In my skiing scrapbooks is a newspaper clipping:
ARMY SKIING STAR CLOCKED AT 109 MPH
Portillo, Los Andes
Chile, Sept. 2 (UP)
Ralph Miller, former Dartmouth skiing star, now serving in the United States Army, today sped down a specially measured 45-degree Andean slope at a speed of 175.6 kilometers (109 mph) per hour.
He exceeded by 19 kph (12 mph) the former record skiing speed of 156 kph set by Italy’s Zeno Colo.
Others who bettered the Colo mark but failed to equal Miller’s were Bud Werner of the University of Denver; Marvin Melville of Salt Lake City, Utah; Ronald Funk of Sun Valley, Idaho; and Chick Igaya, the Japanese skier who is attending Dartmouth. All are training for next year’s winter Olympic games.
That was in 1955 and I was 16. My school beer-drinking fellowship drove automobiles that fast, but the 16-year-old mind stampeded at the concept of 109 mph on skis. It magnified the living legends that were Ralph Miller and Bud Werner in the mind of a young ski racer for whom ski racing was everything. The teenage competitor tended to view living people in mythological terms, suspecting that good downhill racers were better humans than poor ones. At the time, all downhills frightened me, and I progressed in admiration and sometimes awe of the mythic downhill racer. I studied this breed, reaching to understand what enabled them to go straight where I couldn’t or wouldn’t. I even categorized courage according to three men — Ralph Miller, Bud Werner and Dick Buek, on anybody’s list of the best downhillers of the time.
Ralph Miller’s courage was studied, thought out and calculating. Miller looked at possibilities and consequences, prepared better than anyone else and jumped in to do his best. It is revealing that Miller gave up racing to become a doctor. He would have made a great general.
Bud Werner had courage as hard as marble and as cold. Bud gave you chills because, once he had chosen his territory, there would be no retreat. Bud’s courage was win or lose, succeed or die, black or white. Werner said, “When you’re afraid of speed, it’s time to quit.” He also said, “There are only two places in a race, first and last.” And he must have known some lonely moments. Bud Werner was the leader of an age in American skiing, a peculiar sort of genius, a loner, the last of an American species, and he was loved the most.
Buek possessed a courage opposite to Werner’s — hot, loud, indulged in for its own sake. Dick got his kicks more from the moment lived in heat than from the results of the race, though he was a hard, conscientious competitor. Dick was nicknamed “Mad Dog” and he laughed the most. Dick carried the reputation of amazing feats and he enjoyed his life and himself, and he was long dead in a plane wreck before I knew the joy of mastering fear.
Courage was a calculating risk, a primitive hardness or a touch of insanity. What chance had a boy who lacked an essential trait of the brave? I couldn’t know then that confidence and resolution are organic and that there are more than three varieties. Each person carries his and her own courage within, and we cease growing when traveling heavy or feeding lean. Like anyone who reflects the past as a future hint, I know much now I didn’t know then, but I knew there must be a way to true desires and false ones will sooner or later show their hands. I knew a person’s endeavors are closely related to his or her inner needs, and I needed a lot.
In March 1957 something happened in an Aspen bar that followed me around for years.
It was the night of the Roche Cup banquet after the races, the end of a good time. After my first semester of college, I moved to Aspen to train and race, living in a rented room with Tony Perry and Ron Funk. Ron was just divorced and leading an athletic, monastic existence and we did not learn to be good friends that year. Tony and I were American college fraternity boys (he an SAE at Denver University and me a Sigma Nu at the University of Nevada, majoring in journalism), and we made up in Aspen social circles for Ron’s seclusion. In terms of ski racing, it was a discouraging winter, but my 18-year-old fraternity house mind saw a form of success (a word one distrusts more each day) in parties, romance, lust and participation in the races. I was sorry the season was over.
I was having a beer in my favorite saloon with my old friend Howie Norton of Piedmont, California. Howie is about 5”6’ and 120 pounds. Suddenly, a gentleman estimated at 6’2’ and 200 pounds became pushy about ordering a beer and he and Howie exchanged words. Howie was raised in a society where barroom fighting is looked upon the way Norman Mailer must have appeared to Jacqueline Kennedy when he informed her he wanted to write a book proving the Marquis de Sade’s sainthood. Howie would no more consider a barroom brawl than he would have invited Lenny Bruce to dinner.
My background did not preclude barroom fighting, but I was clearly outsized and under motivated and told the heavyweight we didn’t want any trouble. He asked me if we were “chicken shit” to fight and I said “yes” and that seemed to satisfy him and he left, my pride a foolish sacrifice to peace.
Soon, he returned. We learned later that this fighter was a miner, married to the sister of a friend who was one of the best American skiers. He was neither satisfied nor about to be less than the traditional Saturday night liturgy of a certain strain of man who earns his subsistence by hard, physical labor. Again, he and Howie exchanged words. A disaster was imminent. I got off my stool.
“Hey, man, we don’t want any trouble.”
He shoved me violently against the bar, hissing obscenities. Next to my right hand on the bar was a full, long-neck bottle of beer. I picked it up. He threw his right, which I blocked with my left, and I hit him in the head with the bottle of beer. His eyes were like an electric light that has had the current switched off, and when I hit him with the left that had blocked his right it was like knocking over a wooden statue.
End of fight.
The bottle breaking against his head sounded like an explosion. There was blood and excited people. The wounded warrior had a serious concussion and several stitches in his face and head and he spent a few days in the hospital.
The bartender saw it all and he gave me another beer. When the scene quieted, I sought out the warrior’s wife to apologize and explain my side. Considering her husband’s condition, she was quite nice. She wished I hadn’t hit him with a bottle but explained with a wife’s patience that he had chosen that path before.
Then I sought out the owner of the bar. I’ll call this man Number Seven, a well-known personality, wit, skier and saloon keeper. I apologized. He accepted. In the ensuing years, we saw each other many times in the skiing world and always spoke and were friendly.
That night Howie and I left Aspen. A good winter and time in our lives left with us, the fight a good war story, an ugly memory.
At this point, let us more closely examine the 1955 UP (United Press, now United Press International UPI) story about speed skiing.
Zeno Colo’s old record was 159.292 kph, not 156 kph, and neither Werner, Funk, Melville nor Igaya bettered that mark. Melville and Igaya were never close, having quit many kilometers slower. The day before Miller’s record run, Miller and Werner went 158 kph. Funk was clocked at 156 kph, but fell in the transition and suffered a badly broken ankle and leg. Ron’s fall helped Werner decide that new territory might not be worth the price of holding.
Miller, who had MacArthurian traits, repaired the track after Ron’s fall and the next day went up alone as high as possible. Then he came down. He was timed by the great French skier Emile Allais with a hand-held stop watch over 50 meters, and his speed was actually measured at 108.7 mph/175.402 kph, not 109 mph. At 100 mph, a tenth of a second difference over 50 meters is about 18 mph, and anyone who has ever used a hand stop watch knows that two timers timing the same thing will always have a tenth of a second or more difference. For that reason Miller’s run is considered unofficial. He may have only gone 99 mph, but it is just as likely he went 112 mph. People who have raced on the Portillo track and know where he started tend to believe Miller was the first to go over 100 mph.
This revision of the 1955 UP story took me years to learn, and I was interested and spent many hours talking with Ron and others about it. What sort of truth and awareness could exist in the mind of a person who had, for instance, only that newspaper clipping to go on? So much of what we think — therefore do, therefore are — is based on newspaper and television reporting. We of modern civilization and culture are to some extent journalism products. I even majored in journalism in college before switching my major to English and graduating with a journalism minor. One of the better descriptions of journalism was given the world by James Agee:
“Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliché and complacency of journalism, but I do not wish to appear to speak favorably of journalism. I have never yet seen a piece of journalism which conveyed more than the slightest fraction of what even moderately reflective and sensitive person would mean and intend by those unachievable words, and that fraction itself I have never seen clean of one or another degree of patent, to say nothing of essential falsehood. Journalism is true in the sense that everything is true to the state of being and to what conditioned and produced it (which is also, but less so perhaps, a limitation of art and science); but that is about as far as its value goes. This is not to accuse or despise journalism for anything beyond its own complacent delusion, that it is telling the truth even of what it tells of. Journalism can within its own limits be “good” or “bad,” “true” or “false,” but it is not in the nature of journalism even to approach any less relative degree of truth. Again, journalism is not to be blamed for this; no more than a cow is to be blamed for not being a horse. The difference is, and the reason one can respect or anyhow approve of the cow, that few cows can have the delusion or even the desire to be horses, and that none of them could get away with it even with a small part of the public. The very blood and semen of journalism, on the contrary, is a broad and successful form of lying. Remove that form of lying and you no longer have journalism.”
Part of the answer to why a man finds himself in big speed on a pair of skis is involved in and attributed to the journalistic mind. The American of my age was reared as much by journalistic media as by family and school, and I do not think it has changed. There is something uncomfortable about the desire to be better than other people, but the newspapers said it was a good way to be, and to a sports-oriented teenager, the path lay through the self-conscious swamp of his own fear, lack of knowledge and unripe skill. Step by step.
This is a methodical approach to one-upmanship, as opposed to more spontaneous forms of the game, but evolution is in evidence here. By continuing through the swamp of fear (or any other swamp), familiarity will make the difficulty known, then understood, then natural and bearable. By persevering through eternally new swamps of the mind, man has progressed to his present state. By forgetting where he came from while never letting go of what he came through, man binds his vision and freedom and lives on the brink of a threatening tomorrow, neglecting the fullness that is today. I learned something about this through speed skiing.
The preceding is an excerpt from “The Straight Course,” by long-time Gazette senior correspondent Dick Dorworth. The book, scheduled to be published this fall by Western Eye Press, recounts Dorworth’s speed-skiing days, during which time he once held the world record. Dorworth, author of “The Perfect Turn” and “Night Driving,” splits his time between Ketchum and Bozeman.
About a year ago, I was three or four hundred yards from the wall in a National Forest when a military drone lazed by a few hundred feet above the ground. The aircraft was almost silent and directed by men sitting in a control room many miles away in Fort Huachuca, the U.S. Army intelligence center. They were hunting poor people — men, women, and children. The summer day felt fresh because of recent rain, the hills glowed with green, and a small canyon with water tumbling across its rock bottom sliced south to Mexico. I was standing on American ground and staring into the face of American dread.
The wall is a political stunt whose time has come. In some places, the wall looks ugly, in other places it seems innocent. Sometimes, when it snakes across valleys and deserts and mountains, the wall looks like a work of art. But it never looks like it will do the job of keeping people out of the U.S. and it never does that job. It cuts communities off from each other, illegally takes land here and there for its footprint, and severs connections in biological communities. But mainly the wall billboards American fears and murders American ideals.
Most U.S. citizens support walling off Mexico and most U.S. citizens will never even glimpse this wall. But they will believe that it is essential and no fact is likely to upend their belief.
For the people coming north, the wall is simply one more obstacle in a lifetime of obstacles.
The body was found three and a half miles south of the Duquesne Road at 7:39 a.m. July 18th. Ramon Alejandro Mendoza-Alcaraz was from Magdalena, Sonora, a town noted for agriculture, drug smuggling, and an annual fiesta for San Francisco that has been celebrated for centuries and draws people from both sides of the border. Those who have made vows walk from fifty to a hundred miles to be present at the celebration. Ramon lived twenty-seven years. The other body was found July 25th. Jose Francisco Lira-Cendo lasted twenty-eight years and came from Caborca, Sonora, a town noted for agriculture and drug smuggling. So far thirteen bodies have been found in the county this year. They were all in the U.S. illegally. They had crossed fences, car barriers and, in most cases, the wall.
I stay calm by ignoring what is in front of my face. The dead men were within ten or fifteen miles of my house. I know the towns they came from, and I know what it feels like to enter the U.S. illegally since I have done it many times. Almost thirty years ago, I crossed the line in western Sonora on June 21st and walked forty-five miles across a burning desert in one night. I was in pretty good shape then but this walk almost finished me off. The Mexicans moving around me that night had an added pressure: they were hunted by agents of the U.S. government and would be thrown back into Mexico if they were caught. I was simply trying to dramatize for a daily newspaper the fact that the Mexican border had become a killing field as men and women and children trekked across the hardest ground in hopes of finding a living in these United States. There was no wall then and there were not twenty thousand agents on the line trying to catch Mexicans. But there was desperation and death, and this misery has been a constant over the years.
I feed birds here. I raise flowers. And I try to forget all the dead. And I almost always fail. I have spent my life on the line and nothing about the migration of the Mexican people from death toward life is ever far from my mind and heart. The wall is merely the most recent denial of what is happening and why it is happening. The wall divides human communities, the wall illegally seizes ground, the wall costs billions, and the wall stops no one. In the Altar Valley, a spot I have loved since childhood, the wall was hardly up a week before gates were cut through it. The Mexicans thoughtfully put the hinges on their side of the barrier.
The U.S. border with Mexico has never been secure and never will be secure. It is too vast to police and the U.S. economy is too rapacious to endure a sealed border. The only way to stop illegal immigration is to create a country so repellent that no one will try to sneak into it. The former Soviet Union comes to mind as a possible model, or perhaps modern-day Somalia.
Many Americans like to boast that their ancestors entered the U.S. legally. They forget that it was almost impossible to be rejected. One third of the current population is descended from people who came through a single place in New York Harbor, Ellis Island. They had to answer twenty-nine questions, not be dangerously ill, insane, or known criminals. Only two percent were ever rejected by the U.S. Of course, almost all of them had been rejected by the nations of their birth. That is why they arrived at Ellis Island. They were human garbage cast off by their native lands. I am descended from such people.
The Mexicans coming north are very similar. Badly educated, poor and unwanted by Mexico. And capable of creating a new life in a new language in a new place. They are exactly the kind of people Mexico needs if it is to prosper and they are exactly the kind of people Mexico rejects because it is a corrupt plutocracy that functions by terrorizing and crushing its own citizens.
There are many forces driving the migration north — a free trade agreement that destroyed peasant agriculture and wiped out small industries, a growing violence fed by the U.S. prohibition against certain drugs and by the deliberate policy of the Mexican government, a growing population on a sacked land base — and scholars will be picking over these facts for generations seeking causes. It hardly matters now, the movement has begun and for people to stay in Mexico means doom for them and the explosion of the state, just as there are many forces feeding the backlash against the migration in the U.S. These matters too will be parsed by scholars over time. But like the migration itself, the rise of anti-immigrant feeling in the U.S. now has a life of its own and fits a pattern of American nativism whenever new arrivals suddenly change the faces in towns and cities.
But what will prove more damaging than migrants or drugs is the sudden fear in the American people that makes them build a giant wall. At most, the illegal numbers in the U.S. comprise four percent of the population, but somehow this sliver of flesh terrorizes the remaining ninety-six percent and has created a new iron curtain walling off the brown nation to the south.
I am living through an ugly time and this new age of walls and fear is alien to my nature.
So I watch birds by a creek near the line while the Border Patrol sweeps past my door and the wall slowly strangles the pathways of life on my ground.
That is why this book matters. The wall now being built on the southern border of the U.S. is a statement about the shuttering of American society. It is not a tactic to control immigration since no one in government seriously thinks it will do that. It is an almost two thousand mile-long monument to the American fear of others. The country that located the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor right by Ellis Island has vanished. The new America needs a wall to sleep at night.
Emma Lazarus’ poem sits inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. It reads:
The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus, 1883
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
No one has written any poems celebrating the wall.
Maybe it is time to take good look at it.
Black-headed grosbeaks returned as the summer rains arrived here on the border. I try to think of them and not of the dead men to my south. Three separate groups of illegal migrants have told the federal agents of passing a line of about nine men wearing backpacks just this side of the border. They had all been cut down by automatic rifle fire about a month ago. They were smuggling marijuana into the U.S. and were killed by competitors.
Of course, maybe this never happened, maybe the dead are not dead. Just as no one thinks that all those who die trying to cross are found.
This shooting was a month ago. So far, no federal agents have looked into these reports because they don’t matter in this new America. In this new America, there is an insatiable appetite for drugs and contempt for the people who supply them. In this new America, there is an insatiable appetite for cheap labor and contempt for the people who take such jobs.
In this new America, there is a wall almost two thousand miles long and a growing desire to hunt down illegal Mexicans and ship them home. In this new America, migrants are seen as a threat to national security and national security is never defined. Or questioned.
In this new America, the biggest drug is legal and handed out freely by politicians. This drug is fear, and the American people have become addicted to it.
That is why the wall exists and that is why this book exists. The wall exists in our mind as a solution and exists on the ground as a gesture. The forces it tries to contain — drugs, poor people — cannot be answered by a wall or stopped by a wall or defined by a wall. But the wall speaks for a new America as it mutilates the cherished ideas of an earlier America.
That is why the Statue of Liberty must now be retired, and perhaps banished from public view before it confuses children.
The lamp by the golden door is now a battery of lights blazing against the long wall in the hours of darkness lest the tired and the poor sneak in here to fulfill their dreams.
“The American Wall: From the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico” (University of Texas Press, two slip-case-packaged hard covers, 224-plus-160 pages, 100 quadratone photos: $150 — $100.50 if ordered directly from the Univ. of Texas website http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/sheame.html. ISBN: 978-0-292-72697-0.)
Regular MG contributor Charles Bowden is the author of many books, including, most recently, “El Sicario: The Autobiography of A Mexican Assassin” and “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” He lives in Las Cruces, NM.
Maurice Sherif studied communication art at the University of San Francisco in California. His first book, “Lumière Métallique,” was published in 2003. Sherif now divides his time between his native Paris and Albuquerque .
Death of GLM San Francisco ski Show, 1966
These are last year’s rental skis, dumped on the ski show market to clear current stock, a precursor event to the modern disposable ski. Santa, please don’t send me any 150s or 165s, even if they’re shaped, fat, mid-fat, wide, double-ended, reverse-cambered, with duck-foot tips, and split-tails. The Graduated Length Method died because no one ever graduated. Why bother to go to First Grade when Kindergarten is so much fun?
I once demo’d a pair of 205 Miller Softs, and my first turn was a 360. Gymnastics and stunts do not skiing make. I finally got a pair of 207 VR-7s, but just for teaching. The Luddites did have a point, you know. Long skis, wooden boats and B&W film, that’s my bumpersticker. A Jeep is my vehicle, and a stick-shift is my drive.
Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.
These are the days when people affix GPS tracking devices to publicly displayed Baby Jesuses and when holiday DUI checkpoints get outed on Twitter. In some ways, it feels like we’ve gotten smarter or classier, or that we’ve at least purchased the means to fake it. That said, we’ve got a criminal re-gifting a bathrobe that he yanked off his assault victim.
1) The wrong gift
In a story that takes bad decisions and meanness to ionospheric levels, King County deputies arrested a robbery and assault suspect after he had the cojones to give his mother a stolen, bloodstained bathrobe for Christmas. A neighbor of the victim (who was robbed, beaten and run over after he tried to stop his car from being stolen) called police to report a bloodied, naked man crawling around outside. His robe, described as a “very distinctive” green garment that featured a large, exotic cat, had been taken. The mean, tasteless suspect then showed up at his grandmother’s house dirty and covered with blood, and told the woman he’d just “stomped” someone. In a continuing act of complete stupidity, he then gave the very distinctive robe to his mother, who managed to spill the beans when cops interviewed her. “The bathrobe was recovered and positively identified by the victim’s wife as the one he was wearing the night he was assaulted,” a sheriff’s spokesman said.
2) A reminder to travel light
A man carrying a carefully wrapped holiday present was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport several years back. Why? Because he was more than likely the biggest idiot in the Western Hemisphere for thinking that commercial airlines are a viable means for transporting illegal materials. Airport officials who do things, like — I don’t know — scan and examine the things people carry on planes opened the gift to find 23 pounds of marijuana. That got police to thinking and it led them to a Fountain Valley home, where they arrested two more ridiculously stupid suspects and confiscated nine pounds of cocaine and $17,000 in cash.
3) Even better than Mr. Hankey
Coming in on some surveys as the 10th all-time ranking “South Park” episode and topping out the Christmas episodes for the long-running series, “Woodland Critter Christmas” features a confused Stan and some new friends in the form of devil-worshiping forest creatures. “South Park” aficionados go so far as to rate the episode above Season One’s holiday classic, in which we are introduced to Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo; and Season Three’s “Merry F&*#ing Christmas.” And yes, Virginia, there is a South Park, Colorado.
4) Add this to your hangover
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, for which Mountain Gazette leans mightily for all manner of information, New Year’s Day is statistically your worst day of the year for getting your car stolen (and Thanksgiving logs the most DUIs). And we’re guessing New Year’s Day is also the top day for simply not knowing where the hell your car is. Anyway, in 2009, 2,760 cars were reported stolen on Jan. 1 in the U.S., with 2,325 on Halloween and July 4 and Memorial Day tied at 2,207. Coincidence? We think not. Anyway, if you live in the Western U.S., you’ve got a bigger chance of your car getting stolen, according to the Insurance Information Institute. California runs away with the stats, with Modesto ranking No. 1. Oddly enough, Las Vegas comes in at No. 2, with Albuquerque at No. 7, Phoenix at 8, Yakima at 9, and Tucson in 10th place. Arizona comes in at No. 4 among states, with Washington at No. 6.
5) We’re seriously not worthy
According to AOL Travel, if you live in the Mountain West, you aren’t anywhere near a tasteful and worthy holiday light display. New York City tops the list, followed by New Orleans. Las Vegas comes in at No. 5, and while it abuts mountains and is frequently included in Cartographic digressions, Vegas always has light displays. So we’re disqualifying it and checking out TackyLightTour.com instead. Here, we found domestic light designs in Phoenix and Cave Creek, Arizona, and a phallus in Kent, Washington, that took top rankings as Most Likely to Be Seen From Outer Space.
6) Seriously Not Worthy Part 2
When it comes to our willingness to part with our money for holiday gifts, the denizens of the Mountain West once again come up short. For reasons we do not completely understand, the folks in Raleigh, N.C., spent $1,269 apiece over the 2009 holidays, coming out at No. 1. An exception to the Mountain West, Scottsdale came in at No. 4, with $1,118 per person. And the Scottsdale young adults (18-25) managed to outspend their way to the No. 1 position in that age group, beating out the young adults in second-place Arlington, Virginia, by $200 apiece.
7) Not In Our Town
The national Not In Our Town anti-hate movement was born in Billings in 1993, when a year of pathetic and racist BS came to a head. It was a Montana Cold Night when someone hurled a brick through a six-year-old boy’s window, where he had placed the family’s Hanukkah menorah. The town came together to say Not In Our Town (for example, the Billings Gazette printed menorahs for people to put in their windows, and nearly 10,000 people participated), which inspired communities across the country take similar stands against intolerance. The movement became a national PBS project.
Tara Flanagan splits her time between Boulder and Breckenridge, where she works as an equine massage therapist. Her blog, “Out There,” can be found at mountaingaztte.com.
clear as cut glass
& just as dangerous
David Rothman, head of a new MFA program at Western State College in Gunnison, who appeared in the October issue of MG, has taken a serious swipe at Language Poetry in responding to a on-line lit ‘zine query from Cameron Scott of Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. Find it at http://formalversemfa.org/2011/05/16/language-poetry-two-words-two-lies
Colorado’s other poetically notorious David would be David Mason, the state’s latest poet laureate, named by Gov. Ritter several years ago. A professor at Colorado College, Mason has been living up to a promise to visit every county in the state (including a tour this fall around the Western Slope). He’s written criticism, loves to perform, has won a number of awards, boasts a classic narrative verse poem in Ludlow (Red Hen Press, Pasadena, CA, 2007) and is featured in this month’s Way of the Mountain.
— Art Goodtimes
I Hear the Guitar
The shadow of a bat
across my page at night
is lighter than a thought
and just as late.
I drink to the guitar
and passing girls who wear
hibiscus in their hair,
scenting the air.
— David Mason, Colorado Poet Laureate
Written While Hiking
mountain skunk taunting
now all our remembrances
— Carol Bell
Running on the long
dirt road, it is four miles
before my mind
slows down enough
to join my body.
— Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer
Poetry is a
— Jack Mueller
Log Hill Village
of a trail
cut through snow.
The dark bark
flocked with white.
The stare of
before its leap.
of waking life
no museum can hold.
— Linda Keller
What the Hopi Said
A Hopi Indian once said
to hop over the Acropolis
with an Arizona spruce branch
held tightly in your hand
waving on Kachina Spirits
of the San Francisco Peaks
saying the Greeks need rain
since all their gods are dead.
— Richard F. Fleck
As we all know, a dog can hear tones beyond our auditory range and has a keener sense of smell. Other species outdo us as well as each other in other aspects of the senses. Elephants perceive tones pitched lower than those heard by humans or dogs, and rats have more scent receptors. The sensuous attunement of mammalian ears and noses varies widely. Yet vision is relatively constant among species. Though some birds and insects have extreme ranges of vision, mammalian vision is limited to what’s called the visual spectrum, light ranging from 400 to 700 nanometers in wavelength, from violet to red in color.
An exception to that general rule has long been suspected and has just been assessed by scientists at the University College London and the University of Tromsø, Norway. The researchers found that Arctic reindeer see light a fifth shorter in wavelength than that seen by humans, as well as most mammals. Reindeer see what we see, as well as a greater part of the ultraviolet spectrum, sometimes called “black light,” because we can’t see it. (The purple glow of artificial black-light sources, such as fluorescent lamps, is not ultraviolet light, but rather violet light in the visible spectrum that isn’t filtered out by the glass envelope of the lamp.)
The ability to see in ultraviolet helps reindeer survive in the Arctic, principally because lichens, the staple of their winter diet, do not reflect ultraviolet light. So, to a forging reindeer, food stands out black in a snowscape. Moreover, urine, a sign of predators or potential mates, and the fur of predators appear in sharp contrast in ultraviolet.
Seeing ultraviolet has a significant side effect. Reindeer are immune to photokeratitis, a painful eye condition caused by exposure to ultraviolet light. In humans, photokeratitis is commonly known as snow blindness, because people often suffer it after having been on snow, which strongly reflects ultraviolet light. So, ever since people took to living in snow-covered landscapes, they have devised various remedial means of cutting down the amount of ultraviolet light reaching the eye. Historically first were the snow goggles devised by Arctic peoples, including the Inuits (North America and Greenland), the Sámi (northern Scandinavia and Russia) and the Nenets (Siberia). Like a permanent squint, the native snow goggles cut down all light reaching the eye by covering each eye with a cup fashioned from reindeer antler, wood or shell, with a thin slit to allow some vision. The cups were held in place by straps made of reindeer sinew. Modern snow goggles use various types of glass and plastic with built-in filters that block ultraviolet but otherwise allow full vision.
Humans took a few centuries to evolve ways of protecting their eyes against the harmful effects of ultraviolet light. Reindeer gained their ability to cope with ultraviolet after they migrated to the Arctic ten thousand years ago. They are not alone, as snow blindness is unknown in Arctic animals. Moreover, no Arctic animal exhibits photophobia, the fear of light exposure often found in ultraviolet-sensitive rodents. The reasons for these differences from similar animals elsewhere on the planet are unknown, but it’s clear that Arctic vision adaptation may be evidence of evolution in the fast lane.
The complete details of the reindeer vision research are reported in an article by C. Hogg et.al. in issue 214 (June 15, 2011) of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Digital Object Identifier (DOI): 10.1242/jeb.053553 (access DOI via www.doi.org).
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a translator. A natural scientist by training, he takes his vacations in France. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in MG.
Greensky Bluegrass brings all the grit and attitude of a whiskey-soaked card game to its bluegrass-spiked-with-rock-‘n’-roll sound. The Michigan crew has been carting its dobro, banjo, guitar, bass and mandolin around the country for 11 years and counting, but the guys didn’t get bearish on green rooms until a gig in Crested Butte.
Aside from the usual terror anyone would face driving over Red Mountain Pass in a van towing a trailer amidst a storm that dumped three feet of snow — the worst part being they survived but couldn’t ski it due to their demanding tour schedule — Greensky Bluegrass got an unexpected dose of Colorado’s wild nature once they reached their venue.
After a killer first set at The Eldo, the boys headed down to the ground-level green room “to do everything you think bands do at set break,” said dobro player Anders Beck.
Twenty minutes later, the band sauntered toward the door with beers and instruments in hand — none of which could immediately help them with what they encountered next.
Seems a black bear wanted in on the green-room action.
Banjo player Mike Bont was the first to open the door and realize he was “literally face to face with a very large black bear — who wanted to come in for tequila shots, I assume,” Beck said. “Though the bear looked about as freaked out as us at the moment, you’ve probably never seen Greensky Bluegrass move so quickly in one direction. Drinks spilled, instruments clanked together in strange dissonant harmonies and the door slammed shut — quickly.”
But the bear wasn’t shushed away easily; the boys had to conjure up a heap of noise, and to this day they’re pretty sure it was the banjo that ultimately made the curious bear scuttle down the river path so the musicians could head upstairs and continue the show.
“I don’t remember what we played that night, but I certainly remember that set break,” Beck said. “(It was) the biggest bear we had ever seen, and it was pretty damn scary.”
Kimberly Nicoletti hasn’t encountered a bear in her yard since 2004, but her otherwise intelligent American Eskimo ran up to the moose that frequented her yard this May. Needless to say, human intervention was required when the moose lowered its antlers in response to the barking dog, and she could’ve really used a banjo. While not busy protecting her two little dogs from moose and coyotes, Kimberly acts as the A&E editor at the Summit Daily News.
“I’m not religious, but church music is the shit,” a friend whispered in a confessional tone over his beer. “The chord changes are intricately complex and it’s timeless. That’s why there have been Christmas carols since Henry the VIII. He even wrote some of them, or his court musicians did. That’s where ‘Greensleeves’ came from. The biggest problem I have is that it starts too early … like the week before Thanksgiving and then it’s like January 14th and you’re still fucking hearing it in grocery stores. That sucks. But when you hear the bell choir and you hear the ‘falalalala,’ it’s good cheer. I love it. Dylan came out with a Christmas album (‘Christmas in the Heart’). It’s terrible.” He made a face like he had just eaten blood pudding thinking it was chocolate. Yes, ’tis the season for that irksome, repetitive, mind-deadening holiday music, endless Christmas canticles blared across the loudspeakers at ski resorts and pouring out of restaurants and shops, permeating the streets and oozing up from the powdery whiteness of an otherwise perfect day.
It may be somewhat of a Scrooge attitude, but as hard as some of us try to ignore it, Christmas music won’t go away. If you ever actually liked Christmas music, by the time the celebrated Eve rolls around, you loathe hearing another verse of what has become insipid muzak droning out seasonal cheeriness. Call it the Christmas creep — whereas the assault used to start in early December but has now slipped into the day after Halloween. It is why many of us pay homage to Saint Steve for bringing us the iPod and the choice of a night silent of the inanity of granny getting run over by reindeer, or the looping of high-pitched androgynous voices, of sleigh bells ringing or little drummer boys who have nothing to do with rock-and-roll or Christmas for that matter. Even though Billy Idol oddly snarled out an album of traditional Christmas carols, The Boss electrified Santa Claus coming to town and plenty of indie and alternative bands startled new life into old hymns, there are actually a few holiday scores that especially warm the cockles … the ones you find yourself inexplicably whistling in July on a deep wilderness hike. The Grinch. Charlie Brown. But most notably, John Denver and the Muppets.
With just one song, John Denver did more to uplift the Yuletide spirit of more folk all over the country than a bowl full of wassail; he opened his nationally broadcast show in 1988, “Christmas in Aspen,” with one of his favorite Christmas songs, “Rocky Mountain High,” the tune capable of invoking euphoric mountain pride and responsible for relocating generations of happiness seekers to the beauty of the Rockies. The seasonal show was the highest-rated show for the ABC network at that time, watched by more than 60 million people.
John’s voice had the perfect cadence for traditional carols and his broad smile was the epitome of kid on Christmas morning. Although he made his “Rocky Mountain Christmas” album in 1975, which included the non-traditional “Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas),” “Aspenglow” and “Christmas for Cowboys,” the collaboration with Jim Henson’s Muppets in the 1979 “A Christmas Together” is truly the playful stuff that transcends the holiday season drollery. Nothing is more exhilarating than Animal screaming, “Run run, reindeer!” in “Little Saint Nick,” written and originally recorded by the Beach Boys (Wilson/Love) in 1963 and played by the Muppets’ band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. There’s a couple of John’s originals as well, such as “A Baby Just Like You,” in which his son Zachary is woven into the lyrics but the song was written for Frank Sinatra, and “Alfie The Christmas Tree,” which he said was inspired largely by the Muppets.
The cast of Muppets harmonizes well with John, who naturally fits right in with a diva pig, frogs, long-snouted creatures and feather-headed sax players. The album was re-released in 1996, but was sorely missing three integral songs — “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “When the River Meets the Sea” and “Little Saint Nick” — much to the disappointment of fans. Luckily, the faux pas was corrected in 2006 when the CD was again released in its platinum-certified original version with all 13 songs. Even though the CD and digital download have been available through Windstar Records, the vinyl had been out of print for a long time when John Denver’s estate decided to release a Kermit green edition in vinyl this year. Yes, this album is enhanced in frog green (and available exclusively from Urban Outfitters). The original LP inspired the exceedingly popular TV production of the same name in 1979, which, for some reason, has never been available in VHS or DVD to the public (but can be viewed in segments on youtube.com). In 1990, John also recorded the album “Christmas Like a Lullaby,” with more religious tunes. And just in case you were thinking you’ve heard all of John’s recordings before his fatal plane crash of 1997, this past October, John’s estate announced a series of previously unreleased live recordings. The first is digitally mastered from a 1990 concert in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and available as digital downloads from johndenver.com.
John’s penchant for introducing people to his adopted Aspen paradise extended to Muppets and, in 1983, he brought his close friend Jim Henson and his eclectic clan of creatures westward to film a campout under the gaze of the Maroon Bells (John: “The mosquitoes aren’t bad.” Kermit: “Aren’t bad? They’re delicious!”). The bedazzled gang donned classic plaid flannel shirts and puffy down vests for the 50-minute TV musical special, “Rocky Mountain Holiday” (still available on DVD).
John once said, “There’s one piece of advice my dad gave me when he dropped me off at college. He said, ‘You’ve got the talent. You can sing and play guitar. That doesn’t make you any better than anyone else.’” What made John more admirable than many though was how he used his well earned fame, calling attention to environmental issues, sustainable living, fighting homelessness and world hunger, especially where it concerned children, a supporter of space exploration and NASA and, of course, he testified in front of Congress in 1985 to protest the Washington Wives’ attempt at censorship in music. Earlier, he had been forced to defend “Rocky Mountain High” as a song about the natural bliss of being in the wilderness with friends around a campfire as opposed to a drug-induced high. The song was granted legislative status as Colorado’s second state song in 2007, after the 1915 “Where Columbines Grow.”
If you dread the Christmas musical inundation, but want to pump up the holiday spirit, John Denver and the Muppets “Christmas Together” is the one album to have for dancing around Yule fire … far out!
Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and vocalist whose huge Italian family sang the entire score of “Guys and Dolls” and “Westside Story” on Christmas Eve. After hearing “Rocky Mountain High,” she moved to a garage on a back alley in Crested Butte. firstname.lastname@example.org
New Year, midnight, alone. Standing atop a 70-foot concrete arrow pointing west. The nearby revelry drifted in and out of my awareness on winter’s whispery breath. Aerial explosions suddenly illuminated my surroundings: rocky cliff, creosote, curve of the Virgin River. And the incongruous arrow. Surrounded by desert, apart from and a part of the celebration.
I stood atop the simplest of aviation aids, navigating this life on a wing and a prayer.
Early in our nation’s acquaintance with aviation, few navigational aids existed. Pilots flew with railroad maps and picked their course across the topography below. In the 1920s, concrete arrows were constructed 10-30 miles apart across the nation, offering childlike route markers for the daredevils of the ether. Though night flights were deemed suicidal, it was our need for connection, communion and correspondence that finally drove men to take to the starry skies.
The Postal Service sought to prove to a circumspect Congress that the air was the most efficient route for the country’s mail. This assertion was true only if pilots made use of the light and dark hours. So they did.
The first night fliers relied upon Postal Service employees and friendly farmers lighting bonfires and torches on the ground, illuminating a path across the Midwest and toward the dawn. The most rudimentary innovation carried our most advanced invention safely through the unknown.
The arrow on which I stood above St. George directed commercial and airmail flights from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles. A steel post once held an oil lantern to illuminate the arrow in the darkness. A string of these lanterns spoke to pilots — this is the way … this is the way … this is the way … — a small, flickering prayer. Warmth in an otherwise empty sphere.
The early aviators flew on faith: that someone on the ground was thinking of them, that the lanterns would be lit, that morning would come.
The concrete arrow held my weight as I searched for the same assurances: that the darkness would end, that light would follow. The fireworks were my beacon into a new year, toward something more.
When I was a child, as the New Year crept forward, I would ritualistically comb my hair, brush my teeth, put on my pajamas and cuddle the cat — my last chance for the year — each act filled with great significance due to its finality. Every movement was slow, methodical, a way to draw out the final moments before the end, before I could never do these things again within the comfortable embrace of a known timeframe. As a child, I approached transition with such great care, putting the endings to bed and tucking them in before I could greet the beginnings. Hanging onto the befores until the afters left me no choice but to be swept along into tomorrow.
But this New Year, there was none of the care of yesteryear, none of the ritual or grasping. The previous months had been a time of hasty transition, reckless release and grand leaps into the unknown. In one fateful day, I found myself homeless, carless, jobless, penniless — divorced at age 28. Necessity dictated there would be no tenderness toward the finalities.
Instead, necessity dictated flying onward, alone in the darkness — on a wing and a prayer — toward an uncertain dawn, searching for navigational reassurances that this is the way … this is the way … this is the way … somewhere. Perhaps home.
Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last story for MG was “When In Doubt, Pee on the Fire,” which appeared in #183. Her blog, “Desert Reflections, can be found at mountaingazette.com. Jackson lives in Moab.