Summit of Silver

“The world seems made of mountains; a chaotic mass of rocky ridges, peaks and spurs.”
— William N. Byers, on first recorded ascent of La Plata Peak, Colorado, July 26, 1873

People have all kinds of reasons for climbing high mountains. Most of them are good ones, others not so much. Some folks do it for the exercise, the cardiovascular workout, the healthy way that the human body feels after steady and prolonged exertion at high elevation. Some do it for the adventure, or the challenge, perhaps even the risk factor, whereby a little bit of potential danger is allowed into one’s safe and sheltered and boring existence. Other people climb mountains to prove something to themselves, or to impress their friends, or for “bragging rights.” Check-lists, and ego trips, and stories at the office on Monday morning. Peak baggers and wannabes. Still others have much purer motives. “To reach the top.” To enjoy the view. To experience the beauty. To commune with Nature. To visit with the mountain gods. They climb because they are young, and wild, and able to. Because climbing is in their blood. “Because it’s there.”

Touché. Bravo. Und wunderbar.

However, while I can certainly relate to some of these motivations, my main justification for climbing high peaks is somewhat different than all of the above. For, you see, my number-one reason for “going up” is perhaps the simplest one of them all.

I just want to go to Heaven.

Which, as far as I can tell, is real high up. Indeed, way, WAY up there.

And so I climb, and go to the top of the mountain, the very topmost point, therefore to get as close to Heaven while still on earth as is humanly possible. As often as I can. Well, okay, maybe not so much anymore. But there was a time in my life, a good, long time, when I got high – real high — on a pretty regular basis. And so it was in the breakaway summer of 1994 …

The previous few months had not been good ones for me. All at once, it seemed, I had gotten injured at work, and lost a good job, and broke up with my girlfriend (whose house I was living at), and suddenly found myself homeless. I was bouncing around from place to place, and trying to recuperate, and furthermore attempting to figure out “what to do” with the rest of my life, or at least the next chapter. And so then, as spring turned into summer, and I felt my health gradually returning, I decided to “take a break” from society and its ills, and spend the season up in the mountains, alone, camping out, and climbing everything that I possibly could.

While I healed.

I started slow, getting my mountain legs back by doing thousand-foot ascents and moderate hikes in the foothills. Little by little, I once again graduated to the twelves, and thirteens, and even a few fourteeners. I would camp in some nice out-of-the-way place at about 9 or 10,000 feet, and get up early in the morning, and “go and see the Wizard” (as I called it).

Weather permitting, I would often summit several high peaks per week, and sometimes even a couple in one day. The Elks, the Raggeds, the Collegiate Range, the Sawatch, the San Juans.

“The air is clear and thin. As you climb, breathe easily and make the natural adjustments in your body. Feel the slow change in yourself. Think of climbing up as a downward flow, without strain…”
— Tai Chi master

My lungs expanded, thigh muscles hardened, skin turned brown, and the new $200 mountaineering boots broke in quickly. I fine-tuned my camping routine, and firewood skills, and eye for beauty. I often stayed away from people for as long as a week at a time. I learned, or rather re-learned, how to move like an animal, and walk quietly, and time my breathing with my steps, and touch things with respect, and take only what I needed.

Kneeling at the shrine. Sucking on the nipple. Breathing in the mountain air. Learning to live again.

Which brought me, finally, one fine and stormy morning, to La Plata Peak, the fifth-highest summit in Colorado.

Actually, the weather wasn’t too bad early on. Leaving the trailhead at 10,000 feet, I could see several patches of blue sky overhead. “Sucker holes,” they’re called. Heading south up La Plata Gulch, I passed numerous little waterfalls and delightful pools of crystal-clear water on the side of the mountain. Filling my canteens from the creek at 11,200 feet, I then ascended straight east up a steep, rocky couloir following numerous trail switchbacks that were only 20 feet apart in places. Reached the northwest ridge of La Plata Peak at 12,700 feet, and was promptly greeted by a stiff southeast wind and a great view of Mt. Elbert (highest point in Colorado) and Ellingwood Ridge (a famous, jagged, impossibly rugged wall of rock stretching far to the north) and, well, that was about it. For the impending storm had begun to lower and thicken and “fill in the holes,” and soon, very soon, even Elbert and Ellingwood were lost in the swirling grayness.

Having experienced way too many lightning storms at high altitude, I always try to be keenly aware of any thunder or electrical energy when I am above timberline, both present and potential. On this day, luckily, there was none, and I felt relatively safe as I climbed due south on steep, green-lichened stone past old gray snowfields from last winter. The clouds enveloped the entire mountain like an old wet blanket and began to drizzle. Soon the drizzle turned into rain, and then sleet, and then snow, but I just kept going up, and up, and up. First tracks, indeed. Having earlier passed four other climbers who were headed down, down to avoid the coming storm, I knew that I was probably the only person left alive on the upper part of the peak.

(Note: The summit register inside the old mailbox on top had been signed by 38 people the previous day, when the weather was sunny and bluebird.)

Then, just as I was ascending the final section, and nearing the lofty silver summit in a driving wet summer blizzard, something funny happened to me. Or in me. Or all around me.

It had been a long, hard climb, and the weather was getting worse every minute, but I was bound and determined to reach the top. This was the highest mountain that I had ever climbed in this lifetime, and normally I would have been tired, and hungry, and looking forward to relaxing on the summit. However, on this particular day, in a raging August snowstorm, at 14,000 feet, something else occurred within me. Something else entirely.

For, as I scaled the final arete, and could see the stone cairn, indicating the apex of the huge massif that I had just spent five hours climbing, a profound sense of sadness suddenly came over me! Instead of the normal deep satisfaction I usually experienced upon reaching the top of a high mountain, I actually felt, somehow, bummed out. Indeed, I was downright disappointed at having reached the summit, which had now become the finish line, the end of the trail, the uppermost limit of this climb. As in, “Here’s the summit already, damn it, I wish this ridge just kept right on going up and up and up, I want to go higher and higher and higher, and just keep on climbing into the clouds, ALL THE WAY, my goal is not this here mere pile of rocks, no, no, my goal is up there, somewhere up there, still up there, way up there, why oh why do I have to stop here at 14,361 feet?”

It was like I had been climbing the final, last, most-important stairway of them all, the one that goes to Heaven itself, but suddenly, suddenly, much too soon, the magic steps seemed to somehow stop here.

Right here.

Just when I was getting close!

The wind was out of the south now, so I dropped back down over the north face a ways to escape the driving wet snow. I put on my last layer of clothes, and found a good place to ride out the storm, and ate my lunch like a larva in a cocoon.

Then, later, as I was sipping on my customary summit can of cold Budweiser, the snow began to let up, and the wind died down, and eventually, slowly but surely, the wonderful, wonderful sun came out.

Oh happy day …

The stormclouds lowered and started to dissipate into thin air, while enormous mountains, and then entire groups of mountains, began to appear as if by magic, sheer magic, in all directions and distances and elevations, almost like a sea of endless and thus eternal waves rising up and out of the misty nothingness. My wide-opened eyes reveled in every new look around that I took. Sun and clouds danced with each other, both down below and up above me. The constant interplay of shadow and light changed the mystical tapestry with each and every passing moment. I literally could not stop seeing new summits, and ridges, and canyons, and sky blue lakes, and even whole mountain ranges wherever my eyes would gaze. The Gore Range to the north, the Mosquitoes, the Collegiates and Pikes Peak. The Sangre de Cristos, the Uncompahgres, the Chinese Mountains and Sopris. The West Elks and Flat Tops and Mt. Massive and, once again, Mt. Elbert, shining in the sun.

Etcetera.

It seemed like I could see half of Colorado all spread out below me, and in front of me, and behind me, and indeed all around me, when just an hour earlier I could barely see two steps ahead. The high-elevation post-storm sunlight was so warm and so intense that the fresh white snow was literally evaporating right before my very eyes, and rising in veils of silver steam back up into the blue, blue sky from whence it had come.

As I was laying out my wet clothes to dry in the brilliant solar heat, I felt a sense of peace come over me. A peace and serenity from some source much, much greater than myself welled up within me, and I felt like I had finally, finally made it home. Home, sweet home, at last.

My earlier sadness, and worry, and even injury were now gone, gone for good. And I was healed.

And now knew “what to do” …

After spending three hours of sheer unadulterated rapture on the very top of La Plata Peak, I had to practically force myself to leave. Because, you see, I wanted to just remain there, and never, ever leave. But I simply could not stay up there forever.

Could I?

Just before heading down, I took one last good look around. All of a sudden, I could scarcely believe my eyes! Because it was then, then that I realized why the sacred staircase through the stormclouds up to Heaven had stopped right here, right here at this high and holy place.

For I had reached my destination, after all.

Curt Melliger is a Four Corners Free Press columnist and a long-time contributor to Mountain Gazette. He is currently exploring the wilds of eastern Nebraska.

Beer at Altitude – Mountain Brewfests Kick Off Summer

Late Thursday evening, early spring, van driving hard toward Pagosa Springs on the yearly penance run to the Front Range for a weekend of old friends, bluegrass, weirdness and beer at the Boulder Theater.

Telluride local/pirate Hawkeye Johnson and the author pause for the cause at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, 2009. New Belgium's brews are on tap at the festival in June, and the adult sippy-cup is a free upgrade.

No snow yet in the graying sky, but “The Wolf” to cross — Wolf Creek Pass, among the upper class of high-mountain passes in the West, and no interstate or magic tunnel to guide us into the night. Stones wailing in our ears, the yet-frozen forest of the high-alpine passes into night as we careen down into South Fork, Del Norte and on through forgotten space towards Saguache. Darkness takes the snow-bound heights, clouds descend and snow flurries scatter in the metal-halide glare of the state prison as we enter Buena Vista.

Our destination this eve is the Eddyline Brewery, a newer participant in the Colorado micro-brewing movement. Located on the banks of the Arkansas River in the “South Main” area of B.V., it is a partner organization to the Socorro Springs Brewing Co., in Socorro, NM. (Author’s note: Fayhee gives Socorro Springs a hearty thumbs up, as he has found himself dry-of-mouth in Socorro on numerous occasions.) You ain’t late if you make last call, and doing so, it was beers and wood-fired pizzas all ’round. The brew was solid, and following the opening of an additional production facility this spring, will be available in 16-ounce “pounders” by high summer. It is always good to find a friendly brewery after an arduous drive, and even better to find one with nearby riverside parking for “stealth camping” in the van (which was kindly pointed out to us by the lovely bartender). It is this type of experience that defines the mountain-town vibe for me, and awaking to the glory of the Collegiate Peaks shining in the mountain sun across the valley the next morning, I needed no explanation why the motto in B.V. is, “Life is Better When You’re High.”

By June in the High Country, the clear snowmelt is running from the peaks, and beer is flowing in the hills at the many brewfests that grace the region. To begin, the 17th Annual Mountain Brewers Festival will be held in Idaho Falls on the 4th, featuring eight breweries from Idaho and a host of others from the Pacific Northwest, Montana, Utah and Colorado.

Depending on where you are in the state of Colorado on June 11, two festivals, both celebrating their second anniversary, require attendance. The first is the Boulder Sourfest, hosted by Avery Brewing. Think the kool-aide that Lindeman’s mass-markets as a Lambic-style beer is authentic? Well, stop by Sourfest, and think again. Celebrating all things wild, as in wild yeast and “spontaneously fermented” beers, this event will introduce the participant to flavor components of beer described as barnyard, earthy, goaty, hay and my personal favorite, horseblanket. Not for the faint of palate, Lambics, Guezes and sour beers are a connoisseur’s delight.

The second event is Silverton Rockin’ Brews, taking place at 9,318 feet of elevation up in Silverton, CO. The organizer, Silverton Brewing Co., was damaged when a tragic fire burned several historic buildings in town this past spring, including the brewery and taproom. This event will coincide with their reopening after being closed for repairs. Breweries from across the Western Slope will be pouring, and music will be playing under the big top tent.

June 24-26 is host to four events. Big Sky Brewing Co. in Missoula, MT, will host its annual BBQ Festival on the 25th. Less about beer and more about meat, last year’s event pitted BBQ cooked up by eight local restaurants against discerning BBQ aficionados from all over Montana. Big Sky’s offerings will be on tap to cool the heat, with live music throughout the day.

In Summit County, CO, look for the Summit of Bluegrass and Brews to take place over two days on the 24th & 25th at the Lake Dillon Amphitheater. Featuring national bluegrass acts and beer from breweries from all over Colorado, the event is a fundraiser for the Colorado Brewers Guild.

The 22nd annual Colorado Brewers Festival hits downtown Fort Collins on the 25th & 26th. An old favorite of mine from my days at Colorado State University, this is a full-on party that consumes Old Town.

And finally, the Made in the Shade Beer Tasting Festival will take place at Fort Tuthill County Park in Flagstaff, AZ, on the 25th. Featuring 50 beers from across the Southwest and around the world, this is the place to be if you’re down in the A-Z.

Got any brew-related news to share? Fire it off to me at beer@mountaingazette.com.

Erich Hennig, an avid home brewer, is the Four Corners columnist for the Rocky Mountain Brewing News. He lives in Durango, Colo.

The Damned DUI Factor

Rock-and-roll musicians have always been associated with survival, tagged as scrappers and road warriors who party all night after eating copious plates of food at wedding and corporate gigs, washing it all down with the host’s top-shelf liquor and still able to charm the garters off bridesmaids for a scandalous evening. Back in the day, it was a well-earned badge as your equipment-loaded van screamed into a slide of death at 3 a.m. on a recently closed mountain pass in a white-out blizzard. All this just to get to get to that next club gig, which paid a pittance, comped greasy burgers or nachos and if the bartender took a shine to you, free drinks. If you really scored, the club put you up in the band crash pad with the unidentifiable sticky black gunk on the shag carpet, cigarette burns on the couch and the sagging mattresses where half the town’s women spent the night with one or all of the previous weeks’ band members. But hey, they were paying jobs and for most of the musicians who were fortunate to live through the historic cornucopia of mountain gigs twenty and thirty years ago, the times have now changed. It’s an evolution of perspective, economics, aging and staying afloat. No, we’re not growing up, just redefining priorities and transposing the way music is created, performed and sold.

Metalhead. Photo: Dawne Belloise

Music business is conducted in a far different manner than it was a couple of decades ago, primarily due to the internet reinterpreting how audiences all over the world access and listen, as well as how artists promote. Mountain musicians who have had to be especially good at creating market have expanded the parameters of their careers by reaching a limitless online audience.

Once upon a time, when gigs were plentiful, talented musicians could make a decent living playing full time and not have to take second jobs waiting tables or cleaning toilets until discovered by a talent agent. But much of that changed in the mid-’90s, according to Chuck Hughes, who’s been a band leader for forty years in various incarnations of Top 40 to Rockabilly with Chucky & the Cyclones and currently the Colorado-based Hillbilly Hellcats. “The DUI was the downfall of band gigs. That’s not to say that you don’t have several bands at any given time whose popularity will overcome any social or economic condition, like Big Head Todd, The Fray, Leftover Salmon, String Cheese, but DUI affected the fortunes of eighty or ninety percent of the bands.” Chuck attributes his musical longevity to a very basic essentiality. “I had no other marketable skills. I started out in the ’70s playing six nights a week in a Top-40 band and teaching guitar lessons in a store. Back then, for three-nighters, a quartet would be making $100 per person per night at a club and on six-nighters, maybe $80 a night. In the mid-’90s, we’d play mountain gigs where you got a condo, a ski pass and food for a six-night gig.”

Chris Daniels and the Kings formed back in 1984, and they’ve been playing consistently for the past twenty-seven years. “It’s very difficult these days. Bands now have to be incredibly versatile to make a living just playing music. In the old days, we could do a circuit,” he says of the glut of clubs, many which no longer exist as music venues. “You’d play six nights a week and, after six weeks, you’d come through and do the circuit again. Now it’s three or four bands per night at one club. Instead of making a $1,000, you’re making $200.” As far as traveling to mountain-town gigs, Chris says, “We do mostly mountain festivals; summer concert series are what we tend to play now as opposed to the mountain bars. Our crowd is older now. They want to go out with their kids and a basket full of chicken. They don’t want to go out to a bar with twenty-one-year-olds and do Jager shots and throw up.”

Back when there were agents doing much of the promoting and booking, bands didn’t have to hustle as much as they do now. Musicians do their own marketing these days, advertising in specialty magazines on both local and national levels. With a single posting on your band’s Facebook page, your closest one to five thousand friends across the globe get the party going and the club packed out in their town. “Artist management is basically handled by the artist these days as opposed to the old days where the first thing you tried to do was get a manager,” Chris says.

With club venues generally shrinking for live music, bands have taken their sound abroad, especially to the lucrative European market, where audiences are educated about the music itself. Chris, who also teaches music business and both rock-and-roll and jazz music history at the University of Colorado’s Denver campus, believes, “Europeans understand the history of the music that’s being played, whereas most American audiences tend not to know that they’re hearing a blues band or the roots of the music.” Chuck found that Europeans don’t look at your age. “The Europeans are first impressed by the fact that you’re an American band playing American roots music and not the newest commercial flavor of the month. They feel they’re experiencing authentic American roots and they’re much more interested.”

The indie musician licensing business started to kick in through the internet around 2001. Chuck’s band, which had forty songs on MP3.com, was contacted by pumpaudio.com. “They wanted to license all of our songs for TV and movies. I thought it was typical music biz jive talk but nonetheless I filled out all the paperwork and checks started coming in. By 2005, our income had switched to music licensing, music downloads and live shows.”

Apparently age and experience also initiated a generational paradigm shift in the band collective concerning the continual sex, drugs and party-seeking factor of rock-and-roll. Chuck feels, “When you’re twenty-something, you’ll think nothing of staying up all night and getting wasted if you think you’re gonna get laid, but when you’re older, you ask yourself, ‘Is it worth it?’ And it’s not novel anymore,” he admits in a been-there-done-that tone. Chris agrees that stereotypical endless rock-and-roll recreation is not for his age group. “The days of groupies end when you reach your mid-forties. What becomes important for me is the music, more important than the party, much more important than hanging out with a twenty-year-old who wants to talk about Lady Gaga.”

One thing hasn’t changed and won’t likely anytime in the future — musicians are still paying those hard-earned, steamroller, low-down, whippin’-post dues … but that’s what gives them the rock-ribbed, metamorphic tenacity to carry on.

The Hillbilly Hellcats are on Facebook and www.myspace.com/hillbillyhellcats

Chris Daniels and the Kings are on Facebook and www.myspace.com/chrisdanielsandthekings

Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer, traveler and musician living on an alley at the end of the road in Crested Butte’s paradise. A feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly, her musings and photography have been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact dbelloise@gmail.com

Hip-Hop Grandma Doles Out Sex Advice

Being the road-traveling warrior he is, MURS, who’s played Breckenridge and other mountain towns this season, thought he had seen it all — until he met Denver’s hip-hop mom a few years ago.

MURS

He showed up for a gig, only to hear minutes later, “MURS — Your mom’s here, and she brought food.” He ignored it, sayin’ his mama was in South Central, but the announcements continued. “Someone’s mom is here.” Finally, the band checked it out, only to find a short, white, middle-aged grandmother who had stormed onto the tour bus, homemade pecan pie in hand.

“I’m the hip-hop mom,” she proclaimed. “I just thought I’d bring you some food, made with fresh herbs I cut from my garden.”

“I was so nervous to eat the food — I was thinking, ‘Who are you? Who does this? Are you gonna poison us?’ but I was so hungry, and it was so good,” MURS said.

And the encounter didn’t end with an innocent piece of pie. A few months later, she barged backstage at the Fillmore to lecture MURS, De La Soul and a couple other hip-hop artists on some different pieces of pie.

“I know you guys have no idea how to [have sex] — you think just because you have big penises you know how to [have sex],” she said.

After clearly getting the boys’ attention, she hit ’em with a freestyle rap.

“It just flowed out of her,” MURS said. “She just emasculated the black male.”

Apparently, she was just revving up.

“It went over the top; there was some descriptions,” MURS said. “But she said she was only trying to help the women of Colorado we’re gonna sleep with.”

Taking a turn into detainment

After touring Western mountain towns, MURS headed back east, but took a wrong turn into Canada, by way of a Niagara Falls detour. MURS had invited a friend on the road trip and let him drive, with a firm instruction: “Do not cross the border. I have horror stories about crossing the border.” Despite the warning, his friend accidentally took the bridge of no return. As he made a U-turn, America’s finest Border Patrol stood, waiting to greet them. Patrol didn’t care about the band getting lost; they immediately pulled all eight people out of the van, pairing them up with one armed guard per person.

Apparently, responding to the request to fill out required paperwork with, “I don’t have to fill out shit because I didn’t go anywhere” doesn’t go a long way with border cops. They detained the men for three hours. Actually, the guys may have gotten away with the smart-ass remark, if the cops hadn’t found a ski mask and fake gun when they started searching the van. Seems the DJ thought the props made a funny skit on stage — but not so much on the border. From there, it got worse:

“One of the guys on the road with us was a felon, so he wasn’t allowed to cross into Canada. (The patrol) searched the van and asked if there’s weed in there,” MURS said, “And he said, ‘Of course there’s weed, and I’m the felon with the weed.’”

As MURS tells it, the cops finally let them go, saying, “Just get the fuck out of here.” Luckily, patrol never discovered the machete stashed near the side of the van; they probably wouldn’t have bought the story that MURS was just trying to be a good citizen. But, it’s true: During a break at their previous gig, they found a machete next to a beer in the back alley.

“We threw the beer out, but we didn’t think it was smart to let a guy who was drinking go around with a machete,” MURS said.

Naw, it’s a much more solid plan to transport the machete across the border.

Kimberly Nicoletti is the entertainment editor for the Summit Daily News. She lives in Silverthorne, Colo.

Movies: “The Love Letter”

Movies: “The Love Letter,” by Fitz Cahall, Becca Cahall and Mikey Schaefer

Writer and Dirtbag Diaries creator Fitz Cahall is building a new business model for outdoor filmmakers: In the past, climbing, skiing and kayaking movies have gotten sponsorship funding from outdoor gear companies, slaved away around the world getting great footage of top athletes and then produced DVDs to sell at 25 or 30 bucks apiece. Fitz (most of the time with filmmaker Bryan Smith as his partner) has decided to get sponsorship from gear companies, slave away around the U.S. to get great footage of top athletes and putting movies on the Internet for free, sometimes on the sponsoring companies’ web sites. “The Love Letter” is a 12-minute movie about Fitz and Becca’s 45-day trip through the Sierra, backpacking, climbing and getting away from cell phones, e-mail and all the other soul-crushing appliances of daily urban life. It’s a climbing movie, but not a climbing movie. Fitz and Becca probably climb harder than most of us, but the film is about balance, and finding the places that inspire us — not about brahs sending hard boulder problems and screaming while they clip bolts on sport climbs. It’s art, not sports footage, and a breath of fresh air. Give it a shot and you might wish more gear companies directed their sponsorship dollars to real stories like this.

Watch “The Love Letter” on YouTube.

Books: “The Source of All Things” and “The Museum Collection”

“The Source of All Things” by Tracy Ross

Tracy Ross mastered the sense of place a long time ago, putting the reader squarely in her own boots and scaling to the Edge of Nowhere, never looking back. A journalist who has scoured the planet and a contributing editor to Backpacker Magazine, Ross has the makings of a writer’s writer. In “The Source of All Things,” Ross ventures inward this time, to a place of soul and guts and torn-away pieces of childhood. The memoir, first trotted out as the Backpacker essay that won the National Magazine Award in 2009, weaves her story of sexual abuse in the hands of her stepfather. Bouncing from ditch to ditch emotionally, Ross finds her way by calling on the healing power of wild places. Witnessing the jagged cycle of seeking and self-destruction that takes her through adolescence and into her young adult life, a reader has to wonder if communion with the trees and rivers and dirt under her feet will be enough to buoy the soul. In the end, she asks her stepfather to accompany her to the place where it all started when she was eight years old. There in the wilds of Idaho she confronts him, tape recorder running, and he talks to his 36-year-old daughter. There’s no overnight redemption here, no black-and-white forgiveness. But somehow, Ross manages to humanize the man who stole her nights. And somewhere there is the word “reconcile.” What you’ve got is a compelling and gutsy piece of writing and a story of surviving and moving on. I’ll join the legions of reviewers here: This is a story you won’t easily forget. $23.95, simonandschuster.com
— Tara Flanagan

“The Museum Collection,” by William Meriwether

Bill Meriwether died in spring 2010, after a 40-year career as a photographer and professor of photography at various Western universities, and just before an exhibit of his photography opened at the Colorado Mountain College Gallery in Glenwood Springs. He made stark black-and-white, Ansel Adams-esque photographs of missions, ruins and landscapes of Colorado and northern New Mexico, and originally self-published this book in 2005 as a handmade, limited edition, for his friends. People’s Press of Woody Creek (a project of MG guardian angel emeritus George Stranahan) is now publishing it as a 52-page hardcover edition. The Museum Collection is not quite a coffee-table photography book, with a smaller format with as much attention paid to Meriwether’s photos as his essays — sometimes explaining the technical how-to of his photos, sometimes discussing photography philosophy or the process of making platinum prints. It’s a worthy addition to the bookshelf of any student, or armchair aficionado, of classic Western photography. $14.95, peoplespress.org

Letters – #179

Envelope: Diane

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

Less dog dookie in Paris
Dear Editor: I enjoyed your Feb./March issue while in Frisco and wanted to comment on the story by Michael Brady (Dateline: Europe, “The Merde in France: Dog Dung Decline,” MG #176). Please pass along my applause to him.

On my first visit to Paris ten years ago, I was stunned and appalled at the amount of dog dung all over the city, no matter the elegant address. How could a community applaud its history and yet show so little pride in its appearance? Arrogance?

I was pleased to see the city was cleaning up upon my last visit two years ago. Thank goodness I could walk with my eyes up, not constantly peering down to the sidewalk placing my steps carefully as in the past.

Thank you. The cover on this issue was a delight for our family as we had just traveled through the snowy woods via dog sleds!

Carol Freas,
Long Beach Island, NJ

Heads up!
Hi John: Reading the item on U.S. 550 in the April Cartographic (“Getting a Move On,” MG #177), I thought of another hazard unique to that road: the occasional 60-foot ponderosa sliding down the mountain and plopping on the highway in front of cars, forcing choices where the alternatives might be pretty grim.

We were coming back to Durango from Ouray last Mother’s Day and climbing Coal Bank Pass when a tree just dropped in front of us about 100 yards ahead. If we would have been closer when it fell, we might have swerved to avoid it, dropping into Lime Creek hundreds of feet below on the opposite side from where it fell.

Mick Souder,
Durango, CO

Almost Full Circle
John: Re: Your call for stories about how we came to be living in the West (“Stories of Us,” Smoke Signals, MG #169): It was 2003, the year after I’d graduated from a state college in northern Utah.  From the halls of education, I went to building tract houses with my brother, a contractor, to save enough money to buy a cheap car, then attempt to break free from my native Utah to Bellingham, Washington, where a friend lived. I purchased the car, fled to the Northwest, but a sort-of fate — or just bad luck, or just some unresolved psychological tick — flung me back home.

Back home literally. I was at my parents’ house, avoiding calling my brother to ask for my job back, working a temporary gig where I manufactured synthetic diamonds for oil drilling. In this period of desperation, I managed to send out a couple of “job” applications. Employment wasn’t really the goal: the goal was to find some means to plant myself in the deep soil of the world-out-there after four years squandered in books and libraries and classrooms.

And a proper de-education required the margins, forgotten places, the little and pathetic towns, the expanses of mountains and deserts that radiated outward in every direction from my center place near Salt Lake City. So applications for jobs and internships went out to state parks, national parks, the Student Conservation Corp., High Country News, anything that would lead me into the land where the civilized elements would be eclipsed by nature — big land, desert canyons, mountain forests, spring flowers, summer heat, winter snowfall, birdsong.

Bush and his administration of fools and the press idiots bellowed their bullhorns for war with Iraq. My home near Provo, Utah, was paved over, housed over, strip-malled to death; from behind this madness, I could hardly enjoy the Wasatch Mountains jutting abruptly and high from the earth. To be sure, there was nature, big nature, written in the mountain skyline that I had absorbed into my psyche since I was born. But, for me, the elements of civilization overcrowded the natural like a billboard blocking a vital road exit. And somehow I couldn’t disentangle the buzz of traffic, the edifices of religion punctuating the temples of consumerism (this is Utah, remember) and the ubiquitous post-9/11 flags all around me from the mounting stench of war. War against Afghanistan. War against Iraq. War against Terror. War for Greed. The Oil Wars.

A call came from Blanding, Utah, a place I’d never been before. The manager of the state park museum there said that no one else had applied for an opening, making me the perfect candidate. And as soon as I found out that I didn’t make the cut as an intern with High Country News, I packed my bag and headed to the canyonlands of southeastern Utah. Little did I know that it would turn out to be the perfect proving ground for de-education, for a period of deep immersion within place. A place to seek out elemental and empirical truth in red sandstone, white clouds and blue sky (and green mountains), rather than the lying flag-wavers who were boosting the Iraq war.

I spent weekends in the canyons that fissured through Cedar Mesa, the larger chasms cutting through the Elk Ridge uplands and Comb Ridge’s absurd bedrock spine snaking through the San Juan desert. During the weeks, I catalogued artifacts — pottery, rock flakes and tools, bone needles, wooden digging sticks and staffs, basketry, bird-feathered blankets and the like — in the museum’s database. Then back into the canyons, where I aimlessly wandered through the landscape.

I came more and more to see that desert wilderness as a Puebloan landscape of homes and agricultural fields that dated back to over a thousand years. I had gone to the desert to escape civilization but had found civilization somehow embedded in the desert. But it was an older civilization. And a civilization that I cannot resist feeling — despite the army of red flags that signal the fetishizing and exoticizing of native cultures — is a much wiser one than our own. If for no other reason than that these people seemed to live close to the land and derive the elements of their homes, their tools and their food from the land around them. Even if their corn and beans came from somewhere deep in Mexico, they held a knowledge of how to grow those crops in what most people today see as an austere and threatening landscape. They learned to blend the hydrology of the desert — canyons and washes and rills — with their non-irrigated agricultural landscape. They lived without gas stations and Wal-Marts and other portals of commerce through which the global economy funnels our tangible goods of consumption — while at the same time masterfully concealing the social and environmental costs of those products. I came to admire this indigenous civilization that, sure, was connected to the extra-regional, but was ultimately grounded in the local.

After all, isn’t this global flow of goods (particularly energy resources) at the root of the absurd wars that we find ourselves in this modern and enlightened day?

As with the only other time that I landed the perfect job in the perfect place, it came to the abrupt end that any seasonally hired employee knows. And so I took my newfound tool bag of archaeological knowledge to a cultural resource management (CRM) company in Moab, Utah. I feared that my nine-month-long desert gestation period, facilitated by temporary employment in Blanding, was to be disrupted by the marathoners, mountain bikers, trad climbers, Jeep ralliers and other assorted eco-extremists who congregate in Moab. More, though, I was afraid of taking a job with a company that did most of its work for oil and gas corporations building a sprawling network of roads and wells throughout northeastern Utah’s Uinta Basin. As Bush and his cadre of idiots were executing war abroad, they were waging a domestic war on our public lands written in the form of rapid oil and gas leasing.

The dilemma of CRM work, which protected a few archaeological sites at the expense of an entire landscape, ate away at my ideals like the flash floods that rip away at the root system of a cottonwood tree teetering on the edge of an arroyo. I helped to survey and “clear” land for oil and gas development. So I quit.

For one week, I worked for a hoods-in-the-woods outfit. The kids were from New York, New Jersey, somewhere in California — wherever. Their skin was dark from the sun even though it was February and their hair was matted and sandy. They ate mushy ashcakes, having, as the name denotes, the texture and taste of wood charcoal. Some of the kids’ sooty faces were streaked with tears. Whether forced or by choice, they sat huddled in the big desert like a little clan, each of them to either confront or hide from their problems.What makes these people any different from other people out there (the money addicts, the war mongers, the political criminals), I wondered at the same moment that I knew I would not come back to this job once going home at the end of the week.

And so it was back to archaeology. Which tells me that maybe it was more the asshole boss that I worked for rather than my eviscerated ideals that led me to quit my earlier job. After all, I found myself in a different place with a different company doing the same work. At this point, my now six-year girlfriend and mother of our son (shall I say partner?) and I had been together for a couple of months, and we both took jobs with a small CRM company in Montrose, Colorado.

We backpacked and snowshoed in the San Juan Mountains, watched movies during the winter in Ouray and worked on archaeological surveys and excavations. They continually revealed the wisdom of living fully from one’s locale and the absurdity of our own lifestyles. Energy extraction drove archaeology. Our work took us to northeastern Colorado, near Craig, where a natural gas pipeline was tapping into the Piceance Basin, then being routed north into Wyoming, before funneling natural gas into eastern markets as far as Greeley, Colorado. Rumors circulated that the pipeline would eventually stretch across Kansas and link with Midwestern and Eastern markets. For over a month, we excavated a “basin house,” dating back several thousand years, and which was buried within a trench where a four-foot diameter natural gas pipeline was to be interred.

Sometimes we return to places like blood cells circulating through a body; other times, places become closed pathways barring us from returning no matter how hard we try to get back. I have never returned to Sequoia National Park and the Sierra Nevada, where I worked for six months when I was 21, even though pangs of nostalgia torment me year after year as plan after plan dies without a reunion with that place. But I was fortunate to get a chance to return to southeastern Utah — and damned lucky to work on an archaeological survey of Comb Ridge. It was another temporary job, another brief window into Nirvana. I spent day after day walking the desert, finding and recording archaeological sites, and no threat of development following my wake. It was, largely, archaeology for the sake of archaeology, and the project was lead by a local archaeologist who is incredibly wise.

Out of school for several years at this point, and having walked my share of deserts and mountains, I was nonetheless foolish enough to believe that I was properly de-educated and now ready to return to graduate school. I couldn’t decide on a handful of schools and disparate programs, and so I followed my girlfriend to Albuquerque, where she would seek to win a Master’s degree while I would dip my toes into the academic waters.

I vacillated between graduate coursework in archaeology and environmental history.  I strolled through the Sandia Mountains, the Pecos Wilderness, the Jemez Mountains, but mostly it was books and research papers. Except during the summers, when I worked on archaeology projects — projects associated with cattle grazing impacts on Forest Service land, projects at national monuments, where the mountains meet the plains, projects to recover archaeological information before roads and suburbs and strip malls expanded west of Albuquerque in Bernalillo. It was the same pattern: Each archaeological project revealed a people who lived close to the land and locale, and each project was tied to our own society’s attempt to squeeze from the land quick profits, whether through overgrazing, development or tourism. Not land as place, but land as resource and means to profit.

I now live outside of a very small town on Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. I am burdened by an unfinished Master’s thesis focusing on energy extraction, environmental change and local resistance within New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. My girlfriend (partner?) and I have a son who just turned one.  Juniper trees spread out as far as I can see, with ponderosa crowns jutting into the skyline on knolls or within well-watered drainages. I feel very far from what I sought when leaving my hometown more than seven years ago. I long to awaken in sight of the Wasatch Mountains’ ridgeline cutting though the sky, a pattern that I’ve committed to deep memory once again, despite the ugly development that fills the broad valleys below. I am looking for escape from the suffocatingly conservative rural politics of Arizona. I long to circle my way back home, and, yet, I also feel as though I have found exactly what I set out for some seven years ago — being swallowed whole by big nature — which still seems like the only worthwhile pursuit out there.

Andy Wakefield

Here we are
Hey man! We chose the mountains by default, though people find that hard to believe.

My partner and I got used to having all kinds of open space around us after years of living in a rented four-plex in south Boulder County. We called the place Frank’s Windy Acres and it was in the ranch country, just east of Bear and South Boulder peaks. Sure, it had a junk Cadillac, but the views were great!

Eventually, we wanted a place of our own, and gave Wheatridge and Golden a chance, but concluded neighborhoods, in the suburban sense of the word, felt constrictive. Our counseling business was in Lakewood and we searched in the hills within a halfway-reasonable driving distance. Nine months of searching (and looking at a lot of funky places in our price range), coupled with a measure of fate and a motivated seller, found us right next door to the new and yet-to-be-opened, Staunton State Park. We call our place the Treehouse. I’d rather be here, pulling thistle and toadflax, raising the skirts on our pine trees and stacking firewood than pushing a lawnmower in the ’burbs any day.

Kevin Bedard,
Pine, CO

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Mountain Scrapbook #179

MG accepts submissions for our monthly Mountain Scrapbook department. All mountain-related photos are welcome, the funnier, the better. Send submissions to keith@mountaingazette.com.

Each month, we pick a winning photo, and the winner receives a year subscription to the Mountain Gazette, along with a Gazette bumpersticker.