Sunset

Sunset

A high percentage of those reading these words are still of an age where you correctly observe about yourself that you are indeed “bulletproof.” You can fall off a cliff and your only concern will be if the one-hitter in your shirt pocket managed to survive the impact.

A high percentage of those reading these words are of an age where, despite the fact that numerous parts of your body are trying to subtly inform you that you are becoming less bulletproof, you can still limp you way through a rugged outdoors life in blissful physiological denial.

A high percentage of those reading these words are on an age where the message is coming through loud and clear: You are not as young as you once were, but, still, you’re not as old as you’re going to get and, therefore, while you may no longer be bulletproof, you can still pretend that the fall off the cliff didn’t cause any lasting damage that you’re willing to admit in public.

Then there is that percentage of the people reading these words — likely while donning glasses with very thick lenses — who have arrived at what many could argue is a liberating point in life: When you throw in the towel and admit, to others and even to yourself, that you no longer have a bulletproof corpuscle in your entire body. You can injure yourself in a way that lasts for the rest of your goddamned life carrying a load of laundry down to the basement.

This, as those of you who are at that point in life know, sucks.

If you don’t believe me, read this story by my buddy Alan Stark — a long-time Mountain Gazette contributor — which appeared recently in the New York Times.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/booming/running-hard-at-66-and-dealing-with-the-consequences.html?ref=booming&_r=1&

This is a point in life where your adventures are no longer traditionally defined, where you think less about the vistas you will see once you drag your tired ass up the mountain or about the exhilaration you will feel once you make it through Nutripper Rapids mostly in one piece. You get to the point where you wonder, even as you are driving to the trailhead or put-in, whether you will even make it to the summit or to the take-out, whether some piece-of-shit part of your aching body will give up the ship and cause you to limp in shame back to the car. This is one of the main reasons why senior hiking and skiing clubs exist — so those of us who fall into this age/physiological-train-wreck demographic do not embarrass ourselves in front of those still young enough to be bulletproof, or young enough that they think they are or can still fake that they are.

When you get to that can’t-even-fake-bulletproof age, you learn a harsh lesson: That one of the biggest adventures you will face for the rest of your days is the trip to the doctor for your annual physical. There’s always this pregnant moment when your doctor is slowly shuffling the results of the multi-page blood test, when you’re trying to read his facial expression the same way someone on trial tries to read the expressions of the jurors when they file back into the courtroom.

And, of course, the doctor does not immediately blurt out that your have terminal brain cancer and that you will likely not live long enough to egress his office. No, there is an order to things, as he prods and pokes and asks you to cough and then finally puts on the latex gloves and tells you to assume what surely must be the most undignified position known to humankind.

And the entire time, he’s asking seemingly vapid questions about how well you’re sleeping and how your balance is, and the whole while you’re wanting to grab him by his stethoscope and yell: “Just go ahead and tell me what horrible malady is wreaking havoc inside me?”

We finally get to that point. He’s eyeballing the results of the blood test, and I’m trying to read the two-point type on the document upside-down, while trying to pretend that I’m not trying to read the two-point type on the document upside-down. He goes through all the arcane shit that’s NOT wrong with me — hmmm nanoserabellum (or some such) is well within normal parameters — which, thankfully, outweighs the shit that is wrong. Until, finally, he clears his throat (they always clear their throat when they’re getting ready to tell you, sorry, we’re going to have to amputate your testicles right here and now) and says, in something of a positive letdown, if there can be such a thing, that my vitamin D levels are way down. This, he says, might have some effect on the low energy levels I told him about right before the latex gloves came out.

And here comes the sun.

Apparently, the entire world is suffering from what is now being described as an epidemic of low vitamin D. I mean, I always thought an epidemic was when something palpable affected a sizeable population, like a virus or some kind of nasty bacteria with a 14-syllable name. But, no, here we have an epidemic defined by a decided lack of something.

Turns out there are an estimated billion people in the world suffering from a vitamin D deficiency. My doctor told me that fully a half of all his patients are likewise afflicted. I talked a couple non-traditional health-care professionals I know, and they said the same exact thing.

My doctor said the cure is simple enough: Eat 5,000 mg of vitamin D a day.

But, what, I asked, is the root cause? After all, everything from yogurt to Lucky Charms these days boasts colorfully upon its label how fortified with vitamins and minerals the food item is, to the point that one wonders if there’s enough room for all the vitamins and minerals advertised on the package and the food item that’s supposedly also in that box.

Well, my doctor said, he’s read numerous studies that indicate many manufacturers simply overstate, misrepresent or blatantly lie about the vitamin content of their products. Apparently, parents thinking their kids are ingesting 400 tons of vitamin D every time they down a glass of bovine juice are often being deceived.

But there seems to be a more insidious culprit at play: a lack of exposure to sunlight. If memory serves, D is the only vitamin the body is able to manufacture on its own. By way of some form of inexplicable magic, exposure to sunlight upon the naked skin causes the vitamin D glands to start purring along. Thing is, we’ve all been programmed over the course of the past few decades to believe that the slightest exposure to sunlight causes instantaneous skin cancer. So, we cover up and slather on sunscreen by the bucketful. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many of us live in cold climates, places where, for half the year,  we do not expose our skin because of concerns about frostbite, rather than skin cancer.

It’s like we can’t win for losing.

“Would you rather risk skin cancer or eat some vitamin D supplements?” my doctor asked, smugly and rhetorically.

Here’s the thing, though: I am a sun person who dwells in a sun state. I mean, my ass is flat-out photovoltaic. Even in the dead of winter, rare is the day when I do not spend several hours outdoors. And it has to be mighty chilly indeed for me to totally cover every square inch of exposed skin.

Still, sun worship notwithstanding, my vitamin D levels are low.

As if all of that wasn’t enough to cause me to ponder mortality in a context that includes the undeniable realization that we were never meant as a species to live as long as I already have lived, there was more sun-related enlightenment to come. I have been an enthusiastic table tennis player for many years. We have a group, mostly old farts, who get together to smack balls twice a week. Unfortunately, the facility that the county government graciously provides to us is extremely dimly lit. I have long suffered from poor night vision, and I’m definitely one of the players most negatively impacted by the lack-of-luminosity in our low-rent ping-pong emporium. One of the other players, who likewise does not see in dim light as well as he once did, told me about a supplement that supposedly helps restore night vision. As soon as I got home, I researched it and learned that, indeed, there are numerous herbal concoctions that advertise themselves as being beneficial for senior citizens who have trouble honing in on orange three-star 40mm Nittaku balls coming their way at 50 mph.

Upon further reading I learned something else: Poor night vision among Americans is also reaching epidemic proportions. The reason (or at least one of the reasons): We have become addicted to sunglasses. Same drill as the vitamin D deficiency epidemic. We have been, I don’t want to use the word “brainwashed,” so let’s just say sufficiently convinced by eyewear manufacturers that, if you so much as venture forth into the great outdoors to pick up your newspaper off the ground at dawn, your corneas and pupils will instantly start frying like a pan full of sausage.

And I have been a lockstep adherent to that perspective my entire life. If I’m outside anytime besides dead of deep dark night, I’m wearing my prescription Oakley blades. The piece of gear I fear losing more than any other — to the point that I rarely travel without backup — is my sunglasses. When my dog was a puppy and she chewed a pair of sunglasses up, I seriously considered selling her to a pet laboratory.

And here I learn that my sunglass mania has likely resulted in a degree of night blindness that is impacting my ability to hit a cross-table topspin forehand slam.

Damn!

Even understanding that there are circumstances where you can’t function without adequate, and generally stunningly expensive UVA/UVB sunglasses — like skiing in the High Country on a sunny day — this information caused a certain amount of teeth-gnashing and mental cud-chewing. The various websites I perused in my quest to help restore some semblance of ability to see in dim light outlined some exercises and strategies, not the least of which being to spend time outside sans sunglasses. There was even a suggestion that you stare at the sun with your eyes closed for several 10-second periods per day.

Great. There’s hope.

Still, my mind wandered from vitamin D and poor night vision to other aspects of our health and well-being, or lack thereof. There are those who believe that we have become so focused on cleanliness and sanitization that we have negatively impacted our ability to fight infection. I have heard the same thing about our fear of tainted water, that, by consuming sterile H20, we have made it so, when we do ingest water-borne maladies, we are less able to wage war against them.

In all four examples — vitamin D, night vision, cleanliness mania and fear of water — it seems an argument can be made that we have come under the sway of companies that are fiscally well served if consumer society fears the thing their products supposedly protect us from. Our (some would say justified) fear of skin cancer has made it so we buy sunscreen. Our fear of the effects of UV rays on our eyes makes it so we invest in pricy eyewear. How many products are marketed to us to kill household germs? There are many bottled-water companies telling us that what flows from our taps is lethal. We have many companies telling us that, if we drink so much as a mouthful of untreated water from a pristine mountain stream, we will soon find ourselves writhing in agony on the side of the trail as our intestines are being devoured by some horrible microscopic creature.

The argumentative problem here, of  course, is that there’s enough veracity to those concerns to make them real. Or at least real enough. People do get glaucoma. People do get skin cancer. People so shit their brains out because of giardia. These concerns are not made up. But neither are they ubiquitous or automatic. We can sit in the sun. We can eat food that has touched a kitchen counter that has not been sanitized in the past five minutes. We can drink water out of a mountain stream.

Of course, we may die in so doing. But we may also die in not so doing.

Now, excuse me, but it’s a nice day here in Gila Country. I’m going to sit shirtless and sunglass-less out in the sun. Maybe even smoke a cigar. Maybe even pick up a handful of deer-dung besmirched dirt off the ground and stuff it into my mouth. And I’ll wash it down with water from a mud puddle. I’m feeling bulletproof today.

 

Misdirection

Misdirection

Illustration by Chad Bassett

Off to the north of a trail I have hiked, biked, skied and snowshoed more times than I can remember lies the approach to a side/tributary gulch (I’ll call it Pilgrim Gulch), which is, if not exactly hidden, is at least not blatantly obvious. From below, the mouth of Pilgrim Gulch looks to be nothing more than a depression in a ridge finger descending from a massive headwall and lying perhaps 500 vertical feet above the main valley. Pilgrim Gulch is accessible from the trail — actually a rugged four-wheel-drive road that is one of the most popular backcountry destinations in the very busy Colorado mountain county I called home for almost two decades — only by crossing a willow-choked creek bottom, followed by an aerobically captivating bushwhack to the ridge finger.

For many years, I had looked up toward that ridge and its tempting depression, but had never gone through the tedious process of actually visiting it. Then, one day, I found myself interviewing for a news story a local Forest Service employee who was talking about a recently filed application for a mining permit clear on the other side of the lofty mountain range in which this part of the story takes place.

Knowing that the proposed mine site was essentially inaccessible except via self-propelled means along a sketchy section of single-track, I asked the Forest Service employee, “How would the applicants access their claim?” He then made mention of a gulch I had never heard of. I pulled out my maps and — lo and behold! — as far as I could tell, the Forest Service employee was talking about that depression in the ridge finger I had been eyeballing for all those years. He was talking about Pilgrim Gulch.

I did not dally. Very next day, I hiked up the popular, rugged four-wheel-drive road to a point where it looked like the willow traverse would be easiest, or at least less skin-ripping. Then, while making certain no prying eyes witnessed my impending bushwhack, I began the trudge toward what ended up being one of the most astounding places I had ever visited in a county that boasts beaucoup astounding places. Though the mouth of the gulch, like I wrote earlier, was modest, it soon opened up to a broad expanse that included glacial tarns galore, expansive vistas, astounding rock formations, nearby mountain summits and thick wildflowers. It was like I had stumbled upon a mini-Shangri La that, stunningly no one seemed to know about.

Pilgrim Gulch became one of my regular hiking destinations, and never once did I ever tell anyone about it. Never once did I ever consider the notion of telling anyone about it. Let the huddled masses continue on their merry way up the rugged four-wheel-drive road in the main valley below. Let them be blissful in their ignorance. Let them eat cake.

Then, one day, I slogged up the steep incline to what I until that point considered my personal kingdom of alpine bliss. And what did I then see? I saw a series of diminutive rock cairns erected through a place where Pilgrim Gulch tightened up a bit as it followed a crystal-clear rivulet. My heart sank, for I knew what was next coming. It seemed like a form of corruption, not solely because other boot prints now existed in soil where I had seen literally none before, but because whoever it was who had traversed these parts since my last visit had felt compelled, even entitled, to leave behind near-permanent evidence of their passing.

Fuck!

But I did nothing, save sulk. During subsequent visits, the cairns became more numerous, larger and more elaborate. And the tundra through which those cairns were constructed started showing signs of wear and tear. Though I never saw another person in Pilgrim Gulch, it was obvious more and more people now knew about it.

Then, one day, I saw some orange peels, eggshells and a candy bar wrapper next to one of the glacial tarns. And I lashed out: I destroyed every single one of those goddamned cairns. I mean to say, I obliterated the motherfuckers. This was no subtle carnage. I made no effort to aesthetically replace the rocks used to construct those cairns to their natural environment. As I kicked those cairns, I cursed the people who had built them.

With regards to Pilgrim Gulch, I was likely too late. I ought to have disassembled the very first cairns I saw. I vowed then and there to never again make such a mistake.

And thus began what to this day remains a love/hate relationship with cairns and all they represent, both literally and figuratively.

Admittedly, what they literally represent is likely nothing more than some well-meaning person or persons who simply have a different opinion than do I regarding the placement of route markers upon heretofore-virginal landscapes. That person, or those people, likely feel it is better on all levels for folks out and about in the boonies to be both well oriented and following the same line of travel.

But what they figuratively represent is the concept of order and management and linear thought — all concepts that, while perhaps valuable down in civilized realms, have little if any value in the heart of wild country — and, worst of all, the concept of encouraging and directing people to backcountry locales that, wherever period of time ago, were relatively unpeopled and untrammeled. The building of cairns in places lacking system trails is akin to guidebooks and magazine destination stories that reveal “secret places.” (One of these days, I swear I’m going to write a guidebook and/or a series of magazine destination articles specifically designed to get people lost. It would be the best favor I could ever lay on those people, though it might take them a few years to realize the good turn I have done them.)

Before proceeding any further, let me be upfront and clear: Many have been the times in my long and extensive hiking/backpacking career when I have been mighty thankful for the existence of cairns. For instance, I was once on the Continental Divide Trail between Kite Lake and Stony Pass experiencing weather as bad as weather can be at 12,000 feet elevation in mid-August. It was blizzarding and blowing a gale, and there was not enough visibility to even measure. The only thing that kept my disoriented, teeth-chattering self on target was a series of six-foot-tall cairns delineating the venerable San Juan Stockway, which was contiguous with the CDT at that point. I likely would have been in trouble had those cairns not been there, as there was no shelter from the storm that I could see, or, in this case, not see.

This is far from the only example of cairns saving my personal day. But — and this is a noteworthy “but” in this context — those cairns (I’ll call then the “good cairns”) have all been official, U.S. Grade-A trail markers, markers placed alongside existing system trails, trails that actually appear on maps, trails designed, as much as anything (in my mind at least) to keep the huddled masses on track and off whatever untrammeled (and, thus, more uninteresting) terrain that might lie nearby. The “good cairns,” in my considerable backcountry experience, are constructed by Forest Service and Park Service trail crews, who, presumably, know what they’re doing vis-à-vis trail location and construction. They were not constructed by Joe Blow the Ragman hiker who took it upon himself to expose a particular primitive route by building a series of “bad cairns” just because he felt like so doing. In this regard, the “bad cairns” are nothing more than litter and ought to be treated as such.

I have long been perplexed, as well as red-faced angered, by the numbers of times I have ventured forth into the great outback untrailed unknown, only to find that someone has erected series of bad cairns to either direct those who follow (like, who’s to say that the cairn-builder actually knows where he or she is going?) or as a sign that Kilroy was here. These bad cairns were not constructed by Forest Service or Park Service employees; they were, rather constructed by people like me (but not like me), people who obviously were originally attracted to places sans official routes, people inclined to explore the hinterlands rather than simply following established systems of trails. What would possess people inclined to visit the untrailed unknown to then mark the way, to mark their passing, like dogs pissing on fence posts? What is this goddamned inexplicable attraction to orientation?

Understand, please, that I am not herein castigating those who build bad cairns simply because they have visited a place I have also visited. Sure, I wish I were the only person to have ever interfaced with the myriad off-the-map destinations that over the years I have been blessed enough to interface with. But there is obviously more to it than that. Given my bushwhacking nature, I am happy that most backcountry enthusiasts most of the time access the forests, mountains and deserts via established, official, marked trails, many of which are delineated by cairns. I, too, generally access the backcountry via official trails, though, often, for reasons that have to do with both inclination and the influence of some sort of inexplicable metaphysical/gravitational/inertial force, it is not unusual to look down and notice that my boots have detoured their way into unmarked, un-delineated, sign-free, trail-free, cairn-free realms.

One of the least-publicized and least-appreciated negative environmental impacts associated with the outdoor-recreation industry is the impact that simple, seemingly benign trails have upon the natural world. I once proposed a story on this subject to Backpacker magazine back when I was a contributing editor at that publication. The editor reacted in such a way that he obviously thought I had lost my goddamned mind. “Yeah, right, let’s make our readers start feeling guilty about the very trails upon which they hike into the woods. Our advertisers will love that.”

I guess his response was understandable, if not somewhat lacking in the kind vein-opening honesty that I feel makes for good journalism, even if that honesty sometimes amounts to shooting oneself in the foot, or, worse, if it amounts to taking a long and hard look in the mirror.

Still, based upon several peer-reviewed research projects I am familiar with, there is no denying that the existence of trails and trail construction results in many of the same kinds of negative impacts associated with roads and road construction. The clearing of trees to accommodate a trail causes more sunlight to hit the ground, resulting in the establishment of microclimates. New trails instantly up the erosion ante, especially if they are open to mountain bikes. Trails, not surprisingly, cause more people and, worse (from the perspective of the environment) dogs to venture forth into the backcountry. Species that do not take well to the presence of man (and dog(s)) start moving away from the trail, replaced by species that tolerate human activity. The habitat fragmentation that defines human kind continues unabated.

There are certainly those who argue, and argue well, that, if you are going to have human visitation in the backcountry, it is better to concentrate that visitation on established trails, rather than having a whole bunch of stoned reprobates like me traveling in willy-nilly fashion hither and yon.

There are also those who argue, and argue well, that the most significant impact a backcountry locale feels is when the first human passes through, and that every subsequent human visitation is incrementally relatively less impactful. (Taken out of context, this would be a salient argument against bushwhacking.) And, thus, if there is going to be human visitation in a given area, it is best for all concerned if those humans pass along the exact same route. (Taken out of context, this would be a salient argument in favor of cairn building.) That’s a great point and all, except that it does not entertain the impacts of aggregate visitation, which is often exacerbated by the existence of a trail, and which often in turn causes the existence of a trail.

This is where we get back to the bad cairns. There are of course many ways that backcountry trails are born and raised. Many have historic roots — they were old pack train or livestock routes. Many were constructed specifically for recreational use. And many sprang into being via “unofficial” means. This latter category, often referred to as “social trails,” begin, for example, when someone — a hunter, maybe, or a bushwhacker, or a rancher on horseback looking for strays — comes across, as a random example, the biggest juniper tree anyone has ever seen. He takes a few of his friends out to see it. Those friends take a few of their friends, some of whom might be inclined to place a few humble rock cairns to help those who follow, and, before you know it, there’s what looks for all the world like a real trail to that tree, a trail that some people who have no idea it leads to a giant juniper tree start following just to see where it goes. Those people might start adding a few stones to the cairns lining the route. The Forest Service will sometimes institutionalize such trails, granting them “official, status” — meaning they get marked on maps, get trail signs, get regular maintenance and maybe even get a whole slew of cairns.

Other social trails are established or even built in extra-legal fashion by mountain bikers or hikers. I recently heard of a lady who has been working tirelessly for years to build a new trail to the summit on one of our local mountains. (I would love to meet this lady, to give her a piece of my mind.) The national forest trail system I visit most often (because it is closest to my house) was started by a man who thought it was OK to go out onto public land, ax, adze and chainsaw in hand, and start blazing away, like Daniel Boone heading toward Cumberland Gap. Sometimes the Forest Service will come in and obliterate such ex officio trails. Sometimes — as is the case with the trail system I visit most often — the Forest Service throws in the land-management towel and institutionalizes those trails, and, in so doing, brings them up to construction standards.

And, once those trails are institutionalized, they are publicized and, as a result, more and more people start using them, and more and more negative environmental impact results. Trees alongside the trails start to die. Birds move into less desirable areas to nest. Water hole accessibility is compromised.

There is more to it than that, though. There is a certain difficult-to-quantify concern with the psychological repercussions of having more and more marked trails running through our mountains, forests and deserts, even if those markings take the form of modest sets of bad cairns along little-visited social trails. I believe it’s important for those of us inclined to tromp through the backcountry to get disoriented as often as possible, to have no idea where the fuck we’re going, to run the risk of getting lost and by so doing maybe finding something valuable that likely does not exist along a marked route. Most times, we find nothing, save experience and time alone with the trees and cactuses and birds and bears. And that’s fine. But sometimes we stumble upon something wonderful — a small natural bridge made out of Gila conglomerate, a new way to descend into a slot canyon, a cliff dwelling, a giant juniper. And whatever those wonderful somethings may be, they are made even more wonderful by the fact that we found them on our own. We did not follow a trail, and we did not torpedo the sense of wonder the next person who finds them experiences because we decided to build a line of cairns in our wake.

The words “explore” and “adventure” are so over-used and misused in these days of ziplines, eco-tours and travel insurance that most folks, even those inclined to venture forth into the backcountry, have forgotten their true meaning. Whatever tattered remnants of their true meaning might still exist do not include guidebooks and destination stories and existing trails and even seemingly innocuous little systems of cairns constructed by people, even well-meaning people. This much I truly know and understand.

These days, when I pass “good cairns,” I will often add a rock to them, if for no other reason than we have arrived at a time when cairns are being treated by passersby as art forms as much as directional devices. Whenever I pass “bad cairns,” I obliterate the motherfuckers, and I encourage you to do the same. I figure it’s my civic duty to help keep the backcountry as wild as possible. One of the best ways to do that is to play a small role in making sure that my fellow backcountry travelers have every opportunity to get disoriented, befuddled, discombobulated, bumfuzzled, bruised, battered and as scared as I have many times myself been while trekking through realms that lack trails and signs and cairns. And, in so doing, I hope those people, like I have, will find bear cubs frolicking in fields of wildflowers and pottery shards left by the Ancient Ones and entire fields of undisturbed crystals glimmering in the dappled sunlight.

Post-apocalyptic skill sets

I do not know why I am such a big fan of dystopic literature, especially of the post-apocalyptic variety. OK, first, I need to clarify: When I use the word “literature,” what I really mean — or at least mostly mean (in terms of both inflection and frequency) — is “movies” and “TV shows.” When I was in college, I was a printed-word devotee of science fiction and fantasy, much of which was assuredly dystopic in nature, and much of which was of the post-apocalyptic variety. (I also did not own a TV in those days. Additionally, VHS had not yet been invented, much less DVDs, both of which have opened up entire new worlds of special-effects-laden counter- and anti-utopian offerings that did not exist when I was a stereotypical opium-smoking ’70s-era liberal-arts-type undergrad.)

As I have grown long of tooth and grey of beard, my reading preferences have moved toward contemporary, reality-based creative non-fiction (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell’s books) and contemporary fiction (e.g. the novels of Pat Conroy and Richard Russo), even as my viewing preferences have trended more than ever toward tales of futuristic mayhem, chaos and what followers of Earth First! might call a “return to the Pleistocene.”

Again, I have no readily accessible frontal-lobe explanation for this attraction, an attraction that, given my inclination to interface as often as possible with Wilderness Areas legally designated and protected by the federal government, might seem somewhat counterintuitive, if not outright contradictory. (More on this seeming contradiction a bit later.) That aside, movies like (recently) “Children of Men” (critically doomed before it even hit the big screen by the fact that its marketers inanely opted to invoke comparisons to “Blade Runner” — only the best futuristic movie ever made — during its pre-lease advertising campaign), “Terminator Salvation” (fatally flawed because it starred an even-more-robotic-than-usual Christian Bale), “The Book of Eli” (a tepid movie that gained rudimentary style points because it was filmed in New Mexico) and “The Road” (which had the added benefit of originally taking book form) will always attract my undivided attention. As will TV shows like “Terra Nova” (which has been inexplicably cancelled) and “Revolution” (despite the fact that its characters seem to maintain a high degree of personal hygiene and coiffure, even though the cosmetics-producing world as we know it was destroyed 20 years before the series was set), “Jericho” and “Jeremiah” (the producers of which seemed during its short run to understand that, in a post-apocalyptic world, people would likely be perpetually filthy and unkempt).

The list of post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows is long, and, admittedly, in the minds of devotees of more-highbrow “films” like “Schindler’s List” and “The English Patient”), mostly lame. The “Planet of the Apes” franchise. (The re-make was predictably awful.) The “Mad Max” franchise. “A Boy and His Dog” (Don Johnson’s feature film debut). “Falling Skies.” And the classic “Cherry 2000,” which, despite its massive flaws with shit like plot, dialogue, characterization, special effects, continuity and fundamental logic at least was able to boast, in the lead role, a 28-year-old Melanie Griffith, who, in that little tight leather vest, while cradling the decidedly phallic rocket-launcher, was setting some high post-apocalyptic fashion standards.)

(Here I should point out two big-budget movies not on this list: “Waterworld” and “The Postman.” Though my love of the genre allows me to often sink below my usual already-low critical standards, nothing allows me to sink down to the level of a movie starring Kevin Costner — though it needs to be stressed that “The Postman” was based (very loosely) upon an excellent novel of the same name by noted sci-fi author David Brin.

The underlying pathology of this life-long attraction (my exasperated wife would call it an addiction) to post-apocalyptic movies and TV, while not directly influenced by the end of the world that is scheduled to arrive this very Friday, has certainly reached the forefront of thought processes that are currently wondering, on the off chance that the Mayans were right, if I have picked up any salient end-times vocational skill sets.

Adding to that train of thought are the myriad reality-based TV shows being broadcast these days that center upon people who have spent much time, money and effort preparing for what they feel is some imminent big-time shit getting ready to hit the fan. These survivalist series focus on folks who have built hardened bunkers and stashed years’ worth of food and weaponry and who are fully prepared to open fire on anyone who, after the aforementioned shit hits the aforementioned fan, tries to walk through their barricaded front door.

I mean, this preparation for the post-apocalypse is just exactly like it was during the most-fearsome days of the Cold War, when people were building and stocking underground bomb shelters, like the one Viggo Mortensen stumbled upon in “The Road.” This I know very well, as I spent my formulative years living on a Strategic Air Command Air Force base in northern New York. Every six weeks, my stepfather, a navigator on a B-52, had to take up residence in a decidedly un-aesthetic underground facility known as The Bullpen, a place where flight crews lived in a constant state of faux red alert, ready, willing and able to dash from bunk to cockpit at a moment’s notice should the sudden need to release a little hard rain upon the Soviet Union arise. (Think the drab Crystal Peak facility in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”)

I only ever visited the innards of The Bullpen once. My stepfather’s scheduled stint overlapped with Christmas one year and those dedicated defenders of the American Way assigned to The Bullpen on the day celebrating the birth of the man to whom the “Golden Rule” is often inaccurately ascribed (“Therefore all things whatsoever would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12)) were allowed to bring family members into the poorly illuminated bowels of the Cold War for 30 minutes of supervised present exchanging. (The presents had to arrive unwrapped, and were searched and scrutinized by no-nonsense hombres carrying much in the way of weaponry.) To my six-year-old self, The Bullpen was about as cool as a place could get. It consisted of tunnels and nooks and crannies and a bunch of men (this being a few years before I came to understand the almost stunning disadvantages of guys-only settings) hanging out, shooting the shit and playing cards all day, while awaiting the End of the World. My mentally inert self wanted to move in that day, to take up permanent residence in a land of perpetual red alert.

It was not just during the regularly scheduled stints that the pilots, co-pilots and navigators of Plattsburgh Air Force Base got to visit The Bullpen. Not surprisingly, there were various drills and practice alerts and scrambles and mock-attacks (the latter being mock attacks on both us and the enemy). Those were always captivating occurrences. Sirens blared, floodlights illuminated the sky and the roar of jets filled the air. It was glorious! We used to go out and sit next to the runway while these alert drills transpired, watching wave after wave of bomb-laden death machines rising majestically into the cloudy sky.

Then, one day, there was one of those “this-is-not-a-drill” moments. It was October 22, 1962, the day President Kennedy announced to the nation the implementation of a Naval blockade of Cuba and the only time the Strategic Air Command was ever ordered to Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON) 2. DEFCON 2, for those interested in things like the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (the appropriately named MAD), is defined as “next step to nuclear war.” (The rest of the military thankfully remained at DEFCON 3.) The sirens on Plattsburgh Air Force Base blared at midday, and all kids enrolled in the base elementary school were ordered home directly. When I arrived home, my mom, a child of the Luftwaffe’s relentless pummeling of her native London, was in preparatory high gear. You want to talk about a lady who knew all about getting your ducks in a huddle when the bombs were getting ready to start falling. She had a survival kit that would be the envy of any high-tech doomsday nut being profiled on the National Geographic Channel these days ready and sitting on the kitchen table.

I’ll bet my mom could not fucking believe that, here she was, a mere 17 years after the end of the war that crippled her native land, living 3,000 miles on the other side of a goddamned ocean, preparing yet again for fire to be falling upon her and hers. But, being a hard-ass Englishwoman, she did not outwardly fret; she only stiffened her upper lip and prepared for another round of mankind’s seeming endless desire to destroy itself.

It is also interesting to note that my mom was totally on Kennedy’s side. She had lived through what she derisively referred to as Neville Chamberlain’s inexcusable appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s and she was fucking done with that shit. She wanted Kennedy to bomb the shit out of Cuba, Khruschev, the Soviet Union and whoever else the fuck needed a good bombing at that particular chronological juncture, MAD-based apocalyptic consequences be damned.

(We never did get to hunker down in the base’s bomb shelters, much to my eternal disappointment, as the Cuban Missile Crisis eventually fizzled into the history books, one of its few remaining connections to modern times being yet another hideous Kevin Costner movie, this one called “Thirteen Days.” (I would personally take nuclear annihilation over another Kevin Costner movie any day of the week.)

You would think that, perhaps, such a near-traumatic experience, along with hearing throughout my childhood my mom’s first-hand accounts of life during the Blitz, would have imprinted into my psyche a very anti-post-apocalyptic mindset, one that would far prefer movies and TV shows about, say, uninteresting and unthreatening, groups of friends living in New York City, where, every week, they struggle yet again to utter so much as one syllable that is not cliché and/or moronic.

But, just because I am a devotee of post-apocalyptic film and TV shows does not mean I crave, or even desire, a post-apocalyptic future. Far from it. Assuming that Hollywood is up to its usual intelligent, perceptive and prescient standards, I can safely say that the vision presented of most post-apocalyptic scenarios is unappealing in the extreme. (And here I need to stress that, when I refer herein to “post-apocalyptic” movies and TV shows, I am referring to a distinct sub-set of movies and TV shows that are “futuristic.” “Futuristic” movies and TV shows present many varying visions of, well, the future, some of which are appealing (you gotta admit, that 25-year lifespan notwithstanding, “Logan’s Run” presented some intriguing future lifestyle options, mostly of the frequent-sex-with-scantily-clad-nubile-nymphets variety) and some of which are not. “Post-apocalyptic” movies and TV shows generally fall into the letter category, along with other, non-post-apocalyptic dystopic visions of the future, such as totalitarianism (“1984”), unquestioned acquiescence to corporate power (“Brave New World” and “Minority Report”), general cultural decline (“Blade Runner”), theocracy (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and the institutionalized evolution of terminal stupidity (“Idiocracy”).

Still, there’s something about that post-apocalyptic Hollywood vision that intrigues me. Maybe it’s the eternal campout aspect. Maybe it’s the fact that, while you might have to spend your days scrounging for food and trying to repel the incessant attacks of those who, like you, are fighting just to survive, at least you don’t have to deal with being put on hold for 45 minutes by Comcast. No fine print when it comes to buying a new car. No cranial cramping due to the inexplicable fluctuations of the stock market. No questions about your smoking or drinking habits when applying for life insurance. No pre-existing conditions.

Of course, there would also be no Internet, cable TV, new cars, retirement accounts or insurance. But, then again, everything’s a trade-off, isn’t it?

Maybe I am attracted to post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows because I subconsciously wonder if I would, if I could, survive.

As I indicated several thousand words ago, I do not believe it is coincidental that there is so much apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic thought permeating our psychic airwaves these days. Top of the list, there’s the Mayan calendar shit. Moreover, there’s a general feeling that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, a feeling assuredly promulgated by various political, commercial and religious interests that want you to believe the only way to avoid, or at least survive, the looming descent is to buy into their program. Then there’s the undeniable evidence that, well, the world is going to hell in a hand basket. It’s hard to not believe in a post-apocalyptic future when you’ve just had 26 people killed in an elementary school in small-town Connecticut, when you’ve got polar icecaps melting like ice cream outside on a summer day.

Which finally gets me to the meat of this story. A couple years back, long-time Mountain Gazette writer Vince Welch turned me onto a website called freedomguerilla.com. Thomas Krenshaw, Mr. Freedomguerrilla, lives in a blighted neighborhood in Brooklyn, the kind of neighborhood that could easily serve as a setting for an urban-based post-apocalyptic thriller, maybe one that includes scads of vampires and/or zombies and/or an eye-patched anti-hero named “Snake Plissken.” Though I do not know Mr. Krenshaw personally, we have exchanged a few broadsides based upon his website posts.

I have never been entirely clear why Mr. Krenshaw chooses to live where he does. It doesn’t seem as though he’s looking to find beauty in blight or beauty hidden in blight. (He occasionally seems to find artistic inspiration in his surroundings, which I guess is something.) Were I to venture a guess, I would have to say he’s a man who is actively preparing for, if not the apocalypse and, by extension, the post-apocalypse, per se, then at least he’s preparing on some level for “Whatever’s Next.” (And I’m not talking about making efforts to pad his 401(k).) Judging from his posts, his neighborhood essentially serves as a training ground for surviving a worst-case scenario of Whatever’s Next. There’s violence galore, gangs running rampant and a necessary face-down furtiveness on the part of those who simply want to make it through the day without shooting or being shot. Everyone owns a snarling pit bull trained to kill. Direct eye contact all but guarantees a physical confrontation. The streets are lined with trash. Graffiti is everywhere. The skinny trees are all long dead. I mean, fuck! I think Krenshaw’s vision of the future matches up pretty closely with the place he now calls home, and he wants to be ready when the vision becomes a reality that transcends his shitty neighborhood in Brooklyn.

What I do know is that Mr. Krenshaw rides a subway every day, carrying many pounds of tools, to go to work at some sort of metal foundry, a place I envision being dark and dirty, with lots of loud clanking and maybe even liquid steel being poured from caldrons into other caldrons. A place very much like the methane generation facility beneath Bartertown in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”

And, while, again, I can’t say why Mr. Krenshaw has chosen his current life circumstances, I believe I know through his writings why he has chosen his vocation: Learned metal workers will always be of use, whether in this reality, or in Whatever’s Next.

Which has got me thinking in an obviously very roundabout way about vocational skill sets that would be valuable during and after Whatever’s Next, whether Whatever’s Next takes the form of a thermonuclear war, alien invasion, plague, a zombie and/or vampire infestation or a more linear march toward a future that boasts such life-altering starring roles as climate change, population explosion and Dark-Ages-like religious fanaticism.

I need to note before I progress further that herein I’m talking less about disposition than I am about actual abilities to grow, make and fix shit. If, as many of us predict, the future will include heapin’ helpin’s of the kind of bleakness we see in movies like “The Road” and on TV shows like “Jeremiah,” then we all “know” survivors will need to be resilient, adaptable and strong — traits that can transcend specific vocational abilities.

As well, I believe it’s fair to say that the post-apocalyptic world that may very well be up and running by the time these words make their way to an Internet that likely will no longer be working that the main “profession” evident during Whatever’s Next will be “scrounger.” This is definitely an arena where destitute residents of the Third World will be at a decided advantage, to the point where they will likely be able to make a few extra bucks (or expired cans of peas and carrots, the likely currency of post-apocalyptic bleakness, if “A Boy and His Dog” can be believed) by organizing scrounging seminars for suddenly displaced arbitrage specialists. Well-practiced dumpster divers will also move to the head of the class, as will long-incarcerated felons, who will enter “The Road” and “Terminator Salvation” both well versed in surviving tough living conditions and being creative and determined in their acquisition strategies.

I also need to note here with a certain amount of glee that the world we will face starting December 22 will likely be a place where vocations like hedge-fund managers, HMO administrators and real-estate developers will suddenly find their services, uh, no longer necessary. Verily, such white-collar leeches will suddenly find their vocational options limited to slave labor, food sources or maybe even pets. Of course, the same can likely be said for editors, writers, graphic artists, advertising salespeople, webmasters, IT specialists and most everyone else whose resume includes in bold letters any variation on the theme of  “liberal arts.” Musicians, poets and visual artists, especially of the entitled and haughty varieties, will also likely benefit from expanding their vocational horizons. Muy pronto.

So, OK, what are the professions/vocations/skill-sets that will be most valuable once the Mayan calendar tick-tocks its way toward Whatever’s Next December 21?

• I think it’s fair to say that healers will be in demand. Whether able to stitch up a gaping leg wound caused by a crazed, chainsaw-wielding zombie or to forage through the woods for a certain kind of vine that soothes radiation poisoning, healers will always be able to find a way to stay well stocked with expired cans of peas and carrots.

• Jacks-of-all-trades will thrive. I think of my stepfather and my father-in-law, both of whom are white-collar types (lawyer and dentist, respectively) who grew up in lean times on marginal farms. Both of whom served in the military. Both of whom can fix a sump pump, re-build an engine, build a brick wall, grow tomatoes and tend to barnyard fowl.

• Repair people of all stripes. Once the end of the world as we know it is at hand, I don’t think there will be a lot of new Oldsmobiles rolling off the robotic assembly line. Folks who can keep old cars running (maybe we can import some skilled labor from Cuba and Myanmar), keep the electrical grid functioning with minimal spare parts, keep aging railroad cars in service, patch decomposing sewage systems and repair bicycles and half-assed, leaky irrigation systems will be much in demand. As will craftspeople like boat builders, fishing-net-makers, arrow-makers and, like Mr. Freedom Guerrilla, metal workers.

• Sadly, those with military training will likely thrive even more than they thrive in today’s world. The question will of course be whether they thrive by providing protection for others who are trying to rebuild the shattered world or whether they will thrive via exploitation. I fear there will be some of both, though this will assuredly be influenced by the number and disposition of any vampires, zombies or aliens that might be lurking about.

• Food producers. It always surprises me how much your average person thinks he or she can just one day decide to start gardening and — voila! — sustenance will magically spring forth from the ground in tasty profusion. Gardening is hard, and survival gardening is even harder. I grew up helping tend a garden that was a needed food source for our family and feel I speak with less stupidity than normal on this particular subject. In addition to dealing with the unpredictability of weather and water, there are all manner of plagues and pests that can descend upon one’s potato patch and render a season’s worth of work moot. Same goes for hunting, fishing (catch-and-release will very quickly lose its yuppie cachet) and what will become the new outdoor recreation craze post-meltdown (replacing geocaching): frantic foraging. Almost every place, including inner cities, offers up much in the way of foragable victuals. But your average Pizza Hut devotee wouldn’t know yucca root from a Krispy Kreme doughnut. The food-producing learning curve for system analysts from Cleveland and soccer moms from Seattle will likely not be fast enough to make up for the involuntary weight-loss programs that will come down the pipe hand-in-hand with the apocalypse. Thus, dairy farmers in Kansas and dirt farmers in Virginia will be able to extract a bit of karmic revenge on those who considered them uneducated hicks for all those decades.

• Zombie, vampire or malevolent alien. Very few post-apocalypses worthy of the term can survive without one of more of these. Bit hard to train for before the fact, but, judging from Hollywood’s post-apocalyptic offerings, these will be critical skill sets, despite, or maybe because of, their fictional status.

I guess if there’s one overriding theme to this subjective post-apocalyptic skill set list, it would be practicality. Just about everything on the list has palpable benefits, unlike our pre-apocalyptic reality, where I ask of a significant percentage of the human population: What do they bring to the table?

Of course, half the time I’m asking that, I’m looking in the mirror.

In the meantime, I think it’s high time (probably past time) for someone to organize a post-apocalypse-based continuing-ed program. Maybe even an entire educational facility could be built. The University of the Apocalypse. Home of the Fightin’ Zombies. Fight song: “We Don’t Need Another Hero.”

Oh, never mind …

Judgmental

It was an unexpected honor, after having lived back in Silver City for only a year, to be asked to serve as one of the judges for our annual Christmas Parade. The panel, I was informed, would consist solely of local media people, which I guess I was, though, truth be told, given my inclination toward living both off and below the radar in Gila Country, I was a bit surprised that the judge-selection folks even knew of my existence. Sure, we distribute Mountain Gazettes hereabouts, but not many, and only in a few locations.

Still, I answered in the affirmative, telling the gentleman who had contacted me that I was a perfect choice, not only because of my media connections but also because I had considerable experience serving as an events judge. Therefore, I explained, I was well versed in how to surreptitiously pocket bribes without arousing any suspicion on the part of any parade participants who did not have the foresight to lubricate my decision-making process, or, for that matter, those whose attempts to sway my easily sway-able scoring were not up to satisfactory snuff. The man giggled a kind of nervous giggle I have heard many times in my life, a giggle that said, essentially, “I wonder what I just got myself into here dealing with the likes of Fayhee.”

It was the sort of nervous giggle I heard from the man I hired to be the accountant for the Mountain Gazette when we first relaunched the magazine in 2000 when I asked, before we had even properly introduced ourselves, if he (a retired IRS employee, I should point out) charged extra for bribing the IRS.

The first summer I lived in Summit County, Colorado, I was asked to be a judge for Frisco’s Independence Day parade, which is a major part of one of the biggest Fourth of July festivals in the Rockies. I was humbled, believing that such an invite was an indication that, after less than a year of local residency, I had achieved insider status. I did not learn till later that I was asked as a last resort, only because the first 43 people said ixnay.

Still, being ushered to my seat on the judging stand, which bore a striking resemblance to an elevated, and well-used, bingo table, was cause for a certain amount of chest puffing on my part. And all the more so because, shortly after having been asked to be a judge, my inner diva requested — nay: demanded — that a quantity of beer sufficient to meet the rigorous demands of parade judging be made available to my august personage right there on the well-used bingo table. And not just any beer: Fat Tire, thank-you very much. And, much to my surprise and delight, when I ascended my lofty perch, there, right behind my chair, was not just Fat Tire beer, but an entire washtub filled to brimming with bottles of Fat Tire immersed in a sea of ice.

Even better, since the other judges seemed disinclined to partake, that tub of cerveza was mine, all mine!

And even better than that: The whole week before, I had been running stories in the Summit Up section of the Summit Daily News, for which I then worked, letting everyone know in unambiguous terms that I planned to be a judge very open to bribery. Now, I understand that, in many places, admitting in public to one’s proclivity toward overt corruption — especially in the context of something as holy as a Fourth of July parade — would likely have been received in a whole bunch of different ways, all of them negative. But in Frisco, such an admission was greeted with a veritable parade of folks apparently perfectly comfortable with the idea of bribing a parade judge. Schwag as diverse as boxes of cookies, cases of beer and baggies of weed streamed into my office all week, Then, at the parade itself, I could not keep track of the goodies being proffered. I felt like a low-rent Roman emperor getting trunks of tribute laid at my feet.

It will come as no surprise to learn that I had a truly great time, though, sadly, by the time the parade ended, I was scarcely able to stand, much less remember who had bribed me with what for what.

A couple years after that, I was invited to be a judge for Copper Mountain Ski Resort’s Eenie Weenie Bikini Contest, an annual rite of spring that fell victim to the ski industry’s lamentable devolution toward “family-friendliness.” Once again, I made what I thought was a very reasonable request for on-site beverages, and, once again, I let everyone know that my middle name forthwith was “Venal.”

This go-round I was given movie tickets, a couple of casino packages, some ski gear and boxes of cookies, cases of beer and baggies of weed. A cooler filled to brimming with beer awaited me in the booth, which I shared with three other judges, all of whom were players for the Denver Broncos. One was a kicker (it might have been Rich Karlis) and the other two were back-up linebacker/special-teams types whose names I did not recognize (my sisters-in-law, die-hard Broncos fans since their pre-natal days, on the other hand, did recognize those names, and they were near-bouts mortified to learn that, since, I was the only one imbibing in the booth, I became almost stunningly inebriated in the presence of royalty). (The reason there were three Broncos in the booth with me (or, better stated, I was in the booth with them) was that the Eenie Weenie Bikini Contest was part of a larger event that John Elway had something to do with. (Though he owned a second home in Summit County for many years, that day marked the only time I ever saw Saint John in person).)

By the time that Eenie Weenie Bikini Contest winners were crowned (they bore a striking, if not coincidental, resemblance to the people who had laid the best bribery packages on me), I was starting to think about becoming a professional event judge.

Couple years later, I was asked by people who obviously were not students of recent local history to be a judge for Frisco’s annual Christmas Lighting Contest. This go-round, I did not even have to mention my need for at-hand liquid refreshment. Nor did I have to advertise my corruptible nature. The bribes started streaming into the Summit Daily’s office in almost stunning profusion. Matter of fact, there was enough in the way of bribes that I was able to re-gift much of the tribute, thus saving on Christmas season expenditures.

This was great!

There were three other judges and one town employee crammed into a car with a case of beer, which no one beside me was drinking. The way this contest worked was that home- and business owners entered themselves in advance, and we drove around visiting all the addresses, awarding points in several categories that now escape me. (They likely escaped me then and there as well.) It might have been the nippiness of the season, but I found myself consuming what very well might have been an inordinate quantity of beer. That not-exactly-stunning indiscretion caused me to have to request an abrupt pit stop. Sadly, we were right then in the middle of the kind of new high-class subdivision that, even before it is fully complete, spells sociological doom for one’s heretofore humble hamlet. The mortified driver pulled over and I hopped out of the car and relieved myself right in front of a gaudy residence that had entered itself into our Christmas Light contest with a strategy apparently based on the philosophy of “more is better.” This was a house lit up with holiday illumination to the degree that astronauts orbiting in the space station might look down toward Earth and wonder if there was not perhaps a nuclear power plant right then melting down in the midst of the majestic Rockies.

That house produced enough in the way of lumens that the homeowner, looking out the front window to investigate the vehicle idling in the street, was easily able to discern a man urinating in the snow bank. There was of course no way that homeowner could have known that the urinating man was, of all things, one of the judges of the contest she had obviously worked so hard to win. Had she known that, perhaps she would have moved to a more civilized town. But she did not know, and, therefore, she did the only thing people who live in those kinds of subdivisions know how to do: she called the police. (The other thing she did not know was that the urinator-in-question was a member of the local Police Citizens’ Advisory Committee.)

So, before we even get to the next lighted house on our list, we get pulled by one of Frisco’s finest, responding to a complaint of someone draining in one of the most well-coifed neighborhoods between Vail and Evergreen.

The young cop was somewhat taken aback to see a town employee at the wheel, sitting next to what remained of a case of beer, with empties rolling unencumbered around on the floor, with a member of the police committee — who, it turned out, was the culprit — in the back seat. The look on his face bespoke a heartfelt desire to be anywhere else on the planet. We were sent upon our merry way without so much as a finger-wagging.

This much I can tell you: The woman who called the cops on us (well, on me) did NOT win the Christmas Lighting Contest.

Not long after, I moved back down to Gila Country, where I was asked to continue my event-judging career. (Word of my judging acumen had obviously preceded me.) Since I was new to town, I showed up at the appointed time carrying with me two six packs of New Belgium’s finest amber ale, figuring it would be tacky of me to make any demands on the parade organizers until they got to know me a bit better. When my fellow judges saw the beer, they arched backwards so significantly I thought they were going to tumble ass-over-teakettle off the dais. Their eyes were wide and their mouths agape. And I’m standing there smacking myself in the forehead, thinking, “Of course! This is New Mexico! I should have bought tequila!”

I apologized profusely for my oversight and said that, since there was plenty of time before the parade commenced, I would be happy to run over to the Food Basket for some Patron. That’s when the parade organizer ran up to me so panicked, I thought he was going to choke on his tongue. “You … you … you … can’t have beer here!” he gasped, much the same way, I suspect, a priest would talk to the devil during an exorcism.

With much in the way of befuddlement, I returned those two six packs to my vehicle. I poured a beer into a to-go coffee mug and returned to the dais. My fellow judges scooted their chairs as far away from me as they could without falling off onto the sidewalk.

It was a chilly night. Finally, one of my fellow judges overcame her obvious aversion to my very existence and asked if she could have a sip of my coffee to warm up a bit. “Uh, it’s not exactly coffee,” I responded, sheepishly. She recoiled.

Halfway through the parade, trying to thaw the ice, I said, “So, what kinds of bribes do you folks usually get from parade contestants?” I could have shit my pants and received a more cordial reaction. I was shunned. I was not even invited to attend the ballot-counting gathering after the parade, though I showed up anyhow.

“We’re concerned that you might have accepted some bribes,” I was told, as the ballots were slid away from me.

And I’m standing there thinking, “Well, I guess my event-judging career is now over.”

Which is an irony, since this was the only event I had ever judged where I did not accept bribes and where I was pretty much sober.

That experience might rise to the level of irony.

The High Country happiness paradox

It’s weird how, among the hundreds of titles displayed in a large bookstore, your eyes can light upon one cover that draws you in fetish-like, and you know instantly that said tome will be accompanying you on your drive home. Thus it was with Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” (Twelve Books, 2008).

The subject of happiness, or, more specifically, the fairly new science of happiness studies, has interested me ever since John Stossel’s hour-long ABC-TV special, “The Mystery of Happiness: Who Has It and How to Get It” brought the subject into America’s living rooms in 1996. It was the first time that many people even entertained the ambiguous notion of happiness being a subject worthy of the application of the scientific method.

Since then, the popular media has been veritably awash in so many superficial self-help-type stories on the subject of happiness attainment that it’s almost impossible — even for those of us who don’t exactly share much philosophical common ground with the entire concept of scientific methodology — to do anything except laugh when eyeballing such vapid fluff pieces as, “Sustainable Happiness,” which recently appeared in that bastion of learned study, Yes! Magazine.

Thing is, all you have to do is Google “happiness,” and you will soon come to understand that the examination of that mirthful (or not) topic has reached well into the DNA of academia. As Weiner states in his book, heretofore, the entire foundation of research into human psychology, and, by extension, cultural anthropology, has been based upon the concept that quantifiable (and therefore “useful”) understanding comes from the analysis of variations on the theme of sadness, unhappiness and dysfunction. Why, Weiner asks, has there not been more focus on the flipside of the psychological coin, on the study of happiness? After all, he notes, why should happiness be any less quantifiable than sadness?

The answer of course, well, fills Weiner’s book. Weiner literally spent a year traveling around the world visiting countries where the subject of happiness plays out in often surprising ways. Included are bastions of cheerfulness, such as The Netherlands, Qatar, Bhutan, Iceland, Singapore and, perhaps surprisingly, Monterrey, Mexico. (Ss well, for the sake of comparison, the world’s least-happy country, Moldova). In each of those places, Weiner asks of local people, “Are you happy?” Of course, there are heapin’ helpin’s of relevant insights regarding fundamental denotation, relativity and context mixed into the answers he received during those 12 months on the road.

All told, I liked the book enough to recommend it, despite the fact that it contained a glaring oversight: It contained nary a syllable about the Mountain Time Zone. The only chapter about the U.S. focused on Miami, Florida, which contained numerous similarities to the American West, in that many people consider South Florida to be “paradise.” (“Paradise gets old,” states one of Weiner’s least-happy Florida sources.)

For many years, I wondered whether people in the Colorado High Country were truly happy. Certainly, superficially, such would seem to be the case. And rationally so. After all, how places can lay claim to recreation not just as a lifestyle preference but also as its economic underpinning? Add to that a world-class beauteous setting, a culture that casts no stones vis-à-vis things like drinking heavily numerous nights a week and an opportunity, should you desire to pursue it, to actually make some bucks, and you’ve got a place where everyone ought to be happy as pigs in slop.

But I wonder. With regards to visitors, those who study tourism have in the past decade or so started cataloguing a condition called “vacation rage,” which has numerous causes: the stress of travel, the cost of travel, overly high expectations, especially as those expectations apply to family and relationship dynamics, and recent trending that sees people trying (often unsuccessfully) to fit more and more activities into less and less time.

Then there’s the “paradise paradox,” wherein people move to paradisiacal places like the High Country from less-paradisiacal places like New Jersey and Mississippi with the very reasonable expectation that life will suddenly become wonderful simply by way of that move. For many, such has been the case. But, for many others, the lack of an established social network, combined with a high cost-of-living, which necessitates, rather than a life of constant on-slope leisure, a life of three jobs, have conspired to dampen the concept of paradise — to the degree that demographics experts guesstimate that more than half of those who move to the Mountain Time Zone with expectations of remaining here forevermore return to wherever it is they came from within five years.

Of course, much of that is more than offset by the scenery, the opportunity to hike and ski in places like the Eagles Nest Wilderness, the overall upbeat and optimistic nature of those who call the High Country home and the fact that Colorado boasts the coolest bar scene this side of Amsterdam.

Everything is yin and yang. You’ve got happy people in Akron, Ohio, and sad people in the Hugh Heffner Mansion. As Carl Franz wrote in “The People’s Guide to Mexico,” “no matter where you go, there you are.” After more than 30 years of calling Mountain Country home, I would have to straddle the fence. I think High Country people are overall happy, as individuals and in the aggregate, but I think, because their hopes are so high that they sometimes border on the ridiculous, they often set themselves up for disappointment. (Read Alain de Botton’s “How Proust Can Change Your Life” to learn more about expectation dynamics.) And the tidal forces of a high cost-of-living versus modest pay surrounded by a sea affluence cannot help but take their psychic toll.

Recreational NIMBYism

There are two artificial urban-planning constructs/concepts that have integrated themselves so deeply into every development debate in the West in the past decade that one can scarcely remember a time when they were not invoked, scripture-like. The first, of course, is “New Urbanism.” The second is “sustainability.” You can propose building a new plutonium-waste-burning plant right next door to an elementary school, and as long as you tell your local planning commission that the facility will have such New-Urban mainstays as a faux front porch and a detached garage out back on the alley, then the would-be plutonium burners will get an automatic argumentative leg-up in every town from Kalispell to Bisbee. (Extra points for a white picket fence.)

And, if the developer can find a way to add “sustainable” to the site plan, then all that’s left to do is to start hauling the plutonium. (“Yes, Mr. Planning Commission Person, every molecule of the plutonium we burn will be sustainable, as will the fake wood we import from Chile to make the front porches and picket fences.”)

There is simultaneously a flipside construct/concept that likewise has made its way into well nigh every development debate on the face of the planet. Even if one is to limit his or her arguments against said plutonium-waste-burning plant to the obvious: That such a facility, like most other developments that lay claim to the term, has absolutely zero of the necessary components of true New Urbanism as defined and stipulated by the Congress for New Urbanism, and that there is no way on earth that anything save mud huts, hunting and gathering and primitive agriculture can lay claim to being denotatively “sustainable,” you will instantly find yourself on the receiving end of accusations based upon an abbreviation that has become much more than a simple acronym: NIMBY.

It’s like the witch hunts in Salem: Once someone points a crooked finger your way and denounces your perspectives as NIMBY-esque in nature, then you might as well run down to your local body-art parlor and have the letter “N” tattooed on your forehead in bright red ink. At that point in the development debate, you can pull out scads of stats regarding the likely impacts of the burning of plutonium on the health and well being of the proximate elementary school tikes, and your assertions will be summarily dismissed as the self-centered (and maybe even lunatic) ravings of nothing more than an unholy NIMBYist.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest published use of the acronym/term, “NIMBY” — which, of course, means “Not In My Back Yard” — occurred in the “Christian Science Monitor” in 1980. Wikipedia states, “ … the term is usually applied to opponents of a certain development, implying that those opponents have narrow, selfish or myopic views. Therefore, NIMBY is generally used as a pejorative.”

I was involved a few years back in a very contentious battle against the notion of having a Home Depot built in the town in which I then dwelled, and a significant percentage of the opposition to our opposition was centered upon the accusation of NIMBYism, despite the fact that, in a small mountain town of 2,400 people, there were very few of us who could not claim potential back yard status towards virtually anything that was being proposed within the boundaries of our humble hamlet and despite the fact that we actually graphed a town map showing where the members of our anti-Home Depot organization lived and — you guessed it — most of us dwelled on the complete other side of town.

There are at least three contentious development debates I know of that are going on in Mountain Country right now wherein those who favor the developments are accusing those opposed as being NIMBYists. These days, it’s like a gag reflex among unrepentant land rapists.

And here’s my take on it: First, any of us have the right to favor or oppose something — especially something noxious — for any reason or reasons we so desire. We do not have to couch our perspectives, or feel badly about having those perspectives, just because of generic accusations often made by unimaginative people who are operating under their own selfish agenda (usually an agenda that includes personal fiscal gain).

And, second, NIMBYism is the most fundamental, rational and therefore justified response to any proposal in the world, regardless of the supposed “greater good” that so many people cite when castigating supposed NIMBYists. Yeah, there’s little doubt that almost every town could benefit mightily from having a new, state-of-the-art halfway house for (hopefully) reformed sex offenders. You propose putting it right in my back yard, or even my part of town, and I’m going to offer a counter-proposal: That we put in it YOUR back yard.

The pejorative accusation of NIMBYism needs to cease and desist, especially in the small towns of the West, where, when you get right down to it, everything is in the back yard of all of us. The reflexive accusation of NIMBYism too often these days dilutes more-earnest public dialogue about the projects that most often have community-wide effects. And, more than that, the accusation is a flat-out insult that, by its mere use, makes a lot of people even more inclined to dig their heels in and fight for the sanctity of their back yard, the most important piece of real estate on earth.

 

Your place or mine?

There are certain indelible mental hard-wirings that do not easily go bye-bye when you 1) claim as the “place you are from” the fetid fringe of the Dixie and 2) you are the type of person who, the exact nanosecond your high school diploma was handed to you, you fled the land of ticks and chiggers so fast you left skid marks on the pavement to the most-un-Dixie-like place that your limited pecuniary circumstances and your piece-of-shit 1967 Opel Kadet station wagon could carry you that was NOT part of the Confederacy (read: the Mountain Time Zone) and you never ever again looked back East except as part of some sort of gag-reflex past-life-regression/revulsion therapy. To wit: No matter how much counseling you receive and how much Jagermeister you drink in hopes of obliterating the literal and metaphoric thought of kudzu from your cranial mainframe, you can not help but wince at the very notion of grits and red-eye gravy. And just the thought of NASCAR and rabbit hunting make you want to join the Hare Krishnas.

But, of the all things Southern that make this ex-ex-ex-ex-son of the South jump for joy the most about life in the Mountain Time Zone, what reigns supreme is the fact that, in this part of the country, the notion of “visiting” is far less pronounced than it is in places where lard is still considered a fundamental and necessary food group unto itself. This issue is especially poignant 1) when one dwells in the sort of place that folks would be inclined to visit, often for weeks on end and 2) during the Holiday Season. (I should stress after re-reading and pondering point-number-2 there that the notion of hosting and attending Holiday parties is a mostly acceptable (and quite often enjoyable) sub-phylum of the overall “visiting” genus, if for no other reason than, by definition, it only transpires in December, a time of year where it’s easy enough to find yourself inexplicably “unavailable” because of an emergency camping trip to, as but one random example, Copper Canyon.)

I fully comprehend that by even half-heartedly dissing the notion of “visiting” as a viable form of recreation, my perspectives run counter to some of the most fundamental tenets of new-urbanist/small-world-ism that most of my fellow granola-crunchers flat-out consider gospel. In this, my chums and I have long been at odds. And to them I say: You did not hail from the Land of Cotton, where almost every Sunday since I was old enough to understand what the words “humidity,” “poison ivy” and “manners” really meant, families from the Shenandoah Valley to the bayou country gussied themselves up (which, in my world, is a big negative strike before ever even walking out the door) and went over to someone else’s house for periods of time that made me want to study physics so I could get a better grip on how one sweltering afternoon could go on for 27 goddamned years.

Actually, only about half the families in the South went a-visiting on any given Sunday. The other half were playing host, which in most ways was even worse, because not only did you still have to gussy up, but, in addition, you had to clean your room. Jeez, I need a beer just taking this walk down a memory lane lined with Spanish moss.

Anyway, when I landed in the Mountain Time Zone, first in New Mexico, then in Colorado, then back in New Mexico, one of the first things I joyously came to learn was that visiting in the Southern sense — that is to say, by way of 12 volumes worth of social rituals whose rules of conduct were writ in stone back before the American Revolution — was not part of the collective consciousness, at least as that consciousness applied to newly transplanted long-haired dirtbags. In most parts of the Mountain Time Zone, social interactions take place in wonderfully neutral settings: bars mostly, but also on trails, at civic meetings and in jail cells. I have amigos in Mountain Country that I consider among the closest compadres I have ever known — and I think it’s fair to say the vice is versa — whose abodes I have never once entered.

In the South, most of your friends would know in which dresser drawer you stored your socks. It was definitely “mi casa es su casa,” and I fully understand how, on paper and in theory, that sounds like a bona fide Better World. And maybe it is, but, man oh man, I am happy as a pig in slop to live in a part of the country that is verily defined by the concept of privacy and getting together in communal living rooms.

This is not to say that if I walked into my house and found my good buddy Fatty — who I’ve known for 25 years and who I consider a brother as much as anything, but whose house I have never entered — passed out on my couch, I would do anything save fetch him a warmer blanket, while wondering what he did this time to piss his significant other off. It is to say that it’s wonderful to call home a place where the likelihood of that happening is slim, and, even if it did happen, I know for a fact that the first thing Fatty would do upon waking would be to call the Moose Jaw and make arrangements for a free bar tab for Yours Truly in payment for the night’s lodging.

I know it’s trendy in a progressive mindset defined by Utne Reader these days to espouse the virtues of a more integrated familial society, in which fundamental socialization is most often achieved by way to “getting to know your neighbors” at their house and at yours But, for me, I’ll always prefer getting to know my neighbors in the local bar any day of the week. That way, you never have to clean your bedroom.

 

Going for Uniformity

In the rural Western United States, the concept of individuality — especially of the supposed “rugged” variety — is stressed so much that it is intertwined not only into regional myths and stereotypes, but it is how those of us who live here are flat-out defined by the rest of the country. And it is often how we define ourselves.

That notion is so off-base that it’s almost laughable. No matter what demographic group, what region, what political affiliation you want to look at, the members of that group will be so homogenous in everything from attire to choice of vehicle to food and beverage preferences that, were it not for obvious differences in physical appearance, age and gender, you’d think the entire West was populated by less than a half-dozen varieties of clones.

Even in New Mexico, which I consider to be the most individualistic state in the country, it’s like every resident from Taos to Silver City was set upon terra firma by some sort of cosmic central casting agency. Rainbow-Family hippies, premeditatedly flighty artists, surly cowboys, Harley devotees, in-your-face gay people, angry vatos.

As for the rest of the West, all you have to do is cast a critical eye upon a person for less than point-two nanoseconds, and you can size them up on every level from party membership to recreational preferences without even engaging your brain. You can tell from miles away if a person is a hook-and-bullet Libertarian disguised as a Republican or a granola-crunching Greenie disguised as a Democrat.

For the most part, the recreation-economy-based part of the West could pass as relatively affluent versions of the People’s Republic of China. In the resort/real estate communities, 80 percent of the residents drive the same basic three types of cars (Subarus, Jeeps, Toyotas), they all wear Patagonia garments everywhere they go, they all participate in the same handful of recreational activities and they all consider themselves environmentalists, even developers and ranchers.

Go to Craig or Meeker, Colorado, and, well, same concept, different template. Folks in those towns might as well have been cut from a people mold. Monster pick-up trucks. Huntin’ and fishin’. Damned environmentalists. Let’s have a steak.

Now, I’m not saying that the uniformity of the sub-sections and sub-demographics of the West is bad or anything (after all, I have owned two Jeeps, my wife drives a Subaru, I wear Patagonia garments, participate in all the standard resort community recreational pursuits and consider myself an environmentalist), it’s just that I consider it amusing in the social context of Western individualistic stereotypes. I consider it especially amusing in the context of sub-cultures — not just resort-town-dwelling people, for instance, but resort-town-dwelling, say, bicyclists.

Actually, bicycling is a really good example of this uniformity-in-contradiction-to-regional-stereotype phenomenon. In no sport is the notion of fitting in by looking like you fit in more palpable. I am personally far less of a cyclist than most of my Mountain-Time-Zone-dwelling brethren and sistren, though I do ride my mountain bike on occasion. It’s just that, because I am mainly a backpacker (which had its own set of uniform standards, which I’ll get into here in a minute), so, while I certainly fit every appropriate backpacking stereotype to a tee, I am a little fringe-ish when it comes to bicycling, simply because I can not afford the necessary accouterments to fit into multiple recreational castes.

Even though I own real mountain bike, it’s literally 20 years old (hard-tail, steel, no grip-shifts) and, thus, sticks out when I have the gall to enter the Temple of Biking.

And, even though I own bike shoes, gloves, a helmet and the requisite dorky-looking bike shorts, I ride with a T-shirt and, if there’s a chill to the air, a flannel shirt. I park my butt in my horribly uncomfortable bike seat sans a single psychedelic bike garment, and, when combined with the venerability of my ride, I pedal clearly outside the clique. And this fact is often commented upon, either tacitly or directly, by other cyclists who I rub elbows with, either on the road or in bars.

It’s funny to watch two cyclists who clearly have been baptized into the Order of the Pedal crossing paths. They look at things like clothing and kind of bike, and, if everything is up to snuff, then, based upon appearances alone, they will condescend to acknowledge each other’s existence. Sorta like dog’s sniffing each other’s butt. When cyclists pass a borderline outcast like me, they act like Muslims when you walk into one of their temples wearing shorts. You are a heathen, worthy of not so much as a cursory nod, and maybe even worthy of a quick beheading.

Bicycling is an easy demographic to poke fun at in this regard, because it is the mountain-jock/jockette group that pays more attention than any other to owning the latest-and-greatest and wearing a certain type of uniform/costume. But it is far from alone in staking out its conceptual territory via superficial means. Backpackers have their own appearance-based uniform standards, though there are two distinct schools these days — the Fleeces and the Flannels. (These two groups are at least as distinct as mountain bikers vs. the road bikers.)

The Fleeces are generally younger, fitter, fancy themselves as “outdoor athletes,” boast degrees in outdoor recreation and march forth at a brisk pace with orderly and new internal-frame packs. The Flannels are generally older, paunchier, fancy themselves as hiking environmentalists, have degrees in philosophy or English Lit and venture into the woods with older gear and lots of stuff dangling from their packs. The former hit the trail wearing Polartec and pile everything, from socks to underwear to hats. The latter hit the trail wearing worn Gramicci pants (and maybe even blue jeans), cotton T-shirts and baseball hats. And, when we pass each other in the backcountry, we go through the obligatory butt-sniffing/sizing up ritual, same as bikers.

Thing is, though we likely don’t like to believe we think about this, backpackers spend as much time as cyclists dealing with appearances and image before they go out in public and do their thing. I know a man who is among the most famous Fourteener-baggers in the state who once told me that he premeditatedly works hard to appear as disheveled and out-of-date as possible before he hits the trail. And his groupies follow his fashion lead.

The only point to this is that tribalism, in all its manifestations, is an ancient survival strategy, and, truthfully, true individualism is a hard thing to find. Try to be a non-conformist and you join either the cult of the non-conformists or the cult of those trying to be non-conformists. There’s nothing we can do, save don your wildest-looking bike attire and pedal to Meeker, just to see what, if anything, transpires.

Mountain Gazette editor M. John Fayhee has just embarked upon a reading/signing tour in support of his latest two books, “Smoke Signals: Wayward Journeys Through the Old Heart of the New West” and “The Colorado Mountain Companion: A Potpourri of Useful Miscellany from the Highest Parts of the Highest State.” Go to mjohnfayhee.com to eyeball his reading/signing tour schedule.

 

Hike Down Memory Lane

An old stash of Backpacker magazines leads to an unfortunate hike down memory lane

 “Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

— “The Speech Song,” by Baz Luhrman

Pretty much since I was old enough to understand the concept, I have considered nostalgia to be akin to psychic cancer. The metaphoric sitting, sighing and reminiscing while thumbing through old yearbooks and photo albums has always been, in my opinion, an indication that the mud and muck of one’s highly fictionalized and reinterpreted past is sucking around one’s ankles, making it difficult to hike lightly, brightly and enthusiastically into one’s future.

I have this buddy, Joe Kramarsic, who puts beans on the table at least partially by procuring, through a variety of means (I usually don’t even ask) and purveying old outdoor magazines and books. Knowing my long and checkered history with Backpacker magazine, Joe one day asked if I would like to buy a complete set of Backpackers, beginning with Volume I, Issue I (Spring 1973) and running through the end of 1984.

Does the Pope have lips? Are chickens Catholic? I jumped at the chance, and, one bright day, Joe dropped the 12 bound volumes off at my office. Well, that was the end of THAT workday — and the beginning of a case of near-terminal nostalgia that is infecting, distracting and haunting me still. I toted those 12 bound volumes of old Backpackers into the dank darkness of one of my favorite watering holes, plopped them on a corner table, asked the bartender to keep my frosty mug filled and proceeded to make my way, page-by-page, article-by-article, ad-by-ad, through the first decade-plus of the magazine that has not only played an important role in my professional life, but an important (for better or worse) role in the evolution of mountain-based outdoor recreation as we all know it.

My journey through Backpacker’s early years lasted the rest of the afternoon, through happy hour, through a couple of televised basketball games and near-bouts till closing time, when the Missus finally tracked me down and made me come home. Even understanding that I had to endure the some semi-serious spousal wrath, I have rarely spent such an introspective 12-hour barroom stint.

And that stint gave me a knot in my stomach. I came West in 1976, about point-two nanoseconds after graduating (barely) from high school. My entire stash of possessions fit nicely into one trunk and a bright-orange Sears and Roebuck backpack. I moved to the Gila Country of southwest New Mexico specifically to hone backpacker-bum skills that have served me well on many levels for almost 40 years now.

I had not thought much lately of those heady, Ragg-sweater-and-leather-boots days of the mid-’70s until Joe laid those old Backpackers on me.

In the old days, the outdoor life seemed so much less complicated, contentious and acrimonious than it does now. There was far less mean-spiritedness and competitiveness out in the woods, at least partially because there were far fewer of us out in the woods. Those of us who lived to spend time out in the backcountry owned one pack and one pair of boots, which we wore everywhere, all the time. There weren’t mountain bikes, the ski industry was still centered around skiing, rather than development, most of the West was guidebook-free and we still were able to skinny-dip in little-known hot springs that have long since been developed and/or regulated and/or co-opted by glossy magazines and their goddamned “destination” stories.

I have found myself more and more since I got those old Backpackers thinking about the “good ol’ days,” about when the outdoor recreation craze that most of us are part of now was still fairly young and full of possibilities. And that journey through revisionist nostalgia has got me thinking about how much more pleasant things were when there weren’t two billion adrenaline-crazed, X-Games-addled snowmobilers zooming through the alpine meadows at 200 mph, how much more splendid the woods were for all concerned before mountain bikes came to outnumber all other uses combined on many trails, how much “better” it was when we all managed somehow to arrive at the trailhead in $200 vans instead of $20,000 SUVs (and I say that owning a $20,000 SUV).

There’s no doubt things weren’t as wonderful in the old days as I remember. I guess I’m getting ancient enough that the mud and muck of the past is starting to suck at my ankles and make me lose focus and clarity.

After one more read-through, I boxed those old Backpackers up and stashed them in the deepest recesses of my basement. I’m not going to look at them, or even think about them, again until I’m too old to ruminate about anything except things nostalgic. I’m tempted to get rid of them all together, but I can’t bring myself to go that far. That would be like throwing away those days in the ’70s when we all wore wool and blue jeans and you could hike for two weeks most anywhere in the Mountain Time Zone without seeing another soul, and I don’t want to discard those days entirely. I know I should, because the only thing really left from those days is the beauty of the Mountain Time Zone itself. Everything else has changed for good, and there’s no going back, except in our minds.

Mountain Gazette editor M. John Fayhee has just embarked upon a reading/signing tour in support of his latest two books, “Smoke Signals: Wayward Journeys Through the Old Heart of the New West” and “The Colorado Mountain Companion: A Potpourri of Useful Miscellany from the Highest Parts of the Highest State.” Go to mjohnfayhee.com to eyeball his reading/signing tour schedule.

 

Why then do we do it?

A few summers back, while walking along a section of the Colorado Trail near Denver, I had the opportunity to watch not one, not two, not three but — count ’em — four mountain bikers go posteriors-over-tea-kettles, all at the exact same spot, one right after the other. By the time the last rider tried, and failed miserably, to negotiate this particularly gnarly hunk o’ rock that was sitting smack-dab in the middle of the tread, there was a pile of writhing fat-tire aficionados pretty much stacked up at my feet. Can’t buy entertainment that good.

As there were no injuries more serious than the kind of minor bruises, abrasions and contusions that mountain bikers seem to go out of their way to acquire and wear as badges of honor, I just stood there and watched as these gentlemen picked themselves up and dusted themselves off. (It was interesting to note that all four checked their bikes for damage before they checked themselves out. Good priorities.)

Ended up it was a guided trip. The first man to crash was the guide, and the last three to crash were guests from somewhere back East. All four seemed happy as pigs in slop, despite, or perhaps because of, their mishaps.

“Man, I crash at the same spot every single time I go through here,” the guide effused, shaking his head and smiling. As far as I could tell, this man physically consisted of but two substances: bone and muscle, with some extra muscle on top of his extra muscle. His calves were the size of watermelons, his quads the size of Jeeps and his biceps the size of refrigerators. As we chatted there on the trail, I tried sans success to suck my early-season paunch in.

The man asked where I was hiking to, and when I told him Durango, his jaw dropped. When I further mentioned that I planned to be on the trail for six weeks, he just shook his head.

“Man, I tried backpacking for the first time a couple weekends ago, and I could not believe how hard it was. It kicked my ass so bad, I don’t think I’ll ever carry a pack again.”

Ended up that the trip he was describing was only 20 miles long. Yet, he went on and on about how sore his hips were, about how his back ached for days afterward, about how his shoulders felt like they’d been thrashed by a lead pipe.

“The really hard thing was that, after carrying that damned pack all day, even though I was too tired and sore to move, I had to set up camp, cook, eat nasty dehydrated food, do dishes, bathe in a freezing stream and sleep on the ground. You backpackers are the toughest people I know.”

Now, if this diatribe, this verbal ode to the difficulty of backpacking, had streamed from the mouth of some pudgy schlub from Cleveland, I would, of course, have taken it with a grain of salt. But the fact that the words were being uttered by a man who looked like he could bench press me while simultaneously riding his mountain bike up the side of 2,000-foot cliff face caused me, as I made my way up the trail, to scratch my noggin over the entire nature of backpacking.

This was not the first time I have given thought to backpacking in the context of “why, then, if it is so damned hard, do so many of us continue to do it?” The mountain biker I passed on the Colorado Trail is not the first person who I have heard talking about the sometimes horrible difficulty of backpacking. My wife, as but one random example, has mentioned on more than one occasion as she’s following me along yet another seemingly endless wilderness trail how demanding she considers the entire process of schlepping a pack up and down mountains all day. She considers it worth the effort, though, because she likes camping in the deepest backcountry. My spousal unit deals with the discomfort of carrying a pack through the woods because getting to remote locales is worth the physical effort.

To visit beauteous country is the most obvious answer to the question of why backpackers backpack. There are other fairly stock answers: We do it to get as far away from civilization as possible in a few days, to purge the foul stench of urban living from our bodies and souls, to re-connect with nature, to try to rid ourselves of our beer guts, etc.

But, for those of us who can lay claim to the dubious label of “backpacking devotees/aficionados/bums/junkies,” there’s even more to the equation.

Backpacking — especially of the long-distance, long-duration variety — is an activity that requires Zen-like, mind-over-matter-type discipline, the ability and desire to put one foot after another for mile after mile, day after day, no matter the conditions, the circumstances or how you feel. If you get up in the morning and it’s freezing, snowing and blowing and you’re running low on food and it’s 34 miles to the next supply drop, there’s no hitting the snooze button and going back to sleep. There’s no deciding to stay home today instead of hitting the trail, because the trail is home. No matter how poorly you slept, how many blisters you boast, how inflamed the tendons in your knees are, no matter that your hemorrhoids are acting up and that the only thing you’ve eaten for the last two days is plain instant rice, you’ve got to hoist that horrible thing known as your pack and make you way up the trail.

Then, 15 or 20 miles later, you’ve got to find a tent site in the rain, wash up in a frigid river, change into your least-disgusting clothing, eat yet another tantalizing bowl of plain instant rice, wash your dishes in the dark while the mosquitoes have their way with your hide and crawl into a wet tent that smells like 400 YMCA locker rooms condensed into one small nylon abode.

As I made my way along the trail after talking to that mountain biker, I realized why idiots like me backpack despite the hardships presented by backpacking: We do it BECAUSE of those hardships, because of the feeling we get from overcoming pain and discomfort, dealing with unfathomable filth and eating food your dog wouldn’t even look at.

Things that are hard are things that we ought to seek out with a vengeance — especially if the reward is finding yourself atop a distant mountain that can only be reached by carrying a heavy pack and walking along a long, hard trail.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to ride my mountain bike. There’s this one damned stretch of trail near where I live that, try though I might, I have never been able to negotiate without mishap. By god, this is the year!