We think, perhaps rightly so, of our animals as extensions of our families, and we treat them like people. For my entire life, family dogs have slept on the beds, the couch and the recliner, never spending a single night outside unless we were camping. They licked the dinner plates clean, gobbled expensive dog food and occasionally received thousands of dollars in veterinarian care, even when they were approaching the natural end of their lifespan.
Such attitudes would have been almost unthinkable a century ago. My Grandma grew up with a series of dogs named Shep, short for “shepherd” of course, which is what they were used for. Shep, all of them, slept with the animals in the barn; the very same barn where cows were slaughtered, strung up by their hindquarters and butchered; the same barn where elk hunted in surrounding mountains were turned into steaks; and where thousands of local trout were cleaned — knife in the asshole, slit the belly, guts thrown to the dogs. I’m sure the family loved Shep, and they certainly valued the vital role he played in keeping the cattle in line, but they still made him sleep in the barn.
There were horses in the barn as well, used to supply HORSEPOWER: the power of a horse, which, for thousands of years, was how people and goods moved upon dry land. It sounds idyllic, until you remember the brute animal force needed to pull tons of freight, drag the plow, the hay rake, the logs — and the crack of the whip required to get the beasts to carry your burden. Indeed, it would have been difficult to have been too soft hearted toward animals in those days, because you would have been in tears much of the time — during the late-19th century, for example, 700 horses were worked to death in New York City every day just to pull street cars.
When I was eight years old, I had a friend in Tabernash, a tiny town not far from Fraser. There were a number of Hispanic families there who had come up from southern Colorado decades earlier to work on the railroad. Many of them still kept chickens, and slaughtered them, cut their heads off right in front of us. I had never seen that before, haven’t seen it since — the chopping block, the sharp hatchet, the frantic fluttering, and the final crazy dance of a bloody headless chicken. Later that afternoon, we happened to have chicken salad sandwiches for lunch. I ate my sandwich, reluctantly, but not without pondering, for the very first time, the animal I was chomping between my teeth.
Not long ago, customers of Whole Foods market decided that the live lobster tanks behind the seafood counter were cruel, and they successfully demanded the tanks be removed. Just imagine what those folks would have thought of my Tabernash chicken experience. Had that chicken been slaughtered in front of a Whole Foods market anywhere in America, especially in front of children, irate customers would have called for a boycott of the chain, and the ouster of the CEO. Just like those poor lobsters suffering in the tank — peering through the dirty glass, claws banded shut, waiting to be boiled alive — the sight of a headless chicken would have ruffled some yuppie feathers. Blood. Guts. Death. A terrible tragedy. Yet those same consumers, vegetarians notwithstanding, have no problem snapping up shrink-wrapped free-range chickens, ground-up grass-fed cows or filets of various fish, not to mention a bit of lobster tail when it suits their fancy, provided they don’t have to see the actual living creature beforehand.
My daughter and I recently watched “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” — a horribly cute movie that features a surprisingly harrowing scene where dogs are kidnapped and forced into an underground Mexican dog-fighting ring. It was a short scene, with no actual violence, but it made my daughter cry and her daddy cringe. I think we can all agree that folks involved in that sort of thing are among the lowest scum of the earth, and in my mind there is a special place reserved for them in hell, but at the same time, on some bizarre level, I have more respect for blood sport spectators gambling on vicious pit bulls than I do for sensitive do-gooders trying to ban live lobster tanks from grocery stores: at least the dogfighter vermin are witness to the carnage they’re responsible for.
We smugly think we’ve evolved into a kinder, gentler people, who treat animals in a civilized way, but really we’ve simply relegated the killing floor to some unknown place far removed from our daily lives, out of sight and out of mind, leaving the dirty work to immigrants whose names we’ll never know, and whose lives are as abstract to us as the meat that ends up on our plate. We don’t whip horses anymore — now we use refineries to whip energy from barrels of crude oil, and the trusty sheep dog has been replaced by soldiers (backed by billion-dollar weaponry), who herd petroleum into secure stock pens. Not to mention related externalities: drowned polar bears, poisoned groundwater, failed blowout preventers … we’re not kind, and we’re not gentle — we’re in denial.
Perhaps we need some blood on our hands. Not metaphorical blood — we’ve got plenty of that — but actual blood, warm and fresh from the animal we’re about to eat. Or maybe a whip in our hands, a mule in the driveway and an urgent need to get to work on time. Not so we can be cruel to animals, but so we can remember how utterly dependent we are on them (and their TEMPORARY petroleum substitutes) for our collective survival. Life feeds on life, and, for now, we’re at the top of the food chain, which makes us the biggest feeders of all. It would behoove us all to remember this next time we’re snuggled up on the couch with the family dog.
Frequent contributor Charles Clayton, a native of Colorado’s Fraser Valley, lives in Taos, NM. His last story for the Gazette was “New River, Arizona: Three Glimpses,” which appeared in #181. His blog, “Pagan Parenting,” can be found at mountaingazette.com.
“‘… no pleasure is comparable to the standing upon the vantage ground of truth (a hill not to be commanded, and where the air is always clear and serene) and to see the errors and wanderings and mists and tempests in the vale below;’ so always that this prospect be with pity, and not with swelling or pride.” — Sir Francis Bacon, commenting on Roman poet Lucretius in “Of Truth” (1597)
Let’s say you’ve driven up the pass from your favorite destination/snowglobe/resort town for a day of fun and frolic on a foot or so of fresh powder. You’ve parked your trusty PU/SUV/Suby/POS mountain car in a just-plowed turnout. Skis are skinned, board is tuned, sled cranked or waffle-stompers tightened to your satisfaction. As you look up from your preparations, stalking toward you in an unhurried way is a somewhat furry, low-slung, powerfully put-together specimen of what a certain number of days and nights “at altitude” hath wrought.
Right now, there are a number of considerations. Does the character look dangerous, hungry, displeased? Have you been seen, or is your visitor just passing by? If seen, should you: A. Jump back in vehicle, lock all doors; B. Step slowly forward, showing no sign of fear or aggression; C. Wait for the other party to make the first move; D. None of the above? It all depends, my friend, so read on …
“If the cat could talk, what a tale he’d tell …” — Hoyt Axton, from “Della and the Dealer” (1979)
One night last March, I’m in a local establishment, having beers and a burger with a biologist buddy of long acquaintance, catching up on each other’s winter activities. He’s been working in a lynx study team, he says; not studying lynx exactly, but tracking people (voluntary participants all) as they cross paths with lynx, and he thinks my journalistic antennae might be stirring right about now. Tell the truth, in a pleasant fresh-brewed haze, I’m ruminating on a long-ago, failed mid-winter attempt to write a light fiction on a second-hand DOS-code piece of ’80s lap-top technology, concerning what might happen if a recently released Colorado-immigrant lynx were to get the bright idea to start walking back to its Canadian homeland, and of a snow-flattened skeleton I found a few years later, in a timberline meadow that had me thinking that this wouldn’t have been a bad place to die … better than some I’d known.
I’m just puzzling out whether I stowed the skeleton’s cat-like skull somewhere in my piles of abandoned gear and assorted flotsam, or if I had left it lying there in the newly sprouted meadow grasses, when my reverie is broken by the very instinct my biologist buddy thought might be killing my buzz. Damn it, he’s right, this might be a good story — except that I’m pretty sure I’m not a journalist, or (as one of my current favorite country-alt-singer-poets puts it) “a drunk with a pen,” but prefer to think of myself as a harmless sort with a lively imagination and a penchant for disappearing into wildlands unencumbered by uplinking technology.
He sets the hook by pointing out something to the effect that this study could add a little more scientific knowledge to the pyre of opinion-mongering on whether, when and where motor- vs. human-powered methods of recreation may (or may not) affect lynx usage of survivable habitat. Now, before too many excitable members of either fringe decide to clamor for heads-on-a-stick a la Gaddafi, let me hasten to add that participating in the group activity known as “citizen science” can be a democratic chance to add knowledge as studies are being conducted, rather than flinging insults, brickbats and lawsuits after the results are in.
How the story’s gone so far (wherein ol’ Uncle B. promises to keep it short and sweet as possible)
Though Lynx canadensis once roamed all the high mountain ranges of North America, the last confirmed sighting of a wild one in Colorado was in 1973 near Vail, via habeas corpus (a trapper produced the body). By the mid-1990s, the cat’s possible listing as an Endangered Species had become a political potboiler featuring multiple unofficial sightings, inconvenient tracks in the path of a mega-resort expansion scheme, the ELF, FBI, etc. — the typical alphabet soup of such shadowy intrigues. Here could begin a recitation of calls to rage at the machine, with responses fearing a scourge of eco-terrorists on our shores; but recalling my promise of short and sweet, we’ll be skipping lightly back to the High Country, circa 1999, when the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) brought Canadian-born lynx to the San Juan Mountains.
Three of the first four re-introduced cats came, saw and died. The release team re-caught the last one, and regrouped. The next releases went better, as biologists figured out how to fatten their captives for the necessary lean times of getting to know the lay of a new homeland upon release. Sort of a mountain locavore training session — with snowshoe hares, squirrels, voles and mice in place of memorizing all the “burger-and-a-pint” nights in a ski-town.
By 2006, CDOW was still releasing about a dozen newly captured lynx a year, and an adventurous few were wandering far from the release area. As is the wont of wildlife biologists, released lynx were fitted with radio collars, which showed immigrant lynx moving into the High Country near Vail and Summit County, and traced some venturing to lynx-unfriendly cultural climes. Think Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas. Some of the stay-at-homes were having babies, anchoring Colorado’s wildland population with a crop of 50 or so 1st-generation kits in 2005, and even a litter from a Colorado-born lynx the next year. Then a brush with disaster when no lynx births were recorded in 2007 or 2008, and hyperbolic press accounts started raising the specter of a failed reintroduction. Snowshoe hare populations had crashed, and female lynx stopped producing babies until prey was more plentiful, matching a cycle known from Canadian studies. 2009 saw resurging hare and lynx births, and, by 2010, a third of the radio-tracked lynx females in Colorado had litters.
Just before last winter set in, Colorado’s top political brass announced the recovery program a success. CDOW announced that no more reintroductions are planned, and that tracking would shift from radio collars to camera traps along known trails, genetic sampling and snow-tracking of lynx in winter. Also, a study of how human use of lynx habitat affects their movements, begun in the Vail area in 2008, would move to your correspondent’s home range for the winters of 2010 through 2011. This is how my biologist buddy came to be sitting there, eyeing me for signs of journalistic fervor over the heads of our next round of freshly drawn local brews.
Science and fiction (how B.’s dharma lynx tale turned out) …
One problem with DOS-code-based storytelling is that, as with all things digital, there is (to quote Gertrude Stein), “ … no there there,” until one hits a “print” button. As I remember, that particular ill-starred attempt at writing the Great American Novel, my piece-of-shit (POS) second-hand computer crashed just after my wandering lynx had crossed the border into its native homeland. I never was able to get the thing started again, and shortly thereafter gave up on the ancient craft of making imagined characters articulate transcendent truths, replaced by a continuing fascination with chronicling the strangeness of truth itself.
CDOW’s tracking teams have recorded a lynx wandering over the Continental Divide, bound for points east. One trip ended near Wichita, Kansas, when a tranquilizer dart started a long ride back to Colorado. The next time, the wanderer crossed Nebraska and made it to Des Moines, Iowa, before it ran afoul of the bane of all dharma bums, a driver who may’ve zigged when zagging was the only way not to run over a furry, low-slung, powerfully built archetype of feline curiosity. Another cat even made it back to the land of his birth, only to fall for a Canadian trapper’s wiles last year. Others are testing the edges of their habitat, in all directions.
“… but the cat was cool, and never said a mumbling word.” — (Axton’s comment on the cat’s tale of “Della and the Dealer”)
No matter where you may head for the slopes this winter in the Rocky Mountain West, watch for adventurous travelers seeking a place to call home. With a little effort, you can even become an official CDOW “snow tracker” and have your lynx observations officially included without producing a body — a pretty cool advance from pre-reintroduction lynx science.
If traveling on a highway, slow down. If possible, smoothly pull to the shoulder, enjoy interfacing and wish your fellow citizen safe travels. If you are on a trail, or schussing, carving, even (shudder) high-marking a slope of manna delivered from the wintry gods/goddesses of all things good and pure and innocent as the newly fallen snow, and have taken to heart this little tale of the migrations of Lynx canadensis, perhaps the encounter will be a high point of your budding service to the renaissance of old Francis Bacon’s definition of the scientific method in a 1620 treatise: “That reason which is elicited from facts by a just and methodical process, I call Interpretation of Nature.”
So you wanna be a scientist? (The “how-to-interface” part) …
Here’s a participatory exercise. Let’s say a somewhat furry wildland archetype approached you on a sunny powder morning last winter, and you chose action B or C. After exchanging expressions of mutual joy at being lucky and/or smart enough to be on this mountain, on this day, in this life, your new
acquaintance may’ve asked if you’d consider
taking part in a study he had the good fortune to be conducting that very day. He might’ve showed you a small device he hoped you’d consider slipping into your pack while you skied, rode or sledded through the wintry wonderland. Say you decided it couldn’t hurt anything, as you had no particular intention of engaging in shadowy intrigues with pro- or anti-establishment entities on that particular day.
Congratulations, citizen scientist! Your willingness meant your day’s travels — up, down, around and back — are now added to a knowledge base that just may keep Colorado’s lynx population healthy and growing. The device is a GPS unit, and you’ve joined a select host of citizen scientists and immigrant lynx in laying down real-time use patterns for future planners to peruse, parse, ponder and hopefully arrive at land-use decisions that rise above the pressures and fear-mongering of slogan-based politics-as-usual. You move to the head of our class of participatory democracy.
OK, OK, I know most of us have not had this opportunity, or maybe chose option A or D when my buddy or one of his cohorts in scientific inquiry approached on that morning. He doesn’t hold grudges, and just might’ve avoided a few conversations in his own time. It’s also not too late to consider being part of what I hope by now sounds like a fairly painless way to contribute to possible solutions, rather than problems. Research teams will cruise the high roads again this winter, searching for citizen scientists. If one of these usually pleasant, harmless and possibly burger-sated wildland archetypes approaches, now you know what that device he or she is offering can do, and the rest is up to you.
Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “The Resurrection,” which appeared in #183. Author of “Livin’ the Dream,” Frank splits his time between the Four Corners and the Border Country. His blog, “The Ragged Edge,” can be found at mountaingazette.com.
After this picture was taken, Narcisse had the misfortune of skiing into a crevasse-like chasm created by creep of the entire snowpack. He fell eight feet onto the wet grass at the bottom of the crevasse. He landed on the point of his shoulder, which separated, and had to be reduced on the spot by one of the guides, who, in his turn, had to churn uphill, sidestepping rapidly through the deep snow to reach him.
I, for my part, skied too close to a tree-well, collapsed the shoulder of the well, and tumbled out of sight and head first into the snow-free column of air next to the trunk, one ski below, with a twist in one ankle. With a teeth-clenched lunge I was able to reach one binding and release it, only to find myself hanging upside-down from the ski above me, dangling by an Arlberg strap and the full length of the front-throw cable, which had come free of its side-hitches.
I was able to pull myself upward slowly and carefully, hand over hand, until I could reach the ski itself. Then I hauled the other ski up from below, and began to build a platform using both skis, which might be able to support my full weight. I could hear the sounds of the second group skiing past, but realized that I would never be able to make myself heard through the thickness of the snowpack, even though I could hear them.
As I thrashed around with my skis, I was suddenly inundated by a cascade from above which threatened to choke off both air and light. At first I thought it must have been some sort of slide set off by passing skiers, but when it finally stopped, I could tell it was caused by one of those enormous, snow-burdened branches above me, unloading its full weight all at once. Coughing and spitting, I first knelt, then stood up on my shaky skis, and began to climb out of the hole.
I knew that the first group, of which I had been a member, was long-gone down the hill, and that the second group, although they had just been here, was also not waiting for anyone. If I could follow just the right set of tracks, at least I could hope to get to where the helicopter had been, even if it in fact was not still there.
It was there, alright, with everybody aboard except for a couple of the guides. I had been in the fast group, and then the slow group, and then the fast group again. Now they took me aside and told me that they had decided that, if I wanted to continue to ski the way that I skied, on the skis that I skied on, that I should get my own helicopter, and my own ski guide.
Not such a bad idea.
Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.
“For what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tchya know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”
— Marge Gunderson, “Fargo”
1) Got irony?
The Denver area has been scoring more than its share of Full-On WTFs lately, and while the two gentlemen who took a corpse out for a night on the town comprised our Best of Denver for 2011, we’re looking at a whole new year and, with it, infinite possibilities for Cartographic. The following happened in November, but because it’s for the January issue, we’re reclassifying it as 2012 material. Ergo: Patrick Sullivan, the former Sheriff of Arapahoe County and the stalwart person for whom the Patrick J. Sullivan Jr. Detention Center was named — ostensibly for the dearth of stupid things he had done — was busted Nov. 29 on charges of trying to trade methamphetamine for sex with a man. And, last we heard, he had taken residence in the chateau that bears his name. During his time as a cop, Sullivan was the 2001 National Sheriff’s Deputy of the Year and — only to add to the Full-On WTF classification here — was a member of a methamphetamine policy task force that made recommendations to the state legislature. No word yet if they’re renaming the jail, but we’re guessing Sullivan is having a pretty deep, dark winter.
2) We’re not all that sad, but not that happy either
We High Country dwellers often talk about our multitude of outlets for happiness, but according to a recent piece in Men’s Health that seemed to piss a few people off, we really aren’t that jolly. Using things like suicide rates, unemployment, percentage of households using antidepressants and the number of people who report feeling emotionally lousy all or most of the time, the magazine came up with St. Petersburg, Fla., as the saddest city in the U.S., with Honolulu as the happiest — or most blues-proof town. So there goes the sunshine factor. Anyway, none of our Mountain West locales made the top-10 list for happiness, falling well behind No. 3 Fargo (let us recall how happy Marge Gunderson was, and whose character rates a No. 75 in Empireonline’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters ) and No. 7 Sioux Falls. Out of 100 cities, Billings managed a 28th-happiest ranking and a C+, while Cheyenne (C+) was 30th. Seattle was 47th, rating a C-, and Denver rolled in with a D+ at No. 47. And our venerable Portland, which always gets raves for being so overwhelmingly pleasant, scored a lowly D at 69th place, three slots worse than Milwaukee, and just below No. 70 Albuquerque. Time to change up our prescriptions, don’tchya know?
3) Wearing whiskers for warmth
If the Deep, Dark Winter has you seeking new sources of warmth (with the possible exception of St. Petersburg), Portland appears to have the last word on facial hair and is the self-acclaimed Beardiest City in America. According to a 2009 issue of Portland Monthly, guys can feel at home with their warm, whiskery plumes in the lumberjack culture of the Pacific Northwest. If you want facial hair but can’t commit to a beard, a study by Quicken and the American Mustache Institute (americanmustacheinstitute.org) found that mustached men earn more money than those who have no mustaches or who have full beards. FYI: Chicago is rated as the most mustache-friendly city in the U.S., and if that ain’t enough — albeit unrelated — the AMI recently shaved its endorsement for presidential candidate Herman Cain.
4) Florida’s looking good
Every year we seem to come up with a new place that is The Most Ass-Biting-Cold Place in the United States, and every year we find slightly different rationale used for the awards. Like, how many frozen-off buttocks are found in the streets. Anyway, courtesy of The Weather Channel, we’re finding Gunnison, Colo., as the second-most-ABC Place in the U.S., with an average daily temperature of 37.3 degrees and a thoroughly enjoyable 60 days on average that go below zero. Jackson, Wyo., came in at a respectable fourth with an average temp of 39 degrees and a record low of -50 on Jan. 1, 1979. We’ve got International Falls, Minn., in third place, naturally, Caribou, Maine, in fifth and the esteemed Barrow, Alaska, leading the pack. With an average daily temp of 10.4 degrees, it plummets below zero a stinging 167 days a year. If you seriously want Deep, Dark Winter, this is your party town.
5) With snow comes shame
According to our research department, whose influence spans the globe, last year’s heavy snows in the U.K. forced snowed-in people into the ravages of adultery. Illicitenounters.co.uk reported 2,500 new members in a single week of last year’s extreme weather. Bringing that methodology to the Mountain West, we can conclude that Squaw Valley, for example, had some serious indiscretion going on with its all-time record snowfall of 810 inches reported as of June 6. Other shame-inducing record snowfalls: Snowbird, Utah, with 783 inches, and Vail at 511 on closing day.
6) Deep dark boredom
It’s the ultimate insult to be on Forbes Magazine’s Most Boring Cities list, which seems to have it out for Arizona — particularly Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert, which took the top three honors in 2009. That’s the latest data we found; figuring people got, well, bored with reading about boring places. Anyway, the list is based on the least amount of national news coverage, making these locales the ultimate places to chill back, or, depending how you see it, a couple notches above hell for a long winter. Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman seemed a bit chafed but came clean, calling his town a “hotbed of celibacy.” Elsewhere in the Mountain Gazette area: Henderson and North Las Vegas, Nev., and Aurora, Colo.
Tara Flanagan splits her time between Boulder and Breckenridge.
Look at the line one more time, get that sick little smile on my face, click my poles behind me a couple of times, exhale and shove off. Keep breathing. As a coach used to tell me, if you can’t hear yourself breathe, you probably aren’t. Work the fall-line where it rolls over and feel the sheer pitch of the slope, like someone too close behind me. Try not to cackle and choke on the powder billowing around my face. Don’t get sloppy or forget where I am. Breathe. Cut across the fall-line and set hard, release the slough, then flow with it off the cliff, stay tight, drop, drop and whoof! Hip-check into the hill, disappear in the powder then spring up out of it and bound on down the mountain, still charging, still breathing, the blood pumping in my head, a lunatic light in my eyes and wild laughter in my heart. If it sounds a lot like sex, you understand the feeling.
Why not? Those two words may be the essence of freeriding. “Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.” That hard-used George Bernard Shaw quote can define a way of looking at mountains as well as general human endeavor. For those snowboarders and skiers who spend a lot of their lives seeking and riding beautiful, exciting lines, the question they ask themselves most often is, Why not?
Why not enlarge the possibilities, the way any athlete does with any sport, looking at what’s never been done? With serious focus, preparation and passion, big new lines are being carved daily by the mad poets of the mountains. Especially around the Roaring Fork Valley where I live, which has become one of the country’s freeride capitals. Sometimes, with all of the other distractions in Aspen, people forget that it still has big-time slopes and riders.
“This valley has such an athletic population,” says 33-year-old native Kiffor Berg, “that there’s a huge talent pool to draw from. Combine that with the world-class terrain here and you get a very large and strong freeride community.” One that counts Berg among its headliners.
Will Cardamone, 25, grew up here as a third-generation local who knows his home-slopes. “This valley has become such a big freeride center for two reasons,” he says. “First, because it has the goods. The Elk Mountains are absolutely amazing and hold some of the best terrain in the country. Now, we do deal with a continental snowpack, which means the consistency throughout the snow is always changing and snow stability is a very serious factor. But when the snowpack is solid, there is so much potential and most of it is untapped. The other reason is due to the transformation that skiing and snowboarding have taken over the last ten years or so. It used to be that most kids like myself went to AVSC [the Aspen Valley Ski Club] to learn how to ski fast around gates. Now they’re going to the club to learn how to throw a cork 9 over a table or rip a steep line.”
Instead of the rigid discipline of ski racing, there have been options. “I am definitely independent,” notes Cardamone. “And the freedom associated with big-mountain telemark skiing hooked me pretty quickly. Plus, the feeling of fear mixed with adrenaline that hits when you’re about to drop in on a big line is as alive as I have ever felt and when it is directly followed by the feeling of flying and then that overwhelming joy after it all comes to a perfect ending, there is nothing that I have done yet in my life that is more fun than that.”
When you grow up in the circus, the rest of life can seem a little tame. Aspen has a long history of pushing all kinds of boundaries, especially in the mountains. Freeriding locally is just a product of our surroundings, mentored and godfathered by the likes of Lou Dawson and Chris Davenport, who have helped inspire the whole scene.
“This valley established its community long before skiing became its most paramount commodity,” says freeskier and photographer Frank Shine. “The passion that grew from within the town as the sport became more popular still remains. I ski with people who range in age from 16 to 50, all equally motivated by finding that perfect run through the trees, down the bowl or during the quiet of a deep-winter storm.” And, as Shine points out, “Every run is an unknown with endless possibilities around each corner, allowing for continuous chances to be creative.”
Onna Konicek, a 30-year-old family doctor from Vermont who works full-time in the winter at the Snowmass Mountain Urgent Care Clinic and who took second in the women’s snowboard division of the Colorado Freeride series in 2008, agrees. “Aspen has become synonymous with ripping. It’s a great gathering of the vibes, so to speak, for exceptional skiers and snowboarders. Skiers and riders are drawn here by one love and the strong sense of community.”
What draws people to freeriding itself isn’t too complicated, either. As U2 sings, “You don’t know if its fear or desire. Danger’s the drug that takes you higher.” Fear, adrenaline and the rush are all components of the freeriding package that’s rooted in doing what you love and loving what you do.
“It reminds me of skiing on Prospect Mountain when I was a kid,” explains Konicek. “We would tear around like little maniacs, dodging trees and skiing off of boulders. On the mountain, I’m excited and happy. I’m living in the now, flying down the mountain on the ever-breaking wave of the present. I am surrounded by the most miraculous substance — snow! I am alive with every cell. Freeriding is about the rush, fitness, camaraderie, challenging oneself, excelling, conquering fears, pushing limits … and just being out there, surrounded by the glorious beauty of the mountains.”
Ask anyone who does it, and he or she will tell you the same essential thing. They all get it. “It just seems that the ultimate pleasure is to float through pow arcing big fast turns,” says one of the guys I ride with whenever I get the chance. Snowmass mega-boarder Dave Watson has competed all over the world, won the 2008 North American Snowboard Freeride Tour and is helping promote various freeriding comps and projects in Colorado. “Big air usually goes hand in hand with deep pow,” he points out. And so does every run Watson makes. Why? “It’s like coming up on Gowdy’s at Snowmass — you can’t see the run because it’s pretty flat before the cornice. I cut some speed as I approach the cornice and send a slow 360 into the gnar. After dropping 20 feet into a 50-degree chute, it’s just one big toeside turn out into a wide open pow field spraying snow with every turn,” he explains as his eyes go a little wide and he flashes a big grin just thinking about it.
At its finest, freeriding doesn’t involve any competition or filming. “The thing that pumps me up is the atmosphere freeriding creates,” says Aspen native Jesse Hoffman who, at 16, rocked the 2008 North American Freeskiing Championships in Crested Butte before blowing up, has appeared in several movies and coaches in Portillo. But what he likes most is going big with friends all over the West and the world. “You’re out in the mountains with your buddies skiing sick lines all day, and you all share the same passion for skiing. I’m not sure about competing … For me, it’s more fun to just go freeskiing with my friends. There are no scores, no judges, just me and my friends ripping it up.”
Essentially, freeriding gives a name to something people have been doing forever: seeking the limits of what’s possible on snow and within themselves. I did it 30 years ago with my friends all over these same mountains: throwing flips off the old mining roads in Little Annie Basin, poaching dangerous lines down Highland Bowl years before it was officially “opened,” launching large air off backcountry cornices in Lenado and generally behaving like invincible idiots when there were no cheering crowds and no cameras rolling. It’s always been about finding the right way to flow down a slope, working with a mountain to make something nearly impossible into something almost hysterically easy, blasting through deep snow at high speeds, rolling over whatever comes up — big drops, cul-de-sacs, death cookies, the last shreds of a sane restraint. One of the best skiers I knew, who died driving a snowmobile off Mount Sopris, used to compare our early freeriding to his specialty of dirt-biking, where you just cruised over everything out there as fast as you could and learned how to handle it. None of that has changed much.
As Jacqui Edgerly, another Aspen native now in her early-20s, observes about her peers, “We all grew up skiing on the same mountain, jumping off the same cliffs and skiing deep pow. There’s quite a range of ages, but since everyone is always up on the hill cruising around, it’s hard not to have a laugh!”
One of her good friends is another birthright local, 25-year-old Nick Devore, the winner of the 2008 World Freeride Telemark Championships and widely considered the best big-mountain telemarker in the world. “Now, for me, freeriding’s a way of expression and prayer, it’s something to keep my mind on and something to dream about,” he explains. “It’s a beautiful, ever-evolving art form that brings out all sorts of emotions. Really, there’s just nothing more fun that gives me a greater sense of freedom than skiing. It’s a great way to explore the mountains and nature and myself.” Devore has discussed with Will Cardamone that “We didn’t really have a cultural background or know much about it, but then we realized that our mountain lifestyle and skiing was our culture, it is a new culture, it is our way of life and I hope to have kids to continue this culture and help it evolve.”
Cardamone’s sister Kate, 28, is also one of what some have called the Aspen Ripper Factory. She’s a free-heeler who won the women’s ski division of the Colorado Freeride Championships in 2008 and sums up things for many of their crew. “Appreciation for the outdoors and adventure in wild places was instilled in me at a young age. Our parents are definitely worried about what we do, especially because we’ve both taken falls. They also understand that the environment they raised us in and the activities we grew up doing feed straight into the love we both have for skiing. We were cut out to find this type of skiing fun.”
For many people of all ages, fun in the mountains involves a certain amount of risk. It turns you on and it can turn on you. Aspen has long nurtured dangerous pursuits, including mountain climbing, bicycle racing, hang-gliding, rodeoing, motocrossing, kayaking, hard-drugging and, not incidentally, ski racing, which has claimed lives and limbs from its inception. The season of 2008 was a big one for a lot of locals as they swept through various competitions with top podium performances. But that same year, three different skiers with strong ties to the local freeriding scene all died in bad accidents and suddenly there was great hue and cry about it.
On January 22, 2008, former local Billy Poole, 28, was skiing for a Warren Miller film crew in Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, when he cartwheeled through a rock field and died. April 4th, Aspen native and triplet Wallace Westfeldt, 22, landed on a concealed rock and perished after airing out a cliff band in Tonar Bowl off of Aspen Highlands for local filmmakers. April 11th, John Nicoletta, 27, hooked a rock while skiing an exposed line at the Alyeska Freeskiing World Championships and tumbled brutally to his death. Three bright lights extinguished in less than three months.
Jacqui Edgerly was there when both Westfeldt and Nicoletta died within a week of each other. “I was present while Wallace gasped for his last breaths as we tried to lend him our own. Continuing on the World Tour Finals in Alaska, I cheered for John as he dropped from above skiing his best, but was snagged by a rock along the way. My body and mind were weak, tired, sad and confused. I was empty and drained. I just needed some time to settle myself and now I couldn’t be more stoked to get after it again,” she told me in November of that year. “I have realized in the past year that people and friends come and go. We cannot do anything about that except love them and laugh with them while they are with us.”
Kate Cardamone, whose dangerous header off the Burnside Cliffs at Snowmass the same winter was photographed by the Aspen Times and horrified everyone, including her parents, reflected about others who said they’d slowed down and started thinking about things. “The tragedies and falls we have experienced in the sport have been wake-up calls and made me very nervous,” she admitted. When columnist Paul Andersen and newspaper letter writers questioned the motivations of the freeriders following Wallace Westfeldt’s death, it caused the surviving riders and their parents to take stock.
Andersen, the father of a 15-year-old son who probably cringed at being evoked in his father’s stories, insisted the Westfeldt death, and others, were avoidable. “Why did Wallace jump off that cliff?” wrote Andersen soon after the fact. “I see a multitude of reasons — peer pressure, excitement, validation, reward, challenge. The culmination was a soaring moment of immortality, a modern-day Icarus parable spurred by a culture of titillation and thrill-worship that fuels part of the ski industry … ‘He died doing what he loved’ is an unacceptable epitaph for sacrificial youth. It’s time to reevaluate the direction of the ski industry — and soon — before more deaths and injuries shock us into the grim awareness that the cost of selling risk is way too high.” Andersen suggested one of Westfeldt’s primary motivations may have been fame.
“I didn’t like the column one bit,” says Kate Cardamone, “but I had to figure out why. Well, I don’t have a death wish and I have learned that if you are in it for fame, go to Hollywood instead. I can’t deny it feels good to do well and accomplish your goals and be recognized for it. But I do it because I have been able to test my own limits, and knowing myself, skiing has helped me open up and gain confidence that I have been able to carry into other parts of my life. I know my limits, but I do it for me and when/if I ever feel otherwise, I will do something else.”
Wallace Westfeldt’s father Weems is a long-time honcho in the Snowmass Ski School, a veteran of the sport and the industry, and an eloquent writer. He responded forcefully and passionately to Andersen’s pieces. “Paul’s ponderings of why Wallace jumped off the cliff are fair questions. It is extremely sad, though, that other reasons were not available to Paul’s imagination. So I will add some, which I think are more accurate: Joy! Art! Expression! Adventure! Exploring the limits! Being in exquisite harmony with the mountain, gravity, the snow and the snowboard! Quest for excellence! Transcendence! Was he killed by the camera-glory? I’ve got two answers to that. The first one is ‘no.’ Wallace was not a heedless person. He took responsibility for his actions… My other answer is that, if yes, then so what? If one builds a career on pushing limits and living the adventure, then filming is a natural and beautiful part of it.”
If you talk to serious freeriders these days, as I do all the time, most are articulate, mature beyond their years and extremely self-aware in the most positive way. Many people who are critical of what freeriders do or their motives for it have never spoken to them. Still, it’s not easy for people who love them, especially parents. It wasn’t for mine. I didn’t particularly think about getting hurt or dying. And when I did get hurt (four knee injuries, mostly from jumping), it didn’t change me much. Hell, I accidentally went upside down and backwards off some rocks at Snowmass just a couple of years ago and I wasn’t even doing anything that tricky or stupid. When friends die (or sometimes worse) doing these things, we mourn and we do it in the mountains as they would have wanted us to. But it’s hard on everyone. My parents were great skiers, but my mother didn’t care to watch when I was in big gelande contests. On the other hand, my dad liked them because he was a jumper once himself.
For the Cardamone’s parents, Tom and Jody, there is the same “mixture of pride and fear,” as Tom puts it. “Kate and Will go into the mountains in all seasons as comfortably and competently as if they were going across town to visit a friend. We’re immensely pleased to have given them lives in which they find such deep enjoyment and fulfillment.” They also note that the level of risk for what Kate and Will do is something they “are not particularly comfortable with.” Kate’s header could have had far worse consequences and Will smashed a kidney several years ago. However, “Our discomfort doesn’t translate into holding them back. They know life is wonderful and fragile and they are seeking that balance point between the regret of not drinking fully from the cup and the other extreme.” Then he pauses and chuckles softly. “Jody and I don’t worry that they’re not drinking fully enough.”
Nick Devore’s mother Karinjo says people come up to her on the street and ask why she lets him do it. “And I say, well, first of all, he’s in his 20s, I don’t have a lot to say about it. And even though it sounds weird, within the realm of what he does, which is definitely not safe, he’s really kind of safe. He’s done his avalanche training and his CPR, he doesn’t take chances when he doesn’t feel good about them, he does yoga and he stays in unbelievable shape. These kids are all such mountain kids and such naturals that you can’t say they don’t know what they’re doing.” Especially when a big part of what they’re doing, says Will Cardamone, is focusing on “respect for and a connection with the natural world.”
As Nick Devore put it, “It has been very sad and challenging losing friends to skiing, but I have grown tremendously as a person and as a skier from these losses. They have definitely made me rethink why I ski at the level I do and have slowed me down and helped me rethink my decisions.” After a summer of reflection, he told me, “I am ready to continue pushing myself and my skiing. I would rather die skiing than never experience the sense of freedom and joy that it brings.” Devore had a bad avalanche accident the winter of 2010, but hasn’t changed what he does because of it.
John Nicoletta’s good friend, photographer Zach Ornitz, wrote about him, “John was the most solid skier I’ve ever seen and I know he carefully weighed his decision before plunging down the fall line [the day he died]. He aspired to making a life out of the activity that he loved most. Who wouldn’t want to achieve the dream of a life filled with turns in champagne powder, travel to exotic locations and days spent with true friends? I think John’s advice would have been simple: ‘Ski it because you love it. Ski it because it makes you happy’.”
While questions would continue to be raised about each of the three deaths — the reasons, the preparedness, the culpability of film-makers and so on — many in the mountain community agreed with a letter written to the Aspen papers by long-time local ski patrol person Roine St. Andre, who said, “Myself, I’m so happy they died in sacred places rather than in a war zone or a nursing home.”
Obviously, freeriding will never be safe. It would lose much of its appeal if it was. And there are bozos all over the mountains that will huck themselves off or down anything without a moment’s thought if there’s a camera involved or just some bragging rights. It’s the “Jackass” syndrome, another form of gene-pool thinning in a process that’s been with us a lot longer than freeriding.
Onna Konicek, through her work at the Snowmass clinic, sees what she does from both sides. “It is a calculated risk we all take based on our riding ability, but it is important to realize no one is exempt, no matter the level of expertise. Nature rules and the mountains must be approached with humility and respect. We should all ride to live another day, as well as live to ride.”
Smart riders do all they can to improve their odds. On a daily basis, Dave Watson wears a girdle with plastic hip and tailbone pads, foam quad and hamstring pads and a Leedom helmet. “During comps, I always wear the Mack Daddy body armor with foam and plastic shoulder, elbow and forearm pads, a chest pad and an armadillo back protector,” he says. “If the venue is particularly sketchy, I wear my full-face Giro Helmet.” And he’s not doing it for the money or glory. He competes as one of the top American boarders on the World Freeride Tour in the U.S., Austria, Norway, Russia and France with minimal sponsorship. Prize money is scant and, underneath the gladiator garb, there aren’t many who even know who he is. Others do better with films and travel expenses, but it isn’t X Games glory or dough. Freeriding, even competitively, is really just a labor of love. And we’re all addicted to love.
Jay Cowan writes for a variety of magazines and has books on Hunter Thompson and the Alps in publication. “In The Land of Living Dangerously,” about the Indonesian region, will come out as an ebook this winter.
The single’s line is a place where dirtbags rub elbows with millionaires and conversations unfold with ease. Yet during the winter of 2005, these conversations often took an awkward turn for me. After small talk about the snow and life in Summit County, the same question inevitably surfaced: “So, where are you living?” No matter how many times I answered this inquiry, I stumbled in my efforts to explain that I lived in my Jeep Wrangler in the free parking lot at Breckenridge. The reactions were varied, ranging from “Doesn’t it get cold?” to “I didn’t think there were real ski bums anymore.” Kindly, a handful of people suggested I find a girlfriend with a living arrangement better than my own.
This was my life in Breckenridge. In order to construct my winter residence, I had removed the passenger and rear bench seat from my Jeep. There was then just enough room to sleep with my feet against the tailgate and my head beneath the glove box. In the midst of such luxury, the days proceeded with a repetition matched only by that of boot-camp recruits and the chronically drunk. In the morning, the water once contained in my lungs melted from the hardtop of the Jeep, creating a reliable alarm calibrated with the sunrise. If, on rare occasion, the water falling on my face or delicately thumping on my sleeping bags did not wake me, tires crunching through the snow and car doors slamming did.
With a little finesse, I wiggled out of my mess of sleeping bags each morning. This pile of bags formed a makeshift nest constructed around the center console and wheel well of the Jeep. I would peel my condensation-crisp pants and down jacket from the tailgate, where they prevented my sleeping bag from freezing to the exposed sheet metal. Awkwardly, I would then slip on my snowboard gear and open the passenger door to lace my boots.
With frozen water bottles in one hand and a bag of groceries and toiletries in the other, I would walk across the parking lot to the bus station bathroom. While others were relieving themselves before heading up the hill, I brushed my teeth. Although stares were frequent, few people had the necessary blend of curiosity and courage to ask what the hell I was doing. Now fully awake, I would fill a bowl with water from the bathroom faucet, as it was the perfect temperature for oatmeal. After a bagel, some oatmeal, an overly ripe frozen banana and cold-brewed tea, I returned to the Jeep and grabbed my board. It was time to ride. This was all I needed — and all I had. How I lived, how I slept, how I survived were all subservient to time on the mountain.
I had finally escaped the Midwest after spending a few too many years lapping the icy terrain parks of Iowa and Wisconsin. At the start of January, I hit the road for Summit County. Somewhere in northeastern Colorado, the fifth gear in my Jeep gave out. Nonetheless, I washed ashore in Breckenridge with a handful of dollars. Once in Summit County, I briefly debated getting a job, but knew it would only interfere with riding. I wasn’t sure if I would be in Colorado for a few weeks or a few months. I just knew that, when the money ran low, I needed to save a few dollars for gas back to the flatlands.
Once on the mountain and strapped in, I warmed up playing in the glades and often ice-licked faces of Peak 8. Each morning was a mystery, as the exposed runs could either shine like freshly Zamboni’d ice or be miraculously buried in new snow from an evening of wind loading. These patches of snow were always a pleasant surprise in the midst of a dry winter. To my dismay, the occasional call home confirmed that Iowa was enjoying more powder days than Colorado. Nonetheless, bouts of wind frequently sculpted pillow lines from small cornices tucked among the trees.
Even if the conditions left much to be desired, the T-Bar provided entertainment that made the pilgrimage to the upper mountain worthwhile. To the uninitiated, a T-bar lurks like some mythical beast waiting to slaughter the innocent. In the presence of such a thing, determination presents itself in various — albeit misdirected — guises. The T-bar frequently pulled proud spring breakers up the mountain on their bellies. Equally impressive, however, were the efforts of young riders who refused to be left in the dust of their two plank progenitors — even if this meant the T-bar dragged them like forgotten dogs leashed to the bumper of a truck.
Although Breck boasts varied terrain, much of it comes in the form of the rails in the park rather than the trails carved out of the mountain. Nonetheless, Chair 6 provided reliable amusement. Whether it was little hits along trail edges or lines that snaked through trees to drop wind lips, there were plenty of ways to blend terrain with imagination to forge a new line each lap. By afternoon, however, it was time to ride the lower mountain.
Dropping into the Freeway Terrain Park is akin to walking into a circus tent only to realize you are the main attraction. Breck does a good job shielding the inexperienced from their unbridled enthusiasm by making the park as menacing as possible. Although the jumps are meticulously groomed and the rail approaches manicured with the greatest care, the park simply pushes things to another level. The bar is raised just far enough for vacationing Texans to realize that dropping into a sixty-foot booter is a bad idea. Jeans, cowboy hats and liquid courage do occasionally meet their match. Consequently, the fence that marks the entrance to the Freeway Park gathers lurkers like flypaper. Even with an audience, it did not take long to feel at home in paradise.
A certain camaraderie exists anywhere people wait to drop in — even if the occasional snake session snaps riders out of their patient revelry. Waiting to session a rail or standing on top of the drop-in for the superpipe always brought me back a decade or so to the USASA contests at Tyrol Basin in Wisconsin. Even when the mercury failed to climb above zero, a hundred riders smiled at the top of the pipe in patient anticipation of dropping. This was a time when everything was so new and possible. Still in its infancy, no one knew — or cared to ask — where this thing we loved would take us.
This energy and kinship still existed in the park at Breck. It came in countless forms — watching Todd Richards in awe as he lapped the pipe, the communal wait for clouds to pass in the midst of a spell of flat light or the shared agitation when a family man would fearlessly lead his flock of snowplowing minions down the middle of the stunt ditch. I still smile when I think of the flock of European girls with matching jackets that stood guard over the pipe. They raised hell all over the mountain, insulting the elderly in one-piece suits or chewing out the “big, sexy man” who accidentally plowed into them in the lift line. They could boardslide a box and break a heart in a single move. I wish I knew where they came from — and where they went.
The park never got old, in part because any park in Summit County tends to be populated by fellow flatland expatriates. Countless times in Breck and Keystone, I’ve run into friends from back home — from the Sundown days, as we affectionately refer to them through a filter of nostalgia. Although most days in Summit were spent riding in solitude, days with old friends brought back fond memories of riding twelve hours at a time in Iowa with only pickles, ketchup and crackers from the condiment bar at Sundown as fuel. These were memories marinated in flat landings, ridiculous lines through mud and snow and backcountry sessions at local golf courses. It was impossible to escape the past as we debated whether or not local legends were floating 270s onto rails or spending time behind bars after getting caught bumping rails of another kind. Our friends from back home were just as likely to be pulling 9s off of ten-foot tables as they were to be fixing radiators or laying tile. After these sessions, we always parted, wondering, wondering if we had lost too much of this past or if this thing we loved had simply changed with age, just as we all had.
After the last chair and the final lap through the park, I would climb aboard the bus back to my home in the parking lot, as my time in Breck preceded the gondola that now links the town with the base of Peak 8. Once again, a sense of community surfaced — even in the midst of exhaustion and the wet dog smell that pervaded the cramped bus. Smiles and nods of approval conferred that today, like every day, was a good one. Yet, on Sundays, this sense of community faded, as it became evident that some of us would return to another life. Some of us would go back to a world of careers and obligations and cities, places where the day of the week mattered, while some of us would remain in the mountains to ride another nameless day. For those of us who stayed, our pockets may have been empty, but each day we could work on our goggle tan and assert with authenticity that life was wonderful.
Once back in the parking lot, I would shed my snowboard gear and begin dinner. This occasionally involved firing up a backpacking stove to cook pasta, but more often entailed sitting down in the bus station to a can of cold beef stew and a smashed loaf of bread. Once a week, I would fill a backpack with a change of clothes and set off across town to poach a shower wherever one became available. And then it was night — both a blessing and a burden.
Although some evenings were spent riding at Keystone, most were simply dedicated to loitering. I frequently hunkered down in a chair in the bus station to read and relax. Most nights I would also walk all over, simply enjoying the pulse of the main street in a mountain town. These strolls inevitably led to the Crown Tavern. Here I passed hours sitting by a fireplace and sipping iced tea by the gallon. Although all humans are drawn to fire, the glow of a flame becomes especially magnetic when one is aware of the cold that waits outside. Once I began to yawn and my thoughts returned to riding in the morning, I made my way home.
During my journey to the parking lot, I watched snowcats crawl up the mountain as tiny beacons of light. The late-night silence was only interrupted by the crunch of snow underfoot and the drunken musings of the young erupting from bars. I often walked past the Gold Pan Saloon and saw kids my age talking and hollering, reflecting on the day’s labors or laps in the park. On one level, our paths were parallel — we gave all to that which we loved. Yet, at times, I felt so distant from them. As simple as life was, boundaries still existed. Or I created them as a result of my abode. Although days on the mountain served as membership dues to an unspoken society, the evenings erased any of these fraternal bonds forged in snow and sun. I remained solitary in the night.
A home in the parking lot afforded more than solitude and convenience. I learned how to fall asleep despite the oscillating orange lights and backup beep of snowplows clearing the lot around me. I learned which colors in toothpaste freeze first. I learned that strangers on chairlifts enjoy giving unsolicited dating advice to a kid who lives in his car. The value of many of these lessons washed away with the spring thaw, but I emerged with something greater: the ability to whittle away the layers of life until little remains but passion and survival.
Mike Sudmeier lives in Jackson, Wyoming. He divides his time between writing and riding.
The burled walnut stock of the shotgun feels cool and smooth against my cheek. Flexing my knees slightly, I shout, “Pull!” From behind my right shoulder, Josh releases the spring-loaded trap, and an orange clay disc squirts across the horizon. I track it, swinging the long gray barrel in an arc. At its apex, I squeeze the trigger. The report echoes, but the clay pigeon’s flight continues uninterrupted until it bounces into the dirt.
“You were behind again,” says Josh. “You’re not leading it enough.”
“How can you tell?” I ask as I reload the trap. “Do you have special buckshot vision?”
“Sure do,” he grins, cradling his 20-gauge Ithaca Featherlite in his arms. “Pull!”
Quick as a snake, Josh uncoils, the gun roars, and clay shrapnel drops out of the sky. “It takes a while to get the hang of it,” he says. “Here, try again.” “No thanks,” I reply. “Let Laura or Lexi have a turn.”
Shooting skeet wasn’t our original plan. We had left town that morning intending to meet for a day of rock climbing. But when we arrived, Josh was cleaning his shotgun in preparation for a hunting trip and proposed an alternative expedition. Rock climbing seemed humdrum compared to the novelty of firearms. Now my Subaru, full of unused climbing gear, is parked a few miles up a dirt road at an impromptu firing range in the national forest.
When we pulled up, it was obvious this was a place where people came to shoot guns. The bare ground was littered with spent cartridges, empty shells, broken glass and other shrapnel. Josh gave us a safety briefing and showed us how to load his double-barrel shotgun. Then we popped in earplugs and took turns blazing holes in the sky.
Josh was a crack shot. Even when we filled the trap with two skeet, he brought down both with ease. We three newbies were more hit and miss — with heavy emphasis on the “miss.” After we’d burned through a case of clay pigeons, Josh produced a couple of pistols. While I watched Laura and Lexi merrily plinking away at bottles and cans stacked in a dirt berm, I considered my uneasy relationship with guns.
A couple of years ago, I joined a friend who works in law enforcement at the shooting range. Under his tutelage, I learned how to shoot in various positions — standing, prone, etc. — but I never mastered the essential element of accuracy. For him, firing a gun was a form of yoga: Breathe in … squeeze trigger … BANG! Breathe out. For me, the anticipation of “BANG!” always made me twitch. I reckon the twitch was a result of a childhood experience.
My father owned two firearms — a single-barrel 12-gauge Winchester shotgun that he kept in the back corner of his bedroom closet, and a Smith and Wesson .38 revolver that he stored in his dresser drawer under his T-shirts.
My hometown of Corvallis, Oregon, was pretty tame in the 1970s, so Dad wasn’t worried about nighttime marauders. He didn’t store the guns loaded and he kept the ammunition in his basement workshop. Dad didn’t own guns to dole out vigilante justice; he used the guns at work. Dad wasn’t a police officer or a mercenary. He was a professor of forest science at Oregon State University. Professor Waring used his guns for scientific purposes in the field. The shotgun served as a tree-trimming tool, bringing down branches from the tops of the tall evergreens in the Cascades. He subjected those trimmings to a battery of tests, and the results revealed the overall health of the tree and thus the surrounding forest. Early in his research career, he’d determined a shotgun was the best — and perhaps only — tool for the job of harvesting samples high above the forest floor.
Dad didn’t carry the revolver in the mountains; he only wore the big iron on his hip when he worked on Oregon’s dry eastern slope during the hot summer months when the rattlesnakes were active. The pistol hung in a holster on a heavy leather belt studded with shiny two-tone bullets. As a seven-year-old, I was fascinated. The six-shooter spoke to all my boyish cowboy fantasies. But before I could draw down on the family cat, my father nipped my Wild West dreams in the bud by taking me out shooting.
I was too young to recall now exactly where we went — somewhere deep in the Oregon woods, I know that much. I remember we hiked together for a long while, and Dad’s voice turned very serious when he took the pistol from the holster. He broke open the chamber to show me it was unloaded. He showed me the safety catch and told me never to point a gun at something unless I was ready to destroy it. With those words ringing in my ears, Dad plucked six bullets from the loops in his belt and loaded the pistol. “See if you can hit that tin can on the stump,” he said.
Shooting the gun was easy. Aiming it was not. I finally knocked the can off the stump with a lucky shot. Watching it skitter across the dirt, I felt my young life had reached an apotheosis. I wanted to ride off on a horse named Silver and enlist in the army as a sharpshooter. I felt an unfamiliar surge of power, of strength, of control.
Looking back, I realize that moment was a rite of passage. Holding a loaded gun was the first major responsibility I’d ever been given — one with far more ramifications than remembering to feed the hamster or mowing the yard on a Saturday morning. Handling a gun required gravitas. For the first time, I held the control of a deadly force over all the creatures around me. In return, I had to exert absolute control over myself. Handling a gun forced me to behave like an adult instead of a child.
Dad holstered the pistol and picked up the shotgun. He broke it open to show me the firing mechanism and explained how the red plastic shells were filled with tiny pellets that created an expanding pattern in the air.
“See if you can bring down the highest branch in that Douglas fir,” he said. I lifted the heavy gun to my shoulder and pulled the trigger. Like a right cross from Mike Tyson, the recoil dropped me to the ground. Slightly concussed, I rubbed my bruised shoulder and decided that guns weren’t so enticing after all. My father, in his wisdom, was probably counting on this outcome.
My relationship with guns has remained distant ever since. I understand their utility, but I want no truck with them in my daily life. Now, whenever I hold a gun, I find myself thinking about Columbine High School, about murder and suicide and war, about the terrible power and life-and-death responsibility a firearm represents. I’m not mentally unstable. I’m absolutely certain that simply holding a gun won’t cause me to lose control and become a homicidal maniac. But I’ve decided my life-and-death decisions should originate from choices made while climbing or skiing instead of from the flash from a grey-blue muzzle. And I’m content with that.
Josh’s voice rouses me from my musings. “Hey, you want to shoot a few rounds with the pistol?” he asks. “No thanks, I’m cool,” I respond. “Everything’s under control.”
Lance Waring is a ski bum with a writing habit. He lives in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.