The GR 10 (Grande Randonnée 10) long-distance trail snakes 538 miles from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean along the Pyrenees that separate central Europe from the Iberian Peninsula. By any measure, it’s one of the great hikes of Europe, a haute route nearly five times the length of the original by that name, from Chamonix to Zermatt. With a total of 31 vertical miles of ascent and descent, the GR 10 is a challenge for the dedicated that usually takes 50 days to do, end-to-end.
It has a less-challenging eastern extension that runs 13 miles northward along the Côte Vermeille, the “Vermillion Coast” of the Mediterranean. A map of the main trail and its extension looks like a drawing of a hoe, its long, crooked handle oriented west-to-east and its tiny blade pointing north. About halfway up the “blade” there’s an indentation between two capes jutting out into the Sea, marked Anse de Paulilles (“Cove of Paulilles”) on maps. Named after Saint Paulille, a Spaniard who resisted persecution by the Vandals, it’s been known since Roman times for its exotic vegetation, sheltered waters and sunny beaches. In the 12th Century, a church was built at Cosprons, a hamlet about a mile up in the foothills overlooking the Cove, but otherwise even today there are few signs of habitation, save for the vineyards so characteristic of Mediterranean France. It might have stayed that way had the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 not happened.
Outgunned in the war, France sought to upgrade its defense industry sector. That led to privatization of the manufacture and sale of explosives, which until then had been a government monopoly. In 1870, the Nobel dynamite factory was built on an 80-acre site at Paulilles, chosen for being remote and amenable to building piers for sea transport of raw materials and products. Soon, the factory had 200 workers, and Paulilles became a factory town, with a church, a school and a cooperative store. By 1900, the factory was producing 550 tons of dynamite a year. Year by year, production went up, and the factory delivered dynamite to major construction projects round the globe, including the Panama Canal, the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Mont Blanc Tunnel. Production peaked at 9,500 tons a year in 1972. Thereafter, in an increasingly competitive market, profits shrank, leading to the factory closing down in 1984. Real-estate developers eyed the site and put forth plans to turn it into a high-end complex of marinas and hotels. But in 1998, the owners chose instead to sell the site to an environmental NGO, Conservatorie du littoral (“Coastal Conservatory”), which cooperated with the Departmental Council to turn it into a free environmental park.
There was precedent for the owners’ reluctance to despoil the coast. Though engaged in a hazardous business, for its time, the factory had been a pleasant place. Successive factory directors had gardeners who maintained gardens of local trees, shrubs and flowers, and supplemented them with species from afar, including magnolia and cypress from Arizona. The school had been so good that it had attracted pupils from nearby towns. The factory had been one of the first of its sort to employ women in non-clerical positions. It had been one of the first to employ large numbers of workers from abroad; from 1875 until just before World War II, 40 percent of the workers were Spanish, some who had come as a consequence of La Retirada (Spanish for “The Retreat”), the early 1939 mass exodus of civilians and soldiers fleeing the Spanish Civil War. After the French withdrew from the war in Indochina in 1954, Vietnamese came to work there. The industrial heritage was worth commemorating.
Moreover, aside from the military uses of its factory’s products, Paulilles unintentionally became a memento of war. In 1943, the occupying Germans strengthened coastal artillery emplacements and built anti-tank walls to thwart the feared Allied amphibious invasion that never came there.
Though ugly, the antitank walls stand to this day. They act as seawalls,
keeping the parking lots, park terraces and restaurants of today in place, against the forceful high waves of autumn and spring storms in the Mediterranean. And sunbathers have found that, as the concrete walls are warmed by the sun, they’re the only places where you can comfortably strip for tanning in midwinter.
Transforming the factory site into a park took 10 years and involved removing some 70 buildings and restoring nine for park use. Opened in 2008, the park now features extensive grounds and gardens, an industrial heritage museum and a café open in summer. There’s also a restored repair facility for traditional Catalan boats, the wooden craft with lateen sails first introduced by the Romans in the Second Century. It’s a place for rest and contemplation, sunning and swimming, whether you arrive on foot via the GR 10 or by car, bus or cycle on the RD 914 coastal road between Port Vendres and Banyuls-sur-Mer.
Though the factory is long gone, its mystique remains. Much as the Wild West lives on in legend in the USA, local lore here holds many stories of the deeds of the dynamite makers. Some of them are even true, such as the well-documented incident of 1948, when several workers were caught playing soccer with a ball of dynamite and were barred from the factory for 10 days. And the life of the era of the factory town has been built upon in fiction, leading in November 2010 to the first full-length novel, “Les Dames de Paulilles” (“The Women of Paulilles,” ISBN 978-2350660943).
GR trail network, website at www.gr-infos.com with pages in seven languages, including English.
The Departmental Council website at www.cg66.fr(French only) has links to other sources and updated details of interest to visitors.
Paulilles, Côte Vermeille by Caroline Chaussin (Actes Sud, Arles, France 2009, 48 page softcover booklet, ISBN 978-2-7427-8064-8, French only) is a good single source on the history, preservation and rebuilding of the Paulilles site.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in the Gazette.
Publication and performance are the twin pillars of the poetry world. Personally, I’m a fan of crossovers, but I dig reading written poems and I love hearing performance poetry — slam, hip-hop, open mike. Or the Gourd Circle — a gathering of friends for dinner and several rounds of telling stories, poetry & song.
But poetry can be more than just outreach to an audience. For some, it is valuable personal practice. Valerie Haugen of Glenwood Springs falls in love with a new poet a day. Lorine Niedecker. Amy Lowell. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Their words, insights and stylistic breakthroughs inform her poetry. Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer of Placerville has made a lyric practice of writing a poem a day. After going on three years of this, she’s become a master of capturing language and experience. Both great personal practices. And both poets take advantage of the Web’s blogosphere to “publish” their work and explorations.
Another bright exploratory star flames out … Gregory Greyhawk was one of those giant souls, huge-hearted, a string of his own hockey teeth pearled around his neck. Brilliant, erratic. I loved being around him. Anything could happen, and sometimes did … I just ordered his book, “Wailing Heaven, Whistling in Hell” (Howling Dog Press, Berthoud, Colorado, 1996) … Gonna miss the wrap of his big arm as we caromed down a Denver sidewalk, and the wild grin of his gap-toothed smile. — Art Goodtimes, Cloud Acre
Remembering Karen Chamberlain
lanky stalk of grass
singing in the autumn wind
your voice packed with seeds — Carol Bell Ft. Collins
My dad, who never blows his cool
the day i left for Vietnam
sat down to a stack of homemade buttermilk pancakes
and poured vinegar on them, by mistake. — Dennis Fritzinger Earth First! Journal editor Berkeley
As for us, yes, the young still go to war,
And wars continue at the speed of darkness,
Not the world wars you expected, but the others,
Wars of despisals in our countries, in our cities, in other countries and cities.
Promises and solidarity collapsed, and in the confusion
justice circles this sweating planet, looking for somewhere to land. — Jackie St. Joan Excerpt from “Letter to Muriel Rukeyser at the End of the 20th Century” Denver
Rainforest Bedroom (excerpt)
…jaguar has moved into the bedroom
meadowlarks are nesting in the corner
sunfish swim in the water glass on the nightstand
black widow makes a web in your shoe
the bed is a jungle
and it’s raining emeralds — Galaxy Dancer Durango
While Considering Demolition
I ask my teacher
She says, Notice them.
What’s on the other side?
She says, You are. — Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer Placerville
A good adventure-sports movie, no matter what sport it covers, usually accomplishes one thing: It makes you, the viewer, want to go out and do whatever it is those athletes are doing on film in that beautiful location, at your own speed — mountain biking, climbing, skiing, whatever. “Cold” is an achievement in that, instead of inspiring you to climb an 8,000-meter peak in winter, it makes you want to go home, curl up in the fetal position under a down comforter, and not come out.
The film begins with photographer and climber Cory Richards hunkered down in a tent at 21,959 feet, as the viewer is informed that the temperature is -51 degrees F., and can see that the inside of the tent is covered in snow. Richards asks, “What the fuck am I doing here?” And over the next 20 minutes of the film, you will ask the same thing. Richards and mountaineers Simone Moro and Denis Urubko summited 26,362-foot Gasherbrum II on Feb. 2, 2010, succeeding in the first winter ascent of an 8,000-meter peak in the Karakorum Range.
“Cold” gives you an up-front seat to all the post-holing, avalanche burials, whiteouts and the high-altitude coughs. Anson Fogel assembled Richards’ tirelessly filmed footage, and, with writing help from Kelly Cordes, won the Best Adventure Film at the 5Point Film Festival this spring. This is not three guys smiling for one moment in a summit photo. It’s real pain, cold, suffering and misery — high-altitude winter mountaineering at its best. It may not be inspiring, but it is amazing.forgemotionpictures.com
In his third book, author and University of Colorado professor James McVey takes the reader along on his experiences in the backcountry — hiking, running rivers, backcountry skiing and fishing — and provides scholarly depth in each experience, weaving history, ecology and philosophy into classic nature writing. McVey draws on 20 years of venturing into Colorado’s backcountry, from places as popular as Boulder’s Chautaqua Park to the solitude of a post-rafting season run of the Green River through Dinosaur National Monument.
The collection of essays in “The Way Home” provides rich writing with a solid balance of adventure and nature, and the question of our place in all of it. McVey writes of a day of backcountry skiing on Wolf Creek Pass: “But the truth is, something else drives us out here to the geographic backbone of the continent. What lurks there in our tangled psyches? What genetic baggage left over from the days of sabertooths and woolly mammoths?” $19.95. uofupress.com
MG accepts submissions for our monthly Mountain Scrapbook department. All mountain-related photos are welcome, the funnier, the better. Send submissions to email@example.com.Each month, we pick a winning photo, and the winner receives a year subscription to the Mountain Gazette, along with a Gazette bumpersticker.
Author’s note: This story ended up being literally three times longer than would fit upon these two scant pages. Damned physics! To read the unabridged version, please visit mjohnfayhee.com
How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d. — Alexander Pope, “Eloisa and Abelard”
Some of you may remember the Gazette’s infamous “High Country Beer Math” saga, which was birthed in unlikely fashion a decade ago in MG #82 (Sept. 2001), till it finally mostly faded away with one last (of many) Letter to the Editor in MG #99 (Dec. 2003), only to be sorta resurrected last year. (And, I guess, in the relating of this tale, it continues on still.)
It all began innocuously enough on a hot summer day. I found myself a tad parched after a nice, long hike up the Lenawee Trail, so I stopped in the Dillon Dam Brewery for numerous recuperative beverages. I ordered up my usual pint of Dam Straight Lager, and the bartender asked when I was going to pony up for a genuine personalized mug, which, come to find out, cost $35. The benefit of doing so, I learned, was, from that moment on, I would receive 20 ounces of beer for the same price as a pint. Being a liberal arts-type person and all, I scrunched up my forehead and tried mightily, though unsuccessfully, to suss out how many beers it would take before that $35 investment would be recouped.
Also at the bar that day was a tribe of senior citizens I am proud to call chums, and I believe the vice is versa in that regard. Though their ranks have thinned over the years, via an unfortunate combination of relocation and attrition, to this day, they are known as the Dillon Dam Brewery Old Farts Club, a non-organization of aging bro-brahs that meets at the Dam pretty much every day for happy-hour libations and shit-shooting.
It should come as no surprise that several sets of Old Fart ears perked up when my mug-ROI interrogative was posed. For the next hour or so, a gaggle of retired professors, engineers, administrators, educators and whatnot, most of whom were at least partially in their cups, pulled out felt-tipped pens, grabbed proximate cocktail napkins and began scribbling, calculating and arguing. Now, I may not be smart enough to ascertain how many beers it would take me to recoup my $35 mug cost, but I am smart enough to recognize a potential Mountain Gazette story when it slaps me upside the head. By the time Happy Hour was winding down (the witching hour, as it were, for most of the Old Farts), I had in my possession more than a dozen napkins adorned with a vast array of Beer Math calculations, all of which were completely different from each other. No two Old Farts drew the same conclusion, though all were equally vehement about the accuracy of their own personal computations. The MG art director scanned in a handful of the Beer Math cocktail napkins, I jotted down a couple silly observations and we ran a half-page story on the whole experience. And that was that. Or so we thought …
About 16 months later, out of the blue, we got a Beer Math Letter to the Editor (in MG #93), from, of all perplexing things, Inmate #106669 at the Buena Vista (Colo.) Correctional Facility, who, while serving a 12-year sentence for I think some sort of contra-legal fiscal liberation, had somehow received a copy of MG #82 and, since he worked in the slammer as a teacher of GED-level math to fellow prisoners, opted to take advantage of the real-life-lesson opportunities the Beer Math story presented. He asked his class to try to solve the problem. I don’t know which was more sobering, that a Mountain Gazette story bearing my byline was being used in a prison GED class or the fact that this did not mark the first time MG had been on the receiving end of a submission from an incarcerated felon.
In addition to Inmate #106669 asking in his Letter to the Editor for a free subscription to MG, he took the opportunity to perform a Beer Math calculation of his own. That calculation essentially raised the boisterously stated algebraic ire of one Big Bob Kimble, a retired mechanical engineer of international repute, who wielded with pride a well-honed, high-decibeled Southern drawl that would make even third-generation residents of the Mississippi Delta recoil in abject linguistic horror.
Big Bob responded to Inmate 106669’s throwing down of the gauntlet by writing a long Letter to the Editor of his own (which appeared in MG #95). That Letter, which included a series of very-impressive-looking calculations that filled an entire piece of graph paper, was addressed not to me, and it was not to the Mountain Gazette. Rather, it was addressed directly, personally, to Inmate #106669. And that Letter essentially spat upon Inmate #106669’s math skills. We received a good-natured response from Inmate #106669 stating that, when he was released, he planned to visit the Dam Brewery to set things aright vis-à-vis this Beer Math contretemps.
At that time, the concept of Inmate #106669 actually showing up at the Dam to hobnob Beer Math skinny was little more than an abstraction, but in subsequent communiqués over the next few months, I learned that that abstraction had a very non-abstract expiration date, and that date was suddenly looming. Inmate #106669 was very soon to be set free. And, finally, I got the word: “I’ll be at the Dam Brewery in two weeks at 3 p.m. Please make sure all the Old Farts are there.” Oh boy …
“How will I know you?” I asked Inmate #106669 in a pre-visit email. “Oh, you’ll definitely know us,” was his response. That the email included the word “us” made me gulp even more.
So, I arrived at the agreed-upon time, already having downed a few brews to settle my nerves. Over the course of the next two hours and 15 minutes, whenever the front door so much as wiggled in the wind, I leaned forward and seriously scrutinized whoever was entering. When Inmate #106669 finally arrived, I was reminded of the time my buddy Mark Fox and I scheduled a newspaper interview with the Bud Light Girls, who were likewise tardy. Every time any young nymphets entered the interview venue — Eric’s Underworld in Breckenridge (RIP) — Mark and I wondered if they might be the Bud Light Girls. When the Bud Light Girls finally arrived, we laughed at the thought that we could have confused anyone else for them. Ditto when Inmate #106669 ingressed the Dam Brewery, with another gentlemen, who, turns out, was Inmate #106669’s cellmate for two years, a man who had been released the previous year after having served seven years for beating up two cops. Also in tow was the spouse of Inmate #106669’s ex-cellmate.
Inmate #106669 was right as rain in that, when this threesome arrived, there was no disputing who they were. It was not so much appearance or action as it was simple bearing (well, that, plus the tats). Inmate #106669 and his cellmate would have been intimidating had they been life-long Hare Krishnas, which they assuredly were not. The vibe that preceded them and surrounded them and followed them like a dark ominous karmic wake was the very denotation of “Mess with us at your peril.”
We introduced ourselves, and I took Inmate #106669 over to meet, first, the Dam Brewery’s very nervous management team, and then I introduced Inmate #106669 to the Old Farts. Inmate #106669 and the Old Farts hobnobbed good-naturedly about Beer Math for a while, but, since my ex-con buddies had arrived so late, it was soon time for the Old Farts to pay their tabs and move along, unscathed, much to my relief. Big Bob told me a few weeks later how much he enjoyed his levitous chat with Inmate #106669. The brewmaster of the Dam Brewery, the late and sorely missed Matt Luhr, had told the bartender that he would pick up the tab for Inmate #106669, his cellmate and his cellmate’s spouse, something I really wish Matt had run by me before the fact. Because of Matt’s well-meaning, though misguided, offer, my new friends opted to imbibe at what I would call an injudicious rate, and, believe me, my standards are not very high in that regard. Over the course of the next four or five hours, we all got pretty hammered, especially the cellmate, whose demeanor, sad to report, started getting a bit surly and argumentative. Several of my attempts at sarcastic jocularity were not received as I had intended them. There were a couple of snarly “What do you mean by that?”-type responses to my amiable attempts to make it through the evening without getting the shit kicked out of me.
About 9, Matt Luhr paid the tab and bade everyone a fond good night. I, too, said it was time for me to head home to Frisco, a parting of the ways that was somewhat awkward because I got the feeling Inmate #106669 was half-expecting an invite to bunk down at the Casa de Fayhee, an invite my wife had preemptively, and unambiguously, told me earlier that day damned well absolutely BETTER NOT be extended.
Though there was understandable nervous tension, the M. John/ex-con/Old Farts confab went off without a hitch. The Dam Brewery was not destroyed, no patrons were pummeled, no women raped. Whew!
Then, the next morning, I got a voice mail from Inmate #106669. “Man, I am so sorry for what happened. My cellmate just got pissed. I don’t know what to say.”
The message ended without Inmate #106669 filling in any of the pertinent details, which made me think he was just joking. Still, I placed a call to the Dam Brewery and, much to my infinite chagrin, I learned that, after I left, the cellmate had continued drinking and got up to leave without paying for his last beverages. When the bartender brought this to his attention, the cellmate said that his tab was taken care of by Matt Luhr. The bartender said that Matt had paid for everyone’s beverages clear up till the point when Matt left. After that, the deal was off. The cellmate did not respond well to this and “caused a bit of a ruckus.” The police were eventually summoned. And I had a series of apologies to make.
Soon after, the cellmate burned to death in an RV fire.
The Beer Math saga was fast losing its silly humor factor.
Inmate #106669 and I kept in contact for a couple years. He was back with his family and seemed to be doing fine. He tried to talk me into going to Burning Man with him, but, since that sort of event is not exactly my cup of tea, I begged off. He said he was going anyway and would like to pen a Gazette piece on the experience. I hooked him up with a photographer I knew was also going, but nothing ever came of the assignment. After a while, Inmate #106669 and I lost touch. I felt badly about that, but, as much as I truly liked Inmate #10666, I simply could not bring myself to fully extend a comfortable hand of true amigo-ship.
Last summer, B. Frank and I were traveling around the Four Corners area doing some readings. The first one kicked off at Maria’s Bookstore in Durango. I arrived early the day of the reading and was killing time in Carver’s catching up on correspondences. Stunningly, right then, I got an email from none other than Inmate #106669, who was, even more stunningly, living in, of all places, Durango. His recent past had been a continuous tale of woe. He had $90,000 worth of uninsured construction equipment and tools stolen. His young son had accidentally burned his house to the ground. And he had received four DUIs (!!!) in two days (!!!) and had consequently spent the previous year in the county jail. Yikes! That’s a tough run.
Right next to my laptop was a copy of the Durango Herald with a story about our reading at Maria’s that night right there on the front page. Not surprisingly, Inmate #106669 showed up at the reading, and he joined us when we went across the street to the El Rancho for a bit of post-event fun and frolic. Because of the size of the group, I did not have the chance to talk to Inmate #106669 much. He asked me to join him for breakfast, but B. Frank and I were headed toward our next stop in Silverton that very night. The opposite direction, which, mortifying as this is to articulate, is right where I felt like heading. When I got back home, there was a phone message from Inmate #106669. I never returned it. Am I an asshole? I am an asshole. God, I hate being an asshole.
Because I now live 600 miles away, I don’t get to visit the Dillon Dam Brewery much any more. Last fall, I was in Summit County, so I stopped in for few mugs of Lager (my $35 mug, #151, is still at hand … it has paid for itself many times over). At the bar were several members of the Old Farts’ Club, including Big Bob. He wasn’t looking so good. Seemed like his boisterous life force had dissipated.
“You’ll never guess who I saw in Durango recently,” I said.
He smiled wanly and we reminisced about the whole Beer Math saga.
When I left, I had a feeling it would be the last time I would ever see Big Bob. And it was. Ends up, he had been fighting pancreatic cancer and, in April, he finally succumbed. Another piece of my personal High Country social milieu is gone. I am already starting to forget many of the old names and faces that defined my quarter-century at altitude. Self-centered way to view a friend’s demise, I know, but there it is.
It broke my heart that I was unable to attend Big Bob’s memorial service, which transpired, of course, at the Dillon Dam Brewery. But my buddy Mark Fox was there, camera in hand, as always. He sent me a couple of the photos he took for the Summit Daily News. Standing around a table laden with Big Bob memorabilia were many people I have long known, people I’ve consumed many beers with. They were all smiling. When I looked closer, I could see why: They were eyeballing a copy of Mountain Gazette #82, open to page 22. I could read the headline clearly. “High Country Beer Math.” Directly under the headline, the topmost scribbled-upon cocktail napkin bore the name Bob Kimble. For the record, he calculated that it would take 55 mugs of beer to recoup that $35.
Somebody once said to me, “You sure do a lot of things you don’t want to do!” Well, I don’t know, last week I had my feet up, cruising on Trout Lake in my little slip of a sailboat, and now I’m looking at a sign pointing out the trail to Hope Lake. Great! That’s me, Hope Lake!
So it’s Hope, hope hope, “the Boys are Marching!” Hope, hope, I hope it’s not too far! I hope, hope hope it’s really worth it! I hope there’s snow, I hope the wildflowers are out around the lake. I hope there’s not a lot of mud from the run-off to slog through, I hope there’s a rock to sit down, so I can put my ski boots on. I hope no one has to see this grizzly knee brace I have to wear. Hope I can hide my shame from the full, bright summer sunlight.
It’s okay, Peter is already near the top of the couloir, he won’t see a thing! I hope I can catch up. Catch up, up, up, and wipe the sweat out of our eyes. Hope, hip and a hop, and we’re on the top!
Peter goes first, so I can shoot a pass-by, my un-favorite type of ski photo. The Nikon goes into my jacket, and then I’m off! What a relief just to let ’em run, after a whole winter of squeezing through the trees! I pass Peter by, because it’s just so easy to keep on going, over the sun-cups freeze-melt, long, wide turns — “SVOO-pers!” — and then you’re down. Right to the edge of the scree. But how could it be over so soon? There’s got to be more!
That’s Hope Lake — hope, hope, all the way home! What’s “Hope”? Hope is just having a project into the future. Something like, “Live to Ski Another Day.”
Old man Harrison knew the apple business, and he had a vision. He liked to walk the orchard with his fastest pickers before the harvest, telling us how much we’d make on the first day, thanks to his judicious pruning, thinning and the measured applications of water, fertilizer and pesticides. When we agreed with his appraisal, he showed his pride by picking a still-green apple from a tree. He’d open his pocketknife as we walked and cut slices to hand around, so everyone could taste how much sugar was coming up in the fruit.
“I’d say just a few days now, these trees’ll be ready to pick,” he predicted. As we walked on, the old man described how he’d seen the future while on a driving vacation through California with his wife a few months back. “Why, those dry valleys are nothing but sun-blasted brush now, but they could be filled with orchards, just like this–,” he interrupted himself to wave at the trees, “–with water, you could grow all the fruit you wanted.” He looked around at us, “And I saw plenty of water, behind that Hoover Dam.”
The old man grew the best-damned apples I’d ever picked, with irrigation water impounded by one of the projects extolled in the local paper’s masthead, “Apple Capital of the World, and the Buckle of the Power Belt of the Great Northwest.” Although I was several years shy of my 21st year on the planet, I knew enough to listen to him.
The orchard was next to the once-mighty Columbia River, now tamed by an assortment of dams begun in the 1930s. Private electric companies had opposed the competition from public funding, while irrigation promoters loved the promise of cheap water and flood control. Bonneville and Grand Coulee became “New Deal” names rolling off the tongues of left-leaning politicians hooking for votes from an electorate recently humbled by economic collapse, while right-wingers thundered that it was all part of a “Socialist boondoggle” leading the country to ruin. To help combat this charge, by 1941, the Bonneville Power Administration had retained an “information consultant” named Woody Guthrie to write songs for a film promoting its projects. From Woody’s “Grand Coulee Dam” comes this:
“Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ’33
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me.
He said, ‘Roll along Columbia. You can ramble to the sea,
But river while you’re ramblin’ you can do some work for me’.”
While the Northwest’s self-named Inland Empire digested its doses of backbiting and branding, Hoover Dam had already jump-started the Desert Southwest’s multi-decade fling with cheap hydro. To transmit the electricity produced, transmission grids that eventually became part of the Western Interconnection soon crisscrossed public lands, and enough impounded water was pumped from the canyons of the Columbia and Colorado rivers to feed dreams of human industry.
I’ve been dreaming old man Harrison’s industrious vision tonight, after a long day spent driving a rented HEV (hybrid electric vehicle), looking at BLM’s (Bureau of Land Management) proposed SEZs (Solar Energy Zones) in the Mojave Desert (no acronym, sorry) of southern California (SoCo). Several decades beyond my fruit tramp years and in a new century defined by fears of impending collapses, the idea of orchards in these dry valleys seems far-fetched, as abandoned lettuce fields in the Imperial Valley 100 miles from here grow dust-clouds so the over-booked Colorado River can continue sprouting housing developments on the California coast.
I’ve seen four SEZs in the last few days, will drive by three more tomorrow, and can close my eyes and visualize the landscape surrounding about a dozen more from rambles similar to this one in decades past — seemingly, aimless travel on a budget is a side benefit of living a life of outdoor leisure interrupted by short (usually) periods of industrious labor for (sometimes) lucrative manna, with which to finance my hedonistic pursuits in “undeveloped” places managed by the alphabet soup of public lands agencies.
After dark, I turned off the highway onto a dirt road that led toward the dark side of Joshua Tree National Park, hoping it would lead to a dead-end set of ruts, and maybe a bit of shelter from a tailwind that had raised the hybrid’s digital efficiency graph to periodically claim 75 MPG (yup, another one — miles per gallon, this time. Get used to it, there’re more of ’em coming.). The road ended in a bulldozed patch of dirt by a chain-link fence. The wind kept howling, and I unrolled my sleeping bag on the lee side of the low-slung car. Not as good as hoped, but not bad.
Now the only light is from a half-moon that rose while I slept. It shines directly in my eyes. Ah well, probably what ended the dream for me, but at least the wind has died. The only sound is a gentle burbling from the other side of the fence. It is the sound of water flowing. No more sleep for a while now. A short walk to the fence confirms that I’ve managed to camp right by the Colorado River Aqueduct as it carries old man Harrison’s vision through the still-dry-as-dust Mojave. To the west, there are no orchards, no green fields. Beyond the aqueduct, the moon lights the Coxcomb Mountains inside the national park. Northeast, the proposed Iron Mountain SEZ site is hidden in shadows cast by its namesake mountain range. South, toward Interstate 10, is more crosshatching on the BLM map that marks yet another SEZ.
It’s time for a bit of exploration here. The SEZ process seems to be another effort to establish long-term land-management plans during my own home-state-produced, honest-to-gawd cowboy-hat-and-boot-wearing Secretary of Interior’s tenure. Though it’s hard to paint the honorable Mr. Secretary as an environmentalist’s wet dream, overall it’s been a refreshing change from the “Drill, Baby, Drill” sloganeering of the now-busted boom time. He reminds me of an old-time steward-of-the-land-type rancher preaching grazing rotation and summer/winter pasture gospel, though, as usual, “the devil is in the details,” as me own aphorism-spouting, FDR-hating great-grandmother would’ve phrased it.
SEZ is an acronym dreamed up by the current occupants of the Interior (DOI) and Energy (DOE) departments, in the process of setting an overall policy for permitting utility-scale solar-energy projects on 22 million acres of BLM land in six states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah). The plan would remove another 77 million acres of BLM land from consideration for solar, while streamlining the permitting process in 24 zones (yup, the SEZs) chosen for proximity to power transmission corridors and roads. Current projections are that between now and the year 2030, developments will cover over 200,000 acres with solar arrays producing 24,000 megawatts of electricity (an output roughly equal to five Fukushimas).
As of now, the details are still being hashed out, and as a citizen of the benighted empire, I’ve taken the liberty of casting myself as a “stakeholder” while attending public meetings, reading virtual reams of official descriptions and media coverage courtesy the web, chatting with a few jargon-fluent Departmental suits, walking some proposed SEZs, driving past others, clicking panoramic photographs handily available on the solareis.als.gov website (I know, I know, enough acronyms/abbreviations already), and closing my eyes to visualize just what some of these zones would look like with brush, sand and rocks replaced by fields of solar collectors pumping electricity into the humming wires of the Western Interconnection.
According to every formula for effective “advocacy journalism” I’ve ever stolen from, this is where I should deftly preach my own gospel of a shining future: for the enviro-defensive demographic, the preservation of our beloved public-land jewels; for upwardly-green-and-mobile strivers, a 21st Century riff on ol’ Woody Guthrie’s paean to the Grand Coulee Dam. I know, I know — but one problem is, we’ve got some cross-over on this one, as defenders of extraction extol the virtues of open spaces (the preservation of which will incidentally improve their favorite oil/gas/coal/nuclear corporation’s bottom line), while more than a few self-proclaimed environmentalists offer to trade acres for peace of mind on the production front (quoting actual online comment here, “Ultimately, I think it’s worthwhile to displace some tortoises if we can get real meaningful energy change by developing solar plants.”).
Comments I’ve collected so far have some environmental organizations defending their favored stretches of “habitat,” farmers worried about competition for water and land, residents of housing developments jealous of their “viewshed,” accusations of a BIG GOVERNMENT SCHEME TO LOCK UP THE WEST IN A GREEN ENERGY SOCIALIST BOONDOGGLE, and/or (fill in a favorite fear or two here), while corporations hoping to crash the renewable energy production party let their actual endgames lie fallow, to let bureaucrats take the heat. We’ll hear more from them later, I’m guessing. Currently, the multi-agency group that drafted the plan is sifting through a mountain of opinions, accusations and actual relevant comments while finalizing an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement), so tune in for the next round in coming months.
Here’s another problem — a point-of-view can be an amorphous thing, subject to having “skin in the game,” as the investment gurus say these days. After all, Guthrie’s celebratory lyrics promoted projects that took a formerly free-flowing stretch of public river and turned it into a daisy chain of industrial sites that provided a decent chunk of my early, very minor, part in boosting the empire’s GNP (gross national product [couldn’t resist this one, sorry]). I don’t recall being racked with guilt as I spent that apple-picking money. Depending on the stretch of country I see, I can feel both sides on this one, too. As a certain young brasileira sadly said to me as I left Rio long ago, “Is muito complicado.” Yes, I agreed, complicated indeed. So, what the hell, I’ll do as always and ramble on.
*SEZ DOI DOE BLM GNP* So it’s the next day, and I’m poaching a hike on one of America’s jewels, leaving tracks in a shallow desert wash without benefit of a day pass. A line of signposts awhile back proclaimed the park boundary, and my view is a ragged skyline far from popular parts of Joshua Tree NP. Turning east, I can see the shape of my rented hybrid car by the flowing aqueduct, and far beyond the Iron Mountain SEZ, I can visualize other valleys in the Mojave that some corporate-board-types may be eyeing as I walk. Across the Interior West, the prospect is the same.
I rented my eco-consumer’s transitional dream car in a desperate bid to not change my pattern behaviors too much, now that gas prices are pushing past $4 bucks a sip again; and I’ve got to admit it feels good to be researching solar development sites without asking my old Chevy’s 350 CI (cubic inch) engine to suck at peak oil’s ever-ready teats. In my decades of rambling, when occasional bouts of social consciousness have interfered with my daily routines, I’ve rationalized that my unseemly gasoline consumption is more than offset by an equal number of years living with minimal drain on the electrical grid that keeps our cities and backyards secure from the terrors of darkness, but if enough of us switch to HEV or EV (electric) cars to make a serious dent in national oil consumption, we’ll need more electrical generation and transmission capacity than now exists.
Most of the proposed Solar Energy Zones I visited are near highways and along existing power lines. It’s hard to make a case that putting a solar plant on most of these would scar the landscape more than current uses, but the idea of yet more industrial sites on public land offends my sense of balance. Noise and dust pollution, water use, loss of habitat and wildlife corridors will vary with each site and by type of power generation built. This makes a one-size-fits-all assessment impossible, but some zones are beyond roads and along corridors that have not yet had transmission lines installed. I’m eyeing the Colorado River Aqueduct, seeing shadows of old man Harrison’s vision of the future, and envisioning sacrifice zones.
Right now, choices are being made in corporate and government offices that will decide the mix of power generation in the rest of this century. King Coal wants to dig, Big Oil/Gas wants to drill, the Nuclear Renaissance wants to do both, and a budding Green Energy industry promises enough capacity to give extractive-industry-types nightmares. Common ground for all the above is the desire to dig, drill and/or build on public land, rather than deal with the headaches and hangovers of private land development (read: cheap land = higher profit). Also in agreement on a desire for more power transmission lines, corporate lobbyists of all stripes clamor for additions to the power grid, preferably near their clients’ investments. For proposed power lines on public land, count on finding a multi-year planning process already grinding its gears toward completion, so Solar Energy Zone planning is not the only game in town right now.
We need to decide how much undeveloped public land can be turned into bottom-line profit; put another way, “Just how many displaced tortoises does it take to power an empire?” The piecemeal approach to permit processing has led to rape-and-run Superfund sites, and to true-believers climbing trees, trashing equipment or crashing resource-leasing parties with fake bids in desperate, usually futile attempts to save this or that jewel from development. You know the stories by now, and I know these observations could be expanded into a visionary gospel, but I see too many incongruities anymore. As the old saying goes, “One man’s meat is another’s poison …” or something like that.
Before looking for a place to camp yesterday, I drove my HEV to the top of a hill overlooking an operational solar power plant. Rows of collectors concentrated the sun’s heat onto tubes full of fluid, superheating it enough to power turbines that fed energy into wires stretching across the desert. There was no plume of smoke, no smell of burned petroleum, no invisible cloud of radiation. To the east and west stretched strings of trucks and cars on the highway that replaced old Route 66, the Mother Road that carried Woody Guthrie to California a few years before he sang for the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. Beyond the shining rows of collectors, traffic and wires, I studied the Mojave’s mountains and tried to decide if the solar plant was a blight or blessing for the desert landscape.
As I drove back to the highway, I approached a roadside antique store’s back-lot. It was full of old signs: Standard, Texaco and other blasts from our passing fling with muscle cars and unlimited resources. As I drew closer, I saw a scantily clad mannequin leaning against a chain-link fence — and then she turned around and glanced my way. As the lovely leather-bikini-sporting model waited with her retinue of irritated photographer and bored assistant, I continued driving my oh-so-defensible dream of renewable mobility right through the background of someone else’s fantasy shot of unattainable pulchritude. See — incongruity rules. Ah well, so goes life on the mother, the road.
I realize I’ve started stripping off layers as the sun brings on another day’s heat. Turning back to the mountain, I climb toward a longer view. I don’t yet know how far I’ll go, but I’m going to leave you with a vision that came to me — of a no-longer-young man walking naked in the desert, picking a cautious path through a wilderness of thorny denizens and dilemmas. Now try to think of your envisioned character as a slightly confused uncle. Sam, let’s call him. He doesn’t know yet which way he’ll turn, and asks for some advice.
This Uncle Sam needs more from his citizenry than slogans, accusations and fear. Take a look at the public lands in your own stretch of country — then have a say in how to generate the power our visions and dreams will cost, where you’d like to see it developed, and maybe, just maybe, how much is enough.
More alphabet soup anyone?
Here are a few places that will aid entry to “renewable” energy’s weird wired world of grand plans and piecemeal permit applications.
Keeping in mind that all internet links are ephemeral, check these:
So what’s transmission got to do with it? This year, rivers have been out-competing wind projects for space on the Western Interconnection’s transmission grid in the Northwest, pointing up the impending storm over too much generation capacity and too few wires. This’ll get you started:
If high-tech methods fail or leave you cold, contact your oft-maligned Honorable Representatives of a government of by and for “we the people” — via old-fashioned mail, phone or the very direct action of walking into the local office of said minion. Good luck and let your reception guide your vote. Enough said.
Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” His blog, “The Ragged Edge,” can be found here. Frank splits his time between the Four Corners Country and the Borderlands.
Writing a column in late May destined for the High Summer issue in July while watching flakes the size of coasters build to a soggy eight-inch-deep mess on the front deck is no easy task. On the radio, the talk is of serious snow in the central Rockies, and the possibility that the intrepid souls at CDOT may not have some of the seasonal high-alpine passes open for the Memorial Day weekend. Independence Pass is 25 feet deep in places, but the locals in Aspen still hope for a regular start to summer, hot on the heels of near-record skier visits this past winter.
I haven’t been up the Roaring Fork Valley in years, not since Widespread Panic and Ratdog played something called the “Howling Wolf” at the base of Buttermilk in the late-’90s. At that time, the Flying Dog Brewpub still operated in Aspen, though the bottling operations had been moved down to Denver. The larger production facility allowed owner (and MG founder) George Stranahan, (also producer of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey), to distribute his flagship Doggie-Style Pale Ale and the rest of the lineup in 45 states. I’m a big fan of Doggie-Style, and I always wondered at the connection between the beer, Aspen and the unique artwork on the labels.
As it turns out, George was the owner of the “Owl Farm” property in Woody Creek that was the long-time residence of the late-Hunter S. Thompson. He leased it to Hunter, and through his acquaintance, was introduced to artist Ralph Steadman. When Flying Dog began bottling beer for distribution, Ralph agreed to design the labels. His first label, for Road Dog Porter, contained the scrawled slogan, “Good Beer, No Shit.” The Colorado liquor board, apparently concerned that adults over the age of 21 would be irreversibly harmed by this bold stroke of marketing genius, pulled the beer from shelves. A four-year legal battle ensued, during which time the words, “Good Beer, No Censorship” replaced the original moniker. Flying Dog prevailed in court, and the label art was restored. Today, it can be found in any decent liquor store across the country, with the notable exception of the State of Texas, whose mixed-up liquor authorities still can’t handle that shit.
With the closure of the brewpub in 2000, Aspen was without a true local brewery until 2008, when the Aspen Brewing Company opened up shop. The brews are served in the on-site tasting room, and at notable venues in and around Aspen. I was lucky enough to run into them at a beer festival on Earth Day in Boulder. I enjoy India-Pale-Ale-style brews, and found ABC’s offering, Independence Pass IPA, to be a crisp and refreshing hop experience, and a welcome break from the current trend of double- and triple-strength concoctions out there, many of which drink like chilled Robitussin, and hit like a full bottle of the same.
That same summer, a friend and I hiked the Lost Man trail over the 4th of July, from the top of Independence Pass, to where it again intersects the highway, seven or eight miles below. Standing on the side of the road in a sweaty tie-dye with my thumb out, none of the 13 out-of-state minivans grinding up the pass in a slow line behind an RV would stop and give me a lift. As I watched them pass, a jet-black Trans-Am skidded to a stop on the gravel shoulder. Jumping in to the black leather seat, the driver, wearing aviators and a silk shirt, looks over to me and says in a Swiss/South African accent (a combination possibly heard only in Aspen), “I just watched them pass you. I used to ride up here. Now we pass them all”! Burying the pedal, he proceeds to tear up the narrow lanes of the pass with complete disregard for solid yellow lines, speed limits, other vehicles, sheer drops or blind curves. As we recklessly swerve around them, the honks and shouts from the flabbergasted minivan drivers are drowned by the deep-throated roar of the big-block, and Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which the driver has turned up to 11. At 70 mph, he makes his move on the rental RV, and with open road now ahead, I see the hairpin just below the top of the pass where our car is parked. Not wanting to get behind the RV again, he slows to a roll and I jump out with a shout of thanks. As he screams away, I stand at the inside of the hairpin as the RV and all 13 minivans that had refused to give me a lift, roll slowly by. The shocked looks on the face of the Midwestern wives and children was great. The last guy in the line shouted as he passed, “Nice choice of Rides!” Priceless!
Erich Hennig, an avid home brewer, is the Four Corners columnist for the Rocky Mountain Brewing News. He lives in Durango, Colo.
Honey Island Swamp Band claims its Bayou Americana makes you smarter, thinner and better looking — but frontman Aaron Wilkinson also admits to being a fifth-generation North Florida redneck.
The musicians have traveled from their home base in New Orleans throughout the West to play in such fine establishments as The Goat Soup & Whiskey in Keystone and Whiskey Jacques in Ketchum, Idaho; this Fourth of July, the band, voted Best Roots Rock Artist in OffBeat’s 2010 Best of the Beat Awards, hits the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland, Ore.
Wilkinson wasn’t sure what to expect when the band began touring Colorado’s mountain towns, even though now, after years of traveling, they’re all beginning to blur together, he said.
“First time I’d ever really seen mountains, so I was all wide-eyed and full of wonder,” Wilkinson said. “Guess I kind of had an idealistic vision of what it would be like, nature and all.”
About six years ago, he and his crew followed a Telluride-area local to “secret” hot springs back in the hills.
“The city slickers in the band were huffing pretty heavy,” he said about the hike, which was a piece a cake for the locals. “You’re not prepared for that thin air, and we don’t exactly lead the healthiest lifestyles anyway. But after about an hour and a half of stopping every 50 yards so that my 55-year-old emphysemic drummer didn’t keel over and die, we come upon the spot.”
Situated at the bottom of a rocky bluff, it was gorgeous, just as advertised. Only problem: It wasn’t so secret; a rather portly man soaked in the pool with his cluster of kids — and at least a case of empty, crushed Busch cans beside him.
“He had on this bright red bandanna and a pair of those heinous reflective Oakley Blades,” Wilkinson said. “He’s all, ‘Come on in and join us,’ and we probably would have, given what we went through to get there.”
Just as the band was about to join the pool party, a train appeared on the ridge across the river, and the 6’6” man stood up, hollering and flipping off the train.
“Turns out, he’s butt-ass naked,” Wilkinson said. “Proud of it too. With his kids right there in the pool with him. Giving that train all he’s got and all God ever gave him.
“Needless to say, we didn’t join him, but then and there I realized something: Florida, Louisiana, Colorado — there are rednecks everywhere in this world, God bless ’em.”
Kimberly Nicoletti is the entertainment editor for the Summit Daily News. She lives in Silverthorne, Colo.