Hand-written draft of Frances Wisner’s column for the Idaho Country Free Press, 1967. Inset: Frances Wisner. Photo by R. Rat, Esq.
For Frances Zaunmiller Wisner (1914-1986), Polly Bemis (1853-1933) and all the river women who have taught me a thing or two about staying upright in an adventure.
Clarity is a good thing in the midst of a river adventure, that and serendipity. On the Main Salmon, the water is so clear I could look down between the tubes of my pack-cat and feel I was flying; the river stones passed rapidly beneath, as if I were seconds from touchdown.
“Idaho river holes are hard to recognize,” an experienced kayaker explained, referring to clarity’s downside. She nodded as I recounted my surprise tumble miles upriver earlier that day. “Never saw the hole,” I told her, though in all honesty, my mind had been focused on a new paddling strategy that was delighting me greatly. Before surfacing beside my pack-cat, though, my mind let loose these previous occupations. I’d remounted my steed with clarified determination to adjust my vision, so I recognize what’s actually in front of me.
In 1940, a young woman from Texas by the name of Frances followed a trail on horseback over a mountain pass down to the Salmon River. The trail crossed through a homestead at Campbell’s Ferry before reaching the river, where a traveler could, depending upon the river’s flow, hire a ferry and continue up the trail on the other side. Apparently Frances skipped the ferry, instead getting hired by the homestead owner to cook and care-take for his hunting business. Whatever Frances’ flash of clarity, she remained at Campbell’s Ferry for the rest of her life. She married the widowed owner of the homestead, Joe Zaunmiller, in 1942. In total she lived 45 years at Campbell’s Ferry, the final 20 more or less on her own.
In the early 1950s, Frances successfully rallied popular and political support for the construction of a bridge to replace the ferry. She asked Idaho Senator Henry Clarence Dworshak, “Have you ever been on a ferry when the river was too high, and felt the floor tip, saw the water start to curl over the bow into the boat and prayed that the cable would break so the boat could ride level again and not be sucked under?” On the day of the bridge’s inauguration in 1956, Frances and Joe took turns riding their Appaloosa mare across the Salmon and back, enjoying the view and her triumph.
After pulling onto the opposite shore to feast upon sandwiches and chocolate, my river-mates and I traversed “Frances’ Bridge” to visit her old homestead. After three days on the river, we delighted in the antique desk tops, invitingly lumpy twin beds, hand-stitched quilts, home-built cabinetry and outdated wall calendars. The hand-written draft of one of her weekly columns for the Idaho County Free Presswas set out for visitors to read. In it she warned of the BLM’s pending plans to dam Glen Canyon.
Frances was a feisty woman, so, had she arrived home just then to find this odiferous crew milling about, she might have leveled a rifle in our direction and suggested we all get the hell out. But probably not. An apple orchard spread across the field, a stone’s throw from the cabin. One of us asked our host, the current caretaker of the homestead, if bears were ever a problem for Frances, since the orchard was so near. He looked at the questioner, puzzled. “A problem? No. Don’t think so. She just lived with them.”
Big Mallard is one of the few Class IV rapids on the Main Salmon. At our water level, the far left run would have been best, but our arrival was a bit disorganized, so most of us worked the eddy on the right as we studied the array of rocks, pillows, plumes and holes.
“We could go across to the left,” one kayaker suggested to me. In his play boat and young male body, he reached the far bank easily. I struggled a short while in the current, then turned back to consider Plan B, which pretty much consisted of seeing what I could and going for it. I wished I had not just witnessed a raft from our group follow a right-to-not-far-enough-left run, then drop from sight into an enormous hole, bottom-side facing upriver.
My beloved worked his raft between a nasty, jutting rock in the river’s center and a hole toward the right-hand side, till he too descended below my horizon, still bottom-side down, though facing backwards.
Polly Bemis and her husband, Charlie, lived miles downriver from the rocks and drama of Big Mallard, below the confluence of the South Fork and Main Salmon. How they ended up together on the Salmon isn’t clear; one story tells that Charlie Bemis, saloon owner, won Polly, a Chinese immigrant, in a hand of poker. Or, how about this account: Charlie was shot in the face during a hand of poker and Polly nursed him back to health. She may or may not have come to the U.S. as a slave, may or may not have been a prostitute before meeting Charlie. I do know this: Polly and Charlie were tough river people. In 1922, their cabin burned to the ground. Charlie died shortly thereafter, but neighbors from across the river helped Polly rebuild and helped her out, till her death in 1933.
Polly and Charlie are immortalized today as paper action figures in an Idaho grade-school lesson guide. (Read: Paste cut-out figures onto cardstock; then prop each figure with a brace). If you lived in Idaho, your 4th-grade child could bring home a paper Polly and Charlie and make up dialogues about hunting or fishing (illustrated with cut-out tools), harvest eggs from Polly’s paper chickens or play with Charlie’s paper pet cougar. Your child could identify the adjectives in this sentence: “In September 1890, an angry man believed that Polly’s friend Charlie had cheated him in a gambling game. He got a pistol and shot Charlie in the face, missing his eye but shattering his cheekbone.” Later, your kid might walk paper Polly down to the imaginary Salmon’s edge with her paper pet dog, Teddy, for her astounding catch of 27 fish in a day. Follow that with this math question: “What if Polly had caught 27 trout each day for a week? How many fish would that be? Show your work.”
If your kid’s improvised conversations between the paper river folk begin to flag, explore together this question from the Idaho lesson plan: “Polly and Charlie’s cabin on the Salmon River did not have running water. It also had no television or radio. What do you think they did for fun?”
Across the river at the top of Big Mallard, a kayaker from our group gestured to me broadly, communicating the path to a good run. Right arm down the center, then pointing right. I considered all my observations and the last bit of advice, and started toward the rumbling mayhem.
Can’t say I had a clear vision of the outcome, but did have one clear thought: I’m-not-going-over, gawd-dam-it.
I followed my beloved’s line, entering on the right, the Idaho river holes appearing to me clear as crystal. I shot the gap between the nasty rock center top and its subsequent hole and a second hole to its right. With each paddle stroke I grunted my most beneficial mantra (“fuck, fuck, fuck”), picking my way through the roiling waves. In response to applause at the bottom of the run, I patted my helmeted head and smiled goofily.
River adventures can begin and end before it’s even clear what’s going on. Turns out, my beloved’s backward-facing run put him in great position to pull the dump-trucked boatman out of the water. Meanwhile, the kayaker from our group who counseled me on Idaho rivers, paddled directly over to the emptied raft, exited her kayak, boarded the raft, lifted the kayak onto it, pulled the remaining swimmer into the raft, sat down at the raft’s oars and took command.
Frances and Polly would have been proud.
Laura Kerr recently paddled and dragged her pack-cat down a slow-rising Salt River. She thinks Frances and Polly would be cool with her decision to portage Corkscrew.
Reading the same old conventional wisdoms over and over makes me impatient, to the point where I start to say things that I know will piss everyone off, even most of my friends, just as a way to say, c’mon, think about it for a minute, dammit! It’s always a mistake — but what the hell: here goes.
Jonathan Waterman’s recent book, “Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River,” hit the tipping point for me. Not because it’s any worse than any of the rest of the books about the Colorado River; it’s not. But it’s just the same old sad story, a mingling of lamentation, nostalgia and repugnance for a river presumed to be ruined if we don’t stop … whatever. And maybe it is ruined, for a geological moment here; it is certainly a river with problems. I would definitely say it is a river beyond “restoration” at this point — restoration as “the river that was” anyway. But does that mean it is “ruined?” A half-built house has problems that are very different from the problems of a house that is falling down — but you don’t solve those problems by trying to turn the boards back into trees. And if for no reason other than the eventual boredom of hearing a sad story over and over, I’m not going to just agree that the Colorado River has been ruined by its problems until I’ve heard at least one more perspective on the river. I want some judgments on the river from an Anthropocene perspective.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I am not above reproach in this business of literary lamentations about the Colorado River. Back in 1977, I wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine about the Lower Colorado River, arguing finally that “this cannot go on this way,” an essay that became a PBS-type film in 1981. Also in 1981, environmental journalist Philip Fradkin brought out “A River No More,” lamenting what we have done to the Colorado. Not long after that, Marc Reisner wrote the environmentalist epic “Cadillac Desert,”lamenting what we’ve done to the entire American West with emphasis on the Colorado River; a few years after that, Colorado journalist Jim Carrier wrote “The Colorado: A River at Risk”; and just a few years ago we got “Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West.”And now we’ve got the latest in this literary cottage industry, Jonathan Waterman’s “Running Dry” — the book that hit the tipping point for me, and precipitated this effort to see if there isn’t some way out of this “dead pool” of nostalgia and lamentation.
Some factoids: Over the 35 years since my Harper’s essay, these regular predictions of near-death notwithstanding, the Colorado River now provides some or all of the drinking water for around 10 million more people than it did in 1977 — around 35 million of us today. If you’re eating fresh vegetables in mid-winter, you probably have to thank the lower Colorado River to some degree. The southwestern cities that depend on the river, and that most of us depend on directly or indirectly for jobs, complex networks of finance and transportation and communication, a vast menu of entertainment, et cetera, et cetera, have mostly at least doubled in size in that time.
Meanwhile, from theMountainGazetteperspective, the Colorado still has almost as many stretches of good whitewater rafting as it did in 1977 (although it had lost a lot in the decades before), a lot of good-to-great fishing (with some improved fisheries), a lot of beautiful scenery with new “wild and scenic” stretches being protected, not to mention flatwater reservoirs for those who like that kind of thing — and the industrial management processes that operate this great American playground are pretty discrete, so that it is possible, for example, to spend a couple weeks floating down the Grand Canyon, only seeing a few other parties besides your own, and feeling like you truly are in a great natural wilderness and you don’t have to think about the high level of crowd management and planning that goes into nurturing that feeling.
I hasten to add that I am not deluded that everything is fine on the Colorado River — far from it. There are major problems that we need to address on the river, from the headwaters all the way down through that vast delta that now begins at Parker Dam and spreads the river from Phoenix and Tucson on the east all the way around through a lot of desert farming to Los Angeles and San Diego on the west. The creeping consequences of diverting too much water from the headwaters for out-of-basin metropolises, the cattle-caused breakdown and depletion of mountain streams, the salt-loading from some irrigation runback on top of the natural salinity of the river, evaporative losses that further degrade water quality, siltation behind reservoirs and a lack of silt in the Grand Canyon, loss of both riparian and aquatic habitat for wildlife, loss of most of the old delta — there is no shortage of problems facing us up and down the river. But, with the exception of the recently “discovered” global climate change looming over everything, these situations were already problems 35 years ago, and some of them — irrigation-induced salinity, loss of habitat, degradation of streambeds caused my human and livestock activity — have actually been addressed with some success over those 35 years.
I would certainly agree that our enhanced level of “environmental awareness” has been important in motivating those improvements and “corrections” to our often naïve and clumsy works on the planet. But I raise the question: Are we doing what we do, to undo what we’ve done, for reasons that really make sense in the way the planet works? The fact that we are still writing and reading the same old “river-no-more” book about this situation makes me think, no, we aren’t. There’s a problem of context and focus. It may not be a problem of not thinking right about this river; the problem might be a way in which we are not thinking right about ourselves.
Let me try to explain. A couple three weeks ago, I had a discussion with another writer about what geological epoch we are living in. He said “the Holocene.” I said “the Anthropocene.” We didn’t get much beyond that, and probably won’t for another, say, 300 years; it turns out to be a religious question, about beliefs that lie below reason for both of us. But it is not a minor distinction; those two words encapsulate two diametrically opposed concepts of the relationship between the earth and ourselves that we ought to at least be aware of.
Most plainly, “Holocene” refers to a climatological epoch in which we humans have been impacted by things happening on earth (climatic moderation, disappearance of planet-cooling ice sheets, et cetera), while Anthropocene refers to a biological and climatological epoch in which the earth has been impacted by things happening among humans (advanced technologies, release of banked carbon, et cetera).
The Holocence Epoch began somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, depending on whose criteria you like, when the last glacial epoch of the Pleistocene eased up and the Big Ice retreated again in its mysterious way. The climate moderated, things warmed up, and plant and animal species tough enough to survive the cold deserts in the shadow of the Big Ice more or less exploded into that dangerous kind of success that nature usually rewards with a nasty comeuppance, as ecological limits get pushed to the breaking point. The megafauna explosion that ended in population crashes thousands of years ago was probably one example of those Holocene “success tragedies”; the passenger pigeon was an example from historical times; extreme cycles in populations of small mammals like the lemmings or gophers are apparently always going on somewhere.
There is, however, one successful species that has swarmed on the earth in the most recent 10,000 years of the epoch my friend wants to call the Holocene — but this species has not yet crashed on the ecological reefs, and that is because for the past 10,000 years or so it has shown remarkable creativity in adapting to its own ecological consequences with new, ever more concentrated and sophisticated systems for social and economic organization. That’s us, of course. And despite constant and accelerating warnings from those who study such phenomena, we seem thoroughly disinclined to do anything aggressive to control our own swarming. We instead continue to manipulate the environments we live in to squeeze out yet a little more for us, knowing that we do it at the expense of other forms of life, and through irreversible changes in those environments — but what choice do we have? No free people could tolerate — right? — the levels of external and internal discipline and social structure it would take to bring us back into some level of balance with what we think of as nature, which was the world before us. Today, the planet throws its worst shots at us — diseases, drought and famine, flood and famine, tsunamis, hurricanes, supertornados — but our scientists conquer the diseases before they can really take hold; our managers and NGOs move enough food around to keep some of the famines in hand; and growth spurts somewhere in the world soon make up for the loss of a few hundred thousand, or million, somewhere else. We continue to swarm, and to invent new social and economic systems to enable us to live in even larger concentrations, and to squeeze just a little more out of the ecological support systems. We know about peak oil and climate change, but seem increasingly incapable of real action on any of it; instead we continue to indulge our own inner denier like we indulge the public ones, hopping in the car to go to the store or the nearest trailhead, confident that, if the scientists and engineers and managers can’t come up with another silver bullet, then it’s too late anyway and we might as well enjoy the last days.
Depending on how you choose to look at it, our continued ability to change the planet to serve us rather than changing ourselves is either a tragedy (meaning we’re learning something the hard way), a travesty (meaning a meaningless comedy of errors that isn’t even funny) or a miraculous achievement. And why not at least explore the last alternative, since it suggests a sense of optimism, however illusory it might turn out to be?
Which brings me back to the Colorado River, and why I think we need to start looking at it from an Anthropocene perspective. What choice do we have? The cities of the desert keep growing, and are not going to stop growing because they cannot: the global population continues to grow because we cannot or will not stop it, and the people will go where they can. And wherever people go, there needs to be water there for them, and it is one of the cornerstones of the American Way to say with the engineers: “Can do!”
So we are going to keep on remaking the Colorado River in the image of man’s growing needs: the First Anthropocene River.
So what is the Colorado River going to look like when its reconstruction is done? This is where the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Colorado River is kind of out in front of the pack in the anthropocentric reconstruction of the earth portion of the planet. (The oceans are another world.) We have decided that we need the Colorado River to continue to look as much like it used to look as possible. “Need” is deliberately chosen there; we need this the way we need food to eat, water to drink. It can go to places where it is reduced to rational piping and plumbing, but there have to still be significant segments of it that “look natural.” Phoenix can do what it will, but the Grand Canyon must remain the Grand Canyon.
Sometimes this is pretty easy. The Gunnison River (my home basin) has a tributary, the Taylor River, that has a beautiful stretch of canyons — 20-plus miles. And at the head of that canyon stretch is a dam that used to be late-summer storage for a big irrigation district a hundred miles downstream. But some new dams on the mainstem of the Gunnison gave the irrigators a closer, better place to store their late water. So all of a sudden, they did not really need the dam up the Taylor River. One can hear the chorus that would erupt today: “Tear it down! Free the river!”
Instead (this being back when it was not yet a sin to be Anthropocene), a “local user group,” made up of Taylor River irrigators, the local anglers club, a couple rafting companies, the reservoir concessionaires and some wealthy second-home owners, went to the Bureau of Reclamation and proposed that the storage at the top of the canyon be used to run the river like a “natural stream,” only with periodic adjustments for special needs (late-summer irrigation, a river-runner event, et cetera) and also with the kind of year-to-year regularity that storage affords when the highly irregular Western water cycle does its extreme events. So now, every spring, the local user group sits down and figures out how the water will be released from the dam to operate the river. No one is entirely indulged, but everyone gets most of what they want, and it is a lovely little river — entirely a human economic and aesthetic construct at this point, but as beautiful and natural-looking (in a dependable sort of way) as it ever was.
So, sometimes it’s easy — especially when the cities of the plain across the mountains have not yet come looking for water to move out of the river and into their plumbing. What about a mountain river that’s not so lucky? Like the mainstem of the Colorado River in Colorado. Its major headwaters watersheds — the Fraser, Williams Fork, Blue and Eagle rivers — are so water-rich that they made a significant, and very convenient, eastward bulge in the Continental Divide. Today, two-thirds of the waters that originate in this bulge now go through the Divide in tunnels to the cities and farms (mostly the cities) of the East Slope rather than down the Colorado to the southwestern deserts.
Geologists say that this eastward bulge in the watersheds was the consequence of a huge glacial lake that broke through the Gore Range during some previous warm spell between Pleistocene glaciations. Had that not happened, the Gore Range might have been part of the Continental Divide, and those headwaters streams might have all been part of the Platte-Missouri Basin already when we Anthropocenes arrived a century and a half ago. It would have saved a lot of work — but that misses the point of the Anthropocene: imagining the work and carrying it out is what we’ve been all about.
The work today, a task finally being taken semi-seriously by the cities east of the Divide that have dewatered the streams, is to rebuild the rivers from which they have taken two-thirds of the water: to reconstruct them so they still look and even function like natural rivers — important to the human economy — and can adequately meet downstream obligations. (Those downstream obligations, I should note, are strictly the obligations to humans created during the Anthropocene; for the next half-millennium or so, it no longer includes the much longer-standing obligation the river apparently had to convey the entire Southern Rockies and the disruptive Colorado Plateau south to the Gulf of California as rubble and silt. An impressive but ultimately kind of meaningless task, maybe even more meaningless than creating huge transient cities in the desert.)
Much has been made of a recent agreement between Denver Water and something like 60 regional, county, municipal, agricultural and industrial water-oriented organizations west of the Divide in the Upper Colorado River tributaries, but no one seems to be announcing the Anthropocene triumph: when the cities of Eastern Colorado complete the job they are just beginning (and it will require many more cooperative agreements), the Colorado River mainstem will be, from top to bottom, a completely man-made river, the “first Anthropocene River” — and a lot of it, most of it in the Southern Rockies, will look really natural and beautiful.
The agreement involves fairly small numbers, for something that took five years to negotiate. For a surprisingly modest amount of water — around 18,000 acre-feet a year, less than a tenth the amount that now goes annually to the cities across the Divide — Denver Water will be investing millions of dollars in the Upper Colorado River. Much of the money this go-round goes to sewer plants that increasingly lack any dilutive capability in their systems due to reduced flows. But the rest — the ultimate Anthropocene act — will go to reconstructing some sections of the river where the amount of water taken to the Front Range has left the flows too shallow and sun-warmed to support the aquatic systems that fish, kayakers and those who cater to fishermen and kayakers depend on. They are going to construct a scaled-down version of the former river.
A friend in the Eagle River valley, who is less impressed with this cooperative agreement than many others, explains it thus: “They are putting backhoes and bulldozers into the water, to convert a former river into a creek.” There’s a more Anthropocene way of saying that: It will be a stream that will fit the amount of water still available.
It’s not cheap, maybe a million bucks a mile, more or less — it’s still a fairly new operation. But it is a definite step up in a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of rivers — say, from the engineers’ sense in the 1950s and before that a river was just a sort of sewer system for excess water on the land, and straightening channels made it function more efficiently. It is also a definite step up for Denver Water, which for most of the 20th century vigorously, even violently, resisted the idea that taking water from the headwaters of a river conferred any moral obligation. There’s a man named Chips Barry to thank for that change, although he was by no stretch a man who thought that rivers should run free just because they used to. He was a man of the Anthropocene all the way, but came to understand that the new world had to be remade somewhat in the image of the old one.
One could go on in this vein, but the point would be the same: wherever you go on the Colorado River, you are looking at a river that has been remade to render multiple services to a swarming species that likes to eat, drink and make merry. The question is whether the humans who benefit from all this are going to be able to adapt to the reality of their lives and acknowledge the miracle associated with the dual facts that there is still water in the Grand Canyon as well as in the faucets of Denver and LA, or whether we are going to continue to indulge the “nostalgia centers” in the cortex that can only see the half-empty river, but not the opportunity to half-size the river to appear full. That of course will probably precipitate other unanticipated problems to work on — but that is the road we are on; it’s what we do to avoid having to get some control over ourselves and our numbers.
The last step in the remaking of the Colorado River will probably be to bring certainty to the most common lamentation: “the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.” Get used to that one — and not just for this river. Once we have thoroughly “firmed up” our control and utilization of the world’s freshwater resources — only a very small percent of the total water on the planet — no river will be drowning itself in that salty cesspool. It is wonderful that life has learned to live abundantly in saltwater, but that is another world on the same planet; it neither needs the leftover piss-in-the-ocean semi-fresh water from rivers, nor misses the evaporation that enables the recharge of those rivers in our mountains.
Watch a river at work — tearing stuff off the hillsides it can’t keep from running off of, then piling that debris in front of itself in leveler places, forcing itself into meanders, staying with the land as long as it can even as it continues to move the land around — there’s no evidence that a mature river is in any hurry to get to the ocean. And the rich delta zone it pushes as far as it can out into the sea before it succumbs to the sea — a river’s last hurrah. Why shouldn’t that final life zone instead be a lot of rich farmland and a megacity or two to contain the masses? There are problems to solve there too, of course — usually that “freshwater” isn’t that fresh by the time it gets to its final lowlands. The job of reconstructing the river in the image of ourselves and our needs and desires is not done; there’s plenty of work for another generation or two. As Ed Marston, former High Country News publisher, said to me once, “No generation should be expected to solve all the problems for the next generation.”
But there’s also the possibility that that “nostalgia center” in our cerebral hard wiring may be powerful enough so we find we just cannot tolerate the idea of the Anthropocene, and most of us (especially if we read all the sanctioned books of lamentations) will be like the ancient dispersed Jews: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” We’ll continue to paddle down the work-in-progress in our miracle-fabric boats with the lightweight carbon-fiber paddles and our freeze-dried foods and Nalgene bottles, deploring what we see as we write the next lamentatious epic in crocodile tears. And so we will abandon the half-done project — maybe the barely begun project, the first time life itself has ever presumed to take an active role in the evolution of life — and the world will become even more intolerable until three-fourths of us die fairly quickly from something, and the remainder goes back to the simple life, which will not be so simple …
We should probably also do whatever we do or don’t do in the secure knowledge that eventually, regardless of our efforts, the Colorado River will be back at its own primal obligation of removing the Southern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau, grain by grain, flood by flood, down to the sea-level peneplain that water dreams of. We know that the dams, as we currently know how to do dams, are only good for maybe half a millennia, maybe a little longer; that’s one of the problems we pass on to the next generation. But the real challenge might be making Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver last even that long. Unlike the climatological ages preceding this one — the Pleistocene with its flow and ebb of glaciations, the lovely moderate Holocene, the hot steamy eras like the Carboniferous to which we may be returning as we begin recycling all that banked carbon — the Anthropocene, at this point, depends on whether nostalgia or imagination will capture our minds from here on out.
“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”
— Stewart Brand
Senior correspondent George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter” and “Dragons in Paradise.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo.
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.
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
“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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,andreliving 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.
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.
Editor’s note: Dr. Bruce Hayward (1928-2011) was a long-time professor of biology at Western New Mexico University (my alma mater) in Silver City (my current home town). He was known in professional circles as one of the world’s foremost chiropterologists. As such, he was often referred to as “Batman.”
Dr. Hayward was not only renowned, but very, very cool. He was a professor who got invited to student parties. More importantly, he was an educator who inspired those he taught, to the degree that many of his students opted to major in the sciences solely because of Bruce’s influence.
At his outdoor memorial service last fall, on prominent display was the last in a long line of Bruce’s passports. As I as thumbing through it with a combination of awe and jealousy, Mark Erickson, a close friend of Bruce’s, said words to the effect of, “If you think the passport is impressive, you should see his journals.” Ends up that, as Mark indicated, Bruce had spent a lifetime not only visiting an estimated 150 countries (!!!) in all, but recording his journeys. By the time he passed away, those meticulously crafted journals filled seven giant file-cabinet-sized boxes! And that was just the first batch. Few professional writers produce that quantity of verbiage.
Those journals would take first form by way of notes handwritten by Bruce while he was in the field. Upon returning home, he would transcribe his notes into typewritten form. Then he would bind the typewritten pages and add photos and memorabilia. The notes covered everything from scientific observations to observations about a given country’s culture.
On the way home from Bruce’s memorial service, my creative juices started percolating. I borrowed a copy of Bruce’s last passport, which was set to expire this year, and my wife scanned in several of the more captivating pages.
Then my friend Cat Stailey, a biology student at WNMU, spent many hours reading journals from trips that corresponded to the various stamps in Bruce’s final passport. Though it is an understatement to say the following package represents only the tip of the iceberg, we feel it satisfactorily represents the travels and the mindset of the world’s best-traveled man, a term I believe needs a bit of elucidation. Sure, there are people who have visited more countries than Bruce did, at least partially because there are lots of folks who collect passport stamps the same way peak-baggers collect mountain summits.
But, Bruce’s journals show that traveling for him was more than just an effort visit as many countries as possible. Travel for Dr. Bruce Hayward was about making deep connections with people and places. He was not just well traveled, he was WELL traveled.
A big thanks to Cat Stailey, for taking the time to put all this together.
Pitcairn Island, October 2006
“As usual, I look out my window upon getting up. I see a big olive-green chunk of rock 1100’ high, 1.75 square miles in size looming out of the choppy sea… This is an impressive, formidable island; landing will not be easy. Today will be an interesting set of events. I’m looking forward to going ashore on Pitcairn, it should be exciting.”
“Pitcairn, population 51 people, has a police presence (from New Zealand). This surprises me. There’s a stern police sergeant, a more mellow constable. He’s bummed out at the moment — no beer (and none till 5 Dec).”
Armenia, May 2005
“This area is the heart of the integration of Neanderthals (who never got to Africa) and Cro-Magnons who came north from Africa. The hypotheses of why Cro-Magnons replaced Neanderthals are many and fascinating.”
“So few people realize that the works of Nature far surpass the works of Man. The ugly monastery is supposed to be pretty; I don’t think so. The stream in the canyon, the birds in the rushes — that is the scenery worth seeing.”
Trinidad, March 2006
Caroni Swamp: “Clouds threaten behind us. Mangrove branches arch overhead forming a tunnel. Aerial roots dangle overhead like Christmas tinsel. Out of the swamp, we enter an open lake. Now I see the herons and scarlet ibises flying over in flocks of 2’s and 6’s. I glance left. Wow! An island of red and white spots. This is the famous roosting area, an island of mangroves.”
Asa Wright Refuge: “Honey-creepers come within a foot of me — boy! Such intense colors! Shiny cowbirds are the antithesis of the other birds, solid black with a hint of iridescence. A golden-winged woodpecker spends all day digging a new hole on the underside of a dead branch in the distance.”
“Once we leave the refuge, large homes blot the landscape, clearing the forest and planting ornamental shrubs. Having seen the Rainforest at Asa Wright, I feel sad to see what civilization has done to this place.”
Georgia, June 2005
“The homonid fossils found here are older than any site in Africa. These people made stone tools for 2 million years!”
“A plaster statue of Stalin stands majestically against a far wall, almost lost in the dim light. It hasn’t been maintained. Yet it seems to shed ‘a light’ or presence of its own, being separated from all this trash around it. It must have been elegant once.”
Pakistan, August 2006
“I’m standing on a pass 15,520’ in elevation, higher than any mountain in the Continental U.S. by a thousand feet. The Himalayas are immense in every respect.”
“The road to Eagle Nest is probably the worst road I’ve ever been on. I think of all my friends and relatives who would freak out on this road. It’s not for flatlanders!”
“The valleys and white Himalayan Peaks surround me; it’s like being in a theater with wide screen projection. I feel almost like that. The river is a tiny line below us. Farther along, the curves, potholes, rough surface never seem to end. On and on!”
“In Gilgit the number of armed guys wandering around with assault rifles is a bit puzzling. I am told that these guys keep the Shiites and Sunnis from molesting each other. Aha! We’ve gotten to the edge of the nasty region of Pakistan!”
“I wake 18 August 2006 at 0645 in Gilgit, Pakistan, a very far corner of the world. I often ponder this wonder — where I am, why I am here. Isn’t this a privilege? It beats being in Silver City this morning. There’s time for veranda sitting.”
Ethiopia, Jan./Feb. 2005
“Lalibela, Ethiopia has the longest archaeological record in the world. Some say it is the cradle of humanity. The australopithecine fossil, Lucy (50 bone fragments and teeth), which I saw in Addis yesterday, comes from here. It dates to 4.5 million years ago. ‘She’ was half man, half ape, 3.5 feet tall, weighing only 7lbs., possibly the earliest man-like character.”
“St. Mary’s Church, in Axum, is supposed to contain the Ark of the Covenant. No one, let alone us, gets to see it. A guard watches the entrance 24/7/365. Does he get to see it? I doubt it. I wonder if it’s really there. Possibly this is a game. At any rate, I’m not impressed, except by the lovely Spring flowers that grow around us (bougainvillea, jacaranda, and some orange ones).”
“A pair of kids have found a neat way to get tourists to stop for their pictures. They walk along the road on stilts. Tourists cannot resist the ‘cute index’. Well, the kids get their money, store it in their mouths since they don’t have any pockets. Original!”
“[Name redacted] sure is a bizarre fruitcake or possibly a full-blooded idiot. The things she talks about and asks questions about are amazing. She begins a bizarre conversation with our guide, Girma. ‘Girma, these people don’t seem to be circumcised. Why?’ Poor Girma! From here she asks about castration, its uses, traditions, biological efficacy. Strange! Whatever brought this up? Is she truly a dirty old lady, going around looking at penises?”
Canada, Alberta, September 2010
“A lady stops by my table to tell me how dapper I am (my Providenya cap and beard); she has been watching me all during her meal. People often tell me that I look very Muslim; I’ve not been called dapper before. Well, that’s an interesting way to start the day.”
“We’re standing at the shallow end of Lake Louise. Overrated. Suddenly, a short-tailed weasel, rich brown with a white belly runs over the rocks in front of us. I’m stunned! One seldom sees these animals in the wild. While we’re exclaiming and rejoicing, it comes back, closer this time. It explores under rocks no more than 6’ away… ignores us completely. This is the highlight of the trip.”
Bhutan, Oct./Nov. 2004
Paro Valley: “The afternoon will be devoted to hiking to the Tigers’ Nest (Taktshang Goemba), a small monastery on a thin ledge about a thousand feet above our valley. Legend has that it was established by Guru Rinpoche, a re-incarnate Buddha, the guy who started Buddhism in this country in the 8th century. This story says that he rode a winged tigress which landed on this very narrow cliff. He declared it sacred and a monastery was built here (using the same winged tigress? Construction must have been very difficult).”
“Thimpu is the only capitol city in the world without a stoplight. However, there is a main intersection where a serious lady cop stands under an umbrella and waves cars through in several directions. Her white-gloved hands move rhythmically, almost as if in a dance.”
Australia, Feb. 2007
Thursday Island: “In most places in the world you don’t drink the water. In Australia, you don’t eat the food.”
Burma (Myanmar), Jan. 2010
Inle Lake: “What I am seeing is a large floating bog; called a floating garden by the locals. It’s a small village of sorts with houses on stilts. Steps lead up to the second floors where people live. They raise crops out here. The streets are waterways.”
“The #1 reason for this trip is about to happen — an annular eclipse of the Sun. Locals drift in to watch the gringo watch the eclipse; a better show for them than the eclipse perhaps. They borrow the eclipse glasses, are very impressed by what they see. Little kids freak out.”
“Bagan is the city of temples and stupas! A large lighted stupa provides an exotic introduction to this city. Ox carts block the streets at times; horse and buggies whip around; ghost like, bicycle riders w/o lights appear and disappear.”
China, April 1999
“I sat in a park today; watched people and wrote notes. The Chinese watched me as well, and are fascinated by my cursive handwriting. In no time, there are 6 people standing around me watching me write notes.”
Studying 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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
Okay, 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.
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.