“Daddy, please stop. I want to put a rock in your pack!” Two lakes shimmered below as we approached Besseggen, the knife ridge from which Ibsen had the braggart Per Gynt leap, astride a reindeer. For her, a rock to show her grade-school class was proof that she’d been here and done one of the classics of mountain hiking. We stopped. As he put the rock into his pack, her lawyer father grinned: “I guess we’ll call this concrete evidence.” We went on, following red-letter “T”s painted on cairns and rock walls. I’ve hiked that route a dozen times or more, yet that one incident sticks in my mind as a reflection of what hiking in Norway is about.
The “T”s stand for Den Norske Turistforening (DNT), or “Norwegian Trekking Association” in English, the outdoor-life service organization that marks routes in the wilderness that comprises more than three-quarters of the country’s area. We were hiking along one such route, in the Jotunheimen, literally “The Home of the Giants,” the high cordillera of the Scandinavian Peninsula.
In these mountains, most of the T-marked hiking trails meander above timberline, at elevations of 3,000 feet to 5,200 feet, and the loftiest summits are around 8,200 feet. Hence, the lack of attention in mountaineering anthologies, where summit elevation alone is the criterion for comparison. In his classic, “The Age of Mountaineering,” James Ramsey Ullman gives the Jotunheimen only token mention and says nothing of William Cecil Slingsby, the contemporary of Edward Whymper, whose ascents in Norway paralleled those of Whymper in the Alps. Though beneficial to the mountains themselves, the anonymity is unjust. Here, to the west, is the Jostedal Glacier, the largest on the European mainland. And, here, one peak, Galdhøpiggen, topographically ranks as ultra-prominent, with a summit more than 1,500 meters (4,921 feet) above its col, while some famed peaks of the Alps, such as the Matterhorn and the Eiger, are not ultra-prominent. The climb may be less, because the usual starting point is high, but the topographic descriptor implies a vastness of scale.
The terrain resembles that of major North American or Central European cordillera; only the altitude differs. The impression can be imagined by picturing the Rockies or the Alps pushed downwards, topography intact, until cities like Denver were at sea level. Therein lies part of the secret of hiking in Norway: you can enjoy the high-altitude experience without needing high-altitude lungs.
T-marking of trails started in 1880, to make the gray stone cairns marking trails more easily recognizable against a backdrop of moraine-strewn terrain. Red was chosen for visibility and the design was a capital letter T, easily painted with two brush strokes and standing for Turistforeningen, the short version of the full name of DNT. The first T-marked hiking trail was completed in 1883 from Lake Tyin northwest to Smoget Pass in the Jotunheimen Mountains, a distance of about seven miles. Building the cairns and painting the “T”s on them was done by volunteers, with the Association supplying the paint, at a total cost of four Norwegian Crowns, about one dollar and two cents at the exchange rate of the day. Today, the total length of T-marked trails is about 12,500 miles, and the average distance between “T”s on cairns and rock walls is about 66 feet, so there are about a million “T”s in the country.
Along the trails, there are “hytta,” which sounds like the English word “hut” and comes from the same old German word hütte. But there the resemblance stops. Some “hytta” are basic, but most offer more than simple shelter. “Cabin” is a more apt word for 360 of the 400 in the country, while the remaining 40 are in fact lodges, as they are staffed, and some of them are large, such as Finsehytta, with 150 bunks, and Gjendesheim, with 184 bunks.
At dinner a few years ago at Finsehytta, I noticed a Swiss Alpine Club emblem on the sweater of a fellow hiker at our table and struck up a conversation with him. We chatted about Swiss Alpine climbs that we both had done, from Zermatt and Zinal. Then I asked him why he was here in the less-famed topography of Norway. “Easy,” he said: “Here I don’t just go up to a cabin, then up to a summit and back down the same way to the same valley town. Here I’m in the mountains all the time, hiking from cabin to cabin, changing my route at will. Sometimes I stay with all comforts, as here, sometimes not. And I see not just the occasional goat, but flocks of wild reindeer. It’s a real mountain experience.” He had a point there.
For overall information and the details of trails, cabins and prices, including an interactive cabin locator map, visit the DNT website, or contact DNT, Youngstorget 1, 0181 Oslo, Norway, Tel: (47 country code) 40001868, email@example.com. In all, there are 400 cabins, of which 40 in the southern part of the country are full-service staffed lodges that serve meals, with some licensed to serve beer and wine. There are also 60 simpler huts with no bunks, for rest stops or emergency shelter. Membership is encouraged but not required for staying in cabins. But if you plan to spend more than three nights in cabins, at NOK 530 (about $98 at the exchange rate at press time), it’s a bargain as you will save that much in member discounts.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a writer and translator. He takes his vacations in France. By education, he is a natural scientist. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in the Gazette.
Catch two of Denver’s star performance goddesses, Zsudayka Nzinga and Bianca Mikahn, as well as rap/DJ phenom Thrax, at Shroomfest31 in Telluride, Aug. 18-21. Nice to see poetry woven into a conference on fungal allies.
Summertime. Time to take poetry outdoors. Through windows. Out into the open air. The Japanese would float poems down creeks on paper boats, catch them and read them aloud to those within earshot.
What’s a comparable ritual in our day? Trolling poems like cyber bait hoping to snare the lyric valuables on YouTube? Whatever you’re doing, take it outside. That’s the way of the mountain.
— Art Goodtimes, Cloud Acre
The classroom guest
instructed the students
to first remove the left,
then the right shoe,
sniff the small, fragrant interior
of each and describe
in three brief lines.
“Ahhhh”, said Marta, eight,
to seven and a half year old Tomas,
“this time they have sent us
a real poet”
— Barbara Ford Poncha Springs, CO
On the Mountain (excerpt)
…Standing on a rim of belligerent stone-
cemented sand, athwart a fast moraine, the old man
is shooting the Moon. You Bastard Moon. You,
you Bastard, he screams … encounters nothing …
late at night, the light goes black, he goes out,
and he comes back from the edge, to sing, blow his flute
… immersed in nothing … comes
back from the edge with a little something
up his sleeve, a little something to leave
for the young man on the mountain.
— Danny Rosen Stargazing Mage of Lithic Press Fruita, CO
Stone Belly #5
Third day of snow, power lines
down all over the mountain.
But Stone Belly gets his juice
from other realms —
wood, hot stews, whiskey,
and fiery chili.
He hasn’t been this happy all year.
— Michael Adams Fire Giggler Lafayette, CO
august is when the monarch truly is
king, long before fall migrations begin.
august is setting records: how high
can you make your skateboard jump?
how many seconds can you hold your breath?
how many hours can you dance at the dance
marathon holding your partner close, hoping
to be the last couple to survive?
— Dennis Fritzinger Earth First! Journal Poetry Editor Berkeley, CA
Do not dismiss
the many gifts
the endless shifts,
the bottom line,
that little bit
required to bring
the little tingle
up the spine.
There’s something satisfying when you put your feet to the ground and see places, log great distances and put up with conditions that for various reasons make you want to cry. And we salute those whose feet, or obsessions with feet, have made cautionary tales for the rest of us.
1) Got an app for that?
Park Service officials will tell you that electronics can make stupid people incredibly brave — almost always a bad combination. Armed with smart phones, GPS technology and all the latest things to keep them interconnected, novice hikers might assume they can do incredibly ill-advised stunts and then rely on the latest upgrade from Apple to get them out of a jam. Sometimes, they call from mountaintops to request guides. In one case in Jackson Hole, a lost hiker called to ask for hot chocolate. There’s also the distraction factor. Last year, a teenager plunged 75 feet off the South Rim of the Grand Canyon after backing up too far while taking pictures. But on the flip side, the Park Service enjoys its own gadgets as well. Two years ago in Yellowstone, rangers busted a group of men who had the noble idea of urinating into Old Faithful. Thanks to a 24-hour camera that captured the fabled geyser online, aghast viewers saw every last detail and reported the urinators to the park.
2) Crazy, eh?
This June the annual Volksmarch at South Dakota’s Thunderhead Mountain drew 10,000 hikers who logged the 6.2-mile trek, where a crew is slowly blasting and chiseling the rock into a very big and controversial likeness of Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota chief. The piece is looking to be the world’s largest sculpture when it’s done (while our math here at MG fails to come to this conclusion, all four 60-foot heads at Mount Rushmore would fit into Crazy Horse’s head, according to literature from the Crazy Horse Memorial). The Volksmarch means a lot of feet on the ground, but it supports good things like camaraderie, fitness and food drives. The record turnout was in 1998, when 50,000 hikers made the journey.
3) We’ll get our kicks here instead, thanks
Geocachers and the hotels and restaurants that make a living off them are all pissed off at the Nevada Department of Transportation, which, in the name of safety, recently removed an estimated 1,000 caches along the Extraterrestrial Highway, a.k.a. Nevada Route 375. The agency claims the cachers were “going 2 mph on a 70 mph highway” and doing other risky things, but we figure the throngs of treasure-hunting nerds (we say that lovingly) were just poking around too close to Area 51. That said, there is a movement to send those displaced geocachers and their significant money to California and down onto Route 66.
4)There’s a reason they call ’em sneakers
In some old Denver police stories, we find the saga of a David William Christensen, who in 2002 went about buying several pairs of Keds, in itself not a crime. But three women came forward to report finding the sneakers near their homes or on their cars, each time with a sexually explicit message written on the shoes. Someone, allegedly Christensen, then broke into the women’s homes in attempts to get the shoes back and steal photos of the women, according to police. “Most people, I’m assuming, are not familiar with this fetish,” a police spokesman said, adding that this was the first Keds-specific fetish case they’d dealt with. Upon further investigation, however, Mountain Gazette staff uncovered several sneaker-fetish sites online, with Keds-fetish.com (“the world’s largest sneaker fetish community”) offering 833 high-rez thumbnail galleries. Wikibin adds that sneakers, as opposed to other shoes, offer rubber, laces and the paddling capacity that thrill-seeking guys enjoy. “Women may have a shoe fetish,” the site says, “but it is rarely sexual.”
5) And there’s more …
Speaking of foot fetishes, there’s also the case of a 27-year-old California man who faced misdemeanor battery charges and one charge of child annoyance after sucking the bare toes of unsuspecting women. He approached three women and one 15-year-old girl who were working alone in stores and told them he was a massage therapy student in need of experience.
6) Scary things afoot
Some people hike for relaxation and deepening the connection to the Mother Rock. Others do it for fitness, and in our final category, some do it because they like to get the living crap scared out of them. That can be the adrenaline that comes, for example, from navigating Angels Landing, often hailed as the most dangerous hiking trail in Utah. The 5-mile trip in Zion National Park gets extremely dicey when there’s ice or lightning, and the sliver-wide sandstone footing and sheer, 1,000-foot drop-offs on the last half-mile add a gamble that takes one or two lives each year. Note: If you routinely freak out or lose your balance, this isn’t the place to try to change that up. Fear also can come in bump-in-the-night form, as found at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, where hikers routinely see strange orbs, black triangles and red cigar shapes in the skies. The best UFO watching allegedly comes at the 750-foot Star Dune on a clear summer night. If you like it even weirder, try the Big Tree Loop Trail at Oregon Caves National Monument, where psychologist Matthew Johnson took a bathroom break off the trail and spotted a Bigfoot spying on his family from behind a tree. Researchers say this guy has a pretty solid story that just might be legit.
Tara Flanagan splits her time between Boulder and Breckenridge, where she works as an equine massage therapist. Her monthly blog, “Out There,” can be found on mountaingazette.com.
Those of us who have spent the majority of our lives traveling by hook or by crook through lofty and wild realms have many things in common. We have all been directionally discombobulated. We have all been tired and hungry and bug-bit and blistered and grungy beyond belief. And we have all faced both objective and subjective danger, whether that danger has visited us on our backcountry forays via gravity, ice, roiling whitewater, flash floods, avalanches, wild animals, poor planning, bad decision-making, debilitating hangovers, heat, cold, wind or, my personal sack-shriveling favorite, and the subject of this installment of “Smoke Signals,” lightning.
The first time I hiked the Colorado Trail, I found myself camping near the old Beartown site in the San Juans in the midst of, no, not the Jagermeister Girls, nor even the Senior Ladies Bridge Club, nor even my most debauch, scumiest drinking buddies, nor even a motley crew of fellow CT thru-hikers. No, my life does not set up that way. What I found myself camping in the middle of was a large and boisterous Boy Scout troop that spent the entire late afternoon and evening doing one high-decibel Boy Scout thing after another: reciting the Scout Oath and Law infinitum, working earnestly on merit badge projects that required much in the way of hacking, chopping and yelling and tying several screaming Tenderfeet to trees.
After the Scouts FINALLY!!! (HALLELUJAH!!!) began to settle in for the night, I enjoyed the company of one of the Scoutmasters at a dilapidated picnic table. As we spoke, a seriously mean storm swirled in from several directions simultaneously, and, in the gathering twilight, proximate flashes and deafening booms began to re-define what until that point had been a relaxed vibe, the boisterous Boy Scouts notwithstanding. The Scoutmaster, who had already told me he was a professor of meteorology — whose specialty was, yes, lightning — did not so much as flinch or wince. His calm demeanor was the only thing that prevented me from assuming a teeth-chattering fetal position under the picnic table.
I believe I eventually said words to the effect of: “I guess you are well versed enough regarding the vagaries of lightning to know if we were in any imminent danger.”
His response will stick with me forevermore. “No one knows enough about lightning to know if they are in imminent danger during a storm. All I know is that we are right now in the middle of a lightning storm, and nothing we do will effect whether or not we get struck. Lightning is defined by its unpredictability.”
He went on to say that, based upon a full career of peer-reviewed statistical interpretation, he had pretty much concluded that just as many people get zapped by lightning while doing all the supposed “right” things we read about in mainstream outdoor-recreation-oriented magazine, while uncountable, unknowable numbers of people doing the supposed “wrong” things venture upon their merry way blissfully untoasted.
“It’s almost like lightning has its own personality,” the professor/Scoutmaster said. “Most times, that personality is, though intimidating, fairly benign, even playful, in a sadistic sort of way. Other times, however, it seems vindictive, like it really wants to kill someone, like death is its goal, like the bolts are being purposefully aimed at people.”
Great. So much for Nature being indifferent toward our fate.
After the professor/Scoutmaster hit the sack, with the flash/booms still pummeling the biosphere in every direction, I rolled a joint and managed to get said joint lit despite the wind. I kicked back, clad in Gore-Tex from head to toe, and pondered the Scoutmaster/professor’s words from the perspective of my own personal greatest-hits lightning-based stories, from a perspective that at least entertained the notion that there’s this all-powerful Sky Daddy consciousness — let’s call him “Zeus” — way up high making mortality-based decisions about whether or not to sizzle such-and-such hapless person down here on terra firma or just scare the living beejesus out of him or her. And perhaps ascertain why.
1) Though I grew up in the climatologically agitated area where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, a place where almost every home sported a lightning rod atop its roof, the first time I ever seriously considered the concept of corporeality in the context of lightning was during my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. At that time, the AT meandered its way through much of Connecticut by following the Housatonic River. Like most thru-hikers, my day-to-day itinerary was planned in advance by studying the hyper-detailed AT guidebooks. It was a bit on the early side when I arrived at my pre-determined destination one day, but, given the fact that it was a pretty little riverside campsite, I opted to park it for the evening anyhow. There was one tent already pitched at the far end of the cleared area, and, soon after my arrival, a head popped out. I know how this is going to sound, but I’ll say it anyhow: That noggin belonged to a very homely woman who, I learned later, was a retired elementary schoolteacher who, I also learned, was a seriously proficient long-distance backpacker, having completed just about every noteworthy trail east of the Mississippi. But, her backpacking acumen did not mitigate the woeful reality that she was challenged on the physical-appeal front. Big time. And I guess I should point out that AT hiker standards in that regard are usually not very high.
As we chatted, a squall blew in. In those days, I did not carry a tent, only a small tarp, which I suspended over a rope tied between two tall pine trees. As darkness descended and sheets of rain began to fall and thunder began to rumble, the homely elementary school teacher asked repeatedly, with quite a bit of enthusiasm, if I would like to take refuge with her in her diminutive tent, which she also shared with her hyper little Sheltie. I politely declined, babbling something inanely Muir-ish about preferring to experience the heart of the storm on its own terms.
She finally gave up and retired to the relative comfort, if not safety, of her four nylon walls, while I hunkered down under my little tarp, which was being whipped mightily by the suddenly ferocious wind. I was soaked clear down to my skivvies in mere minutes, a reality that negatively affected my comfort level as it simultaneously positively increased my personal conductivity factor. Just as I began to second guess my decision regarding the homely schoolteacher’s invite, a bolt flashed down from a sky that looked more like something out of “The Wizard of Oz” than it did anything I would expect from, of all places, pastoral Connecticut, and exploded the top half right off one of the tall pines lining the campsite. The simultaneous BOOM shook the ground. Before I had even begun the process of regaining what little composure I had, another bolt exploded the top off another pine — this one closer to my tarp than the first. Then a third bolt exploded the top off a pine even closer to where I sat now urinating my pants. The strikes were progressing in a very orderly fashion right toward me, with just enough time between flashes and booms to allow me to consider how death by lightning would actually feel, whether it would be quick and painless, like flipping a life-force OFF switch, or whether it would involve lots of undignified screaming and writhing on the ground for 15 minutes in searing agony. While the former certainly held more appeal than the latter of those two hideous death alternatives, it also might include attempts at mouth-to-mouth by the homely schoolteacher, so I guess a little undignified writhing agony didn’t sound so bad.
Then a fourth bolt exploded the top off one of the pines to which I had my tarp tied! The sizzling remnants of branches rained down upon me as fine as sawdust. The resultant thunder unceremoniously removed several fillings from my already-iffy dentition.
Then a fifth bolt exploded the top off the other pine my tarp was tied to!
Somehow, Edvard Munch presciently peered into the future, to the shores of the Housatonic River, for his inspiration when he painted “The Scream,” for I’m certain that’s the form my visage took as yet another round of blackened mulch fell onto my tarp. Matter of fact, I believe I sported “The Scream” expression for some weeks following.
When the storm passed, the homely schoolteacher slowly emerged from her tent, almost as shaken as I was. All she could see in my direction was a partially collapsed orange tarp, with two boot-clad feet sticking out, toes pointed skyward. “You dead?” she asked, very, very tentatively. “I don’t know,” I answered. “Is this heaven?”
“No,” she chuckled, “it’s Connecticut.”
She suddenly seemed quite attractive.
So, what was Zeus (who, I should point out, could have snapped his fingers and turned the homely schoolteacher into Elle Macpherson (or turned me into a non-dickhead, though that might have been beyond the capabilities of even an omnipotent deity), thus mitigating my moral conundrum before the fact) thinking during that squall? I had spurned what was probably a perfectly sincere invite from the homely schoolteacher to share her shelter during a frightful storm, an invite probably based upon primordial genetic encoding that makes terror easier to cope with when you huddle close to a member of your own kind, in this case, another stinky AT thru-hiker. Yet I had turned that invite down because I wondered if there weren’t perhaps ulterior motives at play. I made a probably unfair pre-judgment, and that pre-judgment was further bruised by my utter inability to look past this woman’s unfortunate appearance.
But Zeus, though peeved enough to near-bouts scare me to death, apparently did not consider such inexcusable transgressions on my part to be capital offences.
OK. Lesson learned. Next time a homely woman offers me shelter in her tent, my ass is in, face first.
2) My wife and I were in the middle of an eight-day backpacking trip from Wolf Creek Pass along the Continental Divide Trail over to Elk Park. When you’re hiking in the highest parts of the Rockies in the summer, it is always extremely prudent to not be, as but one random example, in the goddamned middle of an endless sea of 12,000-foot exposed tundra at the exact moment the storm front that has been obviously building up for the previous several hours settles directly above not only yourself, but more importantly, your spouse.
But, according to My Plan, we were supposed to be down to Weminuche Pass by lunchtime and, by god, that’s where we were going to eat our lunch, come hell, high water or risk of what would clearly amount in a court of law to negligent wife-o-cide. Despite Gay’s rational trepidation, rather than seeking shelter, I marched us across one last exposed section of tundra, after which we would descend into the trees and the psychological salve that forest provides during a storm. More importantly, we would stay on schedule! With full packs and tired legs, we literally sprinted across the tundra, into the sparse foliage of the Krummholtz Zone, then down into the spruces. The trail was steep, rocky, muddy and very slippery. The going would have been treacherous under the best of circumstances, which, given the acrid smell of ozone permeating our nostrils, these assuredly weren’t.
At one point, just as I was starting to relax the teensiest little bit, I rounded a bend, just out of view of my wife, when a rogue bolt struck a tree not 50 feet in front of me. The percussion knocked me on my ass so hard there was dirt in my crack. I do not exaggerate when I say that I was separated from my bearings. I did not know my name. I did not know where I was or how I got there. Just then, Gay caught up with me and, in the nurturing, sympathetic, empathetic way that defines the feminine gender, she asked what in the world I was doing taking a break at such an inopportune, to say nothing of uncomfortable, juncture. Her words scarcely registered. Hell, whatever language she was speaking scarcely registered. Then she looked at the smoldering remnants of what had been scant seconds before a healthy blue spruce and the love of my life exclaimed, “Look, that tree just got struck by lightning!”
It’s obvious what Zeus was thinking: If you’re going to tempt fate, make absolutely certain that your spouse is not in the line of fire with you.
But there was another, perhaps less-obvious, lesson I think Zeus was trying to drive home by way of that near-miss. That very day was our tenth anniversary, and the place we ended up camping (as per my writ-in-stone itinerary, I would point out) was one of the most wonderful we have ever visited, and we have visited beaucoup wonderful places. The wildflowers were in the height of bloom, and every inhalation was a veritable interface with a Paris perfumerie. Though we of course did not know this before the fact, had we not dashed through the bowels of that storm, we would not have arrived at the best anniversary spot any couple has ever in the history of marriage enjoyed. I think Zeus was trying to drive home the point that, sometimes one ought to tempt fate. And, if you make it to the other side, the rewards are often well worth the fear factor. Of course, that’s easy to say when catastrophe was not part of the post-experience rumination.
Zeus, apparently fully understanding my cranial density, stayed with me on this one for several decades. I have passed that blue spruce — which, because of the lightning strike that almost struck me, had long since begun the inevitable process of decomposition — twice since I was knocked on my keister there in the middle of the trail. A week before these words hit print, Gay and I will have celebrated our 25th anniversary. Lot of water under the adventure bridge. But it has been a long time since we last sprinted through the tundra during a storm. Our life together has become borderline sedentary. I cannot help but wonder if we too have not begun the process of inevitable decomposition. Maybe it’s time to go back out into the storm. I think Zeus would understand and approve.
3) I once hiked the 850-mile Arizona Trail from the Utah border to the Mexican border. The very night before I commenced that on-foot journey, I camped near Jacob Lake with my late dog Cali. The weather had been so intense that the nearby town of Kanab, Utah, had received in one three-week period in August more precipitation than it had ever received a single year in its entire history.
Cali and I ingressed my Bibler just as the sun was setting. Then it came, like some shit out of the nastier, wrath-of-god sections of the Old Testament: A lightning storm like no other I’ve experienced or even heard about. After more than an hour of lying on my back, teeth-clenched so badly my jaw ached for days, I decided to start counting the flashes. I stopped at 800 — and a high percentage of those were of the multiple-simultaneous-flashes variety. The storm continued unabated for at least an hour after I stopped counting. It is no exaggeration to say that more than 2,000 strikes flashed in my immediate here and now. I came within a whisker of panicking. It was everything I could do to resist dashing out of the tent and into my truck. But I knew — I just knew — that, if I did, I would get fried. So I just stayed in my tent and had a chat with Zeus and his celestial ilk, something I only seem to do when shit’s hitting the fan.
He said nothing, though I might have detected a snicker through the deluge.
When I finally left my tent the next morning, the air was post-precipitation sweet. The birds were tweeting. My dog ran hither and thither enjoying the earthly aromas. And I sat on the tailgate of my truck, PTSD’d, and the only thought swirling in my head, and it swirled and swirled and would not leave, was this: I realized how much I loved my life and how blessed I was to have had the million million experiences — good, bad and ugly — I have had and how it said something probably too profound for my lizard brain to comprehend, much less articulate, that, despite all those visions of the bright white light, I had landed on my feet, mostly unscathed.
And, know what? Like those of you who have spent the majority of your lives traveling by hook or by crook through lofty and wild realms, I wouldn’t trade a single interface with the bright white light for all the supposed comfort and safety the world allegedly has to offer.
Later that day, I shouldered my too-heavy pack yet again and started yet another long walk into the great unknown. Zeus pretty much left me alone all the way to the Mexican border. He was probably far too busy messing with you.
The latest in outdoor gear presents a problem. In some ways, the resources used to make our gear conflicts with the low-impact lifestyle we mountain dwellers try to follow, but that’s not the biggest issue. People who venture outside seem to lose more stuff than anyone else. There is even a name for this problem. When we fail at following proper Leave No Trace, we call it Trail Booty.
I was thinking about it hard one afternoon while sitting on the roof of my apartment. A line of prayer flags recovered from the side of Engineer Mountain, where they had blown off the summit, were tied up and flapped gently overhead. The Patagonia pullover I was wearing was found forgotten on a trail somewhere in New Mexico. I had found my Sanuk shoes in the middle of Highway 50 while driving out of Gunnison, and the Prana hat on my head I had found in a parking lot in Summit County frozen into a muddy ball. I ran the hat through the dishwasher and have been wearing it most every day since. I have eaten Gu packets dropped by mountain bikers, drank eddy beers plucked from rivers, reclaimed gloves frozen stiff and alone on Loveland Pass and clipped into abandoned climbing gear only to bail on it, leaving it behind again just a few short feet higher. I assured myself that someone else would soon be by to clean the gear I found then discarded.
Maybe that person would be the same person who found the helmet I lost while paddling the Lower Canyons of the Rio some years before, but probably not. Maybe still it would be the person who found the pot I accidentally left behind at a camp in the Gila Wilderness. By the time I noticed it had been left, it would have taken two days to recover it. It was now Trail Booty.
Of all those in the backcountry, nobody knows the concept of finding and collecting lost gear more than a forest ranger. Most often, they are the first into an area at the start of a season and the last to leave. They cover more ground and spend entire seasons working in perhaps just one area and, by the end, know it well. For them, trail booty is nearly as important a perk as the pro-deals they get through their employer. In the spring, as the snow recedes from the valleys and appears to slide up the mountains, leaving just a crown at the top, the slopes along popular alpine routes become a shopping ground of lost gear. Dropped alpine axes, bottles, gloves and helmets can be plucked out of alpine grass and the exposed rocks after they were lost to the void by someone up above only a season before. Clothes moved by storms and stuff sacks blown away stand out among the rocks like garbage.
After a little rinse, a trip to the local gear resale shop will turn your third ice axe that is too short for you and a few fire-blackened pots and pans into a couple of bucks in your pocket. It turned out to be a good haul and a good thing, because that brand-new technical shell you have been looking at is still $240 after the pro deal.
John Cameron writes from wild spaces and high places around the Four Corners. He hangs his hammock in aspen groves and calls it home, but his bag is never unpacked. His last story for the MG was “The Leisure Sports Roadshow,” which appeared in #179.
I hand the CocoMocha to the petite window washer woman who can’t get enough of them and I know he’s come in. The Steaming Bean’s screen door slams behind him and he strolls in nonchalantly, making his way to the small table at the far wall, where he likes to sit facing the street, in case he sees someone he knows, where he can plug in his computer and write who-knows-what for about an hour on Thursday afternoons.
After turning on his computer, he comes to my counter, mug-with-the-missing-lid in hand.
He opens his mug that was red when he first bought it, and glances inside, gauging its dirtiness and how much he cares about new coffee mixed with old yerba matte. Handing it to me he hopes I’ll offer to clean it so he won’t have to ask. I do, of course, as I’ve seen this small but surely important macho game before. I take his mug and he quietly says, “Latte, please.”
“Sure! Let me rinse this for you.” I take the mug and smile a little too big and observe, not for the first time, his dark-like-the-canyon-walls-of-Cascade-Creek eyes. Returning my attention to matters of caffeinated importance, I notice the obligatory outdoorsy/semi-hippie sticker coming off his coffee mug. I take a little extra care as I courtesy rinse, holding the errant sticker corner on with my thumb, so as to not encourage its disintegration.
It says something about trees being the answer. Answer to what? Anything? Everything? Global Warming? To our economic problems? Shade issues in the Smelter Dog Park? The log home shortage in La Plata County?
I smile then, sincerely appreciative of anyone who bothers to bring in his/her own coffee mug to the shop. I’m an actual believer that every small recycle/reuse/reduce effort makes a difference. Call me a hippie if you want, it wouldn’t be the first time for me, a woman who was raised in Durango, graduated with a natural resources degree, has been a river guide for a decade everywhere from British Columbia to Arizona and lives out of her truck for six months a year.
But I digress. My thoughts return to him, the man who smells deliciously earthy like the Turtle Lake Boulders outside town standing on the other side of the counter. He’s got that mountain-man charm that I love. He’s wearing Carhartt pants with a flip-knife in the right pocket, and Chacos to compliment, though it’s early November in the San Juan Mountains. He’s rocking a dark simple beard (the kind that falls somewhere between intentional it-makes-me-look-rugged effort and pure unabashed apathy), small black-rimmed glasses, and he’s tall and slender. I’m, of course, a sucker for curly hair just long enough it has to be put behind his ears every time he laughs.
It seems to me he’s my favorite kind of man, the sort who would be able to survive a few nights lost in the Weminuche (not that he’d GET lost). Sure, I’ll be delighted (no, quite seriously) to make a latte in that many-stickered dirty mug. It will give me some reading material while I steam the milk, and that’s always nice. What else will I learn about him today? What is he not going to say that he would like me to know?
He likes Native Glasses. Did he get the sticker from the new glasses he bought last year at the Gardenswartz Extravaganzasale? I bet he bought more socks than he needed too, huh? I always end up with a new headlamp, for some curious reason — like a girl needs three headlamps.
OK. I like Native too. But only when they’re on Steep and Cheap and it happens to be payday tomorrow, and I can’t physically restrain myself. My debit card leaping from my wallet before I know what happened. I type the card’s numbers rapidly while saying out loud, “Sure this is justified. I really need new sunglasses and it’s such a great deal. Perfect for that snowshoeing trip around Molas next weekend … ”
What else has he got? Southwest Adventure Guides. Does he know one of their guides and he/she bestowed 12 stickers on him and told him to put them everywhere? Or did he grab a handful from the checkout counter free basket at the outdoorsy shop around the corner because he just liked the look of them, and he always sort of wished that he was a mountaineering guide?
And a Bread sticker. Well, sure. We ARE in Durango. Everyone has a Bread sticker. It’s the essential “I’m-no-tourist” branding. Could anyone live here more than a year and NOT have a Ska, Bread or Bubba’s Boardssticker on at least their car, if not also computer, Kleen Kanteen and reusable, insulated (great for cocktails on a long weekend’s Westwater trip) coffee mug?
The Breadsticker says, “Just so you know, I venture beyond the confines of 11th and 6th street main downtown drag, from time to time, and I like their parmesan asiago loaf. I consider myself a local, thank you very much. Will I be seeing you at Monday’s Pint Night at Lady Falc’s?” (Everyone knows the Thursday’s pint night is for the college kid amateurs.)
I see he’s wearing a well-used Marmotjacket. I bet he wore it hiking Engineer Mountain on his last day off, starting too late in the afternoon and coming down the hill in the dark. He was stumbling over rocks on the descent in the three-quarter-moon’s light. I imagine he’s wearing a Telluride Bluegrass Festival T-shirt under his jacket. And I try not to imagine him under that shirt. I bet he’s got climber shoulders. I feel myself blush slightly as I pull the espresso shots.
When I’m done, he takes his mug, gives me a nod in thanks and drops me a dollar in the less-than-clever-but-it-works “Tipping’s not for Cows/Support Counter Intelligence” tip jar (thank you, every bit helps, as I’ve got a cell bill due in three days).
He then gives me some hesitant and lingering kind of look. I quickly project that he’s flirting with me, but I let it go, as I’ve got a soy mocha, spicy chai and double Americano demanding to be made. (Oh, right, I’m still a career barista/boatmun here.) Maybe I’ll get on Craigslistlater and drop him a “missed connections.” I’ll see if he’s a loyalist to the List like I am.
We can talk about how much cheaper rent is in Grand Junction, read each other’s haikus in the Haiku Hotel and discuss how there’s always that same $2,200, circa-1990, 18-foot bucket boat Riken for sale that no one ever seems to want.
For now though, I hope he enjoys that latte, minds the errant sticker, and maybe I’ll run into him on my Colorado Trail post-work mountain bike ride this afternoon. I’ll meet him at the bridge. He’ll bring the Pinstripes and we’ll read the Mountain Gazette out loud to each other.
Codye Reynolds lives (for the moment) in Durango, where she plays, skis and slings coffee until water season returns, sending her to Idaho rivers and career boating. This is her first story for the Gazette.
The closest liquid water to the lookout is one-and-a-half miles down the steep switchbacks at Copper Lake. Instead, gather snow from the north side of the rocky knob to melt for drinking, cooking and washing. Pull an aluminum pot and two plastic buckets from the cabinets under the eastern windows and walk the few hundred yards out to the snowfield. First, scrape away the top layer of accumulated dust, pollen and small insects. By the time summer has begun and you have resumed your duties at the lookout, the snow has metamorphosed many times over. The grains of snow are large and coarse, gently abrasive against your fingers and knees. Under the first few centimeters, beneath the detritus, the snow is compressed into ice.
Squatting on the snowfield, sunlight’s glaring reflection bouncing into your face, work methodically — scraping, digging for dirt-free snow, scooping it into plastic buckets. The pot against the snow is a metallic reverberation, the loudest sound you have heard all morning. Every so often, you look up and the world comes back into focus — a curious raven circling overhead on a backdrop of bluebird sky, the sweet footprints left by a marmot just inches from your own, the wind sweeping over the snow, cooling the back of your neck.
With the bottom of the pot, pack the snow down and, when both buckets are full, carry one in each hand back to the lookout, shoulders stretching from the weight, arms laden with a welcome obligation. The chores necessary to live here are subtle joys that transform your life from the ordinary to something like a sanctified existence.
Later, you have made your dinner, eaten your fill, and are ready to wash dishes. First, lick your plate. Run your index finger along the curves of your bowl, scrape the burned noodles from the spoon with your teeth. Then, using the mug that reminds you of your elementary school lunchroom, scoop some of the half-melted snow from the big pot into the smaller saucepan. Heat the pan until all of the snow is melted and the water is warm. Squeeze one drop of soap onto the dishrag.
As you run the soapy towel over the contours of your plate, look out the eastern windows to watch the Picket Range turn pink with alpenglow. The light on the ridges spreads along a gradient from amber to rose, and it seems impossible that you are here, at this moment, as shadows creep up hillsides and another day in these mountains comes to an end.
You cannot imagine ever forgetting the cool evening air on your face, the faint sound of the river that courses through the valley 4,000 feet below you, the amusing totter of the ptarmigan as she parades her chicks around the outside of the lookout. But you know this to be true, just as you know that someday everyone you love will die, just as you know that the volcano to the south will erupt and mudflows and ash will overrun the path you walked to get here. At some point, despite the fact that you try to remember, you will forget.
This realization brings you back to the porcelain plate in one hand, the wet dishrag in the other, the soap slick on your skin. To rinse, you must return your attention to the chore and carefully hold the plate over the wastewater bucket so as to not drip anything onto the floor. Once it is clean, balance the plate on its edge, held between the burner and the back of the range so it can dry without being disturbed by mice.
Washing dishes, collecting snow in buckets, sweeping the lookout floor of dirt tracked in on the soles of your boots — these are mundane tasks elevated to sacred acts by the 34-million-year-old rock underfoot, the fragile and tenacious heather gardens that cloak the surrounding slopes with their pink flowers, the glaciers that occupy spaces made imperceptible by their venerable ice. There are no false pretenses; you understand that what makes your actions unique has nothing to do with you — you could very well be someone else.
You are not always aware of your condition; one cannot be constantly in awe. And so, there are evenings, when the sun is casting its last rays on Mount Baker’s ice, and Mount Shuksan’s shark-finned summit is wrapped in wispy clouds flush with twilight, that you look up from a paperback and become embarrassed for your inattention, for succumbing to the simple need to remove yourself from the world, to maintain some separation. Your heart, like a bucket for gathering snow, cannot take all of it at once.
Months later, when winter has come and you have returned to your other home, the one where water flows from multiple taps and there is even an automatic dishwasher, you find yourself rinsing a plate. There are still mountains outside the windows of your kitchen, but they are less immediate and, to see them, you must look past chimneys curling smoke into the cold air and through a grid of electrical wires. You pause, take a sip from the cool memory of your mountains and then return to the task at hand, the sacred work of living.
Abigail Sussman patrols the northwestern portion of North Cascades National Park in the summer and migrates south to Gunnison, Colorado, in the winter. Her last story in MG was “Hitchhiking With Skis,” which appeared in #161.
“You oughta go look down by the bridge — that ol’ boy got some equipment wet.”
“He don’t have much sense anyway … ”
The old-timer’s club had been at the town store, drinking coffee and waiting for the café to open, when I walked through their circle and heard these lines.
Now, at a breakfast table near mine, one asked another, “You gettin’ any work done these days?”
“No, just waitin’ for the river to drop outta my hay meadows. Gettin’ all my irrigation done though.”
“Irrigation and fertilizin’ too,” said another old man.
Sometimes, it’s best for a dirtbag writer/river rat to keep his head down and ears open for a little high-water wisdom from some long-time neighbors of the last free-flowing river in the Colorado River system.
Plates of eggs, potatoes and bacon arrived, the old men’s conversation drifted to other topics, and within hours I’m in a shuttle van cruising past the flooded property by the river bridge, marveling at the assortment of tractors, stock trailers and trucks half-submerged by the Yampa River at flood stage. I am eying the sacrifice and idly considering the decision process that led to this so-called “flood damage.”
Put it down to “don’t have much sense,” or to misplaced trust in past high-flow marks? No time for research, because (to misquote old John Muir) the river is calling, and some of us must go.
One thing about group river trips — you never know who you’re going to meet at a campfire, and I happen to be sitting by a guy named Geoff one night. He lives on a property that has river frontage in the Yampa Valley, and I make plans for a visit.
A week later, and I’m back in the valley, on a hill overlooking two ways of living with a river in flood. Describing a river’s path through the landscape, it’s natural to face downstream. River left, a mature grove of cottonwoods; river right, a few cottonwoods with their lower foliage browsed off at cow-reach. River left, no sign of erosion; river right, a desperate attempt to the river’s advance into a pasture that cattle have mown to lawn height. Left, a riverside fringe of young cottonwoods with water flowing between the trunks; right, a fleet of earth-moving equipment transports a pile of dirt to the undercut riverbank, adding to a new levee.
Right, a large sign advertising the ranch headquarters as an investment property. Left, a conservative mention that the property is owned by an organization whose mission is “to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth” — and about here I could turn this exploration into a self-righteous screed about right and left, with an I-told-you-so finger-shaking at the failings of the Old West land use model vs. the New West vision of land as “view shed” for a telecommuting populace of uplinked do-gooders. Luckily for all of us, as my new river pal Geoff showed me around the ranch on river left, the history of the Yampa Valley (and of ranching in the Interior West) cut through stereotypes of right and left, old and new ways.
The Yampa River leaves a canyon just upstream, meanders through the valley’s meadows, and picks up speed again farther west. Taking the path of least resistance, it adjusts course by testing the banks for weak spots. When high water pushes the river from its banks, old decisions pay off, or rise to haunt the current owners.
River left is the Carpenter Ranch, begun by a cattle baron from Texas and sold to the Republican scion of a shoe-factory owner from Chicago and points east. The young Republican became a homesteader, his town’s first attorney, a player in local and state politics and a lobbyist for Western ranchers’ interests during the Great Depression. This “new” Westerner eventually became the first manager of the Taylor Grazing Act, which attempted to codify the use and conservation of grazing lands managed by the federal government in the Interior West. (The Act’s successes and failures will be listed at another time.) In the decades that Ferry Carpenter owned the ranch, a decision to fence the river off from his prized cattle herd inadvertently created a home for river otters, an idyll for birdwatchers and a safety valve that allows the Yampa to renew the ranch’s bottomlands by spreading high-water flows through a healthy riverside grove of narrow-leaf cottonwoods, box elder and red-osier dogwood.
River right is a ranch that placed most of its holdings under a conservation easement, a decision that precludes the slice-and-dice hobby ranch cycle that has boomed and busted many mountain valleys of the New West. (Many readers may name a favorite valley as victim of this plague, while others will need to buy a grizzled mountain denizen a few beers for further diatribes on the subject.) Still, the river eats away at the owner’s investment, with only the newly built levee between river and pasture, in a holding pattern that sends the river’s cutting action to downstream neighbors. The few cottonwoods are aging, and no saplings crowd the riverbanks.
High Water Lines
When a river drops, it’s tempting to repair damages, congratulate winners, blame losers and ignore lessons that high water offers; but this tale of left and right riverbanks confounds sound-bite politics. The current owner of the Carpenter v on river left is the non-profit Nature Conservancy, with a stated mission to “conserve the natural and agricultural heritage of the Yampa River Valley.” The ranch on river right is run for profit, and has signed conservation easements that are monitored by the Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Both sides are still working cattle ranches, creating opportunities to apply lessons that may help keep the river and its valley healthy.
In this year of flooding in the Rockies, late summer is a good time to walk the high-water lines of your favorite river. You’ll see flotsam from past decisions, in the roots of doomed trees exposed by undercut banks and ruined machinery. Look closely, though, for cottonwoods and willows sprouting from the rich soil left by receding floods. If you get to the High Country, walk a creek to timberline. Notice here, too, that high water has fed lines of new life on the banks, while setting a fresh course to follow. Talk to some neighbors about what you found, and listen for the freely shared observations of old-timers over early-morning coffee. These may cut across political lines, and could help remind us how to live beside our last free-flowing rivers.
[Writer’s note: My tour guide of the ranch on river left was Geoff Blakeslee. As the Conservancy’s “Yampa River Project Director,” it is his job to measure the pulse of the river, the valley, its inhabitants, and to show a dirtbag writer around the Carpenter Ranch. I appreciate his patience. The Ranch hosts research projects, and is open to the public for bird-watching and education. For more on Ferry Carpenter, read his “Confessions of a Maverick,” State Historical Society of Colorado, ISBN 0-942576-27-6.]
Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “In the Zone,” which appeared in MG #180. Author of “Livin’ the Dream,” Frank splits his time between the Four Corners and the Borderlands.
We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette. And don’t worry about spelling “Gazette” correctly.
Dear Sirs, I examined the cover of the Mountain Gazette River Issue (#178) with interest. Could the picture be of any of the Old Boatmen I had worked with over the years? Could it be based on Catfish from the Taos Box? Bill from our first Dolores trip? Or maybe Skip from the Animas?
Upon closer examination, I was taken aback. It was certainly not one of my old comrades. The Boatman was using Oar For Sures on a pair of blue plastic oars. Why not give him pins and clips and be done with it?
I have always said, “Real Boatmen use wooden oars.” As for myself: I would never leave shore without my hands wrapped around a shapely piece of ash.
Michael Black Durango, CO
Mr. Fayhee: I read Rob Marin’s story (“River Family,” MG #178) with ever-growing recollections of a river trip fatality while I was a whitewater river guide on the Ottawa River, between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, in Canada. I then got to thinking that every river probably has a similar story to tell, so I submit my tale, and perhaps this will lead to a collection of stories along this theme, although it may be a macabre proposal.
It was in the early ’80s, and I was working my second season as a whitewater river guide for a commercial company on the Ottawa River near Pembroke, Ontario. Death was not a new thing to us on the river; just the previous season, another company lost a customer over the side of a raft in a rapid during the high-water portion of the season. He did not surface for over a month until after the waters subsided. But, in my case, the story Rob Marin told was hauntingly familiar.
We set out for the five-hour trip on a non-descript sunny day with the usual compliment of eight paddle rafts. Each raft was crewed by a dozen or less customers propelling the 22-foot-long Salmon rafts, guides positioned in the back of the raft for steerage with oversized paddles. We headed toward the first of five rapids, McCoy’s Chute. Company policy was to beach half the rafts so the customers could enjoy watching the other half go through, and the landed guides provided lifelines to any paddlers who were ejected from the raft, in conjunction to the rescue kayaker that accompanied each trip. Those who went through first beached their rafts at the bottom and the process repeated. The first rapid was running at about class 4 and was a good jump into the day’s adventure. After successfully negotiating the rapid, the mini-flotilla set off for a 15-to-20 minute paddle to the Lorne rapids.
This rapid consisted of a hydraulic at the top of the run, followed by a series of standing waves and another hydraulic almost 50 yards downstream of the first one. The key to this rapid is to stay river right lest you send the raft to its destruction into the Greyhound Bus Eater, which extends the width of most of the bottom of this rapid, and out of which the customers would not fair too well either. At either end of the Greyhound Bus Eater is a chute. As an added precaution, this rapid was always run with a minimum of two guides, the extra guide being positioned in the front to absolutely ensure the raft stayed river right. It was time for our run, and we were anticipating the lunch stop immediately after the rapid. I wish I could remember the name of the guide who was running with me, but I am glad it was he because I would be calling on his leadership in a few moments. We caromed through he first big wave and executed a textbook run, achieving maximum splash and riding the roller coaster waves down to the safe exodus of the rapid. It was then the lady immediately to my right looked back at me and gave the understatement of the day, alerting me that the man immediately in front of her, and who was leaning back against her, must not be feeling well. By now, we were out of the waves and into the frothy aftermath of the rapid. I called up to the guide in the front to take over steering and to get us ashore. I turned my attention to the middle-aged fellow who was now convulsing. My only previous exposure to this kind of symptom was a friend who was prone to epilepsy. I had by now got the man lying down on the raft tube and was unfastening his May West and asking out in general to the rest of the customers if anyone knew about this man’s medical history. The answer came to my eyes just as a lady’s soft-spoken voice confirmed what I saw. This man, her husband, had had heart surgery within the previous six months, she told us. We were now within earshot of the shore lunch party, which had driven the lunch down to the lunch spot on a very primitive road (I know this, I helped “build” it).
By now, the general manager, who had come in by road for whatever reason, was trying to organize the lunch van to take this cardiac situation to the hospital. I countermanded his instructions and told the other guide to get on the radio to base. That year, there was a new twist for the customers. A freelance helicopter pilot had rented a corner of cornfield near the company offices and would give paying customers an aerial view of the rapids. In exchange for word-of-mouth advertising, he had given a handful of us guides a free ride, which is where I came to understand his skills with his flying machine and how I came up with the next development in this unfolding saga.
As we were performing CPR (two nurses had been identified on the trip), I called to the guide to raise the base on the radio and contact the pilot. As chance would have it, the pilot was in the office having a cup of coffee when the call came in. By now, I was in a pissing match (arguing) with the general manager over how we should best get the victim out to help. The pilot, meanwhile, understanding what I had in mind, had made it to his aircraft and had thrown one door off his bird and was in the air in short order. As I predicted, he came screaming in low and landed his craft on a submerged sand bar in the bay where the lunch spot was. Now with the man with the cardiac problem secured to a backboard, my life jacket under his neck to straighten the airway, we hustled him over to the helicopter where the pilot had just jettisoned the other door. The nurses accompanied the victim as they headed to the local hospital. His wife rode out in the lunch van.
With a diminished and somber crew, the remaining rapids presented an additional challenge in that, if our hearts and shoulders weren’t into the trip, there could well be another fatality. With that announcement, the crew came to life, and we managed the remaining rapids and concluded the trip.
Back at the base, one of the nurses caught up with me and handed me back my puked-on life vest. She recounted the trip to the hospital stating that she only looked out of the window once, and that was enough. I had seen the helicopter depart, but not realized how radical the pilot’s plan was. In order to make distance over altitude, he flew back up the river channel while gaining altitude. The nurse told me that when she looked out forward, as the waves of the rapid broke, the spray was splashing on the windshield of the helicopter. The pilot had called ahead to the hospital and arranged to be met in the parking lot. I am told he came to a sliding stop there and the man with the heart problem was whisked into the hospital. Twenty or so minutes later, he was pronounced dead.
Several weeks later, I received an unexpected letter from his wife. Her husband’s aorta had come away from his heart. The thing that stuck with me from that letter was her assertion that the time it took to get her husband to the hospital was faster than would have happened in the metropolitan city where she lived.
This all happened some 30 years ago, and some of the names and specifics elude me, but the events of this day are etched into my memory for life.
Duck, Fayhee, Duck!
Sir: As a resident of Rabun County GA and a past professional whitewater guide, I find your article (“Deliverance,” Smoke Signals, MG #178) reprehensible. There are not even 17,000 residents of Rabun County, the Chattooga River is not lined with houses or even one house, and I, having lived here nearly 20 years, have never met anyone named Clem. I have worked on many river rescues from deaths due to foot entrapment or body entrapment to lost hikers and or boaters. Most of these people were either attempting wilderness travel via river or on foot without proper skills or with inferior “guides.” Maybe this article is not your fault, but the fault of this Adventure Orgy guy, as you call him. Either way, you have perpetuated the thinking of the less informed in their perception that all Southerners are ignorant, moonshine drinking, possum eating, tobacco chewing and inbred.
In some ways, this myth is perfectly acceptable, because it keeps urban-dwelling adrenaline-seeking pussies like yourself from coming to these sacred mountains of southern Appalachia to get their thrills, then leave their granola wrappers, boutique beer bottles and drive their Subaru back to their favorite Starbucks. While we who live here wait for them to leave so that we can clean up their campsite, rescue the unfortunate and try to enjoy what we can of the natural beauty of this area before we are again over run with the hordes.
Don’t be mistaken — all here, including myself, are still very patriotic and relatively conservative Americans. We will be the last Americans left, I would think. You should consider yourself lucky that I am probably the only Rabun County resident who subscribes to your magazine (although that may change when my renewal comes due), because I can think of a few people — they aren’t named Clem, just simple names like Mike, Gary or William — who would just as well shoot you as look at you based upon your attitude and perception.
Maybe next time you look me up and I will explain and show you these mountains and people in a different light — or if you prefer you just continue with your opinions and then next time you look in a mirror ask yourself who is the ignorant one.
Capt. George W. Custer, Master & Managing Partner
Charter Yacht Freedom
Fayhee responds: As I made abundantly clear in “Deliverance,” I am not an “adrenaline-seeking” pussy but, rather, and adrenaline-avoiding pussy, that being the nature of pussiness and all.
My Uncle’s Scar
John: Regards “Scar Tissue” (Smoke Signals, Mountain Gazette #179): The wound I got didn’t leave a scar. All it left is a memory of an abrasion, a 3×7-inch raspberry on the inside of my right forearm. It was a mess for a while, it scabbed over and went away. It was the result of the second-to-last time I approached a curve way too fast on my bicycle. The last time I did this, my left knee took the beating. The scab that resulted was large and thick enough to serve as a cast. A shower would soften it up and then whatever angle my knee was in as it dried would determine how I would walk until the next shower. I learned to let it set up with my knee straight. I smarted up after that crash.
The arm abrasion only served as but an introduction to scabs. This wound came during a ride on a day off from a summer job at a camp. The camp was relatively primitive; we cooked over wood fires and lived in tents. Electricity started and ended at the water pump. Clean-up for the 20 of us amounted to standing by the pump, flipping the switch, then waiting three seconds to get hit with 50-degree water shooting from a two-inch pipe. Communication with the outside was via a battery-operated, two-way radio mounted in the dash of a ’50s-era Willys Jeep. The radio was declared off limits, as if all our girlfriends had two-way radios and we would drain the battery talking to them.
My day-off-ride/crash: downhill, way too steep and way too fast, barely into the curve, down into the ditch, up and around the hillside, back into the ditch — all with wheels down — a launch up and out of the ditch and back over the road air-borne, still with wheels down but not exactly centered, contact with the road, a brief, hopeless struggle for control and then the road rushing up to meet my face. I managed to position my right forearm in front of me before I hit and then went sliding along on it, my body rigidly held up at an angle to the road.
Sliding along, watching the road pass by under my arm, it occurred to me that, if I didn’t duck my shoulder and roll, my arm would be ground off. So I ducked and rolled, got tangled up with the bike, tried to steer my slide to the side of the road in case any cars were coming. I got back on and started for home, figuring the time to get back would coincide with the time I had before the pain really set in. It worked out pretty close.
My dad dug the gravel out of my back, bandaged my arm and I was back at camp the next day with an oozing, gummy wound that soaked right through his bandage and any of the others I contrived.
The camp’s flies, which had previously only pestered me at meals, went after that wet bandage relentlessly like it was a piece of raw meat. The familiar buzz of their tiny wings changed into an urgent, high-pitched snarl. While changing bandages, the exposed wound put them in a complete frenzy. They didn’t just try to land on it; they went for it, hit it hard and hung on. Waving them off didn’t work. I had to swipe them off. They had gone Kamikaze, fearless with determination to lay eggs in me.
I’ve had deer flies tangled up in my hair like so many sticky raisins while they bit into my scalp. I’ve been peppered with ticks and coated with mosquitoes. I’ve come out of the water leeched. Lousy experiences that keep occurring, but I’ve learned to accept them by understanding my place in the food chain. Contemplating maggots crawling out of me after being attacked by frantic egg layers, that was too creepy and it stayed with me. The rest of the guys at camp couldn’t let it go either. My nickname became “Wormy”.
Sometime later, I was lazing around with my dad and my uncle, just shooting the breeze. I don’t recall what we were talking about, but I decided to bring up the manliest story I had at the time, my most-recent crash, the scab, the flies and all that. While it was a rehash for my dad, my uncle was a new audience.
Lost to me was the fact that I was in the company of two men, both from large families, whose fathers had died while they were kids. They went out to find work during the Depression and followed that up with combat in World War II. I respected them, but to me they were just two harmless old farts and I thought I could impress them with my scab story. I knew my dad as a scale mechanic and my uncle as a city bus driver who walked with a slight limp and who was usually rubbing his thigh. I was a candy-ass and I really didn’t know who they were.
When I began to talk about the aggressive flies and my brush with maggots, my uncle’s expression underwent a subtle change. His lips pursed a little, his chin and eyebrows came up a little, all very slight and simultaneous. Watching his responses, I had the satisfying impression that my story was making an impact on him and I remember the event for that reason.
Only much later, after he was dead, did I realize that what I saw on his face was his reaction to a memory.
I only know bits and pieces of their involvement in the war. The stories came to me from other relatives over a period of years, let slip like secrets accidentally revealed, never to be repeated. Most of what happened to my uncle came to me from widely separated comments from his sister, my mom.
My dad mixed it up with the Japanese in New Guinea in ’42. My uncle was in the D-Day invasion in ’44. My dad came out of it alright and was in for the duration. On the day of the invasion, my uncle had no more than stepped out of his landing craft when the war ended for him.
Something knocked him face down in the sand. He turned his head and saw someone’s foot next to his face. “That’s my foot,” he thought. And it was. Whatever knocked him down had nearly severed his leg at the thigh. His leg, twisted at a crazy angle, brought his foot up next to his head.
At that instant, my uncle became just one in the invasion’s overwhelming flood of wounded whose treatment decisions were governed by pitiless triage. His gaping, complicated wound was treated only for blood loss and given a cursory debridement. The wound was left open, but before the medics moved on, they packed it with maggots. For my uncle and the other untold wounded, the medical corps had brought maggots for the detail work. I was told that my uncle didn’t mind having maggots in his wound so much. The ones that got out and crawled around in his bed were the ones that really bothered him.
Mil-Spec, medical maggots. I’ve tried to think of how maggots could be supplied in a scale to accommodate the number of casualties from an invasion. Were there jars of maggots? Cans of them? In preparation for the invasion, did someone win a government contract to breed pallet loads of maggots?
Through it all, my uncle’s leg was saved. It never was completely right though. He always had that limp, but was lucky enough to get a job where he could remain seated, driving the bus. For the rest of his life, bits of bone kept coming up through the skin of his thigh.
My silly scab story and my uncle’s memory of war. He didn’t say a word, didn’t interrupt me, didn’t say, “Shut up, you inexperienced lightweight and listen to me.” He could have knocked me out of the ring with a few words, but he didn’t. I wish he would have. He was a man with memories of war and he let me go on and on about the bicycle crash that happened to me on a day off from a summer job. I came away thinking that my story was significant enough to take its place among the memorable events in his life.
I never saw my uncle’s scar. While he was alive, I never knew he had it.