It was cold in those days. Bitterly cold. Long before global warming had even dawned as a concept. Your breath escaped in small white puffballs and instantly froze in a snow-white haze onto your neck gaiter, moustache, the top edge of your parka, and anything else it came in contact with before vanishing into the thin alpine air. One thing to be thankful for was that the wind hadn’t kicked up, at least not yet. Frostbite was a constant unwanted companion, and you had to be continually vigilant for it on yourself, and on your compadres as well.
Last night’s storm had left us with one to two feet of Colorado’s finest dry champagne powder. As professional ski patrollers, we were up on the mountain early making it safe for everyone to enjoy. We were eager to get our work done, as it was going to be one of those Colorado “blue bird” days that grace the covers of many ski magazines. The 12,000-to-14,000-foot craggy Rocky Mountain peaks that formed the perimeter of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area stood solemnly like silent sentinels. They appeared even more majestic this morning, adorned in their new white cloaks projecting up into a cerulean blue sky. Though it’s cliché to say the words, the beauty of the surroundings was breathtaking. We didn’t speak of it though, as we had more-pressing matters at hand.
The sun had just barely poked above Grizzly Peak, albeit still low, as it began its slow, inexorable arc over the East Wall. When the first glints of sunlight found us, we were evenly spaced in a line, one behind the other, preparing to kick off the snow cornice extending over the edge of the West Wall. As we approached the cornice, it became obvious that the storm had whipped it into a thick, creamy texture, like icing dripping off the top of a layer cake. Our entire pro patrol was present. All five of us marching in line like frozen stick-figure marionettes that seemed to be transported from some ancient Himalayan trek in search of the Yeti. The rising sun offered no real warmth, but somehow it provided a psychological comfort just knowing it was there. As my mind shifted gears, it struck me that, with our backpacks on, we were casting long, eerie shadows against the top of the cornice, making us appear like five Kokopellis inching our way across a great white desert. I kept those thoughts to myself.
Conversation was minimal this morning, as cold as it was. Occasionally T.R., the patrol director, would caution someone not to get too close to the edge of the cornice.
We were all aware of that, though. “Kicking cornice” was an acquired technique. The trick was to cautiously work your way out toward the overhang, taking considerable care not to commit your full body weight as you approached the edge. It was a delicate dance, but, to survive, you had to learn it quickly. You would begin by extending your ski poles out toward the edge of the cornice like remote antennae, and then start poking around and feeling for instability. When your senses told you that you were in a good position, you would firmly set your uphill ski toward the body of the cornice and then lift your other ski up as high as you could and slam it down just back from the protruding edge of the cornice. If you hit it just right, a big chunk of cornice would break loose and go cascading down the mountain. With the snow being cold and tender as it was that day, it was not uncommon to kick off a Volkswagen-sized chunk of snow from the cornice and see it crash like a tsunami into the snowfield below, immediately triggering an avalanche. Then, with kegs of adrenalin coursing through our veins, and to delirious hoots and hollers, we would all watch excitedly and with unrestrained pleasure as the avalanche went smoking, boiling and thundering its way 1,000 feet down the slope, finally coming to rest in a dusty white pile of debris at the base of Dercum’s Gulch. It was pure exhilaration doing this work … but somebody had to do it!
It required both luck and experience, however, to hit the cornice in the sweet spot, and the danger was real. If you were too far back when you slammed your ski down on the cornice, it was like landing on a slab of concrete, and painful vibrations would reverberate up through your entire body and shake your fillings loose. On the other hand, if you were too close to the edge, you risked the chance of dislodging the chunk of snow you were standing on and you could end up going ass over teakettle over the edge of the cornice yourself. If that happened and you were lucky … you might end up somewhere near the bottom of the cornice and somehow manage to stop yourself. However, your avalanche route was over at that point. There was no way to get back up onto the sheer cornice wall 10 to 15 feet above you. What was worse … you had to buy beer for the whole patrol that night after work. You also had to suffer the additional ignominy of having the rest of the patrol still standing atop the cornice eyeball you as you picked your way down the Rocky Knolls until you made it safely down to Dercum’s Gulch. Being unlucky wasn’t much better. Landing in the snowfield below the cornice, you might easily become the catalyst/trigger for an avalanche yourself and end up at the bottom of West Wall buried under 20 feet of snow. Well, the good news was … in that case, you didn’t have to buy beer!
We were leapfrogging one another every 10 to 20 feet in order to efficiently dispatch the task at hand. When it was finally completed, I turned to look behind us as we began to move off. The cornice now had a neat, manicured and defined edge to it. It was odd seeing such a neatly trimmed section of the cornice juxtaposed against the wild, unfettered mountain backdrop. At the same time, there was a sense of accomplishment and the unspoken feeling of a job well done.
We worked our way down to the top of Slalom Slope and reconvened. After kicking off some more cornice on top of Slalom Slope, it was time again to move on. The team subsequently skied down one at a time to the next avalanche path on the route.
I watched intently as my fellow patrollers descended through the picture-postcard landscape, leaving a signature of distinctive powder tracks in their wake. Skiing through virgin powder was one of the perks of the job. After all, the snow had to be tested. We sacrificed ourselves!
The magnetic allure of standing atop Slalom Slope was overpowering. This was my favorite ski run and there it was before me a clean palette of fresh powder. Being a powder skier was like an addiction. At that time, and having little to no knowledge of the principles and dynamics of snow physics, I would dive into anything that was steep and deep, regardless of any inherent danger. Ignorance has its own rewards! This was a lesson I would be learning all too soon.
In the distance, I heard T.R.’s voice break the silence. “Hey, Josh, are you going to join us?” My reverie broken, I resignedly poled myself over the edge of the upper shoulder of the cornice and into the wide-open, expansive snowfield below it. In an instant, I was immersed in the deep and luxurious powder where I felt most at home. By the third turn, my rhythm was synched in and the white fluffy champagne powder was now smoking and billowing all around me. Beneath me, I could feel the soft yet forgiving resistance of the snow as my skis sank deep down into its womb. Ultimately, my skis platformed out at an immeasurable depth and then immediately began making their ascent back up toward the surface. A face shot of snow cleared from my goggles and I caught a brief glimpse of my ski tips finally breaching the upper surface of the snow. A split-second later, my skis and entire body erupted forcefully from the snow pack bursting out into the pristine alpine air in a poised carved arc before plunging back down into the soft depths. After paying your dues, it’s no longer necessary to think about planting your poles, weighting your skis, completing your turns under the snow, etc. As your body gracefully glides through the snowy milieu, everything happens seamlessly, rhythmically and without thought. Once you get it down, it’s one of the most sensual and orgasmic experiences on the planet. Moreover, when conditions are just right, you can find yourself imperceptibly transported into that quiet, timeless, spiritual Zen space. It was what I lived for!
Approaching the other patrollers, I sank down into a controlled stop. As I stopped, my mind raced back to a time not long ago when I was learning the subtle art of powder skiing. I remembered seeing more inexperienced powder tyros who would tend to overweight their downhill ski when attempting to stop in deep powder. They would immediately go into a downward, spiraling tumble, typically blowing a knee out in the process if their skis didn’t release. If they were fortunate enough to have their skis release, they would then have to search for them in the snow and, if found, subsequently attempt to put them back on again, not an easy task in deep powder. We didn’t worry about those concerns, though, as we were all experienced powder skiers and we all had our bindings cranked down to the “workmen’s comp” setting.
Looking back up, it was a pleasure to see the fresh sets of tracks emblazoned in the powder. A discerning eye would even be able to distinguish who had laid down each set of tracks. Jeff’s were a series of lazy arcs casually meandering across the fall line. Kirk’s were strong, deep set and straight down. T.R.’s were wide, round and balanced. Mine were immediately distinguishable as a tight-carved ribbon straight down the fall line in perfect symmetry. You could learn a lot about skiing by evaluating your tracks.
We regrouped in the relative protection of a flattened-out tree-lined bench just above Lover’s Leap. The procedure on an avalanche route was straightforward. Each patroller skied down one at a time across any potential slide path and everyone else kept eyes on until you reached your predetermined safe destination.
It struck me as almost comical as I watched each patrolman ski down dragging about 20 feet of red avalanche cord behind him. Those were the days just prior to avalanche beacons and, at that time, avy cord was considered state-of-the-art protection. It was made of quarter-inch-wide red nylon cord that you tied off to your patrol belt. Remarkably, it also had an uncanny propensity for knotting itself up around any bush, root, stick, rock, snow snake or whatever you happened to be traveling through. Then this stuff that was supposed to be protecting you would invariably lodge itself around the object and stop you dead in your tracks. The theory was: if you got caught in a slide, the cord would float on the surface of the snow and quickly lead the rescuers to the buried, frozen, patrolman below. It wasn’t much in the way of safety, but it was all we had.
Lover’s Leap was a ski run that had a real pucker factor to it. Narrow and steep, it definitely wasn’t for the uninitiated. Later in the season, thigh-high moguls would replace the smooth white blanket of snow that now lay before us and it would no longer be a danger, but now it needed to be controlled. As T.R. moved closer to the edge, I sensed what he was going to do. The same recurring thought visited me again as it had been all morning. Why weren’t we using explosives? We had them with us in our packs. Were we just carrying them for ballast?
As a first-year patroller, it was my “quiet year.” Innately, I knew that it was best to remain relatively quiet and just absorb as much information as possible. As I was blessed and/or cursed with a keen wit, this was proving to be a challenge for me. I desperately wanted to ask “why don’t we throw a charge in here?” But, somehow, I knew it would be out of place for me to suggest it. As T.R. took another step closer to the edge, the answer began to form in my mind. Patrollers, I think it’s fair to say, are endowed with a full tank of testosterone. These guys, however, seemed to be topped off with an Imperial gallon of machismo. Taken individually, these qualities could be dealt with. Mixed together, however, and laced with a generous dose of hubris, this olio becomes a highly volatile substance and it’s only a matter of time before it finds a way to explode. It was becoming evident that this dangerous dynamic was playing itself out now right before my eyes.
Huddled together now, the rest of us looked on with heightened anticipation as T.R. sliced his ski into the upper edge of Lover’s Leap. Instantaneously, the entire slope began moving as an ephemeral, undulating wave, until its entire contents were deposited in a billowy white berm in the transition at the bottom. Once again, riotous cheers and gleeful shouts ripped through the frozen air. Collectively, we moved forward and were all poised on the edge, peering down at the rocks and frozen ground left exposed from the avalanche as T.R. scooped up a gloveful of snow from the fracture line. “Depth hoar,” he announced decisively! “Depth hoar,” I said to myself. It was a relatively new term to me and I knew it to be the bane of powder skiers and avalanche forecasters worldwide. It presented as the sugary, unconsolidated, ball-bearing-looking snow layer that could readily be found in cold climates just above the ground at the bottom of the snow pack. It served as an unseen lubricating layer for the more consolidated snow pack above to slide on. I thought to myself it should be called “death hoar,” as it would silently lay in wait for the unsuspecting skier to ski upon, triggering avalanche, and, in the process, very likely chalking up another avalanche statistic. It could be controlled, however, with explosives and continual avalanche control techniques.
As exciting as this all was, there was also something disquieting about it for me. I feared that something was inherently wrong. As I looked into the faces of my companions, they almost looked deranged in their excitement. The group dynamic had taken another dramatic turn. Without any discussion, it seems we had opted for kicking off avalanches rather than using the explosives that we had readily at hand. Machismo had replaced reason!
Still feeding on the excitement of the last avalanche, the group was in an ebullient mood as we skied up to The Finger, the final avalanche path on the route. All eyes fell on me and, without a word, I knew it was my turn to do the honors. If you were to rate Lover’s Leap as a “10” relative to the pucker-factor scale, The Finger would be completely off the chart. To be fair, it would be an injustice to call it a ski run at all. It was simply a super-steep, super-narrow avalanche chute that funneled straight down about 80-100 yards, culminating in a thick spruce forest configured with trees at the bottom arranged like pins at the end of a bowling alley. Unlike Lover’s Leap, however, you could not stand at the top and attempt to kick off an avalanche. The upper part of the path was a concave dish, so you would have to jump into it to gain access to the starting zone. If there was ever a place to use an explosive, this was it.
The peer pressure was thick and pervasive. For some reason, I didn’t want my comrades to know that I had missed out on my gallon of machismo. Even though I was a first-year patroller, every fiber in my being was telling me that this was an unsafe situation. The time was at hand and I comforted myself … “surely the patrol director and the other experienced patrollers wouldn’t willfully put one of their own in mortal danger … ”
I took a deep breath, then dutifully, and with some trepidation, leapt out and into the top of The Finger. There was no turning back now. For a brief moment, I was suspended in mid-air before finally landing with my full weight in the starting zone of The Finger with my skis perpendicular to the fall line. Initially, all was well, as I felt the snow settle and crush under my weight. I looked up quickly to bask in the approval of my comrades. Suddenly a loud crack broke the silence, and, as I was looking up, I saw that a large fracture line had propagated up and around me in the shape of an arc. Oddly, my friends appeared to be moving uphill away from me, and, as they were receding in the distance, I perceived the looks on their faces change dramatically from excitement and machismo to shock, horror and even a hint of guilt.
In an instant, I realized that it was me that was moving downhill. Instinctively, I turned to face the direction I was going, leaving all my earthly thoughts behind me. To my shock and horror, I’d been sucked into the vortex of a white tornado traveling at warp speed heading straight down the mountain into the bowels of the earth. The sound was overpowering … crunching … breaking … rumbling … howling. Time seemed to be compressed and irrelevant. Initially, my arms were outstretched in a feeble attempt to ride the storm. In a nanosecond, I felt a wrenching, breaking sensation and, without thinking, I somehow knew that my skis were gone as I involuntarily rolled forward into my first summersault into oblivion. I was spinning out of control now in the white swirling tumble dryer of snow. Out of the corner of my eye, part of a ski flew past me on a tangent traveling at an even higher speed … it seemed to be heading out to another planet. No thinking now … just a pure sense of being. Abruptly … all stop! The rumbling faded in the distance.
Death was quiet … reflective … upside-down … the other side of the mirror … a left-handed world … drifting … drifting … drifting … soft white light … deep silence … drifting.
After an interminable amount of time, and from an unimaginable distance, something began pulling at me, pulling me back from my quiet peaceful retreat. “What is it?” I asked myself from some unknown place. “Leave me alone!” my mind screamed without speaking. Imperceptibly at first, I felt my eyelids begin to move … trying to open. Then I felt an odd sensation on my cheek. My eyelids finally became unstuck. Incredibly, as my eyes began to find their focus, there appeared to be some giant guy positioned there in front of me … standing upside-down. It was patrolman Jeff. Big macho Jeff! He was upside-down and he had just kissed my cheek??? “This must be hell,” I said to myself. “Yuck!” “I can’t believe you’re alive!” Jeff exclaimed, beside himself now. “Nobody could survive that,” he spurted out loudly and excitedly.
My thoughts began streaming now in staccato bursts like a slide carousel in fast-forward, out of control. “Where am I?” ”What’s happened?” ”Am I dead or alive?” Questions seemed to pour out simultaneously. Slowly, my senses began drifting back and I started to feel pine needles, snowflake dust and bark particles raining down on me. Suddenly I realized that it was me who was upside-down. The avalanche had apparently spit me out halfway up a tree, and I was now suspended from a large branch that managed to get hooked around the backside of one of my knees. Dangling down from the branch by one leg, I must have looked like a broken, twisted Christmas tree ornament.
And Jeff was right. This had to be a miracle. Nobody could survive that. As I looked up into the branches above me, I thought to myself, “This must be the Tree of Life.” I said a quick prayer of thankfulness with a promise for more prayers later. As Jeff was anxious to get me down, I quickly did a self-assessment and I was amazed to discover that everything appeared to be working. It didn’t seem possible. Jeff was almost twice my size and he had no trouble reaching up over his head to lift me out of my precarious perch. By now, the other patrollers had worked their way down the now-barren slide path and they were showering me with hugs and expressing their disbelief that I was alive. Temporarily, the cold was no longer a factor for me, as adrenalin was churning inside me like a dynamo.
The avalanche had literally devoured all of my equipment. My equipment assessment went as follows: skis: broken in half; poles: broken in half; goggles: destroyed; company radio: destroyed; bottom of one ski boot: completely torn off with my bare-socked foot protruding from the end.
As bewilderment and shock had set in, it is still unclear to me how they managed to get me out of there. When we finally made our way back to the base area, the adrenalin was wearing off and I began to feel a throbbing pain in my left arm. Upon further inspection, I discovered some significant deformity in my lower left arm and realized that I had broken my wrist. I shrugged it off. It was a small price to pay for surviving such a traumatic ordeal.
Jeff volunteered to drive me to the medical clinic in the company vehicle. He talked excitedly the whole way down there, but I didn’t hear a thing.
It was late afternoon and the resort had already closed when we returned from the medical clinic to A-Basin. Darkness had descended and the cold had settled in completely, now unchallenged by even a hint of sunlight. When it was this cold, the snow was unforgiving underfoot and it made loud creaking sounds as you walked across it. Kweek … kweek … kweek. Jeff and I fell into a rhythm as we made our way to The Pub, the local watering hole at A-Basin, where virtually all of the employees congregated after work.
A question lit up in my mind: “Shouldn’t I be going to church?” My legs kept moving forward toward The Pub, providing my unspoken answer. There would be time for church later. At that point, I felt obligated to buy some beer.
Several lessons from the day began sifting down like new-fallen snow as we made our way over to The Pub. First of all, I was determined to enroll in the next available avalanche school. Apparently, there was a lot more I could learn about snow physics. A-Basin had also taught me a profound lesson: RESPECT! A half-drunk, late-night conversation scudded back to me as I recalled something that Remle (Elmer spelled backward), an itinerant old patroller, used to say. “Ya gotta know mountains, man.” I also had a strong suspicion that there was going to be a dramatic shift in patrol protocol. Patrollers would no longer be using themselves as human explosives.
When we got to The Pub, Jeff opened the door for me, and I must admit that I felt a bit awkward and somewhat self-conscious walking in, sporting a sling and cast.
When the door opened, a welcome blast of warm air immediately embraced me, and a collective cheer erupted from the crowd inside. This was something I always loved about A-Basin in those days. No matter what you did on the mountain — ski patrol, ski instructor, lifts, maintenance, restaurant workers, etc. — when you stepped into The Pub after work, everyone was an equal, and we were all friends. It was family!
That first beer was going to taste good, and I looked forward to buying. Everyone started to gather round, and there were plenty of hugs, kisses, handshakes, high fives and embraces to go around as the A-Basin family welcomed one of their own back to life. News travels fast on the mountain, and everyone was eager to hear about the ordeal first hand. It felt good to finally be able to shake off the cold and revel in the warmth of the family. And, apparently, there was another unwritten rule that I was unaware of. When you returned from the dead, you weren’t allowed to buy beer! It was going to be a long night. Life was good. Very good!
Josh Galvin is a professional ski patrolman at the Breckenridge Ski Resort and a singer/songwriter/performing artist who has released an all-original CD, “Ten Mile Ranger.” He is also a past winner of the Colorado Powder 8 Skiing Championships. This is his first story for the Gazette.
In Denmark, scientists used carbon dating on a ski discovered in Greenland in 1997 to reveal that the single board was at least 1,000 years old. They said the 85-centimeter plank, made from larch, was a common tool for winter travel used by the Norsemen who, in 980 A.D., somehow first crossed the cold open ocean. Older skis have been found in Mongolia, Norway, Finland and Sweden. There are Chinese cave paintings of hunters on skis thought to be more than 2,000 years old. The ski predates Christ, and in some regions, even the wheel.
But the modern birthplace of the sport of skiing is in Kitzbuehel, Austria, where the Hahnenkamm, alpine skiing’s most-famous roller coaster, is run every year. Begun in 1931, the race down the steep white throat of the Strief has only ever been interrupted by drought or war. The entire World Cup was built around the drama of the Mausfalle, and the shudder when you first drop down that face like a man falling by the window.
When Jean-Marc, the Frenchman, asked me to watch “The Race” with him, I felt as if there were offerings I should bring or old precious clothes I should wear. As if he were inviting me to Mecca, or telling me that we would be drinking lager from the Holy Grail. The two of us had met on a press trip and had talked about starting a magazine together, and had become friends in the little pleasures we took in the particulars of travel — a glass of wine with lunch in Italy, or the quality of German beer. I remember how his face lit up when they gave us a Mercedes Kompressor at the rental desk in Munich because they didn’t have the car we had reserved. On the Autobahn, he kept pushing it faster whenever the speed limit lights above the road were clear.
“Ahh,” he smiled. “I have a mee-stress now.”
He had the face of a sunburned badger, like one of those retired athletes on the sideline watching the score. He had the big strong Gallic nose, a shaggy head of pepper hair and sleepy blue eyes that lit up when it was his turn to lead the conversation, which he adored.
He said, “T-e long-eng is too Ameri-can,” when I told him about the book I wanted to write, and the story I wanted to tell. “You pee-pull all-ways talk about what ees-ent t’ere.”
The adrenaline of gravity was still on our faces like coffee with Schnapps from skiing all afternoon. We drank yellow glasses of cold Pilsener at the hotel outside of Orderndorf, outside of Kitzbuehel, and decided we would make a movie about the World Cup season. When the waitress came by, we ordered a bottle of wine and asked for menus too.
“We weel call it t-e Alpine Cir-cus,” Jean-Marc said with boozy authority. “It wheel show what we fee-yul.”
The highlight would be of the Hahnenkamm: behind the scenes with the coaches pacing in long parkas and foreshadowing shots of the slope like an icy slide straight to oblivion; the Austrian soldiers grooming the course with crampons on so they don’t fall off the edge of the earth. And the orange fencing down the Streif like a luge to the first gate covered with the “yellow line” from the piss of fear.
By the time the racers reach the first gate, they are going 70 miles per hour. The name of each winner, the flag of his country and the year he won is painted on the gondolas that you ride up the mountain. Buddy Werner, 1959, was the only American for more than 40 years, until Daron Rahlves won on a shortened course in 2003. And when we thought about who we would follow for our movie, I insisted one be an American, such as Rahlves or Bode Miller. Jean-Marc wanted one to be French, and of course, an Austrian, like Maier.
“But the French are no good.”
His thick face flushed. He looked around the room.
“They’re fading. It would be better if we could find an Italian.”
“Italian?!” Jean-Marc exclaimed, and looked at his big dark hands as if he had given up smoking only weeks before. “Merde.”
The crowds filled the streets. The bars were open all night, and more than 100,000 people took the bright red trains up from the cities, from the farms with their gray, tall uber-Abner bumpkin hats, red and white painted faces and cases of Zipfer biere. Most of them didn’t even bother to get a room, staying warm on the beer and the gluehwine as whole families — mom, dad and the kids — all got drunk together.
But they were good drunks. So we hardly saw any fighting. We would film that too, how skiing was their national pastime and their birthright in the cold speed, the crosses on the peaks and the endless road of snow. We would film the finish lines and high-speed crashes where the racers are into the nets like tossed dolls, like splaying, unfortunate fish. And in the starting house where it’s the cold and the nerves at the same time and there is always the idea of an ocean somewhere far below.
We would film their eyes as wide as headlights as they watched the mountain unfold. The size of the legs they ran on. Their feet skimming the slope. We would make gods out of wind and wine and the history of candy-coated towns with blue walls and warm windows; a beautiful eternity forever lost in the perfect faces of passing women, and that sound of our heels clicking on the cobblestone.
“Austria is t-e heart t-at’s all-ways beat-ing!” Jean-Marc said, and pounded his fist against his chest. “Eet is a love song now.”
It was a beautiful meal, the pumpkin soup in a thick orange broth and the buttery tenderloin of Chateaubriand. Headlights were curving by on the narrow road as it started to snow. I looked at the waitress in the long green Austrian dress and black vest with the straight black hair as we waited for the Williams and thought, “And my room is so close.”
I thought about how a split second can last a lifetime and how for ski racers it’s more important to win the Hahnenkamm than gold. “Because all t-e other race-airs know.”
“Kaiser Franz,” Franz Klammer, waited seven seasons between his third and fourth victories, an entire career. It was only for The Race that he even kept at it. He was still handsome and strong in the easy way he admitted it the night we had dinner with him as the guests of Head Skis, talking about how simply his victories could have been failures, “Maybe that is what I miss the most,” he said. “The nerves.”
The next day, we stopped at the top of the gondola where there is a small museum with posters and photos and a restaurant with big glass windows that looked toward the valley where the racers were all sitting by the fire. It was the first day of training and there were half-eaten plates of sausage and bread, half-empty bowls of cereal, little espressos that went untouched and songs that kept starting and stopping. From a few tables away, we could smell their fear.
“I would say ‘good luck,’” the Frenchman said. “But dey would not hear-ear.”
“The training’s even harder,” Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe told us when we went looking for former racers to interview. “Because you still have to ski the course and there’s nothing to win, or lose.”
Von Hohenlohe was a Mexican-Austrian prince and part-time rock star, who performed as Andy Himalaya or Royal Disaster. His black hair was down to his shoulders and he had thick black sunglasses and a Mexican flag on the back of the black parka that he wore. His beautiful blonde girlfriend was as fine as fresh snow. Each turn of her head revealed another discovery of her white smooth-skin, and she held a cigarette as if it were breathing on its own.
“Can I light that for you?”
Von Hohenlohe said the organizers might as well canvas the mental hospitals to try and find skiers to forerun the course — to “set the line” down the frozen groomed face for the racers to follow. He told us about being on the World Cup, and the last time he raced at Kitzbuehel. The two skiers he was traveling with were a Swiss who had skied for eight campaigns and was thinking of retiring, and an African from Senegal.
“What do you think is cheaper,” the Swiss racer asked Hubertus before the event, wondering if he shouldn’t just go and wait at the next race after the Hahnenkamm. “The hotel in Wengen, or the hospital in Kitzbuehel?”
The Swiss skier chose the hotel. “But the downhiller from Senegal did come,” Hubertus smiled. It was a flashbulb smile. “He didn’t know enough to be scared.”
He said they were like pirates off the train, with their bags, their bright coats and the bottle of wine that they shared. They stopped at every bar. It took them seven hours to make it to the hotel. But they couldn’t stop the morning, and on the gondola, they hardly spoke a word. They dressed like deep-sea divers beneath the deck, pulling their race suits on where it was cold as a morgue. Hubertus said he was curious to notice how his Senegalese friend was getting so pale. “It was a transformation, really,” he said. “He did not look well.”
They stood against the fence to watch the training runs, catching their breath as the first racers came by, and dropped away like marbles. So the Senegalese kept getting paler as he suddenly turned to von Hohenlohe and demanded, “Do you believe in god?”
“Of course,” von Hohenlohe replied. “I am a Christian.”
Then the next racer came, with the battered fabric and desperate scratch of skis as he disappeared down the Streif, on his way to the stark sudden drop of the Mausfalle, where he would have to fight with all his body to resist the forces of gravity and velocity trying to pull him sideways off the hill.
He flew like they all do, like an awkward reluctant bird toward the steep face of the Steilhang. Into some certain disaster or glory waiting far below.
The Senegalese was white as a ghost. He asked von Hohenlohe, “But does god believe in you?”
Peter Kray is the editor-at-large for Mountain Gazette, and according to Fayhee, a hopeless romantic in every sense of the term. His new book, “American Snow: The Snowsports Instruction Revolution,” will be published by the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors on Nov. 21, 2011.
Twenty years ago, I fell in love. A suburban girl, I spent four years at college in rural Vermont, where the winter entertainment, besides copious drinking and complaining about the cold, was skiing. I got a student season pass to Mad River Glen and discovered the joys of going downhill in a rush. I enjoyed the camaraderie of skiers and being part of a crazy social club for which only requirement is the senseless desire to get up at O-dark-thirty to spend a day sliding downhill in the freezing cold. But most of all, I experienced something I hadn’t yet in my almost 20 years: a sense of solitary contentment, a sudden consciousness that I could experience joy alone while doing something that I loved. When I was schussing downhill, there were a few moments in a day that transcended mere pleasure, the ones when I was aware of a rare and fleeting sensation as gravity, my body and my skis worked together on just this side of control. In these brief moments, I would laugh out loud for sheer pleasure, heedless of anyone else.
I was not particularly good, but I possessed a recklessness that brought inclusion with a group of skiers far better than I was and caught the eye of a cute instructor at the college’s small ski bowl. We piled into barely functioning cars, careening up and back the slippery roads leading to the mountain, spending the drive time recounting spills, comparing runs, telling fish stories of snowy exploits. We ratcheted up our bindings with the screwdrivers chained to the lift line posts, then took to the slopes, our skis all but welded to our boots. With my buddies, I embraced all types of terrain: the trees, the steeps, the downright stupid, heedless of injury potential. My skis were 185cms, two narrow slices of arrogance that towered over my 5’1” frame, but went downhill in a hurry. I loved the group experience, the nod of acknowledgement to another raccoon-eyed student in the library or chatting at night with someone in the dorm I’d shared a lift with earlier in the day.
But as much as I loved the group experience, it was the solitary moments that helped define my developing identity. I nodded knowingly through my philosophy classes during the morning as we discussed philosophy and the self, but it was during the afternoons on the slopes that I had anything approaching understanding of it. In my poetry classes, we parsed the words of Yeats, and when we got to “how can we know the dancer from the dance?” I thought not of ballerinas, but of myself carving turns, my body and skis moving together more gracefully than my awkward legs could ever do alone.
As for the cute ski instructor guy, well, Reader, I married him. We moved out to Seattle and began that real life with jobs and health insurance and mortgages. We didn’t get out skiing as much as we liked. When we did, we were out of shape and out of practice, our gear out of date. One day in 1998, on a rare ski day, I took a tumble. My bindings were still set to “idiocy” from my screwdriver-antics years before, and would not release without a sledgehammer. The sound of my anterior cruciate ligament snapping was like a gunshot. That was the end of skiing for a few more years. When knee surgery and physical therapy were finished and I was pronounced slope-worthy, I became pregnant. A kid. Then another. Then several years of the juggling of infants and toddlers, wonderful years, but a time when a good night’s sleep and children who can use the toilet take far more headspace than skiing. These are also the years of true selflessness, a loss of self, where it is easiest to forget you were ever anything but a parent, that you ever had an identity separate from the family sphere.
Finally, my husband and I decided to brave the mountains again with the kids, three and five years old, in tow. After an almost six-year hiatus, we emerged Rip Van Winkle-like into a brave new world of skiing. We rented equipment, my 185s long since gone, probably still in the storage unit of our first apartment. Acquiring new equipment was humbling and confusing. Stumpy curved skis! Helmets for adults! We mocked the skis at first, then made a few turns on them, so effortless it felt like cheating. We scoffed at the helmets, then changed our minds after nearly being taken out by some crazy college kids on snowboards. There was something vaguely familiar about them, but, regardless, skiing without helmets now seemed as prudent as driving blindfolded, a quaint throwback to the days our parents piled six kids into back of a station wagon, sans car seats, cigarettes glowing out the window on the way to the ski area.
We didn’t bother with poles, as they would only be a hindrance as we slowly followed our skiing progeny, scooping them off the slope and setting them back on their skis over and over. Poles only made it more difficult to lift bundled children onto lifts that hit them square in the center of their back. On lifts and in lines, we doled out candy, dropping gummy bears into their mouths, open and expectant like baby birds. We struggled through lost gloves, pinchy goggles, outgrown ski pants. In those days, we’d finally make it to the top of the mountain with our many-layered children only to hear the dreaded words: “I have to go potty.” We paid the usurious prices for full-day lift tickets, never to even get off the beginner lift, never to move at more than a glacial pace. In short, we muddled through two seasons of a very expensive and cumbersome sport known as “nearly skiing.” Like skiing, but twice as expensive and with half the fun. I was as far from my skiing self as I had been in the slopeless years.
Nevertheless, we soldiered on. One day toward the end of the season, the weather brought an unexpected gift of snow. After checking the ski report, we began to prepare for another family ski day. Somehow, the kids managed to gather their own clothing and gear and lay them out the night before, chattering excitedly about the upcoming day. In the morning, everyone remembered to use the bathroom before piling into the car in the still-dark morning. The two-hour ride to the mountain went by in a blink. We’ve fallen into a routine of reading stories and playing car games that make the time fly. Once at the mountain, we stowed our sack lunch in our usual spot and joined the line for the high-speed chair, bypassing the line at the bunny lift. My daughter raised her arms at the precise moment, and I lifted her up onto the chairlift, a practiced duet. My son sat next to my husband, adjusting his goggles, lobbying for a harder run, rather than the long green warm-up run I insist we start with every week. Candy was delivered to small mouths, a habit I’ve maintained, mostly because I like candy. As we approached the top, we swung up the safety bar and unloaded swiftly, without the tears or spills on the part of parents or children. Even a year ago, all four of us would have been ready for a break.
We stood at the top for a minute, then wordlessly slipped into our follow-the-leader routine. My husband went first, skiing with the same distinctive form that I can pick out from any lift, the same form that drew my eye 20 years ago. Soon he was far below me, carefully carving out exaggerated turns, laboring under the illusion that the kids were watching him and attempting to emulate his actions. I could see him about to be overtaken by my son who was in a full tuck, poles under his arms, his skis chattering straight down the hill, as he experimented with the limits of physics as only an eight-year-old boy can. Trailing them at a distance, my daughter was cruising, searching the trees on the trail’s edge, looking for a path into the woods that she loves. I watched her unconsciously shift her weight as she turned, her small form moving gracefully. She has a natural affinity that I never possessed, and I know that she will be a far better skier than I ever was.
Watching them, I realized we’d reached a new point in our family dynamics. My days of enjoying the shared experience of skiing were back. I could see the whole day ahead of me. At lunch, we’d be replaying the inevitable crash of my son, soon after he passed his surprised father. My daughter would gush about the waist-deep powder, and we’d respond that it was only knee-deep to us. We’d eat the traditional Fig Newtons on the drive home, and the kids would fall asleep and then my husband and I would have time to talk, the dashboard-lit car a setting more intimate and familiar to us than a candlelit restaurant. Standing at the top of that mountain, watching them, was one of those rare moments when I realized that I was currently living a day that I’d be revisiting again and again throughout my life, a lifetime memory freshly minted.
But first I had to get down. My family was far ahead, so I had to pick up speed to catch them. I took my usual spot at the rear. No one needed scraping off the snow right now, so I concentrated on myself. I made a mental note to buy some poles in the near future, then pushed off and picked my own line down the slope. The only sound I could hear was my skis carving through snow. I made a few good turns, then fell into a rhythm, turn, turn, turn. Muscle has a long memory, I thought. Then I stopped thinking and focused on the skiing. Suddenly, I was a college student again, and in love, and in that moment, there was only me, just a deep satisfying sense of self as everything else fell away. Picking up speed, I felt the old thrill. I laughed out loud, the sound echoing off the snow.
Hilary Meyerson is a freelance writer living in Seattle. This story, which was first published in the June issue of This Great Society, is her first for the Gazette.
It’s late July on the north edge of the Valley of the Sun, and things are dreamy as the roosters crow at false dawn. I’ve got beery memories of crystal meth cowboys hitting the glass pipe before furiously hammering together a tack room in an old wooden shed … white light white heat instead of ye olde white lightning, Metallica instead of Willie and Waylon, but cowboy hats and boots all the same. I was drunk and trying to help but ended up on my back in the desert dirt watching night lightning explode silently beyond the jagged black outline of thirsty mountains north, west, and east. Not a drop of rain though. Not for 100 days or more.
The cowboys are still hammering away. I can hear them loud and clear from my cave in the back of my truck, where I’m sweaty and covered with flies fresh off the manure pile. I’d sleep in my Dad’s trailer if I could, but need a few hours respite from the permanent clouds of cigarette smoke that have gradually stained EVERYTHING — ceiling, can opener, framed photos, false teeth, curtains — a yellowish brown color. He’s in there right now, finishing up his morning prayer and getting ready to light his first smoke and pour the day’s first shot of gin at 6 in the morning. No savings, no retirement, nothing but lost years, a disability check and an ancient trailer to house his broken body. A youth spent riding bulls and whores now just riding it out — hard living and a long decline punctuated by a monthly trip to Safeway and the daily ritual of cranking Hendrix and the swamp cooler up to full blast round about 10 a.m.
The sun rises from behind the Mazatzal Range, instantly nudging the thermometer into the mid-90s and forcing me out of my sanctuary. I slip on pants and shoes and crawl out of my truck, ready to kick the rooster that attacks me every morning, but he’s nowhere to be seen. I relax and piss in the gravel between a mound of old tires and the remains of two vintage satellite dishes. Such wreckage is everywhere: Pickup trucks without engines, engines without trucks, piles of pipe and fence posts, bent bicycles and broken toys, rusted horseshoes and barbed wire, bullet shells and beer cans, and tumbleweeds impaled upon the perimeter fence line. Not to mention the scrapped singlewides at the edge of the property, windows shot out, chock full of black widows and bad memories.
The brand-new doublewide (only one window busted out) right next to Dad’s place is all closed up, but the television is blaring already. It’s probably been on all night. In a little while, that trailer door will open and a toothless tweaker grandma will stand on the rickety stairs and holler endlessly in the most-grizzled and raspy voice imaginable: “GODDAMN IT PEANUT, GET BACK HERE PEANUT, GODDAMN IT PEANUT” — Peanut being the family Chihuahua who’s yipping at a rattlesnake coiled beneath the monster truck in the driveway.
But, for now, things are peaceful, and other than the hum of distant traffic on I-17, I hear nothing but the sounds of animals: the coos of mourning doves, chickens clucking as they peck at scraps thrown from all the front doors, packs of cattle dogs stretching and scratching fleas, a few dozen cattle staggering toward feed troughs and the snorts and whinnies of horses demanding to be fed. I wave to a tiny Guatemalan woman as she steps out of her windowless shack along with her three young children, all of whom quickly begin filling water barrels, distributing hay and oats and grooming the horses like they’ve been doing it all their lives. Maybe they have been. Her husband was swept up by La Migra three months ago when they raided the racetrack where he cleans the stalls of thoroughbreds and nobody knows when he’ll be back. But the folks who own this place (a pious Mormon wife and a beer-swilling Jack Mormon husband) are kind to everybody who’s found refuge out here. They’ll feed and shelter the family until El Padre is able to make the long walk across the border and through the desert. Again.
High noon. 105 degrees or so, supposed to top out around 113. A morning of sharing his stroke-and-gin-slurred rodeo and racetrack stories has tired Dad, so he settles into the easy chair for a nap. I open the trailer door and am hit by an oven blast of heat, then down the steps to the driveway, across the cattle guard and into the desert.
People say they love the desert, and they probably do … at Thanksgiving when they’re visiting family in Tucson and walking around in sandals; in winter when they’re fleeing Midwestern blizzards to ride mountain bikes in Las Cruces; in springtime when they’re snapping photos of El-Niño-year wildflowers in Death Valley. Few would claim to love the desert now, during a July that is slated to be the driest on record, just as the sun reaches its apex.
The intense heat is exhilarating, but I’m only hiking a few miles today, on mostly flat ground, with plenty of water. Not long enough to feel the full force of the summer Sonoran desert sun. Not far enough to get disoriented by shimmering heat waves. Not thirsty enough to gauge my own love for the desert.
The path is a cow path, a horse trail, a slinking coyote track, and it braids its way through this bone-dry floodplain, where the miles-long slope of the bajada — gravel and cobbles eroded from yonder mountains — meets the sandy bed of the New River. There are stones in the parched river bed that are pleasantly smooth. Nothing else here is pleasant or smooth. Mountains rise like the armored back of a Stegosaurus. Black chunks of basalt are sharp and baking hot beneath my boots. Turn one over and you might find a scorpion, angry and ready to strike. The bleached ribs of unlucky cattle are splintered and pointy. The rattlesnakes are poisonous and marked by angular patterns, the tarantulas hairy and as big as a man’s hand. The javelinas bristle with wiry hair and tusks — TUSKS! — and rabid packrats hunker down beneath an impenetrable midden of gathered thorns. Even the ghosts of life-giving waters — the same waters that caressed the river stones to smoothness — are rough and tumble: raging flash floods are far more common than the occasional placid spring flows.
There are animals all around me, but I am unlikely to see them today. Some have burrowed down into cool earth, or followed others who did the digging for them, and they won’t come out again until nightfall. Others have walked to scattered pockets of shade, or — like the Yavapai Indians of yore, or modern exurbanites rushing north to Flagstaff second homes — migrated upward to rest in the relative coolness and sip from the hidden springs of the Mogollon highlands. A handful — the vultures especially — are riding it out thousands of feet up in the sky, soaring for hours on thermal updrafts created by the very heat they seek to escape.
Clouds are piling up above the piney island of the Bradshaw Mountains — virginal white cumulus clouds signaling the annual arrival of moisture from torrid climes farther south. Everywhere else is arching blue sky and blinding sunlight, and the hopeful spring tide of plant life is ebbing. Clumpy brown grasses are brittle and rattle in the occasional hot breeze. Parched shrubs crackle at the slightest touch. The succulent flesh of stout barrel cacti is wrinkled and pale. A few desiccated flowers cling forlornly
My feeble human brain is tempted to pity these suffering plants. This is a foolish notion. One misstep could send me reeling into a white mass of cholla cactus, and I would spend the next year yanking tiny Velcro-like spines out of my flesh while pondering the tenacity of desert flora. Unable to flee the merciless sun, these plants must endure it, and the hammers of drought and heat have crafted extreme adaptations that allow them to survive where little else will. Roots secrete poisons to keep other plants away from their patch of sporadically damp soil. Waxy stems seal in precious moisture. Many trees have no leaves at all — their green bark contains chlorophyll, which allows them to photosynthesize without transpiring water to the incessant suck of the greedy desert sun. Taproots plunge deep into the earth in search of reliable groundwater. Seeds lie dormant for decades at a time, waiting for conditions to become just right before germinating. And everywhere, on almost everything: THORNS, SPIKES, QUILLS AND NEEDLES parry the desperate nibbles of creatures yearning for a taste of succulent plant flesh.
I pause in the long shade of a centuries-old saguaro to sip water and wipe the sweat from my face. The once-exhilarating sunshine has become oppressive, but I know the end is near. Not for me, but for this particular chunk of Sonoran Desert. I see the survey stakes. I smell the diesel fumes. I hear the bulldozers. Just beyond the barbed wire, just beyond this doomed wash, the heavy machinery of civilization is transforming desert into something else entirely: The Phoenix.
I hop barbed wire and enter a lifeless war zone of churned gravel and black diesel smoke. Earthmovers versus Earth, steel Caterpillars versus actual caterpillars, dump trucks versus desert. The desert is losing, for now anyway, as these acres are bought and sold down the dry river, destined to become a Big Box overlooking a floodplain golf course. I stroll through the wreckage, dodging heavy equipment and men in hardhats, who seem not to see me, and step upon a sprawling expanse of fresh black asphalt that’s been sponging up solar radiation for many hours. The temperature quickly becomes unbearable, forcing me to make a beeline through acres of shiny new automobiles toward the gigantic stucco refuge of an OUTLET MALL.
In an instant, the harsh Arizona desert becomes scenic backdrop, and I’m strolling through the pastels of a shady Spanish villa, a haven of hanging flower gardens, singing fountains, cooling mists and flamenco music emanating from hidden speakers. My solitude is gone as well, for I’m surrounded by people: clean people in clean clothes braving infernal parking lots for a chance at a square deal on kitchenware or golf accessories. The door to the food court opens, releasing a gust of Arctic wind that swirls frigid for an instant before being swallowed up by the simmering afternoon air. I am tempted to enter, tempted to sit and relax for a moment in climate-controlled comfort, but force myself to keep walking. Must not taste the forbidden fruit of air conditioning, not this early in the day.
I leave the mall, cross another sun-blasted parking lot, blister my hands climbing a molten chain link fence, and find myself surrounded by a jumble of exit/entrance ramps, stoplights and a mad rush of plumbers, soccer moms and cement trucks rushing too and fro. To my surprise, there is a sidewalk, and I follow it across a freeway, the only pedestrian for miles around. Everyone else is sequestered away in boxes of steel and glass, windows sealed, air conditioning blasting away, denying the desert its due. Exhaust fumes fill my nostrils. Gritty sweat stings my eyes. And then a mirage: twin white waterfalls cascading down miniature mountains into crystalline pools.
But it’s not a mirage — it’s ANTHEM BY DEL WEBB, an award-winning development by one of the planet’s largest land developers. Just five years ago, this was 20,000 acres of empty desert, home to roadrunners and a handful of half-wild cows. Four years ago, the first survey stakes appeared, and the saguaros (as per state law) were tagged and removed. Now, there are two new freeway exits and two new zip codes receiving J.Crew catalogs for upward of 20,000 people (slated, recession notwithstanding, to be 36,000). Instant city: just add water, and the barren desert sprouts Safeways, Walgreens, McDonalds, Starbucks, sports bars, Radio Shacks, dry cleaners, places of non-pagan worship, hundreds of miles of roads and thousands upon thousands of brown stucco homes marching up the hillsides — or as the billboard says: WE BUILD THE PLACE YOU BUILD THE LIFE.
I pass between the gateway waterfalls — one on each side of “Anthem Way” — and a long row of mini-malls toward the Welcome Center, where I rest in the shade of a 20-foot-tall aluminum golf ball and gaze through tall windows at a big map of the neighborhood. Five neighborhoods, actually, each tailored to a specific income bracket, plus three schools, two country clubs, and scattered pockets of “gated-access” communities. Street names seem to fall into four categories: community ethics (Prosperity Rd., Integrity Ln.), intrepid explorers (Kit Carson Pl., Lewis and Clark Circle), homage to recently displaced wildlife (Panther Run, Noble Hawk Dr.) and American literary icons (Whitman Dr., Thoreau Way).
And what would Henry David Thoreau do when the digital thermometer reads 115 degrees? Take a dip in his swimming pool behind his home on Walden Court, I’m sure, but since I lack keyed access to that side of town, I cross the street and head for the Community Park instead, eyes peeled for artificial water features. The park is green with well-tended grass, and indeed has a small lake and a couple of fountains. Nobody is around. I smell like I’ve been sleeping in a barn — right next to the barn actually — and I’d love nothing more than a swim. But signs inform me that the park is for Anthem residents only. And no swimming in the lake. And keep off the grass. And no wading in the fountains either.
Right on cue, a white pickup, SECURITY, rolls slowly down the deserted bike path, headed my way, so I turn my back on the life-giving waters and jaywalk across a busy feeder street to the supermarket parking lot. Car alarms howl. SUV doors open and slam shut. Horns honk as vehicles jockey for coveted parking spots close to the entryway — trying to minimize exposure to the long hot summer day. I pause in front of the automatic doors, take a deep breath, then plunge into the confines of a mammoth Safeway store. 78 degrees: nearly 40 degrees cooler than the uncontrollable climate outside. I shiver my way to the beer aisle — 10 below zero surely — and ponder my options: I’ve got some loose change in my pocket, enough for a high-fallutin’ bomber of microbrew or 40 ounces of shitty beer. Feeling white trashy and thirsty, I purchase a 40 of Mickey’s and return to the uncontrolled climate outside.
A few minutes of air conditioning has ruined an entire day’s worth of hard-earned heat tolerance, and I feel like I’m standing too close to a bonfire. Fortunately, I’ve got a big bottle of rapidly warming beer and a good idea. Outta the shopping plaza. Pass through the brimstone parking lot. Ignore dead ends and cul-de-sacs. Deny beckoning iced coffees. Overcome the fear of Neighborhood Watch. It’s 3 in the afternoon, and the mercury is peaking, but I’ve got my eye on the prize. I trod the sidewalks back to the main arterial roadway, glory bound for the gateway oasis.
The pools reappear — aquamarine jewels beneath tumbling falls. Settled in the partial shade of manicured shrubbery, I uncap the bottle, take a big swig of malt liquor, and remove my boots. Traffic whooshes past. Sirens wail. More beer and the stinky socks come off. Bulldozers grind away another acre of desert. The Welcome Center hands out another brochure. Another big guzzle and I’m down to the Fruit of the Looms. Scorpions crawl through cracks in cinder block walls and into barbeque backyards. Mountain lions slink down arroyos and into the exurbs. I finish the bottle, toss it into the xeriscaping, then strip off my underwear and slip into the lukewarm water. Floating on my back, arms outstretched, sweaty balls bobbing as the broiling sun inches its way towards the brown haze of the western horizon.
Charles Clayton, who grew up in Colorado’s Fraser Valley, is an upstanding citizen and pillar of his community in northern New Mexico. He no longer floats naked in suburban fountains. You can check out his blog, “Pagan Parenting,” at mountaingazette.com.
And let’s say, also for the sake of argument, that this someone is not a trained circus performer.
Let’s further say that the propellant for said fire-breathing is Everclear.
And finally, let’s say that the majority of this vile substance has already made its way into the convulsing liver of the person asking the question about fire-breathing, rendering the spongy matter within his cranium less than entirely functional.
Do not say, “Yes. Yes, I would like to see you breathe fire.” Or there will be trouble.
Summer of 2002. Girl gone, down the tubes of destiny, following some other poor fool whose life intertwined with ours just a bit too familiarly. But this breakup, like others, carries that one happy side effect: reunions with the free-wheeling folk who had hovered on the periphery of one’s perceived domestic bliss all the while, waiting patiently for the inevitable dissolution of a bond whose half-life is clear to all but the schmuck in the middle of it: nasty, brutish, short.
JC, beautiful crazy bum seraphim. Calls up out of the blue with pitch-perfect timing. Has been living in a pickup truck while working construction in Las Vegas; in the Yosemite Valley climbing and living on two bucks a day; in Thailand, clinging to wildly improbable 5.13 lines by day and doing some wildly improbable partying by night, possibly involving lines of another sort; in Soldotna, Alaska, homesteading on a patch of land purchased for a song. Back in Salt Lake for a bit.
“Hey, Phillips.” The comically laid-back stone drone. “Wanna go down south and do some canyoneering?”
A bolt from the bright blue. Perfect. Yes. “Hell yes. Where?”
We converge later, pore over maps, and I realize we’re talking about Eardley Canyon, in the southern part of the San Rafael Swell. Elderly Canyon sounds better, though, bringing to mind images of walker-rocking, stoop-shouldered, fearlessly rappelling octogenarians, so we stick with the moniker. Looks like a great ramble: Five raps — none too long — a couple pools, natural anchors and (sigh) bolts galore, and a nice walk through a gradually narrowing canyon to precede the technical bits. Top it off with a night of camping and drinking at the canyon’s exit and a slog back to the car in the summer heat — foregoing the recommended shuttling of cars — to burn out the hangover, and you’ve got a winner.
A few home-rolled cigarettes later and we’ve decided this trip won’t be complete without CW. Pure brawn, pure Jedi, total abandon meets total ability. Without a hint of hesitation, he agrees to join us on this walk through the sandstone of time. He’s busy, with many irons in many fires, but he’s down as always. Born down.
Three days later, and my poor, belabored 1991 Subaru is motoring due south down Highway 6, a metal mini-prairie schooner unsteadily hurtling toward the “San Rafael Reef,” named such by the pioneer navigators whose terminology had its roots in nautical frustration. Navigational hazard? Yes. Kick-ass geological wonder? Yes. Also a nice place to forget about the vagaries of a faded relationship never to have faded (“I do”), revel in the simple power of long friendships and the uncaring, unsparing, welcoming embrace of the bare wild desert.
Food? Got it. Went to Albertson’s pre-trip, loaded up on EZ Cheez (re-christened “ain’t got shit to do with cheese”), crackers, sardines, jerky, beans-in-can, Pringles and some kind of gummy substance in the shape of a foot. Backpacking food that ain’t got shit to do with freeze-drying. Also not light or remotely compact. Also damn tasty.
Water? Some, yes. Mostly water suspended in alcohol. How better to ensure the body’s smooth functioning under relentless skies the temperature of the sun?
We don packs, JC and I having opted to use dry bags with straps for the whole journey, since there are a few swims on the route. Trouble is, these dry bags have nothing but simple shoulder straps and have absolutely no back pad, so my backpacking stove is at risk of becoming part of my anatomy by about 20 minutes into the hike, sticking violently into my short ribs and spurring me like a mad cowboy with every step. CW strides confidently and athletically ahead, flask in hand, as JC and I strike uncomfortable bargains with our onerous and ill-balanced loads.
We start down the funnel into Eardley Canyon, dubbed Straight Wash. Straight Wash is pretty straight. But, step by wavering step, we pad further into the unfathomable stretch of geologic time, entering the contouring confines of Eardley. We peel back layers of the Earth’s wild chronological ride as we descend into the canyon’s belly. Touching the striations of the rock delivers a sensation not unlike plugging into a wall socket with one’s bare hand: there is an electric resonance to the desert, a buzz of sheer power that is palpable if one sees and hears its language of rock and blood. Ed Abbey’s bedrock and paradox: A desert is a place of essence, an oasis of pure life in its alternate yet simultaneous valences of short time and death and love.
Friends walking together down a canyon make a music surely the rock can hear. We joke, remembering crazy trips while creating another. We take breaks, washing down mountain ranges of ain’t got shit to do with cheese atop crackers with Jim Beam and, in saner moments, gulps of pure agua. Hand-rolled cigarettes complete the assault on our health. Yet the camaraderie and joie de vivre pulsing through us form a powerful antidote to this fusillade of chemicals.
As the canyon narrows more, we reach the first rappel. The pool into which the rappel leads seems pretty shallow, as does the angle of the pour-over. We hem and haw a bit, fussing with gear and donning wetsuits. JC begins to run rope through anchors, but CW gives us — and safety — the middle finger and slides down, wetsuit-clad-ass first, relying on the braking force of friction alone, and soon emerges from the pool’s far side, unscathed, beaming and hurling anatomically- and politically-incorrect insults at us for our prudent hesitation.
So we slide.
Note: Don’t bring a nice, expensive wetsuit on a canyoneering trip. Bring an old, sun-bleached, natty one, sold on eBay by shark-bit surfers and widows and widowers of overbold canyoneers. Or rent, making sure to practice a few times before its return the unknowing shoulder shrug indicating your lack of responsibility for the suit’s deteriorated condition.
A delightful — if frigid — series of pools ensues, and we follow the course of the canyon’s creator, water, as it slides, molecule by molecule, from pothole to pothole, caressing and carrying bits of sand inexorably down, sculpting a gravity-driven architecture of geomorphic chance.
“Christ, it’s cold,” I chatter, hip-deep in the third pool. The deep shiver — full-body, utterly involuntary — of the early stages of hypothermia is part and parcel of this oddball endeavor of following the meanderings of a slot canyon, come hell or high water. But we move steadily down, emerging eventually, gratefully, into a broad, sandy and sunlit wash.
Jubilation! We re-warm, laying out piles of gear, exposing it and ourselves to the desert sun’s desiccating touch. JC produces what remains of the alcohol: equal sloshings of Beam and Everclear. Plenty, as it turns out, to catalyze a fair bit of irresponsible backcountry behavior. A big-ass fire, for starters. True, we burn everything to ash and scatter the remains of the night into the next morning, but we scour the area of damn near half a cord of deadwood over the course of the evening.
It’s maybe 11 p.m. and we’ve predictably plowed straight through pleasant buzz and into ham-fisted, twisted drunk. In a moment of lull between truth-bending, one-upping tales of exploits both vertical and horizontal, we stare collectively into the Paleolithic television before us. That’s when a particular flame-tipped juniper bough catches JC’s attention. I can only imagine the 190-proof math going on in his head as he cast his gaze back to the near-spent bottle of distilled evil.
“Hey, guys, want to see me breathe fire?”
To which, as you have been informed, we answered in the affirmative.
A quick pull off the plastic jug and JC raises the flaming branch to his stubbled face. The ensuing arc of fire has impressive height and volume. These qualities are substantially enhanced by the mini-self-immolation CW and I are witnessing. Seems a fair bit of hooch dribbled down JC’s carpet of facial hair, igniting and taking full advantage of the extra fuel.
“Feels hot,” JC says, matter-of factly, sprawling into the sand and dousing the conflagration of follicle and epidermis.
Blistered up real quick. Sunscreenless seven-hour slog the next day didn’t help matters. JC’s attempt to impersonate a dragon hadn’t ended well. He was staying with his parents for the nonce, so, teenager-like, he invented a plausible story to save his mother from the reality of his desert debauchery. Upon hearing the story, she was ready to sue a certain maker of camp stoves that require priming, JC having pinned the rap on a cranky Optimus or Svea.
JC carries just the slightest of scars, amazingly, from his circus act at Eardley’s terminus. But it is there nonetheless. The scar traces a moment, written into flesh, acting as an exclamation point of experience: the fun and folly of a fire-lit dance with firewater.
And the best trips are the ones that leave scars and spin stories, don’t you think?
Aaron Phillips teaches Environmental Writing at the University of Utah. His last story, “Cumulus Dentatus, or Why I Believe in Winter Storm Warnings,” appeared in Mountain Gazette #176.
The airplane is not much bigger than a cigarette, and its wings appear to be fastened with staples, like an art project my kids would bring home from school, but we’re spiritual people, believers in the Great Journey, and so we cross the tarmac with our backpacks and bpa-free water bottles, heads bowed, as if in prayer. Jillian, the heiress, waddles like a penguin in black polypropylene. Charlotte, my old college friend, flip-flops, her toes pedicured cherry red. I am wearing Harley boots for courage and an amulet of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which I rub for luck whenever I fly. Up the wobbly steps we climb. Every seat is both window and aisle. We sit, squeezing our knees. The Xanax-coffee buzz I am nursing fills me with equal parts optimism and apathy. I no longer worry I will die in an airplane. I still worry I may die in a sweat lodge, but I am, as the cliché goes, living in the moment. Perhaps, already, I have absorbed a few lessons of Native American spirituality.
“Where’s Taliyah?” I ask.
Taliyah is the medicine woman who will lead us in Native American practices. Charlotte points ahead to a stocky woman with a blue down coat draped over her head, like a comforter thrown over a lamp.
“What’s she doing?” I ask.
Charlotte says: “She doesn’t like to fly.”
It was Charlotte’s idea to sign up for a women’s hiking trip run by a wilderness tour company with a Native American bent. Most of these “journeys” last a week, but we working mothers want Spiritual Enlightenment delivered over a four-day weekend. In the end, only three women signed up, perhaps because, at $1,400, the trip is expensive, a splurge by any definition. I swing the finances by getting a grant to write an essay about the trip. This is the academic version of singing for your supper.
Fiona, the company’s founder, is traveling with us. She’s a petite woman with wild brown hair and a soft voice and the biggest watch I have ever seen. She looks like she’s about to cry even when she’s smiling. Like Charlotte and me, Fiona is originally from Connecticut, but has washed up in the Midwest. Born near an Indian reservation, Fiona has recently embraced Native American spirituality. Around her neck, she wears a small leather pouch, like she’s going to pay for our gas with trading beads.
The plan is to fly into Cortez, Colorado, and drive to Canyonlands National Park in Utah, where we will camp and hike and learn cool stuff from Taliyah and come back liking our lives, our husbands and ourselves, a great deal more than we do right now. The best part of the trip is that I have not had to plan it. I haven’t even looked at a map. A mother can get like this. Most days, mothers operate like high-speed modems. Has the wet laundry moved to the dryer? Can Madeline spell paleontologist? Did Lincoln wipe his butt? Most days, I am so tired, I don’t want to know anything about anything. Lucky for me, I am a college professor.
The day before leaving Indiana, I got into a fight with my husband. Sometimes I wish Peter would have an affair or lose our life savings in a Ponzi scheme, if only to create fresh drama. Instead, we fight the same fight: I accuse him of not doing enough around the house and he says I do a lot compared to most men and I say but I do more, and he says You need to relax and I say I could relax if you would do more. Here’s what set it off: It was nine o’clock at night and I was helping Madeline with her spelling and Peter had been away for three days and I was exhausted, my eyes raccoon-like, and Peter was lying in bed, on the bed, ankles crossed, reading about Tutankhamen, the Egyptian boy prince. The way I see it, if my husband really loved me he would say: “Darling, let me take over. Take an aromatherapy bath. Pick out a sweater from the Sundance catalogue. Pour yourself a glass of Chardonnay.” That he didn’t say any of this made me feel unloved. When I feel unloved, I become unlovable, petulant, a shrew, slamming around the house muttering: No one picks up anything but me. Peter shouts easily, but recovers just as fast. I simmer, like a pot of black beans. Long after we made up, his last cutting blast hovered over my head like a toxic inversion. “You need to get away. Just go. Get out of here.”
Another, far more serious thing, happened right before I left Indiana. Near Sedona, Arizona, three people died in a sweat lodge during a “Spiritual Warrior” retreat led by New Age guru James Arthur Ray. Armed with his motto, “Create Harmonic Wealth in All Areas of Your Life,” Ray built a self-help empire so successful followers paid $9,000 to attend his retreat in Angel Valley, a Sedona center offering vortex experiences, angel connections and crystal skull meditation. Earlier that week, Ray dispatched followers into the desert for a “vision quest,” a 36-hour solo without food or water. When the exhausted travelers returned, they crammed into a small wooden structure covered with blankets and plastic while Ray’s “Dream Team” hauled in steaming rocks. People vomited and fainted in the heat. A few crawled to safety. Ray, meanwhile, sat outside in the shade, periodically rousing himself to exhort his disciples: “You’re not going to die. You may think you are, but you’re not.” But three people did. James Shore, 40, and Kirby Brown, 38, lost consciousness and could not be revived. Liz Neuman, 49, fell into a coma and died nine days later. That this supposedly religious ceremony ended in three fatalities was not only tragic, but ironic. The goal of a sweat lodge, according to Ray, is for participants to experience spiritual rebirth.
Our toy plane has Tourette’s. Hipishly, we twitch 25,000 feet over the Rockies, quivering above snow-covered ridges that shine in the sun like diamonds or chrome. This is the view I imagine God sees, the heavenly vantage point that reassures him he is an artist of divine proportion. I debate a second Xanax, but decide it will be hard to hike if I am sleeping. Over the engine roar, we chat about our relative fitness and how Jillian and I will keep up with Charlotte, whose personal trainer calls her “the machine.”
“I’ve been in training,” Jillian says. “I can do plank pose for a minute.”
Charlotte does her best to look impressed.
Jillian adds: “I count fast.”
Jillian is a dozen years older than Charlotte and me. She’s 57. Her graying hair is buzzed into a crew cut and she wears thick black glasses and the largest watch I have ever seen before I saw Fiona’s. She’s tall and thin, twitchy like a broom. Her patent-leather black sneakers have a separate compartment for her big toe, like mittens for your feet. I like Jillian right away because I gravitate toward people who complain, exaggerate and prefer chocolate to hiking.
Jillian extracts something from her gear. “Ladies. I brought my eyebrow tweezers for the trip home in case we need some fluffing. A few plucks can make you feel like a princess.”
During the flight, we trade family news. Charlotte tells us her in-laws are getting divorced because her father-in-law had an affair.
“How old is he?” I ask. It seems wrong for couples to divorce past 60.
Charlotte rolls her eyes. “Seventy-one.”
“You’d think he’d have given up on affairs.”
Jillian chimes in. “Some people do. I have a male friend who is 75. One day he told me: ‘You know, Jillian. I’ve outlived my dick.’”
As we fly past long stretches of brick-colored rock, I do not miss my children, but I think of my children. I remember, with some satisfaction, that, while Peter was lying in bed — on the bed — I taught Madeline that the geological formation that I am now admiring is not spelled Plato.
In Cortez, we met Chance, our guide, our cook. Chance is 36, but looks 26. He’s thin and tan wears a hand-knit hat with dangling ties. Chance says a lot with his hands. What Chance says with his hands is that nothing matters much or rather everything matters, but we’re not going to get upset about any one particular thing. Chance conveys this easiness by turning his hands, palms ups, palms down, like he’s cooking a grilled cheese sandwich that will taste good no matter which side lands on top. It’s easy to look at Chance and believe you’re wasting your life.
Chance asks if anyone needs anything before we head into the wilderness.
“Breath mints,” Jillian says.
Chance nods, poker-faced. He is, I can see, a professional.
“Breath mints. OK. Anything else?”
Chance drives his truck. The women climb into a rented SUV. Fiona drives, mom-like, up front with Taliyah. The paying customers, the kids in carpool, are stuffed in back.
“Fiona,” Jillian calls up. “Will we see wildlife?”
“Sure,” Fiona says. She wants her clients to be happy.
Fiona smiles into the rearview mirror. “That’s doubtful.”
Taliyah weighs in. Her deep voice carries the authority of a grandfather clock. “Be careful what you ask for. Be very, very careful.”
“OK,” Jillian says. “We will be precise. We will ask to see a mountain lion at 30 yards, heading the opposite direction, but still offering us a full frontal view.”
Jillian changes subjects: “Did you hear the governor of Texas wants to secede? I say ‘Go for it.’ Take the Bushes and the border guards.”
Charlotte gazes out the window. “That would be great.”
We drive past fields of mustard-colored grasses and purple hills, past silos and grain elevators and dead sunflowers that look like charred bodies from a war. The sky is doing that big-sky thing like it’s a huge bowl over our heads, the color of washed-out denim. It’s October and the cottonwoods are golden chandeliers, shimmering in the breeze. In the distance loom red-rock formations, plateaus and buttes. We pull off at Indian Creek, a Mecca for crack-rock climbing. Climbers scale a sheer six-story face of Wingate sandstone. They cling, in various stages of ascent, neon, bug-like, dangling, debating where to place their foot, a hand. We stare transfixed. We are watching ourselves.
Fiona stops for lunch at Newspaper Rock, a collection of Anasazi Indian paintings engraved on a 10-foot blackened boulder. Taliyah points out The Four Winds, the serpent, the medicine wheel, the ladder to the spiritual world, the robot-looking man whose antennae show he has attained a high state of spiritual awareness.
Taliyah says she’s from the bear tribe, but she reminds me of a badger. She has a crew and a long braid that reaches down her back. Her skin is the color of coffee with cream, and her eyes are small and watchful. She moves slowly and wears a lot of clothes. It is hard to imagine her being a girl, skinny and running. She likes to laugh, although I don’t pick up on this until later because most people I know with a sense of humor don’t whisper, while admiring petroglyphs , “Oh my God. There is a God. The Great Mystery.”
I want to ask Taliyah about her life, but am too shy. Next to her, I feel spoiled and white and worry I’m going to say something stupid and reveal my inner Pocahontas.
On the back of his truck, Chance spreads out lunch: organic chips, tomatoes, cheese, vegetarian baloney.
“Where’s Taliyah?” I ask.
We spot her blue down coat. She appears to be singing to the toilets.
“She is collecting seeds,” Fiona says.
I nod, as if I had been contemplating a similar harvest.
We stand in the parking-lot sunshine, happyhappyhappy to have made our escape. We’re in the Southwest. We are independent women. We can do the plank pose for a minute. I look into the fields of sage and piñon and soak up the emptiness. Taliyah reappears, saying: “If you see me spacing out, I’m focusing on the rocks and listening to the old ones.”
And I think: If you see me spacing out, I’m spacing out.
We camp beneath giant rocks that look like mushrooms. The scenery is stunning but we’re equally excited about the Port-o-Potty. It’s 4 o’clock and we rush to set up tents. Jillian can’t wait to decorate. Charlotte can’t wait to play Kumbaya on her guitar. Taliyah stares at the ground and says, “You can’t tell me where to camp. I need to feel it.”
When the tents are up, Taliyah shows us her seeds. Fiona asks how she will know how to plant them. “We will listen to them and they will tell me,” Taliyah says. “The knowledge is in the hands of all that went before.”
Such earnestness makes me feel squeamish, like a teenager watching a sexy movie with her parents. We never went to church when I was a kid, and I never gave religion much thought until my mother’s breast cancer returned for the third time. We were living in Spain and I started to drop into empty churches and gaze up at the Virgin Mary, imagining my prayers rising into the heavens like cigarette smoke. All over Spain, I tossed Euros in fountains, lit candles, pleaded my case. It didn’t do much good. My mother still died at age 68. She was a healthy woman, a practicing lawyer, an ocean swimmer. She was not ready to go. My nieces, good Episcopalians, worry they won’t see Gran in heaven because she didn’t believe in God. My Dad, now in his seventh decade, is suddenly curious about religion. “I’m waiting for you to take the first step,” he says. He keeps asking me if I’ve thought about going to that nice stone church on the corner. Whenever I walk by it, I debate going in, but the doors are locked, and I don’t have much interest in sitting through a Sunday sermon. I just want to sit.
Sometimes, I think I’ve founded my own religion, one that has no organization. I take a trip. Stuff happens. I write down what people say. Usually I find a bit of God buried in the words, like a palimpsest, writing under the writing, meaning under the words. When I travel, I see things more clearly, feel things more deeply. It’s like I take my heart out of my chest and let it breathe.
Chance fixes dinner. Having a man in coveralls cook for us gives us an erotic charge. Before dinner is even served, we all have crushes.
As the sun sets, I walk out to the gravel road and admire the vastness of the desert. The quiet is stunning. The ground is crusted. The rocks are not moving. The rocks have never moved. The rocks will have the last word. The sun drops below the hills. The air thickens. The red earth glows. Jillian and Charlotte approach on the road.
“You almost expect to see dinosaurs,” Charlotte says. “The earth has gone through so many changes. We’re just a blip, a nanosecond.”
Jillian looks grim. “But think of all the terrible things we’ve done to the planet.”
“Yet, ultimately, I feel hopeful,” Charlotte says. “At least in our lifetimes, our children’s lifetimes, this will all still be here.”
Jillian sets her chin against the cold air. “So long as we get rid of Texas.
Charlotte and I have been friends since college. Both of our mothers died of breast cancer. We both weathered infertility, although I got off easier than Charlotte, who lost two six-month-old babies in utero before having two beautiful children through a surrogate mother. We were supposed to go to our 20th college reunion together, but Charlotte went into rehab instead. I should have seen it coming. Her father drank himself to death. Those last years, he holed up on Cape Cod, a widower, dying of cancer of the esophagus, shooting bourbon into his feeding tube. Charlotte’s youngest sister, on more than one occasion, discovered him collapsed in his own excrement and vomit.
Such horror is hard to fathom when I look at Charlotte, with her bright blond hair and blue eyes. Charlotte is a feminist and a terrific mother and fierce competitor and I would go anywhere with her — except possibly on vacation — because I am looking at four days of camping without a drink. This bothers me more than it should. Most nights, when the kids are bickering and the pasta starts to boil, I pour a glass of wine, and stop at that, but I’d rather climb in the bottle and swim laps. Packing for the trip, I debated stashing mini-bottles in my duffle, but didn’t, because smuggling booze on a Native American retreat would confirm I have a drinking problem or am a complete asshole.
While Charlotte plays guitar, Chance gives us a tip for keeping warm at night: Don’t hold your pee. Otherwise your body wastes energy warming your urine, energy that could be better spent heating your body.
I wonder how many other ways I have wasted my energy. And, if I hadn’t, how warm I might be.
Taliyah rolls her eyes when someone brings up the horrors of Sedona. What she doesn’t say, but what I sense, is that the New Age movement is just another form of white exploitation. Now that we’ve taken Indian land, we covet their religion, pervert it into a caricature for a profit. As if you could learn Native American spirituality from a white guy with a website and a mansion in Beverly Hills.
The oddest part of the Angel Valley story was the ages of victims: 38, 40, 49. They were not young and foolish. They were not old and frail. They were middle-aged. Our age. The age when you should know better. You could dismiss their seeking as just another mid-life crisis, but I bet this shorthand doesn’t do them justice. I imagine they wanted to test their mettle. They wanted to better understand themselves. They wanted to have a spiritual experience, to feel just a little bit happier.
Over appetizers, Taliyah teaches us our first Native American expression: “Giwabna,” which means: “Who’s to say?”
I try it out different ways. “Who’s to say?” “Who is to say?” The phrase grows on me. It seems to concede how little we know. It also feels democratic, like anyone could be God, but it’s probably not your turn today. Taliyah tramps around the campsite, staring into the sand. “I can tell my ancestors walked this land.” This is such a great expression I can’t wait to use it the next time I am Greenwich, Connecticut.
We picnic in the dark. I’m wearing so many layers, my elbows no longer bend. Taliyah gives us a sweat-lodge primer. The sweat lodge, she says, is a symbol of the womb, a place of rebirth. The four doors represent the four directions. The fire is the Grandmother and represents the breath of life. There are four rounds, one for each sacred herb: tobacco, sage, cedar and sweet grass. Native people sprinkle tobacco as a way to give thanks. You put tobacco down to express gratitude to the elders and the earth. Pick a flower, put tobacco down. Pick up firewood, put tobacco down. I’ve been awake since 4 a.m. and Taliyah’s monotone makes me sleepy. Her words blur together, something about the stomach being the center of intuition. Something about the sweat lodge being a time to listen to the small, still voice within.
Ever practical, I ask how long the sweat lodge will last.
Taliyah says it will last as long as it needs to last.
This is not what I wanted to hear. I imagine myself, sweating in my Speedo, dizzy, claustrophobic, wet, crawling into a sleeping bag shaped like a coffin.
Charlotte’s face flickers in the firelight.
Taliyah pauses, and Charlotte says: “I’m in.”
After dinner, to warm up, we walk down a road going nowhere. Nylon swishes between our thighs. The stars are bright and scattered. Jillian keeps bumping into me in a way I find reassuring. We’re talking sweat lodges. Jillian says: “I would hate to have you two come back and say ‘It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done in my life.’”
Charlotte says: “She had me with the small quiet voice within.”
Jillian says: “I like to be respectful of other traditions, but I do not like to be cold.”
As usual, I am ambivalent. Maybe something amazing would happen, a vision, a purge. “Maybe we can wrap it up in a half hour?”
“Maybe.” Jillian glares at Charlotte. “If some of us can keep our prayers short.”
I can’t sleep. When Yahoo weather said it would be 40 degrees at night in Utah, it didn’t seem so bad. Indiana was 40 degrees at night. What I’d forgotten is that when it’s 40 degrees in Indiana, we sleep in a house. Charlotte snores. Jillian thrashes. It occurs to me a bed is a beautiful thing. Perhaps this sort of gratitude is holy. I debate taking a Xanax. I dream of mini-bottles. I hoard my urine, then drag myself up to pee in the grass. (The Port-o-Potty is so far away, it might as well be in Texas.) A million stars stare down at me, whispering in the cold: Who are you? What are you worth?
In the morning, we compare notes.
Taliyah says: “I smelled wild urine around my tent.”
Jillian says: “That was Charlotte.”
As the sun rises over the rocks, Charlotte does odd stretches she calls pelvis tippers. Jillian complains about her IT bands. I have no idea what either one of them is talking about. In Indiana, we don’t have as many names for the things that ail us. We don’t have as many cures either. Charlotte has a personal trainer, a guitar teacher, a nanny, a yoga teacher, a house cleaner, a life coach, and her AA meetings. I have white wine.
We ready for the hike. Taliyah stays home because her chest feels tight. Chance puts on his Virgin of Guadalupe cap. This ups his coolness factor exponentially. Jillian wears four layers topped off with a black puffer. She’s still cold. Chance’s poop kit hangs on the line, untouched. Charlotte asks if we know how pelicans die. We don’t. She says they go blind by diving. I say I don’t get it. Charlotte says they can’t see the fish and starve to death. And I say, I see.
The sun is up. Everything gleams. Jillian rubs sunblock on her ears. She takes a breath mint, rearranges her gloves and dickey. Her backpack is full of clothing. “Let’s face it, ladies. We have no idea what nature has in store for us.” I look up. The sky is a perfect blue. Jillian says: “Now a drink of water, and I will reveal a new layer.”
We set out on an 11-mile hike. The land stretches before us, a million shades of ochre and rust. “The machine” is soon out of sight, and we break off into two groups. I will catch up with Charlotte. Jillian, Chance and Fiona will pick up the rear. We will meet at Confluence Overlook, where the Green and Colorado rivers join. With each step, the rocky landscape turns more surreal. There are rocks like pinball bumpers and rocks like wedding cakes. There are Whoopie Pie rocks and drip-castle rocks. The rocks start to feel like people. The rocks start to feel like God. This is not a new idea. The practice of worshipping rocks is as old as Stonehenge. Even my mother, the good Yankee, used to worship rocks up in Maine, bending down after her swims to collect gray rocks with white rings around them. She believed ringed rocks were lucky.
We walk. Time slows. This always happens when I travel and I never understood why until I heard this piece on NPR. Basically, the brain has to work harder to remember new experiences. The smell of a Paris bakery. The sunset at Key West. In new places, your perceptions are more layered and startling and rich, which makes time seem to pass more slowly. This explanation scientifically confirmed the paradox I’ve long intuitively felt: the best way to slow time is to keep moving.
When we arrive at the overlook, the Green River is green and the Colorado River is brown and they join together 1,000 feet below us in a paisley swirl like desert sauces on a fancy plate. When Jillian crests the ridge, we clap. She says it’s a good thing she has a body like a gazelle. She says she’s “yummy tired.” Chance makes lunch, then sits on his haunches, like a cricket, and cleans our bowls with dirt. We coo about how delicious everything is. Chance says hunger is the best sauce.
Jillian yawns. “I hope I can stay up tonight for Kumbaya.”
The way back, Charlotte and I use our walking sticks like ski poles and slalom over the rocks. We feel light and strong and free. It seems a safe place to confess my worries about drinking. Charlotte ticks off warning signs. If you make rules for yourself, like I will only drink on weekends. (Yes, I do this.) If you can’t imagine doing certain activities without drinking (English Department parties, check. Mother-in-law visits, check, check). If you experience negative consequences, like a blackout or DUI, but keep drinking. (Thank God, not yet.) “You’re probably OK,” Charlotte says. “You’re probably just a stressed-out mother.”
Charlotte and I bask on a limestone boulder waiting for the others. A half-hour later, Jillian’s grinning face appears on the horizon.
“Did you see any animals?” Charlotte asks.
“We saw a squirrel.” Jillian turns to me. “How’s the essay?”
I shrug. I have no ideas about an essay. Jillian says: “I hope there is someone in the essay who had a lot of clothing, and then one day didn’t bring it all, and everyone thought she was hearty and stalwart.”
And I say: “I’m sure there’s room for a character like that.”
Chance cooks Mexican food. We eat like wolves. After dinner, we build a fire and Taliyah leads a prayer meditation where we pass around a clay pipe and share the thoughts that lie close to our hearts. I babble something about how great it is to spend time with Charlotte. Jillian says her light grows dim when she doesn’t get out in nature. Charlotte talks about finding her inner voice. Fiona confides that her husband doesn’t understand her need to journey and build her business. The funny thing is that I grew up in Connecticut and Charlotte grew up in Connecticut and Fiona grew up in Connecticut. I wonder if women from Connecticut spend their lives trying to fill an emptiness they cannot name.
Taliyah reminds us there is no right way or wrong way to enter the sweat, so long as your intention is pure. Then she drops the bomb: Men and women generally don’t share a sweat lodge, she says, because they are often so moved they orgasm.
After dinner, we take our ritual walk. We look like padded robots. Our breath is visible. We’re talking sweat lodges.
Jillian says: “I don’t want to feel like a voyeur. This is important to her, but it’s not important to me.”
I say: “I don’t know who I would be praying to. My ancestors? Her ancestors? Her ancestors don’t want to hear from a white girl from Connecticut.” What I don’t say, but what I also worry about, is that my intentions are not sufficiently pure. For this same reason, I never take Communion. The truth is that I don’t know if my intentions will ever be pure enough to join someone else’s religion.
Charlotte says: “We’re going to have to say something.”
“Maybe we could do a mini-version?” I suggest. “Like, change the entire Native American tradition to meet our needs.”
Jillian nods: “Right, after we get rid of Texas.
Charlotte says, “We’ll just be honest.”
“How?” I ask. I loathe confrontation and will endure almost anything to avoid it.
Charlotte says, “I’ll talk to Fiona.”
“Oh my God.” I grab Charlotte’s arm, suddenly remembering something. “You remember Jack?”
“Your old boyfriend?”
“Right. I’d completely forgotten. His stepfather died in a sweat lodge.”
My tent is crisp in the cold and smells like sweat. From the blackness, Jillian screams.
“There’s a spider in my tent!”
“Kill it,” Charlotte yells back.
“I want to read the book.”
“Yes, but . . . “ Frantic slaps. Silence.
Jillian’s voice rises through the dark: “I have killed an innocent.”
In the morning, Charlotte talks to Chance who talks to Fiona. The sweat lodge is canceled. While this is a relief — no death, no orgasm — there’s also little chance for a religious epiphany. This confirms what I have long suspected: Faith is just more hard work you have to muddle through on your own.
We replace the sweat lodge with a marathon hike. Charlotte maps 12 miles. She wants to do more, but looks at me and says: “Don’t let me be the person I am.” Chance will come with us. The rest plan a shorter hike. We’ll meet at 5:30, before the rain is expected to start. At the entrance of the trailhead parking lot, a sign explains the amazing geological formations. “The needles were formed by a series of fractures in the rock surface causing movement along a deep underlying layer of salt. Erosion by rain, water, and snow along the fracture lines resulted in a row of columnar rocks . . .”
“I don’t get it,” I pout. I resent how even basic science eludes me.
Jillian peers into my face, calm as Buddha. “Don’t worry. I don’t get it either. You don’t have to get it.”
After 20 minutes, Charlotte debates leaving her jacket hidden behind a rock for the trip back. “Guide Rule #2,” Chance says. “Never get separated from your gear.”
“What’s Guide Rule #1?” I ask.
“Carry everything. No, Guide Rule #1 is smile.”
As we walk, we ply Chance for guiding war stories. Mostly, he’s too nice to oblige: “The bad news makes the headlines.” We press harder. He concedes he’s had difficult clients, but “I try to see those moments as opportunities for compassion.”
I turn around and roll my eyes.
Chance laughs. Finally, he shares one of his favorite rescue stories about a guy who banged his knee up badly in Greenland. Chance floated him up with painkillers. At a resting point, Chance asked the blitzed-out man how he was doing. The guy replied: “Man, I can only hear you when I take my sunglasses off.”
For lunch, Chance pops a can of kippers. I plant the oily fish on a Wasa cracker and taste the earth. Chance says: “I have another can of kippers if they change your life.”
I look up. A fish rock is swimming over a mountain.
I say: “I’m glad we’re not rushing back for the sweat lodge.”
Chance says: “This is enough religion for me.”
All day, we walk. I like the simplicity of this mission. We are not multi-tasking. I am not trying to be a teacher and a writer and a mom and a housewife and a vixen. We pass a chef’s-hat rock, a Dutch-wooden-shoe rock and a rock that looks like a little boy’s penis. I am getting tired, delirious, but don’t complain because Chance runs these trails. Chance once ran across the Grand Canyon, rim-to-rim, 44 miles, 11,000 feet of gain. Temperatures topped 102 degrees.
“I like to think it was pretty worthy,” he says. “But I don’t believe in bragging rights. Don’t tell me about the crazy thing you did. Tell me how much fun you had.”
Charlotte disappears again, but Chance sticks with me. I have warned him I have no sense of direction. He says: “I am going to powder my nose. If you get lost, sit down.”
“Guide Rule #3.”
The path splits. I take the high road. I decide to take a pee and weave off the path. Suddenly there is no path. I pee, start walking, feel lost, sit down.
Ten minutes later, Chance finds me.
“I don’t want to lead,” I tell him. “I just want to follow.”
We pass a decapitated-Cinderella rock.
Chance says, “The Hopi say every step is a prayer.”
The day passes. My feet hurt. My back hurts. My bunion is throbbing. I feel righteous. I feel holy. I need to take a shit. This need to take a shit soon replaces all thoughts of poetry or God. We’re on our eighth mile and I am a desert zombie. I need a breath mint. I’m thirsty but don’t dare drink because if I pee other things may emerge that I am unprepared to deal with. I see giant faces with cracked patrician noses and cursed plants and the oncoming grayness of nighttime. We are running late. Chance picks up the pace. At this moment, I realize the most humble of truths: the grand challenge of my journey is not whether I will die in a sweat lodge, but whether I will poop in my pants. My eyes are fixed on the back of Chance’s calves. His muscles pump, his veins pump. I am not sure why I don’t fall or even why I am here, in the middle of my life, in the middle of the desert. I wanted to test my mettle. I wanted to better understand myself. I wanted to have a spiritual experience, to feel just a little bit happier. Voices circle my head like hawks. Don’t let me be the person I am. I will take a drink of water and reveal a new layer. Keep your prayers short. You don’t have to get it. Carry everything. No, smile. I can only hear you when I take my sunglasses off. Every step is a prayer. If you get lost, sit down. When they can’t see the fish, the pelican starve. This is enough religion for me.
From a bluff, we see a road. Then, a car. Then Jillian, dressed in black tights and what appears to be a yarmulke. We whoop. They wave. I see a Port-o-Potty, but it might be a mirage.
On the drive home, Jillian reports: “We saw a whole gaggle of Germans, a dead cow carcass and a squirrel. I wouldn’t call it an abundance of wildlife, but it’s something.”
Chance says: “Call National Geographic.”
The moon is fattening up. The sunset is a pink puff.
Jillian says: “If it rains, we’re all getting in the truck with Chance.”
Chance says: “That’s a different fee entirely.”
The last night, we hang out in a cave. Now that we’ve gotten the hang of outdoor living, no one wants to leave. I haven’t showered in three days and no longer care. It’s my turn to wash dishes. Squatting, I scrub plates, but the smoke makes me cry, and my tears loosen my sun block, which makes me cry more, and I am laughing and crying and I remember one of Chance’s mountaineering sayings: Do it wrong, do it twice. I decide this is my new motto for marriage. Fiona says we lucked out on the weather. Jillian looks into the starless sky and says: “It’s raining somewhere.”
Taliyah asks what we will take with us from our journey. Fiona says she has learned she needs to be true to herself. Jillian says her dim light is shining brighter. Charlotte says that things happen the way they are supposed to if you don’t clutch or panic. I say I’ll have to think about it. There are so many things. Taliyah says, “Being in the hands of the blessed one, I am at peace.”
An hour later, I think of what I should have said: Giwabna.
Who’s to say?
The next morning, we pack up, feeling chummy and wistful. As we drive out of the campsite, something feels wrong. My notebook is full. We’ve taken from the land, but given nothing back. I realize this is the one lesson of Native American spirituality I can take with me, a gift from Taliyah, a treasure I will keep in my pocket like a ringed stone from the beach. I say to Fiona, “Before we go, we should put some tobacco down.” Fiona stops the car. We climb out. Fiona taps tobacco from her pouch into our palms. We stand on the dirt road. The air smells like sage. We squint into the hard sun, and everything looks gold and shimmery, like visions, like heat, and I think of my ancestors, my mother, my grandmother, and I think of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and wonder if she sees me, and I think about what it means to be a mother, a woman, trying to have a job, raise a family, keep a husband, build an inner life, and how the bottle won’t do and the sweat lodge won’t do and how we have to improvise, leave home — Just go. Get out of here — find our truths in the desert. The sun is so bright I can barely see. I release a dusting of tobacco, watch it float away on the warm, dry breeze. It feels like sprinkling fairy dust. It feels like spreading ashes. My heart burns. I smile at my friends. We are women, putting tobacco down, living on the edge of magic.
Lili Wright’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and literary journals like The Normal School, The Florida Review and Cream City Review. Author of the memoir, “Learning to Float,” Wright teaches creative writing at DePauw University in Indiana. This is her first story for the Gazette.
Old man Harrison knew the apple business, and he had a vision. He liked to walk the orchard with his fastest pickers before the harvest, telling us how much we’d make on the first day, thanks to his judicious pruning, thinning and the measured applications of water, fertilizer and pesticides. When we agreed with his appraisal, he showed his pride by picking a still-green apple from a tree. He’d open his pocketknife as we walked and cut slices to hand around, so everyone could taste how much sugar was coming up in the fruit.
“I’d say just a few days now, these trees’ll be ready to pick,” he predicted. As we walked on, the old man described how he’d seen the future while on a driving vacation through California with his wife a few months back. “Why, those dry valleys are nothing but sun-blasted brush now, but they could be filled with orchards, just like this–,” he interrupted himself to wave at the trees, “–with water, you could grow all the fruit you wanted.” He looked around at us, “And I saw plenty of water, behind that Hoover Dam.”
The old man grew the best-damned apples I’d ever picked, with irrigation water impounded by one of the projects extolled in the local paper’s masthead, “Apple Capital of the World, and the Buckle of the Power Belt of the Great Northwest.” Although I was several years shy of my 21st year on the planet, I knew enough to listen to him.
The orchard was next to the once-mighty Columbia River, now tamed by an assortment of dams begun in the 1930s. Private electric companies had opposed the competition from public funding, while irrigation promoters loved the promise of cheap water and flood control. Bonneville and Grand Coulee became “New Deal” names rolling off the tongues of left-leaning politicians hooking for votes from an electorate recently humbled by economic collapse, while right-wingers thundered that it was all part of a “Socialist boondoggle” leading the country to ruin. To help combat this charge, by 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration had retained an “information consultant” named Woody Guthrie to write songs for a film promoting its projects. From Woody’s “Grand Coulee Dam” comes this:
“Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ’33
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me.
He said, ‘Roll along Columbia. You can ramble to the sea,
But river while you’re ramblin’ you can do some work for me’.”
While the Northwest’s self-named Inland Empire digested its doses of backbiting and branding, Hoover Dam had already jump-started the Desert Southwest’s multi-decade fling with cheap hydro. To transmit the electricity produced, transmission grids that eventually became part of the Western Interconnection soon crisscrossed public lands, and enough impounded water was pumped from the canyons of the Columbia and Colorado rivers to feed dreams of human industry.
I’ve been dreaming old man Harrison’s industrious vision tonight, after a long day spent driving a rented HEV (hybrid electric vehicle), looking at BLM’s (Bureau of Land Management) proposed SEZs (Solar Energy Zones) in the Mojave Desert (no acronym, sorry) of southern California (SoCo). Several decades beyond my fruit tramp years and in a new century defined by fears of impending collapses, the idea of orchards in these dry valleys seems far-fetched, as abandoned lettuce fields in the Imperial Valley 100 miles from here grow dust-clouds so the over-booked Colorado River can continue sprouting housing developments on the California coast.
I’ve seen four SEZs in the last few days, will drive by three more tomorrow, and can close my eyes and visualize the landscape surrounding about a dozen more from rambles similar to this one in decades past — seemingly, aimless travel on a budget is a side benefit of living a life of outdoor leisure interrupted by short (usually) periods of industrious labor for (sometimes) lucrative manna, with which to finance my hedonistic pursuits in “undeveloped” places managed by the alphabet soup of public lands agencies.
After dark, I turned off the highway onto a dirt road that led toward the dark side of Joshua Tree National Park, hoping it would lead to a dead-end set of ruts, and maybe a bit of shelter from a tailwind that had raised the hybrid’s digital efficiency graph to periodically claim 75 MPG (yup, another one — miles per gallon, this time. Get used to it, there’re more of ’em coming.). The road ended in a bulldozed patch of dirt by a chain-link fence. The wind kept howling, and I unrolled my sleeping bag on the lee side of the low-slung car. Not as good as hoped, but not bad.
Now the only light is from a half-moon that rose while I slept. It shines directly in my eyes. Ah well, probably what ended the dream for me, but at least the wind has died. The only sound is a gentle burbling from the other side of the fence. It is the sound of water flowing. No more sleep for a while now. A short walk to the fence confirms that I’ve managed to camp right by the Colorado River Aqueduct as it carries old man Harrison’s vision through the still-dry-as-dust Mojave. To the west, there are no orchards, no green fields. Beyond the aqueduct, the moon lights the Coxcomb Mountains inside the national park. Northeast, the proposed Iron Mountain SEZ site is hidden in shadows cast by its namesake mountain range. South, toward Interstate 10, is more crosshatching on the BLM map that marks yet another SEZ.
It’s time for a bit of exploration here. The SEZ process seems to be another effort to establish long-term land-management plans during my own home-state-produced, honest-to-gawd cowboy-hat-and-boot-wearing Secretary of Interior’s tenure. Though it’s hard to paint the honorable Mr. Secretary as an environmentalist’s wet dream, overall it’s been a refreshing change from the “Drill, Baby, Drill” sloganeering of the now-busted boom time. He reminds me of an old-time steward-of-the-land-type rancher preaching grazing rotation and summer/winter pasture gospel, though, as usual, “the devil is in the details,” as me own aphorism-spouting, FDR-hating great-grandmother would’ve phrased it.
SEZ is an acronym dreamed up by the current occupants of the Interior (DOI) and Energy (DOE) departments, in the process of setting an overall policy for permitting utility-scale solar-energy projects on 22 million acres of BLM land in six states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah). The plan would remove another 77 million acres of BLM land from consideration for solar, while streamlining the permitting process in 24 zones (yup, the SEZs) chosen for proximity to power transmission corridors and roads. Current projections are that between now and the year 2030, developments will cover over 200,000 acres with solar arrays producing 24,000 megawatts of electricity (an output roughly equal to five Fukushimas).
As of now, the details are still being hashed out, and as a citizen of the benighted empire, I’ve taken the liberty of casting myself as a “stakeholder” while attending public meetings, reading virtual reams of official descriptions and media coverage courtesy the web, chatting with a few jargon-fluent Departmental suits, walking some proposed SEZs, driving past others, clicking panoramic photographs handily available on the solareis.als.gov website (I know, I know, enough acronyms/abbreviations already), and closing my eyes to visualize just what some of these zones would look like with brush, sand and rocks replaced by fields of solar collectors pumping electricity into the humming wires of the Western Interconnection.
According to every formula for effective “advocacy journalism” I’ve ever stolen from, this is where I should deftly preach my own gospel of a shining future: for the enviro-defensive demographic, the preservation of our beloved public-land jewels; for upwardly-green-and-mobile strivers, a 21st Century riff on ol’ Woody Guthrie’s paean to the Grand Coulee Dam. I know, I know — but one problem is, we’ve got some cross-over on this one, as defenders of extraction extol the virtues of open spaces (the preservation of which will incidentally improve their favorite oil/gas/coal/nuclear corporation’s bottom line), while more than a few self-proclaimed environmentalists offer to trade acres for peace of mind on the production front (quoting actual online comment here, “Ultimately, I think it’s worthwhile to displace some tortoises if we can get real meaningful energy change by developing solar plants.”).
Comments I’ve collected so far have some environmental organizations defending their favored stretches of “habitat,” farmers worried about competition for water and land, residents of housing developments jealous of their “viewshed,” accusations of a BIG GOVERNMENT SCHEME TO LOCK UP THE WEST IN A GREEN ENERGY SOCIALIST BOONDOGGLE, and/or (fill in a favorite fear or two here), while corporations hoping to crash the renewable energy production party let their actual endgames lie fallow, to let bureaucrats take the heat. We’ll hear more from them later, I’m guessing. Currently, the multi-agency group that drafted the plan is sifting through a mountain of opinions, accusations and actual relevant comments while finalizing an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement), so tune in for the next round in coming months.
Here’s another problem — a point-of-view can be an amorphous thing, subject to having “skin in the game,” as the investment gurus say these days. After all, Guthrie’s celebratory lyrics promoted projects that took a formerly free-flowing stretch of public river and turned it into a daisy chain of industrial sites that provided a decent chunk of my early, very minor, part in boosting the empire’s GNP (gross national product [couldn’t resist this one, sorry]). I don’t recall being racked with guilt as I spent that apple-picking money. Depending on the stretch of country I see, I can feel both sides on this one, too. As a certain young brasileira sadly said to me as I left Rio long ago, “Is muito complicado.” Yes, I agreed, complicated indeed. So, what the hell, I’ll do as always and ramble on.
*SEZ DOI DOE BLM GNP*
So it’s the next day, and I’m poaching a hike on one of America’s jewels, leaving tracks in a shallow desert wash without benefit of a day pass. A line of signposts awhile back proclaimed the park boundary, and my view is a ragged skyline far from popular parts of Joshua Tree NP. Turning east, I can see the shape of my rented hybrid car by the flowing aqueduct, and far beyond the Iron Mountain SEZ, I can visualize other valleys in the Mojave that some corporate-board-types may be eyeing as I walk. Across the Interior West, the prospect is the same.
I rented my eco-consumer’s transitional dream car in a desperate bid to not change my pattern behaviors too much, now that gas prices are pushing past $4 bucks a sip again; and I’ve got to admit it feels good to be researching solar development sites without asking my old Chevy’s 350 CI (cubic inch) engine to suck at peak oil’s ever-ready teats. In my decades of rambling, when occasional bouts of social consciousness have interfered with my daily routines, I’ve rationalized that my unseemly gasoline consumption is more than offset by an equal number of years living with minimal drain on the electrical grid that keeps our cities and backyards secure from the terrors of darkness, but if enough of us switch to HEV or EV (electric) cars to make a serious dent in national oil consumption, we’ll need more electrical generation and transmission capacity than now exists.
Most of the proposed Solar Energy Zones I visited are near highways and along existing power lines. It’s hard to make a case that putting a solar plant on most of these would scar the landscape more than current uses, but the idea of yet more industrial sites on public land offends my sense of balance. Noise and dust pollution, water use, loss of habitat and wildlife corridors will vary with each site and by type of power generation built. This makes a one-size-fits-all assessment impossible, but some zones are beyond roads and along corridors that have not yet had transmission lines installed. I’m eyeing the Colorado River Aqueduct, seeing shadows of old man Harrison’s vision of the future, and envisioning sacrifice zones.
Right now, choices are being made in corporate and government offices that will decide the mix of power generation in the rest of this century. King Coal wants to dig, Big Oil/Gas wants to drill, the Nuclear Renaissance wants to do both, and a budding Green Energy industry promises enough capacity to give extractive-industry-types nightmares. Common ground for all the above is the desire to dig, drill and/or build on public land, rather than deal with the headaches and hangovers of private land development (read: cheap land = higher profit). Also in agreement on a desire for more power transmission lines, corporate lobbyists of all stripes clamor for additions to the power grid, preferably near their clients’ investments. For proposed power lines on public land, count on finding a multi-year planning process already grinding its gears toward completion, so Solar Energy Zone planning is not the only game in town right now.
We need to decide how much undeveloped public land can be turned into bottom-line profit; put another way, “Just how many displaced tortoises does it take to power an empire?” The piecemeal approach to permit processing has led to rape-and-run Superfund sites, and to true-believers climbing trees, trashing equipment or crashing resource-leasing parties with fake bids in desperate, usually futile attempts to save this or that jewel from development. You know the stories by now, and I know these observations could be expanded into a visionary gospel, but I see too many incongruities anymore. As the old saying goes, “One man’s meat is another’s poison …” or something like that.
Before looking for a place to camp yesterday, I drove my HEV to the top of a hill overlooking an operational solar power plant. Rows of collectors concentrated the sun’s heat onto tubes full of fluid, superheating it enough to power turbines that fed energy into wires stretching across the desert. There was no plume of smoke, no smell of burned petroleum, no invisible cloud of radiation. To the east and west stretched strings of trucks and cars on the highway that replaced old Route 66, the Mother Road that carried Woody Guthrie to California a few years before he sang for the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. Beyond the shining rows of collectors, traffic and wires, I studied the Mojave’s mountains and tried to decide if the solar plant was a blight or blessing for the desert landscape.
As I drove back to the highway, I approached a roadside antique store’s back-lot. It was full of old signs: Standard, Texaco and other blasts from our passing fling with muscle cars and unlimited resources. As I drew closer, I saw a scantily clad mannequin leaning against a chain-link fence — and then she turned around and glanced my way. As the lovely leather-bikini-sporting model waited with her retinue of irritated photographer and bored assistant, I continued driving my oh-so-defensible dream of renewable mobility right through the background of someone else’s fantasy shot of unattainable pulchritude. See — incongruity rules. Ah well, so goes life on the mother, the road.
I realize I’ve started stripping off layers as the sun brings on another day’s heat. Turning back to the mountain, I climb toward a longer view. I don’t yet know how far I’ll go, but I’m going to leave you with a vision that came to me — of a no-longer-young man walking naked in the desert, picking a cautious path through a wilderness of thorny denizens and dilemmas. Now try to think of your envisioned character as a slightly confused uncle. Sam, let’s call him. He doesn’t know yet which way he’ll turn, and asks for some advice.
This Uncle Sam needs more from his citizenry than slogans, accusations and fear. Take a look at the public lands in your own stretch of country — then have a say in how to generate the power our visions and dreams will cost, where you’d like to see it developed, and maybe, just maybe, how much is enough.
More alphabet soup anyone?
Here are a few places that will aid entry to “renewable” energy’s weird wired world of grand plans and piecemeal permit applications.
Keeping in mind that all internet links are ephemeral, check these:
So what’s transmission got to do with it? This year, rivers have been out-competing wind projects for space on the Western Interconnection’s transmission grid in the Northwest, pointing up the impending storm over too much generation capacity and too few wires. This’ll get you started:
If high-tech methods fail or leave you cold, contact your oft-maligned Honorable Representatives of a government of by and for “we the people” — via old-fashioned mail, phone or the very direct action of walking into the local office of said minion. Good luck and let your reception guide your vote. Enough said.
Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” His blog, “The Ragged Edge,” can be found here. Frank splits his time between the Four Corners Country and the Borderlands.
I am climbing Granite Peak, the highest mountain in Montana, and sweat is pouring off my brow. I’m choking back vomit and my spine really hurts, yet I’m happily wallowing in this abject misery. And I think you’ll understand why.
But first a little about me. I’m a sport climber. And a lazy one. I belay off the bumper. If the approach to a crag crests 15 minutes, I seriously reconsider ever climbing there again. So, with no backpacking experience, borrowed alpine gear and poor cardio, I decide to take on one of the hardest summits in the country: dangerous climbing, consistently exposed positions, notoriously unpredictable weather and low odds of reaching the top. Aaron, my hardcore backpacking friend, stated my odds the most eloquently: “It will destroy you.” Perfect.
Why? Well, I’d left the International Climber’s Festival early to swing by my girlfriend’s house and surprise her. I did. Surprised her ex-boyfriend too. In crippling silence (the sound of hurried re-buckling and shallow breathing notwithstanding), we all stared at each other for the longest minute in history. Following that, I drove home, threw up, wondered why I’d been with her for two years and then got drunk for a week. (Or two. I dunno … Not important.)
After countless weepy trips to the bar and an endless barrage of apologies, I decided that I couldn’t wallow in my own bottomless self-pity forever and I needed appropriate catharsis: self-immolation, seppuku, pull a “Leaving Las Vegas,” etc. After careful thought, I determined the crippling mental and physical pain of mountaineering was a more reasonable outlet.
And I had picked a damned hard mountain at that. Remarkably climbed after Alaska’s Mt. McKinley and Wyoming’s Gannett, Granite Peak was the last state high point to be conquered. After multiple attempts from multiple parties, Elers Koch finally scored the first ascent August 29, 1923 — just two weeks after he found his wife Gerda in bed with his longtime friend, Bernard DeVoto. *(That’s not true. Could be though)
“I need you to promise me something, Dan,” I tell my climbing partner between labored breaths on the saddle overlooking Mystic Lake. “No matter what I say or do, make me summit. I’ve never done anything like this before, so I might feel like I can’t and try to quit.” I’m a junkie before a painful detox, making sure I end up clean no matter what desperate bargaining might take place. I want enlightenment, goddammit. And I’m not going to find it at this altitude. I stare at him and say, “I need to summit.”
We hit the Switchbacks From Hell, and I exist only one stunted, 12-inch step at a time. Slowly, with each mile traveled, cuckoldry is fading from my
consciousness. Despite a rapidly growing level of physical discomfort, I’m feeling better overall. It starts to rain gently as we approach treeline, and I can’t help but smile. With the deep blue waters of Mystic Lake majestically spread before me, flanked by massive lofty peaks, I slowly begin to understand why people go backpacking.
Kinda. My knees are really starting to hurt.
Next comes Froze-to-Death Plateau. Like some giant, boring treadmill, the flat miles inch along. We slog through marshy swamps and leftover snow banks on our determined march to the peak. Now my lower body aches deeply. Roving gangs of mountain goats circle us the entire way, hungrily lapping up any salty urine we leave behind. Piss vultures. Gross.
Just when I think I can’t, we finally arrive at a suitable bivy site, with the jagged summit of Granite peering at us over the ridgeline. I collapse against the stacked rocks. I am a sacred vessel of hurt. I am the holy martyr of suffering. I am Saint Gangulphus of Burgundy, the remarkably appropriate patron saint of deceived husbands, unhappy marriages and knee pain. *(That is true. Google it.)
Every joint is throbbing. Genuine, palpable, physical suffering has replaced all my petty emotional suffering. Perfect. This I can manage. My brain doesn’t seem to be functioning properly. Maybe it’s the elevation. I can’t think good. I can’t remember her “dog-just-got-in-the-garbage” facial expression when I walked in. I can’t even remember her face. She doesn’t exist at 10,000 feet. I feel a Zen-like calmness. I’m happy. Time for bed.
4:15 a.m. Cold dark alpine start. I awake to black and wind. Granite by moonlight.
10:15 a.m. Endless skies above. I’m on the highest mountain. Montana beneath.
3:15 p.m. Bivy site and goats. I pack the tents, pump water. Time to return home.
I’m pissed. While I was able to transcend the issue of indiscretion on the hike up, I can feel it start to (re)consume my consciousness on the hike down. I’m slowly dipping back into the Hot Tub of Emotional Torment. “Where’s my enlightenment? Where’s my damned inner peace?” I mutter as we finally get off Froze-to-Death and head back down the Switchbacks. Damn! I feel cheated. All this suffering for nothing. I’m waiting for something to happen — deep spiritual clarity, inner peace, a moment of realization, etc. I’m annoyed that nothing took place. And then something did.
Fifteen hours of constant effort begins to break down my doughy sport-climbing physique. My ambitious pace slows to a labored, waddling gait. Joints begin to scream. Every footstep sends lightning bolts of pain up my legs and my eyes start to well up. My climbing partners scoff and charge ahead around me, agreeing to meet me at the car, which is still six miles away.
A mile later, a stabbing muscle cramp clutches my right leg as I step down. I stand all of my weight on the side of my foot and then crumple. Grasping my twisted ankle and biting back tears, I finally feel like I can’t. Every joint is screaming and I can feel my ankle swelling. I’ve overloaded my pain circuits and blown the fuses. System failure.
I give up and cry like a bratty toddler. It’s all too much. What the hell was I thinking?
A few desperate minutes later, as I wipe the snot off my face with my forearm, it finally dawns on me: only I can get me the hell out of this canyon. Feeling bad for myself wasn’t going to do a damned thing. My friends were miles ahead. It was getting dark. I couldn’t change the fact that my ex-girlfriend betrayed me or how far away the car was. I could only change myself. I was going to get to the car and I was going to get over her because I had to. Simple. Why not do it right now?
I determined that the next few hours of my life would involve crippling pain and I decided to enjoy it. I spend the last six miles in complete nirvana, slowly limping with a massive smile on my face as every delicate inch of sinew in my lower body weeps from constant abuse. I can’t stop laughing.
Long, long after my friends arrived back at the parking lot, I finally hobble down the hill to join them. “What the hell took you so long?” Dan calls out from the parking lot. I’m so happy I could throw up.
I had done it. I had successfully returned from the highest mountain in Montana. I haven’t been this happy in a long time. I come back to reality with a renewed perspective, ready to face the onslaught of apology messages with icy indifference. Sorry, but you can’t hurt me. All this suffering is nothing compared to what I just put myself through. I just limped my sorry ass up a big damned mountain and back, so I can sure as hell blow you off when you come crying. I am at peace.
Then, in a tremendous display of karma, she got fired from her job, had to move back in with her parents and is generally miserable *(Bitch). Perfect.
Dave Reuss is the managing editor of Outside Bozeman magazine. This is his first piece for the Gazette.
…Hope, Fear. Ruin, Rebirth
There is a buried and meandering channel of history moving unseen through the Moab Valley’s narrow, rimrock embrace. It curves through eras of rock art and warpaint, medical research and industrial warfare, salvation through service and damnation in detention. The substance of its serpentine events — now captured in history’s stony embrace — is infused with the elemental polarities of human nature: Hope, fear. Ruin, rebirth.
Though this channel of stories is now dormant beneath a newly laid desert floor, the curves and turns of yesteryear still tug at the paths forged today.
They are called paleochannels — abandoned streambeds from ancient landscapes, now buried under layers of sediment-turned-stone. Uranium miners followed them. Like ouzels, the birds that dive under cool canyon currents and walk submerged surfaces, these men dove below stone to the canyon bottoms of a previous age, searching for the sustenance that uranium might provide.
They mined around meanders and dug deeper-down pour-offs. They sought the phantom pool below the extinct waterfall for the logjam or dinosaur corpse providing the organic matter where uranium accumulates.
Uranium is a shape-shifting element. Ever lonely, it seeks the companionship of carboniferous deposits. It infuses tree limbs and bones with its essence, slowly replacing the dead matter with its elemental self. It is constantly on the move, from deep in the earth’s mantle outward, migrating on the wings of water. Driving plate tectonics. It is a vagabond. And it resists identification, hiding behind a multiplicity of hues and concentrations.
In this way, it mirrors humankind’s shape-shifting nature, each of us wavering on the tightrope strung between our hopes and our fears. With each falter and overcorrection, we shift the terrain of history. And we fashion the course of our lives.
“We inherit the warlike type,” said William James in his 1906 essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” “Our ancestors have bred pugnacity into our bone and marrow and thousands of years of peace won’t breed it out of us.”
In this way, tales of war act like uranium, seeking the companionship of our hearts and minds, seeping into our bones, remaking individuals and societies in its elemental image. Even when we are not at war, the metaphors and memories remain in our lives, livelihoods and literature. Are we ever truly at peace? Is peace an illusion? Is it simply a time of preparation, of readiness? A state of tension anticipating some red glow on the horizon?
“‘Peace’ in military mouths today is a synonym for ‘war expected,’” James continued. “[T]he battles are only a sort of public verification of the mastery gained during the ‘peace’-interval.”
Is peace a less stable element than war?
What is the half-life of peace?
In the years leading up to World War II, the Civilian Conservation Corps built 23,000 miles of hiking trails, 125,000 miles of new roads and 47,000 bridges. They stocked one billion fish in waterways nationwide, strung 89,000 miles of telephone lines and erected 3,470 fire towers. They spent over four million man-days fighting forest fires, dedicated seven million man-days to habitat restoration and worked for nine straight years on erosion control, water conservation, forest management and rangeland improvements. They are best known for planting over three billion trees.
It was the largest peacetime mobilization of men in our country’s history.
The CCC was phased out in 1942. We needed the manpower to go to war.
Fifteen short months after the closure of Moab’s Dalton Wells Civilian Conservation Corps camp with the advent of World War II, the site was converted into the Moab Isolation Center, a Japanese internment camp. The barracks that once housed men intent on building a better future for themselves and their country now detained Japanese Americans — “troublemakers” from other relocation centers. Prisoners were shipped to this remote desert outpost and held without due process, kept under military guard, given no warrants, no right to defense, no trial and no contact with family. Their mail was censored. The Japanese tongue was not allowed. They required military escort to perform basic bodily functions.
The head of the War Relocation Authority at the time — the agency responsible for Japanese internment — referred to the Moab Isolation Center as “nothing but a concentration camp.”
One man was held there for the crime of referring to a Caucasian nurse as an “old maid.”
The Moab Isolation Center was never publicized. The world was largely unaware of these desert detainees. All photo documentation of the camp was destroyed. It became a hole in the landscape, a gap in the deep history of Dalton Wells, an abandoned meander in its course of events.
The Japanese internment camp in Moab was officially referred to as a “rehabilitation center.”
Rehabilitation from what?
When detainee Harry Ueno was moved from the Moab Isolation Center to another internment camp, he and four other prisoners were placed in a blacked out, four-by-six box with a single air-hole. They were transported this way — in the back of a truck — across 11 hours worth of gravel roads.
What kind of rehabilitation is this?
In peacetime, Dalton Wells was a place of hope and regeneration. During war, the same desert silence, the same modest buildings, the same sage and redrock and dust and wind … these elements forged a hell for 49 Japanese Americans.
In the powdery soils of Dalton Wells today, we find that hope and fear are made of the same raw materials and supported by the same ground. Our collective consciousness and conscience determine the differing outcomes.
The landscape — just like the heart of a nation — is vast enough to hold both realities.
Individuals, too, are raw materials. We, too, can become infused with the elemental — war and fear, compassion and courage — as it emanates from the hot mantle of those in power.
It is a fragile division between peaceful pursuits and wartime atrocities, between the solace of a desert’s solitude and the despair of its isolation. It is a fine line we walk within our own hearts and in our collective capacities for kindness and contempt.
Not far from Dalton Wells, on a remote canyon wall, sits a millennia-old Barrier Canyon-style being who seems to catch comets. He is painted in red, outlined in gold. He is taller than I. This panel’s beauty is one that transcends the truth of its meaning — one which we will never know.
The same reds and golds that give life to the comet catcher are the ones once used as warpaint by the Ute and Navajo. The same reds and golds once used in war were later shipped east to color ceramics like Fiestaware.
This element from the desert that speaks in hues of red and gold was used by Madame Curie in her efforts to cure cancer. Some of her radium came from Moab-area mines. This same element that was used to end suffering also caused more of it than the world had ever seen in a single day.
When the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a member of the Enola Gay crew recalled that the mushroom cloud included yellowish clouds enveloping reddish clouds.
One-seventh of the atomic bomb’s radioactive material came from Moab.
Altruism and war. Beauty and suffering. Caught in the channels incised by our chosen leadership and our basic needs, we meander back and forth between the poles.
Of the men who worked in Moab-area uranium mines after World War II, many remained, many became sick, and many died here. Some sought a cure through nuclear medicine, bringing the element full circle. Uranium — a vagabond element, a shape-shifter. A killer and a redeemer.
These men — with their own shape-shifting stories — mined the raw materials of our sense of safety during the Cold War. They also invested in the Moab community. Uranium money built schools, neighborhoods, churches, roads and the necessary infrastructure to support a burgeoning population. Moab was blessed by war.
When the Atomic Energy Commission no longer needed uranium, Moab suffered. When the uranium processing mill finally closed in the early ’80s, Moab all but dried up and blew away on persistent desert winds.
“Global peace has been a disaster for the uranium industry,” wrote Tom Zoellner, author of a book on uranium’s deep history.
Global peace nearly killed Moab.
“A permanently successful peace-economy cannot be a simple pleasure economy,” wrote James. “So long as antimilitarists propose no substitute for war’s disciplinary function, no moral equivalent of war…so long they fail to realize the full inwardness of the situation.”
The Dalton Wells site, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is a ghost of its former self. The cottonwood trees that the CCCers planted remain. The concrete foundations scattered on the desert floor are buckled, cracked, submitting to the elemental forces that shape this landscape. The area is now used by recreationists. They set up their RVs across the foundations of another time, using the site as a staging area for their adventures — atop motorcycles, ATVs and mountain bikes. This forms the basis for Moab’s current economy: Industrial tourism. A pleasure-based economy. Our antidote to the boom-and-bust cycle of supplying the raw materials of war.
As the two-stroke engines whine across this storied and stony landscape, who follows the flow of stories just beneath the surface? Who studies the oscillations between hope and fear cradled in an unlikely and isolated space? Who studies these ancient, subterranean routes so that we — as a people — might learn to chart a new course?
Who will now walk the paleochannels? And for what reason?
Who will now wander the prison yard? And what will he dream for its tomorrows?
Who will now collect reds and golds? And for what purpose?
What is the half-life of memory?
Here and elsewhere, we continue to walk the tension between our conflicting potentialities, engaging in this daring-and-dreamy high-wire act that we refer to simply as life. And we also walk a subterranean route collectively cut into this earth, our footprints a soft attrition. It is a channel of ruin and redemption incised deeply in the shared landscapes of memory, heart and home.
On this walk, we carry with us our layers of kindnesses and faults — mirroring the rocky strata of the Moab landscape — allowing erosion to determine which echelon we act upon and which serves as counterbalance in our ever-meandering destiny.
Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last piece for the Gazette was “A Hiker’s Guide to the Desert,” which appeared in MG #177. Her monthly blog, “Desert Reflections,” can by viewed at mountaingazette.com. Jackson lives in Moab.