Mountain Passages: Only Fools Push the Season

The transition from winter to spring brings up arguments about clothing, birdsongs, and contemplative time in the mountains. By Alan Stark

Blue Eyes thinks it’s a bad idea for me to drop my clothes on the floor next to the bed. After all these years, she doesn’t quite understand the utility of having my clothing laid-out for me on the floor, ready for the next morning. I think of the floor as being my valet—the fact that my jeans, shirt, shorts, and socks are in a jumble isn’t consequential.

“Raised by wolves? Were you?”

“No, it’s just that I’m going to wear the same clothes tomorrow.”

“And those clothes were the ones you wore yesterday.”

“Could be.”

“Woof. Woof.”

IMG_2405So instead of a chest of drawers, we have a rack of wicker baskets on shelves in the closet. On my side, there is one basket each for shorts (on the bottom), sports socks and regular socks each get a basket, because socks tend to multiply exponentially in the dark, another basket for running tights/long john bottoms, and on top, a basket for running shorts/bicycle pants. The last two baskets switch places in winter and summer.

In winter and summer, the stuff being used most is always on top of the basket. For example, in the winter, the running shorts drift down to the bottom of the basket because I’m still using the bike shorts over tights for the occasional winter ride. Some veteran pieces of clothing can also be found in the baskets. Like the ratty old long-johns, with the busted seam in the crotch, that have been in the bottom of the basket for at least five years. This system gets a little confusing during transitional seasons, because the baskets become a jumble of clothing that have be to semi-sorted every day. Stuff inexplicably disappears.

“I gotta go backcountry and I’m out of long-johns.”

“Life is hard.”

“Not a helpful comment.”

“You could try doing the wash.”

“I just washed stuff yesterday.”

“Did you empty the dryer?”

“Of course.”

Snickering…”Did you dig down in the basket?”

“Oh.”

Headed up into the backcountry, I notice the willows are beginning to get serious about being yellow, and in some places, red. Boulder Creek is almost free of ice. Some days when we stop at Ned Fire to check in and pickup radios and SPOT units, we can hardly get the door open because a frighteningly cold wind is blowing hard right off of the Continental Divide that the flag is straight out. The seasonal transition comes more slowly in the High Country but just as relentlessly. Today the wind was dead calm when we checked in, the flag as limp a kitchen towel. Sure, there is more winter weather coming, both up there and down here in the foothills. It is here in the foothills, where the transition is most obvious.

IMG_2407Three days ago I was out for a jog on the South Boulder Creek Trail, when a faint puff of warm wind brushed past my face. I stopped and smiled. That little burst of warm wind from someplace south of here said the season is about to change.  Who knows where that warmth came from? Could I smell piñon smoke on the wind from down south? Nope. But if I let my imagination run wild, maybe I could.

As I was standing there thinking about the warm wind, a gang of mountain bluebirds just blasted by me on their way to the next bush. It’s wasn’t my imagination, but I rubbed my eyes to make sure. The males are mostly blue and the females are dun-colored with a mixture of blue feathers. They land in a bush, take a look around, and then head out to the next bush, glad to be headed back into the foothills and maybe the mountains.

I’m glad they are back too. Within weeks the hummers will be back too. On a warm April evening (when it isn’t snowing), we’ll be sitting on the deck with a glass of wine and hear them zoom around. Blue Eyes will hang feeders the next day.

Today I’m wearing the usual winter running rig of a light jacket, polypro, and tights. I’m overdressed. A couple of minutes ago someone bounced by in the other direction in shorts with white legs and a hoodie on top. She looked chilly but determined. It’s been a while since I was that bulletproof.

The clothing problem this time of year is simply trying to figure-out what to wear. Too much, and I end up hanging something on a fence to pickup on the way back, and too little, and I mumble to myself for the entire route about, “only fools push the season.”

And the sport drives the clothing. This is the season where the road bike crowd is still mostly dressed for winter and the running crowd is dressed for summer. For backcountry patrols, we have switched over from waterproof pants to long johns and shorts with wind pants in our packs—just in case. The Hawaiian shirts will come out on a bluebird day toward the end of March, maybe early April. Yes, Ski Patrol biggies at the national office in Lakewood would be unhappy to see us in our red vests and Hawaiian shirts, but what the hell, we’re backcountry patrollers and virtually unmanageable. Which is probably why we are backcountry patrollers.

And all this talk about transitions from winter to spring and trying to figure out what to wear is essentially like finally washing all the mag chloride from the Highlander—a guarantee that we’ll get two feet of upslop snow, twice in one week, and our first introduction to mud season on both ends of both storms.

Alan Stark is member of Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol and volunteers in the Roosevelt National Forest. He lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge and can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

Mountain Passages: The Heart of the Matter

Sometimes we get signals about our mortality. By Alan Stark.

Every once in a while the Mountain Gods give a warning. The warning can be subtle such as a glimpse of white puffy clouds over a peak at 10a.m.

The curious thing about getting these warning is our manner of dealing with the warning. We start with complete denial, continues on with an actual or planned change, then we feel growing discomfort, followed by flat-out fear, some deal-making, an action of some sort, and a resolution.

So you were late to the trailhead, and by the time you get above treeline, those white puffy clouds are morphing into a grey thunderstorm cell.

“Thunderboomers are not a big deal. I’ve been around plenty of storms in the mountains. This one looks like it will pass way to the south. No worries.”

“Hmmm. It’s not tracking south as much as I thought. So maybe if I hike a little more to the north above treeline—just in case.”

“Damn. That cell is headed right for me. Gotta get out of here.”

“Holy shit! Fricking lightning just hit below me.”

“Pleeease Lightning God, if you get me out this one, I’ll never start late again.”

Sure.

Sooner or later we’ll all ignore warnings from the Mountain Gods. If we don’t get caught-up in the natural selection process for our stupidity, we’ll go through the same routine again and again.

I did just that—ignoring a Mountain God warning right after Thanksgiving. I was awake in the middle of the night and felt pressure under my sternum. It was nothing, just enough discomfort to wake me up. As a borderline hypochondriac and since I’m no longer 40 anymore, I’ve learned to ignore all sorts of signals from my body, as they are just part of the process toward geezerhood. I went back to sleep.

The same thing happened several nights later and again the next night. Now I was slightly concerned. Chest pain is one of several key symptoms of a heart attack, along with shortness of breath, pains in arms and jaw, nausea, and sweating. After 40, we all learn the drill. Truth be told, I was really concerned and began to feel the pressure at odd times during the day.

But I’m moderately fit, I work at altitude in the backcountry twice a week in the winter. I’ve run about a million miles of trails and have my share of century-ride caps. I’ve never had any chest pain other than from broken ribs. How could this be that my chest hurt?

So to prove that my imagination had run wild, I went for a long run. There was no pressure in my chest. Proof that I didn’t have a problem. All fine and good until later in the afternoon when the pressure came back. Now I knew I had a problem. What to do? I couldn’t bring myself to show up at the ER because I was afraid of what they were going to find. Better to tough it out. Maybe try another run the next day. Maybe the pain will just go away.

So let me stop here for a moment. Is any of this familiar to you? Have you done this sort of thing before? Is this denial something you are experiencing today and feeling one level of fear or another?

Nope, the pain didn’t go away. I suppose that the pressure I felt was about the same, but as I drifted through the next week, my imagination took over and the pressure seemed to increase. I got more and more worried. I could have cared less about the Holidays, because I was by now convinced that I was going to die of a heart attack. It was just a matter of time. Absolute fear set in.

But maybe I could make a deal with the Mountain God in charge of health. Maybe if I ate better and gave up my evening cocktail. I didn’t have a drink or a beer, and I ate about half as much as I usually do. Not surprisingly, I didn’t feel any pressure in my chest that night.

Terrific.

But later the next day, while sitting at my desk, I felt the pressure again. Fear and dread rolled back into my life.

The fear I felt stayed with me all the time. I couldn’t stop thinking about dying of a heart attack. I was essentially frozen by the fear of my impending death.

Blue Eyes looked up from her soup and said, “Are you okay? You look terrible.”

“I feel terrible.”

There it was out.

“How?”

“My chest hurts.”

“Call Kaiser now.”

We were headed out to cut a Christmas tree on friend’s property. I was imagining having a heart attack while dragging a tree back to the Highlander. I had to smile at the irony, but I simply couldn’t do that to my best friend.

An RN at Kaiser calmly went through a series of basic heart attack questions over the phone and told me to come in. At Kaiser an LPN asked more heart attack questions and then put me on an EKG. At this point, while I’m sure I’m still dying, I’m also immensely relieved to be getting checked out. A doc, who I had never seen before, comes in and asks even more in-depth heart attack questions. She finds out that I had gone out for a symptom-free run two days ago.

“Smooth move.” she says, “Essentially giving yourself your own stress test, were you?”

I nodded in agreement and Blue Eyes made her frowny face, something I had occasionally seen before.

After looking at the EKG she said,” Your heart is fine.”

“You can do one of two things. You can either go home and make an appointment with your PCP to get to the bottom of this or you can go through the heart attack routine of a blood test to see if there has been any recent damage to your heart, a chest x-ray to take a look at the size of your heart, and probably another EKG.”

We elected to do the heart attack routine.

Five hours later, nothing. No heart damage, my heart size was normal, my lungs were clear, and the protein test for heart damage was negative.

The next week, David, my PCP suggested that I had a wicked case of ongoing acid reflux.

So what did I learn from this experience? Probably nothing.

Know two things about asking for medical help. If you talk to your PCP about how she makes decisions, there is a good chance that she will eventually mention Occam’s Razor, which loosely means, “always go for the simplest answer.” In my case, eating spicy food and age caused chest pain; all exacerbated by an overactive imagination. And if you ask her more questions about her work, she will probably tell you that 50% of the complaints from patients are nothing or go away quickly, 45% of the complaints require routine medical intervention (mostly non-invasive) and only 5% of what she sees are dangerous and possibly life-threatening. In other words if you visit your doctor, there is a 95% chance you won’t get an awful diagnosis.

Alan Stark is a backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest and lives with this Blue-Eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

Mountain Passages: A Fool’s Errand?

Mountain Passages: A Fool’s Errand?

Backcountry patrollers are good people who have difficult job. And this one particular old Bear is a bit tired of trying to please everyone on the trails in winter. By Alan Stark

The sun is just coming up over the horizon to the far southeast. A red circle blasts through the neighbor’s pine trees as I wait for coffee to drip into the pot on this winter morning. The sun is about as far south as it gets before the long arc northward, as it moves toward the summer solstice. Then it becomes a startlingly bright yellow flare that comes up over Greeley to the far northeast.

Coffee is beginning to drip into the pot. I scratch my scrotum, because that’s what half the population does standing around in jammies watching the sunrise and waiting for their coffee. Sure it’s a time for a scratch, but also a time to reflect. The subject that pops into mind is, “trying to please everybody,” a concept that has totally eluded me for my entire life. And the more I think about the concept, the more I know it’s a waste of time to consider. There are a good number of days when I can’t even please myself, much less anyone else.

I put on water to boil for oatmeal, pour a cup of coffee for Blue Eyes, walk down the hall and put it on her bedside table. Moving to a familiar routine and finished with my reflection of the day, my thoughts now move to the work in front of me.

In an hour, my partner and I will get to the equipment cache at Ned Fire. We’ll sign in, draw radios, a SPOT unit, and whatever other gear we’ll need. The duty firefighter may or may not be up when we get there. But if the firefighter is up, we’ll talk for a moment, usually about the weather or maybe just say, “Have a quiet shift, no fires today.” The firefighter will nod and maybe say, “Have a good patrol, no incidents today.”

IMG_2271At the Brainard Gateway, I park the Highlander, grab my boots and coffee cup and head for the warming hut. After I get my AT boots on, I start working on a fire in the small stove. There is something primal about building a morning fire. I’m not sure what it is, but getting that fire started is all consuming. I think of nothing else but making sure the fire is going. My partner is outside shoveling snow away from the warming hut door and then the doors to the pit toilets.

There are forty or so cars already here. These cars and trucks belong to the hard-core backcountry skiers. Some of them started near dawn and will be coming in, just as the citizenry begins to show up in force around 10:30. The hard-core skiers are worth listening to, because they have been coming here for a hundred years and know all the trails cold, and can accurately tell us where trees are down across the trail. We use their information to pick our route for the day. If one of us is feeling responsible and into trail work, we might go clear the tree, but more often than not, we’re just looking for a good ski route, not additional work. Whether we clear the tree across the trail this week or next doesn’t matter all that much, it’s a long winter.

“Hey, what trails did you do this morning?” I ask.

He’s 50 to 70, silver hair and beard, fit looking, wearing an anorak with tele gear and old Scarpa boots. His skis have seen a number of miles and probably have “omni wax” on the bottoms, a combination of years of waxes and scraping which will help him hold on a pitch and effortlessly glide down a trail.

“Reservoir Road to Little Raven and back on Waldrop. My loop.”

“Anything good?”

“Little Raven.”

“ You been doing this for a hundred years?”

“Just like you.”

“Just thirty years.”

These are good mountain people. But some of them think there is no need for ski patrollers in the backcountry—that if a person is out here, she should be able to take care of herself.

As backcountry patrollers, we understand that. When we first started work up here, at the request of the Forest Service, there were a number of patrollers who wanted to do the work but didn’t want to wear red vests and white crosses, because they thought uniforms might make the hard-core backcountry skiers grumpy. But we worked hard to earn and keep our crosses. The vests have pockets everywhere for our first aid gear, radio, and SPOT unit, so we wear them and we’ve gotten used to the occasional look of surprise or even a frowny face when we pass by.

We have even gotten used to the occasional smart ass…

“Whoa, ski patrol is here, now we’re all safe.”

“Yup, except you.”

“What daya mean?”

“Think about it.”

Or the person of limited observational skills…

“Sorry sir, but your dog isn’t allowed on that trail.”

“Where the hell does it say that?”

“On the Brainard Lake webpage, on the map at the warming hut, and on the sign your dog is peeing on.”

We make an effort to be friendly and helpful and not act like snow cops. The job is service and safety, education and information, and a basic medical response if needed. Unlike ski area patrollers, we don’t do law enforcement. The Forest Service folks make it absolutely clear that we are not to do law enforcement in the backcountry. Alpine patrollers have a much tougher job, and more bosses than anyone needs—both within the patrol and from ski area management.

Backcountry patrollers have an easy job and light-handed supervision from the local Forest Service folks. They are good people with the difficult job of managing the forest and serving the community at the same time; often caught between massively conflicting interests. As good and decent as our local Forest Service people are, I sometimes end up shaking my head at the Forest Service policies handed down from biggies in Washington who have forgotten their field experiences.

With the exception of the smart-mouths and the terminally stupid, most of our interactions with trail users are positive and often interesting, sometimes fun. Some take time to tell me what they are thinking about. The perennial subject is dogs on the trails, the new subject this year is fat tire bikes.

I get it that dog spelled backwards is God. I love my dog. But dogs on the trails can be a problem. We have seen dogs badly hurt by the steel edges on skis. Is this injury the dog owner’s fault or skiers fault? It is usually the dog owner’s fault. And the fat tire bikes…in the summer a hiker can step off the trail to let a mountain bike pass. Not a problem, but in the winter getting off the trail is problematic. Conflicting uses…we tell people to try to get along and cut some slack with each other.

The chores are finished. We go back to the Highlander and pull out skis, poles, and packs and walk to the trailhead to gear-up. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

IMG_2272It’s absolutely true that National Forest belong to all of us, not just elitist backcountry skiers in plastic boots on AT skis. But certain uses are simply incompatible with other uses. A more extreme example than dogs and fat tire bike riders happened last year when we stopped a rabbit hunter on the Middle Saint Vrain Road who was shooting north. He didn’t have any idea that people skied the Buchanan Pass Trail a 100 yards north of the road.

The Forest Service needs to rethink the concept of multi-use trails, particularly in the winter. Trying to please everyone is a fool’s errand. Sure, there are trails where multi-use works. But the Forest Service needs to change their policy and accept the fact that some activities are mutually exclusive; this activity works here and this one works better over there. A good example of specific trails for specific activities is here at Brainard, where there are two trails, CMC and Little Raven that are designated “skier only” in the winter. But most of the trails we patrol are multi-use and a free-for-all. We need more activity specific trails in our National Forests.

Will the multi-use policy, particularly in winter, change? Probably not. Sometimes I wonder what the Forest Service folks in Washington scratch in the morning.

Alan Stark is a volunteer backcountry ski patroller and lives with a Blue Eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

Earn Your Face

Mountain Passages: Bear self-analyzes via his grizzled visage. By Alan Stark

This is your face.

You have earned it.

Much of your mountain history is etched on your face. Other mountain people can look at your face and tell a good deal about you. Some flatlanders can understand your face, particularly those flatlanders who have lived out in the open, away from cities. But most flatlanders won’t understand your face. They’ll just think you have an attitude, or maybe not enough sense to get out of the weather.

The flatlanders could be right on both counts.

Let’s start with the early morning view of your face in the bathroom mirror; it can be a religious experience.

“Jesus Christ, that’s a frightening face,” you mumble to yourself.

Sometimes, the one nearest and dearest to you, who is also standing at the sink may comment.

“Nice face,” Blue Eyes says.

“It’s the best I can do at 7am.”

“Damned scary,”

“And I can’t comment on your face?”

“Nope.”

The moment passes and you realize that this is the worst face moment for the entire day, unless of course, you walk into a pole on Main Street because you weren’t paying attention.

The steam from the shower softens some of the hard edges on your morning face. If you are male, the shaving routine gives you several moments to reconsider your

first impressions of the morning. Your second thoughts about your face are considerably more positive than your first. If you are female, there is the hair-drying and maybe a makeup routine that allows you a second opinion. In either case, reality is a little less glaring after some careful consideration, rationalization, and self-delusion.

So there is this mythical character who stares at himself in a pool of water and turns into a Republican or a heartless stone. I’m not suggesting that you spend so much time staring at your face that you’ll turn into a Republican, but I do want you to consider your face, component by component. Besides—you don’t have much chance of turning into a Republican, given your bank account balance.

The hairline is either about where it was when you were eighteen or it is not. Mine has gotten somewhat shallow above both temples, but in general, my hairline is about the same. The problem is that there is considerably less hair above the hairline than when I was essentially a hair machine at eighteen. Male patterned baldness is a totally different issue. My friend Yardman was probably born bald. He’s been hair-challenged since I met him in his early thirties. However, the lack of hair seems to have had no appreciable effect on him. He has a kid who has been a real trial but may turn into someone special. He runs a mountain not-for-profit that rebuilds trails on Fourteeners and he’s married to Povy the Shooter, who can make just about anything look interesting, if not beautiful. They live in a house in Golden that used to be a whorehouse, or so he claims, probably another lie like the lie he tells about having hair when he was twenty.

Unlike men, women tend to take hair seriously. I think of trying to describe women’s hair like walking into a frame shop with a print and looking at all the possible frames on the wall—and then standing there dumbfounded because there were too many choices. So I’ll break women’s hair down into good hair and bad hair—and that depends on the sort of day you are having. And that may depend on more variables than any male can ever process with his brain—ever. So I’ll stand on the comparison that hair frames the face but suggest that a mountain woman has earned her face and should show as much of it as possible—it helps tell us who you are.

The forehead, to be a great forehead, needs a couple of confounded wrinkles in it. You know what I mean—when your boss asks a question that indicates she has been off the planet for a significant period of time and you don’t really want to spoil the day by saying, “Are you kidding me?” But then again her question was so stupid and out of context that you need to make some gesture to indicate displeasure—obviously, that gesture is the wrinkled forehead. Those permanent lines indicate incredulity at ongoing stupidities and are usually well-earned. There are a good number of people in this world who are “managers” but are nonetheless just about useful as bowling ball handles. All sexes should take pride in their confounded wrinkles.

Eyebrows are an important indicator of mountainess. You need to have eyebrows to keep the sweat out of your eyes. There are eyebrows that go from the color of snow to the color of walnuts shells in late fall. There are eyebrows that turn up and turn down and unibrows that just ignore convention and worm above a nose. There black eyebrows on brown people who took the chance to come across the border for a better life. There are eyebrows like mine that look like jungles and cause barbers to whack at them as soon as I sit down in the chair.

“Mind if I trim the brows?”

“No, not at all”

“Whack. Whack. Whack. … Whew, that’s better.”

“Than what?” you ask.

“Than looking like a lower primate,” she answers.

Eyes sometimes tell the whole story in an instant. Just a second of eye contact between two human beings can have magical qualities. It’s like two Viet Nam vets whose eyes meet and they instantly say to each other, “Welcome home.” They just know at that moment of contact who the other person is, and it makes them smile to still be alive and able to send that message with their eyes. It’s seeing a set of eyes across the room, and feeling your mouth smile in recognition of someone you want to talk to.  It’s looking at this person you share your life with and knowing exactly what that person is thinking—mostly.

There are three general levels of eye contact, (1) full-on, (2) glancing, and (3) not-at-all.

Full-on eye contact is a tad aggressive and invasive. There are times when you can see all the way to my heart, in my eyes, if I hold your stare. There aren’t a lot of people in this world that I trust with that vision. Full-on eye contact is something to be used judiciously, for a good reason, and certainly not just to see if the other person will blink. That’s meaningless cow-person bullshit.

Glancing is the way most of us communicate with our eyes. We don’t invade another person’s privacy with a full-on stare, but we do make sure to make eye contact as we move about, and particularly when we are conversing. It is nothing more than a quick glance to make sure your words are being heard, and an acknowledgement with a quick meeting of eyes that their words are being heard.

No eye contact can mean a number of things starting with, “you are a complete waste of a human being,” and ending with, “you scare the shit out of me and the last thing in the world that I’m going to do is make eye contact.” But mostly no eye contact means that the person doesn’t give a shit, you don’t count, and they aren’t listening.

Ears are particular and maybe the most unattractive parts our faces. There are several curious phenomenon about my ears. I’ve noticed that my ears are the cause of a recurring speech pattern particularly in situations where there is a good deal of ambient noise. Life partners tend to describe this phenomenon as “selective hearing” or “programmed inattention” or “spouse listening.” The phenomenon manifests itself in a variety of phrases,

“What?”

“Huh?”

“I didn’t hear you.”

“No, I’m not ignoring you.”

The other really odd thing about my ears is counterintuitive. There is a hair challenged spot on the back of my head that will absolutely turn into fire if I neglect to slather it with sunscreen when spring skiing. But why is it that I can’t buy hair for the top of my head, hair seems to sprout from just about all over my ears? If I let it go, I could grow my own earmuffs.

As a mountain person, there is a good chance that you have sun, exposure, or wind damage to your ears and they look the worse for wear because of it. And maybe you don’t hear as well as you did before, because you spent unnumbered nights close to the stage dancing like the world was going to end in the morning.

The nose is a special indicator. It can have any shape from pug to full banana to “cute as a button,” but it needs to be a little rough looking. The surface of the nose isn’t exactly smooth like maybe it has been frostbitten at 12,000 feet in a windstorm or scorched on a bike ride out of Moab—little pieces of flaking skin are a good sign. A certain crustiness around the nostrils is normal from an ongoing sniffle from sleeping on the ground or in a really cold room with the dog, two joined-together down bags for a comforter, and one significant other who sleeps naked.

Cheeks start with being well-browned but capable of going pink for a variety of reasons, from embarrassment at being caught reading something serious, to forgetting the sunscreen, to tossing a line in a bar at someone interesting and having the object of interest explain to the surrounding mob that she/he may have just heard the lamest pickup line in the history of the world.

Along with cheeks that we need to discuss beards. There is always the suspicion that the beard is hiding something other than crumbs and dried soup from the last meal. Let’s start with a really scruffy looking untrimmed beard that looks pretty much like a gorilla’s armpit. The question needs to be posed, is this really ugly beard hiding something even more ugly, or is the owner of this beard such a lazy fuck that he doesn’t care? On the other extreme is a beard that is perfectly trimmed. At the very least this beard indicates that the owner has way too much time on his hands or spends way too much time in front of a mirror.

Before we get to the mouth, teeth, and chin, we need to discuss laugh lines between the cheeks and mouth. Laugh lines are a good thing, like waking up to a life partner who sleepily slips a hand across your stomach.

Laugh lines are earned from laughing so hard that tears come to your eyes and the back of your head hurts. They come from a friend who tells a great story, or a slapstick fall on the corduroy that ends in a face plant, or hitting the tongue of the river just right so the boat just slides perfectly into the wave train. There is no way to fake laugh lines, you have them or you don’t. And if you don’t have them—chances are you need to lighten up.

The mouth is almost as special a place as the eyes; it is where all the truth and lies come from, you just need to know the difference. There’s a good chance that if you have spent time in the mountains it’s fairly easy to tell truth from lies. The Mountain Gods teach you that truth just feels right, like an old polypro pullover. But sometimes a person can fool you about the truth, but if you are smart, that only happens once with that person. You can also lie to yourself with predictable results. It’s looking at a rolling, roiling, rampaging grey clouds of a storm front headed your way and telling yourself you are weatherproof. You know you are lying to yourself, and that in a couple minutes you are going to be cold, wet, and miserable.

“Having a good mouth” on you implies that you can hold your own in a shouting match with a drunk, yell loud enough to be heard down canyon, and quick enough that if someone says something profound, silly, tasteless, outrageous, or just plain fun, you can match them instantly. That’s a good mouth.

Teeth are sort of an odd measure of mountainess. In the first place, it is good to have them unless you really like soup. A number of us are not native to the mountains; we came here from other places and lives where straight teeth were some sort of measure of your dad’s financial status. So a good number of us have artificially straight teeth. But some of us have missing teeth due to mechanical mishaps or misunderstandings. The mountain life doesn’t pay enough to have them replaced so we look a little worn. Bruno the ER doc told me about the teeth to tattoo ratio that he used when evaluating a patient. He said that it’s a good bet that if the patient had more tattoos than teeth there was a fair to good chance that this person didn’t see docs very often, and only when they were seriously hurt.

The chin is what most of us have landed on at least once given a life in the mountains. I don’t have any scars on my chin, but I’ve entertained my dentist with the sound my jaw makes when moved from side to side. This is no doubt due to a face-first encounter with a third compression bump when I could have sworn I only saw two compression bumps as I came flying under the lift towers.

A good chin tucks into the hood of your parka without thinking just as it juts out when someone does or says something really obnoxious and it is always available as place to put your hand when you are leaning on a table and pondering.

I have reviewed the major components of your face and if you are a mountain person, chances are you have recognized parts of your face. There is only one thing you need to remember and then smile.

This is your face.

You have earned it.

Mountain Passages: Heavy Thoughts

Bear makes a commitment to lose some weight, but after sports, a divorce, running, backcountry ski patrol, and a handful of other scheme have failed, can iPhone photos really do the trick? By Alan Stark

As an adult (a term with infinite definitions) the most I ever weighed was 236 pounds and the least was 175. Right now I weigh 206 pounds and have every intention of getting to 190 pounds.

Fat chance.

Unfortunately, weight loss is all self-delusion and general horse pucky. The real truth is that in spite of the multi-billion dollar weight loss cartel and its various bromides, exercise regimens, supplements and snake oil, group think positivism, nutritional hocus pocus, and even surgical procedures, it is almost impossible to lose weight and keep it off.

The first time I decided to loose weight was as a roly-poly 16-year-old. It had become obvious to me that no one wanted to date Fat Albert; that if I weighed less I might get a date. So I counted calories and wrote down what I ate and lost twenty pounds.

So there I was at five-ten or so and weighing 160 and still dateless. Weight was only part of my dating problem, acne residue, terminal shyness, and no car were contributing factors. By the time I reached my adult height of 6 feet, I weighed 180.

The next plan was to lose weight by playing sports. My Dad stressed a number of practical and philosophical skills and points of view to me and my older sister. One personal philosophy took on more importance than any other—it was an unrestrained and fierce independence. Team sports are all about transcending oneself to become part of a greater whole. No surprise that team sports pretty much eluded me.

My problem was independent thinking. Take football for example. I played guard and had two jobs. First, protect the quarterback and second, make a hole for the running back. But I could see it was usually a linebacker disrupting most of our plays. And it was clear to me that if I knocked down a linebacker repeatedly, our plays would go a good deal better. But I wasn’t doing the team thing, I was free-lancing and spent an inordinate amount of time on the bench as a result.

The afternoon practices made me stronger but no slimmer. I didn’t get to play much.

And then there was lacrosse. I went to junior high and high school in Maryland where lacrosse, like fly fishing in Montana, is sort of a religion. In most states, a five or six-year-old kid gets a baseball glove or bat for his birthday. In Maryland it’s a lacrosse stick. I was late to the game, starting at sixteen.

But I loved lacrosse because it was mostly mayhem and clearing the ball downfield while people were bashing each other with sticks. I played crease defense in front of the goalie. I could watch a play form-up at midfield. I could pick the player most likely to shoot and hope that he came at me because I was bigger, although not as fast, but 100 per cent committed to taking the ball away from him. I did okay in lacrosse but ended up playing club lacrosse because I simply wasn’t good enough to play for the university.

But did I lose weight? Nope, I actually gained weight, possibly muscle. Lacrosse practices usually started with either a slow five mile run or a half hour of intense wind sprints that taught me how to run, something I have done ever since, mostly on trails.

The running continued as I started a career, spent some time as a guest of the military, and got married to a person who became a lawyer. Running was sort of my sanity. I could get all wired-up about the job and then go out and put up some miles and come back not giving much of a shit about the job until I went to work the next day.

Perfect.

My next weight loss scheme came when the lawyer and I split. I had smoked a little since college, maybe half a pack a day and then quit. That didn’t work so well so I took up smoking a pipe in my late twenties. I thought I was pretty sophisticated looking with my pipe when, more likely, I just looked like a dick.

My post-divorce weight loss program was to smoke my pipe and run uphill from Table Mesa to NCAR and back down every day. I was trashed from the hard uphill and pounding downhill, often so trashed that I forgot to eat dinner. I was thirty some years old, and somewhat of a skeleton at 175.

And then I fell in love a couple of times. The second time stuck and I married Blue Eyes. I learned to love to cook. We bought a house and got a dog. Domestic life is rewarding. You have this partner with whom you get to travel through time, often laughing at the dumb stuff like dealing with bankers, and loving the beautiful stuff like a rainy November day in the gardens of Kyoto. Problem is, while my life got better, I managed to go from 175 to 236 over twenty years. All my fault.

Since high school I have always run something 700 to 1,000 miles a year, sometimes more, almost always on trails. As the pounds piled on the running got harder but I was still out there. Then my running partner and I got this wild idea that we’d try the Atkins diet where you could eat just about anything you wanted so long as it wasn’t a carbohydrate. What a great idea. I got down to 205 pounds but I had absolutely no endurance. There was nothing in the tank. A simple five-mile trail run would seem like it went on forever in glue.

I stopped the Atkins diet and gained back twenty pounds in less than a month.

Every since when it was time to take some weight off I just cut back on drinking and sweets and portion sizes and kept things in the 210 to 215 range. But then I started working as a volunteer backcountry ski patroller.

gearLet’s say that last winter I was at 210 and that my AT skis, boots, and clothing added 15 pounds, that’s 225. Add a 20 pound pack that included a shovel, probe, transceiver, bivy bag and liner, air mattress, radio, and first aid gear and I was weighing-in at 245 and trying to move uphill at 10,000 feet. It was hard. I was always the slowest backcountry patroller.

Starting in May my large sister in Vancouver and I agreed to work together using Fitbits to lose weight with a weekly Friday weigh-in that includes iPhone photos of the scale so there can be no cheating. It’s actually worked so far. While we had planned to be down 20 or so pounds by now, we’ve both lost and kept off at least ten pounds in about the same number of weeks. Half good.

But here’s the deal: I’ve got to get to 190 before snowfall if I’m going to make it through the next backcountry patrol season.

Fat Chance.

Alan Stark is a free-lance writer, volunteer backcountry ski patroller, and recovering book publisher who lives with this Blue Eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge.

Mountain Pasages: The Decline

What happens when your body starts to break down? When trail running is no longer an option? It’s time to simply accept the downhill run. By Alan Stark

For Oliver Sachs

Raging against the dying of the light, while somewhat gratifying, is nonetheless pounding sand and about as useful. In my case, the “dying light” is trail running, a life sport I can’t do anymore. The low-level knee pain afterward is not worth it. Losing sleep because of knee ache makes me grumpy, and too much ibuprofen has the potential to turn my liver into goo.

 The bike route from Breckenridge to Frisco starts in town at the gondola and winds along the Blue River. Over to the left heavy gray clouds pour over the peaks and down to the ski area. The sky is lighter toward Frisco. The bet I am making with myself is that I can outrun the storm. This is not the first time I have made this bet. I seem to not learn much from previous experience, as I often let my enthusiasm override observable facts.

Most of this route to Frisco is slightly downhill giving me the illusion that I might be the strongest person on a road bike today, when in fact, the physics associated with being twenty pounds overweight makes the carbon fiber bike go faster. I am one speed on a bike far superior to my skills…tubby speed.

signThe short-term answer is to see an orthopedic surgeon at the end of the month. He’s the same guy who stitched my quad to my patella. The operation was slick. He drilled holes laterally through the patella, laced sutures through the holes, and then stitched the sutures into the tendon and quad muscles. Then he tightened the sutures and pulled the disengaged quad ligament up against the proximal side of the patella that had been roughed up.

Not so slick was the way I busted the quad running downhill on mud and ice, slipped with the knee under me, and hyper-flexed it, causing a complete separation of the quad tendon from the bone. Ouch! I love it when I look at my medical record and see the phrase “nontraumatic tear of left quadriceps tendon.” I don’t know who wrote that. It may have been the surgeon who obviously has a well-formed sense of humor.

I’m moving past the Flight for Life hanger at the hospital and along the bike trail south of Frisco. It’s raining now and I turn into town for some shelter. One of their choppers went down just before the Fourth of July. I couldn’t stop thinking of the crew as I watched the parade in Breckenridge. Med-evac crews risk everything to save a life. We must always keep moving on but sometimes it is moving on with sadness.

The streets of Frisco are filled with flatlanders, many of whom make me, with my modest pot-belly, look skinny in comparison. The rain slow downs, I pull off a rain jacket and decide I can get to Copper Mountain and if the weather keeps going south, take a shot at Vail Pass for a forty-fvie mile out-and-back ride.

The route from Frisco goes slightly uphill along Ten Mile Creek and is filled with bikes. I like the folks on rental bikes who are indomitably going uphill grimacing at the triple whammy of uphill, rain, and altitude but pushing on with an occasional shout of encouragement to one another. I live hree part-time. Altitude, rain, and steeps are all part of the game. I try to be gracious and almost always say something encouraging as I pass, “looking strong or looking good.” Inane words, but I think they appreciate the thought.

This failure of a body part is most likely due to the earlier injury, but I know the knee problem is indicative of things to come as I get older. I am slowing down. My parts are clearly out of warranty and there are a number of failures looming. This isn’t ominous to me for a number of reasons: I have a good marriage and have finished an interesting career. I have been able to live a number of years doing exactly what I wanted to do in the backcountry and never really had any long-term injuries or parts failures. Add to this a genuine thankfulness to be alive given the early death of some friends and a number of backcountry incidents that could have gone badly.

Sure, just like you, I’ve had some minor injuries. There was a broken wrist when I came unglued from a tree as a kid, a cracked radius and ulna while skiing patches of snow between the sheet ice in Vermont, and a mashed scapula from doing airtime over the handle bar of a commuter bike in the Port of Seattle complex. The dumbest and long-term painful injury came when I was trail running with my dog with his leash looped around my chest. Mac ran around one side of a tree and I ran around the other. I crashed to the ground and broke two ribs. My PCP taped me up and said, “don’t laugh for eight weeks,” Thanks Doc, not helpful.

The sky is grey and angry looking. I’ve beat the storm this far, what the hell, I’ll keep going. The route up Vail Pass from the south is surprisingly easy gaining less than 1,000 feet over four miles. There are several slight pitches that get me out of the saddle and sucking wind but it is mostly a moderate uphill crank. The danger is the tourists who ride to the top of Vail Pass in a van. Then they ride their rental bikes the twelve miles down to Frisco, usually in control. They are not exactly experienced bike handlers. I smile a good deal, but I watch them carefully as they cruise downhill.

The downhill run is always amazing. I’m slower going uphill than I used to be but getting better at managing the speed on the downhill, daring myself to not use the brakes and let the bike just freewheel. I water up in Frisco, munch on some energy food, and head home on the slightly uphill ride back to Breckenridge.

FireweedI’m a Boomer and have lost friends to some bad luck, really asinine wars, sullied drugs, excessive alcohol, and now some god-awful diseases. In the middle of the night I can see their young faces, and remember good times and laughter and exactly where I was when I heard they were gone. There is no good reason that some of them are dead and I am still here.

Did she forget to check the belay point? Did he know it was his last patrol? Would a reasonable person put something down their throat without knowing its provenance? There was always alcohol, there will always be alcohol, often too much alcohol. I never listened when I was taught that the immune system can also kill slowly and exceedingly painfully.

When I was serious about trail running I did the Pikes Peak half-marathon. I started up the Manitou Incline with a guy who said he was seventy. I was in my mid-thirties. I never saw him again until I reached the top. He told me I’d get better with age. My goal was to be able to run Pikes Peak when I was seventy. That doesn’t look like it will happen. I’ll be happy to do Vail Pass on my bike. When the riding, and skiing end the way trail running apparently has ended there is ongoing reading, writing, and gardening. I plan to learn fly-fishing, maybe try golf, and get better at backgammon. I hope to end up sitting in the mountain sun enjoying the passage of time with an old friend or dog or both, for as long as life goes on, until I stop breathing.

Alan Stark is recovering from a career in book publishing and a now a volunteer backcountry ski patroller in the Roosevelt National Forest. He lives in Breckenridge and Boulder.

Mountain Passages: Rants and a Thunderstorm

We get grumpy when choices are made for us by government and corporations without any outside input—particularly our input. By Alan Stark

No one sought anyone’s approval on the following traffic scam, bulletproof packaging, and advertising arrogance. There was no notice of change or alternate choice. There were no hearings or discussion of options. The scams, packaging, and ads simply appeared in our lives without warning, very much like a wart growing on the end of our collective nose without notice.

TRAFFIC SCAMS

Here in Boulder, and no doubt in other cities as well, the local government runs a traffic scam with cameras hidden in cars and on poles at intersections. The unsuspecting motorist, who is slightly exceeding the speed limit or misjudges the length of a yellow light, is greeted with a substantial flash signaling she will be receiving a ticket in the mail from the city of Boulder. The ticket includes a lovely picture of the perp’s face and license plate plus a ticket for a tidy sum.

This is a scam for any number of reasons, starting with the fact that a citation for a traffic violation should come from a certified law officer, not a city government clerk. These cameras take work away from our constables. But what is particularly unfair about these cameras in vehicles is that they are located in spots where there is a ridiculously low speed limit or there is a transition from an in-town speed limit to a county speed limit. In the case of the high volume intersections, the yellow light, which used to stay on for enough time to get through the intersection is now on for a very short period. It is simply not possible to get through the intersection on the yellow anymore.

We need to tell city governments that we are not to be preyed upon as supplemental revenue source–our sales and property taxes are enough.

A thunderstorm is rolling up from the south and pelting the Flatirons to the west of Boulder with sheets of rain. The wind roars over our house. The trees branches in front of the storm fly about spastically as if controlled by a huge collective force. The power of it all is magnificent to watch. The storm makes me smile.

When we travel separately or together my best friend and I often buy each other bells, particularly small temple bells that we hang from the trees in the yard. Each of the bells has a string attached to clapper to which I have added a piece of basswood that flits around in the wind. The temple bells tinkle in the blasts of wind from the thunderstorm. It is a tiny, yet profound sound, against the roar of the wind. 

PLASTIC PACKAGING

Who thought of the idea of encasing thousand of products in ballistics-proof plastic that requires a utility knife or kitchen shears to open? And why is it that the plastic sheeting is usually four of five times as large as the product? Is this to command shelf space or so we won’t stuff the product in a pocket and shoplift it?

Who voted on sealed plastic containers that don’t allow us to actually handle the product before buying it, or is that the idea behind the plastic entombment of products? And is there a nationwide insurance policy to cover those of us who have stabbed ourselves trying to get these packages open?

So plenty of things in life are frustrating and nonsensical–we adjust. But we also have a stewardship issue with this plastic. It goes directly to the dump, it’s not on the recycle list on the lid of our recycling bins. Who knows the half-life of this plastic in the dump?

Why would we buy a product packaged so we can’t steal it, packaging that doesn’t allow us to inspect the product, and goes directly to the landfill once we’ve pried it open? Let’s not—let’s stop buying stuff that we can’t handle before we buy it.

IMG_7950The winds drop off for a moment as the sky darkens. There is this pause before the storm as if this force is taking a deep breath before blowing through the flatlands and on out to Nebraska where thunderstorms go to die for lack of interest.

I stand in the maw of the garage watching the storm and thinking of my Dad. He was a meteorologist who had a chair in his garage where he would sit and watch storms. I move to get my chair. He now watches the storms from his chair in assisted living, but he still watches and marvels at the power of it all. I marvel at him.

I move my chair to the drip line from the garage roof. The leading drops of rain create huge splats on the driveway. Once, on a motorcycle north of Fairplay, I watched one of these drops from way above me arc into the faceplate on my helmet and totally obliterate my vision for several moments. Now, I can feel the mist rebounding from the drops on my bare feet. 

MOVIE ADS

RedbandAt what point did any of us decide to have three or four long advertisements blasted at us at the local theater before the trailers or the movie?

No question, advertising people (a questionable use of the term) will do anything to get their product in front of the public. For years, advertisers have paid movie makers substantial fees to have their product used as props in movies. “Product placement” is bad enough, but inflicting ads on us in the theater is outrageous. We, in fact, have paid money to a theater to see advertisements. A dream come true for advertisers, people paying to see their work (yet again, another questionable use of another term).

We aren’t going to stop going to the movies, but we can stop buying products advertised in movies. We could, for example, drink rum and generic cola from here on out.

IMG_7907And now the thunderstorm gets serious with pounding rain that hits so hard on the pavement that it appears to be going up. If these sorts of storms are stationary or at least moving slowly, they create flash floods here in the High Country. Flash floods have been known to destroy stupid structures built by man. 

Alan Stark is a free-lance writer who lives in Boulder and Breckenridge with this blue-eyed person and her dog.

Photos by Doug Schnitzspahn

Mountain Passages: Insider Info on Travel to Cuba

Thinking of traveling to Cuba anytime soon? Here are some thoughts, possibly useful, that will help. By Alan Stark

When you arrive at the Havana airport there are no jetways, only mobile ramps the ground crews roll up to airplane doors. These ramps look like they were made on a bad day in Romania. The plastic canopy around them has nearly gone opaque with sun damage and age. But here is a warning: It’s always warm in Cuba and mostly downright hot and humid. Don’t get caught behind a slowpoke going through one of these things unless, of course, being slow-cooked is of interest.

Once you are inside the airport, you will encounter immigration positions with a door at the far end. The sense is odd, like walking into a closet with an unfriendly young adult to one side who will decide whether you get the lady (or man), or the tiger. The security door buzzes open to a hanger-like hall with metal detectors and security people wearing starched light-brown uniforms. They are mostly handsome twenty-somethings, and the women have added a twist to their normal uniform—black lace stockings. The incongruity is starting, like encountering one of our bloused-booted, Glock-toting, immigration officers with a three-inch smiley-face pin on his chest.

Cuban WomanThe black lace stockings are a tip-off about what is to happen in Cuba—no, not everyone is going to be wearing black lace stockings. But Cuba is rapidly changing from a drab communist state clone to a multifaceted socialist state. The change appears to be irreversible, if they do it right, and make carefully thought-out changes to avoid huge dislocations. This could be another Velvet Revolution that created the Czech Republic. But, if the party holds onto power and there is no revolution, Cuba will be like Viet Nam, a Socialist government and a highly entrepreneurial population. Call it a the Salsa Revolution—for the Cubans are about to dance their way into the 21st century.

Money
There are hundreds of curiosities within the Cuban government, and many of these curiosities seem to have an antecedent of, “Lets throw this sugar cane at the wall and see if sticks.”

For example, there are two currencies in Cuba one is Cucs (kooks) that the government has set an exchange rate at 87 to US$100. Yup, there is a 13% commission charged by the government to trade dollars for Cucs. This is the currency used by tourists and should be acquired at the hotel on arrival. The second is the Peso that is used by the Cubans as well as Cucs. At this writing, there are no ATMs in Cuba, and credit cards are useless, everything a tourist buys in Cuba is with Cucs. The government doesn’t stop getting into your wallet on the way out of Cuba. When leaving, Cucs are exchanged for dollars at the airport again with a 13% charge. Give them 100 Cucs and they give you back US$87. However, there is a better deal to be had in the hotel lobby or on the street just before you leave. Cubans will pay $100 for 100 Cucs. Dollars come into Cuba as remittances that the Cubans need changed to Cucs and the only way they can do that is through money changers working free lance at and around the hotels.

Cigars
Cigar aficionados be warned, Cuban cigars are as advertised, they are wonderfully fragrant, mild, and smooth smoking. A trip to tobacco growing region Valle de Vinales and a tobacco farm is a couple hours of pure addiction gratification.

The farmer greets you in a curing barn hung with rack of sweet-smelling tobacco.

cigar seller “How many of you smoke?” the farmer will ask sarcastically, knowing that most Americans, wishing to live forever, have given up smoking but relish a puff or two on a Cuban cigar.  He then talks about how the tobacco is grown and cured, and then he goes to work to skillfully make a cigar, holding some leaves in one hand, cleaning and smoothing the leaves into a tent-like form that he then rolls on a smooth surface. Next, he carefully selects fine wrapper leaves and rolls a perfect cigar. Then he cuts both ends and light up for a couple puffs, and then carefully puts the hot end of the cigar in his mouth and blows smoke out of the cigar. Taking the cigar out of his mouth, he passes it to the nearest now-slavering non-smoker and says, “A good cigar, it draws well.”

After the demonstration he invites you to his house for coffee and/or rum or both while a family member sells cigars at one Cuc each from a cardboard box. In a matter of an hour or so, you can indulge in nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol, a socially acceptable addicts paradise, not to be missed on a visit to Cuba.

Cars
Something that also can’t be missed in Cuba are all the antique cars and trucks smoking along the streets interspersed with Eastern Block POS, (remember the Yugo?), a few Japanese and Korean sedans, and the occasional, out of place, fat-cat, thuggish BMW, Audi, and Mercedes. These antiques are the cars from before the 1959 revolution that have been rebuilt many times over, usually retrofitted with diesel engines, and appear to be held together by superb jury-rigging mechanics, imagination, wishful thinking, and wire.

They are a metaphor for how Cubans deal with their situation; don’t go without— make it work—keep it going. Throughout the day and most of the night in Havana, these cars, many of which are for hire (agree on a price with the driver before you get in), smoke and honk their way through the pot-holed streets. They provide a colorful on-going parade of mid-century American engineering, Cuban ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit. One note of caution, pedestrians in Cuba are pretty much ignored by drivers. It’s not that Cuban drivers are murderous, but they are a little crazy and crossing a street is an adventure.

Los Cubanos
But the best adventure to be found in Cuba is with the people: Their great love of family and friends, the warmth with which they greet and engage with strangers, and their love of life under a repressive government and a ridiculous embargo perpetrated by morons in our government.

When talking about the future, Cubans recognize that change is coming but say, “it’s complicated, we need to be careful. We need to go slowly.” In the past two hundred years, there have been a number of revolutions in Cuban, some fairly violent.

Cuban WorkerIn spite of Cuban circumspection, change is going to come quickly in Cuba. In the last month, Raul Castro and President Obama met and held a joint press conference. The Cubans are thrilled with the thaw in Cuban American relations, as are American corporations thinking about how they are going to exploit a new opportunity in Cuba. But in past revolutions, American corporations, one of them being the mafia, have taken a good deal more out of Cuba than they have put in. The Cubans are right, they need to be careful. On the business side, they should form their own national corporations that are production and profit oriented on the Chinese model. Or if outright freedom comes, they should limit international corporations to 49% ownership in Cuban corporations along the lines of the Canadian model.

The worst that can happen here is another blood-bath of a revolution. But Raul Cuban turkeyCastro appears to be a smart guy who is probably not going to give up power, and will eventually groom another fat cat to take his place. Cubans now get to vote in municipal elections. The hope is that this vote will eventually carry over to provincial elections, and then national elections and perhaps a formation of a congress or parliament that truly represents the Cuban people. We will all see.

There is much that is in flux in Cuba. In spite of this, still thinking about going to Cuba? Do it for two reasons: (1) Cuban tourism is the financial starting point for a much more entrepreneurial and free Cuba. (2) The Cubans have built a society and culture under difficult circumstance. They are happy and wonderful neighbors who deserve our support.

The fourth of a three-part series on Cuba. Alan Stark is a free-lance based in Boulder who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

 

Mountain Passages: Cuba Tres, Bear Salsas

At loose, sort of, in Cuba, Bear drinks in music and art, gets out on the dance floor (with the help of some rum), and wonders why Cubans like us. By Alan Stark

Cuba is about the music and dancing, the people, and their art. Traveling here is an opportunity to observe a very odd government, try their food, and maybe drink a little rum and smoke a cigar or two.

Flamenco LeaderAt eight in the morning the sound of music from the studios across from our hotel dance into and through the room. Almost anywhere in Havana, at any time of day, there is music. And, at whatever time you tumble into bed, you will hear music until you fall asleep. Most of the music I heard was a Latin-Cuban-African-Caribbean mixture that involves a steady beat, at least one singer, drums of all sorts, a lead guitar, and a bass. But beyond that, the additional members of the band can be playing just about anything that makes music.

This is a communist country where the work of musicians is just honorable as the work of professors—that’s a good thing. So, in Cuba, if you qualify for a musical education based on testing, your eventual job for the state will be as a musician. Sort of like being in the Marine Band in DC minus the shaved head, the uniform, and having to play Sousa marches the rest of your career. There is clearly a great deal of music education in Cuba. It wasn’t the intent of this education, but the consequence is bands with folks playing cellos, flutes, and violins accompanying the usual drums and guitars.

I’ll bet that the base player in a band, who is highly skilled, was classically trained—remember that Cuba was basically a Russian satellite for years. Classical music is just a notch below vodka in the Russian value system. The guy working the bass in a given band isn’t some mountain-town loadie who has mastered maybe a solid ten chords he can pound-out all night. The bass line in a Cuban band can be just as interesting as everything else being played. It all contributes to a toe-tapping, butt swinging, stand up and boogie musical experience.

And the dancing—Cubans dance all of the time and are great at it. In the studio across the street from our hotel there was a recital almost every night. It looked like modern dance, with amazing moves to watch. Part of the cultural tour was to see a Cuban Flamenco group one morning. Seven dancers simply rocked the place with intricate Spanish moves with a huge Caribbean heart.

Afterwards the leader spoke with great enthusiasm but she made us a little sad when she said she had to constantly recruit new dancers, because when members of her troupe reached a high level of skill they emigrated. No country can sustain itself when it consistently loses the best and brightest people.

As mountain people we all have some dance moves that we make, usually fueled by alcohol, generally to the beat of the music. Blue Eyes calls my dance moves, “The Bear Shuffle.” It wasn’t working for me when we were taken to a dance studio for an hour-long salsa lesson that started with a couple of shots of rum.

The Salsa beat goes like this: one-two-three-stop, five-six-seven-stop, going forward, backward and then to both sides. The couple shots of rum I had before the lesson didn’t help that much, Salsa dancing pretty much eluded me.

Because this was a cultural “people to people’ trip, and maybe because we were spending a great deal of time drinking rum before dinner, one late-afternoon we were shuttled off to a choral recital in a church. The vocalists were highly skilled, and while the music left me staring the ceiling, there was one point where the conductor had his choir singing in such a way that individual blocks of notes rolled forth like a single wave of sound filled with discrete tones. I’ve never heard a choir do that before and I’d love to hear that again. I might even show for a church choral recital in Boulder one of these days. Probably not, but what a great sound.

Before I get into another subject I know nothing about but appreciate, that being ART, let me digress a little about the Cuban character. I suppose that if I had a huge country north of me that had tried to strangle my government with a dumb embargo, had actually invaded my country, and allegedly tried to assassinate my leader on a number of occasions, I’d be tempted to be highly pissed-off at the US.

Cigar FarmerCubans have every reason to hate us because the embargo didn’t screw up their government; the fat cats always survive embargoes untouched. The Cuban embargo messed up the lives of common people as blanket embargos always do. Embargoes are a quick fix by incompetent politicians much like cops rounding-up all the usual suspects instead of doing the hard work of finding two or three really bad guys (or girls). The President got it right with imposed sanctions against key Russian leaders and oligarchs who went whining to Putin when their assets outside of Russia were frozen.

Cubans actually like us, even after all the hardships we have imposed on them. I’m guessing it’s because we have figured out ways to help them in spite of our stupid embargo. A couple years ago, my friend Steven called in markers from other orthodontists and dental vendors and hauled dental supplies down to Cuba. Blue Eyes took guitar strings and watercolors kits to give away to musicians and kids. The remittances from family members that keep Cubans going are from Cuban-Americans.

But if there is anger at the US it manifests itself as a kind of megalomania. Cuban objects are bigger, better, and more beautiful than anyplace else, and Cubans more skilled and artistic than anyone else. For example, Cuban architecture is beautiful, even though the building is now crumbling to a pile of rubble. Cuban rum is the best in the world but I found, in a highly scientific, week-long experiment, that 18-year-old Cuban rum was a little rough. Cuban Cigars are the best in the world. We had a Cuban famer roll a cigar in front of us, light it up, and pass it around. It was the best cigar I’ve ever tasted. Cuban auto mechanics are the best in the world. The early 50s cars that smoke along the streets are wrecks that keep on rolling based solely on superb repair work, wishful thinking, and wire.

Some of the megalomania is justified, but like any people trying to tell the world that they are as good as anyone else, if not better—it gets old after a while. There is a greatness in these Cubans, they have survived and thrived under a stupid government. It will be amazing to see what they accomplish over the next ten years.

But back to art. Blue Eyes has dragged me to a number of art shows, exhibitions, and museums. I pretend that I’m being taken away from something important like sharpening my skis or turning the garden, but in reality, I always enjoy myself, because I almost always see something transcendent, something, like a well-written paragraph or a line from a poem that just takes me away to a happy place.

We saw twentieth-century paintings in the National Museum of Art and none of it moved me. Maybe it was the Bay of Pigs tanks and missiles in the park across the street that got me off on the wrong foot.  The art was mostly dark and somber—maybe taking itself too seriously. Art historians can prattle on (like architects) endlessly about all the allusions and symbols and sources of inspiration of a particular painting. Once I’ve been grabbed by an artist I find a modicum of this information worthwhile, “But geesus Lady, let’s not spend fifteen minutes on a piece that no one appears to care about except you.”

Cuban flag-2So if you’ve gone to France or Japan to eat or Argentina or Scotland to drink you might be a little disappointed with Cuban comestibles. We ate as a group of American cultural tourists and were generally served family-style a good amount of food. Breakfast was Euro hotel food-piles with the best being eggs cooked fresh on the grill. Lunch, as did dinner, started with a welcome drink and an appetizer such as dishes of croquets and plantain chips that look like potato chips and taste like cardboard. Salad was inevitably sliced tomato, some lettuce or shredded cabbage, cucumbers, and maybe cold green beans dressed with oil and vinegar. Next came plates of roasted pork and lamb and grilled fish. Dessert was almost always flan but flan isn’t interesting enough to eat twice a day.

And dinner, was pretty much the same. I’m sure you could do better with food if you ordered a la carte but don’t go to Cuba for the food, they have a ways to go. Even when I ditched the tour and ate out on my own, the food was still boring. Best guess is that foodie endeavors are tough in a country where the food supply is often limited.

Cuban art and food are so-so. The government is repressive. But go to Cuba for the people—especially the people, the music, the dancing, rum and cigars.

This is the third of a four-part series on Cuba. Read #1 here and #2 here.

Alan Stark is a free lance based in Boulder who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog. He can be reached at alanbearstark@gmail.com

Mountain Passages: Cuba, It’s Complicated

Landed in Cuba, Bear explores the crumbling beauty of Havana, enjoys the country’s fabulous people, and ponders how such an ineffectual government can work. By Alan Stark.

“It’s complicated,” A Cuban says with a half-smile on her face.

Blue-Eyes and I are on a cultural tour of Havana and the western mountain region including the town of Vinales. We signed up for to the trip about three days before President Obama announced a thaw in US and Cuban relations. There was nothing prescient about this, we just wanted to visit Cuba. The Euros and Canadians who have been coming here for years are now all pissed off. “We wanted to see Cuba before the hoards of Americans arrived,” a Canadian said.

What the hoards are going to see first in central Havana is a city that appears to be crumbling before their eyes. Most of the buildings have had no maintenance in fifty or sixty years and are literally falling apart, brick by brick. The streets and sidewalks are in ill-repair. In a way it feels like you visiting someplace in Eastern Europe just after the end of the World War II.

A couple days ago, an architecture professor from the University led us on a walking tour of the buildings around the Park Central. Architects have the unique ability to look at a perfect dump of a building and talk about interesting features, and often ramble on endlessly about the original builders and owners, the period in which the structure was built, the construction materials—in short—more information than anyone save an architect, would want or care to know. Our professor stayed true to form. She would point at a crumbling building over her shoulder and she would say, “And this beautiful buildings…” We looked at thirty or so buildings in our tour, twenty of them were wrecks; some interesting wrecks, but wrecks none-the-less.

CrumblingBeyond the buildings that are falling down, a full a third of the buildings in central Havana, beginning with the National Capitol are “under restoration.” But many of these restorations looked like the crews were pulled off to work on something else shortly after they got started. It is almost like there are a hundred crews working on a thousand restoration projects. So some plumbers are working on one building and across town a water main breaks,  the plumbing crew gets pulled off the restoration to fix the water main and after that they are rotated to an entirely different project, because the government runs almost everything…badly.

The crews that I saw looked like they were really working, but this is a communist country where everyone is paid the same salary, somewhere between twenty-one and twenty-five dollars a month. The local cliché goes something like this, “They pretend to pay me, and I pretend to work.” It was explained that most everyone has a second source of income that involve all sorts of enterprises that are mostly legal. Before you get to scratching your head about the salary, realize that everything in Cuba is subsidized, or as one Cuban said, “We have nothing, we have everything.”

Once into the more modern part of the city to the west Havana looks like your average Latin American city, or Anchorage, where there is only one zoning official for the entire town and she spends most of her time sipping espresso in a café and laughing. Central Havana needs some work.

singerThink of that laughing zoning official and you see how the average Cuban thinks. There is the GOVERNMENT that is omnipresent and clearly oppressive and then there is the important stuff like my family, my friends, my neighborhood, eating, drinking, screwing, laughing, singing, dancing and maybe my work.  The Cubans are proud of the Revolution that made for a much better and more equitable society but they don’t appear to give much of a shit about the government. They simply tolerate it.

Cubans are fabulous people. I stopped on the sidewalk to let an older man on a crutch pass in front of me. As he passed he looked me in the eye, smiled, and with  his free hand patted me on the belly. That momentary connection with a stranger is the way Cubans interact with everyone.

We were sitting in a restaurant drinking Cubatas that are much better than Cuba libres, because they are made with dark rum instead of bar rum. The band was having a grand time as we were. Another crowd came into the room and started Salsa dancing as they moved to their tables. It was a sight to see…one, two three, pause, five, six seven, pause. Damn, Cubans can dance.

I’m writing this on a table in the back of a Chinese bus in the mountains outside of Vinales. The guitarists, and singer who were playing during our lunch, got on the bus to ride with us back to town. The bus is filled with song

P1000253As mountain people, we think of ourselves as laid-back, maybe even pride ourselves on being pretty relaxed about most everything. But compared to Cubans we’re like MBAs in a bank vault. Cubans are relaxed and happy in a way I’ve never seen before. It could be the climate or the culture but I think it’s the GOVERNMENT. When all your basic needs are met by free services and subsidies, worrying about providing for yourself goes away. The GOVERNMENT will provide everything, plus twenty-one dollars a month.

So here in Cuba, you have the center of the national capital basically falling apart due to good intentions, overreaching, bad planning, underfinancing, and unmotivated workers. And yet this government has created possibly the highest quality of life for almost all of its citizens that can be found anywhere in Latin America.

And you have happy people on what appears to be a verdant island having a wonderful time with one another and anyone who visits. Their enthusiasm for life is infectious; they just light up a room when they come into it. But at the same time they speak of the collapse of the Soviet Union and say things like, “And then there was no one to take care of us.“

mojitoCubans expect all these services from the government but have absolutely no motivation to work for the Government. However, it is these same unmotivated people who work like crazy for their second incomes and start small business subject to ridiculous taxes. Some of these Cubans would leave this wonderful island in a heartbeat if they could figure a way to do it without taking a long ride in a small boat.

It’s complicated.

Alan Stark is a wordsmith who lives with a blue-eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge.

This is the second in a four-part series. Read the first installment here.