Postcard: Arapahoe Basin, Colorado

Few ski experiences soothe the soul like skiing an empty afternoon at Arapahoe Basin in Colorado. The area’s ski patrollers, bless their hearts, opened the steep Pallavicini face for about 90 minutes in the late afternoons this week, and only a couple dozen people were there to partake. With no bumps and a soft wind buff on the north-facing 1,300-vertical-foot pitch, it is probably the best inbounds skiing in the nation right now.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

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.

Finding Hermitage

Dateline Europe: A visit to France’s L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roc. By M. Michael Brady

44 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaOne of the distinguishing features of Mediterranean France is its profusion of ecclesiastical buildings. Each village, each town has its own church. Away from the more populous places there are chapels, built in centuries past, when people traveled mostly on foot or hoof. In the Pyrénées-Orientales Department along the northwest coast of the Mediterranean Sea, there are 127 chapels, considerable for its area of 1589 square miles (about the size of the State of Rhode Island). Today there are roads to or near many of the Chapels. But most are accessible only by hiking, along dirt roads or marked trails.

The favorite chapel hike of this correspondent is to L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roca (or San Marti de la Roca in Catalan) in the foothills of the Pyrenees above the small village of Camélas (population 417), about 17 miles by road southwest of Perpignan, the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales Department. It’s perched on a hilltop, with a panoramic view of the encompassing hills and valleys. Here the vegetation is sparse; it stands like a beacon, visible from afar.

43 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaAs its name implies, in the 13th century L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roca (“Saint Martin of the Rock”) originally was built as a hermitage, where one or more monks lived in seclusion from the world about. In the 14th century it was expanded to a trapezoidal church measuring 21 by 31 feet, including housing. In 1644, Honoré Ciuro, the local Abbot, decreed that the hermitage should become a chapel, a move typical of the 17th century, as the Church sought to give new life to ecclesiastical buildings that had been abandoned as families moved to other hamlets of the region.

Anti-clerical laws enacted in 1790 restricted the uses of ecclesiastical buildings that were not parishes, so the hermitage closed. But in 1801 the laws were moderated, and in 1838 the hermitage was restored. Thereafter it was well maintained, with further restoration in 1969 and 1977.

47 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaToday, “Saint Martin of the Rock” no longer is inhabited. But it is a popular hike destination, about a three hour round trip up from and back down to Camélas. The elevation gain is modest, from Camélas at an elevation of 1082 ft. to the hermitage at an elevation of 1699 ft., and the hiking easy, more than half of it on roads maintained by the local forest service for fire protection and woodland maintenance. The surrounding valleys and their winds also have made “Saint Martin of the Rock” a prominent site for paragliding; info here (selectable in French or English).

Getting to the starting point at the large, free public parking lot in Camélas is easiest by car, as it’s south of the N116 motorway and north of the D615 highway west of Perpignan. But there’s also inexpensive bus service at 1 Euro a ticket (about $1.12) throughout the Department. From Perpignan you can go by bus to Camélas with a transfer midway at Thuir; schedules here (French only), Perpignan-Thuir route 390 and Thuir-Camélas route 391.

Map: The French IGN (“National Institute of Geographic and Forest Information”) Carte de Randonnée (“Hiking Map”) series map “Thuir/Ille-Sur-Têt map, No. 2448OT”, shows Camélas and the trails around it. You can order it online from IGN here (French only, prices in Euros), or from map shops in other countries, such as Maps Worldwide in the UK here (in English, prices in British pounds).

A Night at the OX

Head, Shoulders, and Brains Above the Rest: Reflections on Missoula’s Oxford Saloon. By Cameron M. Burns

12319598_10206573767195747_2116353641_nIn 1990, after spending two summers in the Sierra Nevada, climbing with fellow sadomasochist Steve Porcella and a few other wayward grovelers, I returned to my parents’ basement in New Mexico while Steve headed back to Montana and graduate school.

Our two Sierra summers had led us to the notion that someone ought to write a guide to California’s fourteeners. I corresponded with Galen Rowell about the idea (he’d been up on Whitney with us in early 1990 when he and Dave Wilson finished off Galen’s and Kike Arnal’s abortive attempt on Left Wing Extremist). Both Steve Roper and Galen were supportive, so Steve (P.) and I hunkered down, 1,000 miles from each other, and, when time allowed, began writing. Within a few days, it was pretty apparent that we needed to be nearer each other in order to get the thing done. I was broke (as usual—how come after a 30-year and somewhat successful writing career I’m still broke? Maybe not as successful as I thought, huh?)), so my father offered me the job of sanding the entire exterior of his Los Alamos house, and staining it. He said he’d give me $1,000, which sounded like a fortune to me.

The job was brutal. The paint was like concrete, and it took hours just to do a few square feet.

Two weeks later, after several accidents, one of which included my right index finger getting caught in the belt sander I was using (you ever see one of those applied to flesh?), I moved on to the thrill of staining. At least the stain had some nice, mind-bending fumes whereas the sander just ate through any human meat it could connect with.

In the spring of 1991, I had enough money to head north. I invited a woman I knew from college, Ann, to go with me. She jumped at the idea. Like everyone who’s ever lived in Boulder, she was in a rut. And here I was—some young Romantic suggesting we were headed to paradise. It must’ve been the fumes from the stain. Or maybe she’d had a bad knock on her head as a child. Anyway, she agreed, and we shimmied north in my old, hand-me-down Toyota, camping along the way because that was all we could afford. We eventually got to Missoula, and moved in with Steve and his new bride, Sandy, who was pregnant. This arrangement was not to last, as Ann had already lined up a gig radio-tracking moose in Glacier National Park, and I was simply an easily rejectable third wheel in a situation that did not call for a tricycle. So Ann departed for Glacier within a few days, and I stayed with Steve and Sandy for a couple of weeks.

Each morning, for sanity reasons, I went and drank coffee at a place called the Oxford Saloon.

The Oxford Saloon was established in 1883 and has been continuously operated 24 hours a day since then. It’s not an easy place to describe, as it’s not just a saloon. It’s a saloon, keno lounge, diner, strip joint, casino, and liquor store all rolled into one. The old menu summed it up nicely: “Good old-fashioned eatin’, drinkin’ and gambling.” Think amusement park of adult vices and you get the idea.

After a couple of weeks in Missoula, Steve convinced Sandy that we needed to do a bit more on-the-ground research for the book.

How climbing Half Dome had anything to do with a book we were writing in Missoula, Montana on peaks mostly in the high Sierra has been lost on me ever since, but Steve somehow got out of the responsible would-be parent role, and we jetted south in his truck for a couple of weeks.

Half Dome was a bust. We got up a dozen pitches before some ne’er do well got in trouble up at Big Sandy (I think). The rescue gang came out and started blaring commands at the wall. That was all well and fine, but lingering out to the west was a massive storm. Massive, massive storm. We descended. Everyone descended before we were power-hosed off the wall.

Back in Missoula, we licked our wounds. And I spent more and more time at the Ox. Ann was out cavorting with moose, and my partner in crime was having a baby, doing his studies, and generally unavailable. The Ox it was.

As my visits there went on (typically in search of as much caffeine as I could hold down), it became apparent this was no ordinary … um, establishment.

Let’s take a quick tour—or a tour of it as I came to know it in 1990.

Walk in the front door of the Ox and you would be presented with a large hall-like space. Nothing out of the ordinary except that in that space there were three very distinct areas. Immediately to your right was a large, dark, heavy wooden bar—the kind of thing that could’ve done duty as a support pier for an interstate highway. People had worn sections of the bar with their elbows, carved initials in it, and generally abused it, although it was the kind of bar you could never demolish because it was just so darn solid. There were likely a few bullet holes in the wood, although I never saw any. Certainly there were several stains that I’m convinced were dried human blood.

Behind the bar was a great big mirror. Along the bottom of the mirror was a neat line of bottles—liquor of all manner and sundry. A few grizzled and genuinely rough types were always on the stools—morning, noon, and night—but there was never more than three or four of them. And, though they looked like something out a zombie apocalypse / western / hard crime / Rikers Island documentary, they were always cheerful and showed us their missing teeth, or rather, the gaps where said teeth might’ve gone.

Above the bar’s mirror was a sizeable collection of rifles and shotguns in glass cases, each with a placard describing the weapon and, I assumed, the kinds of flora, fauna, and road signs the piece had blown to smithereens.

I remember one morning, 8 am or so, when Ann was down from Polebridge. A huge man with eyeballs that pointed in different directions and wearing, it seemed, nothing more than a pair of dirty blue overalls and black boots wandered in. He looked like he’d been rejected by a mental health facility for being too crazy. He sat down at the bar, ordered six shots of whiskey, downed them, and walked out. Curious as all get-out, Ann and I stealthily followed him outside and watched as he climbed on the biggest, nicest-looking Honda Gold Wing I’ve ever seen, cranked it up, and chugged off down the street.

“Another day in paradise?” Ann suggested.

Off to the left side when you came in the front door was a pool table and, when I was there, a keno board on the wall. The temperament of the rough types at the bar was complemented by the elderly folks who seem to congregate for keno at all hours of the day. When the keno gang wasn’t in residence, the pool table was used for poker, and a dark and crusty collection of old men would gamble for hours on end.

Walk farther in—the bar ends and there’s an ugly Formica counter. This is the diner part of the Ox. Behind the diner were several refrigerated pastry display cases with pies of various flavors. The kitchen equipment—griddle, blenders, toaster ovens, etc.—all looked to be at least fifty years old, but they were kept miraculously clean and seem to work without incident.

When I lived in Missoula there was one waitress there with the most mannish of faces. She had a massive hooked nose, large beady eyes, a flat forehead big enough to mount a billboard on, and a strange tube-shaped body clad in what appeared to be left over worsted from the reupholstering of a couch. She looked remarkably like the Monty Python guys when they dressed up as little old ladies and reenacted famous military scenes. Her nametag said Francine or something, but behind her back we called her Frank.

Her sidekick, the cook, was a young man with an outgoing demeanor who both danced and sang Elvis Presley songs while he cooked eggs, sausages, ham, pancakes, grits, toast, and whatever else got ordered up. We labeled him, not surprisingly, Elvis.

There was a strange symbiosis between Frank and Elvis. Frank never smiled or said much and looked as if she / he might be in some kind of pain. Meanwhile, Elvis danced around and cracked jokes, laughed a lot, and was genuinely amusing.

“This guy’s pretty funny, huh?” Frank would snort sternly while thrusting a sloshing pot of coffee at Elvis. (Elvis would then blow Frank a kiss behind Frank’s back.)

The most notable thing about the diner, however, was the Ox’s most famous dish: brains and eggs. It was listed at the top of the menu on the wall, like some kind of gastrointestinal challenge. Our small collection of friends often joked about ordering it, but none of us really had the cojones.

Behind the diner, the Ox narrowed down into a wide, dark hallway of sorts. Each side of the hallway was lined with slot machines (one-armed bandits), where you could gamble away any money you might’ve saved by dining at the Ox. Behind the slot machines was a strip club.

Of course, when you’re sitting down to a breakfast omelette and a quite unclothed stripper leans over the counter next to you to order dry white toast and a Budweiser so she can keep her energy up … well, that works a mite better than coffee in the attention-span department. None of the strippers was particularly pretty, but they were all nice. The thing I hated was the fact they all smoked, even when standing at the Formica counter eating their toast and drinking their beer.

The other very noticeable aspect of the Ox was the “decoration” on the walls. There were excruciatingly rough portraits of longtime Oxford patrons. Dozens of these images were nailed to the walls, all the way up to the ceiling. The portraits looked like a cross between a fourth grader’s artwork and police suspect sketches.

Still, in 1990, while I lived in Missoula for six months, the Ox was a home away from home. Certainly it had an air of good down-home dysfunction. I fit in the way a glove fits in the bed of a pickup truck.

 

12348370_10206573771635858_45635775_nIn 1996, Ann and I returned to Missoula for a wedding. Our trip included a visit, with much of the wedding party, to the Ox. After some raucous taunting and teasing—and me considering that I might never see the Ox again—I ordered the brains and eggs. This brought me a round of applause from the gang, but it also meant I was committed.

After considerable time, the dish arrived. The meal was $5.99, according to the menu, but when it arrived it looked to be enough food to nourish a small Montana town. The scrambled eggs, of which there must’ve been about six, sat in one corner of the massive round plate. The rest of the dish was piled high with an opaque, gray Jello-like substance. There must’ve been five pounds of the stuff.

I pushed it with my fork, which slid easily into the gelatinous lump. I cut a piece off with my knife and put the soft gray Jello lump in my mouth. It didn’t taste like much. It was sort of tasteless. It was the consistency that disturbed me. Like some kind of soft pudding that you could probably snort through a straw. A violent shiver went down my spine. But I kept on.

I must’ve eaten about a third of the brains before I was forced to retire. The texture and color were making me exceptional queasy and the barrage of jokes from people rumored to be my friends was getting to me. I pulled up shy by several lobes and switched to coffee. Remarkably, everything stayed down.

In recent months I’ve read that the Ox no longer serves brains and eggs—the meal canned by one of the public health agencies. I’ve read the walls are no longer covered with the portraits of Oxford regulars (but, rather, with scenic images of logging, mining and railroads). And I’m sure Frank and Elvis are long gone. And as far as the liquor store, I never knew there was one until I read it online the other day—no clue if it’s still there or ever really was.

There are certain dining and drinking establishments that loom large in your youth. Places where you met your first girlfriend or ate your first Mezcal worm or tried steak tartare for the first time. Places that loom larger in your mind than they really were.

El Chapultepec in Denver, Evangelo’s in Santa Fe, the Purple Pig in Alamosa, Michael’s Kitchen in Taos, Laughing Ladies in Salida, Mother’s Café in Boulder (RIP), the Golden Burro in Leadville, Tacqueria El Nopal in Glenwood Springs—are among my dozens of loomers.

But the Ox stands head, shoulders—and, of course, brains—above the rest on my list for its sheer quirkiness, its colorful denizens, and the strange intersections of vice, humanity, food, and of course, beverages. I’ve never seen a finer collision.

12351030_10206573794276424_316436919_n

Land in the Sky: Mountain Passages

I found my solitary way to the summit of a trail-less Catskill peak. It was hunting season, so the collie stayed home.

Though trail-less, the mountain is not without its occasional caller, each one finding his or her own way. They leave their traces—upturned leaves and duff, footprints in the mud, a scrap of paper. The lines they lay down on these forested slopes are entwined with the fading lines of previous visitors, long gone, whose vestiges themselves are entwined with those of others more timeworn still. And so they ensue, these mountain passages.

On the summit was a metal canister fastened to a tree. Inside the canister was a register of sorts. My hands were cold and the pencil was dull. I didn’t know what to write. What’s new? What’s old? Who you with? Who reads this stuff anyway.

Land in the Sky: Sound of a Summer’s Day

A map came up on my Facebook news feed: “A coast-to-coast picture of America’s cacophony of sounds”. It was drawn up by the National Park Service to chart the summer soundscape of the nation. I gazed upon this map for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Then I re-posted it. With a click of the mouse, body and mind dropped away. And then the collie barked. He barked and he barked and he barked. He did not appreciate the mess left on the floor.

Postcard: Leadville, Colorado

This photo is almost 10 years old. In the spring of 2006, I drove over to Ski Cooper, on Tennessee Pass just north of Leadville, to meet some men with whom my grandfather, Robert “Snuffy” O’Neil, served in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. They hadn’t seen him for 60 years, and because he died right before I was born, I never met him. But something about seeing them with his photo reassured me. Of note, when I showed it to Nelson “Nellie” Bennett, on the left, next to Earl Clark and Dick Over, he told me he’d been climbing with Snuffy at Camp Hale on the day this picture was taken in 1943. Nellie watched Snuffy fall 80 feet and land in a grassy area between boulders. He had neither a broken bone nor a scratch to show for the fall, Nellie recalled. Snuffy got taken to the infirmary then kicked out for making a pass at one of the nurses. Happy Veteran’s Day.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Review: Mary Sojourner, 29

The West’s misfits and outcasts put up a fight in the new novel 29 by Mary Sojourner (Torrey House Press, 2014). By Ana Maria Spagna

29 cover FNLv2.inddIn Mary Sojourner’s shimmering new novel, 29, Nell bails on corporate life and finds herself drawn to the Mojave—to Twentynine Palms specifically—as a place to take stock, to regroup, to start anew.

Always a keen observer of the natural world, as readers of MG well know, Sojourner describes the desert as “vast, hard, and generous.” Same goes for the characters who live there. Small kindnesses define these sun-worn survivors, from the owner of Saigon Sally’s, the local Vietnamese café, to elders of the local Chemehuevi tribe. Even minor characters leave lasting tracks. A young Greyhound ticket agent sets Nell on her journey and a docent at the Long Beach aquarium introduces her to the Leafy Seadragon, a “ripple of green and pale pink, silver and translucence” that soon glides right into her dreams.

Then there are Diamond and Shiloh, the two women who run La Paloma—an unofficial underfunded home for damaged people, victims of domestic violence or hard living or plain bad luck—and welcome all comers, including Nell, with a bed, food, coffee, and conversation. Though Nell’s damage is never precisely defined, readers glean its cause as equal parts David, her ex, and her own ravenous ambition. Nell has been through the wringer, and this is the right place for her. Diamond and Shiloh put her in touch with a used ’84 Buick LaSabre, cherry red, and a “computer nerd” job at Monkey Biz, the local car repair shop.

Turns out the owner, Monkey, is experiencing visions that may or may not be caused by his liberal use of weed. Early in the story he suffers “a dope hangover meaner than a pissed off boar hog” that seems par for the course. To say that Monkey and Nell hit it off would be understatement. Their banter sparkles, their chemistry smokes. Their insular music references (Little Feat, Chris Whitley) and movie references (Spinal Tap, Life of Brian) and book references (Dickens, Silvia Plath) feel exactly like those of people falling in love. Only they can’t. Or oughtn’t.

Monkey’s married to Jackie, a relationship that’s portrayed as tenuous but tender, and Sojourner’s own generosity here—opting for nuance right when her two main characters are falling passionately in love—is one of the highlights of the book. In the end, Jackie doesn’t deserve the betrayal and, moreover, Nell and Monkey can’t withstand the power of what they’ve shared. Which has larger repercussions.

Nell’s visions of Leafy and Monkey’s late night hallucinations turn out to be part of a much larger plot as the shift in the earth’s polarity, the exodus of bees, and the real threat solar and wind farms pose to ancient sites and dying species converge. The Indians resisting development take center stage late in the novel, and anyone who’s been to a grassroots meeting anywhere will recognize them. No one grandstands. No one flinches. Not even Nell, who resists too-easy narratives with whip smart skepticism.

“She clicked on the Mayan Prophecies and considered the nature of wishful mysticism—this world is fucked, an instant transformation will fix it; no sacrifice or effort on anyone’s part required; you can keep on living just as you have, grasping and glutted.”

We can’t, of course, any more than Nell can. If there’s a message in 29, it’s this: So you can’t find your soul-mate and settle in happily ever after?  You can still do what’s right and love what’s there.

With this in mind, the end of the novel is both unexpected and hard-earned. Nell’s mother, Tara, a peripatetic drunk who carted her daughter around Glass Castle-style through childhood, is moldering away in a Long Beach nursing home when Nell decides to go fetch her and bring her to the desert. Tara has little memory left and doesn’t communicate verbally, but she seems to remember the desert, to be happy there, at least Nell believes she does. And so we end with another damaged soul finding healing, at least partial healing, in a hard forgotten place.

Stories of misfits or outcasts, people running from one thing or another, are common enough in the West, and the props are in place in 29—cigarettes, donuts, a backyard goat, that ’84 LaSabre—but Sojourner shows these characters in a different light. They fight for one another, for the place they love, not in shiny sound bites, but one meal at a time, one meeting at a time, one long deep-rutted drive at a time, until it’s just a mother and daughter on the stump of a fallen Joshua Tree awaiting the moonrise over creosote.