A bushwhacker’s lament

In the early ’90s, I was made aware, through my normal mud-covered journalistic channels, that what is now known as the Leave No Trace ethic/code/credo/religion was in the process of being formalized, institutionalized and, ultimately, canonized. Being a tried-and-true devotee of what had long been known generically as “minimum-impact” backcountry travel (carry your beer cans out; don’t pour your bong water directly into the stream), I was both enthused and made curious, even nervous, by the fact that, with the advent of Leave No Trace, for the first time ever, all sorts of entities — from our federal land stewardship agencies to wilderness education institutions to hiking clubs — would be landing more-or-less on the same philosophical page when it came to specifically telling folks how they ought to comport themselves while making their way through woods, over mountains, down rivers and across deserts.

As the LNT gestation process was transpiring, one of the potential tenets in particular caught my attention: “Travel upon durable surfaces” — meaning, of course, if you’re going to tromp through the backcountry, do so only on designated trails, jeep tracks and roads. As the original LNT tenets — there ended up being six, out of a potential pool of at least 15 — were being debated, I sat in my office with the same feeling in my gut that some wife-coveter sitting at the foot of Mount Sinai when Moses made the world’s most-famous first ascent must have felt. “Please, don’t let the simple fact that I covet my neighbor’s wife be a Big Time No No.”

Well, at the moment the “durable trails” tenet was chiseled into the original LNT stone tablets, I became something of an environmental transgressor, a backpack-wearing neighbor’s wife coveter. For, you see, I am, and have always been, an avid bushwhacker, one who goes out of his way to hike upon turf with a decided lack of “durable surfaces” (though, now that I ponder this, it seems to me that the main areas through which I have spent the last 36 years tromping — mainly the Colorado Rockies and New Mexico’s Gila Country — are pretty durable). Not only off the beaten track, but as far off as possible. Sorta like a hiking equivalent of off-off-off Broadway.

As a matter of fact, time was when I considered backcountry terrain that contained anything even resembling a “durable surface” to be contaminated, a place appropriate only for the visitations of pudgy families-of-four from some wretched Ohio suburb. In those days, if I accidentally came across a trail while making my way through the hills, even if it was long-abandoned and adorned with the desiccated skeletal remains of the last passersby, I beelined in a completely different direction, grumbling about the omnipresent evidence of civilization. In those days, such an attitude was considered nothing out of the ordinary among my gnarly and unwashed backpacking compadres in southwest New Mexico, where I then dwelled and where I now dwell again.

These days, however, bushwhacking is considered, if not a bona fide backcountry sin, then at least a major-league ill-advised decision, a decision that, in the eyes of the LNT Powers That Be, necessitates a visit to a re-education camp. Folks from Boulder (where, not surprisingly, LNT is now headquartered) who know (or even suspect) that you’ve been bushwhacking give you that nose-in-the-air disingenuous look that makes mountain dwellers want to skewer people from the People’s Republic with a trekking pole.

Since LNT adopted its “durable surface” tenet, I have, out of a combination of guilt and obligation, cut way back on my off-trail forays, though, like addicts of all stripes, I have been unable to totally break with my habit of straying off the beaten path. I try to persuade myself as I’m making my way into the High Country nirvana that surrounds my home that I should keep my Vasques firmly planted upon designated trails, thus following in the footsteps of thousands of hikers before me. Yet, often, I look down and notice that my feet are straying, seemingly of their own volition, from anything even resembling a durable surface. Along trail-free ridges, up arroyos and drainages, down into canyons. Then, several hours or days later, I notice that I’m in the middle of some wonderful boondock place that sports little if any evidence that anyone has ever before been there.

Like most sinners, I make my way through life with a combination of justification, rationalization, denial and a fruitless search for philosophical penance. I understand that, according to the high priests of Leave No Trace, the most significant impact a place feels is when the first bootprints blemish it. I understand that, in many places — such as the cryptobiotic-soil-rich regions of southern Utah — even one flirtation with bushwhacking can irreversibly harm a part of the natural environment. I understand that, by limiting our backcountry experiences to established trails and roads, we leave wildlife with islands of habitation relatively undisturbed by human scum, such as yours truly.

Still, eyeballing the Leave No Trace tenets that are posted at near-bouts every trailhead these days, I know that, as I hoist my pack and begin making my way into the backcountry, there is a better-than-even chance I will stray — literally and figuratively — from the path of righteousness. And I reflect upon the experiences I have had in the backcountry that came about solely because I had left the trail. Like the time I came upon a bear momma and her two cubs frolicking in a sun-dabbled meadow in northern Arizona. The time I found a long-abandoned cave dwelling that had not been catalogued before in the Gila. The time I stumbled — almost literally — upon a wild tribe of skinny-dipping co-eds in Shenandoah National Park.

I will always bushwhack; I can’t help myself. But, while so doing, I try to minimize my presence and my impact. (Or at least I tell myself I do.) If I’m in the Utah desert, I’ll avoid cryptobiotic soil like it’s acid (battery acid, I should say). In the tundra, I generally bushwhack by my lonesome, and I rarely relate my itinerary or destination to my muchachos. I avoid bushwhacking through riparian areas. I never build fires when I’m away from established fire-building areas. Etc. etc.

In the end, of course, it all becomes a pain in the ass. We can only minimize our presence in the natural world so much. When bushwhacking, it’s important to be on our very, very best backcountry behavior. I know how lame that may sound, but, without bushwhacking, without straying from the trail (again, literal and figurative), there is no real exploration, and, without real exploration, many of us spiritually wither away and die.

And, besides, rarely do wild tribes of co-eds skinny dip in close proximity to durable surfaces. Damned shame.


Wildfires and a Complacent Media

When I was sent by Backpacker magazine to “cover” the Yellowstone fires in 1988, I opted, instead, to cover the media’s coverage of those fires. When I announced this deviation from the standard media norm to one of Yellowstone’s communications people — a lady who was literally frayed to the core from the two-month onslaught of interview requests — she was so appreciative, I thought she was going to kiss me right on the lips. She had been working day and night trying, and mostly failing, to make supposedly professional people, holding notebooks, microphones and cameras, understand basic wildfire dynamics, to make people understand, and then to relate that understanding to readers, viewers and listeners, that there are gradations and variations on the wildfire theme.

She was trying to make people understand that, mighty though those wildfires were, Yellowstone was not incinerated.

She would address the panting press masses, carefully articulating her obviously well-chosen words very slowly, saying something like, “And, within the fire perimeters, only 11 percent of the burn areas are of moderate intensity of higher.” And, ALWAYS, the first question out of the mouth of the first dumb shit reporter parting his or her lips would be something like: “So, Yellowstone is pretty much totally incinerated, huh?”

The poor communications specialist would just bite her lip and sigh.

As these words are being penned, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history is still active right on the other side of the ridge directly to the west of my house. There have been hundreds of homes burned over near Ruidoso and outside Fort Collins. It is still June, and the wildfire season is already considered “very bad.”

Because so much fire has transpired so close to the town in which I hang my hat, I have found myself doing the erstwhile unthinkable: turning on the usually vapid Albuquerque TV news (if it bleeds, it leads) and reading local newspapers, trying to learn if I ought to be preparing for imminent evacuation.

What I have found is that, in the almost 25 years since the Yellowstone fires, the media is as awful — and lazy — as ever when it comes to covering wildfires. I mean, what ever happened to the concept journalistic curiosity?

Anyhow, while not trying to even a nanosecond to minimize the destruction to human habitat sometimes caused by wildfires, here are a few things to think about next time you’re tuning into a news report dealing with wildfire being delivered by a perky, well-coiffed teenager whose vocational ceiling ought to be, but, sadly, probably isn’t, very low.

First things first. The acreage figures used to describe the size of wildfires are, in reality, areas contained within wildfire perimeters. Wildfire perimeters are calculated using Global Positioning System (GPS) technology combined with observations, mapping and photography gleaned from aerial overflights and ground-truthing. Fire size is then calculated using Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Thing is, significant areas within a given fire perimeter might not have actually been burned. Depending on the size of the unburned islands within a wildfire perimeter, they are usually counted in the total acreage for the fire. Therefore, fire “sizes” released to the public and regurgitated by the media are often inaccurate.

Next, the public is often told, usually by a media that is little inclined to investigate further, that certain acreage within a fire perimeter has been “burned,” “scorched” or “destroyed” (pick your Armageddon-like synonym). Ignoring for a moment that wildfire is a perfectly natural component of ecosystem regeneration, those terms are inaccurate, or at least not accurate enough for use by fire scientists. After a wildfire is contained, the U.S. Forest Service, generally the lead federal agency when it comes to fighting wildfires — even if those fires move onto private land or public land administered by other governmental agencies — issues a Burned Area Report. On-ground observations regarding depth and color of ashes, size and amount of live fuels consumed, litter consumption, plant root crowns and soil crusting are all included in mapping what are called “intensity zones.” Areas within a wildfire perimeter are classified as either:

Low-intensity fire. These are areas that are minimally enough impacted by the fire that they usually do not even contribute to what the Forest Service calls an emergency watershed condition. As a matter of fact, areas of low fire intensity often act as buffers to moderate flood hazards that may originate in more intensively burned areas. Low-intensity wildfires usually occur on rangeland. Within low-intensity wildfire perimeters, duff and debris are only partly burned, soil remains a normal color, hydrophobicity (the soil’s inclination to repel water) is low to absent and standing trees may have some green needles. Land experiencing low-intensity fires can expect that root crowns and surface roots will re-sprout within one year, and water infiltration and erosion potential are not significantly changed from pre-fire conditions.

• Moderate-intensity fire. This classification indicates that high-intensity burns are found on less than 40 percent of the affected area. A moderate-intensity rating alerts fire teams that the designated zone is a potential flood source area, as one of the biggest post-wildfire concerns is flooding due to a diminishment of ground cover. Moderate-intensity wildfires primarily occur on steep, lightly timbered slopes with grass, and they often cause some erosion. Within moderate-intensity wildfire perimeters, duff is consumed, burned needles are evident, ash is generally dark colored, hydrophobicity is low to medium on surface soil up to one inch deep, shrub stumps and small fuels are charred, but present and standing trees are blackened but are not charcoal. Land experiencing moderate-intensity wildfires can expect that root crowns will usually re-sprout, roots and rhizomes below one inch will re-sprout, and most perennial grasses will re-sprout. Vegetative recovery in a moderate-intensity wildfire zone is one to five years.

High-intensity fire. This rating indicates that high-intensity fire has occurred on more than 40 percent of the area within the wildfire perimeter. High-intensity wildfires primarily occur in unprotected drainages on steep, timbered, north or east slopes with a dense forest canopy. They are primarily defined by the ominous words: “natural recovery limited.” Within high-intensity wildfire zones, the duff is totally consumed; ash is uniformly gray or white; no shrub stumps or small fuels remain; hydrophobicity is up to two inches deep; soil is darkened two to four inches deep and often is reddish in color; the soil is crusted, crystallized and agglomerated; roots are burned two to four inches deep; and standing trees have been turned to charcoal at least one inch deep (meaning that they are dust from a mortality perspective). Land experiencing high-intensity wildfires can expect that soil productivity will be significantly reduced and that only roots and rhizomes located in deep soil will re-sprout. Vegetative recovery in a high-intensity wildfire zone is 5 to 10 years, and soil erosion is a significant concern.

Fayhee’s latest post: The Fire Rings of Halfmoon Creek

Dog Names

One of my favorite aspects of sifting through the tsunami of submissions we receive every year for Mountain Gazette’s Mountain Dog Photo Contest is eyeballing the various dog names, which, needless to say, cover a wide gamut.

There are always what I would call “normal— dog names — Sage, Spade, Blue, Ella, Nico, Seamus, Malibu.

Always lots of names that end in a phonetic long “e” — Ozzy, Sophie, Kiki, Cali, Bertie.

And there are usually lots of names that are mountain-specific — Tundra, Talus, Chinook, Summit.

And non-dog animal names — Bear, Hawk, Lobo.

And names associated with specific mountains and mountain ranges — Sawatch, Elbert, Denali, Shavano.

Often, there are town names — Frisco, Dillon, Juneau.

There are names from literature and popular culture — Gandalf, Frodo, Yoda, Stella, Homer, Zool.

The most captivating (some would say strange) dog names I have ever come across, however, did not make their way into my life by way of our Dog Photo Contest.

There’s one dog that visits our local dog park on occasion named, of all unappealing things, “Pot Roast.” This dog is a bulldog whose main attribute seems to be an ability to slobber so profusely that you have to wonder where all that liquid comes from. Pot Roast jumped up on me one time, and, in the point-five seconds it took me to move away from Pot Roast, his slobber had saturated the front side of one pants leg so profusely it soaked clear through — and here I’m talking about from upper-thigh to ankle — to my leg and, even in the bright New Mexico sun, that leg did not dry for two solid hours, most of which I sat in a local watering hole having people ask me if I had just pissed my pants. The whole time, I could not let go of the feeling that what had drenched my pants was not dog slobber, which is bad enough, but, rather, given the dog’s name, greasy gravy. I finally had to leave the bar to go home and change pants and bath my sticky leg.

You can file this one under “Only in New Mexico.” I was walking up Sixth Street from the Silver City Food Co-op one hot summer day, and, from the inside of one of those kinds of cars that are literally held together by predicable, though ambiguous, hyper-liberal bumperstickers proclaiming that Peace is the Way and asking What Would Gandhi Do?, I hear a wild vocal ruckus. There was an aging hippie lady inside that car yelling at the top of her lungs in a way highly unbecoming of an aging hippie lady whose car is adorned with bumperstickers about Gandhi. What she was actually yelling made me ponder hiding behind a light pole, for I did not know the potential ramifications. She was yelling, “BAD KARMA!!! BAD BAD BAD KARMA!!!”

Now, in a place as populated with wizards, witches and god-knows-what as is Gila Country, you can understand my immediate concern. I at first thought she was wishing bad karma upon me personally as I passed. I mean, in my grocery bags were indeed some items that, I guess, were one inclined t look at them thus, could be considered karmically less than pure. Even though it was grass-fed, free-range and hormone free, yes, there was some breakfast sausage. And, shit, I did have some tortilla chips, but, hey, they were completely free of GMO ingredients.

Then, I thought that maybe the lady was doing nothing more than recognizing that some bad karma was right then visiting her for reasons I could not possibly — and had no desire to — fathom. Maybe she had recently purchased some non-free-range sausage. Maybe she had just eaten a whole handful of chicharrones purchased at a convenience store. Maybe her loud vocalizations were nothing more than paying some sort of penance-via-recognition-of-sins.

When I finally mustered the courage the continue walking on by, I noticed that, cowering in the back seat of the car was a guilty-looking dog that had, more than likely, just chewed up a shoe or something. Turns out, the dog was named Karma. Now, who would name their dog such a thing, I don’t know. But there it was.

Back when Mountain Gazette’s office was still in Frisco, Colorado, our then-sales manager hooked up with a lady who brought to the relationship a dog named Groovy. Groovy was a big Weimaraner whose eyes did not always point in the same direction. He was also an escape artist non-pareil. One day, my buddy Mark Fox was asked to watch Groovy while the sales manager left the office for a while. Mark’s focus must have wandered, and, next thing he knew, Groovy was gone. Mark dashed out onto Main Street, where, even in a part of the country inclined to cut people their eccentricity-based slack, I’m sure he drew perplexed attention as he ran down the sidewalk shouting at the top of his lungs “Groovy! Groovy!”

My dog is named Casey. Occasionally, I am asked if it’s “K.C.” or “Kasey.” But, when she screws up, “Bad, Casey” is a lot better than “Bad, Karma,” and, when she runs off, at least I don’t have to run around yelling “Here, Pot Roast” or “Groovy!”

Life in New Mexico is weird enough without having a weirdly named dog.


It would not surprise me one bit, as I sit here way off the cultural mainstream grid in southwest New Mexico, if most people under the age of, say, 40 (maybe 50) have no idea what a Rolodex even is anymore. In an age where digitized address books are located on electronic devices the size of credit cards, the notion of having a fairly large analog (to say the least) piece of hardware taking up space on one’s desk seems antiquated, inefficient and maybe even quaint.

It will also likely surprise no one to hear that I have, directly to the left of my desktop computer, yes, an old Rolodex that does not just serve the purpose of reminding me that, not long ago, the world was not completely digitalized. I actually still use the bugger, which I bought when we first re-birthed the Mountain Gazette in 2000. For many years now, I have thought about simply moving all that information onto my computer, which would clear up my desk, which, when I’m ass deep in the middle of a big project, never seems to have enough surface area. I have trouble talking myself into doing that because I would likely then feel compelled to toss the Rolodex into the trash, and, between the “A” and “Z” tabs lie not just the usual business and personal information necessary to maintain connections with people that transcend Facebook quips. You see, within the confines of my Rolodex lies information about a slew of people I could not utilize in the traditional sense even if I wanted to.

When I learned two weeks ago about the recent passing of long-time Mountain Gazette writer Cal Glover, I chalked up yet another deceased resident of the Fayhee Rolodex. Not to be morbid, but it’s getting to the point where the dead are outnumbering the living in my Rolodex. I now have 13 deceased people (and five deceased entities) listed in my Rolodex, and those listings amount to something of a Who’s Who? of mountain culture.

• Though he passed more than a decade before we re-birth the MG, the first casualty listed in my Rolodex is none other than Edward Abbey, though it’s his last wife, Clarke, whose contact information I have. Clarke was more than gracious when we put together “When in Doubt Go Higher: The Mountain Gazette Anthology.” She gave us permission to use, “Where’s Tonto?” the article that, shortly after it first saw print in the 1970s, became a little tome you might have heard of: “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

• Karen Chamberlain was for the first five years of our resurrection MG’s poetry editor. She remains one of the most critically acclaimed poets in modern Colorado history. She was also the wife of Bob Chamberlain, the best black-and-white mountain photographer who has ever drawn breath and whose page, Bob Chamberlain’s Mountain Vision, appears in MG every month.

• Barry Corbet is the man Mike Moore actually hired to write the introductory essay for the very first issue of MG in Sept. 1972. Corbet spent much of his adult life in a wheelchair, the result of a freak helicopter-skiing accident. He is perhaps best remembered these days as having Corbet’s Couloir ski run at Jackson Hole named after him.

• Donna Dowling: The wife of Curtis Robinson, my partner in MG crime. Donna passed away only a couple years after we resurrected the MG. Among other professional feathers-in-her cap, Donna helped launch the Roaring Fork Sunday newspaper, which, until it was swallowed up by a corporate newspaper chain that eventually shut it down, served as one of the last true independent media voices in the Colorado High Country. Donna is also credited with helping Hunter S. Thompson come up with the idea of folding his voluminous stash of personal letters into book form.

• Joseph Mills Fayhee, my dad, passed away literally one month before our re-launch issue hit the streets. I attended his memorial service in Tucson with my Jeep loaded to the rafters with copies of MG #78, the cover of which featured, of all things, a mock grave. Though my dad and I barely knew each other, we were just getting to the point where bygones were starting to become bygones when he died.

• Cal Glover is the most-recent MG tribe member to pass away. The owner/operator of Callowishus Park Tours in Yellowstone, Cal was a mountain runner who is said to have logged 38,000 miles on foot. He also competed in several Pikes Peak Marathons.

• John Jerome’s legacy with MG goes back to its days as Skiers Gazette. Jerome was the author of many books, including “Truck,” which was excerpted in MG in the ’70s. He was also the anonymous author of MG’s old NED column.

• Kurt Logan was our Arkansas River Valley ad sales person for many years. An avid skier, mostly at Monarch, Kurt was the only real grown-up we had on our payroll back when I still owned the MG.

• Marlene Walker was my mother’s younger sister. Whenever I went to England to visit family, I stayed with Auntie Marlene, who was, true to my mom’s clan, one wild lady. I often communicate with her three kids, my cousins.

• Ellen Meloy, whose “Anthropology of Turquoise” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, just had her first piece published in MG when she passed away. We had reached an agreement wherein she was to provide us with two subsequent pieces. I once did a reading at Back of Beyond Bookstore in Moab. After the reading a bunch of us retired to the Poplar Place for libations. Ellen dropped by and said how sorry she was that she missed the reading, but something had come up. Still, she drove all the way up from her home in Bluff just to pay her respects.

• Dave Oskin was the owner of Big Earth Publishing in Boulder, which owns Johnson Books and Westcliffe Publishing. A few years ago, I signed a contract with Westcliffe to do a massive book project and it turned out, though no fault of Dave’s, to be the single worst experience I have ever had in my professional life. It got so bad, I finally pulled the project from Westcliffe. Many are the publishing company owners who would have made my life difficult at that point. Dave, though, was very understanding and what had been a suck episode at least ended amicably because of Dave’s great personality.

• It would probably be inaccurate to say that Galen Rowell’s career as a photographer and writer got started with MG in the ’70s, but it’s probably not too big a stretch to say just that. Much of Galen’s early work, where he was just getting his voice as a photojournalist/essaying, appeared in MG’s pages. Indeed, the first excerpts from his seminal book, “In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods,” were unveiled in our pages. When we resurrected, Galen was highly supportive and even let us use one of his photographs on the cover of “When in Doubt Go Higher.”

• Many MG fans rightfully look at Edward Abbey as the biggest voice that has ever graced our pages. It surprises people to learn that we actually had a closer connection in many ways to Hunter S. Thompson. George Stranahan, the heart and soul of MG since 1972, actually sold Hunter the land the became Dr. Gonzo’s infamous Owl Creek Farm. George and Hunter lived next door to each other for years. George also used to own the Woody Creek Tavern, where Hunter often imbibed. Because of the friendship between Curtis Robinson/Donna Dowling and Hunter, we were able to get our hands on three original Hunter stories. According to Curtis, Hunter had a poster of one of MG’s covers on his kitchen wall (sadly, I do not know which; though I met Hunter twice, I never visited his house, though I was once invited). He was also a subscriber.

My wife says it’s bad feng shui to keep death at close quarters. But I cannot make myself part with my Rolodex. The cards I have in my Rolodex serve as testaments, certainly, to my personal history, and certainly, to MG’s history. There are also a lot of connections to the literary history of the West.

It’s my guess that I’ll keep my Rolodex as it is, knowing full well that, at some point, the cards containing connections only to the hereafter will one day outnumber the cards of the living. Perhaps it’s a tad macabre, but I like occasionally thumbing through my Rolodex and remembering the notes I got from John Jerome and Galen Rowell congratulating me on the MG’s long-awaited resurrection, and the time Ellen Meloy drove to Moab to say howdy, and the time Dave Oskin sincerely wished me good luck after a two-year book project tanked.

Nothing wrong with that, methinks.

Tropical Cocktails

If my wife could press the rewind button and place her then-unsuspecting self back at the moment (in the middle of the one of the harshest High Country winters in living memory) when she was starting to wonder whether yours truly was a passing fling or Something More (maybe even “The One”), and, if at that moment, I would have mentioned the words “tropical cocktails,” I’m sure she would have been positively swayed. Matter of fact, I’m certain, as I was courting the love of my life, I likely did mention those words, sincerely and presciently, for, verily, we have imbibed in many, many tropical cocktails over the past 30 years. Tropical cocktails of the stereotypical variety, I should herein point out. And consumed actually in, you know, the tropics.

I’m not certain what route my now-spouse would have taken had a more-sinister manifestation — but no less accurate — of those words been presented to her as our relationship was beginning to germinate. Less than a year after making her acquaintance, Gay found herself sitting by my side, not in some palm-thatched beachside bar (though that would certainly come later, in spades), but, rather, in the waiting room of the Denver Health Department’s inoculation clinic. “What are you two here for?” asked the wonderful lady who worked there forever. “Well, we’re heading to Central America,” I responded. “So, you’ll want the whole tropical cocktail, then,” she stated, double-entendre and irony lapping atop one another like Caribbean waters onto white sand. “Er, yes …” was our tentative response.

We had a general idea what was coming our way. We knew, for instance, that we needed to get yellow fever vaccine to legally enter several of the countries we planned to visit over the course of our three-month trip. And we knew we’d need some other stuff. We left it to the nice lady to help fill in blanks that read like a medical text from the 1700s. “Typhus, you’ll definitely need to get typhus. And hepatitis-A. And tetanus. And we’ll need to prescribe you malaria. I’m just wondering whether we should go ahead and give you cholera too. Cholera is even worse than the others.”

Three things popped into my mind at that point: First, I could not help but notice that she did not make reference to giving us shots to (hopefully) thwart those maladies, but, rather, that she kept referring to giving us the maladies themselves. And, second, with regards to her reference to cholera being ‘worse than the others,” was she talking about the disease or the shots? And, third, if she was referring to the shots, did that mean that the other shots were bad and that the cholera shot was really bad?

We would soon learn.

Next to us in the waiting room was a young couple getting ready to embark upon a missionary trip to somewhere in Africa. “What shots are you here to get?” I asked the couple, who had been within earshot of our discourse with the shot-giving lady, by way of a conversational icebreaker.

“Cholera,” they moaned in unison.

Soon, it was our turn. First came yellow fever, a disease so bad it stopped the building of the Panama Canal dead in its tracks — twice. A disease so bad, governmental operations as far north as Washington, D.C. would routinely have to be suspended during the summer months. Then came typhus. I don’t know a thing about typhus, except that its very name makes me want to avoid it like, well, the plague. Any disease that contains a “ph” in the middle is almost certainly one to steer clear of. Then came tetanus. I had forgotten about how noticeable a tetanus injection can be. Then, last but not least, we each got gamma globulin injections for Hep-A. This is a particularly captivating little prick, as the solution is so viscous, it requires a very short, very thick needle to work the syrup into the system. Getting a gamma globulin shot is like getting kicked in the ass with the business end of a stiletto high heel. This reality is made even worse by the fact that everyone agrees that, on its best day, gamma globulin is only about half effective.

At that point, the nice shot-giving lady suggested that maybe that was enough, that, if we felt compelled to get the cholera shot, we maybe ought to come back in a couple weeks.

“How far away did you say you live?” the nice shot-giving lady asked.

“About two hours,” Gay responded.

“That ought to be enough time,” the nice shot-giving lady responded. “You two drive straight home, because you’re not going to be feeling very well.”

Huh? We were operating under the impression that the only bad part of the tropical cocktail experience was going to be the actual injections themselves. What was this about not feeling very well? Living like we did in Grand Lake, which was, in those years, very much off the map, we looked forward to our rare trips to Denver to eat out, visit bookstores and drink in bars that contained warm bodies we did not drink with every goddamned day of the year. Yet, we opted to take the nice shot-giving lady’s advice and beelined back up to the High Country.

We stopped off at the little grocery store in Grand Lake before returning to our diminutive trailer. At that point, we both wondered aloud what the nice shot-giving lady was talking about. It had been more than two hours since she treated us like a pincushion and all we felt was a bit sore around the injection sites. Then, as we were literally standing in the checkout line, it hit us like a train and the erstwhile superficial knowledge that, when one is getting injected with a vaccine, one is actually being given a small dose of the disease, was suddenly no longer superficial knowledge. Our asses were down for two solid days. The only redeeming component of that 48-hour experience was the realization that, if what we experienced — yellow fever lite and typhus lite — were that hideously horrible, then we knew we did not want to experience the real thing.

“Why aren’t we just going to Europe?” Gay moaned midway through our ordeal.

Why indeed?

Gay basically goes with whatever flow comes her way. Had I been an antiques enthusiast or a devotee of various forms of culture and couth — museums, art galleries, Broadway plays, well-coiffed poetry readings — I don’t believe it would have negatively effected the evolution of our relationship one bit. She did not become interested in me because of my attraction toward traveling to the kinds of places that require nasty-assed inoculations just to legally enter the country. Nor did she shy away from me because of that.

The trip to Central America became probably the defining component in a relationship that has spanned almost three decades. We got to visit the most-war-torn parts of El Salvador during the height of that sad country’s vicious civil war. We got to experience the joy and rapture of proximate exchanges of automatic weapons fire between the Contras and the Sandinistas while tromping through the jungles of Nicaragua. We enjoyed sneaking off a perfectly pleasant caye at the crack of dawn because I had purchased pot from a narc in Belize and, if the island rumor mill was right, I was about to get busted. We took pleasure in negative-five-star accommodations that included a brothel in Costa Rica, an assassin-bug-infested thatched hut in Guatemala, a bombed-out pension in El Salvador that had inoperative plumbing (understatement … use your imagination), a rainforest campground that boasted such high-class amenities as reptiles crawling out of the shower drain and myriad backcountry digs that came with room service consisting mainly of swarms of biting insects, poisonous snakes and the kinds of scurrying noises out in the dark jungle that make the notion of getting out of the tent to take a leak at 2 a.m. less than appealing.

Of course, we also saw quetzals, the most resplendent avian species in the Western Hemisphere. And sharks, barracudas, mantra rays and moray eels on the Belizean reef. And white-faced moneys frolicking in the highest canopy. And we paddled down meandering rivers and hiked up volcanoes and trekked through cloud forest and on an on.

And not once we either of us contract any malady more severe than debilitating hangovers spawned by very cheap rum consumed on full-moon beaches with the dolphins frolicking offshore.

Since that trip, we have interfaced with the tropics on numerous other occasions, and, before each foray, there’s the inevitable trip to the inoculation clinic for whatever horrible booster cocktail was required by the pathogen populations of wherever it was we were headed. None of those tropical cocktails have ever been as bad as the first, but, truthfully, none of our tropical journeys has been as wonderful as that first trip overland by creaky trains and rickety pick-up trucks and thumb and foot.

Two weeks ago, we drove down to Passport Health Services in Tucson for yet another round of tropical cocktails in preparation for an upcoming trip to Cameroon. This go-round, it was: yellow fever, typhus, Hep-B, tetanus, malaria, avian flu, polio and meningitis, as well as a Cipro script because cholera shots are no longer recommended (thanks be for small favors).

We were worried because the clinic is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the Casa De Fayhee. Normally, when we’re in Tucson, we go grocery shopping at Whole Foods, visit Mountain House in case there are any gear-acquisition emergencies, stop in at a couple bars, eat at P.F. Chang’s, stroll through the camera department at Best Buy — all things unavailable in the boondocks town we call home. But, this time, we dashed home as fast as our Outback would carry us, in hopes of being on the couch when the inevitable shot-induced sickness(es) hit.

This go-round, we suffered nary a symptom. Not even sore arms.

Wonder what kind of trip that portends.

P.S. Just for the record: We did take a cultured-and-couth trip to Europe a few years back. Checked out lots of museums and art galleries. Dined in places with tablecloths. Slept in hotels that had working plumbing and no reptiles emerging from the shower drain. It was very pleasant, and it was a trip that required nary an injection beforehand. But, even as I was standing before the Mona Lisa, I found myself wishing that I was right then tromping through some nasty-assed stretch of jungle, where, sure, there lurk snakes and assassin bugs, but where also lurk white-faced monkeys and quetzals.

The Peaks of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech

Author’s note: For the past couple years, I’ve been toiling away feverishly on a book titled, “A Colorado Mountain Companion,” scheduled to be released this spring by Pruett Publishing in Boulder. One of the chapters examines Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, which is appropriate for the book, because it mentioned the Colorado Rockies specifically. With a respectful nod toward the recently past  Martin Luther King Day, I decided to revamp the chapter a bit and post it herein.

On August 28, 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered what has come to be known as his “I Have A Dream” speech (1), justifiably considered one of the greatest examples of oration in American history.

The speech was delivered to an estimated 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., during the March on Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest gatherings during the entire Civil Rights Movement.

Dr. King went vertical as the speech reached its glorious crescendo:

“So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that—Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring!”

The rank of the mountains referenced directly or indirectly in Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech are:

  1. Mount Whitney, California: 14,495 feet
  2. Mount Elbert, Colorado: 14,433 feet
  3. Mount Washington, New Hampshire: 6,288 feet
  4. Mount Marcy, New York: 5,344 feet
  5. Mount Davis, Pennsylvania: 3,213 feet
  6. Lookout Mountain, Tennessee: 2,146 feet
  7. Stone Mountain, Georgia: 1,680 feet
  8. Woodall Mountain, Mississippi: 806 feet

(1) Segments of the “I Have A Dream” speech, part of which was prepared and part of which was extemporaneous, were given a test drive by Dr. King in June 1963, when he delivered a speech incorporating some of the same sections in Detroit, where he marched on Woodward Avenue with Walter Reuther and the Reverend C.L. Franklin. He had reportedly rehearsed other segments of the speech previously.

The “I Have A Dream” speech was embroiled in controversy on two occasions.

First, there were allegations that King had plagiarized at least 20 percent of the speech—most of the last two minutes—from a speech delivered at the 1952 Republican National Convention by the Reverend Archibald Cary, Jr.

Second, because King had distributed copies of his speech prior to its delivery at the Lincoln Memorial, its copyright status was in dispute for 36 years! In 1999, the civil case, Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. versus CBS, Inc., was settled out of court with the understanding that the King estate owned the copyright for the speech.

Sources: The idea for this section, as well as much of the information, came from peakbagger.com. The details of the speech came from Wikipedia.


Editor’s note: Here’s a note from long-time Mountain Gazette contributor Alan Stark, which I took to heart:

John: Here’s an idea.

Ask your regular MG contributors for two New Year’s resolutions for a joint blog to send out next week. Maybe one with tongue in cheek and one semi-serious.

I, Alan Stark, resolve to:

A. Be circumspect in using the term asshole and its plural for any individual, corporate or governmental entity for at least a week.
B. Spend more time with my life friends, at least the ones who are not assholes.


Like George Orwell (“Politics and the English Language,” 1946), Nobel literature laureate (2001) Sir Vidiahar Naipaul offered (ca. 2007) seven simple rules for all who tap on keyboards and put mice on pads. I, Michael Brady, resolve to adhere to more to them, particularly numbers 1 and 3:

1) Do not write long sentences.
3) Do not use big words.


I, Vince Welch, resolve to:

A. Use less words than more words in my written and verbal efforts to communicate because we live in age of brevity, sound bite and short attention spans and Raymond Carver’s short stories (and sentences) were so compelling (and short) and he had a Svengali-like editor that, according to some accounts, made Carver’s short sentences even shorter, but more to the point, because my wife believes that we Americans cannot stand silence or pregnant pauses and always interrupt, to which I reply “Look at Fayhee’s sentences, and as MG editor, he never lets a comma or a misspelling get in the way of a good story and he would cause Carver’s editor extreme agitation leading to heart palpitations and night sweats unless he had recently read ‘Crime and Punishment’ or one of Joyce Carol Oates’ sentences.”
B. Go surfing in 2012.


I, Tricia Cook, resolve to:

A. Read again the Carver books on my bookshelves. Sober. I will chase Carver with Vonnegut, and then Robbins (mebbe not so sober). With reverence, I will take down from my bookshelves and reread Peacock and Abbey. Hayduke lives!
B. Crawl out from under this rock.


In an ongoing effort to evolve from any and all reptilian-brain tendencies, I, Tara Flanagan, resolve:

A. To not watch or discuss debates about the 2012 presidential election (see Alan Stark’s resolution about assholes).
B. To help out a complete stranger in an unexpected and unconventional way — paying forward the good turn of events I’ve had lately.


I, Dawne Belloise, resolve to:

A. Party like it’s 2012.
B. Have better excuses for not turning in articles in a timely fashion.


I, George Sibley, resolve to:

A. Stop reading political porn about Republican presidential candidates.
B. Write something worthy of Mountain Gazette.


I, B. Frank, hereby renew my yearly Securing the Homeland “to do” list (aka resolutions) to:

A. Preemptively spike a Hummer (or any other Landscape Assault Vehicle); use “because it was there” defense.
B. Practice random guerrilla acts of consensual gratification.
C. Unilaterally hug: trees, forests, neighbors, animals, lover.


I, M. John Fayhee, resolve to:

A. Spend less time reading guidebooks and more time wandering aimlessly through the woods.

B. Remind myself when appropriate that there are plenty of times when being an asshole is OK, especially when I’m being an asshole to an asshole (i.e subscribing to the Law of Equal, Opposite and Collinear Assholes).


Spider Man, Part 2

Read Spider Man, Part 1 here.

• My amigo Norb and I were ass deep in China’s remote Tiger’s Leaping Gorge in 1987. We were on assignment for Backpacker magazine to journalistically witness the first commercial rafting descent of the Class-5/Class-6/waterfalls-of-certain-death/no-rescue-possible Yangtze River through the gorge, an event that did not actually take place because, once the rafters saw what they would be up against, they pussied out and trucked their rafts downriver to calmer waters. Norb and I therefore had to scramble mightily to salvage a story we had traveled halfway around the world to cover.

Not only that, but, this was the autumn of the famed Tibetan uprising, which caused many parts of China that bordered Tibet to be closed down to foreign visitation. Ergo, we had to sneak the 90 kilometers from Lijiang into Tiger’s Leaping Gorge under cover of darkness via a variety of improvised (read: bribed) means — including riding for a while on the back of a two-stroke Chinese tractor — after receiving threats from the local constabulary that, if we were caught entering the area, we would be arrested, interrogated/thrashed with canes, sentenced to hard labor and deported to someplace truly awful.

Despite the overt pussiness of the rafters, we continued through the Gorge in hopes that we could still salvage the assignment situation by putting together a yarn about our hike, even if we had to fabricate stuff to make the tale saleable. At one point, Norb, the expedition photographer, decided to ascend a small side canyon so he could get a good downward angle that took in both yours truly in the foreground and the depths of the 11,000-foot-deep canyon in the background.

Good plan that, on the surface, was only slightly complicated by the fact that, a couple days prior, we had the good fortune of trading almost all of our food supply, several pieces of backpacking gear and a handful of nearly worthless Chinese Monopoly money for a half-ounce of opiated Kashgari hash, which was, shall we say, stunningly efficacious, at the same time that we had not exactly been judicious in our imbibing habits. Yes, we were two mighty stoned units as Norb made his way through the thickly brushed side canyon in praiseworthy search of photographic excellence.

He was concentrating so hard not getting caught up in the various species of thorny shrubbery that adorned the side canyon that he did not see the spiders until it was too late. I actually saw them before he did. I did not yell. I could not yell. It was like one of those bad drams where you freeze up right when shit’s hitting the fan big time. I told myself later that I did not yell because I thought Norb must have already noticed the fact that, scant feet above him, the side canyon traveled through a genuine house of eight-legged horrors. I do not know how many spiders there were, but there were literally hundreds and hundreds of them, all staking out territory in massive webs that covered every bush, tree, twig and blade of grass over the entire hillside.

And these were not any ordinary spiders. First, they were all long and spindly, with legs several inches long. And they were psychedelically colored — like the unnatural yellows, greens and reds that are used on laundry detergent boxes. As soon as Norb nicked the first web, every psychedelic spider on that hillside went into protect-our-turf mode and they descended upon Norb’s suddenly shrieking (and did I mention, extremely stoned?) self like the orcs coming down those columns in the caverns where Gandalf lost his battle against the Balrog. Norb’s resultant body language, which was enhanced by boisterous invectives followed by large exclamation points, hovered somewhere between what you would expect of a human body if it were being electrocuted or set on fire. This situation was further enhanced because, at that time, Norb sported a fairly impressive ’fro, which, given the number of days we had been out, was fairly matted. So many spiders became entangled in Norb’s tresses — many of which got smooshed by Norb’s frantic flailings — that he might as well have been wearing arachnid mousse.

Within seconds, Norb was covered in spiders, many of which had made their way under his shirt and shorts. And there was only one thing for me to do, besides, of course, run screaming in the exact opposite direction: I had to assist my chum. Despite the fervent protestations of every strand of DNA coursing through my corpus delecti, I scampered up that side canyon and intercepted Norb, who was descending in an imprudent manner. At first, I tried brushing the spiders off my writhing muchacho. But there were too many, and they were holding onto Norb like bullriders at a rodeo. So I had to start picking them off with my fingers, one by one, and throwing them as far as I could. More often than not, I would go through the tossing motion, only to see that the spider was still in my hand, like one of those boogers that molecularly adheres to your nose-picking finger no matter how hard you try to flick it out the car window.

Even as the spider-removal process was underway, we were gradually, inch by spidery inch, making our way down the side canyon back to the trail. It took us a solid hour to rid Norb of those spiders. It was like going through detox, except that these spiders were real. By the time the removal process was mostly physically completed (the psychic scars did not go away quite to easily; for days afterward, Norb would imagine spiders in his pants or in his sleeping bag), we were twitching and screaming and hyperventilating right there in the middle of what in those parts passes for a fairly busy thoroughfare. Just as we were starting to calm down ever so slightly, we looked over and an entire family of Chinese peasants straight out of a National Geographic spread was standing there, jaws agape, eyes wide open, huddling very close together. This was a time and place when and where Westerners were rare. Had we been standing decorously while nattily attired, we would have been viewed with extreme suspicion, maybe even contempt. But here we were, yelling, screaming, gesticulating and twitching like we had both just been Taser’d. I tried to reach deep down into my decorum recesses and mouth a calm-ish greeting that came out in bad-Chinese falsetto. The entire family screamed and fled, their hands raised high.

When our pulse rates finally reached non-lethal levels, and we were just getting to the point where we could chuckle a bit about the experience, Norb looked up Nightmare Gully and realized that, halfway up, on the ground, lay his camera bag, covered in spiders. He seriously considered leaving it right there, but, being a professional, he bit his lower lip and made his way back up into the land of spindly legs to retrieve his cherished photographic equipment. I stayed on the trail this time, guarding the hash.

• This time, Norb and I were down in the Dominican Republic, working on magazine stories for Backpacker and Adventure Travel. We had already visited Isla Cabritos National Park — at 130 feet below sea level, the lowest and hottest part of the Caribbean — and ascended Pico Duarte — at 10,164 feet, the highest and coldest point in the Caribbean. We were planning to paddle our inflatable one-person Sevylor kayaks down the Rio Yuna, which, as far as we could tell, had not been descended in full since Columbus times.

In between our various Dominican forays, we would hang out Santo Domingo, the capital, for a few days to rest up, re-supply and recreate. One of the places we would visit was called Maison de Mama, an outside restaurant/bar favored by Santo Domingo’s sizeable ex-pat community. One of the regulars was a giant American who boasted a hideous scar that had devoured most of one calf, which, judging from the other calf, had been the size of a watermelon before whatever unfortunate event transpired. Norb and I would sip lukewarm Presidente beers and speculate about the nature of the injury. My best guess was a shark attack. Norb’s best guess was that he had been in motorcycle mishap and had got his lower leg caught in the chain at like 100 mph. Finally we decided to just ask him, in the most delicate way we could. “Dude, what the fuck happened to your leg?” Norb queried.

The entire outside seating area, consisting of six or seven four-top tables that were fully occupied, went suddenly silent. Faces turned ashen as people started examining their cuticles in earnest detail.

“I got bit by a brown recluse,” the man said, dejectedly.

Turns out that, at first, the man had no idea what was wrong with his calf. He only knew that it was extremely painful and that sizeable acreage of erstwhile living tissue was starting to turn black, smell horrible and, well, fall off. Even though he had lived in the DR for many years, like many expats we met, he did not hold Dominicans in high esteem. Thus, he opted to fly back to his native Wisconsin to seek First-World medical care. The doctors in the decidedly non-tropical Badger State were nonplussed, and stayed that way for weeks, as this man’s calf was disintegrating. They thought it might maybe be some sort of flesh-eating virus, so they treated the injury as such. And so it went. For months and months. I don’t remember how the light eventually went on, but it was determined that he had been the victim of a negative brown recluse interaction — something that, had he sought medical treatment in the DR, would likely have been diagnosed and treated properly from the get-go, because, we then learned, that particular variety of poisonous spider dwelled in abundance throughout Hispaniola, and many people suffer from its bite. “It’s especially bad down in the river lowlands and along the swampy coastline,” we were told. “Where did you say you were going paddling?”

We said were going paddling in the river lowlands and along the swampy coastline.

Shit. The last time Norb and I looked at each other that way was over in Hong Kong, when we were hiking the famed MacLehose Trail and we learned, at the trailhead, of all places, that the entire area through which we were going to traverse was thick with some of the most poisonous species of snakes in the world, including, but not limited to, an especially aggressive variety of King Cobra, a reality that makes you wonder, as you’re lying there in your tent regretting mightily drinking those last seven beers, if you can hold your piss until morning, ’cause getting out of the tent in the middle of the night in a woods filled with aggressive King Cobras is totally out of the question.

Our first night on the Rio Yuna, we ended up camping in the middle of a diminutive riverside mud pit. We had been looking for a more desirable place to bunk down for several hours, but, given the steepness of the bluffs and the thickness of the tropical vegetation, there were simply no other options. The mud pit/campsite was so small that we only had room to pitch one tent. As darkness rapidly descended — as it does in the lower latitudes — we leaned our packs against a tree and entered the tent. I awoke first and, before donning my glasses — a physiological requirement if I stand any chance whatsoever of making visual sense out of the world — I went over to the packs to pull out the cook kit and food bags. When my hand was scant inches from the pack, I saw something large move, but, give my unfortunate spectaclelessness, I could not make out what it was. At first, I thought it was a monkey laying claim to my Lowe Expedition. I dashed back to the tent to retrieve my eyewear, telling Norb excitedly that a simian of some sort was perched atop our gear. Norb then reminded me that there are no monkeys in the wilds of the DR. I put my glasses on a returned to the packs, and only then did I realize that what was perched atop my pack was not a monkey, nor even a mammal, nor even a warm-blooded creature, but, rather, the single largest spider ever to tromp the earth. And it was brown. And territorial in the extreme. Whenever I inched toward my pack, it inched toward me, snarling.

When we were having the brown recluse conversation back in Santo Domingo, Norb and I took it upon ourselves right then and there to become the world’s foremost brown recluse experts. We asked everyone we could find what brown recluses looked like, and, par for our course, everyone we asked had a completely different story. Sometimes brown. But not necessarily. As the name indicates, reclusive and shy. No! Their nomenclature notwithstanding, aggressive. Large. Small. Diurnal. Nocturnal. Spindly. Stout. The only characteristic that everyone seemed to agree on was that brown recluses have a violin-shaped marking on their back, though some said it was only the female that sported such cultured decoration, while others said it was only the male, while others said the violin was only visible at certain ages/times/conditions. Exasperatedly, Norb and I decided that, anything we ran into with more legs than a snake was to be considered a brown recluse until proven otherwise.

In the early morning dim light, which was made even dimmer by the verdancy of the jungle, we could not tell if the mammoth creature staking a claim atop my pack had a visible violin on its back.

“You’ve got better eyes then I do, you get closer and look,” I said to Norb.

“It’s your pack,” he responded.

“Yeah, but we need to move my pack to get to your pack.”

In the end, I knew it was my task to deal with the spider. I picked up a long stick and tried to brush it aside. It knocked the stick away. I poked at it. It grabbed the end of the stick and poked back. Finally, I raised the stick with the full intent of dispatching the creature, but every time I struck, it dodged my blow, seemingly sneering at me the entire time. It finally dawned on me to crush it with the bottom of my Teva. I stomped down, and the next thing I knew, I had been tossed back onto the ground three feet away. We were fast running out of ideas. Then, of all fortuitous things, a ray of sunshine broke through the canopy and struck the spider like a magnifying glass. The spider raised its legs across its face, shrieked, jumped off my pack and dashed into the jungle.

Whew, we said simultaneously, just as that one ray of light disappeared.

I reached over and grabbed my pack, exposing Norb’s bright red Mountainsmith. At that moment, a second giant simian spider jumped out and staked out its turf atop Norb’s pack. As I prepared breakfast, Norb sharpened a stick and, before long, he returned with a skewered spider impaled on the point. His victory was mitigated somewhat by the fact that the top of his pack, right where the second spider had made its last stand, was a large hole, made by the sharpened stick Norb has used to dispatch his eight-legged foe.

• It had been a hot, 10-hour, 4,500-vertical-foot descent into Mexico’s Copper Canyon. While my wife, Gay, and photographer Mark Fox chilled on the side of the Urique River, I decided to slide into the tent for some late-afternoon shut-eye.

When I arose, I was groggy and, instead of joining Gay and Mark down by the cooling water, I sat in the sand and leaned back against a rock. What happened next was exacerbated by the fact that, at dawn, up on the rim, I had moved a rock to create a hole for my morning deposit, and from under that rock emerged a tarantula that seemed mighty displeased at having been disturbed.

OK, I’ve seen plenty of tarantulas and, once I got over the initial reaction of having an arachnid the size of my hand appearing from the bowels of the earth while I’m looking for a comfortable place to make dookie, all was well. After all, everyone knows tarantulas are mellow creatures. Harmless.

But there I am, leaning against that rock down at the very bottom of one of North America’s deepest abysses, trying to wake up. I saw it out of my peripheral vision, and, at first, it flat out did not compute. Then it landed on the right side of my neck, just above the jugular. A monster-sized tarantula. Mellow creatures or not, having one jump out of the blue onto one’s neck is an adrenaline-producing experience, let me tell you.

I jumped up, swatting the spider, but I did not see what had become of it. From what Gay and Mark told me later, I was rather excited. Matter of fact, the two of them, unaware that there was a giant tarantula on my neck, looked up to see me a couple dozen yards away break dancing, using expletives and asking over and over in an agitated tone of voice, “Where is it? Where is it?” Gay thought I was having a stroke or a heart attack.

They both ran over, half expecting to perform CPR. By the time they arrived, I had located the spider, which was by then lounging on the side of my tent. When I related the story, the urge to laugh was assuredly mitigated by the fact that there is not a single human being who has ever lived who does not shit his or her pants at the thought of having a tarantula jump upon one’s neck. I feel fairly safe in saying that I am not the only one who would panic.

After a few minutes, the tarantula continued upon its merry way.

“On second thought, I think I’ll put my tent up tonight,” said Mark, who, up until that point, had planned to sleep out under the stars.

• And, speaking of tarantulas …

My buddy Fosco Spinedi, a Swiss-Italian I have known since high school, joined me for three weeks while I made my way from Utah to Mexico along the Arizona Trail. His first day out, just south of Flagstaff, we found ourselves in the middle of the autumn tarantula migration, which, while certainly lesser known than the migration of the African wildebeest, is still a sight to behold. Since this migration, which consisted of literally thousands of tarantulas, was southward bound, taking obvious advantage of the Arizona Trail’s tread, we were able to witness it up close and personal.

Fosco, being a life-long resident of the civilized Alps, was somewhat taken aback at the notion of sharing the trail with several thousand humongous spiders. But he calmed down a bit once he realized that, since there were so many, and they we so tightly packed, we could stand atop their backs and get transported along our merry way like Egyptian royalty being borne by bearers down the trail, to life’s next great adventure, life’s next great tale.

Spider Man-Part 1

It is not often that one has the opportunity to actually bear witness to a phobic reaction being played out right before one’s very eyes. (Had I know it was going to happen, I would have brought appropriate recreational refreshments and video recording devices.) Most times, people actively avoid their phobias, thus eliminating the possibility of examining them from a spectator-sport perspective. Those suffering from acrophobia avoid heights, so rarely do we get to observe acrophobics shitting their knickers while tiptoeing along the edge of a precipice.

That, or else reaction to phobic situations gets played out at a more-glacial/less-captivating pace — the gradual sweating and loosening of the neck tie by one experiencing agoraphobia. It’s rare to witness the actual freaking out, like someone experiencing a bad acid trip at an Iron Butterfly reunion concert.

There were four of us ingressing a vehicle on our way to a dayhike. As the packs and water bottles were being placed into the back, a fair-sized spider — doubtless a hitchhiker picked up from a previous backcountry foray — jumped out from between the seats, directly into the psychic view shed of a young lady who, come to learn, suffers from the most-common phobia known to man: arachnophobia. Actually, that’s not entirely true, as arachnophobia is almost exclusively a fear experienced by women. As many as half of all females suffer from arachnophobia, while less than 10 percent of males enjoy that particular mental malady.

I certainly don’t mean to trivialize the notion of phobias in general or arachnophobia in particular. I myself suffer bit of claustrophobia (seems to be getting worse as I get older), as well as pteromerhanophobia (which seems to be getting a bit better). And my long-gone mother, who otherwise boasted a very stiff upper lip, suffered terribly from arachnophobia. When I got bit by a black widow when I was 13, my mom, who generally handled emergency situations pretty well, froze solid with fear, as though she were reluctant to so much as touch someone who had coursing through his veins spider venom, even though that person happened to be her eldest offspring. It was as though she feared that the result of the spider’s bite might be somehow contagious.

Anyhow, during the drive to the trailhead following that young lady’s reaction to having a spider in her immediate vicinity, I got to pondering my own favorite spider stories.

You’ve already heard the first one. We had just moved to our farm in the fetid swamp country of Tidewater, Virginia. (Lordy, why on earth would anybody voluntarily live there?) This marked the third of a holy trinity of I-HATE-this-place experiences that befell my swamp-country-loathing self that summer. The first: While mowing a section of side yard that had not seen a blade in many years (the jungle-like foliage was more than three feet high), the old John Deere hit something so significant that it stopped the motor dead in its tracks. Upon further investigation, I realized that I had just run over a copperhead so big it managed to terminate a lawnmower engine going full tilt, and, worse, I realized that I was now covered from the waist down with snake viscera.

The second experience: While under the old farmhouse tacking up insulation (remember my previous reference to claustrophobia?), I got bit on the face by an adult black snake, one of the largest and most-aggressive species of serpent in the country (though, thankfully, they are not venomous, a reality I believe adds to their shitty disposition, like, they try to make up for their venomlessness by being extra ornery). It was such tight quarters under that house that I could barely move. And I was under the exact middle of the house. And it was about 100 degrees. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw the snake strike just below my left eye. That was quite a tense moment. I had no idea what kind of snake it was as its fangs sank into my cheek, but, in the tumult of my thought processes at that particular juncture, taxonomy was not much on my mind. It took me a full 15 minutes of frantic, desperate wiggling to get out from under the house, and my bellowings fell upon deaf ears, as my mom was inside, standing scant inches from a noisy old air conditioner, as she was canning veggies. She did not hear my anguished howls. When I finally entered the house and related my tale of reptilian woe, my mom skeptically eyeballed the bleeding puncture wounds on my face, probably thinking that I would do anything to get out of finishing the insulation job, and said that, if the snake had been poisonous, I probably would already be dead. She pointed me back under the house. I considered right then beginning a surreptitious spider collection, which I would one day loose upon my arachnophobic madre’s bed.

The fact that I got bit on the left forearm a couple months later by a black widow while stacking firewood was almost anti-climactic compared to the copperhead guts and the face bite. It did require a trip to Dr. Brown’s office and I believe some antibiotics of some sort, along with an admonition to stop being such a pussy. On the drive back home, I thought to myself, well, at least this negative interaction with a hideous member of the animal kingdom wasn’t with another snake!

My last year living in the aforementioned fetid swamp country of Tidewater, Virginia, I had a summer job working for a local land surveyor. It was early one muggy morning with both the temperature and the humidity levels rising fast. Robert White and I were tromping along the edge of a copse looking for a long-lost property marker, which was doubtless buried beneath century’s worth of poison ivy vines, honeysuckle vines, kudzu and blackberry brambles. In that sub-tropical part of the country dwell many varieties of nightmarish creatures, such as Japanese hornets, snapping turtles that can top 100 pounds and these lovely little animals called, innocuously enough, garden spiders, a name that would seem to fit alongside some sort of Miss-Muffet-ish poem. Garden spiders are among the largest arachnids known to man. They are not just long and wide, but they are also beefy, kinda like pit bulls of the arachnid world. They build webs of steel about three-feet-by-three-feet between trees in the shadow land of the Southern hardwood forests. These webs are designed to catch not usually spider fare, such as flies or moths or butterflies. No, they are designed to catch birds, mice, lizards and occasionally hapless dogs. They are near-bouts strong enough to take a man off a horse.

And the garden spiders, often large as a man’s hand, sit not on the edge of the web awaiting their next meal; rather, they sit in the middle of their death traps, jaws oozing poison, daring anyone or anything to fuck with them.

I was walking at a purposeful pace through the woods, and I had just turned my head to the right at the exact second that I yawned one of those deep, long yawns that partially dislocates your jaw and exposes your entire uvula to anyone who happens to be in the vicinity. My mouth was still wide open as I turned my head forward. And just at that instant, I walked into the biggest garden spider web ever constructed. I mean, this was the Empire State Building of spider webs. And, was it my chest that contacted that web? No! Was it my arm or my leg? No! I hit that web as directly face first as though I was aiming my nose at the bulls-eye of a target, which, in this case, happened to be the ass end of a giant garden spider. The web covered my suddenly very flustered mug with perfect symmetry, to the point that it looked as though I were trying on for size a Spiderman Halloween mask. Which would have been bad enough on the potential insanity front. But there was more. As I mentioned, garden spiders hang out in the middle of their two-dimensional death lairs. Laws of probability gave me a 50-50 chance that the spider would have been located on the far side of the web, the part that did NOT make contact with my face. So much for the laws of probability. Not only was the spider on my side of the web, but, with my mouth wide open in mid-yawn, it suddenly found itself trapped inside my gaping maw, resting directly on my tongue, a situation from which it could not possibly escape, given the fact that its own web, now stretched fully and firmly across a face that I can say with full journalistic accuracy had assumed something of a frantic visage, was serving as a barrier to its escape. This, I determined instinctively, was not a good moment to close my mouth. So, I stood there, looking like something straight out of a very bad horror movie, with a steel-cabled spider web stretched across the entirety of my face, with the resident monster-sized spider in my mouth trying frantically to escape, but, every time it tried, it was bounced back by the strength of its web back onto my tongue!

This was indeed a quandary. After what seemed like 14 hours of primordial fear, I just took two big steps backward, and the entire web removed itself from my face, fully in tact, with the garden spider sitting right where it had been before I walked directly into a scene that pretty much made Frodo’s encounter with Shelob seem tame by comparison. I spit/gagged a couple times, swished some water around in my mouth and said to Robert White, whose eyes were at that point as big as saucers, “Kinda tasted like chicken.”

Next time: Part two: Wherein I encounter even more spiders along the Yangtze River in China, in the heart of the Dominican Republic, along the Arizona Trail and in the depths of Mexico’s Copper Canyon Country.

Pulling Burrs From Under the Saddle

It’s important to make a few things perfectly clear right up front, if for no other reason than, by and large, horse people are generally far better armed than I am. First, I grew up around horses on a farm in eastern Virginia. I have been employed in two different horse-related/specific gigs (one working as an equestrian sanitation engineer in Vermont, one working on, of all strange things, a wagon train in Nevada and California), and my first serious girlfriend was a professional thoroughbred racehorse trainer (as well as a fox-hunter and a horse-show devotee) who insisted that I go riding with her often. Unlike most backpackers, I not only know the bow from the stern of a horse, but I know how to saddle and navigate them.

Next, I really like horses. I consider them among the most beautiful creatures on the face of the planet. When I dwelled in the bluegrass country of Kentucky — one of the most horse-dense places in the world — I would often sit and admiringly watch herds of equines running to and fro in the verdant pastures. (This was an especially captivating spectator sport when those horses had upon them comely Kentucky vixens.)

Unfortunately (and here’s where I hear some readers muttering “time to lock and load”), I need to make two further points (excuse me while I hunker down beneath my desk): First, I would basically rather have a root canal that sit atop a steed. Even though I have spent more time around horses than just about any non-horse-person you’re likely to ever meet in your entire life, I have always considered the best horse to be one that did not have me on it. Riding a horse makes me nervous, and, within point-two nanoseconds of parking my butt in a saddle, said butt will be sore beyond my ability to describe on a family-friendly website (the Manson Family, probably, but, still … ).

Next, I’m one of those predictable backpack-toting, Sierra-Clubber granola crunchers who has hiked through life with some serious issues vis-à-vis the subject of horses and the people who drive them through the backcountry. I don’t believe there is any doubt that horses cause more environmental degradation to the backcountry than any quadruped this side of bovines. And the resource damage that is often caused by large groups of horsepackers — especially of the hunting variety — is often so hideous it makes me want to both yak and cry.

All that said, by and large, I would rather rub elbows with horses and horse people than I would with mountain bikes and mountain bikers most any day of the week, which is something I’ve been pondering a fair amount lately, because 1) the place I call home is some serious-assed horse country and 2) we’re starting to see more and more mountain bikers on our local trails, especially those trails closer to town. (One of the main reasons I left the Colorado High Country for the less-green pastures of New Mexico was how many mountain bikers were starting to inundate trails that were forever and ever hiking trails).

There is a gleam in the eye of horse aficionados that I have long admired, one that says, in no uncertain terms, that there is something I am missing in life by not interfacing more with horses.

But, as it’s important to me to maintain my good standing with my elitist backpacking cronies, I always shake my head at the mere mention of horses and their undeniable negative effects on the backcountry environment. The eroded trails. The mounds of fly-covered horse droppings. The stench of urine that lingers for hours in the trail. The trash-heaped and denuded campsites. The sense of trail-hierarchy entitlement that, were such a feeling limited to the many ranchers who call Gila Country home, it would be one thing, but, sad to say, that attitude has infested even affluent newbies (the kind who wear expensive riding helmets out into the boonies), who act as though they have a proprietary right to our local trails that borders on a sense of ownership, which pisses me off, because it contradicts MY sense of proprietary right to our local trails that borders on a sense of ownership!

Anyhow, a few years ago, Tom Shealey, the then-editor of Backpacker magazine called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing a story on horsepacking. (I’m certain he’s still chuckling.) After I regained my composure and cleaned up the beer I had just spilled, I asked what was up with Backpacker doing a story on, of all things, horsepacking. What was next, queried I, a piece on dirt-biking?

Tom told me that he had heard that, in the previous few years, the equine community had started cleaning up its act to the point that, after decades of being dissed in print for its lack of environmental consciousness by magazines like Backpacker, it was high time we high-fived lovers of horses, if, indeed, the rumors he had heard were true. Before I could shout “giddeeup!” I had a plane ticket to Montana in-hand. (The timing was very fortuitous, as I was at that time in the middle of a multi-month DUI-based driver’s license suspension that, as far as I could tell, did not prohibit me from driving a horse, though I personally know of at least two people who have been cited for driving their equines while in their cups.) I went on a three-day horsepacking trip with Dr. Richard Clark, a professor of biology and outdoor recreation at Western Montana College in Dillon, a town, I should note, with enough bars to do any Colorado resort town proud.

Clark was a card-carrying adherent of the concept of horse people bending over backwards to minimize their environmental impact. As the founder of the Professional Guide Institute, he devoted a significant amount of his time and effort to spreading the gospel of aggressive resource protection consciousness to his kindred horse people spirits. Though Clark had a few bureaucracy-related problems with Leave No Trace Inc., he bought in wholeheartedly to LNT’s ethics.

Clark’s quest was based upon a twofold premise: That the only future the ranching industry has in the West is to diversify economically, and that guiding and outfitting provides an very real contextual opportunity for many ranch families to make a little extra dinero in these tourism-intense times. (Despite the fact that he is a college professor, Clark, it should be noted, was a bonafide good ol’ boy, having been raised in rural Idaho on a ranch.) Next, Clark believes that if outfitters, horsepackers and horse-people of all stripes do not start practicing minimum-impact strategies in the backcountry, then their unfettered public-access days are numbered. I agree with Clark that more trails will be closed to horses and the Forest Service Special Use Permits required of outfitters to operate on public lands will be yanked if they do not clean their act up, significantly and pronto.

Clark’s message was a tough one to preach in rural Montana where (how to say this tactfully?) tradition reigns supreme. But, when I last heard from him several years ago, he was making inroads, even among the harder-core 90th-generation outfitters who are not exactly accustomed to changing their ways because some professor says they ought to.

The message that Clark was trying to bring to the saddled masses is also being preached with conviction in Colorado, though that consciousness has yet to make any serious inroads that I can see in the southern part of the Land of Enchantment, where I live. The National Outdoor Leadership School has for more than a decade been offering week-long Leave No Trace Masters courses for professional horsepackers outside Durango. Hundreds of people have passed through that class. LNT has published a booklet of environmentally friendly backcountry horsepacking. And the Durango-based San Juans Mountain Association’s Ghost Riders program — wherein horse people go out into the mountains preaching the gospel of Leave No Trace to their brethren — has spread to other parts of the country.

Numerous people I have talked to on this subject say the tide is turning with regards to the way horse people look at the backcountry and their impacts on the backcountry. All that, of course, is wonderful, though I have this knot in my stomach about the fact that, once again, it seems like backpackers are still sitting atop their perch, which is located on the summit of the self-proclaimed moral high ground, dictating performance standards by which all others must live.

I once talked on the phone with a horsepacker who has seen the minimum-impact light. He spoke with the conviction of a born-again Christian, without the incoherent babbling. He effused my ear off about the practical and ethical benefits of treading lightly on the land. He verily preached about the need for horse people to make it a point of honor to leave little, if any, trace of their passing. He even marveled at about the recent improvements in quality of freeze-dried food, which he now carries to save weight.

It truly warms my otherwise stone cold heart to see a demographic group as large and passionate as horse people buying into the notion of Leave No Trace. I know it’s a tough sell for many horse people, but, hell, no other user group has roots that grow that far back into history. It may take a few years for these new missionaries to reach the furthest tribes, but, hey, my hat’s off to them.

Now, if only the LNT message can be spread into the world of mechanized backcountry travel — as well as to the ski areas — then, truly, we can count on a good future for our public lands.