Bad Trip

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

One More Reason Why SUV’s are Evil

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.

Bailing: Why, How and When We Do It

Bailing: Why, How and When We Do It

By Brendan Leonard

From inside Kind Coffee in Estes Park, the day looked perfect for climbing, aside from the deep, extending bowing every visible tree was performing in the wind as Mitsu and I comfortably drank coffee.

“Good bail, dude,” I said.

“What? That wasn’t a bail,” he said. “We didn’t even leave the parking lot.” True.

Fifteen minutes before we had ordered coffee, we had been standing at the trailhead at Lumpy Ridge, with the intent of getting on an easy five-pitch climb. We hadn’t gotten our packs out of the back of Mitsu’s car yet, and we were watching wind gusts shove the pine trees around, as if we expected it to suddenly cease so we could proceed with our day.

“I’m not worried about it being dangerous,” Mitsu said. “I’m worried about it not being fun.” Maybe those were 40 mph gusts. Communication beyond rope tugs would be impossible. Getting buffeted while fighting the boredom of belaying would definitely be annoying. Battling wind-induced rope drag, also a pain in the ass. I pictured myself barn-dooring out of a hand crack after a violent wind gust, backpack straps whipping my face. The hell with it.

We got back in the car and drove to the coffee shop to argue about what constitutes a bail.

I believe the origin of the word “bail,” as outdoorsfolk use it, most likely originated from its use in rock climbing. In the event of a storm rolling in, an accident, an injury or lack of sufficient climbing ability to finish a route, a party “bails,” and rappels to the nearest ground. Bailing usually requires leaving a few pieces of gear, at minimum, and can get expensive after that, so it is avoided as much as possible.

You don’t, for example, get partway up a route, decide you’re “just not feeling it today” and build a non-retrievable rappel anchor out of two Camalots ($60 apiece), two slings ($5 apiece) and two carabiners ($6 apiece). Bailing is not chickening out, or quitting because you’re lazy.

There are no hard and fast rules on the proper usage of the word “bail,” but I would submit that if you, at minimum, have left your home or tent with the required gear for your objective and you decide not to follow through with your plan, you are bailing.

I have bailed off climbing routes and peaks because of thunderstorms. I have bailed on winter summit attempts because of numb toes and avalanche danger. I once bailed on a ski day at Copper Mountain after one run because there were 300 people in front of us in the lift line. I bailed on a dayhike once because I saw two mountain lions about a mile from the trailhead, and I was by myself. Bailing, as far as the outdoors is concerned, is using good judgment to avoid certain death, irrational amounts of danger or sometimes just a shitty experience, like trying to climb while being pulled off the rock by 40 mph wind gusts or having your throat ripped out by a cougar.

I would even argue that you can bail on a jog, even if no one else accompanies you, and you tell no one your objective. If you plan to run five miles in the park and you only run three miles, you have bailed. As the tree that falls in the forest even though no one sees or hears it, you have failed to reach a goal, and should admit it instead of letting yourself off the hook so easily.

Which, of course, requires that you had an objective in the first place. If you are someone who just likes to go for a hike and get out in nature, and sets no goals, well, you can never bail. On the other hand, if you set out at the trailhead with a certain lake in mind, and you turn around and walk back to your car without reaching the lake because you’re tired or your boyfriend is whining about blisters or you have a hangover, then you have bailed. Don’t hide behind “It doesn’t matter; it was just nice to get outside in the fresh air.” That’s correct, it is — but you didn’t follow through, and you should own up to it. If you contracted to paint someone’s house and you got three-quarters done and said, “Well the point wasn’t to paint the whole house; the point was to get some new color on it,” the owner of the house would be pissed.

In groups of two or more, bailing is a four-step process:

In Step 1, the group begins to have a less-than-awesome experience: It starts to rain, you can hear multiple avalanches, you realize you don’t want to hike up a 14er with 400 other people after all, you have diarrhea, someone sprains his or her ankle, you realize you’re skinning up into a whiteout, etc.

In Step 2, one member of the party has the good sense to realize that the outing is starting to suck, and says to the group something like, “What do you guys think?” he or she means, “What do you guys think about how not fun this day is becoming?” This, in the business world, is known as “asking for the sale.”

In Step 3, however, the partner, or other group member, does not have to fully commit to “buying” in response to someone asking for the sale. He, she or they just have to commit to the possibility of bailing. Once, in very high winds, blowing snow and cold temperatures during a dayhike up Mount Audubon in the Indian Peaks, my underdressed friend Aaron completed Step 3 by saying, “Well, if one of you guys were to say you didn’t think that we should keep going, I wouldn’t have a problem with that.” Very diplomatic. Two hours later, we were stuffing our faces at Big City Burrito.

Step 4 is agreement from the rest of the party, which is usually a given after Step 3 has been satisfied. Mountain folk will suffer in silence indefinitely until they realize someone, or everyone else, is hating life as much as they are. You will notice a substantial uptick in morale at this point. Once the possibility of bailing is realized, the gravity of beer, or cheeseburgers, or whatever, takes hold and pulls the group back to the trailhead, where everyone will say to each other things like, “I think we made the right decision,” and “That mountain will be there for another day.”

Bailing is an important virtue in mountain people. It sacrifices one outdoor experience in order to make possible all the infinite future outdoor (and other) experiences you’ll have because you didn’t push onward and die on this one. In that way, it’s kind of like Jesus dying on the cross for all those Christians.

Get comfortable with it. The archives of The Denver Post are littered with stories of the dead people who didn’t have the good judgment to bail when they should have, and sometimes the selfless folks who died trying to rescue those people. True, you will never know what happened if you hadn’t turned around, but the regret of a bail hurts a lot less than freezing to death in a whiteout or getting hit by a bolt of lightning. If you took a survey, I think you’d find that at least four out of five of the world’s toughest mountaineers would prefer drinking beer and eating burritos over freezing to death.

Brendan Leonard is the Gazette’s Mountain Media editor. He lives in Denver.

The archives of The Denver Post are littered with stories of the dead people who didn’t have the good judgment to bail when they should have


We hiked that winter morning from the river to the rim, from sun-soaked beach through deep red mud to dry cold snow. From a grubby two weeks camping, past Europeans in city shoes, to the visitor center pub where Jim Croce played on the jukebox and ski jumpers launched on flat screens over the heads of Midwesterners sipping toddies. All of it, every detail, felt new and alive, nearly foreign, and snagged our attention like raingear on mesquite.

Re-entry is like the space between waking and rising, a dream-place, a passageway. People who travel overseas call it culture shock. People who work outdoors, as we used to do, camping for weeks at a time, know the familiar shock of sudsing shampoo under warm water — warm! — or easing a gas pedal up to sixty or marveling at the grocery produce section. There’s overwhelm in it, but there’s also magic: the sense of being remade.

Sometimes, of course, you’ve been made new so often it becomes blasé. You go into the woods, you come back out. Big whoop. But, this time, we’d been made really new. We’re backpackers, Laurie and I, skiers, sometimes bikers. We are not river runners. Especially not in February in the Grand Canyon. To be in your forties and cede control of nearly everything to someone else, even dear old friends, is unnerving.

We’d known our river-running friends many years earlier when we’d all toiled at a lodge on the North Rim doing lousy work for lousy pay in a gorgeous setting. We hadn’t seen them much in-between. But, as is so often the case, the kind of people they’d been was the kind of people they’d become: sun-weathered and silly, cautious and reliable, wild and gentle in equal parts.

“The Grand Canyon still has something to offer us,” the email invitation read.

So we headed off. Were we out of our element? Yes. Were we cold? Yes. Were we scared? Very. When we hit the rapids, and our boatman-friend said “hold on,” by god, I held. After two weeks, only half the river days the rest of the group would spend, I had new palm calluses. Then, in no time, the trip was done. We were back in the realm of the familiar: in well-worn boots, hiking with packs, preparing to re-enter.

I crave it. Who doesn’t? It’s like Joseph Campbell said: the call to adventure runs full circle to the triumphant return. Only this triumph comes with a heavy dose of humility. And aloneness. No one, it seems, can understand what you’ve been through, what you’ve learned, lessons so obvious as to seem mundane: how little we need for happiness, how much we have to be grateful for, the plain wonder of the world we live in and the deep responsibility we have for it. How can you explain that? You can’t.

Even as you try, as you leave the rim and drive to town, it’s slipping away like the effects of high-altitude training leeching off at sea level. You stop for groceries. You nudge the speedometer toward eighty. Pretty soon, you’re boarding a jet for home. An airplane! For this kind of shock, I’m not ashamed to admit, I require Xanax.

I’d just taken my middle seat and half a pill when I looked up at my seat mate. She was a talker. A giddy one, grinning wildly, eager, nearly desperate, to tell the story of her travels. I pocketed my headphones and tried not to sigh.

Turns out, she’d celebrated her 50th birthday with her first trip ever to the Grand Canyon. She’d planned the trip for months, but by the time she arrived in Arizona, yet another El Niño storm looked likely to keep her away. Then it happened: the snow cleared, her father took the wheel, and they showed up at the snowy edge.

“We could see the river,” she said.

I did not want to fess up. I didn’t want to one-up her for one thing, but also it suddenly seemed very private — my changed-ness, my quest — something I ought to hoard like Halloween candy or piety. But there was no way out of it now except to lie. So I came clean, and we swapped stories as we ascended. She’d seen a sunrise and a sunset, the same as me. She’d walked an icy trail gripping the handrail, the way I’d gripped webbing.

Now the plane banked, and there it was below us, the geography of our remaking, the Grand Canyon in its wholeness, end to end, as though you can digest it this way, in three minutes or six. You can’t, of course. We both knew that, my seatmate and I. You come, you stay, you arise made new. If you’re lucky, you can share it.

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

Deep, Dark and Weird

As we find ourselves once again in the shortest and darkest days of the year, we turn inward to reflect on the cold and weird that resides within us all. We consider the ramifications of blue-ice impacts, anaerobic digesters and plunging into icy surf, and wait for longer, brighter days, which, sometimes, it seems, can’t come soon enough for some of us.

1) $31 million or so

Most mountain dwellers have had the experience of sitting on a parked plane (well, those who survive the TSA groping process) while it gets showered with deicing chemicals. I don’t know about you, but my first thought, after pondering a TSA legal smackdown, is about the plane staying in the air. Thought No. 3 is about salmon slugging down the glycol that was used to melt the ice. A few years back, the Portland International Airport installed a $31 million system to collect the runoff from its deicing program, only to learn that the stuff was still getting into the Columbia River and messing with the fish. The system is in its final phases of getting fixed, and experts predict those costs — a few million more dollars — may be absorbed, oddly enough, in airline fees.

2) Blue-ice impact

While we’re on the topic of airplanes, you probably need to know that there were 27 documented incidents of blue-ice impacts in the United States between 1979 and 2003. For those not in the know, a BII is a big ball of frozen crap and “disinfectant” that dislodges from airline toilets and plunges to the earth, sometimes at terminal velocity. It happens when planes have been in very cold places (like 36,000 feet), and then travel into a space that is warm enough to accidentally shake loose the ball of crap that has accumulated from tank leaks. A homeowner in Chino, CA, learned this the hard way when a BII messed up his house.

3) Cold house? Seek methane

Another thing you probably need to know is that the oft-maligned methane gas could change your world in a good and big way. Problem is, you will need the manure from 4-6 cows and your own anaerobic digester in order to heat your home and produce enough electricity for a year. If this won’t work, consider moving to Idaho, where methane-capturing plants are sprouting up at a rapid pace, and where crap, ostensibly, is king. As the nation’s third-leading milk producer and home to 550,000 cows, Idaho has several dairies already converting manure to energy. FYI, 6,000 cows can churn out enough waste to create about 1 million kilowatt hours a month. And if you don’t have cow manure, rotten garbage works nicely too. In Burley, ID, for example, there’s sufficient landfill gas to build a 400-acre methane production plant.

4) SAD in the winter?

If you’re prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder, a malady that links a dearth of sun exposure to

depression (and also sells a lot of expensive lights), you’re best to stay out of Oregon, where Astoria ranks as the place in the western U.S. (aside from Alaska with the fewest sunny days per year (a paltry 50). That’s followed by Olympia, Washington, at 52, and Seattle at 58. If you really want to get down and out in the wintertime, head up to Cold Bay, Alaska, which boasts a whopping 10 days of sunshine annually — in addition to the typical Alaskan shortage of daylight in the winter. On the upside, you won’t have to worry so much about wrinkles. (And there are only 76 people living in Cold Bay to see them anyway.)

5) Vostok on the Platte

Compared to Vostok, a place on the East Antarctic Polar Plateau that has a mean (very mean) annual temperature of minus-67 degrees Fahrenheit, and which has earned bragging rights as the coldest damned place on earth, Denver is a damned sauna. But according to the Current Results website, Denver ranks as the coldest large American city, right above Chicago. Never mind that there are lots of winter days that exceed 50 degrees in Denver; there are also roughly 156 days a year when the mercury plunges below 32. And because it has a recorded low of minus-30 degrees, that makes it the coldest American City. Chicago’s low is -27. FYI: We checked out Minneapolis, which has a recorded low of minus-34 degrees, but apparently it does not fit the category of a “large” American city.

6) Out in the cold

While it’s nearly impossible to get an accurate count on the numbers of people who lack a regular and adequate nighttime residence (one of a zillion definitions of homelessness), the American West has the highest number of people without homes. Nevada leads the pack at 49 homeless people per 10,000, followed by Oregon, 47; California, 44; Washington, 36; and Colorado, 29. A study by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated between 2.3 and 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness, while a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counted 671,888 on a given night. Los Angeles leads the nation at 68,608 counted individuals, while Las Vegas comes in fourth at 11,417, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Denver, Phoenix and Seattle also made the top-ten list.

7) Plungers, all

The Plungapalooza is the largest polar bear plunge in the U.S., attracting more than 12,000 idiots into the Chesapeake Bay surf in late January. If you don’t want to make the trip but just have to rip off most of your clothes and drop into water the consistency of a frozen daiquiri, you’ll probably want to join the Libby, Montana, Polar Bear Club, which doesn’t just plunge once a year, but meets Sunday afternoons from October into April. Water temperatures drop into the mid to upper 30s, and about a half dozen folks are regulars. They claim that (aptly named) plunging assists blood circulation, the immune system and that all-important and sought-after vigor.