Letters – #176

Envelope: By Autumn Stinar.
We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages.
If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette

Ponying up!

Mr. Fayhee, After making a decision this morning to either continue to be a freeloader and make a 20-mile round trip each month to pick up a free copy of your rag, or renew a subscription to a Denver newspaper that only comes once a week and gives less and less, I decided to subscribe to your magazine.

I’ve read it now for a couple of years after discovering it in a box at a Hotchkiss, CO-area store. I will sit down and devour it like an ice-cold brew on a hot summer day. I perhaps do not fit your demographic, but the magazine does speak to me.

Thanks for an entertaining diversion to the normal humdrum pace of life.

My best,
Jim Sheetz,
Eckert, CO

No extended middle finger
Hi, John: I have to tell you that your “Digits” Smoke Signals in November 2010, was so intercoursing hilarious I was laughing out loud so hard with tears running down my face that I was expecting the neighbors to complain.

I’m sure I’m only one of thousands that look forward to your monthly column.

I won’t be sending in anything for the digits articles, but I do have two digit instances, same person, that I will never forget.

Biking Government Trail with a friend a few years back, the friend fell in some non-major gnarly area and just happened to hit a rock at the correct angle to slice his finger off. It was still hanging by a thread of skin with the bone exposed on its own. A sight that sent the most hardened emergency room staff to the toilet to puke. They managed to sew it back on and save it. I was the mortified one, when we were dashing back to the car to get him to the hospital, there are some difficult switchbacks by the Aspen end of the trail and he, with finger hanging off by the thread, had to wait for me at the car for like five minutes to get down those switchbacks.

That same friend must be digitally accident prone as there was a group of us skiing down Face of Bell in some enormous bottomless powder day when he fell on some bottomed out log on Hanging Tree (I think you know all these places), dislocated his finger and toughed out the rest of the day skiing. Group dynamics and he wasn’t going to give in.  After skiing, he went to the doctor, who talked him into an operation, rehab and physical therapy for it.  You can imagine the banter from the group at him about that.

Since then, when the subject is brought up, the gondola is a hard room for him to work.

Thanks again for the laughs.

Best regards,
Sheilah Bryan,
Aspen, CO

Compare and contrast
John: Earlier this fall, I walked down the drive along the ditch to fetch my mail. In my mailbox was Mountain Gazette along with Outside Magazine. (Outside seems to randomly show up every few months and perhaps the publisher is trying to build subscriptions with random deliveries.)

Both magazines happened to write about personal lists. At the same time that Outside had compiled a lifetime “Bucket” list for its readers, MG had some very personal letters from its readers listing what they had done in their own lives that they considered noteworthy. It was some sort of serendipity to be able to compare an artificial list prepared by editors with input from sponsors, advertisers and media consultants, with actual lists of actual activities prepared by the actual people who related their own personal experiences.

Some of the Outside suggestions were pedestrian: “Learn another constellation besides the Big Dipper,” which cannot ever compare with an actual personal experience that I read in Mountain Gazette. “Connected with lost ancestors in Italy to find the best hugs on the planet … and awesome homemade pasta, of course.” Reading the personal lists in MG was moving, especially when I took the time to think beyond the written words to the emotion and passion contained in some of the experiences. Which gets to my final point — no one else can write your list.

Best Regards,
Tom Noll,
SW Idaho

Cartographic eye-opener
John: Call me crazy, but Tara Flanagan’s article, “Too Close Encounters” in MG #173, was an eye-opener. First, it reminded me of my interest in the supernatural. I’ve always been a BELIEVER, with a small b, in cryptozoological and ET stuff. While I don’t receive Contemporary Occult Devotee magazine, I am casually fascinated by the spectrum, and think of myself as an armchair Sasquatch expert. Maybe it’s because s/he’s part of the mystique of a land I’ve admired since childhood or perhaps, as Tara said, people need something to believe in, and I dropped religion a long time ago. I mean, at least the Patterson film exists for some feasible evidence (a man in an ape suit can’t move like that!). Where’s Jesus making fishes multiply on film?! In any event, regardless of the cause, my interest in Sasquatch even over-rode the social phobia I struggled with till my 20s.

Second year of undergrad, I had a public speaking class, which you can only imagine did to the bowels of a social phobe. But for one stretch, I rode the fine line of anxiety/excitement when I learned of the requirement for a persuasive speech. I would persuade my classmates Bigfoot existed! While my talk generated many skeptical inquiries by classroom Matlocks, most of which I thought I fielded well, nobody was satisfied with my answers about why a Bigfoot was never caught or found in cadaverous form. Typical answers from Bigfoot scholars like, “well, look at how vast the terrain is of the areas they are seen!” and “perhaps it is because they are emotionally intelligent and bury their dead” all of a sudden were lame answers to me too as I watched none of it convince my classmates one iota.

With the amount of sightings versus amount of evidence, save footprints (only some seeming believable), my classmate’s persistent skepticism on that one question left me at a loss for any other answer than to say I had none, thereby admitting defeat, which is kinda what happened anyhow. It meant that it was all just a matter of faith (haha) that I believed, like a right-wing Bible thumper saying “because it’s in the Bible” and no other argument in my support.

Enter Tara’s article and my wish for time travel. While it likely would have opened a completely different can of worms that my prefrontal cortex was just not prepared to manage anxiety-wise back then, I am investing at least two grains of salt into the theory that Sasquatches are of other dimensions. This comes as a result of uncanny timing wherein I was recently made to invest three grains of salt into the idea that other dimensions exist. This happened when I visited a psychic, and, being a rather pragmatic sort, was very careful to not release any personal information and thus assay her capabilities. During said session, psychic consistently informed me of things, to a “T”, without knowing anything more than my name and that I wanted to know about my career and love life. She described my ex-girlfriend in finest detail and even that I saw her the previous night to clear fouled air. Then, in a grand finale, upon the terminal card reading, the last card, placed in the center of the 15 laid out, was of a girl kissing a boy’s forehead. With chills, I explained that was a dream I had a couple weeks earlier in which I forgave my ex-lover. She said “It wasn’t a dream, it was just another dimension.” And I felt it!

With that, I wonder whether Bigfoot is elusive for reasons of dimension. For all the time I’ve spent in Washington, Oregon and Wyoming, I guess I should have spent less time seeking tracks, more on finding portals. Tell me if you have any leads, and if I find the portal, can I have the honors of penning the first MG article from another dimension?

Tony Smith,
Massachusetts

MG readership demographics
Fayhee, You’ve went and done it now. You’ve finally got a publisher for your rag that seems to better understand the freaks, geeks and weirdos who are actually reading the MG. Issue 173 is like free climbing 5.12, skiing the Sand Chutes off the Burn, having post-drinking, wee-hour sex in a rich neighbor’s hot tub (while they’re at home), driving 140 past a diner full of cops, finding a $100 dollar bill in a pair of new-to-you thrift store pants — in other words, epic!

I say this after picking up a copy and just thumbing thru it — I’ve not even read the damn thing, but I can already tell this issue is going to be good.

The sexy, thick, black and white cover makes me think of art ’zines. The wonderfully content-rich interior beckons me to waste an afternoon reading the oh-so-many words that thankfully now have graphics and photos to pull the reader along with the story. Wow, I never thought it would’ve happened. I’ll admit I’ve been worried about the MG — there have been times in the past when an issue looked more like a buddy who had taken to late-night powder skiing thru bar bathrooms: all skinny and covered in blemishes.

Looking at this issue, I see everything you told us in your column from #172 is true. It’s nice to know Ullr has folks looking out for his human scribes documenting the weird and wonderful in his realm.
Your timing for this seems absolutely perfect, at least according to one of my favorite dead writers: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” — HST

I suppose I should end this with a high, smoky toast to all those now going pro. You know who you are.

Peace,
Dave Shinn

Getting Nowhere Fast
John: Mark Ollinger is on to a truth (“Zen and the Art of Cross-Country Ski Waxing,” MG #174): cross-country ski waxing echoes the dilemmas that underlie Robert Pirsig’s philosophical bike ballad of the ‘70s. It’s all yin or yang. Grip or glide in cross-country. Delve into the technology or just enjoy the sport. Carry that yin-yang pair to its extreme and on one hand you have tribology, the scientific study of the interface between surfaces moving relative to each other, as skis on snow. You can do that full-time without ever going out on snow. On the other hand, the sport can be enjoyed with a minimum of just about everything, as put forth in “The Cross-Country Ski, Cook, Look, and Pleasure Book: And Welcome to the Alice in Snowpeople Land,” a 1974 paperback by Hal Painter still stocked by Amazon.com. You can follow any of Painter’s recipes and enjoy sometimes getting nowhere on cross-country skis.

Robert Stahl

A Matter of Pride
Dear Editor: In MG #173, I find two new names on your masthead as senior correspondents — Richard Barnum-Reece’s and mine. On the now-dead behalf of Richard, I’d like you to know that he would be really pleased by this designation, as he and I always pictured your magazine as the ultimate in alpine truth-telling. This is the only publication we ever found that consistently understood what we thought it was all about.
He and I were introduced to MG when we first saw Dick Dorworth’s ‘70s article “Night Driving.” We held (still do) his writing and accomplishments in the same esteem as that of Edward Abbey, Yvon Choinard and other big mountaineering names of the time. Thirty-five years later, that same sense is still true for me. That you would name a dead guy “(RIP)” as a senior correspondent (maybe a first in magazine journalism) validates MG’s courage, sense of humor and sense of what’s right.

For my own part, this mention is going on my resume with a great deal of pride. To be listed on your masthead with Dorworth and the others there is a major milestone. Thanks.

Dave Baldridge,
Albuquerque, NM


Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

A Skier’s Journey

Film: “A Skier’s Journey,” by Jordan Manley
I thought I’d get in one last ski movie before Mud Season starts, and Jordan Manley’s is a good one (or three) to end on. This isn’t the standard hyper-expensive, multi-sponsor, mega-star affairs that are released every fall — it’s a series of three short films on Vimeo, sponsored by Arcteryx and Gore. Photographer Jordan Manley sought to tell stories about traveling and skiing some of the world’s most interesting places all in one trip, including the Gulmarg Gondola, the highest operating cable car in the world, in Kashmir; lift-served ski mountaineering via the Téléphérique La Grave in La Grave, France; and Banff and the Freshfield Icefield in the Canadian Rockies. The cinematography here is great; better than you might expect from someone whose day job is still photography. Manley uses his eye for still shots to compose some great footage, which definitely doesn’t spend the entire time capturing dudes ripping the gnar — although there is some of that. This series is art, not ski porn — no let’s-get-a-shot-of-our-helicopter-from-our-other-helicopter stuff; it emphasizes travel, culture, nature and danger as well as high-level skiing. Jordan Manley deserves big-money cameras and big-money sponsorship for this kind of work, and the world would be a better place if saw more films from him in the future.
http://vimeo.com/13085385

Little Dog

Little Dog

It took two years for me to be able to even think of being open to bringing a new dog into my life. It does not make me feel good to say this, but I am pretty much convinced that each of us will likely share time on this plane of existence with but one true cosmic-level perro, and, for me, that was a German Shepherd/Australian Shepherd mix named Cali, who succumbed in Oct. 2008 after having suffered through a series of debilitating strokes after 13 splendid years as the best friend I will ever have. Cali was a near-perfect dog.

Gay and I had finally bought a house that had a large fenced yard, so, for the first time in decades, I found myself in a position where I could provide a great home for a dog. I spent literally six months going to various pounds looking for the right canine companion. That was tough, moving slowly through the kennel areas, sometimes talking to individual dogs that seemed like they could maybe work, taking an occasional few out into the yard to see if any sort of connection took place. Gut-wrenching as it was to bypass all those pleading, long-faced dogs who all wanted so bad for someone to fill out paperwork with their name on it, in no case did that hoped-for bond occur, until I saw a pet-of-the-week photo of Cali in the Summit Daily News, which 1) I still have and 2) just to add a little extra positive karma to the situation, was taken by my buddy Mark Fox. One frigid February day, I went to the shelter, walked directly to Cali’s prison cell, took her out for a stroll on the bikepath, and, by the time we returned, the shelter staff was already calling her my dog. I picked Cali up the next day, without my wife ever having met her. That very afternoon, I took her snowshoeing sans leash up French Gulch, and we both knew that something very, very special was afoot.

Last fall, Gay and I started realizing that, not only did we miss having Cali in the house, but we missed having a dog in the house. I started, very tentatively at first, eyeballing various rescue group websites dedicated to specific large-ish, trail-appropriate breeds — Labradors, Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds and Border Collies. I had a Lab as a kid, and decided to go that generally good-natured route. I also wanted a puppy, something with a clean mental slate. I exchanged a few emails with a rescue group out of Albuquerque and made arrangements online to meet a pup on my way to Colorado for Christmas. It was a bit of a chaotic environment, since the pup-in-question was being fostered by a very nice lady who already had three large, energetic dogs. Even though I did not feel anything even approximating the connection I felt instantly with Cali, that was OK, because, truth be told, I did not expect to, feeling, as I said earlier, that such bonds do not happen twice in one’s life. But it seemed like we had the potential to at least like and respect each other, and, I thought, that’s a good enough start. On the way back from Colorado, we picked up a 27-pound, three-month-old squirming bundle of fur that seemingly consisted of nothing more than four splaying legs and a mouth that rarely closed. She was named Casey just the day before by her foster mom. Ergo: The name did not yet register with the dog, at least partially because the concept of having a name did not yet register.

One of the reasons I waited more than two years to get another dog was that I really wanted to make certain that I was not looking to replace the irreplaceable. I did not want to burden a dog with having to live up to Cali’s image. The analogy I used was that of poor Brian Griese playing quarterback for the Broncos after John Elway retired. I even went so far as to make sure whatever dog I brought home looked nothing like Cali, who was long haired and jet black, while Casey is short haired and blonde.

But, no matter how hard I tried, during Casey’s first days with us, I could not exorcize Cali’s ghost from the premises. I reflexively found myself talking to Casey the exact same way I talked to Cali, using the same phraseology, the same tones of voice, half-expecting, hoping, that by so doing, maybe some of Cali’s magic dust would fall from the heavens onto and into this new pup, that she would automatically transmogrify from four flailing legs and a mouth that rarely closed and act the same near-perfect way Cali did from the get-go and for all those years. And I found myself getting exasperated when she did not. I mean, how goddamned foolish — on about 40 different levels —is that? How unfair is that for a pup who does not yet even know her name?

Two weeks after bringing her home, we took Casey to the vet’s for her second round of shots, as well as an overall physical. While making the appointment on the phone, we told the receptionist that Casey was about three months old and “mostly Lab.” When we arrived, the vet looked at the chart, looked at Casey, looked back at the chart, looked back at Casey and said words to the effect that he thought he was going to be examining a three-month-old mostly Lab, a dog that I assumed was a blank slate who eventually would reach something like 50 or 60 pounds of stoutness running through the woods, crossing rivers and leading the way while we ski full blast down Mayflower Gulch. You know: a bonafide mountain dog.

“This dog is six to eight months old,” the vet told our stunned selves. “And, if she’s got a lick of Lab in her, I’ll eat a stick. She looks to me like she’s mainly Cocker Spaniel and Beagle. That means she’s probably about as big as she’s going to get.” I do not remember the last time Gay and I were both as mutually shocked. I mean, 9/11 made our jaws drop, of course, but nothing like the news we received about our new dog. Fuck! Not only did I not have a stereotypical mountain dog, I had something borderline foo-foo. Near-bouts a lap dog! Double fuck!

As soon as I got home from the vet’s office, I emailed the rescue group from which I had adopted Casey, informing them of my mislabeled, defective goods. They told me that, if I wanted to return her, I was more than welcome to do so, no explanations necessary.

Though the very thought of taking a living, drooling, constantly chewing creature back to a foster home made me almost sick to my stomach, every single person I related this story to told me in no uncertain terms that’s exactly what I should do, what I must do. Everyone I talked to understood the nature of the bond between man/woman and his/her dog, and, they all said, if such a bond did not occur within a month or so, then it likely would not ever occur. And they said that, if I wasn’t happy with who/what my dog was, that whammied whatever potential bonding there might be even more, because, as we all know, dogs are perceptive, empathic creatures. There’s no way Casey was going to take that leap (assuming she possessed the inclination, which is not an assumption that ought to be taken for granted) if she thought there was any chance of me backing out on the deal somewhere down the road. Sure, people said, a perfectly acceptable long-term relationship might very well evolve, but the kind of attachment that defined — sigh! — my cosmic link with Cali (who, by the way, still visits me every month or so in my dreams, though those visits are becoming more infrequent) would have been obvious by now. But, hey, retorted I, I am of the belief that such things don’t happen twice in a train-wreck life like mine. “If you believe that,” said one chum, “then that’s the way it assuredly will be.” Basically then: It is almost impossible for something to happen that I believe deep down cannot happen. That is not only a problem, but perhaps one that is insurmountable.

Let me expound upon this human/dog bond notion. For those many of you who know what I’m talking about, my likely clumsy attempt to articulate it is unnecessary. Since it is the only such situation I have ever experienced, I have no choice but to frame this in terms of M. John and Cali. Shortly after adopting her, we aggressively (and sometimes frustratingly) went together through official dog/human training classes. And, while there were often miscommunications regarding the ambiguous complexities of the various commands, it was apparent from the very first second we ever went out into the woods together that Cali very badly wanted to know what it was I wanted of her. We may have had a few disagreements as to the best ways to go about communicating those desires (she taught me some things and I taught her others), but there was never any doubt that we would not only muddle our way through such sometimes-complex inter-species dialogue, but we would do so in a way that, before long, did not even require verbal articulation. I could tell from her slightest behavioral nuance what Cali wanted or needed. And I could give her commands (I hate how that sounds), by the subtlest movement of my fingers and sometimes, by even just thinking the right thought. No matter our location, no matter our activity, no matter what else was going on around us, Cali’s biggest concern on the face of the planet was knowing where I was and what I wanted. And vice-versa. And she knew that, when I gave her commands, I was not just bossing her around for the fuck of it, but, rather, I was doing my level best to protect her and look after her health, well-being and happiness. Which I was.

It did not take long to learn that such was not the case with Casey. Once we came to understand that she was twice as old as we had thought, we simultaneously came to understand that she must have come to us with far more psychic baggage than we had hoped. There was no clean slate to work with. The rescue people we got her from had somehow obtained her from death row at the Artesia, New Mexico, animal Auschwitz. How that happened, and what her life was before she arrived at her foster home (several foster homes, actually) in Albuquerque, I cannot say. But there was no doubt her short life had had numerous iterations, some of which, judging from her sometimes-cowering, sometimes-obstinate, sometimes-aloof disposition, were probably not pleasant. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that, even after a month in my house, she looks at me as anything save the next bipedal asshole who is letting her bunk down for a short period of time before she has to move on yet again to God-knows-what. Cali had only one home before she came to us, and, even though those people were forced to give her up, we knew she had a pretty stable, loving pre-Fayhee life. She never forgot that her first owners dumped her ass at the pound, and, thus, she was extremely appreciative of her new life with me. Casey’s road was bumpier, and, however that bumpy road affected her, she ought not be faulted.

I decided to look at Casey as though I had never known Cali, to become a blank slate myself. So, in addition to trying to put her personality into a broader context that includes what likely was an inconceivably shitty first few months, I found myself focusing not on her relative-to-Cali shortcomings (including her hard-to-overlook shrimpiness), but rather on her good traits: She gets along reasonably well with my cat, who, truth be told, was not all that happy, among other things, to see a rambunctious puppy suddenly trespassing on the litter box during a time my cat has long considered very private. Casey loves playing with other dogs at the dog park, even ones way larger than she is. She shits only in the least-visited corner of the back yard and has the easiest-to-clean-up shit I have ever shoveled, and I have shoveled some serious quantities of shit in my time. She really likes going out into the woods and seems up for adventure. She seems satisfied eating regular old dog food. She has been very good about not chewing up things like expensive hiking boots. And she’s cute, sweet and pretty easily amused.

But she cries in fear when she dreams. And she doesn’t wag her tail very much. And she cowers when talked to sternly after digging yet another hole in my garden. And she still doesn’t know her name, or, if she does, she doesn’t let on. And she still doesn’t pay any attention to me when I talk to her on the trail. And I don’t know at this point if I will ever be able to let her off leash in the woods, something that is a non-negotiable component of a relationship between yours truly and any cur that travels with me down the path of life. I have heard many stories from people whose dogs are dispositionally inclined to run off time and time again, and that’s just not an acceptable option. I understand that such a disposition can be at least partially mitigated by proper training, but partially don’t cut it.

As these conflicting, stomach-wrenching thoughts swirl around in a brain that is overwhelmed by the implications of my newfound conundrum, Casey lies sleeping on the floor behind me. She just had another nightmare, but she’s calmed down a bit, and, even as she dozes, her tale wags just a little. Is her biggest sin that she’s not Cali, or that she’s not what I pictured? Whatever sin there is undoubtedly lies not with Casey, but with me, a man whose ego effects the way he looks down at a little pup who needs more than anything to be loved and considered special, if not perfect.

As I pen these words, I do not know what I will do with Casey. I have asked Cali to visit me in my dreams to give me some guidance, but, so far, she has not done so. At this point, the main thing that makes me want to keep Casey is how horrible I would feel if I took her back. I cringe at the thought of what her facial expression might be: Let down again. (Or, maybe: Hallelujah!) Maybe if we both try really, really hard, we could make this relationship work out just fine, even if it is not magical. Then again, maybe the effort would in and of itself make it magical. Eventually. One of the things Cali liked most about me was that I did my best to let her be her. Of course, that had to be within the context and framework of me and my life. But that was easy enough for both of us. If I keep Casey, I owe it as much to her as I ever did to Cali to let her be her. It’s the context and framework of my life part that’s the issue.

By the time these works come out in print, I will have made a decision. I have to, because, at this juncture, Casey keeps looking at me. And, in her eyes, I can tell she’s asking: “What then will your choice be?”

And I look back at her and ask: “What then will YOUR choice be, Little Dog.”

Cumulus Dentatus, or Why I Believe in Winter Storm Warnings

1. Unmooring
On some days, you sit and look at the computer. Your fingers touch the keys and go nowhere. Your mind numbs as symbols collide on the screen. On some days, this all makes perfect sense. You have things to do. You are bound, chained. But on other days, there’s that cold wet black nose that nudges your elbow as you drone on. That nose is never wrong. It calls you from complacency: “I need to go out, to roam! This nose must hunt, must cover new territory! This is what I must do.”

The nose is attached to Riley, 75 pounds of four-legged tawny brawn. For this beautiful canine eunuch, ranging, roaming and alarmingly indiscriminate eating are the only patterns worth repeating. Patterns like the awkward totter of bipedal motion, the curse of obsessive cognition and the maze of symbols spewed across a computer screen are of no use to him.

At 2 p.m., you will be knee-deep still in work, but the nose will prevail. It will cause an awakening, a resurgence of the hunter-gatherer within. Prompted by sidekick, modern man goes mini-paleolithic, shuts down computer and leaves warm house, bent on Winter Solstice hike.

2. Ascending
At 8,300 feet above sea level, Grandeur Peak’s height is much more attainable than that of its loftier sister mountains that jut skyward east of Salt Lake City. Most days, it’s a pretty good choice for roaming with Riley. During the winter, snowshoers’ tracks make the path easily negotiable with simple hiking boots. Dog paws work great too. And the view is outstanding at sunset, particularly when the haze of particulate matter that favors the valley broadens the typical palette of dull reds and oranges. Seemed like the right destination, given the few hours we had until darkness.

Bound for Grandeur, Riley and I loaded up and went to pick up his cousin Sandy. Sandy is my brother’s dog, a labweiler (Labrador Retriever meets Rottweiler; the two fall in love; they make labweilers). Sandy and Riley’s relationship unfolds along distinctly canine lines. Riley’s the upstart male, heckling, herding and worrying the larger, stronger Sandy until she corrects him decisively. This cycle repeats.

On the car radio, the announcer prated on about snow: snow tonight, snow impending, three inches of snow, snow in the valley, snow warning, snow advisory, winter storm watch. The forecast had featured snow for days, and never once had reality reflected the forecast. So I paid no mind to this sober warning, though the wind had been gusting all day. I had heard the swamp cooler cover twisting in the wind, I had felt the raw push of the wind shake the wood frame of the house, yet I had remained skeptical.

The line between skeptical and ill-advised is sometimes a thin one. But we nevertheless entered the V-shaped confines of Mill Creek Canyon, home of the Grandeur Peak trailhead. We piled out. Riley and Sandy, unconcerned about the pitch of the terrain, bounded ahead, working as a pair, negotiating a maze of scrub oak, nipping, charging full tilt. I stomped up the trail, watching carefully to see where they would relieve themselves so I could make things right with a plastic doggie dookie bag.

Wind was strangely absent from the canyon. The air was stirring only lazily, its torpor a sharp contrast to the fury of wind scouring the valley. As we rose upward, leaving the initial canyon of Church Fork for a series of switchbacks up a sort of hanging valley, I looked southward at Olympus, at Raymond and at Twin Peaks, masses of stone and earth. Cirrocumulus clouds skittered across their faces, sucked inevitably northward into the looming low pressure.

No matter. I was sure the storm was taking its sweet time, and I still didn’t believe it would produce snow. We pressed upward, zigzagging our way up the mountain’s south flank. The dogs had not yet begun to scrub off the excess energy that fueled their frenetic play, now pouncing, now dodging, now bolting down the trail to a place I had been fifteen minutes before in a tenth of the time, only to return to me, tongues lolling.

Just under an hour, and I had huffed my way to a ridge that overlooks Parley’s Canyon, named for Parley Pratt, an Mormon pioneer with a capitalist knack for creating toll roads through eponymous landforms. The peak was maybe twenty minutes away, and the view into Parley’s Canyon was pretty clear. So we might as well continue on. The dogs charged ahead, live wires still, and I began booting up the steepening — and deepening — snow.

I wallowed (and the dogs frolicked) southwest up the ridge that meanders to the summit. As the ridge curves southward, hikers are generally treated with a commanding view of the Salt Lake Valley. Not so today. The wind, in its implacable persistence, had eventually succeeded in ushering into the valley a cloud whose proportions defied my sense of measurement. In place of the valley
was an immense blackness, a nightmare cloud.

The cloud looked to be contained in the valley, hugging its floor and enveloping its inhabitants, content with disrupting the impending rush hour traffic rather than ascending to the aerie from which I watched its menacing — but apparently slow — progress.  So of course we continued upward. Ten minutes later, within 200 meters of the summit, I was corrected. A gust of wind, the velocity of which was unmistakably north of 60 miles per hour, sent me reeling. And I realized that this wind, being sucked into the vortex of cloud into the valley, would exercise a return pull on the low pressure, which translated to this place being enveloped in cloud. And soon. The wind had finally pierced through to my deeply buried common sense, playing Sandy to my Riley: You’re pushing my limits. Knock it off already.

So we turned around. Suddenly, the top of the mountain seemed a profoundly stupid place to be spending any length of time. Couch, hot tub, Afghanistan, all began to seem like better alternatives. I tromped downward, soon reaching the spot where I had moments before seen the black cloud. It had been replaced by a rush of oncoming white, a wall of wind and snow.

I couldn’t ignore a certain fascination with the approaching blanket of wind-whipped snow. I knew by now I was not going to outrun this storm, so I let it overtake me. Standing on the ridge, I whooped with a visceral excitement as I was engulfed by the storm. I had never witnessed a frontal passage this defined. The swirling mass of white poured over the ridge, over me and the wholly unconcerned dogs, and spilled into the canyon below. Visibility: zero.

3. Of moths and flames
Traveling in the Sierra Nevada on a crust of bread and a prayer, writer and adventurer John Muir once climbed a tree to get closer to one of the sublimely powerful electrical storms that often besieged his mountain retreat. When the first lightning strike came, I realized just how peculiarly unconcerned with life and limb Muir was — and therefore how unlike me he was. While I had reveled in the mildly Muirish moment of having the storm pass before my eyes and immediately cloud my perspective, I unequivocally drew the line at lightning. What was lightning doing in a snowstorm, anyway?

The strike had happened, I thought, somewhere toward the Parley’s Canyon side of the ridge. Too close.  I ran. The dogs were in front of me, but were stalling, tentatively looking back, wondering why I had become a madman. I shouted at them, “up, up, up,” thinking they might understand this to mean hey-we-need-to-get-the-hell-off-this-mountain-and-fast. But they still lagged, concerned by my sudden lack of sanity. I hurtled down the trail, post-holing at times to mid-thigh, flopping back onto the snow, flounder-like, getting up, running again, falling again.

Again lightning struck. Again too close. I looked like Hawkeye in the television show “M*A*S*H”, ducking low to avoid a chopper’s rotors. Ridiculous — I was still the highest, most conductive thing on this ridge, and lightning would not pass me by on account of this half-assed slouching. I hadn’t noticed it on the climb up, but much of the last mile or so of the trail is exposed, the only trailside flora stubby, leafless Gambel Oak, no buffer whatsoever. Images of Ben Franklin’s ill-advised but ground-breaking experiments with lightning flashed through my mind. But in my frightened mind’s eye, I was the electrified kite, not the flier.

More flashes, the cloud above me glowing orange, hair standing on end quite literally, and running at a faster clip than I have since, well, ever, are my trauma-scattered memories of the rest of the trip down. I stumbled over dogs; I cursed; I struck a prayerful bargain with god/buddha/universe/to whom it may concern; I twisted my knee and didn’t care; and finally I made it to lower ground. The succor might have been psychological only, as I knew a grove of tall trees wasn’t a great place to be, but at least the lightning would have options — other life forms to snuff out on its way to the ground.

Fifty minutes from turnaround point to parking area. Fifty of the most intensely felt minutes I have experienced on this earth — the drive back into the valley coming in a close second, the road having been covered by four inches of snow and made virtually un-navigable. Looking back, I know that Franklin and Muir were both madmen, if geniuses. And I know why we fear and yet still seek out lightning, with its alien power and effortless mastery of humans and our frail ingenuity. There is something in nature, in its deadly power, we must come closer to if we are to understand the audacious tenuousness of life. We are drawn to its truth.

4. Home, awake, recharged
You will realize that those near-misses, those jolts of unknowable energy that writer and strike survivor Gretel Ehrlich calls “a match to the heart,” had the power — terawatts of it — to scare you into a heightened sense of the unmitigated beauty of being alive as opposed to dead. You will be thankful for the lightning’s way of recharging your vitality, delivering a surge of power to scare you out of, and back into, your animal skin.

But you will not climb that mountain in a storm again. Ever.

Aaron Phillips is based in Salt Lake City, where he teaches writing at the University of Utah. He flees to — and from — high elevations with his canine guide whenever possible.

Kara Oke Dokie

“Everybody is a star …”  — Sly Stone

Photo by Dawne Belloise

If you’ve ever fronted a real live band with the screaming energy of a stack of Marshalls, a kick-ass drummer and a funkengruven bass, then singing karaoke is flat-out going to fall short of that experience. However, if you haven’t experienced the joy of having your eardrums vibrated out of your head trying to project over amplified instruments, then canned stardom might just move it for you. At the very least, if you actually know you can’t carry a tune and choose to watch safely from your barstool, karaoke participants can thrill, amuse and be that comedic relief you’ve long sought after a hard day on the slopes or the trail. They can also grind on your aesthetic sense like fingernails raking down a chalkboard.

You might have sworn you’d never be seen on stage mimicking Steve Perry, only to find yourself with mic in hand under the spotlight lured by ill-meaning friends and plied with brews crooning about small-town girls and believing. There are the willing wannabe glamour girls who are convinced that they may serendipitously get discovered as the next Lady Gaga by the celebrity tourist as they’re crooning out an off-key version of “Star Struck.”

Whatever the extent you find yourself involved in karaoke rituals, somewhere in a small bar in Japan, where the term and practice is rumored to have originated in the 1970s, the locals are still waiting for the band to show up. The literal translation of “Kara” means “missing,” and “Oke” means “band” or “orchestra.” If the band didn’t show up, they had a pre-recorded tape of their music and the singer would belt out the songs in front of an empty orchestra. At some point, a savvy singer must have figured out they could make far more money at a gig if they didn’t have to pay the band and karaoke took flight and stopped waiting for the band to roll out of bed.

Up here in the thin air, sometimes all it takes to get people up and chirping is the promise of free booze offered by the bars hosting the sing-along. Kyleena Graceffa, co-owner of the Lobar in Crested Butte, has witnessed the transformation in people once they hit the stage. “People say ‘No way! We’re not singing!’ or ‘I can’t get up and sing,’ but as soon as they have a couple of cocktails, I can’t get the mic away from them. Liquor makes people sing,” she notes. “It makes them stars and oh yeah, it’s like America Idol down here some nights.”

Free sake makes it easier for courage to blossom, as well as making it easier on the ears of listeners. During the summer season, when the Crested Butte Music Festival goes into full swing, Kyleena watches the vocal talent go up a few notches. “It’s really entertaining, because they’re really good, so, between the not-so-good, there’s the relief of the experts,” she says. “Those operatic voices aren’t singing Puccini and Mimi isn’t diving into her tailspin swan song … when the opera people are here they want to sing Def Leppard, not opera.”

It doesn’t seem to matter which side of the Divide you’re on, there’s a commonality of music that mountain folk want to warble. Anything by Journey and songs like “Sweet Caroline” and “Pour Some Sugar on Me” — all the classic rock and cheesy love songs. “Depends on the age in the club and the demographics,” says veteran karaoke jockey (KJ) Sandman in Vail. “There’s not much difference between Aspen and Vail unless I get a Filipino group in that loves Elvis. I get a lot of rap in a younger bar, like the Hunter Bar in Aspen, but the Red Onion is probably my most eclectic, longest established show and the oldest bar in Aspen,” Sandman says of the 150-year-old place. “These are resort towns, so my winter crowds are far different than summer … a lot of winter tourism as opposed to summer when more locals show up because they’re not working as hard.”

And there are memorable nights like when the entire touring cast of the musical “Stomp” came in to bang on pizza boxes, chairs, garbage cans and anything that would raise a joyous noise to play rhythm to all the karaoke songs.

Attesting to karaoke’s popularity, Sandman is kept busy with his velvet voice and comic charm, enticing would-be stars to take the stage six nights a week in six different bars from Aspen to Vail, and he claims that, “It is never the same show twice. Like snowflakes, no two are alike. I get visitors and locals, and there’s a difference between each mountain town and venue.” And, he chortles victoriously, “I still get to play for a living — my band is never late, never out of tune, never shows up drunk, their equipment always works and they don’t fight with each other.”

While it’s obvious there’s a loyal following for the art of interpretive musical imitation, way up in the northern ski country of champagne snow, close to the Wyoming border, I asked my Steamboat Springs buddy if the town sported any karaoke bars, to which he snorted, “This is cowboy country. We shoot people who only pretend they can sing. It spooks the horses.”

Just as we suspected …

Life on the Mountain Music Road

Playing chicken
Split Lip Rayfield, a “thrash-grass trio,” quickly learned that taking a live bantam hen from their farm in Kansas to mountain-town gigs ranging from Vail and Steamboat Springs to Jackson Hole and Utah resorts wasn’t such a good idea after all.

They originally thought the chicken might drum up T-shirt and CD sales during their aggressive acoustic bluegrass gigs. It sounded logical: Take a hen from mom’s farm, place it on a grid with hundreds of numbers, install chicken wire around the contraption, and sell tickets so fans could bet on which number the chicken would shit. Call it “chicken-drop bingo,” and it’s just like Cow-pie Bingo or Hillbilly Bingo — though we’ve never heard of cows or hillbillies cooped up on a number grid, with people watching and waiting for them to dump a big one.

“We were looking for something fun for the crowd,” said banjo player Eric Mardif. “But some people have never seen a live chicken before, and they’d freak out and want to touch it … people just wanted to constantly fuck with the chicken, like a kid banging on the glass of a fish tank.”

Luckily for Henrietta the hen, the boys in the band felt quite protective of her, but their compassion wasn’t the only reason they returned her to mom’s farm.

After carting her around in their van for two weeks, they discovered chickens are messy: They smell up a van much worse than touring musicians do (which is saying a mouthful), and they kick their water and woodchips all over the place (unlike the musicians, who normally just spill their beer on the van floor).

“It was fun, but traveling with a live chicken sucks,” Mardif said.

BINGO!

A Blue Ribbon night
Bay-area rapper Lyrics Born is used to crazy incidents in mountain towns; his signature funk sound, which, with his new album leans toward a more ’80s vibe, has brought him coast to coast, with plenty of high-elevation stops in-between, including Breckenridge, Durango, Telluride, Steamboat Springs, Vail and Flagstaff just last month.

“I don’t know if it’s the cold or the people who come up to party — maybe it’s so cold everybody tries to get excited to stay warm,” he said of the peculiarities he regularly experiences during mountain shows.

But one particular gig in Montana really sticks with him. He was playing for a Pabst Blue Ribbon-sponsored event — a beer he thinks is the “worst in the world.” Apparently, the hip-hop fans weren’t too attached to their brews either. Lyrics Born’s concert turned into a scene out of “Animal House.”

“The crowd started chanting with the song I was playing, and suddenly everybody started throwing PBRs all over each other,” he said. “All I saw were these red, white and blue cans, and they only were one size: big and cheap,” he said. “It was so much fun because it was so wild.”

The only downside:
“But it was disgusting,” he said. “My shoes (forever) smelled like PBR.” Stale PBR, that is.

Take A Seat

“Take A Seat,” by Dominic Gill
In June 2006, Dominic Gill pedaled south from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on a tandem bicycle loaded with video equipment and everything he needed to survive, but an empty seat on the back of the bike. He planned to bicycle the longest land route in the world, to the southernmost city in Argentina, picking up riding partners along the way. Gill’s movie documenting the trip, “Take A Seat,” won a special jury award at the Banff Film Festival. His book of the same title is good for those of us who want to spend a few more hours living the journey with him. The book’s strength lies in the adventure itself, with the built-in what-will-happen-next literary tension, rather than Gill’s storytelling — the book is linear, start-to-finish narrative, never straying too far from the daily struggles of an 18,000-mile bike tour with 240 companions, in 15 countries. And it doesn’t have to be. You’ll shake your head with incredulity at Gill’s good luck, getting a spare part just in time, or being offered shelter when a night in a tent might be dangerous, or just dangerously cold. Gill has penned an adventure book about an enormous, singular adventure with a colorful cast of hundreds, and it may leave you thinking about taking on a similar adventure yourself.
www.falconguides.com

Breaking Into the Backcountry

“Breaking Into the Backcountry,” by Steve Edwards
In 2001, Steve Edwards, a 26-year-old Purdue University professor who had “never been much of an outdoorsman,” won a PEN/Northwest writing residency, earning him a seven-month stint as the caretaker of a backcountry homestead on Oregon’s Rogue River. He was a flatlander, a virgin fly-fisherman, 70 miles from the nearest town or friend, and still nursing wounds from his divorce. “Breaking Into the Backcountry” is the story of his time as the caretaker, through the eyes of a writer seeing the West with dew still on it, and his transformation during that period of wild solitude. Edwards paints wonderful scenes of this place, detailing his walks along the Rogue, bears devouring apples on the homestead and the wilderness surrounding him. Even more endearing are the honestly told, personal stories of how he dealt with the solitude — hearing the news of 9/11 on the radio, going days without seeing or talking to another person and experiencing silence in a quantity most of us will never have in our lifetimes. “Breaking Into the Backcountry” is a great vicarious literary escape for the rest of us poor schlubs living with millions of neighbors.
www.bisonbooks.com