At dusk, the power crew rolled up the road between the high plowed berms, not a crew exactly, just our two neighbors, Bob and John, who would ski out in the last of the light to see what tree had lain across the line and whether it might be a simple job, something they could cut and clear without alerting the bigwigs, a job that would officially require a union crew and a long wait unless they got there first. They were racing the dark.

Not just dark. December dark. Three-thirty. Four at the latest. Which meant sixteen hours of darkness awaited us. And with the power out and likely to stay that way, dark meant really dark. The thought made us a little panicky, Laurie and me, more panicky certainly than the big approaching storm that we’d been hearing about ad nauseum all day on NPR before the power went out. I’m telling you, we had no choice. We could sit home in the orange glow of the woodstove or the blue glow of the LCD lantern listening to our new battery-powered XM radio with a thousand stations not worth listening to (weather in Pittsburgh, ’80s top-40, right-wing rants) until our sanity snapped. Or we could put on skis.

We rifled through the jumble on the porch: poles and skis, snowshoes and shovels, on hooks and waiting to be hung. We tripped over the extension cord with a duct tape label — heat tape, no use to us now — and chose skinny rock skis. We packed headlamps, but we didn’t bother to change into rain gear, no time for that, blue jeans and ball caps would do. Never mind the snow dumping off the fir limbs where it had sat for so long, wet clumps loosed in the wind.

We usually don’t get wind. Not in winter. We get inversions. Now we had wind like adrenaline, wind like something at long last happening, and we’d be part of it. We skied down the driveway and across the plowed road, stepping gingerly, not sliding, for fear that gravel exposed in the tire tracks might scrape even more of the scales off our so-called rock skis, and back into the woods: fir, cedar, pine, dogwood, maple, cottonwood. More fir. We could not hear chainsaws in the distance, a bad sign, but then we could not hear anything over the splatters on ourhat brims and the clatter of snow bombs and limbs themselves crashing onto rocks and other limbs and onto bridges and metal roofs and the hoods of cars, crashing everywhere. We skied on.

We skied across a bridge over a narrow creek toward a row of summer cabins by the river, the river running low and trees bowing to one side, then to the other, some bending far, some barely at all, like a group of women in aerobics class with varying levels of flexibility. No, no, check that. Like fourth-graders in PE. Like kids who are supposed to be stretching but are fidgeting instead: bouncing, hopping, lunging. Not swaying. Swaying would not be the right word. Not even close. This was not a slow dance, but an encore. Not a marijuana stupor, but a speed frenzy. We saw tracks, but we didn’t see Bob or John. We didn’t see anyone. We only saw trees arcing, swirling, waving. Falling.

Trees were falling everywhere. We could hear them, and we saw several down. Not snags. It’s not snags that fall. I worked trails for years, so I’d known this forever: dead trees don’t have needles to catch the heavy snow and hold it until wind can use it for leverage and yank the whole deal to the ground. Actually, I should say, I’d known this forever in theory based on the blowdown evidence, but here it was in process. Pines seemed most vulnerable with their showy needle pompoms, like catchers’ mitts full of snow, bigger than baseballs, bigger than softballs, more like volleyballs.

“We ought to head home,” Laurie said. I stood stone still, examining the pine needles. She was over-reacting, I thought. I could see there was some danger, sure, but nothing as bad as whatawaited at home. I was not ready for blue LCD and the music of Phil Collins. I was busy thinking about canceling that XM when Laurie’s voice sounded again, more shrill.

“Come on,” she cried.

Trees weren’t falling anymore. They were snapping off mid-trunk, a sickening crack. Like a femur. Like a firecracker. Like several. And Laurie, I suddenly remembered, has tree-falling phobia. For me, it’s jet airplanes. For Laurie, being out in the dark on skinny rock skis in a windstorm with trees snapping like straw was about how it would be for me freefalling in a 747. With that in mind, I picked up the pace, kick-and-glide in her tracks, head down, toward the road where headlights glowed. The power crew, we thought. John and Bob. But we were wrong. Rangers.

Not rangers exactly, but our neighbor, Loretta, driving the ranger truck with a new recruit. They wore hard hats inside the cab and were trying to figure out a place to turn around.

“You can turn around at the Bowles place,” I said.

I was annoyed that Loretta could forget something so obvious even in a snowstorm. But this is what winter does to us, I thought. All that darkness rots our brains.

“You shouldn’t be out here,” the new kid said. “Trees are falling.”

I ignored him. “Right up there,” I said, pointing behind me into the howling dark.

Loretta shook her head.

I turned to look.

A half-dozen half-trees lay crisscrossed across the road between us and the turnout.

We hightailed it then, Laurie and I, the opposite direction down the middle of the road, ski scratches be damned, and waved to Bob and John as they headed home defeated. Then we charged up the unplowed driveway, not stopping to catch our breath, not stopping for anything. We could no longer see the trees jerking in the wind, but we could hear them and sense them and smell the freshcut pungency of a newly cleared trail, of a lumberyard after a rainstorm. My jeans were sopping wet, my skis hard to lift in the slop. I could see Laurie far ahead on the porch with her headlamp waving her arms over her head.

“What?” I cried. “What?”

And then I could see: she held two cold cans of beer.

Laurie offering a beer while trees toppled was like me uncorking champagne as the fuselage flamed. But what the hell? The worst of the danger was past. We were under a roof, twelve-inch rough cut-rafters, so we might as well watch. I traded my wet cotton for dry wool, and we sat together on the porch in the dark, listening.

We’d listened from this porch before: to coyotes, to owls, to the ocean roar of the river at flood stage, to neighbors testing out their automatic weapons on a lazy Sunday afternoon. This was louder than any of that. We tried to count but gave up and sat and sipped and listened some more. Snap. Snap. Snap.

By morning, were we back out on skis with a saw clearing the road? Or did we let other people do it? Did we stay inside for another Peter Cetera song or the latest body count from Iraq or the latest college football poll from AP — Oregon in the top ten? — or the weather from Phoenix? I don’t remember.

I only remember a week later, after the union crew came to restore power and the sun came out and the crust froze hard. More firewood than we could cut in a month lay scattered willy-nilly around the yard, and we knew exactly what to do. I’d buck the rounds and load the plastic sled — a cheap kids’ sled from the hardware store we use to haul groceries — and Laurie, the better skier, would hold the sled rope in one gloved hand and take off down the mellow grade. Better than a wheelbarrow any day. A snowplow, a telemark turn, a hockey stop, a sip of beer, and she’d dump the rounds in a pile outside the shed and head back up for another load while the sun skirted the ridge top at noon and shone till two, then three, weak as a low-battery headlamp, but shining still. Sometime near dusk, Laurie’s pole caught on a maple sapling and wrenched her shoulder. She laughed. What would we tell the doctor? That she’d been sledding firewood on skinny rock skis on ice while drinking beer? There’d be no doctor visit. We’d nurse her shoulder overnight with snow in Ziplocs, hoping it would be a simple injury, nothing to worry about, then we’d head back out in the morning to stack the rounds and burn the limbs and buck some more, racing the next storm.

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington. Her new book, “Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness,” will be published in spring 2011.

God’s Dog Christmas

This is Coyote’s sixth Christmas. She lives in the foothills outside of Boulder, off the Wonderland Trail and just up a drainage fi lled with brambles, clearly in the “leash only” area of the greenbelt.

She shares a den with an older male who has maybe one more litter in him and maybe two winters left, but not three. Last winter’s litter is gone to the four winds. Three females and one male made it. Two males died early. She is sad about that, but they aren’t the fi rst pups she’s lost to dogs and cougars and bad luck. The old male is asleep beside her in the den. She cares a great deal for him and shudders at the thought of living with a younger male when he is gone.

“The young ones aren’t worth a shit. Dudes … ,” she thinks.

He stirs and returns to his low snore that shecan’t hear anymore. She looks at him and sees a handsome mate if you don’t take into account a mangled ear, a couple of ragged battle scars and a broken tooth or two. He’s not the love of her life. That one disappeared years ago. This Old One is the one she has gone through time with and can’t imagine life without.

She paws him.

“Huh, what?” he mumbles.

“Evening hunt,” she says. “Snow is coming. We need to eat.”

“Hmmm, sure.” He stirs but crashes back out.

She knows that he will sleep until dark and then maybe go downhill for dinner. He’s field smart — he can provide for a litter and her in a couple hours of hunting a day. And he’s inventive with a squirrel or a fat house cat or Mexican leftovers from the dumpster, depending on his mood and the abundant opportunities. It doesn’t matter if he misses a meal and, even if he has to sit-out a snowstorm, his pot is substantial enough to sustain him.

She licks his head just above his closed eyes and crawls out of the den.

She quickly looks in all directions and sniffs the wind. There is no obvious threat and the wind smells like snow. December isn’t a big snow month in the foothills unless it is a BIG snow month. She knows that the first thing that has to happen is serious cold and a storm that is substantial enough to make it over the mountains. Most storms come from the northeast, but there is the occasional Decemberstorm that makes it over the Divide from the Gulf of Alaska and just locks up Boulder for a couple days. It smells like that storm is coming.

She’s big for a female, almost as big as her mate and as strong as he is now. She is in her prime with a full coat of browns, blondes, greys and blacks that almost shimmers as she canters downhill. She stops near the top of the Old Kiln Trail and takes a healthy dump on the gravel.

“Let the runners know that they don’t own this trail,” she thinks. “Body-Nazi dipshits.”

She stops for a while and looks down into the valley fi lled with thousands of houses, some decorated with colored lights.

“Pretty,” she thinks. “At least for the Holidays they get their heads out of their asses long enough to appreciate family and friends and the season.” She heads downhill and north to The Terrace, a locals’ restaurant among the warehouses filled with forgotten stuff, small businesses going nowhere and studios for half-good artists on the far edge of town.

“Hey, illegal,” she yells.

“Hey, scavenger,” he answers.

She smiles as much as she can she smile for her friend, who sits in the cold on a milk crate outside the restaurant, smoking.

“Feliz Navidad, Mexican,” she says.

“Merry Christmas, Coyote,” he responds.

“How do you know I’m a Christian?” she asks.

“Shouldn’t you be wishing me ‘Happy Holidays’ so as not to offend me if I am not a Christian.?

“Bullshit, Coyote,” he says. “Christmas isn’t just about religion. It’s about a time for family and friends. It’s for all of us even if we are Arabs or Jews or lawyers.”

“What do you have against Arabs and Jews that makes you want to compare them to lawyers?” she asks.

“Coyote, my country is being ripped apart by criminals — innocents, women and children are gunned down in the streets by coke-crazed narcos. The same thing is happening to Arabs and Jews, their lives are run by thugs, miscreants and power whores. No one in the middle is standing up and saying, ‘Basta! We want to raise our children and build our businesses in peace.’”

“So what are you doing about the mess in Mexico?”

The Mexican stares at his cigarette and carefully answers. “I am supporting my family in Oaxaca. My son will go to college, as will my daughter, God willing. Maybe she will make a difference. I am doing the best I can.”

“It’s okay, Mexican, I understand.”

“And you, Coyote, what have you done for the world today?”

“Nothing, Mexican,” she answers. “I slept next to my best friend and I took a crap on a running trail, but my day is young, and maybe I can do some good.”

“Make sure you do, Coyote. What is it you wish to dine on this evening?”

The Mexican returned with a tub of table scraps that the Coyote gobbled.

“Good,” she said and belched. “Will you make sure that the Old One gets the same if he comes around?”

“Por supuesto,” he said.

“Mexican, I wish you were with your family tonight.”

“I wish I were with my family tonight.”

“Soon, Mexican.”

“Yes, soon, Coyote.”

“Feliz Navidad, Señor.”

“Merry Christmas, Amiga.” The Mexican returned to his kitchen and the Coyote began her patrol of the warehouses. Like any survivor, she maintains a routine, but never takes exactly the same route for fear of ambush. She is still looking for food, something to take back to the den, a mouse or a slow rat, a bag of chips, but a Shih Tzu would be perfect.

She sees a flare of sparks in the cold night air and calls on the Artist.

“Coyote, I see you sitting out there. Please come closer.”

“Artist, are there any big dogs around?” she asks.

“No, only Sam the Wolfhound/Sheepdog, who likes you.”

“Because he wants to make a litter with me.” “It could be a worse mix.”

“Tell him to cool it. The Old One would rip his dick off.”

“He knows that.”

Coyote comes closer to the metal sculpture and the arcing sparks.

“Artist, it is good. It is cold, but it stirs something in me as if it were alive inside its skin of steel.”

“Thanks, Coyote. I could make a living if art critics could see the same thing.”

The Artist turns off her grinder and sits on in a rusty folding chair. She throws an old sleeping bag over her and reaches down to take a pull off a bottle. “Coyote, how is the Old One? I don’t see him so much anymore.”

“He’s good. He has slowed down after the last litter, but will be down tonight. There is snow coming, and he hates to hole-up for a couple days on an empty belly.”

“And what will you do when he is gone?” the Artist asks.

“Artist, I have learned from you … life goes on.”

“You know I still miss him?”

“Por supuesto.”

“He would work until three in the morning to get a sculpture right. And then he would fall asleep beside me smelling of oil and steel and sweat. And, in the morning, he would want to fool around as soon as he woke up.”

“And you would say?”

“Tonight, Sweetie.”

“And he would say?”

“Sure, Babe,” and get up and go to work.

“And, as Christmas approaches, where do you think he is?” asked the Coyote.“Someplace better.”

“How so?”

“It’s a place where Art is as important as bucks and that the will to create something from your imagination is valued in the same way that we value the will to gain power is today.”

“And anything else?”

“Yeah,” the Artist said. “I hope he gets laid all the time until I get there.”

“And then, when you get there?”

“He’ll say, ‘I missed you more than you can know.’”

“And you’ll say?

“Ditto. Is once a week enough?”

“And he’ll say, ‘Sure Babe’ and go to work.”

The Coyote walks over to the sleeping bag and puts her chin on the Artist’s leg. Sam wakes and ambles out to the two females and sits opposite the Coyote.

He looks up at the first snowflakes coming down, then he looks at the Artist and the comely Coyote. She snorts and he sighs and lies down beside the Artist.

“Merry Christmas, Artist. May someone buy your art.”

“Merry Christmas, Coyote. May the Old One live for five more winters. And may you die together in a warm den.”

Coyote turns south, working the neighborhoods and heads to Boulder Creek. She has a full belly and has visited friends. There’s one more friend to check on before the storm hits and maybe there will be a shot at a Shih Tzu out for an evening pee.

The neighborhoods of north Boulder are lit with holiday lights and shine a warm yellow from their windows on the lawns. Easy to traverse unseen. There isn’t a black bear, fox, coyote or mountain lion who doesn’t know how to do it.

Downtown Boulder is a bit more of a problem. A coyote could get run over by a cop chasing a drunk driver if she doesn’t watch out. She sneaks carefully down the alley north of Pearl Street and turns south on 15th, crosses Canyon Boulevard and carefully walks in front of Liquor Mart.

“Hey, drunks!” she calls out.

“Hey, dog,” a drunk answers.

“Merry Christmas.” “You too, dog.”

She works her way to Boulder Creek Trail and then up to the 6th Street Bridge next to the Justice Center. She stops and sniffs the air for her friend.

“Sarge,” she calls out.

“Over here,” he says from under the bridge.

He’s 30, or maybe he’s 60. Hard to tell. His face is sunburned, and he walks with a limp. He has laid out his mat and sleeping bag carefully so that he can hardly be seen from the cement trail. His gear is around him neatly, as if he could fi nd anything he needed in a second and could be gone in a minute or two with all his belongings in his backpack.

She hunkers down next to him so that she too will be hard to see.

“So, how are you doing, Sarge? You got enough to eat and drink?”

“Yeah … did some work for a guy today. Fed me and gave me some cash. I bought enough food for two or three days and a half rack of beer. I’m good.”

“So, you know a bad storm is coming?”

“Yes, it feels like snow,” he says and takes a sip of his beer.

“You know you could die out here?”

“Yup, but could have died in a lot worse places.”

“And you aren’t going to the shelter?”



“Can’t walk the three miles up there. Knee went out after I finished work.” “Jesus, this isn’t any good,” Coyote says.

“I know.”

“The Mexican at The Terrace wanted to make sure I did something good tonight.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Merry Christmas, Sarge. You are going to have a two-dog night and see tomorrow,” she says as she moves up close to him to keep him warm. “The Old One will come looking for me if he doesn’t find me at home. He always does.” “God’s dog?” “Yeah, that’s what they call us, so long as we don’t eat their pets.”

Long-time contributor Alan Stark owns and operates Boulder Bookworks. His last story for the Gazette was “Naked Streets,” which appeared in #173.

Larry’s Big Casino: A Rescuer Reflects on Idiots and Angels

Ka-ching! Even though I’d never heard it before, the sound was unmistakable — metal striking metal. It wasn’t a coin dropping into a slot machine tray, although ironically we were searchers at a site that would soon come to be known as Larry’s Big Casino — a steep chute on the backside of Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain. The tip of my aluminum avalanche probe had connected, two-and-a-half feet beneath the snow, with a ski. It was attached to 18-year-old Larry Arwin from Seattle. He’d been there about 90 minutes and I sensed that he was toast. Fourth from the left in a 15-person probe line, I yelled the trained response, “SHOVEL!” The patrol was digging in less than fi ve seconds.

A mid-level mountain trails manager, I’d just led nine rescuers — patrollers, volunteer locals, and ski school instructors — single-fi le off the top of Baldy. We were the main column of a full-scale ski patrol avalanche rescue. Outside the ski patrol shack, we’d signed in the volunteers as they showed up, then lined them up for an urgent, abbreviated equipment check and probe line lesson. Throat tight with tension, my voiced cracked as I answered their questions. My radio crackled with a garbled message from the steep backside. The Hasty Search Team — fi ve patrollers and a visiting helicopter guide from Alta — had fl agged their route to the slide and were requesting more help. With little radio reception on the steep backside, the message was punctuated by static.

It was the early 1970s, before avalanche transceivers, personal locater beacons, cell phones, citizen band UHF radios, GPS receivers or lightweight folding shovels. Pre-Avalung. Arwin and two of his friends had crossed through the area boundary fence to fi nd untracked powder and a little adventure — they found both in spades. The slide’s fracture line was four feet deep. It had been a heavy storm period, dumping 48 inches of snow in four days on top of a weak, depth-hoar-fi lled layer that covered the ground — a classic, potentially deadly snowpack. One of the three, Larry, had been caught by the moving snow and had disappeared.

The panicked survivors traversed across another potentially deadly chute before fi nding their way back into the ski area. They called from a landline at the bottom of Warm Springs #1 lift, 3,000 feet below at the bottom of the mountain. Larry had been under for 45 minutes when the search was launched. He would be the fi rst dead teenager I’d ever seen. Remembering the fl ood of emotions I was feeling at the time, I wonder now if there hadn’t even been a bit of grudging admiration for this young dude who had fl aunted ski area rules and common sense to take a run at something greater. I don’t know . . . at the time, at least, it was easier to think of him as an Idiot.

One of his friends, who had been escorted back to the slide site by the ski patrol, rushed over: “How is he?” he asked breathlessly.

Overwhelmed with anger and frustration at this seemingly senseless death, worried about the dangerous descent still remaining, I replied with the only words I could manage: “He’s dead. What did you expect?”

I pointed to the corpse, which, wrapped in blankets and a canvas tarp, was being secured in a toboggan for the hair-raising trip 2,500 vertical feet down the backside. The distraught kid looked stunned. To my knowledge, no Angels were present, even though the next chute over was known informally as “Heaven.”

Experienced patrollers kept everyone on the timbered ridges during the descent. Single fi le, 80 searchers side-slipped, caught ski tips under branches, cursed, picking their way down the mountain beneath a sullen, rapidly darkening afternoon sky. Frustrated, some took their skis off and walked. After dark — an excruciating hour later — we could fi nally see the four buses provided by the Ski Corp. — and an ambulance, red lights fl ashing — waiting in a cow pasture far below. Looking back after 35 years, was it worth it? Yes.

A few years later, I took part in a written POWDER Magazine debate about backside skiing. Espousing my mountain-cop worldview at the time, I argued that nobody had the right to jeopardize others’ lives by a foolhardy expression of selfindulgence. My adversary voiced the view of the backside bandit, that he would “disappear (past the area boundary) in a cloud of hi-ho silver dust, middle fi nger uplifted.” I responded that he should keep his middle fi nger in the air, we’d get the message when we dug him out in the spring. Tough talk, but it probably wasn’t true. I would have been tormented by the thought of a missing skier that we had refused to go after for any reason.

The only other time I heard the ka-ching was my probe hitting the ski binding of 51-year-old Ann Janss, the wife of ski area owner Bill Janss. She died on a sunny January afternoon in 1973 while heli-skiing on Balcolm Ridge, just outside Sun Valley. A cornice had fractured, the resulting slide carrying her a half-mile, depositing her face down under three feet of snow. The ski patrol director and USFS snow ranger — both of whom knew far more about avalanches than I did — had been among her guides. Clearly, she felt safe and had taken no extraordinary chances. No one that day needed to state the obvious: It can happen to anyone. Was it more rewarding to recover a much-liked and responsible woman who had not skied off with her middle fi nger in the air? Thirty-seven years later, no. The grief of the survivors and loved ones at home doesn’t discriminate. Nor does the pit boss at Larry’s Big Casino.

Occasionally — although it probably isn’t true — I think there may be a bizarre connection between Angels and Idiots that doesn’t apply to others. Sometimes, teetering on the edge of Something Stupid, I have felt safe. Maybe dumb-asses draw Angel attention because they’re more vulnerable. Maybe it was just the adrenaline of the moment, lying to me like cheap wine.

To be sure, I don’t believe in Angels — especially the Guardian type. But I have on rare occasion sensed the presence of something different when out on the ragged edge. Maybe rock climbers know what I mean. I don’t experience it as Heavensent, even if I believed in Heaven, which I don’t. Nor am I positive that it’s always benefi cent, or even real. But there’s a connection to Something that can occur, one to one. “Hello, Angel, this is Idiot … just passing through, ’kay?”

There are spirits, too. Maybe they’re the same thing as Angels. One lazy fall afternoon, while fl y-fi shing on a relatively benign stretch of Idaho’s Big Wood River, the knee-deep current knocked me off my feet and fi lled my chest waders, carrying me downstream as I fl ailed to stay afl oat. It happened twice in 30 minutes at the same spot.

I was a fly-fishing guide at the time and had spent more than 60 days that year on the same river without falling anywhere else. Years later, I still have a sinister feeling about the place, and won’t go back. Rivers have spirits, too. The good ones we probably call River Angels, in the unlikely case that we think about it at all.

Far removed from those ski patrol days, I recently found my way back into the mountains through search and rescue (SAR). It would be a great way, I reasoned, to do something important and exciting again in the backcountry. Especially, it might be a cool new arena to launch a relationship with a working dog.

To my surprise, search and rescue hadn’t changed as much as I had. For me, the changes had been partly physical — a trashed knee from skiing too fast, a hyper-extended elbow from a long-forgotten bull ride, a numb face courtesy of a trailside Douglas fi r, an artifi cial hip from that mescaline-fueled slick-rock mountain bike ride.

The biggest changes, though, were going on in my head. There had never been any lasting glory — in fact, there never had been much glory at all. In the end, chasing my personal vision of Living Large has left far more stitches than good memories (though some of the latter I still cherish). But I knew it was time to stop channeling Idiots. I wanted to just become a good SAR soldier.

It’s easier said than done. The surge of adrenaline that accompanies a mission call-out comes from the unspoken urgency of the message, the instantaneous upload into the realm of life and death, of the incompetent, the merely unlucky, of Idiots and Angels — one or maybe all of them in trouble at Somebody’s Big Casino. Game On!

Five years ago, Tadc (Teeg) — my border collie — and I joined Sandia Search Dogs, a volunteer SAR team based in Albuquerque. When the phone rings, Tadc always knows if it’s a mission call-out before I do. He loves SAR even more than sheep herding, though both are off the scale on his high-octane fun list.

A typical call-out goes like this: In the rugged Gila Mountains of southern New Mexico, a 67-year-old man hasn’t returned from an early-winter hike with his dog. Calling SAR teams from as far away as southern Colorado, the mission — coordinated by the state police — has already been underway for a couple of days. When the phone call comes, I’m not surprised. I’ve been watching coverage of the incident on TV, fi guring it will be a wilderness cadaver mission and they need dog teams.

I look at the gear piled in my living room, trying to pare it down for the mission. Random thoughts fl ash through my mind — bring survival gear, this one’s gonna be bitter cold. Gotta drive fi ve hours, sleep in the car for a couple more before dawn. Bring pillows, a sleeping bag … too much stuff. Crap! I fi ll my pack, which is presumably ready (radios, cell phone, head lamp, GPS all have fresh batteries, right?), a couple of 100-ounce water bladders and a big Thermos water cooler. Where’s my goddamned knee brace?

The phone rings again. The hiker has just been found alive. He’s survived a week injured in the frigid mountains, wearing only a light jacket and no cold-weather gear. His dog (still missing), a black lab, had stayed with him, keeping him warm enough to survive the bitter nights. You just never know … there are probably more Angels in the passing lane than in the middle of the freeway.

Last year, 13 miles into the rugged Sangre de Cristos outside of Santa Fe, a lost hypothermic hiker (and the veteran pilot who carried her most of a mile on his back) died when the helicopter crashed while lifting off a steep ridge in a whiteout. (You have to wonder where were the Angels on THAT one.) Should the pilot have done less in the name of safety? Was it worth it? I guess it depends who you ask. Some who were there came home frustrated; two didn’t come home at all.

The financial cost was never an issue in this case — but often it is for state and federal agencies that foot the bill. In 2008, the U.S. Park Service alone spent $5 million on rescues. Agencies are starting to take a closer look at why the calls keep coming.

A 17-year-old Eagle Scout in New Hampshire was fi ned $25,000 last year for a rescue when he sprained his ankle on a 17-mile day hike in the White Mountains. He tried to take a shortcut and was stranded by snow and rising streams. The charge was reportedly levied by the state even after his grateful family had already made a generous donation to rescue teams. Being legally designated as “irresponsible” can carry heavy consequences for any backcountry user, even if it has nothing to do with the truth.

Still, a helicopter costs at least $700 an hour to operate and somebody’s gotta buy the gas. Agencies can easily drop $10,000 in the course of a long weekend, ferreting out and extricating some doofus who forgot to bring along an extra water bottle. According to a USA TODAY report, “Oregon caps the amount that can be billed at $500. Hawaii requires that there be ‘an intentional disregard’ for safety, and Idaho limits reimbursement to rescues from lands that are closed to the public.” Colorado partially funds its SAR operations by a tax on fishing and hunting licenses and New Hampshire by a $1 surcharge on snowmobile, boat and off-road vehicle licenses.

A recent Newsweek article reported that “The national Mountain Rescue Association and National Association for Search and Rescue both oppose charging subjects for search and rescue. A Colorado SAR group illustrates the problem with examples of people who refused help because of fears over a bill: A climber stuck on a 14,000-foot Colorado peak asked to be talked down because she couldn’t afford help; a stranded Idaho snowmobiler told his wife to hang up on a SAR team because he’d read media coverage of rescue charges; a lost runner in Arizona heard searchers in the night but deliberately avoided them because he was afraid he’d be billed.”

Experienced mountaineers tend to be clear about SAR: “I can’t imagine EVER not going out for someone who says they need help. Even dumb fucks are people, not much different from you and me. And very few people can pay for the cost of a full-blown rescue without it ruining their lives, or at least a big part of it,” says long-time MG contributor Dick Dorworth.

When it comes to personal costs, most volunteer searchers I know just bite the fi nancial bullet. My pack, counting communication, survival, fi rst aid and other stuff, probably holds $1,000 worth of gear. In New Mexico, mileage reimbursements have been so slow and infrequent that many searchers don’t even turn in the forms. Still, it’s a small price to pay for … what?

It’s the tragi-comedy, the stuff you never hear about, that fascinates me. Something funny, horrifying, or inspiring will happen out there. Every time, guaranteed.

Last fall, an incident base was established at a missing hunter’s camp — a meadow near the summit of Elk Mountain in the Pecos Wilderness — reached by a jarring 12-mile drive up a steep, rock-strewn Forest Service road. When we arrived, it was the fourth weekend search day for a missing local bowhunter. Tadc and I were assigned a promising sector adjacent to the camp, although one that ground-pounders had searched the week before.

With our navigator ready (dog teams always send a second person with the handler), I shrugged on my 45-pound pack and took one step before WHUMP — I doubled over, gasping. Tadc, who’d been prowling around the edge of the clearing, had run full speed and launched himself, slamming me in the groin with both front paws. This was his alert, a jump — he’d already found something! Still fumbling with my pack’s shoulder straps, I stumbled after him. He led me 30 yards to a woman, one of the searchers, who was sheepishly zipping up her pants. She’d stepped into the woods to pee.

“Good dog! That’ll do (hee hee).” We started again. Within five minutes, another alert — a powerful jump that again took my breath. Then, nose up, his tail trailing straight out behind, he was off and running.

“This one’s IT,” I thought — the alert was strong, positive. We followed again. My mind and heart were both racing: “It’s gonna be an early trip home. It’s our fi rst find, wow! People are gonna be blown away.”

From far ahead, Tadc raced back — weaving through the aspens, jumping logs — to alert twice more. This time it was for real, I knew. We followed … and followed. At nearly a half-mile, I saw them — two of our team members and a dog, working a distant meadow in the next sector. Somehow, he’d scented them from the deep timber at this distance — a great fi nd, wrong subjects.

To him, the difference between dead and alive is more or less irrelevant to the game. He alerts for both. “Okay, good dog!” We go back to where we started. We spend the rest of the day thrashing through the deadfall at 11,000 feet, with no results. The guy is, we think, still up there somewhere. We’ll go back next summer, after the snow melts, to try again. “He’s not,” according to one Incident Commander, “going to get any deader.”

Sometimes Angels are watching. When a three-year-old boy wandered off while his mother was hauling a load of fi rewood near their mountain cabin, Tadc and I — competing in a sheepherding trial a few miles away, were the fi rst dog team to show up. Search Base wouldn’t be operational for another hour, so the local sheriff asked us to go up to the PLS (place last seen) and see “She showed up the next morning at an equipment yard at the edge of town, still naked.” if we could fi nd anything. We’d been out about twenty minutes when a distant rumble grew quickly louder. It seems the National Guard had been training that weekend in Albuquerque, and — already geared up — had decided to help with the search mission. The fl eet of Blackhawks came in low and loud, ferrying several dozen weekend soldiers. Standing below the deafening air assault, I called Tadc. Forty yards away, he couldn’t hear me. He was watching the helicopters, looking for all the world, I thought, like Snoopy at Normandy. Neighbors found the boy a half-hour later. He’d walked nearly three miles.

Other times, the Angels seem to turn away. Last summer in the middle of the night, a meth-addled young mother parked her VW bug alongside the highway fi ve miles from Encino, a remote eastern New Mexico ranching town. Taking off her clothes and those of her 16-month-old son, she began walking toward town. She was fi rst sighted about 2 a.m. by a passing trucker. She showed up the next morning at an equipment yard at the edge of town, still naked. Her son wasn’t with her.

She had, in the pre-dawn hours, walked all the way into town four miles away, through it, and out the other side on different highway. A couple of miles later, she had wandered off into some deserted hills before finding her way back to the edge of town.

The next morning, my navigator and I chose a sector beginning at the equipment yard where the mother had shown up the morning before. For five hours, we walked a grid through the arid, flat plains, a news helicopter occasionally buzzing overhead. At one point we came across an abandoned, severely weathered little wooden ranch house not far from the road, its porch on the verge of collapse.

It hadn’t been searched yet, so we went inside, Tadc sniffing cautiously. In a corner of one musty room was an old iron woodstove. My dog hadn’t alerted on it, but the unthinkable, that we were about to be players in a nightmarish scenario, edged into our consciousness. They say meth is crazy-making. We held our breath when we opened the door to the stove. You could have heard a pin drop. Nothing! The boy, having died of exposure, was discovered by a police dog team in the next sector three hours later. When we heard the radio transmission, “This is team 17, we’ve got a red bandana (the death code for the day),” we turned wordlessly and headed back toward Incident Base. There, they had forgotten that team 13 was even in the field, despite us having called at noon to report our location. As we were signing out, another dog team said they’d just had a bad experience with a herd of range horses, which apparently thought their search dog was a coyote. They had made it over a fence ahead of the horses, they said, barely. They were angry because, for 45 minutes, they’d been told to keep searching, even after the boy had been found. They said it was because reporters were at Incident Base, where nobody wanted them to know about the find.

You never know who or what’s going to be on the other end of your fi gurative probe, and after a search ends, you never know how other people will perceive what you did.

Searchers are not allowed to talk to media about an incident. Ever. There’s a lot of paranoia in the SAR community about releasing inappropriate information during a search. Last spring, I was grounded by the fl u at home when the call-out (always happens) came. They especially wanted dogs, and no others were available. Tadc and I loaded up and headed for the Incident Base. A 15-year-old girl was missing — maybe — in the desert foothills on an Indian reservation. She and her sister had been out drinking with some older boys. Her sister had been found the next morning, her blood showing an alcohol content of .36 — a near-death level — and, by rumor, evidence of a date rape drug. She and the older guys were so drunk they couldn’t remember where they’d been.

Beginning at a pile of beer bottles on the ground, Tadc and I were assigned a wide, flat drainage — very searchable, good terrain. Our team gridded the sector without luck, fi nally arriving at a highway fi ve miles below, where a tribal police SUV picked us up. The search was suspended that night because the location had been covered by canine, ATV, horse, ground and helicopter teams, and because the location was still considered sketchy. We went home and I heard nothing further for three days. On the fourth, I got an email. One of my team member’s sister in Philadelphia had seen a TV account aired by an Albuquerque network station. It reported that the girl had been found in Albuquerque, safe and well, “after becoming separated from her friends while hiking over the weekend.” Holy shit!

Incredulous, I called the station’s assignment editor to learn where he got this bizarre info, so different from what we’d been told. “An FBI release,” he said. “They were the only ones who would say anything.” Angels, apparently, deal with a lot of stuff that we don’t need to know about.

AP reported last summer that two men and their teenage sons hiked into the scorching Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop. Carrying a personal locater device that signals for help and transmits GPS location via satellite, the group pushed the panic button three times. Each call triggered an exceptionally dangerous helicopter rescue mission. The fi rst was because they didn’t have water and were thirsty. When the helicopter arrived, they declined evacuation because they had found water. They called again because the water they drank “tasted salty.” On the third call, exasperated rescuers forced them into the helicopter. The head of California’s SAR operations termed the use of the devices “Yuppie 911” — you push a button and the government pulls you out of something you shouldn’t have been in in the first place.”

In truth, unless helicopters are involved, it’s usually not the government but teams of volunteer searchers who “pull you out.” New Mexico, which averages 160 missions every year, has 40 teams. One of these, Sandia Search Dogs — my SAR team in Albuquerque — can fi eld 3-4 certifi ed wilderness search dogs at the drop of a hat. We train formally six times every month, rain or shine. Every day, my dog and I work on some aspect of SAR. It takes most handlers two years of steady training before they and their dog can qualify as “mission-ready.”

I don’t know if it’s ever possible to be “mission ready.” SAR missions are often little more than the wilderness stage for a larger drama — Idiots and Angels — always a volatile mixture. And how do you get ready for that? In the end, most of the players will survive; some won’t. I’ve done my own share of dumb-ass things in SAR. Once I showed up for a night mission without a headlamp or fl ashlight. Another time, I came within a footstep of walking off a 40-foot arroyo wall in the desert without seeing it. I’ve been lost for two hours because I forgot to program my GPS.

It’s always gonna be a gamble. And probably against the House Margin. I’m still here at the table, having never rolled snake eyes at My Own Big Casino. But now, when driving home after someone else’s gaming fatality, I often think that there, but for Angels, go I.

Living in Albuquerque, Dave Baldridge and his border collie continue to volunteer for wilderness search and rescue missions.

Being New in a Ski Town

You arrive in November and need to find a job, a room, a free season’s pass. Be upbeat, not needy — remember that the snow will come and so will everything else. It has to.

When you poster the town with your resume, remember that this has been done a thousand times before. You are not the first. In a town like this, your degree means nothing; you are a newcomer, and that is all they need to know. This is not about being snobby — buying a post-powder beer for someone who might leave as soon as the snow melts is not a wise investment.

Just as you begin to feel desperate, you will surprise yourself and become outgoing, chatting up everyone from the girl at the coffee shop and the guytending bar to the woman who sits down next to you on the free bus shuttle and who, lo and behold, has a daughter your age with the same exact name. She will decide that you deserve her beneficence for this small bit of coincidence.

The woman, let’s call her Edith, will lean her head back and close her eyes when you tell her you’re still looking for a job, a room, a free season ski pass. She will seem like she is going to take a nap, but will then suddenly open her eyes and clap her hands and, looking at you, say, “I’ve got it! My neighbor’s son just decided to move to Another Ski Town, so Rick will need someone.” Then, narrowing her eyes and smiling wryly, she’ll ask, “Can you shovel roofs?” And, even though you hurt your back a few years ago and have been sleeping with a pillow under your knees ever since, you smile broadly and nod.

You still don’t have a free season pass, but Edith also happens to mention that So-and-So is leaving town for the winter— “Heading to Costa Rica, or somewhere” — and needs a house sitter, but they live way at the end of the road that isn’t plowed and you’ll need to hike through snowdrifts carrying your groceries in your backpack. It all sounds perfect to you, so you finally move all your stuff (two backpacks, three pairs of skis, a Rubbermaid tub of ski gear and a duffle bag) from the back of your pickup into the spare bedroom downstairs.

The snow begins to stick, and even though you’ve only been able to take laps on the hill across the road from the ski area, the one that everyone has been fighting over whether to put lifts on it or leave to those freeloading backcountry skiers (that would often be me), and even though your back is so stiff in the mornings that you have to stretch in bed, before even getting up to pee, your life in this ski town is coming together. You’ve made friends with a couple of the guys at work, who give you a hard time but not as hard of a time as they could, you practice your Spanish with the day workers who show up now and then, their fluid language seeming alien in this valley of negative temperatures and bright snowscapes.

In February, just as the ski area finally opens the steeps, one of the guys at work mentions that his buddy, a lift op, got fired for smoking weed in the locker room. You climb down the ladder, unclip your harness and hitchhike up the hill, where you walk straight into a job as a lifty. A free season pass.

The rest of the winter is spent doing what it is that you moved here for — skiing, making friends on the lift, taking laps on that hill across the road after work, drinking beer as your face finally thaws from the wind, so you can do something other than smile. That is, if you wanted to.

Abigail Sussman recently acquired another pair of skis and can now claim to have a quiver. She lives in Gunnison, CO (well, mostly).

Parallel Universe of Mountain Memory Seasonal Themes

Editor’s note: A few months ago, I fired off a group email to all our usual suspects/regular contributors apprising them of our 2011 editorial calendar/themes, so they can plan ahead and not be late with stories for goddamned once. Most just responded by saying something on the order of “Gracias for the heads up.” But not long-time senior correspondent Vince Welch — a man who’s obviously well versed in mountain-town sociology — who opted to add his usual skewed spin to what had seemed to me to be a fairly banal communiqué. Real themes, as communicated by me to the usual suspects, are in bold type. Welch’s reactions to those themes are in italics.

January — Deep Winter
January — Random Encounters/Sleeping with all the Wrong People
February/March — Dog Issue
February/March — Bar Fights and Car Wrecks
April — Spring Travel
April — Ski Town Empties Out/What’s Left Behind
May — Rivers Issue
May — Pot Lucks I have Crashed
June — Climbing
June — How to Avoid Offers of Work on the Mountain and Not feel Guilty
July — High Summer
July — New Arrivals in Town/Returning Hero Syndrome/Big Fish, Small Bowl
August/September — On Foot in the Mountains
August/September — Identity Crisis at 7,500 feet, Bastille Day Parade
October — Skiing
October — Partner Switch Time
November — Bar Issue
November — Recreational Drinking Begins; Potholes, Detours, Black Ice
December — Holiday Season
December — Naked Winter Street Olympics (c1973)

Vince Welch lives in Portland, OR, where he’s currently working diligently on his latest book, “The Last Voyageur — Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West.”

In Remembrance of “Boy”

I was driving home last night listening to CommieLiberalRadio (NPR), when the announcer said that the actor Johnny Sheffield had died the day before.

I would suppose that name is not exactly household, but I listened to the finish of the short synopsis on CLR after I had parked at the house. You see, I was best friends with “Boy” for a day.

It was late summer 1978. I had been employed for a half-year as a “Field Engineer” for an oilfield services company, and had just spent a week at a company training session/morale-raiser/“group hoot” at the corporate offices in Houston. I would have flown directly from home to there and back, but I asked if I could, instead, fly partway home and rent a car in Denver, so I could attend the wedding of some friends. I couldn’t rent the expected sub-compact for a oneway trip, and instead ended up with a large cruise-mobile (I think it was a Ford Thunderbird). Many other wedding attendees noted the car and said I “must be doing well” at work.

I drove home the following day. I did something I never do anymore, but was still in the habit of doing back then. I picked up two young hitchhikers outside of Denver and dropped them off in Glenwood Springs. Leaving Glenwood, into the intensifying west Colorado desert heat, I spotted a lonely bedraggled figure 10 or so miles down the road. I stopped and let him in.

He appeared to be at least 20 years older than I, and, as you’d expect, not very presentable. Many hard years. He was parched and asked if I had anything to drink. Having just been in Texas, and not being the beer-snob I now pretend to be, I had a couple very warm six-packs of such carbonated delights as Lone Star and Pearl in the back seat. It was obvious that he was extremely thirsty when he drained the first can in a few seconds, then lingered perhaps a minute over the second. His mood brightened and we talked the rest of the way to where I let him off near my home.

He was on his way from New Jersey and was going to move in with his daughter in California. Obviously, he had no money to get there and was “going to start life over.” We talked about this, and that, and he was interested in what I was doing and aspired to in this life.

Midway through our drive, after a measured intense pause, he said, “Look at me.” My hands gripped the wheel a bit tighter, and I managed a sideways glance at his expectant face.

You recognize me, don’t you?” he asked. I was a little nervous at the “lookat- me” remark, and I worried a little more as to how this encounter might turn. I humored him, taking a slightly longer sideways glance. “Why, yes,” I replied. “You do look somewhat familiar.”

A short but intense pause. His next words, softly spoken, nevertheless were like gunshots. (Gunshots through a silencer). “I’m Boy.”

I was stunned. I had been off-balance since the look-at-me request, and things were spinning more and more off-kilter. “Boy,” I wondered to myself. This could be esoteric, maybe it’s a test, uh …

“From Tarzan,” he explained.

Oh … Well, this really was weird. A pantheon of unremembered almost-famous people and heroes and villains and almost-somebodies presented themselves in my mind, and “Boy” was certainly one of them.

I relaxed some, and he told me of his life with the other Johnny (Weissmuller, who played Tarzan), who “was like a second father to” him. I didn’t ask what had happened in the intervening years, but here he was, out on the road, living life, such as it was, and our paths intertwined for part of a day.

I let him off on the interstate exchange nearest my house and we, as friendlily as our short-term relationship warranted, said our good-byes.

I told Betty of this when I came through the door. She summarized that “he really had to be ‘Boy’ — what skid-row bum would make up a story like that?”

Except that, I don’t think he was a “skid-row bum” for much longer. After hearing yesterday’s news (he died Oct. 15), I checked his bio on IMDB and read the L.A. Times obituary. He must have re-connected with his family. He died at home, suffering a heart attack while up in a tree (how appropriate!) trying to trim some branches.

Rosco Betunada lives and writes in the stinking desert of far-western Colorado.

Zen and the Art of Cross Country Ski Waxing: Are You in Your Right Mind? Or Is It Your Left?

It has been demonstrated that our brains are divided into two distinct halves or hemispheres. The theory is that each hemisphere of our brain controls different modes of thinking. The left side of our brain is logical, objective and likes to dissect objects into the parts that make them up. The right side of our brain is intuitive, subjective and looks at whole entities. Most of us prefer, or are more comfortable with, one mode of thinking over the other.

This distinction, along with a number of other philosophical issues, was addressed in the 1970s bestseller “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” (ZMM), by Robert Pirsig. The book chronicles a cross-country motorcycle trip with the narrator (presumably the author), his son Chris and two friends named John and Sylvia. Pirsig uses this road trip as a backdrop to examine values, quality and an insane man’s search for his past. I first read the book a long time ago and one of these days I hope to understand some of it. I’m not that deep, and it was a tough read for me. Based on some of the reviews of book posted on Amazon, I am not alone.

One theme in ZMM was the dichotomy between what Pirsig referred to as classical thinking and romantic thinking. Pirsig felt there were two types of understanding. The classical thinkers are like engineers who break things into smaller logical units and want to know the mechanical aspect of how things work. The narrator was a right-brained classical thinker who liked to work on his motorcycle almost as much as he liked to ride it. Romantic thinkers, on the other hand, are more like artists concerned with the whole and the appearance of things. The romantics, John and Sylvia, loved the riding experience, but were clueless as to how their machines worked. The narrator took great pride in being able to create a “band-aid” solution to a mechanical problem with his motorcycle. John did not like any solution that detracted from the clean aesthetic appearance of his fine road machine. The narrator’s bike was a practical Honda, while John and Sylvia had a stylin’ BMW status bike.

In ZMM, Pirsig pointed out the problems that arise when people remain stuck in one mode of thinking to the exclusion of the other. Some of the conflicts on the trip stemmed from the right-brained narrator’s orientation and his left-brained travel companions.

As I see it, cross-country skiing faces a similar split- personality. When you are out skiing with good snow and correctly waxed skis, it is easy to take a romantic view of the world. It is hard to beat the rhythm, beauty and the exhilaration of skiing on a crisp sunny day. The air is fresh and invigorating. Cares and concerns seem to melt away. The right side of the brain is in charge all of the way.

In contrast to cross-country skiing, ski waxing is rooted in the classic view of the world. In order to make the experience seem effortless, you need to get the wax right. This is where the devil is in the details. Here is where you need to think about such mundane technicalities as temperature, age of the snow, trail conditions and waxing techniques. If you don’t, you’ll be slipping or the skis will clump up with snow. To avoid this, you need to spend time in your basement waxing, scraping and corking. The more time you spend in this left-brain mode beforehand, the better your right-brain experience on the trail.

Our left brain is in charge when we are waxing our skis. It is asking black-and-white questions like: What is the temperature of the snow? When did it last snow? Has the snow melted and refrozen? What is the correct kick wax to apply in this situation? When we are out skiing, our right brain seems to take charge. The questions seem to be more subjective. How do I feel? Isn’t the air fresh? Why don’t I do this more often? As skiers, we have to embrace both ways of thinking.

I see some of this difference between myself and my brother Michael. I would place Michael in the rightbrained romantic camp. He has always been more artistic than I am. He’s a big-picture guy, while I’m the anal-retentive one. Drawing and art come easily to him, while I struggle with doodling stick people. We both have the same brand of skis. He fi nds the color and graphics on the skis dull and boring. I guess I never noticed.

When it comes to cross-country ski waxing, I refer to him as the “waxing agnostic.” He knows that the proper kick wax is required for the ski to work well, but he is quite content to con me into waxing his skis for him. As a nit-picky accountant, I want to know how this stuff works. I have made several trips to the library and the bookstore to read about the various types of kick-and-glide wax that I should have in my kit. I was amazed at the amount of detail that some of the authorities on the subject go into. I learned more about snow crystals than I ever thought I would. I still suffer from feelings of inadequacy when it comes to waxing. Michael is unburdened by his waxing ignorance.

ZMM also deals with the narrator’s battle with insanity. Earlier in his life, he had undergone electro- shock therapy. He refers to his alter-ego before therapy as “Phaedrus.” From the outsider’s view, cross-country ski waxing seems to have an element of insanity. Most articles on glide waxing emphasize that you can’t glide wax your skis enough. As a result, we spend a great amount of time melting and ironing in the glide wax, only to scrap it all off. And then we start all over again. It does strike one as being a bit obsessive/compulsive. This “wax-on”/“wax-off” process is a puzzle to the non-skiing members of my family. They are convinced that the wax fumes have gotten to me. And then there is the issue of our wax kits. We collect a number of different sticks of wax, tubes of klister, brushes and scrapers. We store this collection in a neat little tackle box. Isn’t this a bit anal-retentive? Sigmund Freud would have a fi eld day with us. One solution would seem to be waxless cross-country skis. Once again, contradictions abound. “Waxless” is a bit of a misnomer, as you still need to do a little bit of glide-waxing from time to time. If ZMM’s John and Sylvia, were cross-country skiers, I’d bet they own waxless skis with really great graphics.

It’s all a question of balance. To have the best time skiing, we need to engage both sides of our brain. We need to sweat the details, but still absorb the whole experience. We need to be both the diligent ant and the fun-loving grasshopper. Does that make us schizophrenic like the narrator of ZMM? I don’t know. I can’t make up my mind.

Mark Ollinger enjoys mountain biking and cross-country skiing in elevation- and snow-challenged Barrington, Illinois. While he tries to fi gure out what to do when he grows up, Mark serves as chief fi nancial offi cer at a trade-show marketing company.

Hiking With Strangers

Arizona State Route 85 runs 130 miles from Buckeye to the Mexico border near Lukeville. There’s not much there for those 130 miles — a large (very large) military base and a few small towns dedicated to the sales of Mexican Auto Insurance — and that’s the whole damn point. I spent two hours on that road, speedometer hugging 75 and the radio tuned to anything that would reach my antenna. As I finally rolled in to my campsite at the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe National Monument, the headlights of my rented sky-blue compact caught the eyes of a young coyote, who would, over the course of my stay, take three shits on my stove, angry that I wasn’t leaving any food out for him.

The saguaros stood proud under the moon and the cactus wrens yelled from atop their chollas while I put up my tent and made black bean soup with a can of green chiles.

When done with dinner, I put some hot water and whiskey into a small tin cup, walked a few hundred yards into the desert, sat down and started humming a song I had written a few years ago after reading Edward Abbey’s “Winter In The Organ Pipes,” a chapter from the “Cactus Country” edition of Time-Life’s Wilderness Series:

“I’ll meet you in the Organ Pipe All alone on a winter’s night You’ll say, “Come home.” I’ll stay. You won’t.”

The next morning, after driving into Lukeville and buying a plastic gallon of water and a few lemons to join my evening hot water and whiskey, I hiked to the top of Arch Canyon, a short trail that leads to a difficult scramble up to a small red arch. The views from the top of the arch, and from almost anywhere in the desert, are endless. Organ pipes, saguaros and ocotillos run for miles and miles in the dry winter wind, perfectly placed in the sand, soaking in the sun all day.

I had wanted to come to this place for a long time, and now that I was there, sitting on a rocky, red throne a few thousand feet above sea level, king of all the desert life that was hiding from the cold, I felt the way I always hope to feel when I go camping: small and insignificant. I walked back down the trail as a young couple from Tucson were slowly walking up. We gave each other a quick hello and a series of forced smiles before I got back to my car.

There’s no backcountry camping in Organ Pipe. Too many drug smugglers and illegal immigrants crossing the border. The monument’s visitor center is named after Kris Eggle, a ranger who was shot and killed a few years ago while tracking members of a Mexican drug cartel that was fleeing Mexico after a string of murders. Sure, staying at a group campsite is a bummer, but this place isn’t Yosemite. The campsite is small, in the middle of nowhere and dead silent for most of the day. You can hear the pack rats scattering around your tent at night and the coyotes howling from the hills. And, hell, without that campsite, I wouldn’t have met Richard.

Before my second hike that same day, I was standing at the trailhead, eating an apple smeared in almond butter, trying to figure out how far I should go before the sun was going to go down. I decided on a short hike, an easy 4.6-mile round trip to Victoria Mines, an old silver mine located in the southern part of the park. I heard a deep voice call out “HI THERE!” behind me, and turned to find an old, skinny, bearded Pete- Seeger-looking man, wearing a beige baseball cap to cover up his bald head.

“Going to the mines?” he asked.

“I am, yes.”

“Ah great, so am I!”


The hike to Victoria mines was beautiful. Sure, the shape of a saguaro can leave a little less to the imagination than a cloud, but some of those things look so funny, so distorted, that you have to stop to admire them, to think of what went right and what went wrong on their journey toward the Arizona sky. Richard and I hiked the entire way together, talking non-stop for several hours (he’s in his 70s and walked painfully slow), while kicking around quartz and naming plants. When we got to the mines, we drank water and ate a bag of pepitas, then took pictures of each other with the Sonoran Desert at our backs. Ravens flew above as the sky started turning crimson, and as we headed back to camp, Richard stopped, pointed to a large ocotillo and quietly whispered to himself, “The Devil’s Walking Stick.”

For the last seven years, Richard had been living in his van, chasing the sunny weather, while admiring our country’s great public lands. He was one of the nicest men I had ever met and I would spend the rest of my trip with him, eating meals together, going on more hikes and telling each other who the hell we were and why the hell we were both sleeping in the desert. We agreed that anyone who came so far out of their way to spend time in such a barren and unforgiving land, a land that most have never heard of, would surely share some type of bond, some type of understanding.

When it was time for me to leave Arizona and fly up to San Francisco, Richard and I exchanged email addresses. He would be staying at Organ Pipe for another two weeks, then making his way east to Big Bend National Park, his favorite place to go camping. We shook hands and agreed we’d someday meet in the Middle Of Nowhere again, but this time in Texas.

Jeff Thrope lives in the great barren wilderness of Brooklyn, NY, and spends most of his time writing an outdoor blog called Cold Splinters. Jeff owns every issue of the Mountain Gazette that Edward Abbey was published in.

Madness all Over Again

Seems we were just sighing the relief that came with hurling last year’s Christmas tree onto the environmentally responsible municipal compost pile, and here we are, a year wiser, but not necessarily less neurotic. May we all excel at Feats of Strength and be kind with the Airing of Grievances.

1) Trees of great importance

While the vast majority of White House Christmas trees (or holiday/seasonal/nondenominational/ attempted apolitical trees) hail from the eastern end of the United States, a tree farm in Elma, Washington, has the distinction of being the only place in the western U.S. to send trees to the White House in recent history. The Hedlund Christmas tree farm sent big-ass (meaning 18 feet or so) Noble fi rs to Washington in 1999 and 2002 after surviving the cutthroat competition that’s pretty much the Miss USA pageant among foliage. Judges look for a healthy appearance and the all-important shape, but skip the interview unless it’s a tiebreaker.

2) Harsh words for The Almighty

As part of the trend away from outwardly religious themes in public places, Gov. Chris Gregoire banned nongovernment displays inside the Capitol building last year — a roundabout way of getting rid of menorahs and Nativity crèches, but still allowing for a state-sponsored holiday tree in the rotunda. The rules took effect after repeated protests by the atheist Freedom From Religion Foundation, which had erected a somewhat provocative sign on Capitol grounds. “There is no God and religion enslaves minds and hardens hearts,” it said. Yes indeed, some people were pissed off.

3) Gravity is bad

While people tend to make a big deal about the fire hazards of Christmas trees (250 U.S. home fi res can be blamed on them between 2003-2007, causing an average of 14 deaths and nearly $14 million in damage per year), nobody talks about the hazards of holiday decorating. If you plan to get up on a ladder to install a bunch of reindeer, for example, bear in mind that you could be among the 5,800 folks who end up in emergency rooms as a result of an unplanned descent. Forty-three percent of the injuries were due to falls from ladders, while falls from furniture comprised 11 percent (no data on alcohol consumption). And (again, no data on alcohol consumption) “Some falls occurred when people tripped on tree skirts or other decorations,” according to the National Fire Protection Association, whose regional headquarters are in Bend.

4) What about the Rest of Us?

The Gazette was shocked and rightly appalled to learn that Ouray’s third-annual Festivus celebration has been cancelled due to lack of help. Sources tell us the gathering had been “a very popular event” over the last two holiday seasons and that it included the mandatory Feats of Strength as well as the Airing of Grievances. But while strong and grievance-ridden participants were easy to find, o r g a – n i z e r s a nd gofer s were apparently less so. A call to the chamber o f commerce yielded information about a wine and chocolate event in place of Festivus. Seriously? That said, we’re holding out for a Festivus Miracle, in which the aluminum pole (high strength-toweight ratio) magically appears on Sixth Avenue to remind us that Festivus lives on in our hearts. Or in the words of Frank Costanza, “I gotta lotta problems with you people!” http://www.seinfeldscripts. com/TheStrike.htm

5) Gotta ski?

If you live in a ski town, you’ve got the quandary of skiing/riding between the Christmas/New Year’s holidays, to hunker down and wait or take up ice fi shing. For some arcane reason, locals get spastic about the privilege of unlimited skiing on extremely busy days, but when the time comes, they’d rather cash in on double shifts than share the holiday ski experience — which can include a 90-minute traffi c jam between your house and the liquor store. For those who require the security of unlimited skiing, Vail Resorts’ $629 Epic Pass is one of the best bangs for the buck on the planet (provided you took advantage of the sales dates). It gives you unlimited turns at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Heavenly, Arapahoe Basin and Northstar and Sierra at Tahoe. Most other places, you’re going to pay a tad more for the privilege of skiing or riding when you please. At Squaw Valley, California, an adult Platinum Pass cost $1,599 at early pricing. Pass-holders at Deer Valley, Utah, paid $1,630 for the season, while Jackson Hole commanded $1,570, Telluride, $1,298, and Aspen, $1,499.

6) Down and out with the Fear and Loathing

While the stresses of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Festivus and New Year’s Eve provide plenty of reason to drive people to the edge of madness, statisticians are quick to point out that actual suicides are more frequent in April, June and July. That said, Las Vegas is the U.S. suicide kingpin (statisticians are also quick to point out that a signifi cant number of those deaths are out-of-towners). Colorado Springs and Tucson take second and third place, with the mountain West consistently taking honors as the nation’s suicide belt. Depending on the year, Montana, New Mexico, Wyoming, Nevada and Colorado occupy the top rungs, with Alaska usually in the mix.

7) Give these kids a break

If you want some higher learning but require a lot of down time to air out your brain, the University of Montana has one of the sweetest holiday breaks you’ll fi nd. With this semester’s finals running Dec. 14-18 and the spring semester gearing up on Jan. 24, you’ve got five weeks to play “Call of Duty: Black Ops” non-stop in your parents’ basement. Sick, bro.