Of Artists and Athletes

The artist John Gorman of Bend competes with every thing he's got.

How do these two seemingly divergent personalities exist in the same people so beautifully.

I’ve always been fascinated by the duality of the artist-athlete personality.

What is it that drives someone to push their physical limits, as well as their creative ones, to the extreme? And how can these two parts of life exist so perfectly in the same people?

This seeming dichotomy between the athlete and the artist was documented in the 1974 Werner Herzog film, “The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner.”

When my buddy James Brooks recommended this film to me a number of years ago I was blessed with one of those “ah ha” moments where one realizes they are not alone in their emotionally intellectual quandaries. In this seminal short film, Herzog documents his own lifelong exploration of what he refers to as “ecstatic truth.” The film is about the famed ski jumper Walter Steiner, who shattered ski jumping (or as Steiner calls it, ski flying) records from 1970-1977 and worked during the day as a carpenter and wood carver.

The duality of his art forms as a skier and sculptor is artfully deconstructed in what Herzog called one of his most important films. The name of the film itself speaks volumes, referencing Irving Stone’s biography of Michelangelo, “The Agony and Ecstasy,” and the film work is solemn, monotone and filled with contemplative, introspective moments of both wood carving and ski jumping, intermixed with violent crashes and egotistical rants, painting the picture of this potentially conflicted personality. It made me realize I was not the only one consumed. And as the years go by, I seem to meet more and more of these arist-athletes.

“These two pursuits that at first glance seem at odds with each other really have quite a lot of similar things fueling them. The willingness to suffer, the ever-compelling jump between juxtaposing emotional states, the introspective knowledge that comes from experiencing them and the sense of accomplishment when the long sought-after route is climbed or the piece that took months to paint is completed,” said Marisa Ware, an athlete and artist who splits her time between San Francisco, Calif., where she recently completed a Master’s in illustration at the Academy of Art, and Boulder, and various climbing crags and campgrounds around the West.

“All this said, I do feel constantly torn between these two obsessions of mine. When I’m on a climbing trip surrounded by other climbers, I feel that one side of me is being wholly satisfied. I love sleeping in the back of a truck, waking in the cold morning, eating breakfast cooked on a camp stove, spending the day totally exerting myself and watching my friends do the same, all of us witnessing each other’s triumphs and defeats, then returning to camp exhausted to sit around a fire and fall asleep under the stars,” Ware said. “Yet within this partial version of my own paradise, I feel the absence of the other half,” she continued. “I don’t feel my artistic side being stimulated or nourished, so I return to the city, immerse myself in my classes, spend hours upon hours holed up in a dark room, inspired, solitary, engrossed in the workings of my own creativity,” she said.

30381_4896727895404_119619873_nAfter years of exploration and the depleting of emotions on so many levels, I know it has something to do with the need to push oneself, emotionally, physically, creatively. That truly exhaustive feeling that can only be achieved by six hours of going hard in the saddle, battling raging rapids or clinging to exposed sandstone, and also by expelling the emotions of a brutal childhood onto paper, attempting to quell an insatiable urge to tell a visual or musical story, or by photographing and printing something that speaks to who we are as human beings.

“Both pursuits require suffering,” said Ware. “All of my teachers keep reiterating that point, as does my experience. There is joy, relaxation, and meditative states involved with creating art, but those enjoyable states are balanced by frustration, vexation, and dissatisfaction. The level of determination and concentration that it takes to sit through a six-hour figure drawing class is the same that a climber needs to train for hours at the gym in preparation for whatever route they’re trying to climb.”

The life of the artist, however, doesn’t always lend itself well to the life of the athlete. Artists like to stay up late, dark emotions often lead to the best work, and this leads to the same feelings of ecstasy and depravation we get from extreme sports. So how do we find a balance?JCG_ambrotype

“I think the essential conflict here is the one we all face – striving for balance in all facets of life. The work/life dichotomy is a major struggle when you are an independent creative running your own shop,” said Tampa, Fla., based freelance photographer and adventure motorcyclist Joseph Gamble. “Riding a motorcycle forces you to attend to the present moment. Trips can require great care and planning, maintenance of the bike, reservations and permits for campsites, but when you are on the bike, pulling back the throttle, there is a real symmetry between man and machine. More importantly, you are forced to reckon with the present moment, whether you are managing rush hour traffic or bombing through a sandy trail. There is no past and no present in these moments. For me, adventure motorcycling then becomes a system reboot, a defragging of the mind.”63806_1658322897303_1174976_n

“There’s a need for aesthetic in the person that’s not dissimilar to the need for aesthetic in art. Practically speaking, I cannot do my art without being somewhat athletic…I have backpacked and hiked thousands of miles in my life to make my living from photography,” Colorado landscape photographer John Fielder explained to me. “Mind and body are symbiotic: a fit body begets a fitter mind, and a fit mind underlies the discipline needed to care about one’s body. I could not have made one tenth of the photographs I’ve made in 40 years without having remained reasonably fit and aware of my physicality and the part it plays in my life.”

Some are seemingly able to find a balance better than others. “I think that on some level, the motivation must be coming from the same fervent source, but honestly, most of the time those two aspects of myself seem pretty divided,” said Ware.

“I would say it’s in the desire to achieve perfection of form in both,” said Aspen-based cyclist, massage therapist and designer Shawn Hadley. “In athletics, as in art, that level of perfection is affected by so many different aspects, making it almost impossible without a little luck and tremendous dedication.”

“I think that being physically active in a sport is very energizing for one’s creative endeavors,” said artist-athlete Jessica Conlan-Glover, a long time mountain girl, runner, and painter. “I feel I am happier and way more positive when I am healthy in all aspects…my body, my mind, my spirit. It gives me energy to be creative and actually more productive when I sit down to a canvas to paint.”

Glover continued: “I think anyone that makes a point to replace something non-beneficial in their lives with an activity that gives them more strength and energy makes them happier and more productive in every part of their daily lives, including being a parent, spouse, employee, or even a customer. If you can take literally 20 minutes, working up to half hour, and then an hour (which is not that much out of your waking 16 to 18 hour day), one can make a notable difference in their energy level and consequently be more productive and happier. This has become a great balance in my life. I love to sit down and paint with that clear mind and motivation.”

DCIM101GOPRO“I experienced a pretty radical paradigm shift a few years ago, realizing (among many other things) that I needed to change my approach and focus my efforts,” Ware continued. “It seemed clear that if I didn’t simplify my pursuits, that I would never achieve any sort of greatness — and that motivation, perhaps, is for me the common thread between climbing and art — a desire to excel, to push myself to my own limits and witness the results. To chase genius.”

Whether it is the pursuit of genius, or a glimpse of Herzog’s ecstatic truth, there is something deep running through us all. Hopefully, in each person’s individual way, they are able to find the balance, to create, to be outdoors, be happy, and to take the risks necessary to get there.

 

Aaron Bible is a freelance writer and photographer and the Digital Editor of Summit Publishing. This piece was originally published in the Summit Daily News.

Photo credits:

1. The artist John Gorman competes with everything he’s got.

2. Marisa Aragon Ware working her wall skills.

3. Self portrait Ambrotype, Joseph Gamble.

4. “The Flora and Fauna of Forgetting” by Marisa Aragon Ware.

5. Joseph Gamble the athlete.

The God of Skiing: South America

Ed’s Note: Few ski bums have perfected the art of living the ski life better than Mountain Gazette’s editor-at-large, Peter Kray. The man has spent years seeing the sport from every angle—from the finish line of the Vancouver Olympics, to safety breaks in the Jackson Hole backcountry, to the halls of the SIA trade show in Vegas, to hiking A-Basin’s East Wall with his dad and brother, to racing as a kid at Eldora, to slumming it up in Austria, Portillo, Alaska, Santa Fe… His book, The God of Skiing, is due out this fall and he will be sharing excerpts from it here at the Gazette for the next few months. Enjoy.

 

THE GOD OF SKIING

By Peter Kray

SOUTH AMERICA

The second time he disappeared everyone said he ran off to Argentina with Marc-Andre, that lanky grinning badger, the reckless French Canadian. The two of them talked about it like a dark green dream at the bottom of the world filled with fields of super skinny cigarette smoking licorice-haired girls who got plastic surgery for bigger lips and bigger butts but wanted tinier tits and had reductions. In Buenos Aires they met up with Marc- Andre’s friends who ran a tour DSC04605operation. They took a train through the Lake District and hired a car to the grasslands. They went to Las Lenas, above the treeline where everyone keeps their goggles on. To Chile, eating fried guinea pigs and washing them down with wooden cups of wine. They found work in the bars, or on the hill as avalanche control in La Parva or Portillo, the tiny private village where the World Cup racers come in August and September to train for the season.

But then they said that he fell in love with the little New England girl with short-black hair and sharp granite eyes who skied like a loping deer and spent her summers teaching skiing in Australia at Thredbo, or Hotham. So he had stopped in Australia then went to New Zealand. He dropped acid every day, living on beer and water, on trekking skis where the slopes echo tree-less as beaches, white and blue and beyond. He was in the saddle of some perfect ridge with just his sleeping bag, a pot for coffee and two bunks, and outside his hut was a crown of mountains.

“You follow the season.”

Other skiers were there though, and no one had seen him. So they said he left me the dog to drive south with Miller, through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, down broken roads with bad weather and bandits to the brown-white sands of Nicaragua where they would surf through August and come back in the Avocado, Miller’s old green Ford truck with the weather-beaten white camper and more than 100 pounds of marijuana to smoke and sell so they wouldn’t have to work all season. He was cutting trees in British Columbia. Guiding rivers in Alaska. And I was just borrowing the dog.

Someday, I would have to give Toby back to him.

 

***

 

DEEP READ: The Storms of Denali

Seattle based author and writing teacher Nicholas O’Connell has been exploring the high country and writing about mountaineering for national magazines for decades. But his latest book The Storms of Denali is no wonky service column on how to bag the highest peaks in Washington. It’s a page-turner of a novel that draws on O’Connel’s climbing experience. That combination of big-mountain authenticity and literary wit has earned him a wide range of praise, including kudos from author David Guterson, guide book legend Fred Beckey and famed mountaineer Lou Whittaker. 

See Nick read from the book tonight April 10 at the American Alpine Club in Golden, Colorado, at 7 p.m. and tomorrow night April 11 at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder at 8 p.m. Check for more readings and sign up to hone skills in travel, climbing and wine writing at O’Connell’s The Writer’s Workshop. Look for future readings across the West here.

Now read the start of The Storms of Denali here and buy the book through the link at the bottom of the page to continue and support Nick and independent book sellers.

 

 

 

THE STORMS OF DENALI

BY NICK O’CONNELL

PROLOGUE

The storm caught us in the open, halfway down the southeast ridge of Denali, the highest and coldest mountain in North America. The wind gusted furiously, sandblasting my face with ice pellets and knocking me to my knees. I hunched against the slope and watched our 9 mm red Perlon rope levitate off the snow as if it were obeying a conjurer’s trick. Then the gust subsided and the rope returned to the ground.

I stood up and stumbled forward, following Wyn as he staggered down the curving, heavily-corniced ramp of crusty, wind-scoured snow with patches of blue bulletproof ice. The descent presented no great technical difficulties other than dizzying exposure but it took an enormous act of will to keep walking. Last night’s bivouac at 19,000 feet had completely fried my brain.

Placing my feet carefully, I reminded myself that most mountaineering accidents happen on the descent. One slip, one screw up, and that would be it. I thought of my wife and son back in Seattle. I remembered them standing in the doorway of our home, Jill’s eyes dark and angry, Andy clutching his stuffed frog. I tried to fix this image in my mind, but their faces blurred, expanded and contracted like the figures in a fun house mirror. The rope tugged against my harness.

“Sorry!” I yelled and kept moving. It was about a mile to the end of the southeast ridge, but the snow was maddeningly unpredictable, sometimes offering a stable platform, other times collapsing beneath my plastic boots.

Wyn broke trail 150 feet ahead. Like a bird dog on a leash, he tugged constantly at the rope, urging me forward. Despite his impatience, it was a relief to have him leading. As on so many other climbs, I depended on his strength to pull us through. Nothing seemed to stop him.

As I watched his yellow parka bobbing hypnotically down the ridge, my right crampon caught on a chunk of ice. I tripped and tried to jam my ice axe into the slope, but my frostbitten hands couldn’t apply any pressure. Picking up speed, I rocketed headfirst down the slope.

The rope jerked tight against my waist. I flipped over, hit a patch of soft snow, and came to rest on my side. I lay there for a full minute, panting. Slowly, I got to my knees, looked around and brushed the snow off my face. Other than ripping the elbow out of my parka, I was okay. I sucked the thin, bitter air through my compressed lips and tried to regain my composure. Blood pounded in my temples. My heart hammered wildly. I waved up at Wyn. He was still in self-arrest position, his legs spread-eagled against the slope, the pick of his axe buried into the ice.

We exchanged a long look; neither one of us had to say anything. I owed him. Step by exhausting step, I regained the top of the ridge, expending energy I would desperately need later. Then I fell in behind him, riveting my attention on the snow in front of me. Every step brought us closer to base camp. We crouched against the slope when the wind threatened to knock us over. Stood up when it died down. I tried not to think about the danger, or the condition of our partners behind us. I simply put one foot in front of the other, over and over again. After what seemed an eternity, we reached the end of the ridge. Clouds soared up the south face, obscuring our descent route. The storm was building.

Scraps of mist sailed by, lowering the visibility to several hundred feet. I got compass bearings on the jagged white pyramids of Mount Hunter and Mount Huntington to the south. Clouds gathered behind them like an enormous anvil.

Clutching the map with my frostbitten hands, I used the edge of the compass to sight a line from each summit to the southeast ridge. The intersection of the lines was our present position, if my calculations were correct. By the time I glanced up to double-check the bearings, clouds had already covered their summits. I’d always prided myself on my route-finding ability. Now it would be put to the test.

I looked back up the slope to where Al and Lane descended behind us. Their progress was agonizingly slow. Al went first, walking pigeon-toed, taking a few steps and then stopping. Lane followed behind, keeping Al on a short leash.“C’mon!” Wyn shouted up at them. I looked at my altimeter watch: 8:35 a.m. Precious minutes were ticking by. I was frantic to keep moving, but we had to wait for Al and Lane. It was a cardinal rule of climbing: keep the group together. An invisible rope bound us to them.

I tried to unbuckle my pack, but my hands felt like blocks of wood. Using my knuckles, I managed to release the buckles, lowered the pack to the ground and collapsed on top of it. A toxic cocktail of chemicals churned in my gut. For the past few hours, I’d been fantasizing about eating my last square of chocolate. Now I took it out of my pack, turned it over in my black insulated mittens, and popped it into my mouth. It was as hard and brittle as shale, but it softened on my tongue. I ate it slowly, savoring every bit. It soothed my stomach, but now I had no food left. We had to get back to base camp soon.

Wyn sat down next to me. The last few weeks had taken a toll on him. His face was creased and sunburned, his lips scabbed, his breathing fast and shallow. His food was gone; he’d eaten his last lemon drop for breakfast. He took a swig from his water bottle and handed it to me. I drank deeply; we had to keep hydrated. Food was optional. Water was essential.

“Which way?” Wyn asked, pointing ahead.

I carefully unfolded the map, making sure that the wind didn’t rip it out of my hands. The blue topographic lines gathered in a knot, indicating the steepness of our descent route. I studied the dark patches of rock and the white patches of ice, looking for a way through it. Right or left or straight? A simple decision, but our lives hung in the balance.

“Straight,” I said finally, “keeping to the snow.”

He looked at the map. “Are you sure we’re here?” He pointed to the spot on the summit ridge where the lines met.

“Yes,” I said, nodding. “Got a compass bearing on Hunter and Huntington.”

“How could you triangulate?” he asked, looking toward the summits now obscured by clouds as gray and thick as wool.

“I took bearings before the clouds moved in.”

He nodded and handed the map back to me. “Look. They’re almost here.”

Turning around, I watched Al and Lane stagger toward us. When they arrived, Al bent over his ice axe and tried to catch his breath. His lips were blue and trembling, his breathing labored and erratic.

Wyn went over to help him.

“I got him,” Lane said, keeping a tight grip on the rope. His blond mustache was caked with ice, his skin red with cold, his large back stooped from the effort of short-roping. As a fire fighter and mountain rescue volunteer, he was used to dealing with emergencies, but he was acting increasingly irrational. Perhaps he had altitude sickness, too.

“Which way?” he asked.

“Straight,” I yelled.

He shook his head. “Right. We need to go right.”

I took out the map. “The map says straight.”

He seemed to have trouble focusing on it. “Need to get down fast. South Face.”

“No way,” Wyn shouted. “It’s way too steep.”

“Rescue operation.” Lane’s speech was becoming garbled, his judgment questionable.

“That’s crazy,” I said.

“Have to try,” Lane said. “Helicopter. Air-vac.”

“There’s no helicopter!” I shouted. “No air evacuation. Remember?” We’d radioed at the bivouac. Kim, the base camp manager, had made it very clear. No helicopters would fly in this weather. I beckoned him forward. “This way.”

Lane looked at Al and motioned to the right.

“Straight!” I shouted, but the wind snatched the words away.

Lane moved off to the right. Al followed behind him. They stumbled off into the mist, heading toward the sheer South Face of Denali.

To purchase a copy of The Storms of Denali, go to:(http://www.alaska.edu/uapress/browse/detail/index.xml?id=463 )

 

 

 

 

Postcards: Chugach kicker session

<Ed’s Note: Welcome to a new department here at Mountain Gazette—Postcards. Each week, MG contributing editor and Breckenridge local Devon O’Neil will tease us with an image and a few choice words from his travels across the West, the globe and his backyard. Wish we were here.>

Last month, two days into a 96-hour deluge of Chugachian powder in Alaska, we were stranded. I was there to write about a new kind of backcountry skiing experience run by Points North Heli Adventures, and a storm that had been forecast to drop two feet of snow was in the process of dropping 10 feet instead. What to do? Revisit our roots and build a kicker, of course. With ski guide Brennan Lagasse looking on and splitboard mountaineer Julian Hanna cheering on the side, Jeff Dostie threw the day’s first and only front flip. After that, it was back to shoveling.

 

Photo: Devon O’Neil

The Hermit Trail

Grand Canyon illustration

Ed Abbey and I traveled all over the Southwest. I was a college sophomore and “Desert Solitare” had been in print for only four years. I kept a cheap, dog-eared copy in my red Kelty external-frame backpack and everywhere I hitchhiked across the Southwest, there was Ed.

We had great conversations as we thumbed across the Colorado Plateau, from the Glen Canyon Damn to the Gila, the Henrys, Madera Canyon and the Dragoons.

He was there that night in Hussong’s in Enseñada, Mexico, when I met a ranch manager at the bar and he suggested we visit the place he was caretaking along the coast. On the way to the beach, we suffered a fierce hailstorm, got soaked. I tried to dry my jeans by the ranch house fireplace, but, because of too much tequila, my attention wavered. The jeans burned up, and I crossed the border at Tijuana wearing a beard and a lightweight cotton skirt.

Ed was in my pack with the fringed Pendleton blanket I’d bought at the pawn shop on Route 66 in Gallup. I didn’t know it was a female blanket. It was cheap and I wanted to stay warm. Sometimes, I wore it draped around my shoulders or tied to the top of my pack. All across Navajo and Hopi land, I got sly smiles from children, uproarious laughter from adults and rides in the back of trucks.

Abbey was my guide. He taught me never to let college interfere with my education, how to question authority and how to find myself by getting lost. He went with me to Canyonlands, Arches, Wupatki and everywhere on the Coconino. Abbey was even with me on the Hermit Trail in the glaring light and suffocating heat of the Grand Canyon, and he was just as glad to crawl out of that overrated hole in the ground as I was. To hell with all those glorious sunrises and sunsets. I needed beer. I needed rest. And I needed to get laid.

I knew it wasn’t a good idea to take two girlfriends to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the same hike. I knew the Hermit Trail was a long, hot nine-mile slog 4,300 feet down to the river, but I wanted less traffic than on the Bright Angel Trail, with its hordes of tourists and farting, shitting mules. I knew what I wanted, but I had no idea how much trouble I’d get into or what I’d find at the Colorado River’s edge.

What I didn’t know was how much water to take, even in March. Nor did I know the benefits of caps, hats, anything to cover my overheated head. But I’d learn. Oh, yes, I’d learn.

In the morning descending into the center of the earth, the first mile below the rim, hikers are confident, calm, poised. Backpacks are not yet heavy, thirst is not anything like what it will be by late afternoon, and the lack of shade is of no consequence. Hikers stretch out and get distance between each other. The full-on heat of the canyon is not yet apparent, at least not in early spring. It’s joyful to swing out along the trail walking, deeper and deeper away from the traffic, congestion and gawking tourists with their cameras, ice cream cones and fear of leaving the paved viewpoints on top.

Molly, Susan and I spread out. We attended college together and wanted to hike the Grand Canyon on our spring break. It had seemed like a fine thing to do back in Colorado with late-winter snow still on the ground, and no warm Chinook winds to melt patches of ice. So we made the drive down through Durango, the Four Corners, on to Kayenta, Tuba City, Cameron and in. Seeing the canyon in late afternoon light is unforgettable. As we drove, we thought about how fun it would be to play in the river so far below us, we couldn’t even see it.

Susan had her dad’s big Ford Galaxie station wagon and agreed to drive, which gave me time to flirt with freckle-faced Molly with her long straight hair, cute dimples and warm smile. I didn’t know how well I’d get to know her until we got close to the bottom. Then she took off her shorts and top and swam naked in one of the pools. Underwater, she dipped and dived, her smooth white skin submerged below the green surface of the water, a college boy’s fantasy if ever there was one. I’d been reading Abbey and somewhere he’d written about “rosy-bottomed skinny-dippers.” Had he been down the Hermit Trail, too?

But before we got to the pools and Polly’s birthday suit, there were miles of hot, dusty trail. After a few hours, my canteen was almost empty. I had no chewing gum and my tongue was getting thick and heavy. Little sparks seemed to float near my eyelids. I finished the canteen and soon wanted more water but, in the glare of mid-day, all I could find was shimmering, bleached-out rocks. The trail wound down. First, I wanted water, then I begged for shade, but there was none of that, either.

Instead, what there was under that glaring, brutal sun was a group of bouncy, boisterous Boy Scouts. Didn’t they know they could die out here in the depths of the Grand Canyon? What sort of Kool-Aid was in their canteens anyway? And, if the Boy Scouts were a shimmering haze of uniforms, patches and pins, on the flat, dry Tonto Platform, I thought I saw a wiry little man skipping down the trail, poking at rocks, turning them over and setting them back. It was high noon and I thought I was seeing things — a brown leather elf wearing nylon shorts and sandals. He looked not just sunburned but sunbaked, like a dark chocolate chip cookie left in an oven overnight. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and assumed we’d had too many beers the evening before at our camp up top.

We’d packed all wrong. Too much food. Canned goods, mostly. Too many clothes. Winter wear for Colorado utterly unnecessary where we were headed. The sleeping bags were too heavy and I don’t remember any tents. What I do remember is becoming overheated, wanting water, then wanting shade, willing to settle for death if only the vultures and coyotes would be quick and clean. Sharp claws gripped behind my eyeballs. Dust in my nose made it hard to breath, and those damn Boy Scouts up ahead kept singing.

I knew I should have felt more responsibility for the young women I was with, but they seemed to have more stamina than I did, and they had sense enough to bring caps while I thought my long hair would keep me cool. Without a hiking stick, I slipped and tripped every now and then, sliding a few feet closer to the bottom. As for the brilliant colors and snapshots of geologic time in the heart of the canyon, it was all stone to me. I was as dry as a hobo’s shoe.

Just when I was ready to give up, fall behind a rock and wait for darkness, death, anything, out of the corner of my eye I saw the tiniest little white cloud.  A few minutes later, it got larger, and the hot desert wind seemed to be a trifle cooler. The cumulus cloud grew. I said a quick prayer for shade and was overjoyed when the first cold drop of rain splattered in the dust before me. Suddenly, scattered drops became a deluge. What had been an insufferable descent into hell became a rush to get out of the cold, driving rain mixed with spikes of hail.

We came around a corner to find Hermit’s Creek and a likely ledge for shelter. As we ducked under it, we were surprised to see a dozen other hikers with wet hair, soaked shirts and saturated packs. My death march was over. From rain running off the alcove I scooped cold, clear water in dripping handfuls. We had a few snacks. The eagles let go of the backs of my eyeballs. I was delighted to see how lovely Susan and Molly looked in their wet, clinging T-shirts. It was the early 1970s and liberated women wore no bras.

Renewed, refreshed and keenly interested in sharing my sleeping bag that night, when the rain ceased we swung on down the trail. In another mile, we could hear the river, though we couldn’t see it. Water kept flowing down rivulets and off canyon walls. I was as happy and as ecstatic in that moment as I had been depressed and forlorn forty minutes earlier.

Life had taken on new meaning. I would live to tell the tale. To hell with the vultures, the coyotes and the Boy Scouts. I had two girls ahead of me on the path, a pack full of food, a wet bandanna around my neck for extra cooling and the welcome roar of a river getting louder in my ears. It would be an exciting night to be alone with Susan and Molly. I would be the hero, the guide, the interpreter. I would make up stories about prospectors, tell them about my favorite children’s book, “Brighty of the Grand Canyon,” whip up Dinty Moore beef stew as canyon cuisine, wait for the stars, the cool night and the need to sleep close.

And then I saw them. Large hairy males wearing loin cloths dead ahead on the trail. Tall, muscular, bearded, like some throwback to the Stone Age. What the hell was this? We had almost made it to the bottom. I wanted to be alone with these two young bra-less co-eds, but, instead, we’d stumbled into a camp of degenerate, dope-smoking male hippies in need of food and females. While I was trying to determine what kind of threat the lean, muscular and totally bronzed Neanderthals might pose, Polly took off her clothes …

Stunned, I watched as she swam and splashed, making little noises about how cool the water was. I particularly liked her backstroke. Shapely breasts exposed, silken alabaster thighs moving slowly through the pool. Suddenly, there was a large splash. One of the cavemen had taken off his loincloth and jumped in. They started to swim and laugh together. I thought about reaching for a rock to bean him on the head when he swam by, but then I saw his four friends grinning ear to ear and talking to Sarah, who had just started to take off her T-shirt, too. I looked at my arms. As white as the belly of a trout.

So much for all those hours spent in the college library. My moment of confidence and tranquility ebbed away. I sat down hard on a rock, took off my pack, looked for a map and realized this was the end of the trail. The Colorado River was just below us. I had thought I’d find privacy. I thought at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the girls’ inhibitions would fall away. You know, back to nature in the basement of time.

But I had not counted on stumbling into a male hippie enclave hiding from the National Park Service. Their 14-day camping permits had long since expired. Instead, the merry band lived on food from any backpackers who had extra and who were returning to the top. When that ran out, they drew straws from blades of grass to see who would make the long hike up. We had arrived just in time. I had brought food and females.

Dejected, I watched a milk-white mermaid and a bronzed Greek God gambol in a pour-off pool. The Grand Canyon suddenly didn’t seem so grand anymore. Then the lizard man showed up.

He wasn’t actually a lizard man. He was a man who studied lizards and looked like one. He was a scientist from some university back east and this was his spring break, too. I don’t know what he’d been smoking, but a decade earlier he’d been hiking the Hermit Trail, crossing the Tonto Platform, and had seen the very first, only, one-of-a-kind, bonafide lizard with hair on it. Naturally, he was surprised. Delighted, but surprised. Quickly he reached for his camera only to remember that he’d forgotten to put in a new roll of film.

The lizard lounged, did a few push-ups, posed on a rock, showing off its hairy chest and a few small tufts of hair on its legs. Frantically, the scientist groped to load his camera, finally the film was in. He quickly closed the camera’s back, leaned down to take the photo that would make him world famous, and the hairy lizard disappeared. Without a trace. Into the vastness of the Grand Canyon. Into the brightness of high noon.

Skeptically, I listened to his story. It didn’t sound too probable to me, but what the hell? How was I to know that a colony of renegade hippies would make off with not one but both of my girlfriends? Reality was pretty strange down here below the rim. Anything could happen in the heat of the day.

I looked again at the scientist. He’d been stained mahogany by the sun. Then I looked closer. If he’d found a lizard with hair on it, he himself had no hair. Nowhere. He was as bald as a river rock. Seemed a little odd, but he was telling what he thought was a rational story about why he’d returned to the same spot on the Hermit Trail every March for the last sixteen years. This was the imp I’d seen hours ago.

I was sympathetic. At least I’d found someone not interested in gawking at the two girls I’d led down here to a canyon oasis. Still feeling sorry for myself, I looked up. By then, we were close to the river and a large group of rafts was coming by, including a National Park Service rig hidden in between the other rafts. The swimmers had decided to sun themselves on a boulder and didn’t see what was happening.

Ah ha! I thought. I’m saved. The Park Service will bust these law-breaking cavemen, give them fat fines, handcuff them, haul them out by water and leave me in peace with my naked nymphs. Hooray for the man with the gray shirt and golden badge!

But the hippies, long overdue up top, had been expecting an official visit. Just as I started to run down to the rocks to receive a tossed line from the short-sleeved ranger, the king of the vagabonds, naked as the day he was born, jumped off the boulder he’d been lying on with Molly, swam a little ways off shore, climbed on another rock and yelled at the passing boaters, water streaming off the long hair that ran halfway down his shoulders, “MY NAME IS KING RICHARD AND THIS IS MY BATHTUB — BE GONE!!!”

Startled by this brazen exhibition of premeditated madness, the Park Service ranger forgot to throw the rope. He drifted into frothing Hermit Rapid the wrong way and, despite paddling hard toward shore, the current pulled him into the river’s main channel. Like the other rafters, he was gone. And so was my hope for solitude and sex.

The cavemen, the girls, the lizard man, all began to laugh. I didn’t.

It would be a long restless night, followed by more nakedness the next day with accompanying giggles, hand holding and God knows what else. I slept alone in the sand counting the stars. Wondering how long it would take to hike out.

The morning of the fourth day, we began the long trek up, minus most of our food, which we had donated to the hairy hippies. Susan and Molly gave big hugs to the Neanderthals, hugs that seemed a little too long for such newfound friends, but who cared? I was going up, climbing toward the rim and sanity, to the real world and not this crazy canyon scene.

My legs and thighs hurt. Thankfully, the muscles we use hiking uphill are different from the muscles used going downhill or I would have been immobile. I was feeling pretty good until those rowdy Boy Scouts came by, shouting and singing and way too happy for the hard hike ahead. Hours and hours later — or was it days, weeks, months? — we finally topped out, took off our packs and collapsed. Molly and Susan were beat, exhausted, too much heat they said, and quite frankly, a real expanse of sunburn.

I was not sympathetic. Secretly, I wished that we’d all gotten sunburned together, but that had not come to pass.

Truly in need of shade and rest, we made it to the Ford station wagon and down the road to a cheap motel at Cameron, Arizona. I was perking up. Here was my chance. Having experienced the beauty and wonder of the Grand Canyon, I was ready for a long, slow night in a motel room with two college co-eds. We got the room. The last one they had.

Heart pounding with anticipation, I opened the door to two single beds. I showered, they showered, shades drawn, we re-hydrated drinking glass after glass of water. They put lotion on each other and whimpered softly, exclaiming loudly as they applied cream to the more painful bright-red, sunburned places.

Then they slept. And so did I.

On the floor.

The author teaches at an institution of higher learning on the Colorado Plateau and prefers to travel incognito 

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Editor’s note: This story was obviously submitted well before the November election and, thus, may appear dated.

Author’s note: The apparition quotes are drawn from original quotes from Hunter S. Thompson and Edward Abbey, mashed together in a couple places and edited lightly for continuity]

I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Stave One

It was long past dark on Christmas Eve 2008 and I was still at my desk. I had a backlog of political blog entries to read, several recordings of Congressional hearings to watch and nearly a dozen Internet bulletin board comment-thread “flame wars” all going at once.

Upstairs, the stockings had been hung by the chimney with care, and my finally asleep children’s heads were filled with dancing visions of a gift-wrapped wooden pirate ship play set — said set still requiring “some assembly” by daddy.

A cheery if threat-tinged motivational suggestion floated down the stairs from the wife: “Honey, we still need to wrap several gifts and clean the kitchen. And, remember, my parents will be here at 6:30.” A.M., that is.

“Humbug” is what I barked toward the door. Because I had work to do.

My name is Ebenezer, and I am a very important man. My work is far too important to yield to a Hallmark-holiday festival of drunkenness, gluttony, merriment and sloth. And in-laws. Especially in-laws. Particularly raving right-wing Fox-News-immersed in-laws.

You see, while everyone else was celebrating a particularly joyous holiday season — we had after all just elected in a landslide a liberal/progressive/hip African-American savior, who would travel the skies on Inauguration Day and send hope down our chimneys and leave change in our stockings. But I knew better.

“Humbug,” I said again, to no one in particular. So, I went to the “comment here” section below an online op-ed about how Obama was going to bring Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Liberals and Conservative alike and typed it in: H*U*M*B*U*G.

As if to underscore my gloom, a Steve Earle song came across the Pandora Radio web stream, one referring to another Christmas, exactly twelve years earlier.

It’s Christmastime in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed
Getting’ into gear for four more years
Of things not getting’ worse
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thanked their lucky stars
They said, ‘He cannot seek another term
They’ll be no more FDRs’

There’s foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You’d think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It’s going straight to hell

“Man, that Earle guy knows what’s up,” I thought to myself. But then I got even more depressed, because more than a decade has passed, and nothing at all has changed. Check that; it’s gotten worse.

It went on like that for a while — brooding over the dimly lit screen of my computer, then flying upstairs to wrap a gift, then hurrying back to check my internet conversation threads, until, despite myself, I drifted off to sleep, still seated at the keyboard. And with that, I entered a fitful slumber.

Stave Two

Although technically asleep, my mind was by no means resting. That damned song kept passing across my consciousness:

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barricades are goin’ up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We’re marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring

As the bells of freedom ring … bells ringing … bells … BELLS! I awoke with a start. My forehead was resting on the keyboard and my computer was beeping to tell me to get the hell off.

I became aware of a presence in the room. I turned to find a ghostly apparition next to me in the room. “Great Marley’s Ghost,” I shouted, for it was Steve Earle himself. “What do you want with me?” I wailed. “Much!” is all he said. “Why do you trouble me?” I asked. He simply replied, “You will be haunted by two spirits,” then he pointed a guitar pick toward the bookshelves on the back wall, and with that he was gone.

“Thanks for nothing,” I shouted at no one in particular. But it was late of hour, and I was much in need of repose, so I slumped into my office chair and fell promptly back to sleep.

Stave Three

My slumbers were soon interrupted by a second apparition. This one had a shaved head, wore a Hawaiian shirt and clutched in one hand a pistol and in the other a tumbler of whiskey, while between his teeth he clenched a cigarette holder, which he removed with a curled index finger and began waving about the room. “Goddamn bats,” he screeched, then leveled his gaze at me. My voice-activated webcam recorded the conversation, which went as follows:

Ebenezer: Who and what are you?

Apparition: I am the ghost of Raoul Duke. [Then gesturing towards the window] Rise and walk with me.

We left my room and after passing through a haze of smoke, entered what appeared to be a Las Vegas casino. Casino security staff approached to try and take the pistol from the apparition.

Ghost of Raoul Duke (GoRD) [tucking the pistol in his waistband]: Don’t take any guff from these fucking swine.

GoRD [gesturing at the drunken crowds around the craps tables]: It’s a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die. Who knows? If there is in fact, a heaven and a hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix, with everyone being driven slowly and quietly into the kind of terminal craziness that comes with finally understanding that the one thing you want is not there.

Somewhere in the casino, a slot machine paid off; the crowd cheered raucously.

GoRD: What passes for society is a loud, giddy whirl of thieves and pretentious hustlers, a dull sideshow full of quacks and clowns and philistines with gimp mentalities. Freedom, Truth, Honour — you could rattle off a hundred such words and behind every one of them would gather a thousand punks, pompous little farts, waving the banner with one hand and reaching under the table with the other. In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together. The only ones left with any confidence at all are the New Dumb. It is the beginning of the end of our world as we know it. Doom is the operative ethic.

Ebenezer: Why won’t people wake up and see all the madness and deceit?

GoRD: Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. The importance of Liking Yourself is a notion that fell heavily out of favour during the coptic, anti-ego frenzy of the acid era — but nobody guessed back then that the experiment might churn up this kind of hangover; a whole subculture of frightened illiterates with no faith in anything.

A red convertible Cadillac pulled out of the casino bar and stopped at our feet. It was driven by a massive and clearly intoxicated man of Pacific Island descent.

Driver: Let’s give that boy a lift.

GoRD: We can’t stop here — this is bat country.

They grab me by the shoulders and push me in. We roar off through a swarm of bats and pterodactyls, and come to a stop next to a hotel swimming pool. There appears to be some sort of political convention going on.

Ebenezer: What can we do about this official madness and deceit and violence, why can’t we get off our asses and throw the bums out?

GoRD: The massive, frustrated energies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote. This is like being told you have a duty to buy a new car, but you have to choose immediately between a Ford and a Chevy.

GoRD [Gesturing toward a fat couple in matching red-white-and-blue track suits]: Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush? They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. George W. Bush was a natural-born loser with a filthy-rich daddy who pimped his son out to rich oil-mongers. He hates music, football and sex, in no particular order, and he is no fun at all — all the dumb bastard could show us, after eight years of total freedom to do anything he wanted with all this power, is a shattered national economy, disastrous defeat in a war, and a hand-picked personal staff whose collective criminal record will blow the minds of high-school American History students for the next 100 years. Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?

GoRD [Shouting]: This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 300 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

Ebenezer: Well, what about Obama? Democrats seem to think he’ll fix everything and usher in a new progressive era.

GoRD: We’ve come to a point where every four years this national fever rises up — this hunger for the Savior — and whoever wins becomes so immensely powerful, like Obama will be now, that when you vote for President today you’re talking about giving a man dictatorial power for four years. The whole framework of the presidency is getting out of hand. It’s come to the point where you almost can’t run unless you can cause people to salivate and whip each other with big sticks. You almost have to be a rock star to get the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics.

Ebenezer: Why don’t the media expose the charlatans then?

GoRD: Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Bush to slither into the White House and launch a war on Iraq in the first place. You have to get Subjective to see things clearly. Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

We left the convention in the Cadillac and ended up at some kind of farm. There is gunfire and explosions. And strange birds shrieking in the woods.

Ebenezer: Since 9/11, Bush built up a massive security apparatus and world-wide military machine waging overt and covert wars all over the globe, while spying on everyone everywhere. Where the hell are the right-wingers who supposedly fear big government?

GoRD: We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear — fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts, or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer.

GoRD [Blowing smoke rings towards the ceiling]: The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy… We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, or all three at once. This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed — for anyone.

Ebenezer: Bush said we were on a righteous crusade against the Axis of Evil, that we are the Good Guys.

GoRD: We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world, a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us. No redeeming social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or we’ll kill you.

We moved into a kitchen. There are piles of books and papers, old posters and perhaps twenty televisions all tuned to different channels.

Ebenezer: I know, I know. The fix is in, and we are savage and hated. So, where do you find solace then?

GoRD: The Edge … there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. So, every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas … with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether. I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.

Ebenezer: Ye Gods, this is vicious and ugly. Spirit, remove me from this place. Leave me. Take me back. Haunt me no longer. (Jesus! Did I say that? Or just think it?)

And with that he was gone. Since it was even later of hour, and I was in even greater need of repose, I slumped back into my office chair and fell promptly back to sleep.

Stave Four

Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, I heard another bell ringing. Dammit, I had fallen asleep on the keyboard again. Sitting up to get my thoughts together, I soon became aware of yet another apparition. This one was tall and bearded and wearing flannel. He threw a crumpled beer can at my computer, tucked a monkey-wrench into his belt and then motioned toward a beat-up pickup truck that had appeared in my basement office, into which he climbed behind the wheel and glared at me like a vulture contemplating road-kill.

Apparition: Come in. Come in, and know me better, man.

Ebenezer: Say, did you pass a guy in a Hawaiian shirt when you came in?

Apparition: Among apparitions I have but one hero, and that is Raoul Duke. I honor him because he reports the simple facts, in plain language, of what he sees around him. His style is mistaken for fantastic, drug-crazed exaggeration, but that was to be expected. As always in this country, they only laugh at you when you tell the truth. He is one who sees — a seer.

He again beckons me into the truck, so I climb in amongst a pile of empty beer cans, dog-eared books and bottles of molasses.

Ebenezer: Alright, but before we go, I need to know who you are.

Apparition: I am called Henry Lightcap, but known as The Ghost of Cactus Ed.

He shifted the truck’s transmission into low-range, whereupon we plunged into a roiling flash flood, eventually coming to rest high-centered and hanging halfway out over the edge on the rim above a vast desert canyon. The silence of the place was deafening.

Ghost of Cactus Ed (GoCE): Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse — its implacable indifference.

GoCE [Stamping his feet]: We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there. Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.

Ebenezer: Yeah, but the Republicans insist that wilderness is a waste of valuable real estate.

GoCE: What most humans really desire is something quite different from industrial gimmickry, that is, liberty, spontaneity, nakedness, mystery, wildness and wilderness. And joy. Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.

Ebenezer: Naked joy in the woods, that reminds me of the last time I took mushrooms. But I am too old and have too many responsibilities for that now.  What can we do to defend wild places now?

GoCE: The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders. Every Boy Scout troop deserves a forest to get lost, miserable, and starving in. Our job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving.

Ebenezer: But wilderness — actual on-the-ground wilderness — is wild, and can be dangerous and scary. It freaks a lot of people out when bad things happen.

GoCE: If people persist in trespassing upon the grizzlies’ territory, we must accept the fact that the grizzlies, from time to time, will harvest a few trespassers.

As the truck shuddered and tilted forward a bit, Cactus Ed slammed it into gear and we careened down a canyon trail, until we came to a graded dirt road, which we followed to an industrial site. There were giant bulldozers kicking up huge plumes of dust, strange trucks on balloon tires crashing about in the sage, long lines of trailers marked “hazardous” and drilling derricks spewing flames from their tops.

Ebenezer: My God, it’s even more medieval than I imagined. It’s something out of Dante. This cannot be the only way to grow our economy.

GoCE: Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Everywhere I look, I see my own country overwhelmed by ugliness and mediocrity and overcrowding, the land smothered under airstrips and super-highways, the natural wealth of a million years squandered on atomic bombs and tin automobiles and television sets and ball-point pens.

Ebenezer: But the Republicans say we need more activity just like this, or our economy will crash and the terrorists will win.

GoCE: For more growth, we must give up the very qualities that make a high standard of civilized life still possible…for more development, we will transform what we prize into temporary jobs…and fat bank accounts for the powerful minority of land-speculators, tract-slum builders, bankers, car dealers and shopping mall hustlers who stand to profit. What we need is an optimum industrialism, neither too much or too little. Technology boosters say it’s the entire package, plagues and all, or nothing, but it is not true. We can pick and choose, we can learn to select this and reject that.

Ebenezer: The Republicans insist that we are ordained by God to uncover and use every bit of fossil fuel we can find, that’s why God put it there.

GoCE: From the point of view of a tapeworm, man was created by God to serve the appetite of the tapeworm. Whatever we cannot easily understand we call God, this saves much wear and tear on the brain tissues. I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock. The world is older and bigger than we are. This is a hard truth for some folks to swallow.

Ebenezer: Speaking of God, one of the people who ran for the GOP Presidential nomination is a Mormon.

GoCE: Mormonism: Nothing so hilarious could possibly be true. Or all bad.

We drive onto a highway and down into a shimmering desert city. Pulling into the driveway of a small house, we enter to find its occupant watching television on which there’s a conservative politician bloviating about “democracy” and “liberty”.

GoCE [Kicking the TV with his boot]: Bullshit! Democracy — rule by the people — sounds like a fine thing; we should try it sometime in America. Counterpart to the knee-jerk liberal is the knee-pad conservative, always groveling before the rich and powerful. Our “neoconservatives” are neither new nor conservative, but old as Babylon and evil as Hell. A true libertarian supports free enterprise, opposes big business; supports local self-government, opposes the nation-state; supports the National Rifle Association, opposes the Pentagon.

Ebenezer: Liberal; conservative; or libertarian — which has become and arm of the GOP — what choices are there besides statism or authoritarianism?

GoCE: There’s anarchism. Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners. Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.

Ebenezer: You know, there were protests by the left at the Democratic nominating convention this year. It was an echo of Chicago in 1968, complete with riot police beating up everyone who got in their way.

GoCE: A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government. Representative government has broken down. Our politicians represent not the people who vote for them but the commercial interests who finance their election campaigns. We have the best politicians that money can buy. The purpose and function of government is not to preside over change. But to prevent change. By political methods when unavoidable, by violence when convenient.

Ebenezer: But I don’t want to get arrested or beat up, or go to prison. I’ve got kids. I don’t want a psychopathic cell mate.

GoCE: Here’s how to overthrow the system: brew your own beer; kick in your tee vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.

Ebenezer: We’ve elected another charismatic Democrat; all the liberals are ecstatic, but I don’t buy it. He’s just more of the same corporatist DLC crap; beholden to Wall Street

GoCE: The one thing worse than a knee-pad Tory is a chickenshit liberal. The type that cannot say “shit” even when his mouth is full of it. Among politicians and businessman, Pragmatism is the current term for “To hell with our children.” “Be fair,” say the temporizers, “tell both sides of the story.” But how can you be fair to both sides of a rape? Of a murder? Of a massacre?

Ebenezer: There’s been a huge meltdown on Wall Street. The bankers committed gargantuan acts of fraud and theft and made bad bets that crashed the economy, now they are getting bailed out no questions asked while the middle class is eating a shit sandwich.

GoCE: When the biggest, richest, glassiest buildings in town are the banks, you know that town’s in trouble. One thing more dangerous than getting between a grizzly sow and her cub is getting between a businessman and a dollar bill. That’s why administrators are respected and school-teachers are not: An administrator is paid a lot for doing very little, while a teacher is paid very little for doing a lot. There is no force more potent in the modern world than stupidity fueled by greed. Nothing so mean could be right. Greed is the ugliest of the capital sins.

GoCE: It’s not all gloom though, take comfort in this: the rich can buy everything but health, virtue, friendship, wit, good looks, love, pride, intelligence, grace and, if you need it, happiness.

We leave the truck behind and strike off on foot. After walking for a very long time in silence, the apparition stops and spreads his arms out toward the vista of canyon country that lies before us.

GoCE [Speaking toward the horizon as in a benediction]: May your trails be dim, lonesome, stony, narrow, winding and only slightly uphill. May the wind bring rain for the slickrock potholes fourteen miles on the other side of yonder blue ridge. May God’s dog serenade your campfire, may the rattlesnake and the screech owl amuse your reverie, may great sun dazzle your eyes by day and the Great Bear watch over you by night.

Ebenezer: That’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s just too goddamned brutal out there to take seriously. NOTHING HAS GODDAMNED CHANGED.

GoCE: When the situation is desperate, it is too late to be serious. Be playful. In my case, saving the world was only a hobby. Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast…a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourself and your life for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.

Ebenezer: But what should I do? All I can do is write. Why should I write?

GoCE: Why write? Write to entertain your friends and exasperate your enemies. To record the truth of your time as best as you can see it. To investigate the comedy and the tragedy of human relationships. To oppose, resist and sabotage the contemporary drift toward a global technocratic police state whatever its ideological coloration. To oppose injustice, to defy power, and to speak for the voiceless.

He knelt down to the ground and picked up a handful of bones from the skeleton of a long-dead coyote and then held them for a moment in silence. Then he ground the bones into dust and they drifted off on the breeze.

Ebenezer: Answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only.

(A pause)

Ebenezer: Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.

(A pause)

I heard the sound of coyotes’ mournful howls. It sounded almost as if they were saying my name.

Coyotes: EBENEZER! EBENEZER! EBENEZER!

Overcome and trembling, I reared my head back and howled back at the distance: “No, Spirit. Oh no, no.” Then I stood up, drained, and an awakening washed over me like a waterfall deep in a hidden canyon. I turned to the spirit and spoke.

Ebenezer: Spirit, hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. I see now that nothing ever really changes, but the important thing is what we do with our lives. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. I will not burn out or turn away from life and hide in my basement seething on internet chat boards.

At that, the apparition transformed into a Turkey Buzzard, craned his neck toward me and croaked: “remember, Life is too short for grief. Or regret. Or bullshit.” And then he flew spirals into the sky and disappeared from sight.

Stave Five

I must have fallen back asleep onto my keyboard, because I awoke once again to the ringing of a bell. Nope, it was the doorbell this time, and I was in my own bed. Church bells began to ring. Christmas morning was before me!

Oh glorious, glorious! I ran to the top of the stairs and shouted: “Merry Christmas, wife. Merry Christmas, kids. Merry Christmas, in-laws. And God bless us, every one.”

Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale, Colorado, with his wife and kids. 

 

Marshall Pass

cliff

All illustrations by Michele Murray

All roads lead somewhere if you can make it that far…

Hmmm, I’ve been on this road at least a thousand times before, though maybe not in this lifetime …

The situation was the result of an error in the phenomenon of mechanical navigation. Batteries must have been running low in the sextant. The stars were wobbling on their axes, not speaking truthfully to my technical instruments. Night-time astral-bodies in the sky were obscured from my eye by The Big One — that great ball of plasma in our sky: the Earth’s Sun. Once you make a couple of wrong turns and realize you don’t know where you are, you find yourself committed to your journey because now I have to see what’s around the next bend. Yeah, you could turn around and maybe you should turn around — you might even ACTUALLY TURN AROUND before all the other people wonder WHY DIDN’T SHE TURN AROUND? when they read about the discovery of your foolish ass a year after you have disappeared on the other side of this new (to you) mountain.

Maybe I “should” turn around. “Would-should-could” — those are some kind of auxiliary verbs, I think, like the other verbs joggling around in my 5th-grade memory cells:“be-am-is-are-was-were-have-had-has-will-shall-would-should-or-could.”  Yes, I think these are all some kind of verbs unlike the action verb, “turn around.” Why am I perpetually in this situation, unable to do something as seemingly simple as turn around?

Examination of the immediate vicinity: The edge of the dirt road is crumbly and fairly steep, but the width of the road is not completely unmanageable should I decide with logic to turn around.

I “could” turn this Subaru around if I wanted to, utilizing about 5-7 forward-and-backward turns. That wouldn’t be a K-turn or a Y-turn; rather it would be a W-turn or a VW-turn.

Cliff: Unfathomable in the sense of leagues below the abyss “SHOULD” I go over the side, demonstrating another action verb: PLUNGING TO DEATH. At the least, I would-should-could sustain a serious injury if I crash.

If I decide to turn around, I would have to be vewy vewy cawful.

The edge of this dirt road is unreliable in that sort of soft shoulder kind of way.

This is exactly the kind of place a person in a car goes over the side and no one finds her until the middle of elk hunting season — the last hunting season — the one right before Christmas when men return home to their annoyed wives all smelly and dirty but nonetheless happy with themselves for that personal stink of freedom.

Hmmm, I might not go over the edge if I turn around carefully and I might even find myself headed safely back to the starting point where I THINK I made a wrong turn and I might then possibly figure out where I am. On the other hand, there is one more bend in the road, one more high spot beyond my current topographical horizon and a person really probably should see what’s on the other side for the sake of that time in the future when a person will have to rely on memories of places she’s explored because I’ll likely end up sitting beside the window sill of the State Mental Hospital for a long time one day. SIGH … I look forward to wearing jammies and working on jigsaw puzzles all day when I am retired.

THE MIGHTY LORD O’ GOD DIRECTS MY SUBARU!

I have no say in the matter. A power larger than my steering wheel is in control. I’m just a piece of biota in the sea of life. Besides, I am certain the LORD-O-GOD has been here before, probably just this morning. Thing is, sometimes the LORD-O-G puts a big impassable boulder in the road, or washes it out, or arranges other events of interest — such as that wild buckskin mustang mare with the soft eyes trapped up to her bloody belly in a cattle guard way out in the remotest part of central Nevada. My, that turned out to be quite a day … Sheesh! I’m not ready for a day like that again…

I don’t know where this road goes but I am going to follow it as long as my car keeps rolling.

I am bleeding like a leaking box of wine, too, and down to my last single tampon and last single beer (Stella Artois — a tall can and an O.B. — the super-dooper kind).

This has got to be Gold Camp Road. I know where I am now. I am somewhere above Cheyenne Mountain. I’ve been here a thousand times before.

Fork in the road with a sign pops up: “No trailers beyond this point.”

Hmmm, well I’ve got that going for me. No trailer. No boat. No ATV no dirt bike no cellular service no tampon and no beer in reserve. Where the heck does this pass come out? How far from my destination have I strayed? Can my Subaru make it?

These questions enter my mind, as does my underwear. Some women are completely fastidious about their moon-cycle. They keep gear handy — things like “emergency applications” — and they always have a plan. I knew a woman who would change up her hygiene equipment every twenty minutes or so in order to avoid the sensation of actually feeling that warm, moist, evacuation of human-genetic-effluent being expunged from her body. She washed compulsively and changed her panties all day long. A great amount of money and women-lore goes into learning how to get rid of that dark little stain of dried blood on cotton.

Cold Water. That’s the key to removing fresh blood from fabric. If it’s dried blood — then that solution ain’t gonna work, though. If it’s a blood stain on your skirt or dress slacks, yer looking at an awkward visit to the dry cleaners. You can tell the Korean behind the counter that it’s grape juice or wine. They know what it is. They can get it out for $. It’s not worth the embarrassment to me. TAKE MY MONEY, GIVE ME MY CLEANED SKIRT BACK AND DON’T TELL ANYONE.

Women sometimes have fevers, feel nausea, suffer headaches, a bit of disorientation and intermittently experience emotional sensitivity during this celestial-vestigial-carnilogical-uterineal event. If I “spot” (that is to bleed through the gear a little bit), I toss my panties away. Forget that cold water and neurotic gotta-clean-it-like-a-raccoon-with-a-fish-at-the-river reaction. Throw it away. Done. Such was the case today: stuff the offensive panties under the car seat for trashing later. Stuff some facial tissue down there instead. Good. Unfortunately, in about an hour, my jeans got spotted as well.

No problem. I can handle this. I’ve still got a swimming suit and fishing waders I can put on.

A woman colleague of mine confided to me an event in the Amargosa Desert where she had been mapping volcanic stratigraphy with her male boss. She is a bit older than I am and recounted that the onset of menopause for her meant higher flows for a while — flows that verged on draining the life out of her. During that field excursion, she began to bleed like that giant Achilles in “Jason and the Argonauts” — the ORIGINAL Argonauts movie with Kirk Douglas (1960s science fiction at its finest). Kirk Douglas unscrewed a door in Achilles’ ankle and emptied his entire bodily contents of fluid like a discharge from Hoover Dam. That’s how my friend was describing her bleeding. She was literally draining to the point of passing out. All she could do was apologize to her boss, who turned the expedition around and headed back to the truck to return to base camp. She bled heavily through her pad, her panties, her trousers and left a pool of blood on the front seat. She had to lie down to rejuvenate and try to generate more blood overnight before getting up in the morning. Her flow eventually stopped short of a medical emergency.

That scenario made me wonder how women in Neolithic societies must have dealt with the flow? My lesbian gym teachers in Jr. High school (What? Yeah — they were Lesbos for real. So what? I’m not making this up. They were.) — told me that some primitive societies consider menstruation to be a curse — “The devil is with her,” they said of the Neolithic people muttering in Neolithic camps.

bear illustration

DIGRESSION 

I asked my huzbun if anyone in his family ever told him Bible stories. He said no. I asked him who then told him about the devil? He asked, “What’s the devil?”

END DIGRESSION

Those lesbian gym teachers told me a lot of information about adolescence, but not in enough detail for me to grasp the entire picture. For example: sex-Ed. Yeah, all of us kids knew it was called sex-Ed because it was supposed to be educating us about sex. We were nervous. However, at no time did the “film-loops” we watched ever show any sex. There was a cartoon of a uterus and a diagram of menstruation. They showed where pubic hair was going to start growing one day. (“Over my dead body! Not me!” I swore.) They showed a cartoon of the egg and then the sperm swimming against the egg’s big body, and then the egg began to multiply. I saw a schematic silhouette in cartoon of an erect penis but they didn’t show a sperm coming out of a penis. They didn’t show a penis in a vagina, either.

As a consequence, I left the room not knowing exactly where my vagina was (I was skeptical about that) or that I would be bleeding from a mysterious place between my legs from which I also pee. (Clueless.) I also did not know that a penis goes into the vagina or that sperm comes out of the end of the penis or that babies come out of the vagina. Why would I figure that out on my own? I didn’t live on a farm. I never saw what animals do. Television and movies simply did not show that stuff back then. When I did learn about what happens during sex from Patty Sellers — she was Catholic and was the most experienced girl I ever knew — I thought that she was making it up. Sex was completely science fiction: a lie, a bad story, had to be some sick person’s idea of a joke (a joke from a sick person like my VBF Patty …).

grasshut illustration

I left sex-Ed class and stumbled through my adolescence one incident at a time, all the while Patty Sellers (my college roommate by then) laughing at me. My first date in college was with a handsome timpani player in the orchestra a couple of years older than me. I went to his house to “neck.” I was ready for some “heavy petting.” During this process, the poor man partially disrobed me and attempted to “go down on me.” I had no idea WHAT he was doing and was so freaked out that I grabbed my clothes and ran straight out of his house half naked and snuck my way back to the dormitory. I woke Patty up to tell her the weird action of this psychopath. She laughed her ass off at me, told me what he was attempting to do, and then tried to get me to introduce him to her in the future. I was aghast people would do such things to each other and avoided him the rest of the year. I hope he understands now that’s what happens when you date a really naïve virgin from Aurora, Colorado.

My current exploratory drive up the pass of this very familiar mountain consumed a quarter of my already half-empty tank of gas before I considered myself lost. The errant journey required at least half of my last beer before I reached what I assumed was the summit. I pulled off the road to peruse the scene and assess my situation (and to formulate some explanation to provide my huzbun should I ever see him again, as to maybe why I did not make it home that evening).

View: Wow! Ponds! Time to fish! In the meadow below me, beaver ponds leaked through a marshy bog down the inclined valley linked one to another in a sequence like pearls on a string. No sign of rising brookies on the surface, though. That might change if I were to look more closely.

My plan: I needed to change into my swimsuit and waders for hygiene’s sake anyway. Stuff those tainted blue jeans under the seat with stained panties to commiserate together in the dark. The hike to the ponds would involve sinking and trudging through knee-high slime and lumpy bumpy marsh grass with mosquitoes sticking their proboscises between every sweaty pore in my exposed face and forearms. The ardor of this feat will require my beer ditty bag. My beer can rides in a little ditty bag that attaches to my fishing fanny pack by a thick Velcro strap. My huzbun thinks this little bag was designed to carry a water bottle, but I know better.

I nursed my warm, half-a-beer on this hike through mucky marsh to discover there are no fish in the meadow ponds out in the middle of this mountain paradise. My legs were sinking knee-deep into the black ooze. I tried to turn, but my feet were stuck. I was now a human popsicle stick for a bear should one come by. My legs were stuck in the marsh by suction and sinking an inch with every tug. I had to sway my body forward and allow air to seep down into the mud before the bog would release my foot. I did this leaning, sucking, teetering march under the afternoon sun, with mosquitoes blaring in my ears all the way back to the car, every once in a while turning to see if some sneaky trouties were rising behind my back. No sign. By the time I made it back to semi-solid ground — enough solid ground to stop and partake of my Holy warm beer — the can was severely diminished. Sadly, a light came on the side of the can: “Low on beer.” I wasn’t totally without emergency rations. I was on my way home from a party in Gunnison the night before and in my Subaru was a vat of vegetarian lasagna, 1½ gallons purple pomegranate-blueberry juice with rum, tossed salad, 2 pieces of homemade pound cake, jumper cables, a tool box, 2 shovels and a spare 7-foot 3-weight fly rod. I had 5 royal wulffs, assorted elk-hair caddis, baetis, terrestrials, nymphs, pulpa, pupa, larvae and octopus patterns. No spare tampon or beer, though.

In primitive societies women were (are?) removed from the community arena and made to stay inside special huts away from everyone else because “She gots the curse.” On my return hike to my car from the beaver ponds, I had the insight that these poor girls had been poked, impregnated, miscarried, birthed, lost babies and suckled babies ever since they were nubile enough to become the apple of some horny old goat’s eye and this was not going to end for any reason as long as they were fertile. By the time these girls had been through the gamut month after month for a couple of years, it was probably one of them who had the idea to make a special hut and to get away from the bastards for a while — no men, no kids

Tell ’em I gots the curse. Tell ’em all to stay away and I mean it.” The ancient women probably had lovely candles, incense, soft music and chocolate in the special huts.

DIGRESSION 

When women spend time together, say working in an office or taking the same class on a regular basis, they begin to menstruate at the same time. Fact.

END DIGRESSION

Sign on the primitive society women’s hut: “Stay away — Devil in here!”

I returned to my car from my marsh hike sweating, bleeding, nursing the dregs of my dying can of beer and having not seen a trout. I got in my Subaru and rolled it back onto the mountain road wondering where I would come out and how far off course I was from any road leading home.

What will my huzbun think of me? Will he make some kind of “rule,” like I have to start calling him and telling him where I am, when I am leaving or HEY!! I know where I am now — I’m on Rampart Range above Rainbow Falls. I am near the Hayman Fire area. Hmmm, maybe this is Idaho …

I drove on but not so apprehensively now. The road was in better condition on the far side of the pass. Strangely, I saw in the speckled shadow being thrown by aspen leaves overhanging the road ahead a doe lying in the road on her belly with legs folded under her. Her head was up and her ears bent toward the sound my approaching car.

Oh, God. Is this the big event you planned for my day? Is this why you directed me here? Is this deer partially severed? Half-paralyzed? Broken-legged? Semi-eviscerated? Did you bring me here to dispatch her? Move her? Comfort her? Bear witness to her suffering?

I slowed my car down, shifted to neutral, rolled the window down and turned the engine off. As I quietly approached, she attempted to get up by extracting one leg from under her belly. My car slowly rolled past her with only the sound of my rubber tires crunching in the gravel. I looked. She flopped her ears at pesky flies and settled back down in her spot on the road in the shade. Just resting her fat deer belly. No traumatic event in my path to deal with today.

I rolled a little ways past her, reengaged the engine, turned on my music. Lucinda Williams popped up on my iPod through the radio singing one of her soulful, burnt-out-old-whore kind of songs. After not very long, a convoy of ATVs approached me coming from yonder mountain head-on driven by brown-clad BOY SCOUTS — the older ones who have peach-fuzz cheeks and bony knees and bobbing Adam’s apples. They probably did not know the downhill-uphill law of mountain driving, which would require that I (being the downhill driver) was required to yield and backup so that they (being the uphill party) could pass.

They slowed down as we all approached head-on. Eyes were big. I don’t know what they thought they were looking at, but it was simply a woman in a Subaru wearing a bikini and rubber pants. Not like I was a cougar or anything as exciting. I know they were waiting for me to speak, like what could I possibly say? They were expecting the beginning of an adventure, I am sure. They were expecting me to say, “HELP! My baby is lost in the woods and I don’t know where to find her AND my leg is broken — a compound fracture. I think I’m going into a state of shock and I have a snake-bite!”

That’s what Boy Scouts look for in the forest: women with compound fractures, snake bites and missing family members — babies are better. Instead, I told them:

Hi, fellas — hey, please watch out for a deer sleeping on the road up there. She’s OK, not hurt or anything, just napping in the shade on the road. Say you guys, I haven’t been on this road before. Am I gonna bust an axle if I go any farther — because I’ve busted an axle before and I don‘t want to do that again. Do you think the rest of this drive is OK for a car like mine?

They surmised my situation, evaluated my vehicle and told me no problem that the road is good enough for cars and they would watch out for the deer. I wondered if any of them had any beer. Better not ask. There were old guys with them — the protective type. I waited until they all passed — all nine of them. Probably Eagle Scouts. They had no idea they are talking to a lady without panties bleeding in her waders. I am pretty sure they didn’t have any beer.

Maybe this is Old Monarch Pass or maybe Red Mountain Pass. I should have asked them what this mountain pass is called.

Willie on the iPod!!! Everything will be good for sure now. Keep going. Watch out for boulders and deer on the road. Never you mind about the rum and purple juice in the cooler. The LORD-O-G doesn’t believe in mixing hard alcohol with driving.

At least not yet.

DIGRESSION 

I dated a Greek bookie in New York City for a while whose sole objective was to make a living without doing anything legal for his entire life. When he was a kid in New Hampshire, he worked at a fast-food joint and accidentally left the fry-o-lator on high after his first shift. The place burned down and he was given an insurance adjustment with all the other employees for the rest of the summer. Same summer, he got new job at a movie theater and learned that during the show no one knew where he was, so he would slip out and go to a third job with the highway department hired to sit in a folding lawn chair on a cliff and count cars that went by every hour. He would take a nap in the chair while collecting three paychecks and make up numbers to write on the log sheet. One afternoon, he woke up because the boss had come upon him and kicked his chair out from under his napping ass. He liked the money, though. He was only 13 years old but he was already completely addicted to having a lot of cash in hand for little or no output.

THAT GUY — the flaky dishonest illegal shifty two-timing lying slippery weasel Greek bookie from New Hampshire living in New York City — that guy once barked at me, “Why do YOU WOMEN always run out of tampons? You know you’re going to need them. It happens every month. Why the big surprise every time it happens, like you forgot? Why don’t you buy more than one month at a time of those things???

I don’t know. He runs out of cigarettes all the time and it’s not like he’s ever NOT going to want a cigarette again for the rest of his life. Despite that, I started to buy boxes of tampons by the case. I stowed them in my purse, office drawers, my bassoon case, my sister’s house, my mom’s house, my other sister’s house, my boyfriend’s house, my other boyfriend’s house … I had caches of tampons on the scale of a squirrel going into deep winter with a bevy of teenager girl-squirrels menstruating left and right in squirrel moon-cycles (which I think is like every other week …). I kept this up for a really long time until I began to travel internationally. I really had to limit myself to the barest of minimum of carry-on stuff so as to avoid checking luggage and I took to buying tampons on the road again rather than transporting caches of them. THAT is how I ended up in the High Country without a beer or tampon, both of which I direly needed.

END DIGRESSION

I headed down the mountain enjoying my iPod despite lack of beer and noticed the little lever that points to a series of tick marks that symbolize the state of my gasoline capacity was hovering BELOW the letter E. I know exactly how much forward motion I can get out of one gallon of gasoline in each of my vehicles. I also know that the little lever will move up or down with respect to how level the car is and therefore how skewed the last drops of combustible carbon-based liquid might be lying in the tank relative to the floating bobber in there. (I don’t know if there is a floating bobber in there, but that is how I imagine the system works, kind of like a toilet bobber turning the input of water off in the reserve tank — right?) I don’t usually get excited about the E on the gas tank meter. That lever can go way way below the E before the red gasoline-gauge light comes on the dash. If I am driving with a nervous type of person and he or she seems to be getting upset about that little red gasoline-gauge light, I will cover it up with something like with a piece of black electric tape for their sake until we can coast into a station. Besides, there is a reserve, and that is usually a gallon in my experience and a car can usually get AT LEAST 10 miles more on reserve — even if it is a gas hog — so 10 miles is a lot of distance yet to put on the wheels. No worries.

In this frame of mind, I focused my energy into downhill economy mode utilizing coasting and gravity whenever possible, cursing any slight incline in the rolling mountain road.

OMG —  I’m in New Mexico — I know where this road goes … WHERE DOES THIS ROAD GO?

I was in an urgent state.

One time I came rolling out of a steep, rocky mountain gully into the back pasture of an apple orchard in New Mexico. The rancher would normally have shot first but he was so amazed to see a little red clown car of a Toyota come climbing over the boulders that he allowed himself the opportunity to get to know me. Another time, I made my way onto another dirt road way below the “E” on my gas-o-meter and about five miles into the red gas-tank light being on. I had no idea how far I would have to go to find gas. I evaluated the quality of maintenance on the fences along the roadside to try and determine how close I was to a habitable place where I might beg for some gas, provided I was not surrounded by pit bulls, dobbies, rotties and guns. On that other trip, I eventually drove past a lively Mexican dance going on under a tin-roofed pavilion, so I spruced myself up, entered the bar area and asked for gasoline. No gasoline there, but the tortillas were fresh and the beer was free.

I don’t remember any painful long walks due to lack of gas — OK, maybe one. I have actually run out of gas and had a dead vehicle on the side of the road twice. The first time, however, after I slept in the vehicle till morning — the condensation created a mini-reservoir of liquid from vapor phase overnight, and the F-150 straight-six 3-on-the-tree pickup truck started up “va-ROOOM!” and we (truck and I) made it to the next off ramp somewhere north of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and coasted into a gas station right next to the pump before she died for good. It was at least 30 years later that I ran out of gas for the second time and I attribute that to being in someone else’s car (the gauges you know are all in different places in different vehicles …)

On today’s particular journey, I eventually popped out on a more-developed dirt road and took a left because left went downhill. I passed the Boy Scout jamboree camp full of chaperones milling about, big tents and empty pickup trucks with ATV trailers. That road joined up with a paved road, which led to a four-lane highway, which led to Poncha Pass, which opens out onto the Great Alluvial Plains near Salida. Bought gas, beer, tampons and some of those cheesy-peanut butter crackers. Made it home before my huzbun got home from work. He had no idea where I had been. I didn’t tell him about the journey, either. Save that kind of info for when we are old and I need to tell him something to get him all riled up about so he won’t die. Just being with him in our house and being surrounded by calm, stable time together makes me feel centered. Keeps me out of jail, too. When he came home, I could tell he sensed my day had been full of stories that I was not going to share. Instead, I told him:“I don’t know how old I am on a day-to-day basis, but I do know that when I finally become really old, I am gonna scare myself. Oh, and I’m on my period so watch out.

He shook his head slowly in agreement.

Long-time contributor Michele Murray is a geologist, concert bassonist and dog trainer who lives in Lake George, CO. 

Après ski, the party at the end of the slopes

Apres Ski Party

Sundog of Steamboat Springs photo by George Fargo

You just shredded every possible stash of new powder, so the need for après-ski brews, grub and the exchange of grandiose snow tales is well justified. A little music wouldn’t hurt either. Lucky you — après-ski drinking and music are synonymous and plentiful around the slopes of every resort mountain town. Ever since there’s been après ski, there have been musicians trying to book a gig at it. On stage for the past decade or three are those same musicians cranking out mostly the same tunes for so long that they’re back in vogue. They can play the same music every afternoon because the majority of the faces change every few days. Order up another beer because these timeless troubadours are actually making you look very cool and lyric savvy with their popular songs that everyone knows every word to.

Although the set lists between musicians vary slightly, there are some who venture beyond the island genre of Jimmy Buffett, since apparently it doesn’t matter whether the H²O is frozen or if there’s a beach involved, because it’s all about vacation mentality.

Arnie J. Green has been funking up the stages of après ski venues for twenty years with his quartet Arnie J. Green with Shoes. “I didn’t need shoes living in the Bay Area,” he explains of his move from San Francisco and the band’s name. “I had a couple pair of sandals and two pairs of socks when I moved up to Grand Lake and at 8,700 feet. Shoes were no longer optional.”

There were many gigs throughout the 1990s at the Derailer in Winter Park (where the crowd is still blowing off steam when that whistle blows). “The après stuff was usually solo, or me and a drummer who sang bass lines and tenor harmonies. It was nuts, but people loved the old R&B stuff because we could create a dance groove,” Green says. “We didn’t get a lot of typical requests because we weren’t your typical après line-up. Most people were playing Buffet, the Dead and John Denver. It’s not the stuff I wanted to play, so I didn’t do it. I don’t think too many people were offended.” (Arnie is along-time mainstay performer at the Dillon Dam Brewery in Dillon, CO.)

Tourists on vacation tend to be more tolerant of different types of music, even if it’s not their style, as long as it’s played well. But the majority of resort bars prefer a smorgasbord repertoire, since their guests range from young families to mezzo-centenarians to the college crowd who will request Taylor Swift to Willie Nelson to Tupac.

Bill Dowell has been playing après-ski gigs since he landed in Crested Butte in 1982, back when there were more venues. As an acoustic soloist, he covered a lot of Jackson Brown, Dan Fogelberg and Cat Stevens. Since most of the tourists were from Texas, Oklahoma and points south, the requests were for popular classic country tunes. “Back then, they loved to hear ‘Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw’.”

Bill verifies the après need for anything Buffett and, when combined with a country twang, it was all the rage to make you feel good and tap your feet. His current band, High Nowhere, is still rocking slopeside at Butte 66, the only après ski with live music on the Crested Butte mountain. The tastes haven’t changed all that much, Bill says. “They like the stuff they’ve heard and listened to for years, but there are a lot of younger kids, who, as they were growing up, their parents listened to the Beatles, the Stones and other now-classic rock, and those kids recognize and appreciated that music as the foundation for the music they’re listening to today.”

Ski Town USA, aka Steamboat Springs, has veteran-of-the-après clan, Randy Kelley, who has been entertaining the throngs of snow people since 1979. “I’ve seen a few seasons,” says the founder of the band Sundog. “First, we were right at the base of the mountain at Spaces, which became The Inferno. We’ve been playing at the Bear River, bottom floor of the Sheridan, right where you take your skis off, three and four days a week.” His band has been covering the required eclectic music from jazz to bluegrass, classic rock to classic country for twenty-three years. He boasts that they’ve forgotten more songs than some bands have learned. Randy does wonder though why one of the most requested songs from eight-year-old kids seems to be “I Love This Bar.”

Most musicians love the après-ski gigs … there’s no pressure, everyone’s elated about a fine day on the mountain, and it’s great fun to watch the crowd get happier as the brews get poured, the ski clothes come off and everyone’s down to dancing in boots and long johns. Hell, yes, bring it on.

Dawne Belloise is a writer, photographer and vocalist who has performed more après-ski gigs than she can recall. She has currently taken leave of the real world to move back to her clan in Crested Butte. Contact dbelloise@gmail.com. 

Ski Good Or Eat Wood: White Grizzly Adventures

catskills

It was dark and cold on a March Sunday at 4:30 a.m. outside the Sawtooth Hotel on Ace of Diamonds Street in Stanley, Idaho, many days the coldest town in the continental U.S. Right on time, Karl Weatherly, the well-known, fine ski/mountain photographer, pulled up in front of the Sawtooth in his 2002 BMW M3 which, I was soon to learn, he drives, as noted in my journal that night, “…with skill but like a maniac and I am really uncomfortable in the car with him.”

Maniac. Uncomfortable. Really.

Karl and I had met a few times but didn’t really know each other when he asked if I was interested in going to White Grizzly Lodge near Meadow Creek in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia for a few days of cat skiing. I checked out its web site, which proclaims “Hibernation is for wimps.” It seemed interesting, different, quirky and, you know, worth a try, and so it proved to be. We all live in Ketchum, but my partner Jeannie Wall and I spent that weekend at the Sawtooth for a book reading/signing at the hotel, some backcountry skiing on Banner Summit and the best food in the Sawtooth Valley in the company of friends. So I rose early and left lucky Jeannie to her sweet dreams and another day in the backcountry and joined Karl in the BMW. He had made the hour drive from Ketchum in 45 minutes and we had 12 hours to do the 15 hour drive to catch the last Ferry across Kootenay Lake in order to be at orientation and dinner at White Grizzly, but I didn’t know any of that until we were on the road and words like “maniac” and “uncomfortable” were sliding through my mind the way the BMW was (skillfully) sliding through the twisty black ice corners of Highway 75 on what is known in daylight hours as the Salmon River Scenic Byway. Committing to long drives with casual acquaintances is never risk-free.

After one particularly unnerving slide, Karl noticed my discomfort and immediately assured me with his soft North Carolina accent that, because of the superiority of the car, the tires on the car and the skill of the driver of the car, there was nothing to worry about. Everything was under control. After all, his car is equipped with radar detector and GPS. Besides, he explained, he likes to drive fast and outlined the time constraints involved in catching the ferry and, with what I have come to know as a particularly Karl Weatherly (maniacal?) smile, he immersed himself in what he likes to do, a trait I recognize, admire, practice and, my own discomfort notwithstanding, consider healthy for both individual and society. Still, it was a wild, stressful (for the passenger), amazing ride I’ll not soon forget, and, as I learned, a perfect warm-up and introduction to White Grizzly Lodge cat skiing.

We made the Kootenay ferry with 45 minutes to spare and dinner that night was worth the drive.

White Grizzly Lodge is a labor of love and the love of labor of its owners, Carole and Brad Karafil, who, though they have university degrees in things like biology, special education, business and accounting, have devoted their lives to skiing. They met in 1990 when Brad was 19 and Carole 29 and have been together ever since, and, in my view, they are both personally and professionally wonderful. They have owned and operated White Grizzly since 1998. I have been skiing for more than 60 years in a wide range of mountains, terrain, snow conditions, skiing pursuits and challenges, and I’ve never experienced anything quite like what Brad and Carole offer.

I mean, White Grizzly Lodge is not for every skier, not even for every good skier, not even for every very good powder skier. The lodge is rustic and spotless and the food exquisite, but among the many souvenirs, oil paintings, mugs and skiing accessories for sale are two revealing bumper stickers: SKI GOOD OR EAT WOOD and KEEP UP OR FUCK OFF.

Brad puts it this way: “I’d rather have eight skiers with the skills and experience to enjoy what we are offering here, than have eleven where three of them struggle and hold up the group because they aren’t fit for the terrain … We screen our guests because we aren’t willing to take those risks on the mountain. It’s about finding a balance. I value safety because I want to keep on doing what I do, and we only bring in guests that love steep powder, so my reward is being with them on the mountain every day.”

According to Carole, the French Canadian: “It’s the art of experience really, paying attention to all the details. What we do is a labour of love, and I want to celebrate that. I would really like to see more creative works coming through cat skiing. It’s all about carving the white, however you see it. It’s a very subtle thing.”

Carving the white is subtle, but skiing steep, deep powder in closely spaced trees in the company of 15 yelping, yodeling closely spaced other skiers (some of them sometimes a bit spacey) is as exhilarating as Karl’s driving, as subtle as one can make it. There is room at White Grizzly for 12 guests. One of three snowcats is used every day and each customized (by Brad, a master metal worker) snowcat is big enough for the guests, four guides and a driver. The lodge tends to get repeat customers, often repeat groups. The week we were there, I was one of two White Grizzly neophytes. The main group of seven Canadians had skied together for 25 and more years and consisted of Andrew Buck, Jay Wilgar, Matt Walker, Chris Andrews and Matt Stemerdink, who grew up in Ontario and learned to ski on the 200 vertical feet of Chicopee Ski Hill as boys; Tom Kusomoto of Calgary; and Darin Cox of Vancouver, B.C. Stemerdink and Wilgar had skied together since they were three years old, and the tradition of an annual road ski trip to an exotic location was started by Stemerdink’s father, John, before the boys were old enough to drive. John is reported to be looking forward to the tradition continuing with the grandchildren. Responsible, respectable, traditional, energetic members of middle-age mainstream society, all but one of them family men, the seven gather once a year for a holiday (sometimes at White Grizzly) break of hard skiing and partying with a fervor and return/regression to youthful abandon that made Karl’s driving seem comparatively tame. The lone bachelor, Kusomoto, is engaged to be married and the group is plotting a 10-day bachelor party for him in Chamonix in 2013.

White Grizzly
Carole and Brad Karafil, owners of White Grizzly. Karl Weatherly • www.karlweatherly.com.

French Canada was represented by two Quebecers, Francois Morin, the lone snowboarder in the group, the only one besides myself unfamiliar with the scene; and Jean Francois Racine, a talented artist who painted snow-covered mountain landscapes of the area to sell and, for an additional fee, will include you in the painting making your best powder turn of the day.

The U.S. was represented by me and Karl and Tony Crocker, a California ski journalist, blogger and actuary who rolled skiing-related statistics, risks and costs off his tongue as easily and blithely and with as much obvious pleasure as he danced through the spaces between trees in deep powder snow, carving the white.

Francois and I had more than neophyte status in common. We were both Buddhists and vegetarians and, I surmised, were suspect members of the group of three Brad referred to, candidates for holding up the group. Francois was not only the lone snowboarder, but he admitted to me that he had never before boarded in powder. My deficiency was that, with the exceptions of Karl, who turned 60 that week and who skis as well as he drives and with a similar ethic, Tony, who was 59 and experienced in steep, deep powder in the trees, and Carole, 51, who lives for carving the white, I was 30 years older than anyone in the entire group. I suspect I passed Brad’s screening on Karl’s recommendation.

Thanks, Karl. Thanks, Brad.

Like snowflakes, clouds, people and parties, no two turns on a pair of skis are ever the same, and each run and day at White Grizzly was different from the others, while, at the same time, being remarkably organized, scheduled and thought out, an orchestrated improvisation worthy of Art Tatum, Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane or Jerry Garcia. (I’ve already alluded to my age.) The schedule got the most out of a day: up early, eat, 20-minute car ride to the staging area, load into the cat, hour ride to the top of the White Grizzly Peak adjacent to the Goat Range Provincial Park and 11,000 skiable acres that receive an average of 11 meters of snow each season. Unload. The cat leaves. Saddle up. Ski down about 1,000 vertical meters on a different route each time to where, miraculously, we popped out of impenetrable woods onto a road where the cat was waiting. Load into the cat for a 30-minute ride back to the top. Repeat. Repeat again and again until 5 p.m. Gourmet snacks, drinks and lunch during the five to eight rides a day, depending on tree well burials, lost skis, lost skiers, photo ops and photo set ups. Then back to the lodge for evening festivities, which will be described shortly.

The White Grizzly learning curve for me was as steep as its terrain and not nearly so soft as the powder. The first morning I went up with my backcountry randonee set-up, the one I normally use for powder days in Sun Valley and for all backcountry adventures. The skis are wider and shorter than I normally use for lift-serviced Baldy groomers and even moguls when they are covered in fresh white. They have served me well on Baldy powder days, where I ski with a circumspect velocity and trajectory suitable to the natural governor built into the muscles and reflexes of age. I have, of course, observed with interest the young dudes and dudettes skiing the bowls of Baldy on powder mornings with a verve and velocity I fully appreciate and vaguely remember with a mixture of nostalgia and envy, the best of them on HUGE twin-tip rocker boards, each nearly the size of a monoski. Such big boards require more strength and better reflexes than mine and I never gave them a second thought for personal use until I’d spent half a White Grizzly morning skiing the heaviest, deepest powder to my arm pits that I’d ever skied (and I grew up skiing in the Sierra Nevada). The steepness and the trees were manageable, though I managed (sic) to get clipped three times by my faster comrades in powder, but it was clear I would not last a day, much less a week, at armpit exertion levels. (Four feet of fresh powder had fallen in just the previous three days.) Karl had suggested switching to larger skis during our drive the day before, but I was too fixated on the present moment’s velocity over which I had no control to focus on the subtleties of a future over which I had even less than no control.

After a few runs, Brad made the identical suggestion to Karl’s of the previous day and he had a couple of pairs of giant twin-tip rockers on the back of the cat, just in case someone lost a ski or an old guy came to his (literal) senses. I put them on and life in the trees and powder of the Selkirk Mountains immediately became easier, more enjoyable and worthy of carving the white. After a few turns on the giants, I was only sinking to my knees in powder that miraculously wasn’t quite so heavy, and I knew I had knee-deep energy and would be able to carve the white and make it back to the lodge for dinner. And so I did.

And each night it snowed. And each morning we rose early, ate and went back up to fresh powder on White Grizzly Peak. Group dynamics, always interesting to the attentive participant/observer, range from the harmonious worthy of the Grateful Dead or the Sun Valley Summer Symphony to the cacophonous worthy of the U.S. Congress. I have been on climbing expeditions that ended with some members of the team never speaking to each other again and others that formed lifelong friendships, and, when strangers are brought together even for something as enjoyable as powder skiing, it can go either way. During the cat rides between runs, this group easily engaged in a comfortable, harmonious dialogue of story-telling, jokes (among the seven Canucks often at the expense of one of them), questioning and philosophy, and, in truth, Brad and Carole were master conductors and the core group of Canadian friends treated everyone as family. As the elder of the group with the most mileage both on and off skis, I was sometimes called upon by the conductors to recount an exotic tale or two from earlier days of skiing and skiers. Judging by the intensity and intelligence of their questions and responses to my remembrances, as well as their skiing skills and enthusiasm, it was clear that my comrades were true lovers of the well-carved turn, the adrenaline high and the satisfaction and personal growth that can only come to those who pursue what they like to do.

Because slopes are steep, snow deep, trees closely spaced and branches loaded with snow that drops like a bomb from time to time, there is ample opportunity for skiers to get in trouble at White Grizzly. And, given enough time and turns, those who ski hard, like those who party hard, always get in trouble. Thus, at White Grizzly, the buddy system is used. Skiers are paired up for each run and encouraged to stay close to each other, as all pairs are encouraged to stay close to the other pairs. A skier, for instance, who fell and was trapped upside down in a tree well and could not get out on his/her own, would not likely survive the hour and a half it would take to make another lap and track him/her down. Almost every year, someone dies in a ski area boundary from the tree well scenario, in a more skier-friendly environment than the Selkirk Mountain woods. At White Grizzly, skiers keep track of each other for good reason. Each person also chooses a yell/yodel/yelp/woof/call/song/sound to emit from time to time so that the partner and the others have an auditory idea of location. My yell was HEEEE HAAAAA!!!!!! Others were more imaginative and melodic.

One guide always took the lead with instructions to stay close to and either left or right of his tracks and to give him a head start. Then, in pairs, with a few turns in between the teams blasted into the powder snow magic of the woods of British Columbia.

HEEEE HAAAAA!!!!!!!! HOOOOO!!!!!!! HAAAAA!!!!!!!! OH-DI-LAY-EE-OH!!!!!! WOOOOOOO WOOOOOOO!!!!!!! BUGGGGAAAAA BUGGGGGAAAAA!!!!! KA-CHING KA-CHING!!!!!!!!!

Through tight trees we skied, carving the white with none of the ballet-like grace of vast solitude and wide-open slopes of the powder skiing of dreams. White Grizzly powder skiing is less ballet and grace, its carve through the white more like break dancing in the Bugggggaaaaa Bugggggaaaaa Bar on a Saturday night in the company of a pack of serious break dancers. It works and it is great fun to dodge trees and other skiers in a skier’s dance in powder, and, as the slowest except, sometimes, Francois, I was always alert to the possibility of OH-DI-LAY-EE-OH or WOOOOOOO WOOOOOOO meeting me head on coming around a tree. There were some close misses, but no true encounters and, despite a few crashes, tree well burials, snow bombs dropped, lost skis and a few temporarily lost skiers, we always managed to meet the snowcat for the ride back up, the stories, laughter, hot and cold drinks, snacks, good food and good will. For me, the accent in skiing has always been more on the solitary, even meditative aspects than on group dynamics, but that isn’t possible or advisable at White Grizzly, and I wasn’t alone in having one of the best skiing weeks of a long life of skiing.

One day, Jean Francois spent the entire day at the top of White Grizzly Peak with his easel and paints. We checked his progress after each lap and gained run by run a better appreciation of the rigors, techniques and skills of the art of landscape oil painting.

Several times, Karl set up shots, so that, one by one, two by two, and three by three, skiers could have powder photos taken. Some of these adventures involved cliffs, rocks and other large drops into bottomless powder that cushioned equally the nailed, inelegant and the hopeless landing, all to the whoooooops and laughter of spectators. I refrained from air time, but thoroughly enjoyed the spectacle. Since there were a couple of web cams on helmets in the group of seven, most flights were recorded from both air and ground perspectives, and the day’s events were shown/relived/celebrated/cheered/booed late into each night in the lodge after proper preparation.

Like the days, nights at White Grizzly were a series of different improvisations on a theme. On arrival back at the lodge, there were hors d’oeuvres, hot tub, drinks, showers, naps, the internet, even reading. There is no smoking allowed in the lodge, so, despite fatigue from the day’s efforts, some of the boys took long walks of smoking indulgence before dinner. The entire crew, including Brad and Carole, dined together and wine, stronger spirits and conversation flowed freely. Long retired from the delights and demons of dipsomania, I sipped water and paddled only in the conversations, and when the talk and the emerging party moved to the lounge, I usually retreated to my room upstairs for reading, jotting in my journal and, when possible, sleep. Karl and the web cammers showed their day’s work to that most appreciative of audiences — the subject of the work — and the sounds cheers, boos, laughter and comments that made their way through the floorboards were muted enough that I usually but not always fell asleep before my roommates Tony and Karl arrived. Soon after, the muted sounds of serious partying were lost in the honking/snorting/earsplitting/unbelievable snorts of Tony’s snoring, sounds unlike any I’ve ever heard before. Still, despite snoring sounds one imagines could be made by wrestling or copulating elephants, I managed enough sleep to rise each morning with sufficient energy to continue to carve the white.

Downstairs, the party continued.

Hard and long.

WOOOOOO WOOOOOO!!!!!

Difficult for the non-participant to know what transpired at the downstairs party each night, though imagination can easily fill in the blank spots. One Canadian gentleman was so overcome from each day’s carved white exertions and dark night’s indulgences that he managed to fall completely asleep on one of the lounge couches every night. His nightly slumber inspired his best and oldest friends to unbutton his shirt and decorate his face, belly, chest and arms with demonic, humorous and even obscene black paint works of art that were not so easily removed when he discovered them in his morning mirror.

Still, he and everyone else was ready for the morning cat to the top of White Grizzly Peak and a day of carving the white.

On the last morning, after skiing was finished and we were getting ready to leave, I noted in my journal, “Skiing is over and it has been a unique and wonderful experience. I am filled with good will towards and connection to all the people here.”

That feeling alone is worth every and all effort and drive the labour of love of carving the white requires.

Long-time senior correspondent Dick Dorworth is the author of “Night Driving” and “The Perfect Turn.”   

Concrete Memories

concrete memories

One of the paradoxes of driving on concrete in search of powder is that what you search for is not a thing you wish to encounter any sooner than necessary. A snowy road may mean a day spent laying down fresh tracks on the mountain, but it also brings the risk of not getting there — soon or ever. Every drive has its dangers — even those not rooted in mountains and deep snow — dangers often hidden beneath a veneer of familiarity. Maybe your trek takes you to your local hill with little more vertical drop than a playground slide. Perhaps it crosses sun-soaked fruit fields in California en route to some snow or consists of sliding on ice in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Together, these travels often fade into a fabric of monotony, leaving in their wake little more than themes around which memories with rounded edges cling. Yet, some events may crystallize into something more — the time you picked up the hitchhiker who didn’t kill you, the time your truck pulled a rodeo and landed perfectly in a streambed or the time you took a friend riding for the first time. Whether your road time is in pursuit of manicured booters in a terrain park or a trailhead cloaked in powder and begging for a bootpack, you share a common language with anyone who has ever headed down the road in search of a little snow.

Who hasn’t laughed uneasily while driving down the road listening to weather forecasts that warn that travel should be reserved for emergencies? Any Midwesterner who has made the pilgrimage to Summit County in a snowstorm — and for that matter anyone who has put in interstate time in the middle of winter — can attest to the otherworldliness of a freeway right after a storm. There are plenty of jackknifed tractor trailers and upended cars to remind you of the fragility of steel and glass and your own mortality. Roadside ditches and medians are littered with half-buried cars, often flagged with orange tape to announce that people are no longer inside. Growing up in Iowa, every few years, you would hear of an old timer who had been missing for weeks only to be discovered by hunters peacefully frozen in a car far from the road from which it slid. The roadside aftermath of a storm also creates strange tasks for the mind, begging answers to questions like: How did that truck get there or what was that driver thinking?  Once on Interstate 80, I saw a boat blanketed with snow and upright in a median, twenty feet from an overpass abutment. No tracks, no trailers and no trucks were in sight. It was a strangely peaceful scene, as though a family had decided to moor their craft to the overpass and step out of the bow to picnic and make snow angels.

If you slip away into the backcountry a fair amount, your avy shovel probably bears more scars from digging your truck out than buried bodies. In a single weekend, I broke in a shovel in Silverton by first sliding off the edge of a county road, later submerging my car in a snowbank on the horseshoe turn that leads back into town and then digging out some travelers beached on a scenic overlook on Molas Pass. I’ll always shudder when I think of how I feverishly dug my Jeep out on that horseshoe turn. I had just begun shoveling when headlights illuminated the ice-covered road and two vehicles began sliding in my direction. As I scrambled off my knees to jump out of the way, I envisioned my body with a hundred broken bones and pinned in a pileup of sheet metal. Needless to say, the vehicles made it through the turn and I took note of the new tires I needed to purchase.

Perhaps you have held a strange and tense form of communion with thousands of other drivers who have inched forward for hours, attempting to descend into Denver or Salt Lake. Perhaps you have slammed on your brakes only to be passed by your board as you realize you failed to secure your roof rack. Perhaps you have bagged a buck with your bumper and windshield, emptying your pocket of the money earmarked for lift tickets. Perhaps you have attempted to steer your car while leaning out the window to wipe down the windshield and study exit signs in order to acquire washer fluid. Perhaps you pulled your first 900 not in a terrain park, but on a two-lane highway. Perhaps you have had to surrender your dignity and give up shoveling to call a tow truck. Perhaps a great day on the mountain has been marred by red and blue lights flashing in your rearview mirror.

Yet, time on the road is not inherently an exercise in disappointment, defying death or perfecting one-finger salutes. It is just as likely to be a comforting routine. For three years, I dedicated nearly every weekend to driving from western New Mexico to Flagstaff, Arizona, to ride Snowbowl and the adjacent backcountry. I caught countless sunsets framed by the Painted Desert and the San Francisco Peaks. I miss those days. I also miss the smaller details that helped forge my memories: letting my mind drift while watching the chutes of the San Francisco Peaks fade away in my mirrors, pondering the ways in which my weekly four-hundred-mile pursuit of snow threatened the very thing I was seeking, questioning how much longer petrified wood and “real Indian jewelry” could be sold to tourists from wooden tepees out of place in the desert, and stopping at the same desolate exit each Sunday to piss on an access road partially obscured from the interstate.

All routines, however, begin as something new. For those who have spent some time hitchhiking in order to ride lines along roadways, each ride back to the summit can quickly become faceless. Although I have forgotten many of the rides I have thumbed, the first ride remains. As I leaned against a tailgate, wedged between a pile of skis and boards, I remember noting how much colder negative-five feels in the back of a truck kicking up snow at forty miles an hour and developing a strong desire to find something to hold onto in preparation for the tailgate rattling lose. I also remember the smiles shared with a good friend and a handful of strangers in the cramped bed of that truck as it careened up Loveland Pass. I remember thinking I have to do this again.

As meaningful as each day on the mountain can be, much of its beauty is owed to the minutiae that is so easily overlooked: the conversations on the chairlift, the free meals of ketchup and crackers in the cafeteria, the sunburn you claimed would be impossible to acquire on a partly cloudy day or the pristine kits toppled like dominoes when a four-year-old snags a board with his pint-sized skis. This is equally true for the concrete pilgrimage that leads to snow. Memories surface from the suicide concoction of gas station hot chocolate flavors, the smiles shared with new friends, the spring waterfalls that flank the road, the rare glimpse of the Northern Lights or the innovative uses of duct tape pioneered by travelers on America’s roadways. Sometimes the miles spent staring through an ice-caked and cracked windshield emerge as the story and it is the riding that fades away and is forgotten.

Michael Sudmeier is a writer based in Jackson, WY. He can be reached at michaelsudmeier.com.