the folks who own this place (a pious Mormon wife and a beer-swilling Jack Mormon husband) are kind to everybody who’s found refuge out here. They’ll feed and shelter the family until El Padre is able to make the long walk across the border and through the desert. Again.

Desert

High noon. 105 degrees or so, supposed to top out around 113. A morning of sharing his stroke-and-gin-slurred rodeo and racetrack stories has tired Dad, so he settles into the easy chair for a nap. I open the trailer door and am hit by an oven blast of heat, then down the steps to the driveway, across the cattle guard and into the desert.

People say they love the desert, and they probably do … at Thanksgiving when they’re visiting family in Tucson and walking around in sandals; in winter when they’re fleeing Midwestern blizzards to ride mountain bikes in Las Cruces; in springtime when they’re snapping photos of El-Niño-year wildflowers in Death Valley. Few would claim to love the desert now, during a July that is slated to be the driest on record, just as the sun reaches its apex.

The intense heat is exhilarating, but I’m only hiking a few miles today, on mostly flat ground, with plenty of water. Not long enough to feel the full force of the summer Sonoran desert sun. Not far enough to get disoriented by shimmering heat waves. Not thirsty enough to gauge my own love for the desert.

The path is a cow path, a horse trail, a slinking coyote track, and it braids its way through this bone-dry floodplain, where the miles-long slope of the bajada — gravel and cobbles eroded from yonder mountains — meets the sandy bed of the New River. There are stones in the parched river bed that are pleasantly smooth. Nothing else here is pleasant or smooth. Mountains rise like the armored back of a Stegosaurus. Black chunks of basalt are sharp and baking hot beneath my boots. Turn one over and you might find a scorpion, angry and ready to strike. The bleached ribs of unlucky cattle are splintered and pointy. The rattlesnakes are poisonous and marked by angular patterns, the tarantulas hairy and as big as a man’s hand. The javelinas bristle with wiry hair and tusks — TUSKS! — and rabid packrats hunker down beneath an impenetrable midden of gathered thorns. Even the ghosts of life-giving waters — the same waters that caressed the river stones to smoothness — are rough and tumble: raging flash floods are far more common than the occasional placid spring flows.

There are animals all around me, but I am unlikely to see them today. Some have burrowed down into cool earth, or followed others who did the digging for them, and they won’t come out again until nightfall. Others have walked to scattered pockets of shade, or — like the Yavapai Indians of yore, or modern exurbanites rushing north to Flagstaff second homes — migrated upward to rest in the relative coolness and sip from the hidden springs of the Mogollon highlands. A handful — the vultures especially — are riding it out thousands of feet up in the sky, soaring for hours on thermal updrafts created by the very heat they seek to escape.

Clouds are piling up above the piney island of the Bradshaw Mountains — virginal white cumulus clouds signaling the annual arrival of moisture from torrid climes farther south. Everywhere else is arching blue sky and blinding sunlight, and the hopeful spring tide of plant life is ebbing.  Clumpy brown grasses are brittle and rattle in the occasional hot breeze. Parched shrubs crackle at the slightest touch. The succulent flesh of stout barrel cacti is wrinkled and pale. A few desiccated flowers cling forlornly

My feeble human brain is tempted to pity these suffering plants. This is a foolish notion. One misstep could send me reeling into a white mass of cholla cactus, and I would spend the next year yanking tiny Velcro-like spines out of my flesh while pondering the tenacity of desert flora. Unable to flee the merciless sun, these plants must endure it, and the hammers of drought and heat have crafted extreme adaptations that allow them to survive where little else will. Roots secrete poisons to keep other plants away from their patch of sporadically damp soil. Waxy stems seal in precious moisture. Many trees have no leaves at all — their green bark contains chlorophyll, which allows them to photosynthesize without transpiring water to the incessant suck of the greedy desert sun. Taproots plunge deep into the earth in search of reliable groundwater. Seeds lie dormant for decades at a time, waiting for conditions to become just right before germinating. And everywhere, on almost everything: THORNS, SPIKES, QUILLS AND NEEDLES parry the desperate nibbles of creatures yearning for a taste of succulent plant flesh.

I pause in the long shade of a centuries-old saguaro to sip water and wipe the sweat from my face. The once-exhilarating sunshine has become oppressive, but I know the end is near. Not for me, but for this particular chunk of Sonoran Desert. I see the survey stakes. I smell the diesel fumes. I hear the bulldozers. Just beyond the barbed wire, just beyond this doomed wash, the heavy machinery of civilization is transforming desert into something else entirely: The Phoenix.

Cement

I hop barbed wire and enter a lifeless war zone of churned gravel and black diesel smoke. Earthmovers versus Earth, steel Caterpillars versus actual caterpillars, dump trucks versus desert. The desert is losing, for now anyway, as these acres are bought and sold down the dry river, destined to become a Big Box overlooking a floodplain golf course. I stroll through the wreckage, dodging heavy equipment and men in hardhats, who seem not to see me, and step upon a sprawling expanse of fresh black asphalt that’s been sponging up solar radiation for many hours. The temperature quickly becomes unbearable, forcing me to make a beeline through acres of shiny new automobiles toward the gigantic stucco refuge of an OUTLET MALL.

In an instant, the harsh Arizona desert becomes scenic backdrop, and I’m strolling through the pastels of a shady Spanish villa, a haven of hanging flower gardens, singing fountains, cooling mists and flamenco music emanating from hidden speakers. My solitude is gone as well, for I’m surrounded by people: clean people in clean clothes braving infernal parking lots for a chance at a square deal on kitchenware or golf accessories. The door to the food court opens, releasing a gust of Arctic wind that swirls frigid for an instant before being swallowed up by the simmering afternoon air. I am tempted to enter, tempted to sit and relax for a moment in climate-controlled comfort, but force myself to keep walking. Must not taste the forbidden fruit of air conditioning, not this early in the day.

I leave the mall, cross another sun-blasted parking lot, blister my hands climbing a molten chain link fence, and find myself surrounded by a jumble of exit/entrance ramps, stoplights and a mad rush of plumbers, soccer moms and cement trucks rushing too and fro. To my surprise, there is a sidewalk, and I follow it across a freeway, the only pedestrian for miles around. Everyone else is sequestered away in boxes of steel and glass, windows sealed, air conditioning blasting away, denying the desert its due. Exhaust fumes fill my nostrils. Gritty sweat stings my eyes.  And then a mirage: twin white waterfalls cascading down miniature mountains into crystalline pools.

But it’s not a mirage — it’s ANTHEM BY DEL WEBB, an award-winning development by one of the planet’s largest land developers. Just five years ago, this was 20,000 acres of empty desert, home to roadrunners and a handful of half-wild cows. Four years ago, the first survey stakes appeared, and the saguaros (as per state law) were tagged and removed. Now, there are two new freeway exits and two new zip codes receiving J.Crew catalogs for upward of 20,000 people (slated, recession notwithstanding, to be 36,000). Instant city: just add water, and the barren desert sprouts Safeways, Walgreens, McDonalds, Starbucks, sports bars, Radio Shacks, dry cleaners, places of non-pagan worship, hundreds of miles of roads and thousands upon thousands of brown stucco homes marching up the hillsides — or as the billboard says: WE BUILD THE PLACE YOU BUILD THE LIFE.

I pass between the gateway waterfalls — one on each side of “Anthem Way” — and a long row of mini-malls toward the Welcome Center, where I rest in the shade of a 20-foot-tall aluminum golf ball and gaze through tall windows at a big map of the neighborhood. Five neighborhoods, actually, each tailored to a specific income bracket, plus three schools, two country clubs, and scattered pockets of “gated-access” communities. Street names seem to fall into four categories: community ethics (Prosperity Rd., Integrity Ln.), intrepid explorers (Kit Carson Pl., Lewis and Clark Circle), homage to recently displaced wildlife (Panther Run, Noble Hawk Dr.) and American literary icons (Whitman Dr., Thoreau Way).

And what would Henry David Thoreau do when the digital thermometer reads 115 degrees? Take a dip in his swimming pool behind his home on Walden Court, I’m sure, but since I lack keyed access to that side of town, I cross the street and head for the Community Park instead, eyes peeled for artificial water features. The park is green with well-tended grass, and indeed has a small lake and a couple of fountains. Nobody is around. I smell like I’ve been sleeping in a barn — right next to the barn actually — and I’d love nothing more than a swim. But signs inform me that the park is for Anthem residents only. And no swimming in the lake. And keep off the grass. And no wading in the fountains either.

Right on cue, a white pickup, SECURITY, rolls slowly down the deserted bike path, headed my way, so I turn my back on the life-giving waters and jaywalk across a busy feeder street to the supermarket parking lot. Car alarms howl. SUV doors open and slam shut. Horns honk as vehicles jockey for coveted parking spots close to the entryway — trying to minimize exposure to the long hot summer day.  I pause in front of the automatic doors, take a deep breath, then plunge into the confines of a mammoth Safeway store. 78 degrees: nearly 40 degrees cooler than the uncontrollable climate outside. I shiver my way to the beer aisle — 10 below zero surely — and ponder my options: I’ve got some loose change in my pocket, enough for a high-fallutin’ bomber of microbrew or 40 ounces of shitty beer. Feeling white trashy and thirsty, I purchase a 40 of Mickey’s and return to the uncontrolled climate outside.

A few minutes of air conditioning has ruined an entire day’s worth of hard-earned heat tolerance, and I feel like I’m standing too close to a bonfire. Fortunately, I’ve got a big bottle of rapidly warming beer and a good idea. Outta the shopping plaza. Pass through the brimstone parking lot. Ignore dead ends and cul-de-sacs. Deny beckoning iced coffees.  Overcome the fear of Neighborhood Watch.  It’s 3 in the afternoon, and the mercury is peaking, but I’ve got my eye on the prize. I trod the sidewalks back to the main arterial roadway, glory bound for the gateway oasis.

The pools reappear — aquamarine jewels beneath tumbling falls. Settled in the partial shade of manicured shrubbery, I uncap the bottle, take a big swig of malt liquor, and remove my boots. Traffic whooshes past.  Sirens wail. More beer and the stinky socks come off. Bulldozers grind away another acre of desert. The Welcome Center hands out another brochure. Another big guzzle and I’m down to the Fruit of the Looms. Scorpions crawl through cracks in cinder block walls and into barbeque backyards. Mountain lions slink down arroyos and into the exurbs. I finish the bottle, toss it into the xeriscaping, then strip off my underwear and slip into the lukewarm water. Floating on my back, arms outstretched, sweaty balls bobbing as the broiling sun inches its way towards the brown haze of the western horizon.

Charles Clayton, who grew up in Colorado’s Fraser Valley, is an upstanding citizen and pillar of his community in northern New Mexico. He no longer floats naked in suburban fountains. You can check out his blog, “Pagan Parenting,” at mountaingazette.com.