Big Bend

Open Sky
Photo cred: James H. Evans

I keep coming to Big Bend because other people do not seem to go there much. There are spurts of visitors in the spring and the fall and that is about it. In heat, I can own the whole place. This summer night is silent, no insect sound, just the occasional scream of a falling star. The rain has failed for eleven months. Big Bend is drying out. The terrain is a natural barrier and so in this zone, from Presidio down river to about Del Rio, human traffic has long been light. I once met a guy in a village in Mexico who had a bull get loose and head north. He crossed the river on horseback, trailed the bull over a hundred miles to Fort Stockton, lassoed it and somehow got it back home. What struck me about his story is that he didn’t think it much of a story. He was the kind of person Big Bend — on both sides of the river — seemed to breed.

The river is almost gone. Since the 1930s, the demands on the Rio Grande have exceeded the natural flow. Since about 2000, the river has failed to make it to the sea. With global warming and a drier weather pattern, it is certain to decline yet more. In the middle reaches of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the annual floods ended in the early seventies when Cochiti Dam broke the back of the river. Now the cottonwood bosques are becoming senile and in a century will be gone if this management continues because there is almost no replacement by seedlings dependent on the yearly flood cycle of the natural stream. Which brings me to Big Bend, the only national park on the entire eighteen-hundred-mile river.

It was supposed to be half of an international park joining the Sierra del Carmen with the Chihuahuan Desert on the U.S. side, or at least that was FDR’s notion. This never happened. Now there is talk of walling off the river lest some Mexican come north and terrorize us with decent food. Big walls are the new form of American installation art. The federal government is also building new housing for Border Patrol agents within the park to catch a non-existent flow of migrants. This is becoming a problem on the frontier of the empire. Last fall, I had drinks with some Border Patrol people on the Arizona chunk of the line. Their station had 350 people and bagged only 300 migrants a month. They were a little concerned that the public might some day learn what it cost to catch a poor person seeking work.

I come to Big Bend to be alone. For years, people have told me why they do not come here. It is in Texas. It is a dead end with a long drive in and out. It can be very hot. It is a desert. One guy told me it was the commodification of the natural world. Yes, and be sure to tell others.

I avoid the river with the two major campsites and also avoid the Chisos Mountains with their forests and facilities. I prefer to dry camp at various primitive park sites. So far, I have never run into anyone at such locales, but there is no guarantee my luck will hold. Like all fine places, there is nothing to do. And as a bonus, in Big Bend there is not a lot to see by conventional standards. If one is careful, one can find a patch of creosote and dry ground that does not pester one with vistas. At night the stars make a lot of noise but I have gotten used to that.

I seem to blunder about aimlessly and then get tired and sit down for a spell. I have never had a big idea in Big Bend and of course I am very grateful for this fact. There was a time in my life when I would hole up in Marfa writing books and periodically would become insane because of marauding art galleries, a serious menace in the area. I would drive to Big Bend and sit down very quietly and these seizures would pass. Also, I am here to tell you that one of the best roads in the United States runs from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend, a two-lane slow path along the river through little canyons. Don’t bother to take photographs in Big Bend. James Evans owns the place and frankly you should simply buy his books and save yourself some time. He not only has what it looks like, he has what it feels like and means. This is a very rare thing.

Big Bend is a place to be. And not much else. To my knowledge, anyone having an epiphany there is summarily executed. I cannot prove this but I am a creature of hope.

Lately, I have realized I have spent my life surrounded by two kinds of professional liars — the normal Chamber of Commerce felons and the pious trolls of academia. They have always said there would be enough water, they have always said you can’t stop people from coming here, they have always said national defense was job number one, and that if we simply had some more meetings, it would all work out. They have always lied. Big Bend, for me, is a haven from this talk. It is pretty much uninhabitable and the Mexican side is equally isolated. I have a friend who ran dope in this area for years — he’d bring it north through Panther Junction. One of my first visits to Big Bend was when he showed me his former haunts and routes, including where in the beginning he’d crawl through the bosque on his belly dragging a burlap bag of grass. He soon advanced to better days and was doing about $750,000 a month when he made a fatal error: he refused to pay a bribe to a U.S. Custom agent because of his prejudice against crooks in law enforcement. This moment of integrity cost him five years in a federal pen.

Three javelina root around in the brush by the river. The sky is overcast and soon comes the first rain in months. The arroyos run here and there from desert showers. The walls of the wash are red and lavender and yellow. The water rolls over the rocks and the ground comes up and slaps my face with scent.

Just across the river is the village where they killed Pablo Acosta.

He’d come back from the United States in 1976 and found disorder. The man in charge of the plaza in Ojinaga just upriver had quit his post and no one knew exactly who to contact for payoffs. Drugs were small time, a sideline in a poor area. Acosta grew with the industry and soon things were big enough that the Mexican federal police set up a headquarters in town to collect their cut. Acosta also shipped money to the Mexican army. By 1983, Acosta was big time and bringing planeloads of cocaine in from Colombia. He once considered executing my friend.

And then he was gone. He was murdered by a Mexican commander with the help of the FBI.

That happens in that business and in this place.

Just to the west is the gouge of Santa Elena Canyon, the river now a latte color from the waters rushing in from the flooded arroyos. The thunder is near now, and lightning slices the sky. Steam rises from the road as fresh raindrops fall.

A couple pulls over by the suddenly rising waters, she carefully wades out a short bit and he takes photographs and this is right across the river from the machine-gunned building where they took down Pablo and my God life is good at this moment and I suck down the breeze and believe, well, if only I knew what I believed.

Chisos at Night
Photo cred: James H. Evans

The Chisos Mountains loom like gods in the mist and across the river the Sierra Carmen walls off Mexico. Los Diablos stand around and chat. They are a firefighting group formed in Boquillas del Carmen, the Mexican village just across the river. The Diablos fight fires in Big Bend and elsewhere — last spring, they were up to save Los Alamos, NM, America’s city of scientific death. On the rocks are small wire creations of scorpions, roadrunners and ocotillo cactus. They go for five or six bucks a piece and a hand-printed sign says the money helps schools in Boquillas. Traditionally, visitors to the park went across the shallow river for breakfast and to buy little bits of Mexico. 9/11 ended that for Boquillas and Santa Elena a ways upstream and both villages fell apart. The small wire figures are contraband and the government warns against such commerce. The Federal authorities also ask visitors not to give water to any illegals they may encounter in the desert but to promptly call 911.

The sign says that God will bless for any donation.

The creosote is brown. Dead prickly pear heaps dot the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The diggings of the javelina show desperation. I woke up at gray light on the ground and listened and there was nothing, not the dawn song of the coyote, not a single note of birdsong. Nothing.

A ranger says in time this place will be like the Sahara. He goes off on how the U.S. has the habits of a cancer cell and is killing the earth in general and Big Bend in particular.

The fresh air is suddenly rich in scent after the first slight shower in eleven months.

Down by the river, the government has posted a warning: “Beware of Javelina! Protect Your Property. Javelina in search of food may rip up your tents.”

At the mouth of Dog Canyon, a javelina bolts. The early camel corps came through in 1859 as they tested the Middle Eastern beast for the War Department, an early foray in national security. The experiment was cut short, when the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, decided to quit his job, and lead a movement to destroy the Union. Before things settled down, 600,000 Americans were dead.

Back at the Boquillas crossing, Los Diablos laugh. Their caps sport the flags of the U.S. and Mexico, plus a big red devil.

There’s talk of reopening the crossing in the spring of 2012. But I am not sure my fellow citizens can bear such a risk to their safety.

There was a moment in my childhood when I realized my family and my school and my friends and my neighborhood all meant death. I took to sleeping on the roof until my parents outlawed this behavior.

But when I roll out my bag in Big Bend and look up I remember this and know, at least for a little moment, why I am here.

The sky has always meant freedom to me.

Big Bend still has sky.

Charles Bowden is the author of many books, including “Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family,” “Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future” and, most recently, “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” Bowden’s last story for MG was “The New Colossus,” which appeared in #184. He lives in the Chihuahuan Desert. 

Read about one man’s journey through climbing and divorce in Where It Ended

Destination Occupy! Your Principled Resistance Tour Planner

“For months the great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy
Land was chatted about in the newspapers everywhere in America
and discussed at countless firesides.”
— Mark Twain, “Innocents Abroad”, 1869

It started with a frustrated street vendor in Tunisia, who set himself on fire and ignited an Arab Spring. Or maybe it was Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Libya’s Benghazi-centered breakaway, Madison’s capitol take-over, Spain’s “Indignant” movement, Greece’s Aganktismenoi (“The Outraged”), or … — maybe you’ve already formed an opinion of the circumstances, but, by autumn 2011, a fair number of public parks and squares world-wide looked like Yosemite’s Camp 4 in the 1970s. A sometimes motley and contentious, always opinionated crowd of campers gathered into discussion groups and planning committees with as much passion as dirtbag climbers debating “first ascent” ethics.

After Wall Street’s bronze bull statue was briefly “occupied” by a group of American protestors and scenes from New York’s Zuccotti (nee Liberty Plaza) Park had become a nightly news-bite, one multi-millionaire presidential wannabe (former pizza-chain mogul, talk-radio host, “success gospel” preacher) felt moved to say, “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” while another (a mega-millionaire job-hunting ex-venture/vulture capitalist/governor) fretted, “I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare.”

While thinking of class warfare on the 10th anniversary of the opening of our apprehensive empire’s ongoing experiment in perpetual “extra-judicial” detention known as Guantanamo, I bought this little book that’s been touted as a philosophical grounding for the burgeoning protests of 2011:

Time For Outrage
"Time for Outrage," by Stephane Hessel (Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 2011)

The book’s red cover does looks a lot like the “Quotations from Chairman Mao” that a Fidel-cap-wearing, latte-sipping fellow revolutionary thought I’d found as I browsed the shelves of Tucson’s Revolutionary Grounds coffeehouse/bookstore, but in a tale of divergent career paths from the seldom-mourned Chairman/Emperor Mao, it was written by a French Resistance fighter whose life after World War II has been devoted to universal human rights and non-violent principled resistance.

Occupy! FUQs

After duly considering some Frequently Unanswered Questions:  Quis (who?), Quid (what?) Quando (when?), Ubi (where?), Cur (why?), Quem ad modum (in what way?) and Quibus adminiculis (by what means?) through many long winter nights, this out-of-seasonal-work warrior’s thoughts lightly turned to vacation planning.

Now, as mud-season rules mountain trails and High-Country powder slopes become time-sensitive minefields of corn and concrete, the editorial brain-trust has permitted me to share my resources for designing your own once-in-a-lifetime Occupy! Adventure.

“Indignez-vous” and its English translation, “Time for Outrage,” have sold more than 3.5 million copies world-wide since its publication in late 2010. Now 93, Stephane Hessel exhorts oppressed younger citizens to turn outrage into a force for change. Though some reviewers have disparaged “Indignez-vous” as reminiscences of an old man that lack examination of the extenuating circumstances of the oppression he cites, I suggest using it as a pocket guide to your own journey of resistance.

Here you may wonder, “Well, resistance to exactly what?” Good question, future traveler! Shall we turn to M. Hessel’s little red book? “The wealthy have installed their slaves in the highest spheres of state. The banks are privately owned. They are concerned solely with profits. They have no interest in the common good. The gap between rich and poor is the widest it’s ever been; the pursuit of riches and the spirit of competition are encouraged and celebrated.”

He continues, “The basic motive of the Resistance was indignation. We of the French Resistance and combat forces that freed our country, call on you …” — and I can’t help personally reflecting just a little on whether my dad came home from World War II with an “American Dream” of obscene profit for a wealthy 1% amid social insecurity for 99%; but I digress — back to Hessel: “Franklin Delano Roosevelt articulated the ‘Four Freedoms’ he felt people ‘everywhere in the world’ had a right to enjoy. Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.”

Points taken, and I could go on quoting old Stéphane until I get labeled a Francophile and placed on a “do not serve Freedom Fries” list, so I’ll just note that Hessel’s “Indignez-vous” and outrage led him to help write 1948’s United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and leave the rest of his story in his books and writings for further consideration. If you’re curious about what some Americans resent about the concept of an elite 1% pillaging the economy while everybody else eats humble pie, click on something called Wearethe99percent.tumblr.com. It had this graybeard 99%er mumbling worker-solidarity slogans.

So, let’s say you’re feeling outraged, indignant and want to know when and where to go. Ah, fellow traveler, look no further, for this is an election year in the empire, and the world-wide web of social networking is a dream date for any budding revolutionary, at least until evil corporate/empire genies take over the filtering technologies of your local internet provider. Facebooking protestors, cell-phone-wielding citizen journalists, tweeting reporters, adbusters.org and an on-line group called Anonymous (self-described as “a decentralized network of individuals focused on promoting access to information, free speech, and transparency”) have worked around almost every attempt to block information about protest times and actions. For the latest techno-wizardry designed to defeat jack-booted digital censorship thugs, my best advice is to visit the group of disaffected youths that haunt certain parks and internet cafes in almost every mountain resort town. Your source may have a hard time trusting anybody who doesn’t fluently speak the jargon, so approach slowly and with latte in hand.

OK, now you’ve done your networking research while finding common ground with some local rabble-rousers, and may be ready to book passage on the 2012 Resistance Tour. Since experienced “Occupiers” are already on the ground in most major urban areas around the world, climate considerations, the proximity of family and friends and your own “bucket list” of travel desires should be your guide. I do, however, have a few suggestions to offer, and some of them could re-define adventure travel.

According to one Spanish “Indignant,” some of the “Occupy Wall Street” organizers visited Spain in July to research techniques, and now we have a vast pool of experienced citizen-protestors on our own shores. Pick a city, and take an expendable tent. With proper timing, you could help shut down a port for a day, or get yourself YouTubed while overzealous authorities go all redneck on you. For overseas adventures, tread lightly in any country that doesn’t remember its last election, beware the zealots of any class, and the world is your oyster. Faded empires Britain (Olympics anyone?) and Rome have fresh “austerity measures” to keep the masses unhappy. Greece and Spain should be restive as always, and springtime weather on the Mediterranean sure looks attractive.

Closer to home, the Repubs will convene on Tampa, Florida, in August, and the week after that, it’s up the coast to North Carolina for the Dems. Meanwhile, all political candidates will be pressing flesh and pounding our eardrums in search of votes, and a little “occupation” theology birdie tells me that some should be facing uncomfortable questioning by an indignant constituency. I’m just saying …

A merry band of “occupiers” followed the Rose Bowl floats through Pasadena a few months back. Though national television didn’t see fit to leave the cameras running, by all accounts, the parade-watching crowd cheered them on, and several thousand joined in. This opens an entire season of civic-minded possibilities — just avoid steaming piles left by equine-mounted royalty and remember to keep waving at the masses as you pass. Don’t enjoy crowds? OK, consider helping a foreclosed neighbor re-occupy a bank’s “troubled asset” with resources from www.occupyourhomes.org.

Occupy Tour
Photo cred: B. Frank

IF YOU GO

For more ideas, search for 2011 word-of-the-year “occupy” on your favorite corporate search engine (two sites that come up on my searches are: www.meetup.com/occupytogether/ and www.occupyeverything.org), network with the home-grown resistance ideologues in your own backyard and then follow your conscience to a deeper understanding of an observation spoken during the year I first embraced principled outrage as a motivational tool: “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free!’” (Martin Luther King, supporting Memphis garbage workers on April 3, 1968).

The day after MLK delivered the above speech was a reminder that ideologues with guns can end lives and terrorize dreams, but 2012 can reaffirm the ineffectual nature of violence and intimidation against a citizenry grown indignant with the status quo. Now go “occupy” your own destination, and see what the FUQs are all about.

 

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “Snipe Hunting in the War Zone: A Diary of Peculiar Madness,” which appeared in #186. Frank, author of “Livin’ the Dream,” splits his time between the Four Corners and the Border Country.  

 

A Different Kind of Storm

 

State of Emergency

Intoxicated by two red-eye flights and a 17-hour layover in Moscow, I arrived in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, at 5 a.m. The apple trees were in bloom — an uplifting welcome after a long grey winter in the Rockies.

I’d come to this small Central Asian nation to follow in the footsteps of Ella Maillart, a Swiss adventurer who had explored the region in the 1930s. It was an era when few Westerners, not to mention single women, were traveling in the area. Smitten with our Swiss heroine, myself and two friends, Jaime and Ann, an expat living in Bishkek, were headed for the Tien Shan mountains to ski a peak called Sari Tor that Maillart had tackled back in her day, then venture into the surrounding terrain that had yet to be tracked by skiers.

Over a welcome breakfast of French toast and tea, Ann mentioned protests were rumored for that day in Bishkek. But local friends had laughed off the possibility, telling Ann that, if it rained, no one would come. So we continued logisticizing and mapping out errands to complete before leaving the next morning on our two-and-a-half-week trip into the mountains.

Later that afternoon, Jaime and I stood at the window of Ann’s third-story apartment, waiting. The sound of chanting, a repetitive round of Russian, had already reached us, long before the tide of men swelling through the street. Red Kyrgyz flags snapped in the air among raindrops. We watched spellbound as a crowd swarmed a city bus, rocking it like a broken vending machine till all the passengers had tumbled out. They rolled the bus back to the middle of the four-way intersection below, bringing traffic to a halt.

The drum tap of gunfire broke the unfamiliar quiet that had settled as traffic ceased. Located just four blocks from the Presidential building, the White House, Ann’s apartment was close enough to the fray that we could smell the chemical stench of black smoke climbing into the leaden storm clouds. Burning tires? Burning buildings? One guess was as good as another. The Internet, international phone lines and television had been cut, but soon we began receiving Tweets and text updates. Fed up with corruption, nepotism and exorbitant price hikes, protesters were storming the White House, demanding that President Bakiyev resign. We greedily waited for updates to flash across Ann’s cell phone.

Damage caused by looters
Our sources of information as we were housebound-texts from friends and CNN. A woman surveys the damage caused by looters the previous night. Multiple blocks were ravaged like this. In the nights to come, citizen militias would roam the streets patrolling for looters. They'd share information by Twitter and texts as to where the looters were and move en masse to the location.

Hours passed. We crowded the window like voyeurs at a peep show. A lone cop car patrolled the street with a group of teenage boys running after it, throwing rocks at its back window, the glass shattering into a messy, tangled web. A policeman exited, marching toward the boys as he raised the Kalashnikov’s site to his eye.

“Is everybody ready to duck,” asked Ann, anticipating the potential for stray bullets.

I wasn’t sure whether to turn my eyes and shield my heart from the potential of watching one human hurt, possibly even kill, another, or if witnessing the act would somehow pay respects to the pain and outrage that had driven the boys into this standoff. I thought about screaming or of throwing something down to create a distraction. But I was scared — scared how they’d react to a foreigner inserting herself into their fight. Scared of the consequences. That moment and those questions still haunt me.

As night fell, we turned off the lights, drew the curtains and moved around the apartment with headlamps. The two-and-a-half-weeks’ worth of food, iodine tablets for water purification, gallons of fuel and cookstoves sitting in the living room, sorted and ready for the expedition, provided some level of security. Many of Ann’s fellow expat friends were moving to safe houses outside the capital under orders from their employers. The U.S. Embassy staff had moved to the American air base. But, considering our location on the third floor of a large apartment building and our arsenal of ice axes and crampons, we felt safely ensconced. We watched through carefully-pulled-back corners of the curtains as the streets below flooded with looters. Until sunrise, men of all ages streamed back and forth, carrying their treasures — bags of food, appliances, sporting goods, display racks, potted plants, anything and everything.

International expeditions are synonymous with uncertainty and risk, but the revolution had taken this adage to a new level. The Tien Shan’s snowy glaciers weren’t the problem, but the land between here and there was lawless. So we waited, settling into a storm-day routine, albeit of a different kind, with long cups of tea, naps, reading and, for me, long interviews with the revolutionaries still bandaged and marked with streaks of bright green disinfectant, still running on empty and searching for missing loved ones.

There were so many. Gulbubu, a grandmother whose calf had been peeled open like a banana by a grenade. Sitting next to her rickety hospital bed, I asked, if she’d known the outcome, would she have still gone to the protests.

“I’d do it again,” she said, wincing as the nurse turned her to administer a shot. “I’d lie to my children and tell them I’d be back soon. Change needs this kind of sacrifice.”

There was Ulan, a 41-year-old electrician who hadn’t slept in three days and was subsisting on cigarettes.

“We aren’t thinking about food or sleep; we are thinking about when we will hear about a punishment for the blood of the killed people,” he said, adding that the perpetrators should be punished for seven generations — a reference to the deep tribal ties that bind Kyrgyz to one another and the requisite knowledge Kyrgyz are supposed to have of their family’s ancestry. Later, Ulan asked if I could publish photos of accused gunmen and associated decision-makers back in the United States to help aid in their capture.

And there was Mirlan. When we entered the small café, the old women nipping the morning brandy whispered “revolutionary” to each other, tipped off by the gauze bandage wrapped around his head like an ear warmer. The men caught his eye and nodded their respects. The bandage was from a grenade blast that had ruptured Mirlan’s eardrum and killed his best friend as they helped carry dead bodies out of the melee.  Over a plate of greasy piroshkies, Mirlan told me how he’d helped kill one of the snipers captured by the crowd. They beat the sniper to death, then burned his body in one of the many fires raging throughout the city. If anything, Mirlan seemed proud. He had helped destroy a head of the Hydra that was killing his people.

After eight days of sitting out the storm, we received the answers we’d been waiting for — the military and police had declared allegiance to the interim government and the U.S. Embassy determined it safe to travel. Twenty-four hours later, we were alone. Alone in that fear and awe-inspiring way, where each action counts a little more because you are your best and only ally. Quiet white tongues of snow spilled off the mountains and pooled in a broad, wide valley where we set our tent. Peaks rose in every direction and appeared just right for touring, with low-slung saddles at the head of each valley that provided good access to ridges with beautiful lines swooping down the nearly 15,000-foot peaks. High above treeline, the only voice the wind had left was what it pitted against the ocean of snow where our orange tent sat. The solitude and serenity of the place was a quick-acting tonic, and we felt the tension from the chaos of Bishkek melting away. Ten days felt impossibly short. But 10 was better than none, which, while waiting for the military to declare allegiance to the new government, was a distinct possibility. Eager to ski, we skinned to a hill behind our base camp, ready for the requisite sleuthing needed before
venturing higher.

We quickly slipped into the rhythm and routine of life in the Tien Shan — our palates reacquainted with the subtle flavor of snow-melted water; moving more quickly at our coordinated routine of managing three people in a two-person tent; and, each day, the skinning became easier as our lungs and bodies adjusted to the altitude. The snowpack was less stable than we’d hoped, so the steeper lines we’d drooled over upon arrival were no longer an option we felt comfortable pursuing. But we kept busy and happy, exploring the different valleys, wandering over the passes, trying to somehow absorb the vastness of such an expanse of mountains void of people and, of course, lots of skiing.

From time to time, we’d talk about Ella Maillart — imagining the amplified wild frontier feeling the place would have had in the 1930s. We’d talk about Bishkek, wondering if anyone else had been evacuated; if Bakiyev had been found and what might have become of him and his inner circle; how many of the injured had died; and whether we’d return to calm or chaos. But, out here, Kyrgyzstan’s socio-political well-being was inconsequential to our skiing.

“Basically, we’ve got 35 centimeters of wind slab on top of 30 centimeters of depth hoar,” said Jaime, hollering up to where Ann and I sat, spotting and recording data from the snow pit she was digging. It was a beautiful line — 2,500-feet of continuous unbroken snow down a 35-to-40 degree face. We’d been so good — easing up on the throttle, skiing low-angle lines and running our decision-making against heuristics designed not only to address subjective things like snowpack, terrain and weather and the devil of decision-making, the human factor. But we were antsy and the test results showed that the wind slab was strong enough that we might be able to get away with it. Eventually, we acquiesced to caution and continued down the ridgeline to the south.

Two days later, our decision justified itself when a slope of similar angle and aspect slid. It sounded like a window shattering, except it kept on as if the entire mountain was made of glass. My skis were off from stamping out camp, and I floundered in the sugar snow like a loser in a three-legged race running through thick mud. Frantically, I tried to marry my snow-clogged boots into my bindings while sliding forward. Rationale about how we’d taken alpha angles was overridden by the primal instinct to survive. The first slide triggered another one on an even larger, adjacent slope and the sound started all over again. But, thankfully, as geometry promised, the debris stopped just short of camp. The mountainside was scoured. The slide had run 800-by-1,500 feet clear to the ground. An additional two slides had been remotely triggered a mile up-valley, and the slope directly behind camp now featured a long, jagged crack, its gentle angle having kept it from releasing. It took a few minutes for my legs to stop shaking.

Three days later, we returned to Bishkek. On the surface, the city appeared normal. Mirlan, Aida (my translator) and I met for breakfast. They wanted to look at pictures of mountains they would never see, and I was eager for political updates. Mirlan had undergone two surgeries to drain blood from his ear, but his hearing was still compromised. Bakiyev supporters roamed Bishkek, and Mirlan had received death threats for his involvement with a youth political party associated with the protests. Despite it, he said it hadn’t changed his resolve to become involved in politics and see the changes through that people had died for. Mirlan was convinced Bakiyev’s henchmen were looking for him, so he and Aida (they had begun dating after our initial interview, but that’s another story) were planning to head for Aida’s home village until things felt safer.

The bandage was gone from around his head, and he was sharply dressed in slacks, a button-down shirt and leather shoes with sharp-pointed toes, but he looked terrible. Dark circles stained his bloodshot eyes. He only paused for air between cigarettes, as if nicotine was his oxygen. As Aida walked me out to get a taxi, she said that Mirlan was hardly sleeping and, when finally he succumbed, he’d cry, thrash about and repeatedly yell his dead friend’s name. She didn’t know how to help. We talked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Aida knew about it from the web, but said that people in Kyrgyzstan didn’t talk about that sort of stuff and counseling techniques were outdated. What if it wouldn’t go away? she worried.

Horses heading over Suok pass
As we skied out of the mountains back to the road we were greeted by a herd of horses nearing 100 heading over Suok pass to their spring pastures. The sheep would follow in a few weeks.

Checking my email in an Internet café, I received word that, while we’d been in the mountains, an acquaintance had died in an avalanche in Colorado. She wasn’t the first friend the mountains have claimed, and I know she won’t be the last. Walking back to Ann’s apartment past the tired memorials of wilted flowers and brown stains on the concrete, thinking over the familiar refrain, at least she died doing what she loved, and reliving my own close call with the avalanche, I wondered about our mountain tribe’s acceptance of danger in pursuit of passion. Or any group for that matter, whose lifestyle excludes them from most life-insurance policies.

Molly hiking Ridge
Molly hiking up a ridge for another good descent.

But what if it wasn’t untouched powder slopes or a remote mountain ridgeline? What if it was a question of justice and the risk centered on a standoff in the concrete of the capital square? Examining the faded photographs fixed to the White House’s gate of young Kyrgyz boys killed by their government, I wondered if I’d have the courage to show up in a similar situation and how many of my cohorts would be there. Could we channel summit fever into fury for the greater good?

But I’ve never been forced to choose and, living in southeastern Idaho’s hills, I doubt I ever will. It’s a luxurious privilege. Examining the newly erected memorial — a small series of concrete slabs on a lawn adjacent to the White House — I couldn’t help but wonder if, despite the riches that a life in the wild has afforded my soul, somehow the luxuries have softened, even stolen from some aspect of my spirit. Would I, would we, have the strength to stand up to a brutal regime? Reruns still played through my mind of that standoff between the boys and police. My hesitation, my silence scared me and makes me wonder if I would.

 

Molly Loomis’ work has appeared in Backpacker, Outside and Sierra magazines. She is grateful to the Hans Saari Memorial Fund for making this trip possible. For more stories about Molly’s adventures around the world, visit www.mollyloomis.com. She looks forward to getting back to Kyrgyzstan someday soon and meeting Merlan and Aida’s baby. Until then, Loomis can be found on the west side of the Tetons in Victor, Idaho.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rumble In Hawai’i

Breaking down CampStudying volcanoes and the dynamics of asteroid impacts, I ended up on Hawai’i, the Big Island, a pinprick through the earth’s skin into a dome of magma not far below. I came looking for apocalypse. And I found it, though not exactly as planned. But isn’t that the case with apocalypse?

First, the crust would need to tear open somewhere and a lava outbreak would have to begin. I’d been watching closely for a few weeks, poking around the lava edges, peering out across an expanse of cooled flows for any sign of a breakout.

Something about flaming catastrophe draws the eye. It tells you that the world may not be quite as stable as you thought.

My wife and kids had been out, and one morning around 3:30, Regan and I pulled those little boys from their tent, dressed them up in coats and boots, and tottered them out toward a fresh flow that had begun exploding into the sea. We wanted them to get a taste for this earth firsthand. It was a brilliant pre-dawn maneuver, the boys’ faces pumpkin-lit with glee and lava-glow. (For any anxious parents, note that we remained a safe half-mile back in a steady upwind the entire time, our exit route duly prepared). But I wanted to get closer, actually walk across the smoldering middle of this active lava shield. I had to ditch the family.

JT Thomas is medium-statured man in his early 40s, olive skin and a brave and Roman face. He has a house back in Colorado where he lives with his dog in the summer growing hay to sell, in the winter keeping the woodstove stocked. A traveling photographer working for stock agencies and for journals and glossy magazines, he is willing to do just about anything. The plan was for JT and me to backpack together across the volcanically active East Rift Zone, something neither legal nor entirely safe. As soon as the lava broke out and started flowing, we’d load gear and head for it.

While crusts swelled, JT and I explored the most-recent fresh flows where half a subdivision had been buried under hardened ropes and whirlpools of lava. We climbed over lobes of slow basaltic forms where charred and fallen trees lay like elephant skeletons. They had burned and fallen over on the hardened lava surface. We were crossing a dance floor in Hell, I with my journal out, JT with camera equipment swinging around his shoulder, his eye fixed in his viewfinder. He circled a street sign raised inexplicably out of a quilted surface of black and silvery lava. Near that was a burned-out car where its flash-rusted chassis must have lit like a candlewick as it was carried along, its seats melted down to metal springs.

We slept a few nights along the edge in the yards of people we met, or out on older flows with sword ferns sprung up through the cracks, and we waited for the glow to appear, signs of the crust splitting open.

Cooled Lava
Cooled Lava, Photo cred: JT Thomas

For two years, I’d been traveling the planet working on a book about extreme landscapes, deciphering what they have to say about the evolution of this planet. I looked for signs through earth’s history of massive, elemental changes that came all at once.

This particular time, I was trying to replicate the complete annihilation of a major cataclysm, an asteroid impact that would roast the earth. The most active analog I could find was the East Rift Zone, an area resurfaced every several weeks by fresh lava, life extinguished beyond a doubt. When we finally spotted the glow, and lava started flowing, JT and I took off for it with gear on our backs. Our boot soles half melted while nights lit up around us with rivers of molten rock. I was here to see what the earth might have looked like when it was bombarded by asteroids four billion years ago, the world begun again, the ground burned into new rock. Out of the lava, we kept backpacking through a succession of jungles and finally into an ancient tree fern forest on the other side that showed us what ultimately happens after the world ends: it returns.

But once you start looking for apocalypse, you can’t just ask it to stop. It keeps coming.

At night, we watched lava glow in the distance, an outbreak flooding from the East Rift. A kipuka where we had slept several nights earlier went up in flames, a forest at the edge of the lava shooting into torches. Cars lined up to watch, gawkers like me and JT out with binoculars and cameras.

To stand on the dome of an eruptive planet and watching it leak, you wonder what permission we have to be here. What prayers are needed to live on an earth prone to frequently sky-searing volcanic activity, not to mention a global wipeout of an asteroid impact coming every 100 million years or so.

But why worry, really? Who has time to bother with hundreds of millions of years?

JT and I picked up our red Pontiac rental and headed for the beach to unwind after time in lava and jungle. We landed in a little seaside park I knew of, a bit of black sand with a parking lot and picnic tables, local families out dancing around the tide pools, laughter and children all about, a football tossed around. Using my journal as a pillow, I laid myself on a smooth piece of lava half-warmed by the sun. I closed my eyes for a short nap with global ruination on my mind. JT was out talking with families, taking pictures.

Just as I drifted off, I heard an altercation. It was JT. His voice sounded urgent.

“We’ll leave, we’ll leave,” he seemed to be saying to someone.

I sat straight up, seeing JT walking backwards a few feet from me, camera lowered in one hand, other hand palmed forward in the universal sign for please don’t get up.

I scrambled to my feet, seeing a very large and obviously strong Hawaiian man bearing toward us. He was shirtless and covered with tattoos, I’d say 250 pounds and around 28 years old. His fists appeared to be tightly clenched, as was his face. He was shouting at JT.

I hadn’t noticed before that we were the only tourists on this side of the beach. I’d camped here with my family, but Regan was often mistaken as an Island girl, and, with kids, you have a sort of automatic passport into unfamiliar locales. I suddenly realized that JT and I — no Regan, no kids — were in the wrong place.

As I came to JT’s side, I spotted an interception from the left where three other large and shirtless young men were approaching shoulder to shoulder at a deliberate pace, their faces just beginning to clinch. I did not wonder what instigated this. I only saw it was happening. To our backs was a field of hard, black lava where an ankle could easily snap if one were to, say, start suddenly running like mad.

The biggest man, the one coming straight at us, was throwing his fists at the ground. He roared, “You fucking took pictures of my mother?”

Oh no.

JT was belting out an apology, repeating, “We’ll just get out of here.”

“You’re leaving all right … I’m gonna kill you.”

I have to admit, I knew this about JT already. He’s a got a trouble-streak in him, even when he’s not trying. JT was one of the most respectful and generous photographers I had ever worked with. He’d be rich if he were doing it for real money, but mostly he is on his own projects, donating his time, one of those rare environmental geographers who would give his life to his work. Which seemed as if it were about to happen.

Big Man went straight into JT’s face. “Who fucking gave you permission? Who said you could take pictures of my mother?”

“I asked her … ”

“You what?” he bellowed, flecking spit on both of us.

“I … ”

“Now you’re calling my mother a fucking liar?”

Even if I had a baseball bat and one free swing, I don’t think I could have taken Big Man down. We were too close, his face twisting with anger. I’d never seen this in a human before, such precise and terrifying rage. He looked like he could break both of us in his two hands.

Don’t deflect, I thought. Don’t fight back.

We were not a physically formidable pair, JT and I. We were Bert and Ernie up against four huge locals who were going animal. We were chicken meat for these guys.

Big Man rose up against JT, his body pushing me out of the way.

This is what it feels like to have the shadow come over you out of nowhere. You look up and suddenly it is happening.

Some huge thing sails burning into view. The sky turns to pure light.

Your mouth is half open, not a moment to pray.

In the spring of 1908, an asteroid or piece of comet exploded over Siberia. Known as the Tunguska Event, this extraterrestrial object slammed into the atmosphere one fine summer’s morning and the entire mass vaporized before touching ground. The mid-air explosion laid waste to entire forests below. An estimated 80 million trees went down as timbers were thrown to the ground all pointing away from the center of the blast. Trees in the middle were stripped, burned and remained standing, a phenomena caused by the explosion’s downward core, marking the trajectory of this bolide as it entered the atmosphere leaving 830 square miles of forest devastated. When an oral history was collected almost 20 years later, an eyewitness identified as Chuchan of Shanyagir Tribe, described,

We had a hut by the river with my brother Chekaren. We were sleeping. Suddenly we both woke up at the same time. Somebody shoved us. We heard whistling and felt strong wind. Chekaren said, “Can you hear all those birds flying overhead?” We were both in the hut, couldn’t see what was going on outside. Suddenly, I got shoved again, this time so hard I fell into the fire. I got scared. Chekaren got scared too. We started crying out for father, mother, brother, but no one answered. There was noise beyond the hut, we could hear trees falling down. Chekaren and I got out of our sleeping bags and wanted to run out, but then the thunder struck. This was the first thunder.

The brothers just amped it up, shouting in Hawaiian, a musical language easily turned aggressive. Quick as a snake, Big Man’s hand grabbed JT’s throat, thumb notched into his jawbone and lifted JT off the ground. As Big Man’s body grazed by mine, I felt skin smooth and cool. It seemed like acres of flesh, tattoos raised like ink on paper. The moment was lucid and slow as he threw JT into the lava, and as JT launched, he handed off his camera, his Nikon livelihood. I grabbed it from his hand and hid it behind my legs.

Before JT could rise from the lava rocks, Big Man had him again under his jaw and was dragging him out where he planted him back first on a boulder.

“Do you know me? You don’t fucking know me?”

JT gasped as he wobbled to his feet, “I would like to know you.”

Big Man boomed, “You want to fucking know me?”

Wrong thing to say.

JT had said it because it was true. He was a chronicler of people and their places, his mission in life to get the story in images. He was experiencing time dilation, as if in an accident, and he had very carefully chosen to say those words. He meant them, although he would have been better off keeping his trap shut.

The world is tenuous this way. At times, there is little insulation left. You are naked, exposed. What you thought of as the infinite blue of a clear, benevolent sky, becomes a flaming gash. Whether you saw the signs or not, the surprise of the impact is inescapable. The Tunguska Event of 1908 was such an event, though, to some dude in a hut in Siberia, there were no signs at all. In Chuchan’s account, which matches the recollections of other eyewitnesses, you can hear in his language how legends are born.

After he was struck by the first pressure wave, Chuchan continued,

The Earth began to move and rock. Wind hit our hut and knocked it over. My body was pushed down by sticks, but my head was in the clear. Then I saw a wonder: trees were falling, the branches were on fire, it became mighty bright, how can I say this, as if there was a second sun, my eyes were hurting, I even closed them. It was like what the Russians call lightning. And immediately there was a loud thunderclap. This was the second thunder. The morning was sunny, there were no clouds, our Sun was shining brightly as usual, and suddenly there came a second one!

Big Man threw JT down again, preparing to drive home the message that there’s a balance here you better well observe. JT and I were disconnected from the place, and we were about to be connected right here and now. We were not as innocent as a young man in a hut thrown to the ground by the blast of an incoming asteroid, but the end result was about to be similar: trees catapulting on fire and Big Man getting ready to turn JT into hamburger. One of the brothers grabbed Big Man’s shoulders. There was a moment of distraction. JT was up and running through the gap. He was no fool, and there was no pride here worth dying for, or at least being seriously mangled over. He sprinted across grass past the concrete picnic tables toward the paved parking lot where sat our red Pontiac. As he checked over his shoulder, heads turned to me and I suddenly became visible. I looked at the ground and snatched up a pack full of camera equipment JT had left.

“I am very sorry … excuse me,” I said as I passed through them, looking at no one. An old man who had shown up was spitting bitter insults at me.

It seemed as if the entire family was on us at that point, a picnic burst into chaos, kids watching with excitement as the brothers and various cousins took off running after JT. Sisters shot out of the picnic surprisingly fast in flip flops shouting obscenities trying to stop the men from making this a homicide scene. One turned to JT and said, “Get out of here. Now.”

JT turned and shouted, “Throw me the keys.”

I fished keys out of my pocket and underhanded them 40 feet to JT, who unlocked the door and was inside in about half a second. I began running as he backed up fast, passenger door halting in front of me. I jumped in with his pack. JT gunned it.

Chekaren and I had some difficulty getting out from under the remains of our hut. Then we saw that above, but in a different place, there was another flash, and loud thunder came. This was the third thunder strike. Wind came again, knocked us off our feet, struck against the fallen trees. We looked at the fallen trees, watched the tree tops get snapped off, watched the fires. Suddenly Chekaren yelled “Look up” and pointed with his hand. I looked there and saw another flash, and it made another thunder. But the noise was less than before. This was the fourth strike, like normal thunder.

“I got permission, I got permission, fuck I got permission,” JT said, checking the rear-view mirror to see if anyone was following us. “I talked to the father, the mother. I spent an hour with them. I showed her my camera.”

The car hummed on asphalt as our hearts beat back down in our chest. JT let his breath slow.

“I missed checking in with the gatekeeper,” he said. “I didn’t see him coming.”

This altercation happened because we were trespassing and hadn’t noticed. We’d stumbled through a web of rules and pre-existing balances, and even though JT had minced his way asking permission, thinking he’d done a good enough job, he hadn’t. He missed the big one. And I, just another poor slob on earth thinking I could happily take a nap, was rapidly reminded that there are no innocent bystanders; we all play a role.

The planet itself is a gravity well. It pulls objects in. The events that happen here like the Tunguska explosion are not purely random, not an intersection of two straight lines. They are where elements are drawn toward each other, a point of contact made.

JT checked the mirror again. No one was behind us. He slapped my thigh and gave it a tight, tremulous squeeze as he laughed, relieved, “That’s one way to learn a lesson.”

Now I remember well there was also one more thunder strike, but it was small, and somewhere far away, where the Sun goes to sleep.

Craig Childs is the author of the highly acclaimed “House of Rain: Tracking a Vanishing Civilization Across the Southwest,” “Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archeological Plunder and Obsession” and “The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild” (a part of which first appeared in the MG). Childs’ newest book, “Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth,” will be out next October. This story is not in it. In 2009 he won the Rowell Art of Adventure Award and in 2011 the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award. He lives off the grid near Crawford, Colorado, with his wife and two sons.

 

JT Thomas is a photographer/science journalist and contributor to the NY Times, High Country News, Time, Smithsonian Magazine, Christian Science Monitor and Maxim’s Annual Guide to the Inner Thigh & Zymurgy. Along with Cool Paws Luke, his canine sidekick, he keeps basecamps in Paonia, Colorado, and New York City. 

A Memorial: Cal Glover’s Complete Mountain Gazette Discography

Long-time Mountain Gazette contributor Cal Glover passed away in late-December 2011, verily, while his past piece for us, “The Best Dog Ever” — which appeared in MG #186 — was at press.

Though he was a fixture in the Jackson Hole area forever and ever, we did not meet Cal until we received his first submission, “The Night Drivers of Jackson Hole,” a high-wired account of Glover’s experiences driving a graveyard-shift taxi around one of the country’s glitziest resort towns while living in a run-down trailer. It took about two seconds for us to realize we were going to print that story, which we did, in Mountain Gazette #92.

We were proud to provide a home for many more of Cal’s musings over the years.

We still have one more story of his, about golfing, that we’ll run sometime this summer.

RIP, Cal, you will be missed by the Gazette tribe.

To read Cal’s obituary in the Jackson Hole News & Guide, go to: http://newsandguide.pressmart.com/PUBLICATIONS/JHNG/JHNG/2012/02/08/ArticleHtmls/Glover-60-ran-38000-miles-wrote-3-novels-08022012116012.shtml?Mode=1

Cal’s Mountain Gazette Essays:

5th Annual Dog Photo Contest

Editor’s note: To steal a bromide: There is no such thing as a bad dog photo. We should know, as we have spent the last month-plus making our way through almost 500 submissions to our Fifth Annual Mountain Dog Photo Context. As usual, we wanted to print every single one of those photos, but, of course, the laws of physics intervened; we could only get a small fraction of the submissions into print, though, as in previous years, we will soon be moving all of the dog photos that came our way to our website.

The selection process consisted of our usual hyper-organized, well-oiled editorial machine firing on all cylinders. That would be: yours truly culling the mound of submissions into something approximating a manageable pile, then passing the final-determination baton to art director Keith Svihovec. (If you take umbrage with our choices, I’ll be happy to send you Keith’s home address.) We each tossed in some ideas regarding categories, which we invented pretty much on the run.

A significant component of the selection process was a concerted effort to achieve stylistic and compositional diversity. Ergo, we wanted to make sure we had photos covering as many gamuts as possible, from action shots to portraiture, summer and winter, funny poses to homages to perros recently passed away. Though many of our mountain dog photo submissions came from professional and serious amateur photographers, we also bent over backwards to make certain that we included work from people who, like me, point their camera in the general direction of what they hope to capture and hope for the best.

What that all amounts to is: There were a lot of great dog photos we couldn’t get in print for reasons that had nothing to do with their quality. Like I said, there is no such thing as a bad dog photo.

A big shout out to Granite Gear (once again), The Barnyard of Frisco, Colorado, and Katie’s Bumpers for signing on as sponsors for our Fifth Annual Mountain Dog Photo Contest and for supplying the prizes we have awarded to our various category winners, which, like I said, Keith and I pretty much pulled out of our posteriors.

We hope you enjoy eyeballing these photos as much as we did.

Below are the winners; to see all submissions, click here.

Above are the winners; to see all submissions, click here.

Best Dog Ever

Man's Best FriendOkay, then. My dog is tied with your dog at the top of the list as Best Dog Ever.

April, 1995. Lonelier than the Unabomber, living in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a ski town with the ratio of something like seven hundred guys to every girl, I begged my trailer-lord to relent on the covenant of no dogs. A few genuine sniffles surely didn’t hurt my cause.

So I declined on two different litters of AKC-registered $300 Labs that were destined to grow up barrel-chested, 120 pounds. I wanted a training partner.

With my curmudgeon friend’s words echoing in my ear — “Well, you can forget about running in the national parks … no dogs allowed” — I had about given up on my quest when, on a rainy day, between errands, I swung by the shelter. One black Lab. We seemed to get along. We played. I asked him if he wanted to come home with me. He didn’t say no. Momentous decision looming. I was about to treat myself to lunch at Bubba’s, think it over, when local paragliding legend John Patterson walked in, said, “Are you going to take that dog?”

Pause … pause … paws …  “Yes. I am.”

Some paperwork, some money, and we’re off. I have a new best friend. That day I did not know he was destined to be the Best Dog Ever. Name? Toby Tyler, after a novel and movie about a boy who ran off with the circus in search of escape and adventure …  hmmm … who does that remind me of?

The next day, April 25th, to the vet’s for shots, etc. The vet said he looked to be about four months old. Four months minus April 25th = Christmas Day.

Monks of New Skete in hand for training sessions; followed by lots of play time. Toby got “stay,” “sit,” and “come” down quickly. He became good at “fetch,” was not worth a damn at “bring it.” Played a top-notch game of tag.

My child-bearing friends scolded me for not having insurance; I was no longer being included in any reindeer games. But now I had reassurance!

October 25th, 2011. After seven months of going back and forth, my girlfriend and I decided. The next day we were to put Toby down. On one side: he was almost 17 years old. Daily, nightly, he peed and pooped on himself, laid down in it. He could barely stand or walk. He was mostly deaf, partly blind. The growing lump might be cancerous. Friends said it was time, perhaps past time. On the other side: he didn’t seem to be in pain, still had a voracious appetite for canned food, seemed interested in our daily lives, and he was my best friend.

The best part was snuggling at night. Last thing, after dinner, TV, music, in silence, before sleep, was to get down and hug Toby T. Tyler, pet him, massage him, whisper in his ear. He liked that a lot. A low, comfortable moan told me so. I got kisses. I was in love.

But, soon, May and tourist season rolled around and, being a Yellowstone/Grand Teton tour meant I was working for 13-14-hour days. What to do with Toby? I bought a dog house, leashed him, left copious amounts of food and water within reach. But, coming home, I’d find him wrapped up around his house, or sitting on the roof in the sun, out of reach of water and kibbles, which were often dumped over in his quest for broader horizons.

Option two: Give him free rein. I’d leave the front door open, ask my neighbor, who ran a day care out of her trailer, to keep an eye on him. Yeah. Sure.

Home one day, gone the next. “Have him fixed,” said some I asked. “No, it will take away his spirit,” said others. Three times in a row nowhere in sight = snip snip. That slowed him down … not one bit.

Then we went camping one night. Late and dark, “Toby, stay close by.” Twenty seconds later he came back … with a snout full of quills. Porcupined. He would not let me take them out, despite my best strong-armed attempts. To the vet’s. They knocked him out. Pulled out like twenty quills. Sixty dollars. Okay then.

Into July, and something was wrong with him. He became lethargic, his appetite diminished. July 12th birthday night found me back at the vet’s. Pneumonia. The vet kept him. Over the next four days, his condition worsened. The vet speculated that one small quill might have gone through, punctured and infected his lung. Death was looming. Three options, said the vet. 1. A drive to Fort Collins, operation, open his chest, $2,400. 2. A specialist in Cody, Wyoming, perhaps $1,200. 3. Very strong antibiotics. “But I doubt he’ll make it,” said the vet. Having no money meant option three.

I had a tour that next day. A worried father was not at his best. Hurrying things along. I pulled in at 6:30 and there he was, on top of his dog house, tail wagging, sparkle in his eyes … lots of hugs and kisses. Toby was back from the dead!

His rap sheet over the next few years: Confessions of an Unruly Teenager.

Hating to see anything tied up except, perhaps, Cameron Diaz, Toby gained in-and-out access. I taught him to scratch at the door once cold weather came. But his wanderings, like my own, led him to wonderful places. He developed a penchant for getting rescued by totally hot babes. How many phone calls started with, “Yeah, I found your dog … ” “Keep him with you, I’ll be right there.” I’d knock and Princess Hottay would open the door. “He’s such a cutie!” To myself: “Good boy, Toby.”

Another summer evening, I got a call from Bubba’s, the local barbecue joint, at the busy five-way intersection. I raced down and there was the voluptuous cashier, adding up a check with one hand, the other hand outside the open window, holding up a piece of beef, keeping it just out of his leaping reach.

He made it down to Skinny Skis on another occasion, which meant, again, finding his way through busy downtown pedestrian and car traffic — sure hope he didn’t cause any wrecks.

Then how on Earth did he make it all the way to the vet’s office, across Broadway and four lanes of summer traffic, over a mile away?

Or that time in Durango, when I floated the Animas River, and was taking apart my Pack Cat, then it was 45 minutes of driving around and yelling his name before, yup, he checked himself into the local animal shelter. I got scolded by the director, who had started to process him in.

Or that night I got a call from Albertson’s. “Yeah, Cal, we have your dog down here. He keeps running back and forth between the meat section and the dog food aisle. Can you please come get him?”

It’s just not fair that we don’t age at the same rate. Isn’t there a pill?

I went for a long run the day before the vet was to show up to put him down. My emotions swung back and forth. Doubts. Arriving home, Kim was a wreck, lavishing affection on him, couldn’t stop holding him. A few minutes before the vet closed for the day, I entered seven numbers, took a deep breath, hit send. We cancelled. The receptionist said it happened all the time. Rescheduled a week later. We’d see how he’s doing.

Toby learned things, too. My Master’s degree in Sport Psychology gave me the credentials to drive a taxi in Jackson Hole in the winters. Five, six times a night I would breeze into my trailer, pee, make some tea, let Mutthead out, grab a snack. But on that seventh time, as bar rush was coming to a close, when I reached in the refrigerator for a coupla beers, Toby would stand and stretch, he knew he was coming along for the last fare or two of the night. How in hell did he pick up on that?

Or reaching for my running shoes: his cue to stretch. Oh boy, dad! Time to go running up Cache Creek?

I started dating Kim, and after a few years and some bargaining, it was decided: Toby and I were moving in. He got to chase magpies, voice his displeasure over the hot air balloons, share country life with a couple of cats and run freely.

More resume:

On the mother of all road trips — Driggs, Idaho, to Cabo San Lucas, Toby figured out body surfing. He got to chase a buffalo off the 8th green at Jackson Hole Golf and Tennis. I taught him to walk on my back, give me a back massage. Toby had an amazing success rate for sitting and pawing at, “Which hand?” (held the treat?)

Most Labs live 10-12 years. At 12, Toby was still leading me in my four-mile runs/ski tours. Somewhere in there, he punctured through crusty snow and tore his ACL. Where are those pictures of him and his blue cast?

But then came that day when he didn’t seem interested in going for our daily run. He sat on his chair, staring blankly at me, and I wasn’t sure how much to coax him. “Maybe take today off, Tobes.”

Toby T. Tyler got to run through redwoods and over red slickrock. Down tropical beaches, up 10,000-foot mountains. He’s chased cows, deer, rabbits and pronghorn and never, except for one adventurous Uinta Ground Squirrel, a chiseler, never hurt a thing.

Then, at 14, the lump, growing by his throat might, said the vet, might be cancer. Four days of me worrying before the biopsy came back negative.

That next week, the days slipped past as they always do. Then came November 2nd. Could I cancel again? He was only seven weeks away from making it to Christmas Day and 17. I entered the vet’s phone number … to cancel … but I could not hit send. Kim and I were worthless that day. 1:40 p.m. was approaching. We put him on the couch, reminded him he was the Best Dog Ever … and cried like babies. Tears wetting his fur, me imbibing his smell, wiping my tears in his elegant black fur, stroking him, trying to take his essence inside me. 1:20 … can my best friend soon be gone? Besides a lucky shot at a robin with a BB gun when I was 13, and my share of cutthroat trout, I’d never killed anything, and now you’re telling me I’m gonna kill my best friend?

Ten minutes. An eerie silence in our cabin, the day too still and quiet. Toby’s still here! Can Time please Stop? Oh, please make him a puppy again!

One minute. There’s the vet, coming down the drive. No! Go back! Turn around, get an emergency! 

He pulls up and parks. I lift my companion and best friend up from the couch. Kim’s losing it. I’m gone. Sobbing, carrying Toby T. Tyler in my arms.

Kim: “Doc, are you sure we’re doing the right thing?”

Vet: “I thought it should have been done a long time ago.”

Thanks for that.

Then I lie him in the front lawn … the vet pulls out a syringe … damn it … shit … stop here … sorry, guys … he was the Best Dog Ever.

Senior correspondent Cal Glover lives just over Teton Pass from Jackson. He has recently taken up golf. 

Snipe Hunting in the War Zone: A Diary of Peculiar Madness

“Was thinking of taking a trip down to Big Bend last week of Oct.-ish, first week of Nov.-ish … wondering if you’d be inclined to ride along. There it is,” read the e-mail from a fellow traveler.

Being a man of uncertain career goals, with a history of seasonal labors leavened by spells of gloriously under-planned, lightly funded shoulder-season road trips, I wasn’t particularly surprised when the cryptic invitation showed up in my inbox. Though wrapped up with a family crisis involving a body organ in catastrophic failure, I sent him a “Shit yeah, pending a couple minor complications” reply, because I’d just waded through a wave of news articles about a proposed solution to a perceived national inter-departmental problem, to wit:

A Bill

“To prohibit the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture from taking action on public lands which impede border security on such lands, and for other purposes.”

These words are the “enacting clause” of H.R.1505 (aka the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act), which then creates Department of Homeland Security autonomy for building roads and/or fences, doing vehicle patrols, setting up surveillance equipment, using aircraft and (quoting the text again), “deployment of temporary tactical infrastructure, including forward operating bases … ,” anywhere on federally administered lands “…within 100 miles of the international land borders of the United States for the activities of U.S. Customs and Border Protection…to achieve operational control…” — followed by a hit list of 36 agricultural, archaeological, environmental, recreation, Sidebarreligious, river, watershed, wilderness and wildlife protection laws the department’s honorable Secretary would rise above for five years after the enactment date (see sidebar).

“Sad want and pouertie makes men industrious,
But law must make them good, and feare obsequious.”
The queen’s argument in “Civil Wars” [1609], Samuel Daniel’s poetic history of medieval discord 

This Day — the nays weigh in …

I find myself in a National Park visitor center with a ranger in full “badge-off” frustration burn-out mode. To my “So, what’s up with this House bill to exempt the Border Patrol from Wilderness rules?” query, the ranger launches into a short legislative history spiced with outrage about “vacating the Organic Act,” ending with advice to, “Look at Google Maps,” to see how many trails the alleged horde of illegal border-crossers had cut through his beloved park. “You won’t see any, because they don’t use Big Bend much,” he said — and you’ll notice I’m not naming names, or claiming to quote the ranger verbatim, because I figure government employees and other sundry locals in “badge-off” moments have as much right as I do to voice passions, without fearing reprisal from the empire’s overlords. Besides, this particular ranger’s camping advice leads to a quiet evening of stars wheeling overhead and kangaroo rats scampering underfoot (sans border-crossers or enforcement types) a couple days later, so let’s leave him in whatever peace can be had in a war zone.

Next day, while fellow traveler and I are sipping beverages a coyote’s stone throw from the international border with Mexico as defined by a mighty little Rio Grande (aka Rio Bravo del Norte), a passing park biologist can’t think of any highly trafficked smuggling trails through the National Park either, but offers up concern over the effects off-road vehicle patrols would have on Wilderness Study Areas that are his responsibility.

As I drain my brew, I resolve to ask the next border enforcement type I meet about Homeland Security’s need to remove the Big Bend country from Interior Department control. Good plan, except we don’t meet a patrol in the three days we spend wandering along the dirt road that parallels the border for almost 100 miles. Our only official contact is with a couple of volunteers. One is in the park to manage the construction of Border Patrol housing, and in his spare time he visits inquisitive tourists and describes how difficult it is to get Americans to come build houses this far from El Paso. He notes that there is plenty of cheap labor just across the river, but … yeah, I know, I know — Border Economics 101, again.

Map of Area

The four impoverished villages immediately south of the Rio have been devastated by post-9/11 security measures in the not-so-Bravo Norte. Border crossings have been closed, and even when the Boquillas station re-opens this spring, south-side residents will have to travel to a U.S. Consulate to get the proper documents. The closest one is almost 400 miles away. Meantime, walking sticks, beaded jewelry, wire scorpions and hand-painted rocks appear on the north-side shore, with signs such as, “Please purchase to help Boquillas children go to school,” while the official Park newspaper The Paisano (complete with picture of sombrero-topped peasant in full fetal squat) warns, “Items purchased will be considered contraband and seized by officers when encountered.” Reading on in “Big Bend and the Border” I come to this statement, “each year, hundreds [emphasis added] of people travel north through the park seeking to enter the United States.” I winter in an area that claims to be the busiest sector of the entire border war zone, where each year several hundred people die of thirst trying to get to El Norte, possibly more than pass through this park’s 801,163 acres. I’m a little underwhelmed, and can feel any fears of unwanted encounters with desperate construction-work seekers dissipating along with the effects of one mid-afternoon beverage within sight of our threatened international border.

After sampling vistas from the rim of a 1,000-foot-deep canyon and an 8,000-foot peak, hiking desiccated hills topped by abandoned mines, and camping in multiple unsecured camps within sight of the Rio with no illicit tracks or security patrols obvious to my curious gaze, a few days later we retire from this fine specimen of the nation’s crown jewels for refreshment. Multiple conversations with variously lubricated denizens of a National Park gateway town to the west produce no concern with cross-border traffic, except that enforcement efforts farther west might force some drug smuggling gangs into using the Rio’s canyons to slip past tighter patrols elsewhere. As one veteran river rat sums it up, “In over 20 years of guiding on this river, I’ve had more trouble with bubbas from Midland than with any Mexicans.”

“‘Content thee, thou unskillful man,’ he said;
‘my madnesse keepes my subjects in their wits.’”
— Daniel quoting the queen quoting a tyrant in “Civil Wars”

A Different Day — the yeas have it …

After this cold bath of negative local reaction to what certainly can appear to be a one-size-fits-all border security solution imposed from the august halls of big guv’mint, due diligence has me perusing virtual reams of news-bites, congressional testimonies and official endorsements. A press release from H.R.1505 sponsor Rob Bishop (R-Utah) lists 17 organizations and one former think-tank analyst supporting the bill. A scorecard of the groups:

8 – [off-highway vehicle industry and users]
4 – [law enforcement personnel]
3 – [livestock industry]
2 – [multiple-use forest trails advocacy]
1 – [congressional staffer formerly employed by think-tank self-described as staffed by “policy entrepreneurs”]

Each news article about the bill is replete with statements from retired Border Patrol officers and worried border ranchers about the same smuggling hot-spots in southern Arizona, and I’m looking for answers about a need for vehicle patrol access to all the public lands between, in the 100-mile-wide swath along southern, northern and (in Alaska) eastern international land borders of the empire, as defined by H.R.1505.

After reading all the supportive statements and testimonies I can find, I’ve scanned the representative’s list for groups not already quoted to a media fare-thee-well, sent out queries and am picking through the fruitful replies. (Spokespeople will remain unnamed, since they already know who they are.):

Speaking for three OHV groups that use the same office address in California and “government relations office” in Virginia,  a staff member emphasizes that support “has nothing to do with increasing  OHV access” to roadless public lands, and is related to riders’ fears of smuggling gangs along existing trails. He mentions a Border Patrol officer run down on an OHV-accessible sand dune in California, and signs warning of smuggling activity in a national monument in Arizona, but is not aware of specific areas where vehicle patrol access to roadless areas will make riders feel safer.

Representing two livestock groups, another spokesperson sends a statement that supports, “preventing federal land management agencies from using environmental policies to restrict the U.S. Border Patrol from obtaining routine access.” Attached is testimony from a member living by a riparian area turned into a smuggling thoroughfare by tightened enforcement near heavily populated border zones. A promised interview with the group’s president becomes a political potato passed to an Arizona ranching group whose executive vice president reminds me that, “the border is a complicated issue.”

One multiple-use organization supports the bill so members will know it doesn’t oppose it. Their spokesman says he “opposes misinformation from the other side,” that the bill will interfere with recreation management by land agencies. He thinks my question about the bill’s application to a 100-mile-wide zone along the land borders with Mexico and Canada, “sounds kinda funny,” has “no comment” — and then asks me if I’ve checked with H.R.1505’s sponsor.

I’m on the phone with a pleasant-voiced PR person from Representative Bishop’s office, inundated in details. She recites a by now-familiar list of border-war talking points, all taking place within 100 miles of my own winter quarters. The still-unsolved murder of a rancher to the east, the gun battle death of a Border Patrol officer just south in a mountain range I roamed long before it became a war zone, trash along foot trails, a locked gate in a wildlife refuge, wilderness rules altering sensor placements and vehicle patrols, a several-hour delay in constructing a tower to wait for a herd of pronghorns to pass, land managers “extorting” (her word, not mine) habitat mitigation funds from the Homeland Security budget.

Would H.R.1505 address all this? It is meant to be comprehensive, she replies.

Does the congressman want vehicle patrols along all borders? Up to Border Patrol, but wants sensors in any areas not patrolled.

How many federally administered acres does the Representative Bishop think are affected by the laws his bill would waive? She isn’t sure, but says bill covers all land borders.

Including Alaska/Canada border? Yes.

How about tribal lands? She gets this clarification from staff that wrote H.R.1505, “While it doesn’t provide any new authority regarding tribal lands, it would facilitate access within the tribal lands.”

What does “access” mean? Intent of bill is to empower Homeland Security as defined in 2008 by then-Secretary Michael Chertoff. (I quote Chertoff’s “Determination Pursuant to Section 102 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996,” “… to waive certain laws, regulations and other legal requirements in order to ensure the expeditious construction of barriers and roads in the vicinity of the international land border of the United States.” [April 3, 2008])

Would habitat mitigation requirements, such as a current Homeland Security-financed jaguar monitoring project, be waived by the bill? She refers me to the border fence construction policies.

Why a 100-mile-wide zone along the entire border, rather than known hot spots? H.R.1505 language was “guided” by retired Border Patrol personnel, the still-pleasant PR voice tells me, and the bill is meant to address problems “… once and for all.”

I’ve already seen that the current management team at the Department of Homeland Security says they don’t want or need this blanket freedom from oversight, so don’t ask why the bill’s writers turned to retired staff for guidance.

“But well, I see which way the world will go;
And let it go — and so turns her about.”
— Daniel’s queen ends the argument to her king.

Just another Complicated Day in the War Zone — foxhole conversion, anyone?

To the west I see a tribal nation that has survived more than a thousand years of shifting borders and intermittent rule from distant centers of power. The mountain range to the east has tracks of a border-crossing jaguar, and to the southwest is a mountain-side where the oldest known wild jaguar stepped into a fatal trap two years ago. Both were likely repeat border-crossers born in Mexico. On the way to his practice across the border in Nogales, Sonora, my dentist bicycles past a canyon where a Border Patrol agent was shot with a gun supplied through a federal sting operation (begun by a Republican administration, and then continued by a Democratic one). Over the years I’ve known border country ranchers, Border Patrol officers, people who’ve traced kin to a time before written history on either side of the current line, and border-crossers bloodied by run-ins with Border Patrol and desert brush, so when a “once-and-for-all” solution to border smuggling looms on my horizon, I gotta admit a built-in bullshit sensor goes (to paraphrase me long-dead sawmill savage daddy) “fucking ape-shit.”

After dancing the PR/journalist mambo with talking heads from H.R.1505’s backers, I’m considering the complexities of these congressional testimonies:

From border rancher and veterinarian Gary V. Thrasher (supporting the bill last July), come fears over safety at his house just north of the border, outrage about ranching families left “… living in-between the border and the Forward Operating Bases of the Border Patrol,” and irritation that border wall construction in his area was delayed “… for an archaeological study and assessment after an Indian artifact was found.”

Dr. Thrasher concludes, “I beg you to immediately and aggressively take whatever steps are needed to secure our border. H.R. 1505 is an important step in that direction.”

From Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris (supporting a 2008 attempt to reverse the border wall-building waiver), concern that “… fragments of human remains were observed in the tire tracks of the heavy construction equipment.”  He reminds the House committee that his tribe’s residency on both sides of the current border pre-dates the United States, says, “… our land is now cut in half, with O’odham communities, sacred sites, salt pilgrimage routes, and families divided. We did not cross the 75 miles of border within our reservation lands. The border crossed us.”

Chairman Norris wraps it this way, “We know from our own experience living on the border that security can be improved while respecting the rights of tribes and border communities, while fulfilling our duty to the environment and to our ancestors, and without granting any person the power to ignore the law.”

These two men live within a mountain range of my winter quarters, disagree on logistics of border security and deserve a chance to continue being heard. In Texas, the border wall has cut wildlife refuges and ranches in two, leaving some family homes in an unpatrolled no-man’s land between border wall and international border. From the northern border come reports of unreconstructed libertarians and flaming environmentalists actually uniting in fear of a security agency controlling their local public lands, with any semblance of due process waived.

In response, H.R.1505’s sponsor added language to prevent Homeland Security from restricting recreational use of the lands and sunset the bill’s provisions in five years — but who will then patrol the newly built roads, and how will they be secured to control motorized smuggling and recreational use in formerly roadless areas? Most of the 36 laws to be waived were enacted to prevent irreversible damage to species, habitat, cultural artifacts and religious sites; and long-time border residents south and north know that local conditions need special solutions — conditions that change over time. Barring long-term occupation-style militarization of the 100-mile-wide border enforcement zone, patrols are doomed to replay a summer-camp hazing classic, hunting unseen snipe while smugglers run contraband drugs, guns and humans through the border nights.

I greeted the year of our empire’s next political spin cycle in a border-town bar, dancing among gray-haired iconoclasts and 20-something retro-flappers and hipsters. A woman in mourning dress sat lotus-style on the bar. The band, a mix of youth and experience billed as the Border Crossers, took a break and danced with the crowd to “Burning Down the House” from the Talking Heads’ classic album “Stop Making Sense.” A couple miles away, two men were shot outside a bar on the edge of town.

After sleeping at a formerly-grand hotel supposedly patronized by border hero/villain Pancho Villa in life (and by his ghost after death), in a nearby border-town economically devastated by current Homeland Security measures and well-publicized fears real or imagined, I’m standing on a ridge of public land (my land, your land) that touches Mexico. Here the borderline is still a stock fence. Back at the parking lot, a Border Patrol camera scans east and west while an officer sits in his patrol vehicle. Fences, walls, smuggling, insecurity and incongruity, this is border country, so tracks of humans and other animals point north and south, coalescing onto a network of unauthorized trails below my vantage point.

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for MG was “Cool Cats & Dharma Bums: How to Interface with Wildland Archetypes (and Enjoy the Experience)”, which appeared in #185. He splits his time between the Border Country and the Four Corners. 

Ella

There is something really great about sharing a bag of Cheetos with a dog. One for me … one for you. Three for me … one for you. No matter how you split it, Ella’s happy. She likes Cheetos.

I read recently that researchers at The Broad Institute, at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have almost completed mapping the two-billion-molecule-long genetic code of a dog. This is a big scientific breakthrough and one of the biggest insights is the uncanny similarity of a dog’s genome to our own. What this means is that buried somewhere in those billions of molecules is a little tiny shared gene that has something to do with Cheetos.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Ella lately, and I find that we balance each other out nicely. When it’s dark and rainy, she still insists that we go out, and it’s probably good for me to get away from my desk. I won’t melt after all and just moving about might bring some freshness to the effort. During the mornings, Ella tends to need some time to herself, so she slinks off to check the guestroom, or she’ll sleep in Lynn’s and my bedroom uninterrupted by my pacing. It’s quiet in there and probably filled with familiar smells and memories. In the afternoon, though, she sets up camp under my desk, chin resting either on the base of my chair or on my foot, alert to any change in plans. She dozes as dogs do. We occasionally step outside. We are in perfect harmony. Balance.

A friend of mine mentioned the other day that what made dogs truly great was that they were always just glad to be invited to the party. They realized somehow that they were not destined to control things, choose the snacks or select the band. Mostly they were just happy to be there.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to Ella that we would probably have to go to Mt. Ashland, Oregon, for a one-day business trip. Her eyes lit up as if I’d suggested spending the weekend in Paris. Road trip! I explained as well as I could that it would be a long day. I specifically told her that it was at least an eight-hour drive each way, that I’d be tied up in meetings. No sightseeing — just a brief romp up at the mountain if we were lucky. She looked at me with steady, loving eyes. At 4 a.m., we were up and ready. Ella inventoried her gear. Water … check. Kibbles … check. Tennis ball … check. We drove, I met, we romped in two feet of fresh snow, then we turned and drove back. During the grind, she would occasionally nuzzle my ear as a sort of “Are you sure you know where we’re going?” but other than that she had a terrific time. We shared a couple of hot dogs on the way home.

Somehow, we both understand and respect the limits of our relationship. While Ella and I are close, there are rules about “place” in our small society that we both accept gracefully. Snacks on the coffee table are out of bounds no matter how tempting; the couch and bed are off limits; and begging isn’t worth the humiliation. Ella affects an air of aloofness in these matters, but I suspect that these petty injustices sometimes test her generally optimistic and patient nature. Still, other issues complicate our relationship. I don’t think she’s fully grasped the concept of the telephone, but then I don’t completely understand her joy in chasing the ducks during our early-morning park patrol. Don’t worry. She has never caught a duck and probably never will — Golden Retrievers are not exactly built for speed — but in those moments of running gloriously through puddles and making a complete fool of herself, she is thoroughly and happily a dog. In those moments, I am far from her mind and as excluded from her life as she sometimes is from mine.

In the course of my life, I’ve been around more than my share of good dogs. There was Buck, Bo, Dinah, Suzy and Del when I was a kid. MacIntosh, Phoebe and now Ella as a grown-up. Each of them, even as pups, would look at me with a kind of ancient wisdom and spent their lives passing on lessons of trust, optimism and patience. Lessons not always easy for me to understand. So we go on, Ella and me, two souls linked, trying to make sense of the world.

Three for you, Ella … one for me.

Rick Casner is a full-time ski instructor and part-time architect or a full-time architect and part-time ski instructor depending on when you ask. He also writes a little. 

Cool Cats & Dharma Bums

“‘… no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene) and to see the errors and wanderings and mists and tempests in the vale below;’ so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling or pride.”
— Sir Francis Bacon, commenting on Roman poet Lucretius in “Of Truth” (1597)

Cool Cats & Dharma BumsLet’s say you’ve driven up the pass from your favorite destination/snowglobe/resort town for a day of fun and frolic on a foot or so of fresh powder. You’ve parked your trusty PU/SUV/Suby/POS mountain car in a just-plowed turnout. Skis are skinned, board is tuned, sled cranked or waffle-stompers tightened to your satisfaction. As you look up from your preparations, stalking toward you in an unhurried way is a somewhat furry, low-slung, powerfully put-together specimen of what a certain number of days and nights “at altitude” hath wrought.

Right now, there are a number of considerations. Does the character look dangerous, hungry, displeased? Have you been seen, or is your visitor just passing by? If seen, should you: A. Jump back in vehicle, lock all doors; B. Step slowly forward, showing no sign of fear or aggression; C. Wait for the other party to make the first move; D. None of the above? It all depends, my friend, so read on …

“If the cat could talk, what a tale he’d tell …”
— Hoyt Axton, from “Della and the Dealer” (1979)

One night last March, I’m in a local establishment, having beers and a burger with a biologist buddy of long acquaintance, catching up on each other’s winter activities. He’s been working in a lynx study team, he says; not studying lynx exactly, but tracking people (voluntary participants all) as they cross paths with lynx, and he thinks my journalistic antennae might be stirring right about now. Tell the truth, in a pleasant fresh-brewed haze, I’m ruminating on a long-ago, failed mid-winter attempt to write a light fiction on a second-hand DOS-code piece of ’80s lap-top technology, concerning what might happen if a recently released Colorado-immigrant lynx were to get the bright idea to start walking back to its Canadian homeland, and of a snow-flattened skeleton I found a few years later, in a timberline meadow that had me thinking that this wouldn’t have been a bad place to die … better than some I’d known.

I’m just puzzling out whether I stowed the skeleton’s cat-like skull somewhere in my piles of abandoned gear and assorted flotsam, or if I had left it lying there in the newly sprouted meadow grasses, when my reverie is broken by the very instinct my biologist buddy thought might be killing my buzz. Damn it, he’s right, this might be a good story — except that I’m pretty sure I’m not a journalist, or (as one of my current favorite country-alt-singer-poets puts it) “a drunk with a pen,” but prefer to think of myself as a harmless sort with a lively imagination and a penchant for disappearing into wildlands unencumbered by uplinking technology.

He sets the hook by pointing out something to the effect that this study could add a little more scientific knowledge to the pyre of opinion-mongering on whether, when and where motor- vs. human-powered methods of recreation may (or may not) affect lynx usage of survivable habitat. Now, before too many excitable members of either fringe decide to clamor for heads-on-a-stick a la Gaddafi, let me hasten to add that participating in the group activity known as “citizen science” can be a democratic chance to add knowledge as studies are being conducted, rather than flinging insults, brickbats and lawsuits after the results are in.

How the story’s gone so far (wherein ol’ Uncle B. promises to keep it short and sweet as possible)

Though Lynx canadensis once roamed all the high mountain ranges of North America, the last confirmed sighting of a wild one in Colorado was in 1973 near Vail, via habeas corpus (a trapper produced the body). By the mid-1990s, the cat’s possible listing as an Endangered Species had become a political potboiler featuring multiple unofficial sightings, inconvenient tracks in the path of a mega-resort expansion scheme, the ELF, FBI, etc. — the typical alphabet soup of such shadowy intrigues. Here could begin a recitation of calls to rage at the machine, with responses fearing a scourge of eco-terrorists on our shores; but recalling my promise of short and sweet, we’ll be skipping lightly back to the High Country, circa 1999, when the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) brought Canadian-born lynx to the San Juan Mountains.

Three of the first four re-introduced cats came, saw and died. The release team re-caught the last one, and regrouped. The next releases went better, as biologists figured out how to fatten their captives for the necessary lean times of getting to know the lay of a new homeland upon release. Sort of a mountain locavore training session — with snowshoe hares, squirrels, voles and mice in place of memorizing all the “burger-and-a-pint” nights in a ski-town.

By 2006, CDOW was still releasing about a dozen newly captured lynx a year, and an adventurous few were wandering far from the release area. As is the wont of wildlife biologists, released lynx were fitted with radio collars, which showed immigrant lynx moving into the High Country near Vail and Summit County, and traced some venturing to lynx-unfriendly cultural climes. Think Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas. Some of the stay-at-homes were having babies, anchoring Colorado’s wildland population with a crop of 50 or so 1st-generation kits in 2005, and even a litter from a Colorado-born lynx the next year. Then a brush with disaster when no lynx births were recorded in 2007 or 2008, and hyperbolic press accounts started raising the specter of a failed reintroduction. Snowshoe hare populations had crashed, and female lynx stopped producing babies until prey was more plentiful, matching a cycle known from Canadian studies. 2009 saw resurging hare and lynx births, and, by 2010, a third of the radio-tracked lynx females in Colorado had litters.

Just before last winter set in, Colorado’s top political brass announced the recovery program a success. CDOW announced that no more reintroductions are planned, and that tracking would shift from radio collars to camera traps along known trails, genetic sampling and snow-tracking of lynx in winter. Also, a study of how human use of lynx habitat affects their movements, begun in the Vail area in 2008, would move to your correspondent’s home range for the winters of 2010 through 2011. This is how my biologist buddy came to be sitting there, eyeing me for signs of journalistic fervor over the heads of our next round of freshly drawn local brews.

Science and fiction (how B.’s dharma lynx tale turned out) …

One problem with DOS-code-based storytelling is that, as with all things digital, there is (to quote Gertrude Stein), “ … no there there,” until one hits a “print” button. As I remember, that particular ill-starred attempt at writing the Great American Novel, my piece-of-shit (POS) second-hand computer crashed just after my wandering lynx had crossed the border into its native homeland. I never was able to get the thing started again, and shortly thereafter gave up on the ancient craft of making imagined characters articulate transcendent truths, replaced by a continuing fascination with chronicling the strangeness of truth itself.

CDOW’s tracking teams have recorded a lynx wandering over the Continental Divide, bound for points east. One trip ended near Wichita, Kansas, when a tranquilizer dart started a long ride back to Colorado. The next time, the wanderer crossed Nebraska and made it to Des Moines, Iowa, before it ran afoul of the bane of all dharma bums, a driver who may’ve zigged when zagging was the only way not to run over a furry, low-slung, powerfully built archetype of feline curiosity. Another cat even made it back to the land of his birth, only to fall for a Canadian trapper’s wiles last year. Others are testing the edges of their habitat, in all directions.

“… but the cat was cool, and never said a mumbling word.”
— (Axton’s comment on the cat’s tale of “Della and the Dealer”)

No matter where you may head for the slopes this winter in the Rocky Mountain West, watch for adventurous travelers seeking a place to call home. With a little effort, you can even become an official CDOW “snow tracker” and have your lynx observations officially included without producing a body — a pretty cool advance from pre-reintroduction lynx science.

If traveling on a highway, slow down. If possible, smoothly pull to the shoulder, enjoy interfacing and wish your fellow citizen safe travels. If you are on a trail, or schussing, carving, even (shudder) high-marking a slope of manna delivered from the wintry gods/goddesses of all things good and pure and innocent as the newly fallen snow, and have taken to heart this little tale of the migrations of Lynx canadensis, perhaps the encounter will be a high point of your budding service to the renaissance of old Francis Bacon’s definition of the scientific method in a 1620 treatise: “That reason which is elicited from facts by a just and methodical process, I call Interpretation of Nature.

So you wanna be a scientist? (The “how-to-interface” part) …

Here’s a participatory exercise. Let’s say a somewhat furry wildland archetype approached you on a sunny powder morning last winter, and you chose action B or C. After exchanging expressions of mutual joy at being lucky and/or smart enough to be on this mountain, on this day, in this life, your new
acquaintance may’ve asked if you’d consider
taking part in a study he had the good fortune to be conducting that very day. He might’ve showed you a small device he hoped you’d consider slipping into your pack while you skied, rode or sledded through the wintry wonderland. Say you decided it couldn’t hurt anything, as you had no particular intention of engaging in shadowy intrigues with pro- or anti-establishment entities on that particular day.

Congratulations, citizen scientist! Your willingness meant your day’s travels — up, down, around and back — are now added to a knowledge base that just may keep Colorado’s lynx population healthy and growing. The device is a GPS unit, and you’ve joined a select host of citizen scientists and immigrant lynx in laying down real-time use patterns for future planners to peruse, parse, ponder and hopefully arrive at land-use decisions that rise above the pressures and fear-mongering of slogan-based politics-as-usual. You move to the head of our class of participatory democracy.

OK, OK, I know most of us have not had this opportunity, or maybe chose option A or D when my buddy or one of his cohorts in scientific inquiry approached on that morning. He doesn’t hold grudges, and just might’ve avoided a few conversations in his own time. It’s also not too late to consider being part of what I hope by now sounds like a fairly painless way to contribute to possible solutions, rather than problems. Research teams will cruise the high roads again this winter, searching for citizen scientists. If one of these usually pleasant, harmless and possibly burger-sated wildland archetypes approaches, now you know what that device he or she is offering can do, and the rest is up to you.

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “The Resurrection,” which appeared in #183. Author of “Livin’ the Dream,” Frank splits his time between the Four Corners and the Border Country. His blog, “The Ragged Edge,” can be found at mountaingazette.com.