Not everyone can pull off “Fire on the Mountain,” be it in sound or action. Peace Officer learned its lesson from real mountain cops.
Not long after the hip-hop/reggae/dub crew formed in 2007, the artists stretched beyond their socially conscious vocab by playing with fire.
After a gig in Estes Park with a guest trumpet player, the Fort Collins-based crew proceeded to its comped resort suite. Around 3 a.m., they noticed the trumpet player and his young, loud pal had disappeared, something that relieved more than worried them — until the fire alarm went off.
“The player and his friend ran into our room with terrified looks on their faces, which were also covered in a gray powder,” said MC, guitarist and self-proclaimed nice guy Andy Kromarek.
Seems they set off the fire extinguisher, not thinking it would trigger an alarm (and apparently not considering consequences of the thick powder that would cover the entire hallway, either).
“Not a good scene,” nice-and-innocent guy said. “It looked like smoke in the air, and with the alarm going off and it being 3:30 or so, the other guests in the place were starting to freak out.”
What exactly does a cozy mountain retreat scene gone bad look like?
One scared-out-of-his-wits, fire-extinguisher-curious pal who erupts into tears and admits he’s only 17, so please, no one tell his mother — to which the Peace Officers replied, “We won’t, if you won’t tell her where you got the beer”.
One pissed-off mom of said 17-year-old in her pajamas (that’s all the description you want on this one) screaming she’s suing the resort because she tweaked her ankle in the mad rush to fresh mountain air,
One Honda with a trumpet in the back, squealing outta Estes as fast as it could, and
Just about every cop in Estes on site. (They may not have seen this much action since Stephen King insisted the second and more true-to-his book version of “The Shining” be filmed at the Stanley Hotel).
“At this point, things looked dire for the band, and with a few policemen striding toward us, we didn’t know what to expect,” Kromarek said. “Turns out they were amused by the whole thing — I guess Estes Park is generally a pretty boring place for a cop.” Still, the stickler cops wanted the name of the trumpet player. When the musicians claimed they didn’t know (“it was 4 a.m., and we were drunk, so that seemed like a good idea,” the MC said), the cops threatened them with paying for every guests’ hotel room — as well as the by-now-decidedly broken ankle in PJs. So they ratted their horn player out (once, not twice, for the Mountain Gazette world to read).
It seems cops come pre-cut with the urge to always get the last word in before letting young people loose; they are the smart-ass sages of safety. For me, it started at age 16 when I raced my neighbor-boy home (launching my parent’s Oldsmobile over a huge bump in the middle of a bridge, which resulted in a very large dent in the bottom of the gas tank). The cop who pulled me over left me with the resounding words: “Remember, a car is not a toy.” About a decade later, a Dillon, Colo., police officer pulled me over after I rolled through a stop sign (after, uh, speeding). When I told him I didn’t have my driver’s license on me because I was going skiing, he said, “Do you have your ski pass?” — to which I enthusiastically replied affirmatively and whipped it out, hoping it would give him the necessary clue he needed to confirm my nice-girl identity.
“You need a ski pass to ski, right?” he asked, looking me deeply in the eyes. I nodded. “Well, you need a driver’s license to drive.”
Needless to say, I missed that powder morning.
So what did the Estes Park cops leave the Peace Officers with?
“You know, you guys aren’t Led Zeppelin. You probably shouldn’t go around trashing hotels just yet.”
Though Westword magazine just nominated the crew the best hip-hop in Denver and Peace Officer is playing larger festivals like Soul Rebel Festival in Denver and venues like Boulder’s Fox Theater these days, they’re not singing, or playing with, Fire on the Mountain.
To catch Peace Officers, sans alarms, in the next two months, check out Star Bar in Park City, Utah Aug. 18 or Snake River Saloon in Keystone, Colo., Sept. 9-10.
Kimberly Nicoletti is the entertainment editor for the Summit Daily News. She lives in Silverthorne, Colo.
Books: “The Six Mountain-Travel Books,” by Eric Shipton
British explorer and mountaineer Eric Shipton was a tireless adventurer, known for the first ascent of Kamat, then the highest peak ever climbed in the world, and early Mount Everest reconnaissance that discovered the route over the Khumbu icefall. Shipton’s world travels, exploration and climbs were detailed in six books, long out of print, but re-released in a hardcover edition in 1997. Mountaineers Books has released “The Six Mountain-Travel Books” in one 800-page paperback edition: “Nanda Devi,” “Blank on the Map,” “Upon that Mountain,” “Mountains of Tartary,” “Mt. Everest Reconnaissance Expedition 1951” and “Land of Tempest.” $34.95 mountaineersbooks.com
Podcast: Off Belay Podcast with Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller
Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller have a lot to say about climbing, and almost none of it is about sponsored athletes, the newest, flashiest gear or news in the world of climbing, The Off Belay Podcast is a candid discussion of the important stuff. How candid? Well, maybe your dog doesn’t belong at the crag. Or your kid. Maybe you should stop bitching when you show up at Indian Creek, the most famous crag in Colorado (oh, it’s in Utah?), and there are dozens of other people there. Chris and Jamie have had a few guests on the show, but the highlight is their own banter — whether it’s about online climbing forums, guns, hung draws or whatever. Between the two of them, Chris and Jamie have written for Climbing, Rock and Ice, Elevation Outdoors, Women’s Adventure, 303 Magazine, Men’s Health, the Snowmass Sun and others. And oh yeah, the Mountain Gazette, where Chris was the gear editor for a number of years. Jamie Lynn is also an on-air personality at Aspen Public Radio’s Sonic Byways. The Off Belay Podcast might be the most fun you’ll have listening to two people you don’t know talk about climbing you haven’t done. offbelaypodcast.com
Radio: ClimbTalk Radio with Mike Brooks and Dave McAllister
For a couple non-college students running a radio show late on Thursday nights from a college radio station, Mike Brooks and Dave McAllister have convinced an incredible number of huge names in the climbing world to come on their show, which is 60 minutes of fairly organized fun. Brooks, of frontrangebouldering.com, and McAllister of pumpfactoryroad.com, have brought in a laundry list of who’s whos in the three years of ClimbTalk: John Bachar, Royal Robbins, John Long, Pat Ament, Jim Bridwell, Jim Erickson, Heidi Wirtz, Dave Graham, John Sherman, Jason Kehl, Peter Beal, Robyn Erbesfield and more. Brooks and McAllister keep the entire 60 minutes interesting, with their combined climbing knowledge, Brooks’ conversational instinct and McAllister’s bouncing-off-the-walls energy. ClimbTalk began in 2008 as a climbing TV show on the Boulder cable-access channel, then a radio show on KGNU and is now at its current home in KVCU, the radio station on the bottom floor of the UMC at the campus of the University of Colorado. The show airs at 10 p.m. MST every Thursday night, and can be streamed at that time from radio1190.org. Past shows are stored at archive.org/details/climbtalk. I plan to talk McAllister and Brooks into making the show into a podcast by the end of summer 2011, as well, so keep your eye on the iTunes.
Books: “Home Waters: A Year of Recompense on the Provo River,” by George B. Handley
Handley, a literary critic and professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, masterfully intertwines nature, the Mormon responsibility to take care of the environment, spirituality and family over a year of exploring the Provo River watershed. As a Hemingway fan and student of old-school newspaper journalism, I appreciate Handley’s ability to write about his environment, not with the over-the-top flowery adjectives and endless lists of flora and fauna used by many a nature essayist, but with the language of a writer who knows how to draw a scene using only the right words. Handley has the literary tact to make this book accessible to non-LDS readers, making the faith part of the story, not the story. “Home Waters” will get you thinking about what’s in your own backyard, and whether you need to travel far, or at all, to ponder and understand nature. $25, uofupress.com
Brendan Leonard is a writer, climber and urban cyclist living in Denver. More of his writing can be found at www.semi-rad.com. His blog, Semi-Rad, can be found at mountaingazette.com.
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.
After walking to the top of this rocky Thirteener, looking, as usual, for skiable terrain, I signed the summit register, for the first time ever. It was partly because I had never seen one before, anywhere, and had no ida that to actually do about it, but I signed the date, ace my name, and appended my affiliation with the “Eleventh Mountain Division,” the “Disrespectful Sons of the Tenth,” of Aspen, Colorado.
That done, I scrabbled down, over some monstrous scree, to welcome groves of Aspen, bordering the main forest thick green Spruce and Fir. It began to rain, harder, harder and harder, until I was reduced to hunkering down completely under my pancho, waiting for it to pass, or at least let up some. When it didn’t do either one, I had to get up and move anyway, on the forceful advice from the rain-soaked Indian scout in my imagination, and my father in his military presence, as well.
Finally the rain moved on, and left me facing groves of Aspen, interspersed with small open “parks,” meadows of grass and wildflowers. Navigating from one to the other, I suddenly entered one in which someone had made a campsite. The tent was zippered tight against the rain, and everything looked to be in order except for a lone item hanging from an improvised clothesline, on the opposite side of the clearing. Coming closer revealed it to be an inexplicable item of swimwear, hanging by itself, in the middle of nowhere, with no one in sight. The sensuous shape it had assumed immediately suggested to me that there was some girl running around out here in these woods without her swimsuit! A nude on the loose! In the rain, too! Ahhh, Magic strikes!
I fiddled around with my Nikon as long as I could, hoping someone would show up with an explanation, but it was not to be. I finally found a path leading out of the clearing, and reluctantly went on my way. I followed the path until it came to a small stream, which, on close inspection, seemed to have an uncanny resemblance, bordering on identity, with a spot on Conundrum Creek where I had photographed many years ago.
No sooner had I recoiled from pondering the identity over time and through space of this event of recognition, than, only a few yards more along the trail, I encountered two young girls with backpacks, trailing a small black kitten. Well, of course! Doesn’t everyone? They had just come down from a Fourteener, which one they didn’t say, and yes, the kitten had walked all the way to the summit.
I recited my experience with the empty swimsuit, and confessed to having made a photograph of it because it looked like a Nude on-the-loose, but they didn’t respond. Well, I joked, the worse that could happen would be that someday they might see the swimsuit hanging on the wall of a gallery somewhere. Still no comment, Oh, well they’re probably too tired to think about any more activity of a physical kind today, anyway!
Come to think of it, I’ll just limp on down the trail myself.
Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.
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.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that someone has asked you if you would like to see him breathe fire.
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.
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. 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