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!”

FUCK.

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.

Mountain Mama

In the spirit of tenacious mountain folk living in the newcomer pioneer days of Telluride’s wild 1970s era, innovation was as essential as duct tape. Helen Forster was one of a handful whose vision and talent helped to create the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and shape the town’s embryonic radio station and community theatre. Today, she, along with her hubby Nick Forster, of Hot Rize fame, brings that can-do experience and attitude to eTown, an enviro- social awareness radio program broadcast to over one million listeners from downtown Boulder.

Helen arrived in the then-glitterati- less streets of Telluride in 1973, when the San Juan mountain hamlet’s steep-and-deep winter culture was becoming legendary and summers were still naptime revolving around July 4th. There wasn’t much in town, let alone in the way of arts, but there was a core group of dreamers who were naïve enough to ignore the complexities of creating the scene that quickly evolved into several of the T-ride’s more-famous cultural phenomena.

“You had to drive to Montrose just to get a spool of thread,” Helen mused about Telluride’s scant resources. “So you had to be conscientious, resourceful and creative when it came to supporting the arts.” The community radio station, KOTO-FM, had just cranked itself into the airwaves.

“There was a coalition that said ‘we need to make a radio station, so let’s make it happen.’ I came in at the tail end of the discussion and as one of the first deejays with my Down Valley Show,” Helen says of her eight-year stint of “soft rock and soft talk.”

In a collective moment to expand the breadth of the entertainment spectrum beyond beer, bars and local bands, Telluride’s thespians kicked it up a notch to form the SRO Theatre Troupe — Standing Room Only — which Helen co-founded, bringing her Minneapolis professional stage experience of musical and performance theater that started in her childhood and continued into adulthood. “It was like Second City. We wrote our own musical and comedy material. It was a raw slate, where you had an opportunity to come together to create original musical comedy theater.” To further broaden the town’s color palette, a more-formal theater company of upstart crows gathered under the L.A. director Paul Fagan to form the Plunge Players. Helen became one of its principal players as well. She also co-authored three children’s musicals with Martha Brady and worked on her skills as a professional vocalist.

But it’s probably the fact that she had a hand in creating one of Colorado’s best-loved annual party of festivarians that inspires raising a glass in admirable salute. Back in the mid-’70s, Helen was one of the original group who pioneered the nowcolossal Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The original concert stemmed innocuously from the town’s 4th of July celebration and evolved out of various people’s interest.

“You’re in your twenties, you get an idea, follow through and make things happen. You want to start a theater? Great, make that happen. Do a music fest? Great, let’s do it,” she says of the common ability for inventive mountain- dwellers to make things happen as though they could wish them into existence.

Looking to transition out of Telluride after 15 years, Helen considered moving to a large city in the real world; however, they all seemed daunting after living in a town with no stoplights. Boulder looked more promising as a community in which to continue a hardworking Bohemian life of theater, writing, performing and teaching. Although she had met Nick at one of the Bluegrass Festivals, they ran into each other in Boulder, where they eventually married in 1991, right after launching eTown.

As Nick’s Grammy-nominated bluegrass band, Hot Rize, was dissolving in 1990, he came up with the idea of eTown while on a State Department-sponsored overseas concert tour with a group that included Sam Bush, John Cowan and Laurie Lewis. He returned wondering how he could encourage people to make a difference in the world by working Helen Forster performs with Keb’ Mo’. Photo by Tim Reese. together, by using music as a focus to stimulate dialogue and awareness of social and environmental issues.

“We were both drawn to radio because it’s proactive,” Helen explains. “You have to use your brain and your mind. You don’t have an image in front of you. So Nick came back talking about creating a radio show, and I said to Nick, ‘let me help you.’”

Nick had also logged airtime as a member of Hot Rize, appearing on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” “Austin City Limits” and The Grand Old Opry broadcasts. But it was Helen’s festival work and KOTO radio production experience that greased the nuts, bolts and show into life. eTown now broadcasts over 280 stations. Based on variety radio shows of the past, eTown is taped in front of a live audience and features candid conversations about environmental and community, plus a lengthy list of amazing visiting musical artists — from Buddy Guy, Lyle Lovett and Michele Shocked to regional/local favorites Chris Daniels, Big Head Todd and String Cheese. Both Nick and Helen play on the show with the eTones, eTown’s house band, which features Front Range musicians Chris Engleman on bass, Christian Teele on drums, Ron Jolly on piano, with Nick on guitar and mandolin and Helen on vocals.

The duo’s latest project involves converting a funky former church in downtown Boulder for reuse as eTown Hall, with the goal of “making it the greenest building in Boulder, if we can,” smiles Nick. Photovoltaic panels, solar hot-water panels, revamping the electrical systems … the space is getting a complete overhaul in order to generate most of its power locally. Lectures, workshops, master classes, films, community gatherings, a recording and video studio and of course more intimate eTown shows with 200-250 attendees. The Forsters are hoping to have the building finished in time for the show’s twentieth anniversary next year.

“We’re independent media, and there are precious few independents these days,” Helen says. “We look at our role as being a senior voice in sending the message out every week … get informed, get inspired and get involved.”

eTown is a non-profit organization. It is offered in numerous podcast editions available for download from the program website eTown.org

Life on the Mountain Music Road

Drunken encounters of the psychedelic kind

It’s no newsfl ash that musicians put up with their share of drunken patrons. But it gets a little trippy when hallucinogens are involved.

Springdale Quartet, a band out of Boulder, overlays its upbeat funk with progressive rock. It’s no surprise the outfi t attracts people seeking God via acid as it plays the likes of Breckenridge’s three20south, Steamboat’s Old Town Pub and Avon’s Agave. Organ grinder Chase Terzian coined the term “Junkblock” to describe the band’s jazz, funk, blues and rock infusion, inspired by musicians ranging from Medeski, Martin & Wood and Jimi Hendrix to The New Mastersounds and Phish.

A few months ago, the band played at Mishawaka Amphitheatre, north of Fort Collins, and a gentleman who initially looked as though he may or may not have been of the psychedelic persuasion decided to crash the stage.

“He started meditating while we played, which in itself is cool, but it got a little scary,” vocalist Jordan Roos said.

What began as an eyes-closed, facetoward- the-sky, held-hands-in-prayer vertical stance turned into a horizontal nightmare for the spiritual stage-seeker.

“As security managed to make their way through and get him, all hell broke loose,” Roos recalls. “The next thing I remember was this kid on the ground with security on top of him, with Good Gravy’s mandolin (a very delicate instrument) below them. There was a signifi – cant struggle, and the kid was eventually handcuffed (just with zip ties) and passed from on stage down to the crowd below. I am pretty sure the people below who were being handed the kid did not have a good hold, and the kid went face fi rst into the ground with his hands tied behind his back. We later found out the kid had eaten a ton of acid.”

Will work for hookah

It’s happening everywhere: Writers are giving their prose away for dimes on Amazon, actors are busing more tables and musicians are turning into hookah whores.

Brittany Shane realizes we’re in a recession, which might explain why she performed at the Juggling Gypsy in North Carolina during her summer tour in exchange for something that just went up in smoke. That’s right: She actually agreed to sing for one hookah and three fl avors. (After all, how could she resist such tantalizing fl avors as Circus Madness, Body Massage and Sex with a Hippie?)

Shane, who introduces herself as a singer-songwriter like she’s in an old Western — squinting her eyes from the bright sun and looking as though she’s about to jump back onto her dusty horse after a long day of fi ghting cowboy crime — began playing her catchy rock, pop and alt-country tunes throughout the nation last year. Her storytelling and strong vocals smack of Stevie Nicks and Sheryl Crow. Though she’s played the big cities, from Chicago to Austin and Memphis, she’s seen her fair share of that treasured form of barter our mountain towns are so famous for (you know, help a buddy move, get a bag of weed; trade a quartz crystal (or a couple Percocet) for a sandwich). But in her mountainous journeys for gigs in Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, Idaho, to Whitefi sh, Mont.; Breckenridge and Carbondale, Colo.; and Santa Fe, N.M., she never encountered such a smokin’ deal.

The hookah bar owner, who happens to look like Ron Jeremy, was completely stoned, so the band members only saw him once before they took the stage.

“He went into his office, which was filled with smoke, and never came back out. It looked like he stepped into another dimension, or into the doorway that Kelly LeBrock stepped out of in the ’80s movie ‘Weird Science,’” Shane said.

After the set, the band gathered ’round for its free hookah to celebrate with a few flavored puffs.

“We couldn’t decide if this was cool and different or just plain dumb,” Shane said. “I just wanted the owner to open his door and walk out as Kelly LeBrock.”

Life on the Mountain Music Road continues in future issues with unbeckoned nudity, middle-aged hip-hop moms doling out unbidden sex advice, stupid mountain ascents and more.

Australis: An Antarctic Ski Odyssey

You have to respect Chris Davenport’s ingenuity and creativity, as a skier and a businessman. He went from downhill skiing, to extreme skiing championships, to being a ski fi lm star, to skiing all of Colorado’s 14ers in a single year, and somehow along the way, has not had to hang it up and get a “real” job to feed his kids. With “Australis,” he’s made it clear that the job of being Chris Davenport is maybe just keeping us excited about whatever he dreams up next. In late 2009, Davenport gathered up a couple friends (pro skier couple Stian Hagen and Andrea Binning) and a fi lm crew, got on a boat named “Australis” and headed to the Antarctic Peninsula for some ski mountaineering. I’ll tell you, I enjoyed the crap out of this movie, with the disclaimer that I’m a sucker for any ski movie not involving dudes getting dropped off via helicopter. The footage of Davenport, Hagen and Binning carving turns on slopes that end in the deep blue Antarctic Ocean will probably make you want to shut your TV off and get out there yourself, even if you’re used to seeing a lodge at the bottom of your ski hills, as most of us are. The fi lm will be touring a few locations in the Mountain West in December and January. $24.95. www.antarcticskiodyssey.com

Desert Towers: Fat Cat Summits and Kitty Litter Rock

I know it’s ski season, not climbing season, but this is my favorite book to come across my desk ever since I started doing this column. And climbers need something to read in the off-season. Boulder climbing legend and desert tower connoisseur Steve “Crusher” Bartlett has put together a masterpiece: The history of tower climbing on the Colorado Plateau, with archival photos and essays collected in one 352-page volume. Beginning with John Otto’s 1911 ascent of Colorado National Monument and continuing through present day, Crusher captures the adventure of the early days of desert exploration, and the balls it took to go for it in pre-guidebook days. Photos and essays from the fi rst ascensionists bring to life the tales of Spider Rock, the Totem Pole and Cleopatra’s Needle, the “Three Best” towers, all now illegal to climb because of their location on Navajo Nation land. Legendary climbers like Layton Kor, Fred Beckey, Eric Bjornstad, Harvey Carter, Lou Dawson, Huntley Ingalls, Steve Roper, John Sherman, Ed Webster and others share the tales of battle on other sandstone icons: Castleton Tower, Standing Rock, The Titan — maybe you get the point. This book is Crusher’s labor of love and gift to climbing geeks, and if you’re not a climbing geek, this book might make you one. $49.95. www.sharpendbooks.com