In the 2002 book, “Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns, and the Environment,” author Hal Clifford wrote (I’m paraphrasing here) that ski towns used to be cool because they attracted fringe elements like ski bums, hippies and artists, but then rich people found out about them, and of course, priced all the cool poor people out of these funky towns, and now they aren’t as cool (still paraphrasing). Eight years later, author Jeremy Evans has dug deeper into this issue — why ski bums can’t afford to be ski bums anymore, and thusly are dying out. If you want to lament the ski towns’ loss of character and characters, this book provides ample fodder: Evans is a former newspaper reporter and has stocked this book with interviews of ski bums past and present, facts and figures, research and personal experience. He lives in Lake Tahoe, where 70 percent of the houses on the south shore are second homes and are dark 50+ weeks a year, and the median price of a single-family residence went from $168,000 to $540,000 between 1998 and 2006 — and no one knocks on your door at Halloween anymore. You’ll read stories of the good old days of the ski bum, and the present day, which looks drastically different: ski town work forces are largely immigrants; lots of the workforce commutes from the next town over (“Aspen is alive and well … in Basalt”) and ski hills are owned by large corporations (“We’re a resort town, not a ski town”). Pro skiers and snowboarders are mega-celebrities with 6- to 7-figure incomes, and even ski porn is big business. A great read if you want to understand what’s changed in the past 50 years in the ski industry.
Maybe you know this joke: “How many tele skiers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three. One to do it and two to stand at the bottom and say, ‘Nice turns, bro.’” This video, made a few years ago by someone named “AT Anonymous” and sent in to TelemarkTips.com in 2003, has resurfaced because a guy named Tom Kracji saved it and uploaded it to YouTube last January. It’s brilliant, discussing the maker’s addiction to backcountry ski gear and asking the tough question: should he switch to an Alpine Touring set-up instead? He shares gems like “People say it has something to do with it being more graceful or soulful than regular skiing, and I kind of agree, don’t you? I mean, this is some graceful shit right here.” And “The backcountry is a place where there are no lifts, where you find a lot of telemark skiers.” Plenty of faceplants and deadpan humor make it worth your 11 minutes.
Say you get five books in your library. I pick Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast,” “The Great Rock (and roll) Discography,” by Martin C. Strong, “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” (counts as one, because that’s how Tolkien wrote it), Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species” and now this: “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America.” In a coffee-table offering that is both awe-inspiring and relevant, authors Chris Davenport, Art Burrows and Penn Newhard have created something credible, compelling and cinematic — name another recent print product that does that! With the help of accomplished ski mountaineers such as Lou Dawson, Andrew McLean, Lowell Skoog and Jimmy Chin, they chronicle North America’s biggest and most-famous ski mountaineering faces. Some, like New Hampshire’s Tuckerman’s Ravine, have seen millions of tracks. Others, such as the North Face of Mt. Robson in British Columbia, have been skied only once. All are given the same treatment with super-short, spot-on commentary and incredibly well-picked photography that shows the character of the skiers and especially the mountains and descents themselves. Davenport single-handedly brought the storyline back to American off-piste skiing when in one year over 2006 and 2007, he climbed and skied from the summit of all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. Here, the cast of skiers happily expands, as does the number of gorgeous descents.
Duking your way to Mountain Country
M. John: Mountain Gazette is a fantastic publication and I always enjoy your column.
I am responding to your call for stories. “How I Came to be Living in Mountain Country and Things Not To Do.” (Smoke Signals, “Stories of Us,” MG #169).
Here goes: Back in ’03, I was a commercial real estate broker in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Despite the economic aftermath of 9/11 and the dot.com bubble burst, I was having my best year. I was a garbage man of sorts. As the youngest broker (31) in the office, I took the deals the older guys wouldn’t touch. At that time, I capitalized on a lot of well-designed, yet hardly used, failed dot.com spaces. Basically, I sub-letted the funky, hardly used office space that a bunch of arrogant techno nerds left behind after their venture capital seed money well ran dry. I put in long hours and worked hard. I made some decent money, however I hated my life. I was blessed with a good job, a loving family, a cool loft apartment and a beautiful girlfriend (now my wife). I didn’t like my job, the corporate world and the endless schmoozing that accompanies the life of a salesman. I knew something was missing. I always had a desire to head west and live up in the mountains. My four years of college in Vermont was a tease.
My girlfriend worked for an advertising agency, and each year they held a huge Halloween party in their hip warehouse office space. That year, my girl went as ’80s Madonna and I went as a ’70s Elvis. Just before the party, we gobbled a certain type of outlawed toadstool. Her creative advertising co-workers had the space amazingly decorated for the party and the costumes were the best I have ever seen. Despite all of this, the party was tremendously lame. At one point, I was tipping back a cold Iron City beer with my cousin, Blake, when I spotted one of my girl’s coworkers getting a little over friendly with her. Now, I’m not a the jealous type, but this hand job was standing behind her with his arms wrapped around her and I thought I saw him kiss her on the cheek. She looked over at me and appeared unamused and slightly paranoid at what I would do. My conversation with Blake came to an abrupt halt and he must have spotted the daggers coming out of my eyes because he put his hand on my chest and said “C’mon, not in here. This is where she works.” I turned away and then looked back to see him planting another kiss on her cheek just as she was pulling herself away in disgust. I walked up to the guy and scooped him up off the ground by his collar. I growled: “Listen, motherfucker, you’re totally fuckin’ out of line!”
A man standing near me dressed as an airline pilot yelled to me “Take it easy, Mick, take it easy.” It was my girl’s boss. I put the hand job down and turned and fixated on the glowing red light of the exit sign. At least 150 at the party were staring at me and this weird scene. I felt as though the walls were closing in. I could hear my white rental leather boots clack on the hardwood floor as I race-walked to the exit door. The hand job was in hot pursuit behind me screaming at the top of his lungs “WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM!” I made it to the door and just as I had one foot out toward freedom, he grabbed my oversized white polyester ’70s collar and forcefully spun me around, ripping the collar completely off of the shirt. The moment I felt the initial tug, my fists instinctively clenched. It had been nine years since I fought in the Vermont Golden Gloves light-heavyweight State Championship, but that night proved I apparently still knew how to hurl a right hook. It helped that the hand job walked toward me as he angrily spun me around toward him. My fist caught him square on his angrily approaching chin, sending his feet airborne and completely laying him out. I stormed home and was unquestionably the most pissed-off tripping Elvis on the planet at that moment. My girl came to back to our apartment and hugged me. “He deserved it … he’s an asshole,” she said. “Let’s move to Colorado,” I replied.
Three months later, we were living in Avon in a cool apartment building called The Seasons. Our next-door neighbor was acclaimed Warren Miller ski star Chris Anthony. On New Year’s Day, I proposed to my girl at the top of the mountain at Beaver Creek. The Vail Valley is beautiful, but we didn’t dig the strip mall feel and Interstate 70 running right through everything. We needed an area with more character, so after six months, we moved to Summit County. Summit’s old buildings, great pubs (Cala Inn, Moose Jaw, The Historic Brown Hotel), Lake Dillon, four killer mountains (Keystone, A-Basin, Copper, & Breck) and abundant characters made us feel we were home. If there is anything better than tailgating at A-Basin’s “Beach” after a day of skiing, then please tell me.
We are back in the Steel City now. My girl is now my wife and we have a precious four-year-old daughter. Our hearts are still in the mountains and, one day, we will return.
Things not to do? At the age of 12, I went through a phase where I pissed outdoors on various stuff. One day I had the misfortune of “shakin’ the dew off my lilly” onto an electric fence. I’d advise not trying it. Felt like someone jamming a handful of sewing needles into your dickhole. Not fun …
Cheers, my High Country friends,
The Surly Mick
— — —/— — —/• — — •/• • •
Hi Editor: I picked up the fall 2010 Mountain Gazette somewhere in Boulder last month & finally got around to reading it. Good writing throughout! Keep up the good work.
However, you might try to keep the proofreader more sober during working hours. In my cursory read, and as a former Boy Scout, I think first word at top of page 5 should be “- -/..-/-/.-/-/../…” not “–/.-/-/.-/–/../…”
Also, the dog photo contest announcement on page 7 should be for Feb 2011.
Santa Cruz, CA
A well-hyphened column
Dear Mr. Fayhee: Thank you for the well-told and entertaining story recounted in the recent Smoke Signals article in Mountain Gazette #174. Your past works, including those reviewed on the mjohnfayhee.com website, show promising use of hyphenation. The hyphen-laden piece in MG #174 definitively establishes you as a master of hyphenated usages and qualifies you for honorary membership in the American Hyphen Society. Ill-informed persons have claimed that the American Hyphen Society is something of my own devising, however, that is not a fact-based assertion. Although perhaps not well-known, the American Hyphen Society is a community-based, not-for-profit, grass-roots consciousness-raising/education-research alliance that seeks to promote hyphen-oriented terminology for verb conservation, and further, to effectuate across-the-board self-empowerment of wide-ranging culture-, nationality-, ethnicity-, creed-, and gender-oriented identity groups by excising all multiculturally-less-than-sensitive terminology from the English language, and replacing it with counter-hegemonic, cruelty-, gender-, bias-, and, if necessary, content-free forms of self-expression. The society’s motto is “It became necessary to destroy the language in order to save it.” Its headquarters are, more-or-less expectedly, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and the society is an non-discriminating, equal-opportunity organization. Thank you for your efforts in advancing hyphenation. Your much-anticipated future contributions will certainly advance the mission of the society.
Thumbs down on new format
Hi John, I just wanted to send you a quick note telling you that I’m not a fan of the new format. I often pick up the MG to read Smoke Signals and check out the photos, so I wouldn’t call myself an avid reader. Nevertheless, I have picked up every issue for the past couple years. Anyway, I just wanted to put in my two cents and tell you that I preferred the gloss pages and smaller size; it was just more comfortable to read. Love your column!
MJ: Back to the future. As a long-time reader, subscriber and collector (back to #8) of Mountain Gazette, the look, feel and content of #173 takes me back to the classic Gazette. From cover to the content, you are taking the magazine where it needs to go. It contains a nice mix of established and developing authors, and a breadth of articles.
One suggestion, work on fine-tuning the content with an eye toward adding the irreverence that made the Gazette an icon in the past.
We are family
Hello John, I am really excited about the future of MG after reading your “Upwards” column this evening. It will be great to hold the larger format once again and experience some of the sections that have drifted from MG’s pages. We have become regular readers of your sister publication, Elevation Outdoors, and its track record of design, content and innovation lays out a great path for MG’s future.
All the best,
Highlands Ranch, Colorado
Well, you found us
Editor’s Note: Though this letter came to us out of the blue and seemingly not in reference to anything specifically published in MG, we thought we’d run it anyhow, as we like the sentiments expressed.
We tried so hard. We left our collective “real lives” behind us. Abandoned all need for properly manicured lawns, pristine streets and city-approved signage. We loaded up our packs with everything we would need: love, tolerance, respect … And we traveled. We crossed red muddy rivers, climbed great peaks and traversed seemingly endless plains. We tried out many different spots that at first looked nice, but later turned out to be nothing but the empty shell of capitalism gone amok. We tried all the Aspens, Tellurides and Vails that we could find. Invariably, we left them. Too clean, too expensive, too conservative, too much, much too much too much
We bypassed the covenants of CB South, skipped over the pretension of so many other mountain towns, until we carried our loads of love and happiness over the last pass, on the last dead-end road, to the last great Colorado ski town. A place where we discovered that, if we just accepted one another, we could find the comfort and contentment that had so long been absent. We had found it.
Unfortunately, you found it too. You also came, with your packs full of money, shiny leased cars, expensive furniture and disdain. Disdain for the common workers, who, you say, “can just live in Gunny.” Disdain for alternative views and tax income, “instead … (the) top priority … (has been) dispensaries.” Disdain for REAL LIFE. You must have seen our unkempt yards on a satellite feed, watching from some dark office somewhere. You must have taken notice of our used cars for sale and yards-sale signs taped to, GASP, stop signs. Surely you must have at least been aware of the prevailing culture when you moved here. We were. That’s why we are here.
Now, there blows an ill wind from the mountain tops. Mountains long ago sub-divided and sold to the highest bidder. Anger, avarice, vitriol, disrespect, all rushing down like an avalanche, crushing the spirit and life of our little ski town.
Who is left to run the beacons and shovels? Who will be willing to help dig and fight and scratch for the life we all journeyed so long and hard to find? Who will fight for just one more weird, wild, unkempt, yard-sale sign posting, used-car-selling breath?
We will. Camp Space Camp is even now rallying their forces. The Red Lady is spreading the love. Vinotokians are girding their armor. Ski bums are no doubt sharpening their skis. The RMBLers, the HCCAers, the FOSers, the FOLSers, the miners, the Red Ladies, all those people that live to love this place. Together, we will stand for all that is left!
Perhaps, if you are not finding the investment returns you were looking for, you should just cut your losses and try somewhere else. Move to a place where they will be happy to tell you how to maintain your lawn or where you can store your own belongings, on your own property. Find a place where all the citizens are so rich that they never need to hold a yard sale, or sell a car.
For-sale signs, garage sales, overgrown yards … these are pieces of real life. These are the hallmarks of a vibrant, healthy, caring community. Sometimes yard work can fall to the wayside when most waking hours are spent just trying to survive, and free time is better spent helping and enjoying the people and surroundings we’ve been fortunate enough to find. These are the things you see when people come together to help each other live better. This is the natural beauty that forms as a consequence of community. A patina, if you will. The fact that this patina, this community, this way of life exists is what makes us unique. Yes, these things do make us unique, different and charming.
So, thank you for joining us in our little version of utopia. Thank you for investing in jobs, construction and the local service market. We hope you will stay and live a long and happy life. Just, PLEASE, stop attempting to replace a real, good, positive community with another sad capitalist money-making machine. Please stop telling us that our way of life isn’t good enough, clean enough or marketable enough. We’ve worked so hard to make this place, this town, this LIFE, the way we need. Relax, enjoy it while you’re here. We are a community, not an investment opportunity.
Camp Space Camp
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.
PS: From another place and time, I remember the 1970s Mountain Gazette. Some months ago, I stepped back into that time when I saw Mountain Gazette in a Boise taqueria — thank you.
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?
MG readership demographics 101
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 weirdoes 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.
Author’s note: I spent literally months and months working on a fairly-heavy (at least by my humble heaviness standards) New-Year’s-based Smoke Signals about the fact that the municipal government of the town in which I live last year passed an ordinance that effectively puts the kibosh on panhandling within the city limits, and how that sort of shit is emblematic of the gentrification vs. funkiness argument taking place in many New West towns these days blah blah blah. But, alas, I never really got to the point of answering the questions I really couldn’t figure out how to even ask properly. So I decided to scrap that Smoke Signals and opted instead to retreat to more conceptually familiar territory. Yes, I decided to write about LSD.
“You ever dropped acid?” asked Winona, a young, pretty and sweet bartender, who is gracious enough that she at least pretends to be amused (or at least not offended) when grey-beards such as myself flirt with her. “Uh, heh heh, why do you ask?” I responded furtively.
“One of my mountain-biking buddies got some,” she said. “I’ve never tried it. I’m thinking about giving it a go. I just figured, out of all the older people I know who might be able to give me some observations about what it’s like to trip, you are the best choice.”
Fortunately, Winona had to tend to other patrons right then, because I needed a few moments to mentally process the apparent reality that I have reached a point in my life where twenty-somethings are hitting me up for advice regarding the use of illegal psychotropic drugs. Part of me wanted to feel as though I had been complimented, that I had become the kind of person who could be trusted to lay sage words of wisdom on a lady with so few years that cynicism had not yet even begun the inevitable process of rotting her psyche. Another part of me, however, was borderline mortified that It Had Come To This. Had Winona asked for my guidance regarding the long-term nurturing of the creative process or how to balance youthful free-spiritedness with the sad reality of having to make money, or, hell even if she’d asked how I felt about the town’s new panhandling ordinance, I would have puffed my chest out a just a little bit and thought, “Growing old sucks, but, having a nice young lady seeking out your hard-earned views about life’s Really Big Issues is pretty cool.” But, no, here was a bartender barely out of diapers asking me whether she should drop acid. Great.
There was a time in my life when, if a cute lady had asked me such a thing, I would have effusively said, “Damned right! Go for it! And I’ll be happy to join you!” But it has been literally almost 30 years since I last interfaced with LSD. A veritable lifetime ago. And here I am, grandfather aged, sitting on a barstool, wondering if my venerability, if nothing else, oughtn’t compel me to at least pretend to recommend to Winona that she should seek natural highs, like riding her mountain bike, and forego ingesting recreational chemicals. But, you know, I didn’t want to risk getting struck by lightning.
“Well?” Winona asked, innocent eyes wide.
What I should have said was, “Do you want to risk turning out like me?” What I did instead was tell Winona about the very last time I ingested acid, in hopes that she could draw her own conclusions.
It was the summer of 1983. The previous winter, I had moved to Denver from Silver City with $43 to my name. A childhood chum had offered me a free place to stay till I got set up. I was certain I would find a newspaper job fairly easily. But times were tough in the early-’80s in Denver. Though I did land a few freelance-writing assignments, I hobbled through my first half-year in the Mile High City in a perpetual state of fiscal distress.
One day, my potential economic salvation magically appeared in the Denver Post classifieds: a daily paper in a place called Russell, Kansas, was looking for an editor. Kansas, I reckoned, actually bordered Colorado, so how bad could it be? I placed a call to the Russell Daily Udder (I don’t remember its true name). The publisher was excited to hear from me. A little too excited, I thought. He wanted me to come to Russell ASAP. “Uh,” I told him, “I don’t exactly have the means to get there.” “So, you need a little gas money?” he asked. “Uh, I don’t exactly have a car. I’d be coming by bus.” The fact that I was broke, carless and desperate enough to seek employment in the heart of the Great Plains apparently did not dissuade the Daily Udder’s publisher. Matter of fact, after outlining the salary and benefits package and telling me that I could use the company car as though it were my own and that there was even a small company-owned apartment I could live in rent free, he went ahead and offered me the position, sight unseen. The word “indentured” sprung to mind. Desperate though I was, I told him I thought it might be a good idea for us to meet face-to-face before making any life-altering decisions. He wired me enough money for a round-trip bus ticket and, the very next night, I found myself aboard a Greyhound headed toward Russell, Kansas, the hometown of none other than Senator Bob Dole, the Republican who ran for president against Bill Clinton in 1996.
I did a fair amount of long-distance bus traveling in those pre-cheap-airfare days. Thus I could tell within nanoseconds of stepping aboard a Greyhound or a Trailways what kind of transitory mobile potpourri sociology I was about to become immersed in for the next however many hundred miles. It could go in any direction, from the craziest-assed Bible-thumpers imaginable sitting there handling snakes and speaking in tongues, to recently released prisoners looking to put as much quick distance between them and their parole officers as possible. This go round, it was — yey! — an entire tribe of freaks, Rainbow Family hippies, dirtbag climber/hiker-types and Deadheads. It was an instant party that involved enough liquor to float a bus, an astounding quantity of weed and hash and, yes, enough Red Dragon to almost make me forget that I was at that very moment on my way to a job interview out in the middle of an endless cornfield.
I was scheduled to arrive in Russell at 4:30 a.m. The publisher of the Daily Udder had made a reservation for me at a motel right across from the bus station. He would pick me up at noon. I was the only person to egress the Greyhound in Russell. For some damned bonehead reason, I had carried not my usual backpack, but, rather, an old leather suitcase my mom had scored at a yard sale. As I made my way off the bus, the suitcase got ahead of me, and I fell over it, performing a well-executed somersault down the bus steps and landing right on my ass in the street. I stood up quickly, acting as though nothing had happened, and started to make my way to the motel. But out of the darkness came a voice. “John?” that voice asked. Surely an auditory hallucination, I thought. I ignored it and proceeded upon my merry way. “Is that John from Denver?” It was once again the hallucinogenic voice from the darkness asking me if I was, of all people, goddamned John Denver. Then: “JOHN!!! IS THAT JOHN FAYHEE?” This time, I turned around and there stood, in the flesh, the publisher of the Daily Udder, who, it turned out, simply could not abide the thought of his next editor arriving in Russell, Kansas, at 4:30 a.m. without someone there to meet him. Which is extremely thoughtful and all, but, well, I was at that moment tripping my brains out, something, I wondered, if maybe I ought to tell him up front, just in case my behavior was not up to its normal polished snuff.
The publisher, barely able to contain his enthusiasm, decided this would be a perfect time to take me on a detailed driving tour of Russell. Over the course of the next (I kid you not) 90 minutes, he showed me every square inch of the newspaper office, including the broom closets, which I must say, were among the best broom closets I had ever seen. Very clean and orderly. Knowing that I played tennis, he showed me Russell’s two unsurfaced asphalt courts with droopy chain-link nets. He showed me his house. He showed me every school in the county. He showed me every church in the county. Then, saving the best for last, he showed me Bob Dole’s boyhood home, Bob Dole’s high school home, Bob Dole’s mother’s home and every street corner where Bob Dole ever scratched his nuts. And the whole time I’m sitting there politely nodding my head and saying “Wow!!!” over and over again, but inside I am screaming “AAAAHHHHH!!!!” at a million decibels, hoping against hope that a killer asteroid will right then fall out of the sky and obliterate the entirety of Russell, Kansas, so I don’t have to endure a single nuther nanosecond of this endless tour of Bob Dole’s hometown.
Finally 42 years later, the publisher of the Daily Udder thank-godfully dropped me off at the motel, saying, “Get some sleep … we’ve got a big day” … and I find myself, instead of crashing, pacing the room frenetically, wondering if there’s not maybe another Greyhound bus going through sometime very very soon that can take me anywhere but Russell, Kansas. Shortly before noon, I venture forth into the harsh midsummer sunlight, still tripping intensely, to wait for the publisher of the Daily Udder to pick me up for our “big day.” As I’m standing there in the motel parking lot, I see a long line of massive cottonwoods, all leaning about 30 degrees toward the east. And I’m wondering what might cause an entire row of giant cottonwoods to all be leaning like that. Then I notice the wind hitting me, and I notice that I too am now leaning over at about 30 degrees toward the east, same as the cottonwoods. I felt roots growing down from my feet and extending deep into the Kansas topsoil. When the publisher arrived, I was hopping from foot to foot, trying to keep those roots from taking hold.
The publisher of the Daily Udder takes me a Kiwanis Club meeting at, of all places, the local high school cafeteria, where our midday repast consists of high school cafeteria food — clean down to the grisly Salisbury steak and instant mashed potatoes and brown gravy and crunchy canned peas and carrots being splatted onto plastic trays by corpulent desultory women who look like they have not left their stations there in the cafeteria for decades, like, if you removed their ladles from their hands, their arms would reflexively, robotically continue the food-serving/splatting motion until they eventually expired.
Now, I had no more idea at that time what a Kiwanis Club is than I do now. All I know is that the guest speaker was a local high school junior who had placed 727th in a recent Kansas 4H oratory competition, and his subject was something like new and improved ways to slop hogs. Just as I was becoming truly captivated by the fact that all of the little peas and carrots on my tray were now performing very impressive military marching maneuvers, I heard my name spoken. The publisher had just introduced me as “the next editor of the Daily Udder.” I was asked to stand and say a few words. Would these people understand how easy it is to get caught up in a bit of innocent acid-dropping on a Greyhound bus? Would they understand marching peas and carrots? Would they understand my killer asteroid fantasy? I doubted it very much. What I did not doubt was my need to get the hell out of Russell, muy pronto, lest I find myself listening to hog-slopping oratory for the next five years.
The publisher dangled the keys to the company car in front of my nose and said that he hoped I would drive it back to Denver to retrieve all my belongings so I could return and begin my new life in Russell as soon as possible. The escape options at that point were as limitless as one tank of gas could carry me. Those keys were so shiny and seductive there in the harsh midsummer Kansas sun, I felt like Gollum staring at the One Ring there at the edge of the volcano. At what point would the publisher of the Daily Udder call the cops and report his company car missing? A week? Two?
In the end, I begged off, saying I would need some time to think his generous (which it was) offer over. But I could tell by the look on the publisher’s face that he knew I wouldn’t be coming back. It seemed like he had been down that road before. Maybe not specifically with tripping hippies, but with others who took one look at his little town, a town he obviously loved and was very proud of, and said thanks but no thanks. He dropped me off at the bus station, and the next morning, I was back in Denver, broke as ever, wondering if I had learned any sort of salient lesson. On the one hand, I could easily have looked at my journey to Russell as an example of a desperate man doing nothing more than trying to survive, something that has defined our species forever and ever (at least the grown-up members of our species). Or I could have looked at my journey as a repudiation of that mind-set, as a sign from the heavens that I needed to set my sights higher than simple survival, that I needed to be looking not east toward the Great Plains, but west toward the Rockies, where, two months later, I found myself living.
I did not venture to Russell again for two decades. While driving to Virginia in 2004, the Russell exit sign off I-70 beckoned, and I decided to eyeball what might have been. Though clearly suffering from economic malaise, it seemed like a nice enough little town.
I do not know whether the fact that I was tripping on that first visit a lifetime ago made me miss the real Russell, or whether it made me see the town as I maybe would not have otherwise, from a perspective where my dire fiscal situation was not necessarily ignored, but was not the driving force in my decision-making process. Did the Red Dragon enhance my view, jade my view or skew my view? Did it encourage me to look at Russell through the equally unfair and inaccurate lenses of a telescope, a microscope or a kaleidoscope? Either way, that marked the last time I ever dropped acid. I made no resolution; I just never felt like taking that trip again.
After relating that story to Winona, I could not tell whether I had talked her into trying acid with her mountain-biking buddy or out of it. She was smiling as she left to deal with other thirsty customers. It could go one way or the other. I crossed my fingers.
To read the entire unabridged versions of various “Smoke Signals,” as well as a whole lot of other inane bullshit, go to mjohnfayhee.com.
For some reason, when I heard the car door shut, I knew I was screwed. It was 4 a.m., January. I was perched high on the lip of Muley Point, Utah, and the wind was howling. Somewhere in the dark, far below this wind-riven promontory, the San Juan River flowed with ice. I was naked and my car doors were locked tight.
It began with the search for a new car, an SUV. After 20 years of tired, worn-out Subarus, I needed a real four-wheel-drive; something that would get me where I needed to go; and something I could sleep in. With a new job and the regular paycheck that came with it, I went looking for an SUV — not too big, but not too small either.
The car salesman winced when I asked if they came without running boards. “How’s your little lady gonna git in?” he inquired with a wolfish grin. “Well,” I drawled back, not to be outdone, “I don’t know any ladies that can’t pull themselves into a car. Most of ’em drive trucks.” He looked puzzled when I insisted on laying the back seats down and became visibly rattled when I crawled in to lie down. I lay there for several minutes, silently staring at the ceiling, just to fuck with him. He emitted an audible sigh of relief when I finally announced that I’d take it.
That was early fall and I finally got a break in January. It was time to try out my sparkly new SUV with some quality car camping. The best place I knew of for that was Muley Point, high on the southwest rim of Cedar Mesa in the southern part of the Beehive State.
I left Colorado in a blizzard that didn’t let up until Paradox Valley. Upon arriving in the late afternoon, I got out to traverse the rim and sat to watch the play of light across Monument Valley, 50 miles to the south. What a relief to be away from work and family holiday duties! After the final glow faded from Navajo Mountain and the San Juan River canyon was shrouded in darkness, I turned to dinner and the set-up of my new home. As I went through the ritual of spreading my pad and sleeping bag, it dawned on me that I could sit back there and eat! Damn! … no wind and sheltered from the rapidly plunging temperatures. Congratulating myself, I celebrated with another beer and finally, after reading by headlamp through several hours of early-winter darkness, it was time to sleep.
While the car rocked in wind that originated somewhere in Nevada, I slept — and what a cozy, comfortable sleep it was. Until 3:30, when I had to pee. I lay there for what seemed like hours, trying to will it away, but it was inevitable.
I sat up wrapped in my bag. OK — real quick — no screwing around. I threw off the sleeping bag, rolled toward the door, pulled the handle, kicked it open into a bitter wind and stumbled out. In hindsight, I should have paid closer attention to that clicking noise as I got out. But it was a new car and I had yet to appreciate its “features.” As I hurriedly pushed into the wind, trying to gauge which direction to pee, the door blew shut and my learning curve for these “features” steepened. I had rolled over the lock button on the keys and was now, quite literally, out in the cold. 4 a.m. — dark, windy and a temperature far south of 32°.
It was time to think and act quickly.
The frigid wind on my bare ass was disconcerting, as I hastily surveyed my surroundings, quite aware that I could die, or at least become really uncomfortable. The ground all around me was smooth, but I remembered a campfire ring along the rim — surely there were some big rocks, but I couldn’t be certain. I shuffled carefully towards the darkened rim, fearful of sharp rocks and cactus in the night.
There it was — a circle of boulders, each as big as my head, and heavy. I lugged one back to the car where I began to assess the price of SUV windows. Damn! They were all big and, no doubt, expensive. I settled on the back door window, the one that had blown shut. It was, in a certain sense, revenge. It was a difficult (and long) 15 seconds. Shiny new car — great big rock — it just wasn’t right.
But desperate times call for drastic measures.
Determined, I reared back with both hands wrapped firmly around the boulder and hit the window. The rock recoiled violently against my bare, cold chest. Shit! I pulled myself up off the ground as I cursed into the dark. Adrenaline surged as I gripped the rock and again struck the window, more forceful this time. It bounced back again, but this time I was braced. Now I was freezing and pissed. “Fucking windows are rubber!” I screeched into the wind.
Finally, after several more attempts, I wound up and slammed the window, catching it with a sharp edge of the boulder. The window exploded into a million tiny fragments. My arms followed the rock through the jagged hole — hands clamped tightly around it in anticipation of another rebound.
Well, I thought, that was cool. I threw the rock over behind me, reached through the hole to open the door, and realized my hand was wet and sticky. I was bleeding profusely, as a shard had left a long, streak-like slash on my left hand. “A mere flesh wound,” I muttered, smiling at both my wit and success. I recovered the offending key chain, unlocked all the doors and dressed, all while wrapping my hand in an old T-shirt. It was good to realize that I could multi-task when absolutely necessary.
I threw all the front-seat detritus in back with the glass shards, jumped in and pressed on with a cold ride down the seemingly endless switchbacks to the desert floor.
I entered the town of Bluff in growing light. My hand throbbed. Bad news, but I expected as much. No clinic, no doctor — the folks in Recapture Lodge pointed east — go to Montezuma Creek. I snagged a complimentary cup of coffee to ward off dehydration and to make up for the blood loss, rewrapped my hand with fresh paper towels, and headed toward the rising sun.
Upon arriving in Montezuma Creek, a dusty oil town bordering the Navajo Reservation, I pulled in front of the clearly marked clinic, which was just opening for the day. After the basic clinic formalities, a very polite Navajo doctor ushered me into a sterile room and quietly sewed me up. I tried in vain to explain what had happened. He smiled politely and sent me on my way. This trip was over — almost.
The drive home was uneventful, if you can call Lizard Head Pass in a raging blizzard with one window missing uneventful.
The final “bright spot” of the trip didn’t come until a week later, as I sat at my desk on a Monday morning recounting the bizarre sequence of events to the anthropologist from the adjacent office.
“Fillmore, you’re an idiot,” he said, shaking his head. It was time to set the hook … and finish the story.
“Well,” I challenged, “I bet you’ve never been healed by a Navajo medicine man.” His eyes narrowed as I held up my bandaged hand. He peered at it closely, intensely interested as I slowly unwound the bandage. He placed his reading glasses on the end of his nose, and squinted as he bent even closer. I had him.
He snorted. “Those are stitches,” he exclaimed with scorn. “Where did you find this medicine man?”
“The Montezuma Creek Tribal Clinic,” I answered, grinning triumphantly. That single moment damn near made the whole thing worth it.
The deep scars of this experience remain — I don’t mean the physical kind, although there are those. I’m talking mental scars. To this day, even several years later, I feel an involuntary twitch and a cold shiver when I push the “lock” button on the key chain of my well-used and no-longer-so-shiny SUV. I have, however, learned all about those “features.”
Robert Fillmore is a professor of geology at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo.