Spring

1 May
Winter lasts so long up here, I sometimes forget there are other seasons. Down-valley spring beauties have already phased to glacier lilies, which are moving on to countless pots-of-gold arrowleaf balsamroot. Up here, the chilly loam is still holding its breath, mere clutches of courageous ’beauties are popping up in the slowly expanding tree wells. Ravens, beaks filled with the undercoat I have been brushing from my two big dogs, steal off to line their nests.
My wee abode sits at a lowly 2,300 feet of elevation, only about 500 feet higher than fourteen miles down-valley, where it is much more arid (and where it is already spring, as I have said). It is the proximity to the eastern toes of the North Cascades that dumps more winter here, in the land beyond Lost. And rain once it warms. But I am a rainforest girl at heart and diehard fan of winter, so this all sits well with me.

Up the Rendezvous Canyon, in the lingering snow bands behind Jason’s yurt, you can still see a few uphill Zs and downhill Ss from his late-season tours. From the Rendezvous toward Gunn Ranch, I take my first trail run of the season. Late April and enough of the way trail has melted out for a starter slog. I will turn around once the dirt and dead bunch grass ends and the snow begins in earnest. Each year around this time, I catch eyefuls of mountain bluebirds migrating through. They are an unlikely electric and blue my heart beat-beats when I spy them with eyes wide. Up and over the knoll and there they are! Tucked in the same bare and gnarled branches as they were the year before and the year before and the year before, and before that, too … nervously they scatter, and resettle not too far away.

A lifetime ago, my father gave me a Japanese print of an ethereal bluebird perched on a wintry branch. He also had this funny little thing he would say to me: “May the bluebird of happiness fly up your nose.” I think it was a play on an old Jimmy Dicks country song. My father was a West Point graduate and an officer in the Green Beret, who had a goofy sense of humor and a broken yet gentle soul. My dear old dad didn’t make it past 70 and after he passed, for me bluebirds came to signify him. When I spy them in the greening hills, all brilliant blue and other-worldly, I know my father is nearby, flying free and beautiful and it is magic.

On Being Pro-Life
Let me make this perfectly clear: I believe in a woman’s Right to Choose, so this is not about that. This is about biodiversity. This is about wolves. This is about being pissed the hell off.

A federal budget bill rider authored by Senators Tester, D-Montana, and Simpson, R-Idaho, has severely compromised the Endangered Species Act, endangering the health of ecosystems, and endangering wolf populations.
In a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity, “[The rider] removes wolves in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Utah from the federal endangered species list and sets the stage for near-term delisting in Wyoming. The rider bans citizens from challenging the wolf delisting decision while preserving anti-wolf litigation brought by the state of Wyoming and others.”

There are solid reasons why a bunch of government dough and effort were spent to restore Northern Rockies wolves: Restoring healthy populations of wolves here has resulted in healthier ungulate herds by keeping their populations viable. Riparian areas, and thus fish spawning grounds, are becoming healthier too, as deciduous tree growth is returning, having been over-browsed. We are quite simply peril-yzing an entire ecosystem.

I don’t get this deep-seated fear and loathing of large predators. Why must we always sit at the tippy-top the food chain, dizzily attempting to control all things wild? Why must we artificially increase elk herd populations, by example, to the detriment of the herd’s and surrounding ecosystem’s health? It is merely for the so-called sport of an easier hunt (subsistence hunting aside), and the ability to run domestic herds unfenced and on public lands without incident?
I am pro-life! I am against the abortion of biodiversity!

Taking a Breath
I am still lighting fires in the woodstove. Although sometimes just one in the morning and maybe another around suppertime is enough.

Watching the Cat

I am watching the cat
the cat stretched out long
right up close to the woodstove
Satisfied just to be warm

Some Good Sites

Conservation NW
The Center for Biological Diversity
Renacuajo Productions
The Daily Coyote

Spider Man, Part 2

Read Spider Man, Part 1 here. • My amigo Norb and I were ass deep in China’s remote Tiger’s Leaping Gorge in 1987. We were on assignment for Backpacker magazine to journalistically witness the first commercial rafting descent of the Class-5/Class-6/waterfalls-of-certain-death/no-rescue-possible Yangtze River through the gorge, an event that did not actually take place because, once the rafters saw what they would be up against, they pussied out and trucked their rafts downriver to calmer waters. Norb and I therefore had to scramble mightily to salvage a story we had traveled halfway around the world to cover. Not only that, but, this was the autumn of the famed Tibetan uprising, which caused many parts of China that bordered Tibet to be closed down to foreign visitation. Ergo, we had to sneak the 90 kilometers from Lijiang into Tiger’s Leaping Gorge under cover of darkness via a variety of improvised (read: bribed) means — including riding for a while on the back of a two-stroke Chinese tractor — after receiving threats from the local constabulary that, if we were caught entering the area, we would be arrested, interrogated/thrashed with canes, sentenced to hard labor and deported to someplace truly awful. Despite the overt pussiness of the rafters, we continued through the Gorge in hopes that we could still salvage the assignment situation by putting together a yarn about our hike, even if we had to fabricate stuff to make the tale saleable. At one point, Norb, the expedition photographer, decided to ascend a small side canyon so he could get a good downward angle that took in both yours truly in the foreground and the depths of the 11,000-foot-deep canyon in the background. Good plan that, on the surface, was only slightly complicated by the fact that, a couple days prior, we had the good fortune of trading almost all of our food supply, several pieces of backpacking gear and a handful of nearly worthless Chinese Monopoly money for a half-ounce of opiated Kashgari hash, which was, shall we say, stunningly efficacious, at the same time that we had not exactly been judicious in our imbibing habits. Yes, we were two mighty stoned units as Norb made his way through the thickly brushed side canyon in praiseworthy search of photographic excellence. He was concentrating so hard not getting caught up in the various species of thorny shrubbery that adorned the side canyon that he did not see the spiders until it was too late. I actually saw them before he did. I did not yell. I could not yell. It was like one of those bad drams where you freeze up right when shit’s hitting the fan big time. I told myself later that I did not yell because I thought Norb must have already noticed the fact that, scant feet above him, the side canyon traveled through a genuine house of eight-legged horrors. I do not know how many spiders there were, but there were literally hundreds and hundreds of them, all staking out territory in massive webs that covered every bush, tree, twig and blade of grass over the entire hillside. And these were not any ordinary spiders. First, they were all long and spindly, with legs several inches long. And they were psychedelically colored — like the unnatural yellows, greens and reds that are used on laundry detergent boxes. As soon as Norb nicked the first web, every psychedelic spider on that hillside went into protect-our-turf mode and they descended upon Norb’s suddenly shrieking (and did I mention, extremely stoned?) self like the orcs coming down those columns in the caverns where Gandalf lost his battle against the Balrog. Norb’s resultant body language, which was enhanced by boisterous invectives followed by large exclamation points, hovered somewhere between what you would expect of a human body if it were being electrocuted or set on fire. This situation was further enhanced because, at that time, Norb sported a fairly impressive ’fro, which, given the number of days we had been out, was fairly matted. So many spiders became entangled in Norb’s tresses — many of which got smooshed by Norb’s frantic flailings — that he might as well have been wearing arachnid mousse. Within seconds, Norb was covered in spiders, many of which had made their way under his shirt and shorts. And there was only one thing for me to do, besides, of course, run screaming in the exact opposite direction: I had to assist my chum. Despite the fervent protestations of every strand of DNA coursing through my corpus delecti, I scampered up that side canyon and intercepted Norb, who was descending in an imprudent manner. At first, I tried brushing the spiders off my writhing muchacho. But there were too many, and they were holding onto Norb like bullriders at a rodeo. So I had to start picking them off with my fingers, one by one, and throwing them as far as I could. More often than not, I would go through the tossing motion, only to see that the spider was still in my hand, like one of those boogers that molecularly adheres to your nose-picking finger no matter how hard you try to flick it out the car window. Even as the spider-removal process was underway, we were gradually, inch by spidery inch, making our way down the side canyon back to the trail. It took us a solid hour to rid Norb of those spiders. It was like going through detox, except that these spiders were real. By the time the removal process was mostly physically completed (the psychic scars did not go away quite to easily; for days afterward, Norb would imagine spiders in his pants or in his sleeping bag), we were twitching and screaming and hyperventilating right there in the middle of what in those parts passes for a fairly busy thoroughfare. Just as we were starting to calm down ever so slightly, we looked over and an entire family of Chinese peasants straight out of a National Geographic spread was standing there, jaws agape, eyes wide open, huddling very close together. This was a time and place when and where Westerners were rare. Had we been standing decorously while nattily attired, we would have been viewed with extreme suspicion, maybe even contempt. But here we were, yelling, screaming, gesticulating and twitching like we had both just been Taser’d. I tried to reach deep down into my decorum recesses and mouth a calm-ish greeting that came out in bad-Chinese falsetto. The entire family screamed and fled, their hands raised high. When our pulse rates finally reached non-lethal levels, and we were just getting to the point where we could chuckle a bit about the experience, Norb looked up Nightmare Gully and realized that, halfway up, on the ground, lay his camera bag, covered in spiders. He seriously considered leaving it right there, but, being a professional, he bit his lower lip and made his way back up into the land of spindly legs to retrieve his cherished photographic equipment. I stayed on the trail this time, guarding the hash. • This time, Norb and I were down in the Dominican Republic, working on magazine stories for Backpacker and Adventure Travel. We had already visited Isla Cabritos National Park — at 130 feet below sea level, the lowest and hottest part of the Caribbean — and ascended Pico Duarte — at 10,164 feet, the highest and coldest point in the Caribbean. We were planning to paddle our inflatable one-person Sevylor kayaks down the Rio Yuna, which, as far as we could tell, had not been descended in full since Columbus times. In between our various Dominican forays, we would hang out Santo Domingo, the capital, for a few days to rest up, re-supply and recreate. One of the places we would visit was called Maison de Mama, an outside restaurant/bar favored by Santo Domingo’s sizeable ex-pat community. One of the regulars was a giant American who boasted a hideous scar that had devoured most of one calf, which, judging from the other calf, had been the size of a watermelon before whatever unfortunate event transpired. Norb and I would sip lukewarm Presidente beers and speculate about the nature of the injury. My best guess was a shark attack. Norb’s best guess was that he had been in motorcycle mishap and had got his lower leg caught in the chain at like 100 mph. Finally we decided to just ask him, in the most delicate way we could. “Dude, what the fuck happened to your leg?” Norb queried. The entire outside seating area, consisting of six or seven four-top tables that were fully occupied, went suddenly silent. Faces turned ashen as people started examining their cuticles in earnest detail. “I got bit by a brown recluse,” the man said, dejectedly. Turns out that, at first, the man had no idea what was wrong with his calf. He only knew that it was extremely painful and that sizeable acreage of erstwhile living tissue was starting to turn black, smell horrible and, well, fall off. Even though he had lived in the DR for many years, like many expats we met, he did not hold Dominicans in high esteem. Thus, he opted to fly back to his native Wisconsin to seek First-World medical care. The doctors in the decidedly non-tropical Badger State were nonplussed, and stayed that way for weeks, as this man’s calf was disintegrating. They thought it might maybe be some sort of flesh-eating virus, so they treated the injury as such. And so it went. For months and months. I don’t remember how the light eventually went on, but it was determined that he had been the victim of a negative brown recluse interaction — something that, had he sought medical treatment in the DR, would likely have been diagnosed and treated properly from the get-go, because, we then learned, that particular variety of poisonous spider dwelled in abundance throughout Hispaniola, and many people suffer from its bite. “It’s especially bad down in the river lowlands and along the swampy coastline,” we were told. “Where did you say you were going paddling?” We said were going paddling in the river lowlands and along the swampy coastline. Shit. The last time Norb and I looked at each other that way was over in Hong Kong, when we were hiking the famed MacLehose Trail and we learned, at the trailhead, of all places, that the entire area through which we were going to traverse was thick with some of the most poisonous species of snakes in the world, including, but not limited to, an especially aggressive variety of King Cobra, a reality that makes you wonder, as you’re lying there in your tent regretting mightily drinking those last seven beers, if you can hold your piss until morning, ’cause getting out of the tent in the middle of the night in a woods filled with aggressive King Cobras is totally out of the question. Our first night on the Rio Yuna, we ended up camping in the middle of a diminutive riverside mud pit. We had been looking for a more desirable place to bunk down for several hours, but, given the steepness of the bluffs and the thickness of the tropical vegetation, there were simply no other options. The mud pit/campsite was so small that we only had room to pitch one tent. As darkness rapidly descended — as it does in the lower latitudes — we leaned our packs against a tree and entered the tent. I awoke first and, before donning my glasses — a physiological requirement if I stand any chance whatsoever of making visual sense out of the world — I went over to the packs to pull out the cook kit and food bags. When my hand was scant inches from the pack, I saw something large move, but, give my unfortunate spectaclelessness, I could not make out what it was. At first, I thought it was a monkey laying claim to my Lowe Expedition. I dashed back to the tent to retrieve my eyewear, telling Norb excitedly that a simian of some sort was perched atop our gear. Norb then reminded me that there are no monkeys in the wilds of the DR. I put my glasses on a returned to the packs, and only then did I realize that what was perched atop my pack was not a monkey, nor even a mammal, nor even a warm-blooded creature, but, rather, the single largest spider ever to tromp the earth. And it was brown. And territorial in the extreme. Whenever I inched toward my pack, it inched toward me, snarling. When we were having the brown recluse conversation back in Santo Domingo, Norb and I took it upon ourselves right then and there to become the world’s foremost brown recluse experts. We asked everyone we could find what brown recluses looked like, and, par for our course, everyone we asked had a completely different story. Sometimes brown. But not necessarily. As the name indicates, reclusive and shy. No! Their nomenclature notwithstanding, aggressive. Large. Small. Diurnal. Nocturnal. Spindly. Stout. The only characteristic that everyone seemed to agree on was that brown recluses have a violin-shaped marking on their back, though some said it was only the female that sported such cultured decoration, while others said it was only the male, while others said the violin was only visible at certain ages/times/conditions. Exasperatedly, Norb and I decided that, anything we ran into with more legs than a snake was to be considered a brown recluse until proven otherwise. In the early morning dim light, which was made even dimmer by the verdancy of the jungle, we could not tell if the mammoth creature staking a claim atop my pack had a visible violin on its back. “You’ve got better eyes then I do, you get closer and look,” I said to Norb. “It’s your pack,” he responded. “Yeah, but we need to move my pack to get to your pack.” In the end, I knew it was my task to deal with the spider. I picked up a long stick and tried to brush it aside. It knocked the stick away. I poked at it. It grabbed the end of the stick and poked back. Finally, I raised the stick with the full intent of dispatching the creature, but every time I struck, it dodged my blow, seemingly sneering at me the entire time. It finally dawned on me to crush it with the bottom of my Teva. I stomped down, and the next thing I knew, I had been tossed back onto the ground three feet away. We were fast running out of ideas. Then, of all fortuitous things, a ray of sunshine broke through the canopy and struck the spider like a magnifying glass. The spider raised its legs across its face, shrieked, jumped off my pack and dashed into the jungle. Whew, we said simultaneously, just as that one ray of light disappeared. I reached over and grabbed my pack, exposing Norb’s bright red Mountainsmith. At that moment, a second giant simian spider jumped out and staked out its turf atop Norb’s pack. As I prepared breakfast, Norb sharpened a stick and, before long, he returned with a skewered spider impaled on the point. His victory was mitigated somewhat by the fact that the top of his pack, right where the second spider had made its last stand, was a large hole, made by the sharpened stick Norb has used to dispatch his eight-legged foe. • It had been a hot, 10-hour, 4,500-vertical-foot descent into Mexico’s Copper Canyon. While my wife, Gay, and photographer Mark Fox chilled on the side of the Urique River, I decided to slide into the tent for some late-afternoon shut-eye. When I arose, I was groggy and, instead of joining Gay and Mark down by the cooling water, I sat in the sand and leaned back against a rock. What happened next was exacerbated by the fact that, at dawn, up on the rim, I had moved a rock to create a hole for my morning deposit, and from under that rock emerged a tarantula that seemed mighty displeased at having been disturbed. OK, I’ve seen plenty of tarantulas and, once I got over the initial reaction of having an arachnid the size of my hand appearing from the bowels of the earth while I’m looking for a comfortable place to make dookie, all was well. After all, everyone knows tarantulas are mellow creatures. Harmless. But there I am, leaning against that rock down at the very bottom of one of North America’s deepest abysses, trying to wake up. I saw it out of my peripheral vision, and, at first, it flat out did not compute. Then it landed on the right side of my neck, just above the jugular. A monster-sized tarantula. Mellow creatures or not, having one jump out of the blue onto one’s neck is an adrenaline-producing experience, let me tell you. I jumped up, swatting the spider, but I did not see what had become of it. From what Gay and Mark told me later, I was rather excited. Matter of fact, the two of them, unaware that there was a giant tarantula on my neck, looked up to see me a couple dozen yards away break dancing, using expletives and asking over and over in an agitated tone of voice, “Where is it? Where is it?” Gay thought I was having a stroke or a heart attack. They both ran over, half expecting to perform CPR. By the time they arrived, I had located the spider, which was by then lounging on the side of my tent. When I related the story, the urge to laugh was assuredly mitigated by the fact that there is not a single human being who has ever lived who does not shit his or her pants at the thought of having a tarantula jump upon one’s neck. I feel fairly safe in saying that I am not the only one who would panic. After a few minutes, the tarantula continued upon its merry way. “On second thought, I think I’ll put my tent up tonight,” said Mark, who, up until that point, had planned to sleep out under the stars. • And, speaking of tarantulas … My buddy Fosco Spinedi, a Swiss-Italian I have known since high school, joined me for three weeks while I made my way from Utah to Mexico along the Arizona Trail. His first day out, just south of Flagstaff, we found ourselves in the middle of the autumn tarantula migration, which, while certainly lesser known than the migration of the African wildebeest, is still a sight to behold. Since this migration, which consisted of literally thousands of tarantulas, was southward bound, taking obvious advantage of the Arizona Trail’s tread, we were able to witness it up close and personal. Fosco, being a life-long resident of the civilized Alps, was somewhat taken aback at the notion of sharing the trail with several thousand humongous spiders. But he calmed down a bit once he realized that, since there were so many, and they we so tightly packed, we could stand atop their backs and get transported along our merry way like Egyptian royalty being borne by bearers down the trail, to life’s next great adventure, life’s next great tale.

Five Things to Love About Backpacking in the Gila

When my pack-toting Colorado buddies heard that I was moving back down to Gila Country after 24 years in the Centennial State, they all scrunched up their faces and wondered aloud what manner of madness had possessed me this particular go-round. For, you see, the main publicity in recent years that has made its way out of the Gila National Forest into the Outside World has centered around things that are not exactly perceived as positive: the battle over cattle and the concomitant war over wolves. Not exactly enticing from a marketing perspective. And, before that, 15 or so years ago, there was the wonderful news from Gila Country about homemade bombs being placed on trails by Forest-Service-hating ranchers looking to explode the legs off unaware backcountry rangers. That really made everyone in Colorado want to come down here for a little walk in the woods. My reaction to the articulated incredulity of my Colorado backcountry chums was to simply nod my head and agree that, yes, things might be a tad too dangerous and acrimonious down in Gila Country and, therefore, everyone should stay away, just to be on the safe side. When you’re a backcountry loner like I am, bad publicity is the best publicity. And, since we have just come off a wildfire season so world-class severe that I’m certain anyone even considering coming down to these parts for a look-see has opted instead to visit Scotland, I feel pretty safe in herein listing five things I love about backpacking in the Gila, a place, I should note, where there are at least six species of rattlesnake, most of which are very aggressive, often exceed 45 feet in length and regularly kill and eat young children and family pets, at least those few children and family pets that have not already been dispatched by the mountain lions, scorpions and herds of meth dealers. In no particular order: • Despite the fact that there are certainly more people visiting the Gila’s backcountry than there were when I lived here 35 years ago, the wilderness hereabouts is still by-and-large unpeopled. You break your ankle on a trail in Colorado and all you have to do is make yourself comfortable and wait for the next senior-citizens’ hiking club or Brownie troop to amble by, which they will in less than 15 minutes, guaranteed. You break your ankle in the backcountry around here, and, well, think in terms of that scene in “Jeremiah Johnson” where Robert Redford finds the frozen guy with the Hawkin rifle. There are certainly many people who would view the inherent loneliness of the Gila as a bad thing. I am not one of them. • Now that I think about it, there has been some other publicity about the Gila Wilderness, stuff besides acrimony about wolves. Backpacker Magazine, for whom I worked as a contributing editor for more than a decade, once did a piece on the darkest places in the country. At the top of that list was the Gila. Of course, given the perpetual state of fear that pretty much defines the U.S. these days, that story did not necessarily translate into increased visitation, which is weird, because the Gila’s lack of ambient light does translate into the very best night-sky viewing imaginable. I have seen the night sky here so clear and star-filled that even the major constellations were unidentifiable, lost as they were in a dense celestial setting the spanned clear to the center of the galaxy. • In Gila Country, the concept of building a campfire is not only still permissible, but is actually de rigueur while backpacking. In most of the West, campfire-making has been relegated to the status of Mortal Sin among the truly holy backcountry users. This is because of the influx and influence of an entity called Leave No Trace. Now, I have nothing per se against LNT, except that they frame their credo in an ethical context — meaning that, if you don’t buy into their scripture, you are unethical. That scripture actually states, with regards to fire, something fairly benign, like “Be judicious in the use of fire.” But the anointed proselytizers of LNT have bastardized that ambiguous benignity to the degree that, if you so much as light a match in the wilderness, you’re a sinner destined, ironically enough, to backpackers’ hell. Here, people just build campfire and sit around them and chat the night away, the same way humankind has been doing since our species started walking upright. • Since I’m already treading on the cusp of backcountry political incorrectness, I might as well wholeheartedly take the leap to the dark side. One of the best things about traveling in the Gila is that people who go there still pretty much consider tobacco products to be essential gear. I smoke cigars while camping, and, in the more genteel parts of the West, you pull out a stogie or, heaven forbid, hand-roll a cigarette, while you’re camping (especially if you’re doing so while sitting next to a fire), and the full force of PC self-righteousness will descend upon you right then and there like a rat pack of vengeful angels, like out of the crescendo scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In the Gila, people just light up during trail breaks and the only thing anyone else says is, “You got any extra cigars?” • Most people who venture forth into the Gila backcountry do not spend much time eyeballing the latest glossy magazines for fashion and equipment tips. Go hiking around Missoula or Boulder and you will actually be scrutinized by other trail users vis-à-vis your attire and gear. If you are not wearing the latest Patagonia color-coordinated ensemble complemented by your brand-new state-of-the-art GoLite backpack, then you are considered irreparably gauche. Here, people still use their 20-year-old Kelty external-frame packs. People venture forth into the Gila wearing $2 cut-off shorts procured at a thrift store nine years ago. It speaks well of a place that it does not inspire people to think they have to own the latest and greatest gear and clothing just to go for a hike or to go fishing. Whatever you do, don’t let any of this make its way to the Outside World. Some things are best kept secret.

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Pulling Burrs From Under the Saddle

It’s important to make a few things perfectly clear right up front, if for no other reason than, by and large, horse people are generally far better armed than I am. First, I grew up around horses on a farm in eastern Virginia. I have been employed in two different horse-related/specific gigs (one working as an equestrian sanitation engineer in Vermont, one working on, of all strange things, a wagon train in Nevada and California), and my first serious girlfriend was a professional thoroughbred racehorse trainer (as well as a fox-hunter and a horse-show devotee) who insisted that I go riding with her often. Unlike most backpackers, I not only know the bow from the stern of a horse, but I know how to saddle and navigate them. Next, I really like horses. I consider them among the most beautiful creatures on the face of the planet. When I dwelled in the bluegrass country of Kentucky — one of the most horse-dense places in the world — I would often sit and admiringly watch herds of equines running to and fro in the verdant pastures. (This was an especially captivating spectator sport when those horses had upon them comely Kentucky vixens.) Unfortunately (and here’s where I hear some readers muttering “time to lock and load”), I need to make two further points (excuse me while I hunker down beneath my desk): First, I would basically rather have a root canal that sit atop a steed. Even though I have spent more time around horses than just about any non-horse-person you’re likely to ever meet in your entire life, I have always considered the best horse to be one that did not have me on it. Riding a horse makes me nervous, and, within point-two nanoseconds of parking my butt in a saddle, said butt will be sore beyond my ability to describe on a family-friendly website (the Manson Family, probably, but, still … ). Next, I’m one of those predictable backpack-toting, Sierra-Clubber granola crunchers who has hiked through life with some serious issues vis-à-vis the subject of horses and the people who drive them through the backcountry. I don’t believe there is any doubt that horses cause more environmental degradation to the backcountry than any quadruped this side of bovines. And the resource damage that is often caused by large groups of horsepackers — especially of the hunting variety — is often so hideous it makes me want to both yak and cry. All that said, by and large, I would rather rub elbows with horses and horse people than I would with mountain bikes and mountain bikers most any day of the week, which is something I’ve been pondering a fair amount lately, because 1) the place I call home is some serious-assed horse country and 2) we’re starting to see more and more mountain bikers on our local trails, especially those trails closer to town. (One of the main reasons I left the Colorado High Country for the less-green pastures of New Mexico was how many mountain bikers were starting to inundate trails that were forever and ever hiking trails). There is a gleam in the eye of horse aficionados that I have long admired, one that says, in no uncertain terms, that there is something I am missing in life by not interfacing more with horses. But, as it’s important to me to maintain my good standing with my elitist backpacking cronies, I always shake my head at the mere mention of horses and their undeniable negative effects on the backcountry environment. The eroded trails. The mounds of fly-covered horse droppings. The stench of urine that lingers for hours in the trail. The trash-heaped and denuded campsites. The sense of trail-hierarchy entitlement that, were such a feeling limited to the many ranchers who call Gila Country home, it would be one thing, but, sad to say, that attitude has infested even affluent newbies (the kind who wear expensive riding helmets out into the boonies), who act as though they have a proprietary right to our local trails that borders on a sense of ownership, which pisses me off, because it contradicts MY sense of proprietary right to our local trails that borders on a sense of ownership! Anyhow, a few years ago, Tom Shealey, the then-editor of Backpacker magazine called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing a story on horsepacking. (I’m certain he’s still chuckling.) After I regained my composure and cleaned up the beer I had just spilled, I asked what was up with Backpacker doing a story on, of all things, horsepacking. What was next, queried I, a piece on dirt-biking? Tom told me that he had heard that, in the previous few years, the equine community had started cleaning up its act to the point that, after decades of being dissed in print for its lack of environmental consciousness by magazines like Backpacker, it was high time we high-fived lovers of horses, if, indeed, the rumors he had heard were true. Before I could shout “giddeeup!” I had a plane ticket to Montana in-hand. (The timing was very fortuitous, as I was at that time in the middle of a multi-month DUI-based driver’s license suspension that, as far as I could tell, did not prohibit me from driving a horse, though I personally know of at least two people who have been cited for driving their equines while in their cups.) I went on a three-day horsepacking trip with Dr. Richard Clark, a professor of biology and outdoor recreation at Western Montana College in Dillon, a town, I should note, with enough bars to do any Colorado resort town proud. Clark was a card-carrying adherent of the concept of horse people bending over backwards to minimize their environmental impact. As the founder of the Professional Guide Institute, he devoted a significant amount of his time and effort to spreading the gospel of aggressive resource protection consciousness to his kindred horse people spirits. Though Clark had a few bureaucracy-related problems with Leave No Trace Inc., he bought in wholeheartedly to LNT’s ethics. Clark’s quest was based upon a twofold premise: That the only future the ranching industry has in the West is to diversify economically, and that guiding and outfitting provides an very real contextual opportunity for many ranch families to make a little extra dinero in these tourism-intense times. (Despite the fact that he is a college professor, Clark, it should be noted, was a bonafide good ol’ boy, having been raised in rural Idaho on a ranch.) Next, Clark believes that if outfitters, horsepackers and horse-people of all stripes do not start practicing minimum-impact strategies in the backcountry, then their unfettered public-access days are numbered. I agree with Clark that more trails will be closed to horses and the Forest Service Special Use Permits required of outfitters to operate on public lands will be yanked if they do not clean their act up, significantly and pronto. Clark’s message was a tough one to preach in rural Montana where (how to say this tactfully?) tradition reigns supreme. But, when I last heard from him several years ago, he was making inroads, even among the harder-core 90th-generation outfitters who are not exactly accustomed to changing their ways because some professor says they ought to. The message that Clark was trying to bring to the saddled masses is also being preached with conviction in Colorado, though that consciousness has yet to make any serious inroads that I can see in the southern part of the Land of Enchantment, where I live. The National Outdoor Leadership School has for more than a decade been offering week-long Leave No Trace Masters courses for professional horsepackers outside Durango. Hundreds of people have passed through that class. LNT has published a booklet of environmentally friendly backcountry horsepacking. And the Durango-based San Juans Mountain Association’s Ghost Riders program — wherein horse people go out into the mountains preaching the gospel of Leave No Trace to their brethren — has spread to other parts of the country. Numerous people I have talked to on this subject say the tide is turning with regards to the way horse people look at the backcountry and their impacts on the backcountry. All that, of course, is wonderful, though I have this knot in my stomach about the fact that, once again, it seems like backpackers are still sitting atop their perch, which is located on the summit of the self-proclaimed moral high ground, dictating performance standards by which all others must live. I once talked on the phone with a horsepacker who has seen the minimum-impact light. He spoke with the conviction of a born-again Christian, without the incoherent babbling. He effused my ear off about the practical and ethical benefits of treading lightly on the land. He verily preached about the need for horse people to make it a point of honor to leave little, if any, trace of their passing. He even marveled at about the recent improvements in quality of freeze-dried food, which he now carries to save weight. It truly warms my otherwise stone cold heart to see a demographic group as large and passionate as horse people buying into the notion of Leave No Trace. I know it’s a tough sell for many horse people, but, hell, no other user group has roots that grow that far back into history. It may take a few years for these new missionaries to reach the furthest tribes, but, hey, my hat’s off to them. Now, if only the LNT message can be spread into the world of mechanized backcountry travel — as well as to the ski areas — then, truly, we can count on a good future for our public lands.

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Conservative

No possibility whatsoever that I will ever successfully recollect how my Tuesday Happy Hour drinking chums and I got on this subject. It’s like that scene in “Inception,” where Cobb (Leonardo DeCaprio) is explaining to Ariadne (Ellen Page) one of the ways you can tell if you’re dreaming: You can never remember how you arrived at a certain place; you just find yourself there. Usually, when the subject turns, even tangentially (and even if that tangent is only occurring within the bowels of my own personal psychoses), to my high school years living on a fetid farm in the steamy heart of Tidewater, Virginia, I will literally or figuratively seek out the closest exit sign. But, for reasons that now escape me, I did not escape the conversational thread. It must have had something to do with inaccurate political labels, about how very few thinking people are actually what we now call “conservative” or “liberal.” Anyone who is not inclined to march lockstep to the drumbeat of established doctrine codified by groups like the NRA, the Tea Party, the Sierra Club or IMBA, has certain beliefs that would fall into what we now call the “conservative” camp and certain beliefs that would fall into what we now call the “liberal” camp. Probably Farhad, my ex-patriot Iranian buddy, a math professor and staunch Ron Paul supporter (and the only one I know who will, time and time again, mix politics and alcohol, despite how many times we have all asked him not to), could not hold his tongue and blurted out something political that, for once, did not make us all scatter to the four winds. Out of the discourse wreckage, somehow I began talking about the family farm, my stepfather and my upbringing there in the mosquito-and-poison-ivy-infested swamp country where America was born. Now, my stepfather, who I have pretty much lost contact with, is an interesting fellow, a child of the Great Depression, spawn of humble lineage. Born and raised in Williamsburg, he spent his summers working on a dirt farm in the Piedmont Country. He managed to pull himself up by his bootstraps, joining the Air Force, where he became a fighter pilot, and graduating from the University of Virginia Law School. A successful attorney, he once served a stint as Commonwealth Attorney for the county where I went to high school, a situation that, given my inclination to find myself on the wrong side of the law every once in a while, was, shall we say, handy. Anyhow, despite his high-class education and the fact that, via the military, he had visited many parts of the world, including such prime vacation destinations as Vietnam and Korea, my stepfather remained at heart a borderline redneck. His hobbies, appropriately enough, consisted on gardening, fishing and hunting. And despite his decidedly white-collar vocation, he could fix a tractor engine, replace a roof and wallpaper an interior like a professional. Still, you can take a boy off the Southern dirt farm, but you can’t take the Southern dirt farm out of the boy. My stepfather to this day remains a sexist, a racist and a classist. I remember well when the Equal Rights Amendment road show was pitching camp on the capitol steps in Richmond. My stepfather, taking a giant logic leap backwards, slowly shook his head and said, “Could you imagine what life would be like if women ran the world?” Now, I was not the brightest or most-worldly adolescent, but even a pimple-faced nitwit such as myself could not help but to observe out loud in response to that statement how, at that particular moment in history, the U.S. was bogged down in Southeast Asia, the Cold War was as tense as it had ever been and the country was coming apart at the seams as political assassinations were rocking our society — so how the hell could women screw things up any worse, even if they were right then handed the keys to the White House, the Kremlin and the Vatican. I was not allowed to have Black amigos over to the house, and I was told that, if I ever even considered dating a female from a race not my own, I would be sent packing (something that happened when I was 17 anyhow, though the actual incident had nothing to do with my personal dating habits; rather, the key to my joyous liberation from home life was, not surprisingly, drugs that my mother had found and, sadly, would not return, no matter how hard I asked). One of my best buddies on the football team was Thomas Griffin, a great, smart guy (we were both also on the second-ranked debate team in the state) who just happened to be, in the eyes of my stepfather, pigmentation-challenged. Whenever my stepfather saw Thomas and I hanging out on the sidelines together (Thomas was a guard; I was the quarterback), he would ask, “What, can’t you get any of the white guys to listen to your stories?” In his eyes, I would have far better served conversing on the sidelines with the biggest, dumbest grit in town, so long as he looked like a potential member of the American Nazi Party — this despite the fact that Thomas Griffin was a far better student than I was, came from a family that, unlike ours, was loving and fundamentally functional and who ended up going to a far better college that I did. I would not be the least bit surprised if my stepfather still routinely referred to Blacks as “jigs.” OK, I think the picture is sufficiently painted. The original subject was political stereotypes. Given the image herein presented of the man I sat across from at the dining room table every night, it might come as something of a surprise that those years and that place — time and space I used to lie awake at night and dream of leaving as quickly as possible (a dream I realized pretty much five seconds after graduating from high school) — accounted for the most environmentally friendly, least carbon-footprinted life I have ever lived. I was in high school long enough ago that the words we now use were not yet fully coined. But, had they been, if you had ever called my stepfather an “environmentalist,” he would have blown a fuse. Better to have called him a hippie homo or maybe even a jig. Still … We had the single biggest family garden I have to this day ever seen. My stepfather, upon arriving home from his office, would immediately remove his suit, change into his most ratty-assed duds, and he would head out into that garden with a smile on his face. He did not look at the act of nurturing edible plants to life as toil; rather, he looked at it the same way I now look at hiking or playing ping-pong. He loved gardening, and he was distressed that I never shared that love. (In retrospect, I believe it had as much to do with my inability to physiologically handle the hot-and-humid Southern climate as it did with my dislike of hoes and Rototillers.) This was not some “This Old House” image-based yuppie lifestyle-enhancement garden. It was, rather, a garden that provided a significant percentage of our caloric intake for the entire year. In the late summer and early fall, we ate a million times more fresh veggies that I have ever eaten since (even tough my mom, being English, generally cooked those veggies to the consistency of sludge). And, the rest of the year, we ate veggies my mom canned. We also had orchards (apples, peaches, pears) and literally 13 large, high-yield Southern pecan trees in our yard. When berry season was upon us — as it seemed to always be in those parts — we went out and gathered blackberries, huckleberries, raspberries and muscadines by the barrelful, and, from those berries, my mom made cobblers, pies and wine. In the fall, my stepfather hunted waterfowl, which we froze. We fished almost every weekend during the summer, and, let me assure you, there was none of this dilettante catch-and-release bullshit. We usually fished the saltwater Mobjack Bay and brought home sometimes 100 fishes (it was my unenviable task to clean them all), every single one of which was released into our gullets We had more barnyard foul that you can shake a stick at: several species of chickens, geese, guinea hens, ducks and turkeys, which donated eggs and meat to the family nutritional coffers. We also bartered. We traded feed corn for pork with a neighbor who butchered his own meat. We traded pecans with my mom’s best friend’s husband, who was a waterman, for crab, oysters and shrimp. Then there was the interior life. We were always ordered to turn the water off while brushing our teeth. Showers were limited to five minutes. Lights had to be turned off when leaving a room, if only for a few minutes. The only time air conditioning was allowed was during canning season. I was not even allowed a window fan while trying to sleep through the humid summers, not because my stepfather was sadistic, but, rather, because of the impact having a fan running all night would have on our electricity use. We drove small cars and drove them till the fenders pretty much fell off. We consolidated errands when we went into town. We composted maniacally. When we tore down an old dilapidated barn, we used the salvageable wood for paneling in our den. When the corn was harvested, my sister and I were sent into the fields to hand pick every ear, every kernel, that was missed, because we used it to feed our fowl. All this we did not because we were poor (though we were certainly not affluent at that stage of my stepfather’s legal career), but because that’s how my parents were raised to live. They could not abide waste, and, consequently, we wasted not a goddamned thing. Of course — predictably enough — I HATED all that shit. I HATED the fact that, while my buddies in town were shooting hoops on Sunday afternoons, I was experiencing quality family time in the garden or out collecting blackberries in the tick-infested woods. I HATED my childhood so badly that, to this day, I would rather cut a nut off than garden, fish or gather berries. Maybe I’m getting old enough that the psychic resonance of those memories — if not the memories themselves — has faded. I can at least resist the temptation now to run out of the bar on those rare occasions when the subject of those years on the farm arises. I am now 55 years old, and I think it’s fair to say that I classify myself as an “environmentalist.” I would likely be classified by others as a “liberal,” though, if I must, I classify myself as a “green libertarian.” But that is less important than the lifestyle manifestations of those labels, or, in this case, a mortifying lack thereof. Despite my self-perceptions, I like many of my “mountain-lifestyle” brethren and sistren, feel like I am personally saving the world when I buy organic blackberries (imported from Chile) from the Silver City Food Coop. When I buy a carton of cage-free eggs at the Farmer’s Market, my smugness factor rises several notches. I feel entitled to some sort of Green Award when choose to drive only four miles to hike around Gomez Peak than when I drive 15 miles to more-appealing Cherry Creek. My vehicle will boast all the right bumperstickers when I leave tomorrow for the San Juans for some much-needed high-altitude R&R. I try to not malign those who try to mitigate their environmental impact by bringing their own eco-bags when they go to Walmart to buy plastic items imported from China. I try to understand when we pack up our 4Runners to drive eight hours so we can ride our mountain bikes for five hours. I bite my lip when people drive across the state to protest the latest round of gas-drilling leases, or when people decry de-forestation while building dream homes made mostly of wood. For I too am one of those people. And, the older I get, the more it feels weird to realize that the time I negatively impacted the Good Ship Earth less than any other time of my life was when I lived with a man who called Black people jigs and who lost his mind at the thought of women having equal rights. But, in my mind, it just goes to show how much we are committing cultural suicide by stereotyping each other, by stereotyping ourselves, by letting ourselves be stereotyped by others and by letting externally applied labels define who we are. And it matters not one whit whether those labels are “conservative,” “liberal” or “green libertarian.”

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Spider Man-Part 1

It is not often that one has the opportunity to actually bear witness to a phobic reaction being played out right before one’s very eyes. (Had I know it was going to happen, I would have brought appropriate recreational refreshments and video recording devices.) Most times, people actively avoid their phobias, thus eliminating the possibility of examining them from a spectator-sport perspective. Those suffering from acrophobia avoid heights, so rarely do we get to observe acrophobics shitting their knickers while tiptoeing along the edge of a precipice. That, or else reaction to phobic situations gets played out at a more-glacial/less-captivating pace — the gradual sweating and loosening of the neck tie by one experiencing agoraphobia. It’s rare to witness the actual freaking out, like someone experiencing a bad acid trip at an Iron Butterfly reunion concert. There were four of us ingressing a vehicle on our way to a dayhike. As the packs and water bottles were being placed into the back, a fair-sized spider — doubtless a hitchhiker picked up from a previous backcountry foray — jumped out from between the seats, directly into the psychic view shed of a young lady who, come to learn, suffers from the most-common phobia known to man: arachnophobia. Actually, that’s not entirely true, as arachnophobia is almost exclusively a fear experienced by women. As many as half of all females suffer from arachnophobia, while less than 10 percent of males enjoy that particular mental malady. I certainly don’t mean to trivialize the notion of phobias in general or arachnophobia in particular. I myself suffer bit of claustrophobia (seems to be getting worse as I get older), as well as pteromerhanophobia (which seems to be getting a bit better). And my long-gone mother, who otherwise boasted a very stiff upper lip, suffered terribly from arachnophobia. When I got bit by a black widow when I was 13, my mom, who generally handled emergency situations pretty well, froze solid with fear, as though she were reluctant to so much as touch someone who had coursing through his veins spider venom, even though that person happened to be her eldest offspring. It was as though she feared that the result of the spider’s bite might be somehow contagious. Anyhow, during the drive to the trailhead following that young lady’s reaction to having a spider in her immediate vicinity, I got to pondering my own favorite spider stories. You’ve already heard the first one. We had just moved to our farm in the fetid swamp country of Tidewater, Virginia. (Lordy, why on earth would anybody voluntarily live there?) This marked the third of a holy trinity of I-HATE-this-place experiences that befell my swamp-country-loathing self that summer. The first: While mowing a section of side yard that had not seen a blade in many years (the jungle-like foliage was more than three feet high), the old John Deere hit something so significant that it stopped the motor dead in its tracks. Upon further investigation, I realized that I had just run over a copperhead so big it managed to terminate a lawnmower engine going full tilt, and, worse, I realized that I was now covered from the waist down with snake viscera. The second experience: While under the old farmhouse tacking up insulation (remember my previous reference to claustrophobia?), I got bit on the face by an adult black snake, one of the largest and most-aggressive species of serpent in the country (though, thankfully, they are not venomous, a reality I believe adds to their shitty disposition, like, they try to make up for their venomlessness by being extra ornery). It was such tight quarters under that house that I could barely move. And I was under the exact middle of the house. And it was about 100 degrees. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw the snake strike just below my left eye. That was quite a tense moment. I had no idea what kind of snake it was as its fangs sank into my cheek, but, in the tumult of my thought processes at that particular juncture, taxonomy was not much on my mind. It took me a full 15 minutes of frantic, desperate wiggling to get out from under the house, and my bellowings fell upon deaf ears, as my mom was inside, standing scant inches from a noisy old air conditioner, as she was canning veggies. She did not hear my anguished howls. When I finally entered the house and related my tale of reptilian woe, my mom skeptically eyeballed the bleeding puncture wounds on my face, probably thinking that I would do anything to get out of finishing the insulation job, and said that, if the snake had been poisonous, I probably would already be dead. She pointed me back under the house. I considered right then beginning a surreptitious spider collection, which I would one day loose upon my arachnophobic madre’s bed. The fact that I got bit on the left forearm a couple months later by a black widow while stacking firewood was almost anti-climactic compared to the copperhead guts and the face bite. It did require a trip to Dr. Brown’s office and I believe some antibiotics of some sort, along with an admonition to stop being such a pussy. On the drive back home, I thought to myself, well, at least this negative interaction with a hideous member of the animal kingdom wasn’t with another snake! My last year living in the aforementioned fetid swamp country of Tidewater, Virginia, I had a summer job working for a local land surveyor. It was early one muggy morning with both the temperature and the humidity levels rising fast. Robert White and I were tromping along the edge of a copse looking for a long-lost property marker, which was doubtless buried beneath century’s worth of poison ivy vines, honeysuckle vines, kudzu and blackberry brambles. In that sub-tropical part of the country dwell many varieties of nightmarish creatures, such as Japanese hornets, snapping turtles that can top 100 pounds and these lovely little animals called, innocuously enough, garden spiders, a name that would seem to fit alongside some sort of Miss-Muffet-ish poem. Garden spiders are among the largest arachnids known to man. They are not just long and wide, but they are also beefy, kinda like pit bulls of the arachnid world. They build webs of steel about three-feet-by-three-feet between trees in the shadow land of the Southern hardwood forests. These webs are designed to catch not usually spider fare, such as flies or moths or butterflies. No, they are designed to catch birds, mice, lizards and occasionally hapless dogs. They are near-bouts strong enough to take a man off a horse. And the garden spiders, often large as a man’s hand, sit not on the edge of the web awaiting their next meal; rather, they sit in the middle of their death traps, jaws oozing poison, daring anyone or anything to fuck with them. I was walking at a purposeful pace through the woods, and I had just turned my head to the right at the exact second that I yawned one of those deep, long yawns that partially dislocates your jaw and exposes your entire uvula to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity. My mouth was still wide open as I turned my head forward. And just at that instant, I walked into the biggest garden spider web ever constructed. I mean, this was the Empire State Building of spider webs. And, was it my chest that contacted that web? No! Was it my arm or my leg? No! I hit that web as directly face first as though I was aiming my nose at the bulls-eye of a target, which, in this case, happened to be the ass end of a giant garden spider. The web covered my suddenly very flustered mug with perfect symmetry, to the point that it looked as though I were trying on for size a Spiderman Halloween mask. Which would have been bad enough on the potential insanity front. But there was more. As I mentioned, garden spiders hang out in the middle of their two-dimensional death lairs. Laws of probability gave me a 50-50 chance that the spider would have been located on the far side of the web, the part that did NOT make contact with my face. So much for the laws of probability. Not only was the spider on my side of the web, but, with my mouth wide open in mid-yawn, it suddenly found itself trapped inside my gaping maw, resting directly on my tongue, a situation from which it could not possibly escape, given the fact that its own web, now stretched fully and firmly across a face that I can say with full journalistic accuracy had assumed something of a frantic visage, was serving as a barrier to its escape. This, I determined instinctively, was not a good moment to close my mouth. So, I stood there, looking like something straight out of a very bad horror movie, with a steel-cabled spider web stretched across the entirety of my face, with the resident monster-sized spider in my mouth trying frantically to escape, but, every time it tried, it was bounced back by the strength of its web back onto my tongue! This was indeed a quandary. After what seemed like 14 hours of primordial fear, I just took two big steps backward, and the entire web removed itself from my face, fully in tact, with the garden spider sitting right where it had been before I walked directly into a scene that pretty much made Frodo’s encounter with Shelob seem tame by comparison. I spit/gagged a couple times, swished some water around in my mouth and said to Robert White, whose eyes were at that point as big as saucers, “Kinda tasted like chicken.” Next time: Part two: Wherein I encounter even more spiders along the Yangtze River in China, in the heart of the Dominican Republic, along the Arizona Trail and in the depths of Mexico’s Copper Canyon Country.

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Adventure-less Travel

One of the biggest differences between my old, long-time home in the Colorado High Country and my new home in New Mexico’s Gila Country centers upon how my various compadres view “vacations.” In the heart of the Rockies, the notion of “adventure vacations” reigns supreme, while down here in the southwestern-most reaches of the Land of Enchantment, folks seem to be perfectly satisfied with the notion of adventure-less vacations, gaining satisfactory amounts of pleasure from trips decidedly lacking in adrenaline output, unless, of course, that output comes out of the blue, unplanned, which, now that I think about it, is pretty much the definition of “adventure” — like, fairly recently, when one of my Silver City buddies was driving to San Diego for some aggressive beach-hanging and found himself instead facing a judge in a dedicated federal drug court in Phoenix. Now that’s adventure! High Country folks tend to transfer the things they ordinarily do in the Rockies — backpacking, skiing, mountain biking, paddling, whatever — to their vacation venues. Plenty are the mountain dwellers who, after a long ski season, just as the snow’s finally melting and the flowers are starting to poke their heads through the still-cold earth, pack up their downhill equipment and head to New Zealand for some, yes, skiing. More commonly, you’ll have veritable convoys of green license plates heading west toward Moab, not to sit in the sun and read, but to interface intensely with 200 miles of gnarly singletrack. For those people, if you arrive back home with anything less that 40 stitches and limbs filled with abrasions, then you did not get your money’s worth. Like many Baby Boomers, on those rare occasions that my family took vacations, there was a decide lack of abrasion-seeking. The plan was always to rent a house on the beach for two weeks and basically hang out and chill. Sure, there was always some fishing and a whole lot of frolicking in the surf, but that was about it on the action front. My parents were of the opinion that a bit of relaxation went a long way. And thus it was with most of America in those days. When I was old enough to plan and execute my own vacations, they, like most of my Mountain-Time-Zone-dwelling ilk, took the form of multi-month bike-touring or backpacking trips, or journeys to Third-World cesspools to seek out wildlife and wild spots, or long, willy-nilly road trips to points generally unknown, which often included tense crossings of international borders. Last fall, my wife and I bought round-trip tickets to, of all places, Cabo San Lucas, a place that, even in the context of Mexico these days, is so civilized as to scarcely rate mention in a blog. We rented a car (the smallest/cheapest available, literally a Chevy “Chevy,” which I guess added a smidgen of potential adventure) and proceeded to drive, basically, from one remarkably coiffed place to another, where, while in those civilized places, we basically didn’t do shit. The most adventuresome thing on our agenda was not making hotel reservations in advance. We just winged that. Woo-hoo! Ain’t we wild! Upon our return, my buddies recoiled in expectation of the numerous stories I would bore them to death with. Ergo: They were naturally hesitant to ask about the trip, for legitimate fear of getting assaulted with a veritable tsunami of verbiage. When they finally, mostly trying to be mannerly, asked how the trip went, Gay and I looked at each other and responded that it was fine, that nothing much happened — which, of course, made many of my chums feel that something of monstrous proportions must have befallen us and that we were practicing understatement because the enormity of the event(s) had not yet sunk in to the degree that we could relate them properly. Ixnay. We drove around southern Baja, spent a lot of time playing the surf, had some decent meals, drank a fair number of beers, went to bed generally early and came home refreshed and relaxed. It was indeed a very weird experience for a couple that, literally on its first trip together, found itself in the middle of the war zone in El Salvador in 1984, something that made my soon-to-be father-in-law real happy. Trying to come up with something in the way of story-telling material, I remembered the incident with the cow with the trashcan on its head. We were sitting in an outdoor bar in Barrilles and, while we drank, a cow with vary long, sharp horns ambled by down the main drag, something that caught the attention of the patrons for about seven seconds, like, “Hey, we don’t see that back in L.A.” Then it was back to the NFL game, which was being broadcast on a new big-screen TV. On our 10-minute walk back to the hotel room, which, truth be told, was a bit on the wobbly side, we looked ahead and saw that same cow standing in the street. But something was sorely amiss. There were several local curs barking at it and nipping at its ankles. And there was something on its head that, in the dim light, and in our cups, we would not identify until we got close enough to see that the damned cow had its head stuck in a trashcan. It must have stuck its nose in the can looking for who knows what and, because of its horns, the can got stuck on its head. The poor bovine was extremely agitated, swinging its trashcan-covered noggin around violently. By the time we got close to it, several local residents had come forth to see what was causing all the commotion. “We’ve got to help the poor thing,” the love of my life slurred. “What do you mean ‘we’?” I responded, knowing exactly who “we” was. So, like a moron, and against the fervent advice of the locals there gathered, I slowly made my way up to the bow of the cow. Though it was blinded by the trashcan, it obviously sensed me, because my approach made it swing its head even more violently. “Don’t do it!” one man yelled. But I proceeded anyhow. I timed my grab between the head swings, those massive, sharp horns zipping right in front of my face, and latched onto one of the trashcan handles and with one mighty pull, removed the can from the poor creature’s head. Which was good and all, but there I was holding the can that seconds before had been on this cow’s head, and the cow, slowly regaining its orientation, looked at the can in my hand, looked at me, looked back at the can, and obviously made the decision — cows being such geniuses and all — that somehow I had something to do with placing the can on the cow’s head in the first place, and, if it did not dispatch me with haste, I might very well opt to re-place that trashcan back on its head. I tried to explain in a drunken example of failed inter-species telepathy, that, no, it was me who removed the can from the cow’s head. But this form of communication did not seem to be working (maybe I should have tried drunken telepathic Español). The cow snorted, pawed the dirt road, shook its sharp-horn-adorned head a few times just to make certain I had a firm grasp on my immediate fate, and then started toward me. I was thinking now would be a perfect time, of all the times in my life, actually, for the only time in my entire life, to have a bullfighting cape. Maybe even a matador buddy standing right there. The only thing I had standing right there was my wife and numerous locals who, judging by their expressions, were thinking how lucky they were to have such a wonderful form of entertainment pretty much fall out of the sky on an otherwise normal night. Then the aforementioned curs started barking again and nipping at the cow’s ankles and the cow responded by running up a side street, trying mightily to skewer a canine. And, just like that, it was over. The locals returned to their homes, and Gay and I continued our zigzag stroll back to the hotel. The only thing that was different was that my wife thought right then that her husband was pretty much the coolest guy in all of Barrilles for risking life and limb helping that poor cow out. Besides that, about the only other notable thing that happened during our two weeks in Baja was getting kept awake while staying at the famed Hotel California in Todos Santos by the loudest all-night town party in Mexican history (which, believe me, is saying a mouthful), which was celebrating the feast day of Saint Cecelia, the patron saint of musicians, especially loud musicians playing really bad music. And, oh yeah, another night, we ate an order of the hottest jalepeño poppers ever served up EVER. And that was it. A true adventure-less trip. I felt a little guilty and a little lame, like maybe my age is catching up to me more than I thought. But it was OK. Next time, though, I’m going to a place where the plumbing does not work, where there are snakes and guerrillas and 19 types of poisonous biting bugs and guaranteed sweat and bruises and contusions and a populous that speaks some language called Zzjjyibi. Last thing I want to do is actually enjoy my vacation time.

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Earworms

It was some years after the fact that I learned the irritating (understatement) phenomenon actually has a proper lexicographic, if not taxonomic, name: Earworms, like a disease from a dog’s ass somehow made its way into your noggin. Like that nasty, slimy creature Ricardo Montalban put in Chekov’s ear in “The Wrath of Khan.” I was in the early stages of a 62-day hike of the Colorado section of the Continental Divide Trail, making my way along about 850-miles of gorgeous terrain from the New Mexico border toward distant Wyoming. Though I do not remember the genesis or gestation, I realized, as I was making my way through the lovely South San Juan mountains, that I had embedded between my ears a tune that did not seem inclined to go away, or even moderate. It perhaps would have been one thing if the channel would have changed occasionally, like a radio station or an iPod set to shuffle. And it maybe would have been one thing if the tune-in-question was one of Bach’s Violin Concerti, or maybe side one in its entirely of “Abbey Road.” Or, hell, if it would have been “Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number” or even “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees!” But, no, I was not so graced. Rather, the tune that lodged itself in my cranial mainframe, as though it had been implanted by a lab technician out of “Brave New World,” was, of all hideous and torturous things, “The Hokey-Pokey.” Now, how such a thing transpired, I can not say. What previous-life sins I must have once committed to get myself karmically sentenced to mile after mile of “The Hokey-Pokey,” I can scarcely guess, though, given the obvious seriousness of those karmic repercussions, I must have at one time been guard at a Nazi prison camp or something equally hideous. I mean, I don’t believe I had found myself prior to leaving on my hike in any environment where “The Hokey-Pokey” would have been played. I personally do not own any recorded versions of “The Hokey-Pokey,” and, if by some small chance, any of the recordings I do own incorporated so much as one note from “The Hokey-Pokey,” either by way of irony, satire or derision, I would dispose of said recording to quickly and summarily that there would have been little or no chance of that awful tune, or any component of that awful tune, taking up residence in my consciousness. Yet, somehow, it did. And, step after step, uphill and down, in heat and cold, in dryness and in rain, in the early morning and in the evening, as I sat back staring up into the cruel heavens, “The Hokey-Pokey” was always with me, like a case of tropical ass rash. And, worse (as though there can possibly be anything worse), I found myself desperately ignorant when it came to the entire lyric set of “The Hokey-Pokey.” So, rather than being able at least to listen between my ears to what subsequent research showed me are a full 10 verses of “The Hokey-Pokey,” I was cursed with less than one full verse. I now know that the first verse consists of: You put your right foot in, You put your right foot out; You put your right foot in, And you shake it all about. You do the Hokey-Pokey, And you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about! Subsequent verses make their way through much of the exterior of the human anatomy (sadly, leaving out the most interesting parts), so that, when one is happily past the right foot, one has the golden opportunity to Hokey-Pokey oneself to the left foot, both hands, both “sides,” the nose, the “backside” and the head, until, finally, one reaches the nebulousness of  one’s “whole self.” Now, while I’m certain there is enough in the way of allegory and symbolism here to keep many a professor busy dissertating for years and years, for my luckless self, I was not even blessed with so much as one complete body part. I had no idea that the “song” commenced with a right foot, and, therefore, had to idea that it then visited the left foot and, then, the hands. I was not even blessed with complete verse. Rather, for most of 850 miles, the words that played over and over (and over and over and over, ad infinitum) in my mind’s ear were limited to the last three lines that grace all 10 of those verses: You do the Hokey-Pokey And you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about! Now, I had an awful lot of time to ponder every facet, every ramification, every subtle nuance of those three rousing lines of “The Hokey-Pokey.” And if there’s one thing I wished, more than anything — more than a hot shower, more than a big bag of potato chips, more than an icy six-pack — while hiking along the Continental Divide Trail that summer, it was even the faintest knowledge of what the goddamned Hokey-Pokey actually was/is. I mean, it was kind of like an algebraic equation that didn’t have enough numeric skinny for you to solve the problem. According to the lyrics themselves, once I did the Hokey-Pokey, then, and only then, could I rightfully turn myself around, and then, and only then, would I be able to understand what it’s all about, a not-inconsequential goal when one is backpacking for a long period of time. I mean, that’s one of the main reasons people like me venture into the woods — we have some small sliver of hope of learning, first, what “it” is, then, after reaching that obviously requisite level of enlightenment, applying our newly procured understanding of “it” to then progress on the spiritual plain to the point where context is achieved, where we know not only what “it” is, but, we know what “it’s all about!” How glorious! But, without having the fundamental understanding of the foundational requirement of that path toward enlightenment, with knowing what on earth the Hokey-Pokey is, how can we hope to learn what “it” is, and thence, to learn what “it” is “all about?” Basically, I can tell you with absolute certitude that there is no way. I feel like some poor gullible schmuck who opted to follow in the footsteps of a sage old Buddhist wise man and sit in an ice cave for 10 years, only to learn that ice caves are damned cold places to hang out. By the time I got to Monarch Pass, I was starting to feel as though the whole hike was a waste of time. I mean, if I couldn’t achieve Hokey-Pokey enlightenment, if I couldn’t crack the Hokey-Pokey code, what chance did I stand of returning home a more sage hombre? None! I stood no chance. I felt even more benighted when I later learned that “The Hokey-Pokey” has strong mountain roots. Roland Lawrence LaPrise concocted the song along with two fellow musicians in the late-1940s for the ski crowd in Sun Valley, Idaho. The group, the Ram Trio (with Charles Macak and Tafit Baker), recorded the song in 1949 and gained a copyright for the tune and the lyrics the following year. So, this was not some glib melody that was birthed in, say, Peoria. This was not some vapid set of lyrics penned by some flaccid “A Mighty Wind”-type folk ensemble in Greenich Village in 1959. This was obviously, rather, serious mountain music created to deliver a serious mountain-based message, and here was I, slogging my way though the most-intense mountain country in the Lower 48, and this one fragment of this one song came to me and stuck with me like a Zen koan for a reason, goddammit! And, so it went, past Leadville, through Summit County and the Eagles Nest Wilderness. Unenlightened! Over James Peak. Still not understanding what “The Hokey-Pokey” was trying to teach me, or even what it was. Though the Indian Peaks. Still not comprehending what “it’s all about.” Wanting more than anything to grasp the most rudimentary concept of the “The Hokey-Pokey,” to touch them hem of “Hokey-Pokey” wisdom. Past Grand Lake, into the Never Summers. Still nothing. Until, at last, I arrived at Rabbit Ears Pass, where my buddy Chris Nelson was due to meet me for the last six trail days. It was not long before I shared my “Hokey-Pokey”-based angst with Chris, who just smiled, and said, “I can help you with this.” I stopped dead in my tracks. Perhaps Chris had already ventured down the Yellow Brick Road of “Hokey-Pokey”-ism. Chris and I had trained together for years in Tae Kwon Do. He’s a professional firefighter who has faced death in many forms many times. He’s also, like me, a bowler, a sport that in my mind serves more than any other activity in the world as a metaphor for life and all its myriad intricacies. It would not have surprised me one iota therefore if Chris, wise man that he was, would be able to at least share with me what “The Hokey-Pokey” was, therefore allowing me of my own accord to learn what “it” was, and, then, if I focused and studied and meditated and lived a humble life, I could maybe plug everything together and learn what it was “all about.” Just think! Chris looked me square in the eye. His lips pursed, as though he was thinking of kissing the atmosphere, which, given the depth and gravity of the subject at hand, seemed appropriate enough to my dimwitted self. But, instead of kissing the wind, he starting whistling the melody of the theme song to the “Andy Griffith Show.” And, at that instant, “The Hokey-Pokey” dissipated from my mind. I had apparently learned, without even comprehending that fact, all I needed to know about “The Hokey-Pokey,” and its various implications and ramifications. I had made it almost to the end of my journey, and perhaps “The Hokey-Pokey” had helped me along the way, helped me to put my right foot out, and then my left, to persevere through rain and fatigue and hunger. Maybe that was “it,” and maybe that was what it was “all about!” Maybe “The Hokey-Pokey” was analogous to backpacking and living and trying to grow as a human being. And maybe turning yourself around was an indication that, despite vocational and spousal requirements to the contrary, I was being told to about face and hike back along the path I had just followed. Maybe forever! Was the literal? Was that metaphoric? Who knew? Who cared? Either way, the journey-at-hand was not yet complete. I still had a few more trail days ahead of me. And, for every step of the way, the melody from the theme song of “Andy Griffith Show” went with me. No deep lyrics to ponder, no hidden messages to decipher. Only the tune. Which, of course, might mean something deep. I wonder what that’s all about …

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