Letters #189

MG 189 Letters

Envelope: Klara Lapp, CO

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.

Uncle Big Bob

John: I happened across your Smoke Signals article about the Dillon Dam Brewery, “Big Bob and the Beer Math Saga” (MG #180). I really enjoyed reading this story, especially as it relates to Bob Kimble, who was my uncle. Today marks the one-year anniversary of his death, so I had decided to google his name. I landed on your article, and enjoyed reading a little more about him and his life. Thanks for a laugh on a day that I really needed it!

Sharon Wright
Birmingham AL

Forsooth, More Bowden

J.F.: Charles Bowden is sooo good, would love to see more and more from him. Also love your poetry section. Consistently good. Could you eke out more space for it??

Thanks!

Tomas!
Mob(not moab), UT

Colorado Songs #1

M. John: Regarding your Smoke Signals article, “Colorado Songs,” in Jan 2012 Mountain Gazette: You just HAVE to include “Wolf Creek Pass” by C.W. McCall!

Robert Stump 

Colorado Songs #2

Master Fayhee: A listener called me during my radio show last week to mention your article on Colorado songs and suggest the challenge of adding to your list.

I have done so and will be playing a set on air tomorrow, should you care to listen. I humbly will only make three additions, two of note.

Thanks for inspiring a quest.
Here is the playlist for that segment:
1. “Colorado”/Rebecca Zapen/Nest
2. “Colorado Girl”/Steve Earl /Townes
3. “My Secret Place”/Joni Mitchell & Peter Gabriel/Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm
4. “Me & That Train”/Patty Larkin/not sure of the CD … just downloaded it.

Lynette O’Kane,
Assistant Music Director
KDNK radio
Carbondale, CO

Colorado Songs #3

M. John: I’m a 77-year-old mountain dude who hitched from my hometown of Hannibal. Mo. in 1953 for a life in the mountains. I went to work for the Dercums at Ski Tip as a dishwasher, woodcutter and après-ski troubadour. After learning to ski at A-Basin, I taught there from ’54 to ’56, then at Loveland Basin and worked at the Alpine Inn in Georgetown where I was promoted  to pots and pans. I lived in the High Country up until moving to Grand Junction a few years ago. In between, I did some interesting things such as running the ski school in Telluride in the early ’70s, singing in several of the local watering places there and was the MC for the first official Telluride Bluegrass festival in ’74. I went to NYC during the “Great Folk Scare” of the ’60s [as U. Utah Phillips described it] and became well established enough that Dave Van Ronk called me “The best known of the least known.” The thrill of the city paled quickly and I came back to the mountains.

I have several albums of songs I’ve written since I returned to Colorado. Many of them have mentions of life in the High Country and the canyons, rivers and deserts of the great Southwest. Most recently, I did a music video called “Dancing Down the Mountains,” a song that I wrote last year. It has some cool footage, including me telemarking while playing my guitar. It answers your prerequisite of having Colorado in the lyrics. It has been out on youtube since last May and to date has had over 1,600 views. Not bad for a video about an old guy still skiing and singing. Check it out — it’s only 4 minutes and 27 seconds long so it won’t take much time out of your busy day and I really think you will enjoy it.

You can find all of my music on iTunes. Some other specific songs that I think would interest you are on my compilation CD, “Colorado Collection”:

• “Colorado Mountain Song,” which starts with the story of my hitching out West in ’53 and the joy of being here after I arrived.

• “The Ballad of Lady Silverheels.” A tale I know you know well.

• “Wild Stallion.” A song inspired by a dream I had about the life of an aging stallion on the Roan Plateau.

• “The Mountain Bike Song.” As Mark Twain might have said, “A good way to spoil a nice hike.”

There is a direct link to Dancing Down The Mountains on my website; www.johnwinnmusic.com or google it.

Your writing is a constant inspiration to me. Many thanks for all that interesting “palavering.”

John Winn

Colorado Songs #4

M. John: From a Rocky Mountain Parrot Head … written in 1980 by Jimmy Buffett: “Incommunicado.”

A verse in the song references Colorado:

“Now on the day that John Wayne Died

I found myself on the Continental Divide.

Tell me where do we go from here?

Think I’ll ride into Leadville,

And have a few beers.”

Tim Payne, Board Chairman,
Cañon City Recreation District.

Colorado Songs #5

Mr. Fayhee: I am disappointed that Merle Haggard got only a mention of his song titles and no lyrical interludes in “Colorado Songs.”

Ever since I heard “Colorado,” it has been one of my favorite songs, especially the chorus: “Have you ever been down to Colo-rado?/I spend a lot of time there in my mind/And if God doesn’t live in Colo-rado, I’ll bet that’s where he spends most of his time.” I once combined that with “Colorado Girl” as I approached Durango from the south on U.S. 550, after a long absence, and lost my mind listening on repeat as I stared down the early-autumn San Juans.

Another song, which you totally forgot to mention, and was on my play list, was Johnny Paycheck’s “Colorado Kool-Aid.” Technically about South Texas, the second stanza mentions one of Colorado’s most-notorious exports: “What’s Colorado Kool-Aid/Well it’s a can of Coors brewed from a mountain stream/It’ll set yer head on fire and make your kidneys scream/Ohhh It sure is fine/Yeah we was havin’ one of them real good times.”

Thanks for digging up all of those songs for those of us who spend a lot of time in Colorado, in our minds.

Adam Throckmorton

Colorado Songs #6

MJF: One of my favorite artists, Modest Mouse, sings appropriately in “Trucker’s Atlas” about unloading his head in CO and continues to rap a bit about other great states such as my home state of AK … although I am not sure if I got off Scot-fucking free. I have enjoyed this ditty whilst driving across the county many times, as I am sure many of your other readers have on road-trippin’ occasions. Take the time to enjoy the song at some point if you haven’t already. Thanks for the words.

Best regards,

Kenneth Rogowski

Colorado Songs #7

Hey, Fayhee: Loved the piece on Colorado Songs! It immediately brought back the lyrics and tune of “If I had a Wagon,” which most of us who were in grade school in Colorado in the late-’60s and early-’70s learned and sang with pride and gusto at our school performances. It goes: “If I had a wagon, I would go to Colorado/Go to Colorado/If I had a wagon, I would/If I had a wagon, I would go to the state/Where a man can walk a mile high … ”

And then it goes on to add verses about driving to Colorado in a Chevy, flying to Colorado in an airplane and landing in Colorado in a space ship (it was popular during the height of the space program), and ends with “having feet hike on, and it’s Pike Peak or Bust/Where America can learn again/Just like Colorado men/How to hold your head up high/Where a man can walk a mile high!”

It was recorded in 1967 by Up with People as part of the “Moral Re-Armament Show” and was written by DB Allen and JP Colwell. KHOW radio in Denver played it every Friday morning. Check out the video on YouTube. And I’m happy to report that some 4th graders in Colorado are still learning this song!

And we shouldn’t forget that Katharine Lee Bates, was so inspired after a trip to the top of Pikes Peak in 1893, that she penned the words to what is now “America the Beautiful.”

Write on, MJ!

Liane Mattson,
Paonia, CO

Colorado Songs #8

Hi John: I enjoyed your article in Smoke Signals on Colorado Songs and wanted to add one to your list. Richie Furay was the architect of country rock and also founding member of Poco, who still plays in Denver. The song, “You Better Think Twice,” mentions Colorado and our lovely mountains and is a very uplifting tune.

Thanks, peace,

Mark Besocke

Colorado Songs #9

John: In your article Colorado songs, you noted a couple of Dan Fogelberg’s numbers and that he wintered outside of Nederland in the ’70s. He later had a home in Durango. Thus the lyric, “I’m in Colorado, when I’m not in some hotel” from his hit, “Leader of the Band.” On “High Country Snows,” he also wrote an instrumental titled “Wolf Creek.” Finally, on his “Wild Places” CD, the song of the same name notes, “I was walking alone, through the lofty San Juans.”

Kevin Masters

Colorado Songs #10

John: I would prefer a good old-fashioned letter, but, alas, I am at work and only have time for a quick note. Have you ever heard of Tony Joe White? If not, then this is your lucky day. Look for an album called “Black and White.” You will be rewarded with not only a song about Aspen, Colorado, but with one about “Soul Franchise,” as well as a few other outstandingly awesome originals and a b-side of solid traditional covers. If for some weird reason you don’t like the music, you will at least get a kick out of the cover photo.

Cheers and keep up the good work.

Jim Martin

Colorado Songs #11

M. John: What about “Have You Been Down to Colorado” by the Bluegrass Cardinals? Good lyric: “If God doesn’t live in Colorado, he spends a lot of time there.” It’s on YouTube.

Gary Lewis

Colorado Songs #12

Hello to M. John Fayhee! A friend gave me the January issue of Mountain Gazette. This magazine was unknown to me, but Police Gazette came to mind and in thinking it may have inspired the former, I was intrigued. I was given this issue that I might find something of interest in your “Colorado Songs” article. So I might.

I must first say that posting your email at the start of said article and inviting comment shows you have guts. As you say, everyone will be outraged that you left out their favorite song. As for me, I feel your list is fairly complete. I was surprised that you gave mention to the lovely song, “Moonlight on the Colorado,” as sung by Chuck Pyle. I am fond of Mr. Pyle’s work, but feel the best recording of this song is by Liz Masterson and the late Sean Blackburn on their “Tune Wranglin’,” a study of Western Swing in the ’30s recorded in 1987.

There is one song you overlooked that I feel worthy of mention. It is a modification of the popular song, “Home on the Range.” It is a Colorado form of said song titled, “Colorado Home” and written by Bob Swartz and his friends in Leadville, circa 1885.

They made for a fun, rousing piece that I often play to crowds in Colorado. A more complete story of the song was written by my friend Ed Quillen in his Colorado Central Magazine. September 2007. http://cozine.com/2007-september/where-was-the-home-on-the-range/

So overall, you came up with a fine article. One you might consider presenting to the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. I think it might pique their interest. Regarding the Mountain Gazette at large, I found the overall articles engaging and fun. I look forward to seeing future editions now that I know of you. Thank you for your article on Colorado Songs.

Sincerely,

Rex Rideout

Aloha … Put Up Your Dukes!

Hello Editor: I recently read the unfortunate experiences of Craig Childs and JT Thomas while visiting lava flows in Hawaii (“Rumble in Hawai’i,” MG #187). I have also been the victim of this type of harassment while photographing at the Waikupanaha lava delta a few miles SW of Kalapana. From the description in the article, it sounds as if this same “gang” is responsible for both incidents.

In May 2009, a few friends and I made an early-morning adventure to the lava flowing into the ocean. Instead of walking the 4.5 hours or more from the Volcanoes Park to the lava delta, we poached the view by parking at a public viewing area near Kalapana. It was 1 a.m. or so, and to get to the lava, I confess that we passed a few government No Trespassing signs as we walked down the middle of the road toward the recent lava flows. Once on the flow, no property borders, forests or houses remain. All that is left is the undulating, cooled lava and the remains of concrete pillars, which were once the supports for a large gazebo situated near the sea cliff. Any form or indication of habitable private property has been erased by the new rock.

My friends and I spent the night shooting pictures and video. We even survived a massive lava bench collapse that threw incandescent bees and ash hundreds of feet into the air. As we were getting in position to photograph the lava with the sunrise, three strangers approached. The largest of the men, our “Big Guy,” was well over 200 pounds and stood at least 6 feet or more. He had a slightly olive complexion and short curly hair. He had no facial hair and his facial features and complexion made it obvious he was not 100-percent Hawaiian.

As the man (soon to be a goon) approached, he started asking us where our permits were and how the land (er, desolated lava) we were on was his friend’s and how he was going to contact the DLNR (the Division of Land and Natural Resource police). I asked the goon where HIS permit was, but he kept changing the subject back to us and his right to be there because the sea cliff was his friend’s property. He kept telling us to leave, but my friends and I held our ground. We offered to share our location for photography, but the goon continued to get into our faces as we tried to reason with him.

Unlike the article in Mountain Gazette, no physical violence occurred, but it was close. Fortunately, we had the power of numbers over the goon. I’m a lifelong hockey player used to taking on bullies, and one of my friends is a multi-disciplined, high-level martial artist. Our confidence and the number ratio kept the conflict from escalating. Although the goon had two accomplices, these smaller, and truly Hawaiian-looking, men were always in the background and didn’t seem to want to get involved. I got the impression that they were a bit embarrassed by their friend.

Eventually these men left us alone and we continued to take our pictures. After sunrise, we hiked back to the car where police from the DLNR were waiting. Their daily patrol, not contact from the lava enforcers, brought the DLNR to the parking lot. They took down our names and license numbers, gave us a stern warning and said that, if want to see the lava, then hike the long way from the park. (We most likely avoided a ticket/arrest since we were well prepared with, boots, backpacks, respirators, gloves, etc.).

I mentioned to the DLNR our confrontation with the men at the lava delta. We gave the police a full description of the lava enforcers, since it appeared they would be back for a truck left at the parking lot. I’m not sure what happened later, but I hope the goon and his friends paid for harassing us.

While most Hawaiians have no problem with respectful tourists, there are a few that I have encountered who feel the volcano is for Hawaiians only. They insist that their religion and belief in Pele gives them some special right over all other humans to get close to the lava. I’d imagine in the MG article that the Big Guy’s rant over taking pictures of his mother had something to do with taking pictures of Pele, and not the goon’s real, biological mother. Many Hawaiians also forget that the volcanoes were active long before their ancestors arrived on the Islands, and volcanism will continue long after the last humans are gone.

During our exchange, I mentioned that I’m from Colorado and that I welcome people from all over the world to view my backyard. I said that I don’t have any claim to the Mountains and why should he have claim to the volcano? We are all tourists on the planet, and actions like his will only frighten away other cash-wielding visitors to the Big Island.

Please Check out: www.youtube.com/gravitydude99 for a collection of videos and clips from my volcano adventures. www.gravitydude.daportfolio.com has my stills.

Robert Shepherd

Wheat Ridge, CO

PolySci at 12,000 Feet

Mr. Fayhee: My first letter to your publication. Feel ever free to edit liberally. I always manage to miss the submission deadline for poetry, for your Rivers issue and photos of The Best Dog on the Planet (who is named Dylan and is Hopi, born in Tuba City to the Rez Dog clan, for the Rescue Dog clan) for your Mountain Dogs issue. But something happened yesterday that warrants recording in some public venue, and since I’m sitting beside the Dolores River in the foothills of our beloved San Juans, and the story took place on the Continental Divide at Monarch Mountain Ski Area, your mag comes most to mind.

There was a contingent of soldiers at Monarch this week. I showed up on a Friday, day-six in a row tele-skiing five different areas in a last hurrah with my Monarch pass. The mountain was bedecked in desert-camo fatigues, which I took notice of before I’d even leashed my skis, being newly not-quite-single-it’s-complicated. The kid soldiers on the slopes had minimal cause to shave yet, which was heartbreaking. The guys in the lodge were older — thinning hair, some graying — and wore more of a “been-there, done-that” look, and I’m sure they had been, and had done.

I hadn’t talked much to anyone all week, riding chairs by myself, masticating on life and love. This day I wanted intel. I have a dear friend in the Special Forces who had been deployed to Afghanistan at the age of 50, just after 9-11. I learned from him only weeks after that invasion that not only was an attack on Iraq in the works, but that SpecOps was already there. Inconceivable — what the hell did Iraq have to do with anything? A few months ago, an Iranian handyman named Farhad was building me a new deck. His father was secret service for the Shah before the revolution, and every male in his family had been beheaded. Farhad himself had escaped as a teenager through the snowy mountains of Iran, found asylum in Japan and then America, and will soon have U.S. citizenship. He told me back in December that the reason Obama pulled the U.S. troops out of Iraq early was to have them available for the planned invasion of Iran. What? Three months ago this sounded ridiculous. Now, not so much. A lot of saber rattling lately.

From quizzing my civilian chairmates, I quickly learned the skiing soldiers were army, made up of units from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, and were on the mountain for “winter conditions training.” I did not get into geopolitical discussions of why this was ominous until I rode up with a 65-year-old retired CSU professor who was also a Vietnam vet. I told him that he certainly had earned the right to voice whatever he thought about a potential U.S. invasion of Iran, and he chuckled a little, “yeah, I do get to have a kind of street cred on this one.” We pretty much finished each other’s sentences about why Iraq and why Iran, and the last word was habitually “oil.”

The next chair I shared with a third-year polysci student from Florida, out on spring break. His university-version of upcoming events was analytical, but surprisingly inevitable. At 20 or 21 years old, he’d been a kid when the towers came down, and he was not so much callous as cavalier about the need for us to invade yet another Middle-East country. He guessed that Israel would strike first and we’d have to go in to clean up the mess. But he was certain from his university-led discussions that the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan had not been learned, that the U.S. was still hopelessly naïve about what comes after the invasion, and that it was a shame what would happen to these guys in camo fatigues skiing here today.

Which brings me to an aside: desert camo fatigues in the snow? Really? Please tell me that our guys and girls in the Hindu Kush are not wearing desert camo. Reminds me of the jungle camo worn by the soldiers on the spaceship in “Aliens.” Jungle camo in outer space — really?

Eventually, I rode up with a young volunteer, in his desert camo fatigues, nary a facial hair yet sprouted. So polite, and willing enough to answer my open-ended questions. He talked about how hard it was on the lungs at 12,000 feet, coming from sea level, that he’d never seen snow in his life until yesterday, and how it was important to learn to snowshoe and set up camp in the cold. He said, “Well, we went into Iraq because we thought there were weapons of mass destruction. Turns out we were wrong, but this time we KNOW there are, so we have to go take care of them.” Lord, I wanted to hug the kid and say — no, not “thank you for your service,” but “sweetheart, please be here next year.”

A couple evenings before this, my 12-year-old god-daughter in Avon had been working on a homework assignment on the Iraq war. “We went to war with Iraq because Saddham Hussein threatened President Bush’s dad, right?” I held my tongue and my breath until her mom — a nurse in her late50s with street cred similar to the Vietnam vet’s — answered, “We went into Iraq because of oil, Emma.”

“Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?

… Oh when will we ever learn?

Oh when will we ever learn?”

Here’s to the young soldiers whooping it up at Monarch Mountain in March 2012. I hope to God you’re back next year, and I’ll buy you a beer, if you’re old enough to drink by then.

Suzanne Motsinger
Flagstaff, Arizona

Remembering Cal Glover

Dear John Fayhee: My husband and I have been traveling to Teton Valley for the past seven years. We were drawn to the area because of my husband’s friendship with Cal Glover. They were both in high school together, specifically in the same German class —  Cal would introduce us to all his friends out west in German, quickly adding that they met way back when in Ft. Lauderdale High School, but Bob went north to Massachusetts and he jumped on his motor cycle to head West as a young man of 18 to Yellowstone. If you know Cal, you can just picture him saying this, and in the same breath asking “Where you all from?” and maybe even adding a story or two. His passing was a sad shock to us. Our visit there in February was difficult but glad to be able to see Kim Carlson, his widow, and offer our sympathy to her in person. Reading the Teton Valley newspaper, I saw your notice/website about his writings from past issues and the most recent story about his dog, Toby. I just wanted to tell you it was a fitting tribute to Cal and we so appreciated seeing his collective writing in print.

Thank you for honoring his life by his stories

Celeste Wilcoxson

Pro-‘Arrested Development’

Hi John ! Recently I spent 10 days in beautiful Southern Colo. Stayed a few days in Durango, a few in Pagosa Spgs. Ski’d both & totally enjoyed myself & the wonderful San Juan Mtns! I happened to pick up a copy of Mountain Gazette No.186 and enjoyed several interesting & well written articles. My Favorite was your piece: Smoke Signals — “Arrested Development.”

I can’t tell you how Very Similar we are in our feelings regarding law enforcement and especially the Border Patrol. I won’t go in to all the details, but needless to say, you and I share a lot of common feelings and have had many very similar experiences. Interestingly, pretty much all of my friends feel the same.

I have lived in southern AZ (Tucson) for 40 years, and in the last few years, the Border (where I used to trek and explore backcountry and camp a lot!) has been ruined by BP! There are so many things wrong with this. Your article covered nearly all issues, very well. Additionally, I will add that gun trafficking Into Mexico has been enabled by “border police.” (I forget the name of the incident, but it was in the news). Also, the most horrendous murdering along the border was actually done by that deranged Minuteman (Anglo) crew that broke in and killed that family down in Arivaca.

I am much more nervous & afraid of meeting BP than I am the occasional “illegal(s)” along trails or backcountry roads.

Thank you for your writing and your work putting out a top-notch publication.

Peter Ianchiou

Anti-‘Arrested Development’

Sir: Had to respond to the “Arrested Development” column in Gazette 186. Wow. I mean … wow. I guess nobody likes to give up their freedom unnecessarily, but really …
Let’s see: You admit to disliking law enforcement even as a kid because you engaged in “recreational windshield smashing” and they presumably stopped you. Not a single word about how the folks whose windshields you smashed felt about it. I suppose now if some young punk does some recreational windshield smashing on your personal vehicle, you wouldn’t have anything to say about it, right? Since any kind of infringement on a kid’s desire to wantonly destroy other people’s property is just, like, the man being all heavy and stuff.

But, okay, what you did as a kid was totally cool, and nobody should push you around and tell you to stop destroying other people’s things. Hmmm. But then you get your panties in a twist about living in an area with lots of drug smuggling going on, and having to be waved through checkpoints. I had to reread the piece just to be sure I understood. You object to being waved through checkpoints, or, at the absolute most, having to answer the simple question “Are you an American citizen?” This you equate with living in “police state.”

Deep breath.

Would you like to know what it’s actually like to live in a police state? The cops don’t just wave you through a checkpoint. They stop you and demand money. Or they haul you off to pokey. Then they demand money. And that’s if you’re a white American, ergo privileged. If you’re a local, it can be much worse. They are most definitely not “courteous and professional.” And Lord help you if you write a public column, or even private letter, describing them as “zygotes” or “midgets.”

I might agree with the all-cops-are-pigs line if you could describe behavior like, oh, a dirty cop who breaks taillights like some redneck Southern sheriff from the ’50s. Then you might have a point in your screed. But as you say repeatedly in your column, the police you by your own admission were “messing with” were nothing if not courteous.
When folks treat you respectfully it behooves you to return the favor. If you want to carry a chip the size of Texas on your shoulder, well, that’s your right. But while you do it, you ought to be da** glad you’re living in America and not an actual police state. I thought the Mountain Gazette was a fun, funky, independent paper. This one column just made me a future non-reader.

Sincerely,

Lawrence Pearlman

Pro-‘Arrested Development’

Dear Mr. Fayhee: Like many of your other works, “Arrested Development” packs a punch with refreshing lack of inhibition, factual accuracy and entertaining prose. While I largely agree with your portrayal of modern law enforcement, I submit that the problem is much worse in scope and severity than unpleasant traffic stops and intrusive questioning by “pimply faced” tweenie cops near the Mexican border.

From forest rangers issuing parking tickets at trailheads to TSA strip searches at the airport, the number and variety of uniform-wearing, gun-toting agents of the law is at an all-time high. In spite of state and federal budget crises, there’s seemingly no lack of money to wage war, abroad or domestically. But our military-like buildup is not limited to our Southern border. For example, that notorious hotbed of crime and illegal immigration, Fargo, North Dakota, recently acquired bomb-detection robots, digital combat communications equipment, Kevlar helmets and a $265,643 armored truck with a rotating turret. Google it if you dare. At roughly 100,000 Fargoan souls, that’s $2.65 for every man, woman and child spent on one police truck. Sure, it comes with a gun turret, but, aside from Fourth of July parades, what the hell are they going to do with it in Fargo? This isolated example is representative of a nationwide trend. If this stuff can happen in Fargo, well, so go Billings, Boise and Bend.

Though I might sleep easier knowing that the streets of Fargo are safe from wayward Canucks, I’m deeply concerned about America’s troop withdrawal from two wars. While the thousands of returning combat soldiers have honorably served our country, they are going to be largely unemployed and possessing of a skill set centering around warfare. Because we’ve been an occupying force in Iraq and Afghanistan the past 20 years, today’s soldier is also highly trained in traditional police functions including detective work, interrogation techniques, crowd control and arrests. Thus, since 9/11, cops have been trained & armed like soldiers and soldiers like cops, and it’s a safe bet that many returning vets will seek a career in law enforcement.

As for the mushrooming police population, consider it a federal jobs program like the CCC of the 1930s, but with PTSD thrown in. I say this with no disrespect, but out of common sense and legitimate concern. I’m sure that some of these men and women will make fine police officers. Many, however, will have not only discharged their weapon in the line of duty, but taken human life in combat. On the other hand, very few cops ever discharge their guns directly at another human being while on the job, let alone actually shoot and kill one. The prospect of a new generation of hardened combat vets filling our swelling police ranks should concern us all.

On a more mundane level, the very nature of police work has changed radically in the past 20 years, and for the worse. Increasingly detached from the people they supposedly protect, cops no longer help old ladies navigate crosswalks, drive Otis to the Mayberry jail to sleep off another bender or even perform basic crime-solving. Such fuzzy-bear love is a waste of good money. Police cruisers are now profit centers on wheels whose captains are expected to meet predetermined quotas of money that is poured back into the system in a self-perpetuating cycle.

Though your editorial is limited to encounters with cops, most people who don’t work in or around the legal system typically don’t appreciate the fact that cops are but robotic minions to the Darth Vader of law enforcement, prosecutors. These hyper-religious, politically motivated, self-righteous, suit-wearing, briefcase-toting, demigods, who are promoted on the basis of successful and high-profile convictions regardless of truth or justice, have been given god-like power by the United States Supreme Court in the form of “prosecutorial immunity” for all deeds and misdeeds committed in the course and scope of employment. Completely immune from their often-miscreant behavior, prosecutors answer to absolutely no man and certainly not the people they purportedly serve.

The methods by which prosecutors do evil include the obfuscation, distortion and, if all else fails, complete fabrication of the facts, suppression of evidence, lying, engaging in nefarious legal tactics, advancing absurd interpretations of the law and basically doing most anything to obtain a conviction upon which their financial, social and political lives depend. To make matters worse, the vast majority of prosecutors are non-elected, government employees, no different than a city building inspector, but with the power to destroy another’s life. Prosecutors’ actions are all too often motivated by their religious beliefs, personal agendas and the delusional belief that they have the omniscience of god. But absolute power combined with absolute immunity will corrupt any human.

Unfortunately, your statement that we are declining into a “police state” is a fait accompli. Good luck to us all.

Brad Purdy,
Boise, ID

Mountain Media #189

Podcast: The Enormocast by Chris Kalous

Chris Kalous

Whether it’s around the campfire or in front of a computer, it’s a known fact that climbers love to talk about climbing. But with all the internet forum banter and three-minute video edits, it’s rare to hear an in-depth conversation on climbing issues and stories from an authentic, engaging and approachable perspective. Enter The Enormocast, which is the brainchild of writer and climber Chris Kalous. Kalous has been immersed in the climbing life for a long time and has climbed all over the world and throughout the Intermountain West, spending a lot of time in the Utah desert and Yosemite Valley.

The Enormocast is at its heart an informal discussion of climbing issues with the more interesting movers-and-shakers in the climbing community. The guest list has included some people who need no introduction to climbers, such as Kelly Cordes and Steph Davis, and other more undercover characters such as Sam Lightner Jr. and BJ Sbarra. Although he is certainly an opinionated host, Kalous’ gracious and genuinely funny nature keep the show light and the conversation engaging. Chris manages to navigate complex issues such as the cleaning of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre or the evolving climate of land access in Southern Utah by both choosing guests who are intimately familiar with the issues (such as Hayden Kennedy and the above-referenced Sam Lightner Jr., respectively) and drawing upon his wealth of experiences as a perceptive and well-traveled climber. The fact that beers are usually being consumed by the host and interviewee goes a long way to bring a conversational tone to issues that could get a bogged down in policy and precedent. And at the end of the day, Chris manages to remember that no matter how much we love it, “It” is just rock climbing. Enormocast.com

— Rob Duncan

Magazines: Ascent 2012

Ascent Cover

It might seem strange to review a magazine in another magazine, but Ascent 2012 is less of a magazine and more of a literary journal meets coffee table book — the kind of glossy, high-quality publication that, after you’ve read it through, ends up on your bookshelf and not in your recycling bin.

Originally published by the Sierra Club and edited by Allen Steck and Steve Roper (also authors of the legendary “50 Classic Climbs of North America”), Ascent debuted in 1967 as a visionary climbing journal intent on publishing the sport’s best stories and most vivid images. It accomplished its mission, going on to become the longest-running climbing publication ever, but after 14 issues published sporadically over 32 years, Ascent folded in 1999. After a trial comeback in 2011, Rock and Ice magazine acquired Ascent and has since revived it into an annual publication, rife with the stunning images and beautiful stories that its originators intended.

Ascent contains what most of us truly desire in a climbing publication — incredible, inspiring images and large blocks of eloquent, uninterrupted text. From Allen Steck’s detailed account of biking and climbing through post-WWII Europe to Renan Ozturk’s chronicle of recovering from a near-death ski accident to make the first ascent of Peru’s Sharks Fin, the magazine’s stories and photos encapsulate the beautiful diversity of the sport. Ascent’s pages span both generations and disciplines, but the sum is simply a keepsake collection of adventurous, inspiring and often hilarious tales from lives defined by climbing. $12.99, RockandIce.com

— AA

Books: “Maple Canyon Rock Climbing,” by Darren Knezek and Christian Knight

Maple Canyon Guide

A climbing guidebook exists to serve two key functions — to provide essential information about a climbing area and its routes, and to get the reader PSYCHED. “Maple Canyon Rock Climbing,” a new full-color guide to one of Utah’s most-popular areas, fulfills both requirements and beyond.

Tucked into an inconspicuous mountainside in the middle of central Utah farm country, Maple Canyon has grown from an obscure, chossy backwater crag to one of the top summer sport climbing destinations in the West. The cliffs, comprised of thousands and thousands of rounded cobbles glued together with sedimentary rock, makes for some of the most unique climbing around. It’s often hard to tell what kind of hold a cobble will provide until you actually touch it, making the routes there notoriously pumpy and hard to read. The book also covers a host of routes in the surrounding areas outside of the canyon proper for those looking for some added variety. Written by local and active route developers, the book features loads of route information, awesome photos and pertinent area history.

After nearly 12 years without an up-to-date guidebook, this cobble-choked canyon’s popular documented crags have become crowded and overrun, while the numerous unpublished walls often see only a handful of climbers on a busy weekend. While a flashy new guidebook can tend to increase traffic to an area, perhaps this one will serve to redistribute climbers around the canyon’s hundreds of fun, challenging and previously unknown routes. $29.95, maplecanyonclimbing.com

— AA 

See the latest Mountain Media from issue #190!

Ridin’ the Rhythm Rails

Blues Train

“Now I’ve got nothing but the whistle and the steam, my baby’s leaving town on the 2:19.”

— Tom Waits

From the time the big iron wheels first started their screech down the tracks, people figured out a way to hitch a ride on trains, creating a distinctive rail culture. During the Great Depression, when money and work were impossibly scarce, kids would jump on the rails to go pick fruit and produce wherever laborers were needed. Music was spontaneously a part of that transient lifestyle for entertainment, communication and camaraderie in clustered gatherings around campfires and boxcars with harmonica, banjo or a little guitar.

Russ Lallier of Gunnison, Colorado, a train hobbyist, historian and videographer of three documentaries about regional rail history (youtube Russy Baby, or russybaby.weebly.com), all of which feature the music of Drew Emmitt (drewemmitt.com), tells that music was always part of train culture.

“When trains were first coming out, there were tons of songs written by the old wagon-train haulers, known as wagoners or freighters, and riverboat sailors on the Erie Canal,” which were the FedEx of the old days, Lallier says.

The rivalry and angst ensued because the newfangled trains were obviously a threat to their livelihoods and so inspired many protest songs.

“Steam was the devil to the canal men and haulers,” according to Lallier.

As trains rumbled through the years, their lore became captured in musical ballads, from spectacular wrecks to affection for the locomotives. To some, trains were merely transportation, but to those singing the blues, the train was rambling down that track carrying somebody’s baby who just done left them on that southbound train.

Fast track on down the line where Casey Jones needs to watch his speed, Johnny Cash is listening to the lonesome whistle blow just outside his accommodations at Folsom Prison, the Marshall Tucker boys are rocking a southbound all the way to Georgia, and you’ll find that modern mountain railroads have discovered the perfect blend of marrying music, splendorous viewscapes and, yes, halleluiah, brews.

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad has been in continuous operation for over 130 years (durangotrain.com). Teaming up with Durango’s Bluegrass Meltdown event in late April this year, the ride up to Cascade Canyon featured The Freight Hoppers (freighthoppers.com) and Jeff Scroggins & Colorado (jeffscrogginsandcolorado.com) playing in different cars while people strolled through chugging libations. Reaching altitude, they were then treated to a 45-minute layover concert and a blazing fire at the Canyon’s pavilion.

Telluride Blues and Brews Festival also joined up for the three-hour tour and wildly successful second-annual Durango Blues Train on June 2. More powerful than a coal-fired, steam-powered locomotive rhythmically clacking down the tracks was the soulful groove of Erik Boa and the Constrictors, The Sugar Thieves, Robby Overfield, Big Jim Adam and John Stilwagen, Alex Maryol, Donny Morales and Todd and the Fox.

If your tastes run true West, you can hop aboard the Cowboy Poet Train this October 5 and experience the traditional music of cowboys, along with their tall tales as the railway has pardner’d  with the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering taking place that same week.

Blues Train singer

Jumping tracks over to Alamosa is where the Rio Grande Railroad (riograndescenicrailroad.com) rattles up La Veta Pass to their Summer Mountaintop Concert Series, all of which are powered by wind and solar energy, and which include a lot of regional brews. This month features concerts by Michael Martin Murphey with The Rifters (June 16 and 17), The Rifters with Chuck Pyle (June 22-24), Special Consensus with Anne Hills (June 29-July1) and more top-notch music weekly throughout the summer (check out the website for all the acts, bios, and dates).

Rails and Ales is a perfect hoedown for a good high-altitude buzz with a brew fest of more than 20 regional beer makers, and it cranks out the live music on a boxcar stage in a mountain meadow on June 23.

The symbiosis of song and track is something rail riders and musicians have realized for a long time, whether it’s like a lullaby or a train wreck rock finale. Paul Simon once said, “There’s something about the sound of a train that’s very romantic and nostalgic and hopeful.” Don’t miss the train.

Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer and vocalist living in Crested Butte and working in Boulder. She just left on the 2:19. dbelloise@gmail.com 

Blaze of Glory

Rectory Tower

Author’s note: Climber/Photographer Dave Montgomery of Morrison, CO, had this to say about his photo, to which there is nothing to add. “I took [the photo] with a piece-of-crap 4 megapixel point and shoot after raping off of Castleton Tower. I looked over at the Rectory and the lighting was just stunning! I guess it doesn’t matter what kind of camera you have, just gotta be in the right place at the right time. To top it off, my buddy had a lukewarm PBR in his pack!”

At least half of the following is God’s honest truth. I have been diligently pursuing the details of this adventure for two years and was finally rewarded after filling one of the participants with my home-brewed lager a few weeks ago. The names of those involved have not been changed to obscure their identities, as they fear no one.

Located just to the north of Moab, the crumbling rock towers of Utah’s Castle Valley stand broken and forlorn, ancient guardians of time itself. The routes up the fantastic sun-blasted sheer ruby shards of sandstone make this a destination for climbers from around the globe. Traveling through the valley is like having a vivid daydream of exploring some forgotten canyon system on the face of Mars.

Located within the dream is a structure known as “The Rectory” (far left in the photo above). It was on top of this floating sky-island in 1990 (am I the only one who looks at this terrain and thinks of the psychedelic mindscapes created by Roger Dean for the albums released by the band “Yes” in the ’70s?), that a production team chose to desecrate, err, utilize for the filming of the music video to the soundtrack for the movie, “Young Guns II”, and Jon Bon Jovi hit single, “Blaze of Glory”. Even non-climbers may recall the scene, a forgotten ’50s-era drive-in movie theater set upon on a patch of floating desert, crooked stands for the PA system scattered amongst the boulders and wrecks of old cars hoisted by helicopter to the top.

Amidst this faded scene of epic Americana stands Jon Bon Jovi with flowing locks, bone necklace over bare chest and leather pants so tight he had no trouble hitting the high notes, bravely belting out his tune to the setting sun. (Can I get a little “hell yeah!” right here?) It was this location that an associate of mine chose for an epic party of his own. Invitations were sent, and along with time and place, instructions were given to each party for supplies that must be brought along, and up, the 400-foot ascent to the top. For the overnight stay, bags of ice, bundles of firewood, a grill, water, fresh food, dogs, a stereo, several kegs of beer and someone’s non-climbing girlfriend had to be accounted for. No means for the delivery of these items was suggested, with their presence simply dictated as ticket to the party. The details of the “hoist”, as it has become known, could fill this volume, so suffice it to say that the mission was accomplished and a large party began, one fit for the heroic nature of the place, and the time.

Recollections vary, but by some accounts, the kegs chosen for the evening may have been filled with several of the following brews. An obvious choice would have been Durango Brewing Co.’s D-Wheat (Durango Wheat). This locals’ favorite is light and refreshing, enjoyable both by the pint and the gallon. Another strong contender, though perhaps not available at the time of the climb several years ago, is Ska Brewing Co.’s Mexican Logger. If you have not tried this, better grab a sixer and kiss the clear-bottled piss from south of the border farewell. All of what you love about a fresh Mexican lager beer is contained in these cans, with none of the foul skunk flavors, nor pretence of being mysterious and “the most interesting beer in the world”. If not this beer, then smart money would rest on the Colorado Kolsch from Steamworks Brewing Co. With the finest labeling of any beer in a can anywhere (the Colorado flag *prominently* adorns the front), Steamworks Kolsch is the perfect substitute for the flavorless cans of macro-filth that one might otherwise choose to waste their money on. But for the coup-de-grace, for a beverage so rare and extraordinary as to match the nature of the revelry described above, one must assume that a barrel of the Celebrated Raspberry Wheat from Carver Brewing Co. would have been called for by name. Pink as the satin panties that your high school girlfriend wore, this nectar of the gods has been known to cause strong men from Texas to burst into spontaneous song, and bring tears of joy to the bravest of women. Yes, my money is on the “pink” for keg #2.

As for the party? Apparently, the “amount of firewood needed” calculation had been low, so in a fit of recycling hubris, vast quantities of the timbers (aka, garbage) that had been left behind from the filming of the video in 1990 were added to the flames, in whose blaze of glory the climbers howled and danced under the bright desert light of the full moon.

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO, and would love to hear from you: beer@mountaingazette.com 

A Climbing Guide To The University of Wyoming

Climbing Guide

Editor’s note: In the very first line of  “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas,” author Rebecca Solnit writes: “Every place deserves an atlas, an atlas is at least as implicit in every place, and to say that is to ask first of all what a place is.” That “Infinite City” (University of California Press: 2010) happens to be about San Francisco stems mostly from the fact that Solnit herself is a San Francisco native and resident.

According to the book’s acknowledgement section, the project began when Solnit, author of, among many others, of “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” and “Wanderlust: A History of Walking,” was asked by the public relations curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to propose a project for the museum’s 75th anniversary. She proposed an atlas.

But not just any atlas: One of the best and most-original atlases conceived and produced in the last century. (And please understand that statement comes from a fairly serious atlas-o-phile/collector.) Better, even: an atlas concept that, true to her opening sentence (as well as true to Solnit’s peculiar way of looking at the world), can be translated to almost any city on earth.

Verily, ever since “Infinite City,” hit the streets, Solnit has been visiting other cities — such as Tucson, New Orleans and Dublin, Ireland — helping resident artists, writers, historians and cartographers conceive and execute their own local versions of “Infinite City.”

One of those cities was, of all places, Laramie. When Solnit took a month-long gig as an eminent writer-in-residence at University of Wyoming in February 2011, her plan was to see if her “Infinite City” model would work in a smaller town in the heartland. Long story short, the end result of the experiment was “Laramie: A Gem City Atlas,” which, while it has not taken mass-circulation book form, was turned into a display at the University of Wyoming Art Museum. It has also been displayed at the California Institute of Integral Studies and will be at the Seed Gallery, Thoreau Center for Sustainability, at the Presidio in San Francisco through June 8.

The “Gem City Atlas,” like “Infinite City” before it, contains a wide array of stunningly original maps and accompanying essays. Included in the Laramie atlas are maps covering everything from “Ghosts and Cottonwoods” to “Saloons and Salons” to, for our purposes here,  “Quarries and Climbing,” reproduced above.

The following story, with its included artwork, stems from Solnit’s efforts/influence in Laramie. Author Paula Wright, a creative writing student at UW, took Solnit’s seminar and opted to combine her love of climbing with her love of local history. The result was “A Climber’s Guide to the University of Wyoming,” a story that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Please go to www.terrain.org/articles/29/kelley.htm for more information on the “Gem City Atlas” project.

— MJF

Warning: climbing is a dangerous sport in which death or serious injury may occur. This guide is intended for archival purposes only. The University of Wyoming prohibits climbing on campus buildings and has not endorsed the distribution of this information.

Natural rocks, unnatural places

In local climbing lore, legend persists of the Vedauwoo hermit, who resided among the lichen-speckled granite domes for several summers in the late-1940s or early-1950s. The hermit likely made first ascents of many faces and cracks in the rocks without documenting the dates, difficulty or names of his new routes. In summertime, the air of Vedauwoo is dry, warm and fragrant with sage and juniper. Scrambling around the mounds of rust-colored boulders, the Vedauwoo hermit would have encountered the same water-carved pools teeming with algae and swimming insects that I’ve seen, or climbed through the narrow, dark alleys I have.

Documented climbing in the Laramie area began with members of the 10th Mountain Division’s return from World War II to the University of Wyoming. At Vedauwoo and in the Snowy Range, climbing continued to evolve, as the University Outing Club explored and made the first recorded ascents, as opposed to those unrecorded by the Vedauwoo hermit, of the regional rock faces. Students in the club also opened up the University of Wyoming campus to climbing when they noticed the features of the buildings’ sandstone façades.

Viewing campus with an eye for climbing may turn buildings into vertical structures without an internal use — the summits of the Classroom Building and Half Acre become mountaintops, the Physical Sciences Building and the Union become cliffs. One would assume that building climbing, or buildering, would feel sterile, artificial, as opposed to the “freedom of the hills” offered by mountains and granite domes. But, as I imagine traversing my way across the walls of the Classroom Building, hand over hand, I think of the life held inside this new rock. I picture the students roaming the halls inside as I climb past, I think of traversing above the room where I taught my first class of Freshman Composition, and the nervous energy that perhaps another teacher is emitting now. I imagine ascending the walls that enclose the Classroom Building’s coffee shop, where, although someone may be whipping up a delicious cinnamon-honey latte, the café always smells of cheap hamburgers and fried onions.

The chiseled sandstone features lining campus buildings have been drawing students out of the dorms and lecture halls for decades, whether during warm spells of the spring semester, or in the early days of Laramie’s short-lived fall. An early University of Wyoming architect noted that the campus is one in which “broken perpendicular lines predominate, and the whole gives an impression of mass, suggestive of the natural rock and cliff formations of the area.” As the first cluster of deciduous trees was planted in the plains surrounding campus around its inception in 1886, so too were these new, artificial cliffs in the form of Old Main and the Sciences Building erected. Nature was quarried, tamed and re-imagined as the University campus. Most of the stone now seen covering the campus buildings came from a quarry located about ten miles northeast of town. The sandstone is a dusky, tan and rose — a few shades lighter than the rough crystals of Sherman granite that make up Vedauwoo’s domes 20 miles east of town.

West of Laramie, in the Medicine Bow Mountains, the University architects’ intent for campus to reflect the natural features surrounding it has not been overlooked. Wyoming climbing legend and Snowy Range guidebook author Ray Jacquot informs me that many of the formations of the Snowies were named by Walt Sticker between 1948 and 1954 or thereabouts. In the mountains, the quartzite slabs of the “Old Main” formation rest above Mirror Lake. The “University Avenue Traverse,” according to Jacquot’s guidebook, is a fourth-class climb that follows a “brown diabase rock rib which horizontally splits the face from Old Main to First Street.”

Degrees of difficulty and desire

In the route descriptions of this guidebook, I attempt to provide a sketch of each climb’s character and difficulty of ascent. Since I have not attempted all the climbs myself, I consulted with fellow area climbers in order to determine the route grades using the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). This system is common throughout climbing ratings in the United States and signifies ascent difficulty from class 1 (hiking along a trail) to class 5 (technical climbing). Once in class-5 territory, the grade further breaks down into levels from 5.0 to 5.15 (and counting); a grade of 5.0-5.7 is typically considered easy, 5.8-5.11 intermediate and over 5.12 advanced.

For some, a vast majority of climbing’s appeal comes from the climber’s knowledge of the grading system and of completing routes at higher levels. My climbing partner Brian described it well when he linked the drive to climb to the desire to “defeat the former self” — to know that your technique, strength and mentality have improved from season to season. While some may fashion climbing as a competition with nature, others see it as a competition that comes from within.

This desire for difficulty may seem like an arbitrary goal in which one solely aspires to improve along a numbered system; even so, some climbers have spent years trying to take their sport to the next level. A 2010 Sender Films production featuring two young boulderers trying to take their sport “to the next level” shows them rehearsing the same crux moves — involving sometimes no more than six feet of rock face — for over a year. Their reason for doing so becomes a mantra throughout the film — “to add something to climbing,” as one would “add to” the fields of physics, geology or other disciplines built up through an accumulation of knowledge and practice over time.

Perhaps another reason why climbers delight in their sport has something to do with humans’ common ancestry to chimpanzees. Animal biologists have documented these apes in the wild climbing trees, not to feed or nest, but for fun. Knowing myself the sheer joy of climbing — of moving vertically over obstacles, sometimes with my heel hooking around an arête while I swing myself up the rock, or by using my knee as a stopper in a crack so I can rest, hands-free, 100 feet off the ground — I take comfort in knowing that another species shares in this pleasure.

Select Climbing Routes at the University of Wyoming 

1. Half Acre Traverse: Start in southeast facing corner and traverse around to the lamppost nearest the entryway; 5.9, 1 pitch, 50 feet. 

Half Acre

Climbing on campus most likely started with the Half Acre traverse: a fairly low-commitment route in which the climber moves horizontally across the wall just a few feet above ground. A sloped sandstone ledge used to wrap its way around the entire building, and above and below the ledge, the building walls were all made of cut sandstone. Renovations to Half Acre Gymnasium have eliminated portions of the original traverse route, thus modifying the character and difficulty of the climb over the past fifty years.

While the desire to scale heights of constructed brick and mortar, sandstone and concrete may seem like an odd pursuit, it came quite naturally to the early campus climbers. When I interviewed Ray Jacquot, one of these early building climbers, he said, at the time, the decision to climb on campus structures was not at all strange — just the result of “a bunch of kids with spare time on their hands.” Jacquot told of how, back in the late-1950s, climbers would find themselves having dinner at the Knight Hall cafeteria and, on the way to the library for the evening, they would stop by to do a few laps of the Half Acre Traverse. When I ask where the idea to climb the buildings came from, Jacquot responds, “I think it was just something we made up.”

Jacquot reveals that, around campus, “anywhere there [was] natural rock … was attractive” for climbers. The locally quarried stones that were used to construct campus buildings (until the early-1990s) contain features one could expect to encounter while climbing anywhere in the natural world. The rose-colored sandstone bricks were cut, when the quarry was still active, just up the road on north 9th Street, in the building that currently houses Heather Plumbing and Heating. The stones were saw-cut on five sides, but the exposed face of the stone had to be chiseled to give the completed façade an evenly cragged look.

The Half Acre Traverse is also where the accomplished climber and area developer Davin Bagdonas got his start climbing. While he was a student at the UW Lab School, the gym teacher encouraged students to get out and try buildering on the face of Half Acre just across from the main entrance doors. This recess pastime continued until Davin and his friend were featured in a photo in the Laramie Daily Boomerang, the local newspaper, with the caption “Local kids climb Half Acre up to window of women’s aerobics class.” Though the caption was a joke, it incited the wrath of the then-principal, and Lab School students were no longer encouraged, yet alone allowed, to climb campus buildings. The photographer was probably not aware of it at the time, but capturing this small moment played a role in the tradition of buildering’s demise.

2. The Paint Shop Chimney: (since removed). Begin with a hoist from your belayer up to the roof, and from there aid-climb 30 feet to top of chimney. Descend via rappel with your belayer holding the other end of the rope on the ground on chimney’s opposite side; 1 pitch, 5.6, A1, 40 feet. 

The Paint Shop Chimney has since been replaced by White Hall, the farthest-west of the campus dorms. The chimney was adjacent to Talbott Hall, which went up in 1890. Talbott closed for student use in 1958, and soon after the space was taken over by the university painters. The brick-and-mortar chimney rose out of the old Talbott kitchen, connected by a thin hallway to the old dorm hall. On the ascent, climbers pounded pitons (metal spikes driven perpendicularly into rock faces with a hammer) in the chimney’s rotting cracks. Usually attempting climbs only under cover of darkness, early campus climbers rarely ran into trouble with law enforcement. However, as the process of pounding creates a high-pitched sound, those climbers did not escape the neighbors’ notice. While night climbing, Jacquot recounts, he was once visited by a campus cop who arrived on the scene, car lights beaming, to make a surprisingly simple request. “Could you guys quiet down a bit?” the cop asked, “We’ve had some complaints about your noise.”

The Paint Shop Chimney was razed to the ground shortly after (though not because of the climbers’ night-time escapades). The story of this climb’s first ascent and demise reminds me of the transience that is unique to buildering. The orderly bricks where men once stood to view the glittering lights of the Gem City at night suddenly became a chaos’d pile on the ground. True, rock slabs also slip and crumble off mountainsides in nature, and I’ve seen places where the ice that had once held against the cliffs melted, after spring thaw, and caused a rock face to shear and spill to the ground. The shedding of the rock slab, however, unearths a new face of rock — a little lighter, cleaner and less-weathered in appearance than its surroundings. None such markers exist to show where Talbott Hall once stood, and the histories of those who once gathered there to commune or climb slip away without walls to hold them in.

3. Union Traverse: Begin on the southeast-facing corner of the Student Union, above the water-spigot. Proceed left, turn the corner, and finish at the intersection of the sandstone and brick wall; one pitch, 40 feet, 5.12 (low route), 5.11 (upper route). 

Union Traverse

As climbing across the world slowly changed to favor “pure climbing” — or climbing natural rock without the help of aiding devices — so too did the character of the climbs at the University. Climbers were no longer found dangling from the ends of ropes on slick brick walls, their shoes smearing black rubber smiles on the buildings’ faces. Instead, climbers focused on the process of purely climbing, unhindered by the placement of gear, and without harnesses wrapped around their legs and waists. Bouldering is perhaps the form of climbing that is most unhindered and so, naturally, bouldering easily lent its style to the art of buildering.

Local climber Davin views climbing as a process — “not an outcome” — that structures a climber’s life. Some put climbing in the same category as drugs, in terms of addiction; they believe climbing develops brain chemistry similar to those on drugs or in a trance-like state. Having only been on the rock for three years, I have not been able to channel the spirit of monks on the wall; too often, my mind lingers in between moves on what might happen if I were to fall. But for experienced climbers like Davin, climbing has become “a process of meditation … and an entire lifestyle.”

4. Half Acre Aid Route: Exiting the Outdoor Program office, turn left and walk 20 feet to an in-cut wall facing the Student Union. A line of old expansion bolts winds its way from the left to the right side of the wall, just above the first roof. A second route begins in the corner and goes to the top. Rappel from fixed anchors; one pitch, A2, 30 feet. 

Half Acre Aid Route

Before the sport-changing invention of spring-loaded camming devices, much roped-up climbing was done with the use of smaller gear that took patience and skill to fit into the rock, thereby slowing down the process of climbing considerably. Then, as climbers like Lynn Hill made history by free-climbing (using only one’s body to progress up the wall) the Nose of El Capitan in under 24 hours, aid climbing (using gear to assist in climbing the wall) seemed to be on its way out. Aiding is still required for many big-wall ascents, in which the climbing party might find itself suspended from a portable ledge on the side of a 3,000-foot wall for several nights in a row. Perhaps due to the cost of aid gear and the damage that placing gear does to the wall, this form of climbing has not survived on campus. Another factor may indeed be the existence of a structure built exclusively for climbing inside the gym, a mere sixty feet away.

Still, a tribute to the pioneers of rock climbing and mountaineering remains on an outdoor sidewall of Half Acre Gymnasium. Sometime around 1970, a climber placed the old expansion bolts in the building’s side. Curving their way up the wall, the bolts are about eight feet apart in the sickly, creamed-yellow painted bricks. Aid climbing on campus saw its heyday from 1969-1971. Inside Half Acre, during the severe winter weather, climbers could also be found pounding aid gear into the walls of the old infield (now armory) on the gym’s east side. Once the climbers reached the ceiling, they would tie slings around the girders and continue climbing the roof, 40 feet off the ground. An adventurous climber might still find some old hardware on these long-forgotten routes, with the names of their owners etched into the smooth face of the abandoned metal gear.

5. The Trench: (Building renovations to Washakie Dining Hall have made the Trench unclimbable in its original fashion. However, the traverse on the opposite wall of the entry way still exists). Horizontal traverse; 5.11, 50 feet. 

The Trench

Once the prime buildering site at UW, The Trench no longer exists in its original form. A new entryway to the dining hall and glossy windows (terrible for smearing, even with sticky Stealthâ Rubber soles) has gutted the former sandstone face once awash in crimpy, crystally holds. The Trench offered a long, uninterrupted training wall where climbers could increase their strength and endurance. It had the added bonus of being virtually hidden from view. As we sit down for a beer at The Library, local climber Jay Jurkowitsch recalls studying in the dorms early one afternoon in 1976, and looking out his window to see Todd Skinner doing laps on the traverse below. At the time, there were no indoor climbing gyms within a 1,000-mile radius of Laramie.

One cannot mention Laramie, Wyoming, and climbing history without also talking about Todd Skinner and Paul Piana. The Trench is where the famous climbing duo met. The pair were pioneers of free climbing on big walls around the world. Skinner, who died in a climbing accident in 2006, is often referred to as “the most diversely accomplished climber of his generation.” Having grown up around Pinedale, Wyoming, Skinner made history with his (and Piana’s) ascents in Yosemite, Mt. Hooker, the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Canada and elsewhere in Pakistan, Vietnam, and Venezuela. One of Skinner’s many feats also includes climbing Devil’s Tower in 18 minutes — the 500-foot trip to the summit usually takes climbing parties four hours.

6. Physical Sciences Finger Crack: Located on the southeast corner of the building. Start in the crack and finger-lock your way up, turn the roof, and descend via a leap from the top, with plenty of encouragement from your spotters; 5.12, 12 feet.  

Physical Sciences

This thin, beautiful line was developed after someone picked out the rubber from the expansion joints in the concrete late at night. As Davin describes, the point of all this is often “just to climb a rock for the sake of climbing a rock” — not to summit — but just for the sheer feeling and rhythm that comes from moving your body vertically over a face of stone. The small, open crack of the Physical Sciences Building is of the type that draws climbers by the thousands to places like Indian Creek, Utah, where cracks in the walls perfectly split the burnt-auburn and sienna-colored rock face without changing in width, whether the cracks are finger or fist size.

The Physical Sciences Finger Crack is also the area test-piece for crack climbers; if your fingers are still slender enough to fit inside, you probably have not been climbing long. For experienced climbers, like Davin, the crack is barely wide enough for one weathered, climber’s fingertip. My hands are tree-like, long and slender, and so my fingers slip in between the cold concrete slabs beautifully. With my index and middle fingers in the crack, thumb pointed down, I rotate my shoulder ninety degrees and feel the weight of my body settle in on the knuckle and first joint of my index finger. Smearing my feet on the wall corners, I lift myself off the ground and slip the fingers of my other hand into the cold, concrete crack. With most of myself resting on the few inches of surface area on my fingers, I feel exhilarated, though barely a foot off the ground.

7. The Classroom Building: Start at the east-facing doors and traverse 360 degrees around the building; or, start in a shallow fist crack to the right of the skateboard rack and climb 15 feet to the first roof, walk five feet and climb a hand-fist size crack to the top. Descend via downclimbing; 5.9-5.11, 40 feet. 

The Classroom

Though buildering on campus was permitted when the activity began in the 1950s, by 1970, it had become the bane of many a campus security guard. Climbing in tight, sticky-soled shoes has a clear advantage for the climber, but wearing them was a good way to insure getting caught by campus security while hobbling away, toes mashed and pinched together. Todd Skinner helped many a climber, such as Jurkowitsch, avoid disciplinary action by advising them to boulder in sneakers, not climbing shoes, so that they could run away. Skinner also advised the college-aged crowd to not carry any form of identification while climbing, to give fake names to campus security if questioned and, at times, to climb as another persona entirely, perhaps even wearing Halloween masks of the former presidents. (Jurkowitsch recalls that Skinner and Piana were fond of Washington and Jefferson, respectively; Jurkowitsch himself went as Warren G. Harding, but confesses that he never needed a mask.) In the 1990s, however, young climbers discovered that bringing their bicycles to the buildering site provided quicker getaways. On bikes, climbers could ride off to places where police cars couldn’t easily follow.

8. Geology Building Traverse: Begin on the northwest corner of the new wing of the Geology Building, and traverse up and right; 5.11, 60 feet. 

Geology Building

The Geology Building Traverse was the first traverse on campus to gain in elevation from start to finish, and is also one of the few routes whose first ascent is known (Davin Bagdonas, circa 1995). Yet, with the building’s remodel and addition (the new wing officially now the Earth Sciences Building) also came the advent of artificial rock on campus in the form of machine-made sandstone. Since 1995, most new building faces are made of the same artificial sandstone: a composite of sand and glue pressed together.

After Davin informs me of the University’s use of artificial sandstone, I begin to notice a difference between the dusky-rose, earth-toned hues of the natural rock and the pallid shades of the artificial sandstone. The glued-together stone, as it appears on the Health Sciences Building and newer renovations around campus (including the library and College of Business), appears quite uniform in color from brick to brick — too perfectly even to occur naturally. When I press my palm to the wall, the rock feels coarse and crumbly, as though it might simply erode with the weight of my fingers. It is a reminder that, as the student body population grows and walls are torn down to make way for new labs, classrooms or offices, these walls too may disappear with time.

As Talbott Hall and the Paint Shop Chimney vanished from campus fifty years ago, so too will the trace of climbers’ fingertips, toes and bodies moving across the stone. It is not that I am concerned with losing the simple history of who climbed what small span of rock first or in the most perfect style. Rather, I think that even building climbing plays a part in the story of our desire to interact with the landscape, no matter how tame or wild.

Epilogue: Why I Climb

On a wintry Laramie afternoon, I find myself once again at the Half Acre climbing wall, traversing back and forth over candy-colored plastic holds. As I climb to the bouldering boundary line, a thick brown strip painted 12 feet high, I let my mind wander out the gym, west past Elk Mountain, the Red Desert and through the Wind River Indian Reservation. Suddenly, I’m driving along the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway above Cody, Wyoming, in June of last year. In between hairpin-turns on the road, I identify the Madison formation (a limestone whose tell is a pattern like Charlie Brown’s shirt: a thick, dark zigzag crossing a pale, yellowish-tan) and the Chugwater (a gorgeous, rust-red shale and siltstone that looks and feels like velvet). Trying to concentrate on the switchbacks in the road, I avoid thinking about Bighorn dolomite, the rock that makes up a majority of the climbing areas in Ten Sleep Canyon, my destination. Now, hours later, I’m coming up on the town of Ten Sleep, about to make the ascent into the canyon. I feel the adrenaline slowly slip into my veins as I imagine climbing up the vertical faces of rock, gripping the wall’s smooth pockets, pinching my fingers down on its finely-grooved ledges. Vanishing from my belayer’s view as I climb over a ridge, I look back to see the canyon spread below  —  rock buttresses protruding like ship prows over a sea of green pines and sage.

Paula Wright is a poet and climber with a MA and MFA from the University of Wyoming, and the author of “The Gathering,” forthcoming from Binge Press. She has never been arrested for climbing. 

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Where It Ended

If I slipped and fell from this height, I thought, I would definitely die, and if that happened, everyone would think I did it on purpose. They’ll say, he filed his divorce papers 16 hours before he started climbing that big rock without a rope, and got high enough where he decided to just let go, to end it.

But that wasn’t why I was there. I was hanging onto red-brown sandstone a few hundred feet up the Third Flatiron because I quit drinking six-and-a-half years prior and climbing was what I did to clear my head. I had the week off work and I couldn’t sit in my tiny post-split apartment all day. That would have been unhealthy. Of course, soloing could turn out to be really unhealthy. I looked down at my feet, clad in my tiny sticky-rubber-soled climbing shoes, which looked about as tough as a pair of ballet slippers. Long as they stuck to the rock for another hundred moves or so, I would be just fine. Then I could get back onto flat ground and back to feeling like someone punched me in the stomach.

Emily and I had been together, on and off, for almost nine years, through all my problems, her problems, Christmases and rehab and counseling, the time she almost died from pneumonia from making herself throw up because she looked in the mirror and saw a fat girl, the times I went to jail or got jumped because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, again. We met at a bar, and I was an alcoholic already at 20, and she was an anorexic/bulimic sorority girl. We changed, over nine years. She lived in Omaha and western New York, and I lived in Idaho and Montana, and we got back together in Phoenix, and then moved to Denver. She was a makeup artist, an esthetician, and finally decided on graduate school for a master’s degree in social work. I worked at crappy newspapers and finally landed at a nonprofit that took inner-city kids on backpacking trips.

I wanted to climb, to get out there and see it all, snow-covered peaks, rivers that cut canyons, the moonscape of the American desert, bring it into myself and see what it made me. I asked her to go hiking, and she said she had to stay home and study, so I went climbing instead. Each conversation we had, we lost more hope for our marriage, and continued to push closer and closer toward calling it dead. She studied, and I had the best climbing year of my life, attacking routes with a sad and angry ferocity and somehow pushing past my normal fear.

We moved out of the apartment we had shared for two-and-a-half years, the longest I had lived anywhere. I broke down going through my things, not knowing what to do with photos of the two of us having what I thought were great times, photos of our wedding, gifts she had given me, notes she had written, things that you save when it’s forever and don’t have a box for when it’s suddenly not forever. And you cry because they don’t cover this part in any of the movies you’ve seen, the songs you’ve listened to or the books you’ve read.

She picked me up at the Denver airport after a backpacking trip in California with a group of inner-city teens, and after my week in the wilderness, I didn’t get a handshake or a hug at passenger pick-up. I got in the car and Emily said that the City Clerk’s office closed at 4 p.m., so we needed to hurry. All the forms for the divorce were filled out, in a yellow folder in the backseat. I tried to look at them and make sense of them, not what they did, simply how to fill them out correctly. At 3:20, we were still a mile from the City and County Building in downtown Denver, and I asked if she had brought her checkbook, knowing we needed to pay $200 in fees. Nope. We drove to my place, and I ran up the stairs to my still not-lived-in apartment, I ripped out a blank check and ran back to the car. We parked as close as we could and hurried to room 280A, getting there at 3:40 p.m.

We had failed, fucked it up, gotten all those people together, and they had all spent so much money, traveling, buying gifts, hotel rooms, and we had stood there and lied to everyone and said it was forever, that we loved each other. And we blew it. I hated myself, thinking it was my fault, even though she said it wasn’t anyone’s fault. People change, people grow apart. Worse than crying every time I was alone, I instead just felt sick to just below the point of tears, like someone was sitting on my chest when I tried to get out of bed.

She never liked climbing, which I realized was perfectly normal. We’ve spent thousands of years working to avoid risk and maximize safety and comfort; seems pretty natural to not try climbing up something you could very easily fall off of.

But after three years of sobriety, I still felt like I was treading water without a real identity, and from there I eventually pulled myself toward rock climbing. I had eliminated the only way I knew how to relate to people. I was sure every other 26-year-old in America could order a beer at a baseball game, loosen up and meet people after a few drinks, start the weekend with a couple casual after-work microbrews on Friday.

Not me. If I was awake, I was sober, 100 percent of my insecurities and neuroses bouncing around in my head at all times. No liquid courage, no beer goggles, no social lubricant.

Climbing worked for me. The nuances of holding onto rock features with only the friction and balance of toes and fingertips, crucial placement of the safety equipment every few moves, keeping the rope at the right tension — all these things demanded full attention. I learned to persevere through debilitating fear, when I hyperventilated and was so overcome with the likelihood of falling that both legs shook hard enough to jackhammer themselves right off the tiny footholds, but I didn’t fall because somehow I kept it together and made one more move upward. I had to leave my problems on the ground.

That kind of simplicity was appealing when I was sitting in my apartment on the one chair I kept after the split, sure I’d just made the biggest decision of my young life, but not sure it was the right one and knowing there was no way to reverse it, even though the City Clerk gave us 90 days, just to make sure.

I was up early, not hungry, too nervous, stuffing a small backpack with everything I needed: A harness, belay device, chalk bag, climbing shoes, light rope for the rappel. No helmet. No climbing partner, no rope — a helmet wasn’t going to do anything for me if I fell. It was my first ropeless climb.

I had climbed the Third Flatiron twice before, roped. It was easy, low-angle, like a thousand-foot ladder into the sky above Boulder. It was not a challenge for the typical superathlete residents of Boulder — they would leave from the Chautaqua Park trailhead, run the trail to the base of the climb, slip on their climbing shoes and race up the face, rappelling off the back and running back to the car in less than an hour. For me, though, it was serious. No matter how easy the climbing was, it could still kill anyone. One move, upsetting your balance, one foot slipping, one hand greasing off a hold, and you’re rag-dolling down the rock, and at the bottom there is no rescue, just a body recovery.

I walked quickly up the trail, breaking a light sweat in the warm early-fall air. Near the base of the rock, the trail steepened, and I wove up the switchbacks, arriving at the East Bench in just under 40 minutes. I popped off my hiking shoes, pulled my climbing shoes out of my pack, slipped them on and tried to focus.

My friend Bruce, wrestling with a heavy life decision once, had climbed all the way up a wall at a climbing gym before noticing he had never clipped himself into a self-belay. Trying to traverse across the plastic wall to a safe spot, he slipped off the wall and fell 30 feet onto the floor of the gym. He spent five days in the trauma unit of the hospital with a collapsed lung, broken ribs and a broken elbow.

I sat there at the base of the climb, the Standard East Face, and tried to get my shit together. I stood up on one foot, pulling my other foot up and resting it against the inside of my knee, brought my hands together and pointed them above my head. This will quiet things down. I focused, kept my balance for ten breaths, a yoga tree pose, then switched to the other foot.

I looked up at 1,000 feet of sandstone and took a deep breath. Boy, if I fall off this thing. Deep breath. Apparent suicide, they’ll probably say in the paper, even though I didn’t leave a note.

No one will know that it was the lowest I’d ever felt in my life since that first year after I stopped drinking. Another time in my life I hated myself, and who I am, and what I’d become, and how I got there. The divorce was my fault. All the damage from my drinking, my fault.

But I looked up at the gigantic rock, a giant sandstone skyscraper tilted into a mountain, and I thought the answer might be up there. Not at the top, as if I was going to get a message from someone or have an epiphany about my disaster of a life — but maybe somewhere in the process. I went to pull myself up the Third, to interact with it, and think nothing else besides what I needed to do to keep moving up and not fall.

“Back in 5 minutes,” a sign taped to the door at 280A said. A woman came out of the office across the hall and let us in, and we sat down at a desk with her and watched her go through our forms. Are we really killing this? A woman stuck her head through the door and asked if she had questions, could she ask them here. The woman looking at our forms said yes, come on in and have a seat. No privacy for us. The woman asked us

do you have any assets?

children?

and there isn’t a pregnancy?

No, No, No, we said, and she labeled a couple of the forms, explained that we needed to take them to the Clerk and Recorder’s office and have a notary watch us sign them. We screwed up and signed one of them before she told us this. We walked into the hallway to look for the Clerk and Recorder’s office and Emily started to get choked up, and I said, Are you okay? Are you going to be okay?

Like I still care about you, just not enough to stay married to you, or what? I don’t want you to be sad while we’re filing our divorce papers, but I’m not a good enough man to stay married to you. I was dizzy.

She said Yeah, she was okay. I couldn’t swallow, and I knew she was about to start crying, two breaths away from a sob. Why couldn’t I make this right?

On the forms, we had to write the city where we got married. Emily’s handwriting said Springdale, Utah, and I remembered our wedding, and the couple days leading up to it, and … stop.  Emily swallowed and we went into the office across the hall and told the woman there we needed someone to notarize our forms. She explained that the Clerk and Recorder’s office was down the hall.

At the counter, the woman said we needed to cross out our signature, re-sign it in front of her, and sign the other forms. It was $220, she said, and we needed to make copies of all the forms. There was a copy machine behind us, and I started to make copies while Emily ripped staples out of the forms, saying it would be faster if we sent them all through at once. I argued, but Jesus Christ, can we just get through this, the last thing we ever do together, so we sent them all through at once, re-stapled them and turned around and gave them to the lady. I wrote out the check to Denver District Court and we watched her stamp everything.

A bike messenger waited behind us and I was sure I heard him say, “You gotta be kidding me,” and I was ready to send him through the glass door if that was what he said. Happiest day of your life, you get a best man and as many groomsmen as you want. She gets a maid of honor and a bunch of pretty bridesmaids. That’s the beginning. When it ends, you get this hollow government hall, and this fucking asshole bike messenger behind me talking shit. I gritted my teeth.

In 15 minutes, we ended it. We had spent years together and months planning a ceremony to solidify it, and it was all over. We cashed our deposit check from the apartment, signing both our names on it, enough to pay the divorce fees and a little extra.

An hour later, we sat next to each other on a bench in Cheesman Park, crying and talking about how much we cared about each other. I didn’t care if all the joggers and cyclists in this park saw me crying. I couldn’t stop it. The only thing worse than something you love dying, is knowing that you killed it by neglect, and that’s why it died.

I hugged her goodbye in front of my apartment, and she said she’d call when she was ready to talk again, when the door had closed on our relationship. It would be the first time in nine years that the door would be all the way shut.

She drove off and I walked the steps to my apartment with lead feet. Just kill me. I have done so much damage.

I chalked up. I stepped one foot onto the stone, smearing a stance, grabbing a hand hold, then the next one. Pay attention. I moved left out onto the enormous east face, as wide as a football field. I traversed, and the exposure opened up underneath me. I could now fall a couple hundred feet, rolling into a bag of blood and broken bones onto the talus below. I stepped up, keeping three points of contact at all times.

Only a couple people I knew could make sense of this. I was turning to this, climbing, when I needed something to take me away. I remembered that in my bed last night, unable to sleep, I thought about going somewhere and drinking. A bar, for a few beers, hell, a park bench and a bottle of cheap red wine, whatever. Six-and-a-half years of sobriety, gone, with a bottle to my lips somewhere. But the crushing feeling of failure, gone, too. It was just for a second, for a flash, that I considered it as a serious option. Then it disappeared.

In 20 minutes, I was halfway up the face, out of breath. I stopped and took a few breaths, looking back behind me for the first time. The city was beneath me, and I was slowly leaving it on the ground, where all my problems were. I turned back, kept climbing up, and then I stopped. I was in a strange spot, where the handholds are far apart, and I’d have to step high to grab the next one, only leaving one foot and a few fingers on the rock. I halfway went for it, and then I slowly lowered myself back down. Not the time to take risks. I made two moves to the right, then up, then back left to my line. All secure moves.

Just like that, I was on top of The Third, standing on the summit no bigger than a living room, no more rock to climb up. The first time I climbed it, it took us hours to get to this spot. I pulled my skinny rope out of my pack, put on my harness, and zipped down the three rappels down the west face to the ground.

On the walk back to the car, I realized I didn’t really enjoy the climbing, up there all by myself. Too risky, no one to share the views with, talk about the moves, the rock, life. My first ropeless solo climb ever, but my last as well, maybe.

I had gone to a few therapy appointments when Emily and I were deciding to get divorced. My therapist had recommended I do some sort of ritual to give closure to my relationship with Emily — burning some clothes, cutting off my hair, something like that. I looked back up at The Third, towering above Chautauqua Park, wondering if I got closure up there. I still felt terrible, and I would for over a year. But for certain, when it got tough, really low, I looked here for answers, and not in a bottle, and that was a different type of closure.

The day on The Third was the day I started to forget all my memories with a person I loved. I told her I’d love her forever in front of all those people, and forever just ended. The next part, the part when I wasn’t in love anymore, this part was alone.

Brendan Leonard is a long-time MG contributor currently living on the road in a van. His blog, Semi-Rad, can be found at mountaingazette.com. More of his writing can be found at www.semi-rad.com

A story about Jesus and Joshua Tree

Jesus and Joshua Tree, or How I Almost Became a Climber

 

Jesus and Joshua Tree

Eight years out of high school and I was still trying to finish college and attain the much vaunted bachelors degree in Religious Studies. It had been an on-again, off-again ordeal interrupted by backpacking trips and general vagabonding, mostly up and down the west coast. And here I was again, embarking on an off-again session of wandering — just a semester this time — due to a duo of factors: my girlfriend dumping me for my good friend and the sudden appearance of a HARD-CORE cult of wandering Christians right out of the Old Testament: Long beards, prophetic pronouncements and vows of poverty and dumpster-diving asceticism as they waited around for The Apocalypse, which, to a stoned hippy who listened to way too much Bob Marley, seemed very imminent indeed.

Not to mention the fact that this was the era of my life when everything held some kind of “deeper meaning,” be it the muttering of drunk bums on the street (who surely grasped some sacred knowledge the rest of us couldn’t understand) or a tune on the radio (another Grateful Dead song? I’m obviously supposed to quit school again and travel!). So when the Christians literally showed up on my doorstep mere minutes after I had aced a final exam on the New Testament and a couple days after getting dumped, suffice to say that it seemed as if some higher power had willed it to be so, and that RIGHT NOW was the time to drop everything and follow these seemingly wise apostles before they climbed the ladder to New Jerusalem.

In the end, despite weeks of proselytizing by the earnest patriarchs and hours of long-winded circular spiritual discussions, some shred of common sense kept me from trading my wicked path of sin for a new life of prayer and homelessness, but the eager holy rollers still ended up disrupting my life, albeit not in the way they’d hoped: One afternoon toward the end of my six-week winter break, one of the Christian gang showed up at our house in need of sanctuary. Seems he had just left the “The Brethren” (the “REPENT” patch was missing from his baseball cap) because he had decided that he “still wanted to live like a pagan” and needed a place to stay while he figured it all out. Which was perfect, as a broken heart, a dangerously close brush with a creepy cult and the stresses of extended academia were wearing me down, and living like a pagan sounded like the perfect way to recharge. I boxed up my stuff — records, books and sentimentalisms, mostly — and stored them with my somewhat more responsible sister, explained the situation to my roommates, and the apostate and I hitchhiked north to Seattle to fetch his didgeridoo (right where he had left it when he ran away with the cult: wrapped in plastic and buried in a park) and loiter/explore our way to some kind of exciting experience in the great north woods, but the rain soon chased us back south, all the way down to Joshua Tree National Park.

For Southern Californians who occasionally get claustrophobic within the gargantuan Tijuana-to-Santa-Barbara megalopolis of 20 million people, the Mojave Desert offers a rather large expanse of space and sanity, and Joshua Tree — barely an hour outside of Los Angeles — is a convenient destination for urbanites looking for a change. Being a San Diegan, I had heard much about the place but had never been there, so when two young Canadian ladies en route to Mexico picked us up on the side of the road somewhere in soggy southern Oregon, I suggested on a whim that we shoot for Joshua Tree for the night. Many hours and a few hundred miles later, we gleefully dodged the shuttered entrance station and its fees, and rolled into Hidden Valley Campground. We nabbed an empty spot, set up tents, and headed over to the actual “Hidden Valley,” a football-stadium-sized ring of granite rubble, where we basked in the relative warmth and welcome dryness of the desert in February — a desert illuminated by a full moon. The Canadian girls uncorked a big jug of wine and passed it around as we marveled at a fine ending to a memorable day of travel.

The Canadian vixens stayed with us for a couple of days before turning their Thelma-and-Louise-style station wagon toward the Mexican border, but we stayed on, moving camp a few times before settling in on a good one nestled snuggly in the big rocks. Three days later, my traveling companion embarked on a quick journey to San Francisco, where he planned on scoring a few sheets of acid, which we could then sell to some of the other campers in order to fund our current round of travels. It sounded like a great plan, so I’d dug deep into my sock and invested all but 35 dollars of my leftover student loan money and let him borrow my better backpack for swifter travels. He figured he’d be back in 10 days or so, but if he didn’t show up by mid-March, then we’d rendezvous at a regional Rainbow Gathering near Yuma during the next full moon.

Of course, I never saw him again, which meant I was almost flat broke and stuck with an ancient external frame pack that was way too big for me, but I had a good tent, youthful vigor and plenty of time on my hands. Plus, I was ensconced in the midst of an amazingly beautiful national park with nowhere to go and nothing to do but explore it. Days were spent hiking in all directions, while nights were spent in the tent reading by candlelight or writing bad poetry about the desert and the meaning of life, or even worse poetry about my ex-girlfriend. Occasionally, I’d hitchhike the 20 miles into town for a supply run, which usually consisted of four tasks: spending a few precious dollars at a huge dent-and-scratch grocery outlet; filling up my water jugs from a tap behind the Chevron; diving into a handful of Safeway-style mega-dumpsters for big jars of Ragu, blocks of perfectly good cheese and plenty of fruits and veggies; and a final, ritual stop for a rigorous washing of the hands and the reluctant-but-joyous purchase of a single 59-cent bean burrito from Taco Bell. Thus was I able to make my 35 dollars last for most of a month.

In addition to my willingness to explore the less sanitary side of our food chain, another thing that allowed me to stretch my meager funds as far as possible was the fact that camping was FREE. Yes, free camping at an “improved” campground in a national park, something that had been phased out everywhere else decades before, and no longer exists at Joshua Tree, at least partially due to freeloaders like myself. Rumor was that the Park Service couldn’t charge for a dry campsite, which meant that, while the site was free, you had to supply your own life-giving water — a fine trade-off for a vagabond on a shoestring budget. It was high season, and the campground had a perpetual “CAMPGROUND FULL” sign posted at its entrance, but, late each afternoon, folks would cruise slowly through hoping to score a site, and since I was carless and had just a single tent set up, I’d offer up my site to anyone in need.

That was the other thing that made my adventure possible: the kindness of my fellow campers. Indeed, there was much in the way of solitude — after all, that’s what the desert is all about, at least to idealistic Religious Studies students who think they want to grow old and die alone while meditating in a cave — but, in reality, most of my time was spent in the presence of other people, all of them interesting and generous. As the weeks unfolded, my campsite played host to a parade of folks, and every few days, I would find myself  bound up in an entirely new chapter of random interactions with followers of the Golden Rule. Here’s a sampler:

″ A family of four fleeing the cold and dark of Alaska via a long, slow loop through the southwestern desert parks. They took me along for a driving tour of the entire park, topped off my camp stove fuel canister and loaded me up with a bag of fresh dates and a half dozen military-grade “ready-to-eat” meals.

″ A Korean artist who sculpted images of the Goddess. I used my single practical set of skills to tune up his rusted Volkswagen van for him and in return received all the beer I could drink, all the coffee I wanted and generous and repeated samplings from the big-as-a-human-head bag of non-culinary mushrooms he had brought along for inspiration.

″A pair of newlywed Mormons from Michigan on a very non-traditional Mormon honeymoon. They praised my brush with Jesus, explained that the “Joshua” that the trees were named after was actually a guy in the Bible, and gave me my very first (but certainly not my last) copy of the “Book of Mormon,” along with plenty of soda pop and hot dogs.

″Two carloads of Earth-First!ers, with names like Orca, Lichen and Ann R. Key, fresh out of an “activist conference” in the nearby San Bernardino Mountains. They drank cheap beer from cans, shared their own dumpster-dived goodies and instantly brought my humble little campsite to life with rollicking protest songs both serious and funny, including this one (to the tune of America’s “Horse With no Name”):

“I’ve been through the desert in van that was lame

It felt good to be out of … Texas.

At the conference you won’t remember your name

So get under this blanket and huddle up by the flames

blah blah, blah, blahblahblahblah blah … ”

But most of the time it was climbers — rock climbers — here for some big-rock adventures. Indeed, it only took a few days to figure out that the majority of campers, at least at Hidden Valley Campground, were of the climbing persuasion. Which made sense, as a quick glance in any direction revealed gigantic stacks of slightly orange-ish granite boulders, some of them hundreds of feet high, a fact which makes Joshua Tree a Mecca for climbers around the world, especially during the winter months.

They were everywhere, and despite the fact that I was a lowly hiker (a “groveler,” they called me), they took me under their wing and made me part of their shindigs, which, following each stellar day of vertical action, usually involved campfires, booze and rollicking “spud sessions” wherein anything that could be wrapped in foil was tossed onto the coals and baked. Every moment around these fires was chock full of swell conversation peppered with colloquialisms and jargon that made me wish there was a climber-specific dictionary I might consult. Eventually, I learned that “crimpers” were difficult, “scumming” was sometimes necessary, “cheese graters” were bad and “spraying” was inevitable when dozens of climbers gathered round a fire and started swapping stories about climbing, climbing and climbing. Sea cliffs in Acadia National Park. Sandstone in West Virginia. Limestone walls in western Utah. Lone Pine. City of Rocks. Notch Peak. Lost Creek. Cirque of the Towers. Names of exotic locales and challenging routes flowed from their tongues as if they were rattling off the names of family members.

There were climbers there from all over the U.S., as well as a few from South America and Europe, slumming it up in Joshua Tree for awhile before checking out Hueco Tanks in Texas, or the Organ Range in New Mexico or some other exotic and relatively warm desert rock oasis, and all of them seemed to have mastered the fine art of dirt-bagging. They had a connection at The North Face who could get you new tent poles, or knew somebody in town who provided showers, or a guy in Palm Springs who could hook you up with some work — indeed, for a few days, a large contingent of climbers disappeared into that nearby enclave of golf and wealth to sell concessions or park cars during a high-end tennis tournament. They knew where the firewood was, and occasionally they’d pile into an ancient Toyota Van with Maine plates and 300,000 on the odometer and cruise into town to gather some, which meant surreptitiously cruising behind grocery stores in search of shipping pallets — surreptitiously because it was illegal, and just a few weeks earlier, two unfortunate souls had been caught stealing and were hauled off to the county jail, which, in this sprawling county (largest in the lower 48) meant 60 miles and a world away to San Bernardino.

As I mentioned, the camping was free, but there was a 14-day limit — not a problem for your average family on vacation, most of whom would stay only a few days at the most, but a real hurdle for someone hoping to spend a couple of months living out of the back of a pickup truck. Since there was no fee, there was no registration that I recall, so the ranger would cruise through now and then and write down license plate numbers or make/model of vehicles. Due to the fact that I had no car, the rangers never caught onto my extended presence, but they were well aware of the climbing set, which led to a cat-and-mouse situation that forced the climbers to get creative. They swapped license plates and campsites, or covered their vehicles in tarps in hopes that the ranger wouldn’t bother getting out of his truck to investigate further. If necessary, they’d disappear for a few days and try again, maybe backing the rig in this time or spending a few nights parked at my site before being shooed away by the rangers.

As the weeks unfolded, I continued to explore, hitting the high points: south for a huge view of the Colorado Desert; east for a nice view of Queen Valley; west for a big glimpse of the snow-covered San Jacinto and San Gorgornio Peaks — 12,000-foot jewels separating the desert from the sea; and north at for a glimpse of the earthquakey Lucerne Valley and hundreds upon hundreds of miles of Mojave Desert. Often, I’d start my forays by following a gang of climbers out of the campground as they trekked out to a nearby climb. They’d set up and I’d sit and watch for awhile, curious about the life I was hearing about around the campfires. One such climb was called “Gunsmoke” — a low and horizontal traverse in and out of a big bend in a rock face. It was technical rather than vertical, just a few feet off the ground, actually, and, being close to the campground, it got a lot of traffic. But one fellow stood out, for he was always there cruising gracefully back on forth along the route like a monkey in the treetops. He was alone, never saying a word to anyone, and always had a faint smile on his face like he was in another world — rumor had it he was autistic or perhaps just majorly OCD, but he was amazing to watch.

Beyond Gunsmoke was the aptly named “MAGIC KINGDOM” — 20-or-so square miles of towering granite monoliths, cliffs and mounds of boulders that made you feel like an ant in a gravel pit. The Earth First! crew had shown me this area first during one of the most-punishing and amazing hikes of my life, a dawn-to-dusk trailless scramble right through the heart of the moonscape. This was ground zero for epic solo jaunts, and I spent day after day just wandering around back there. There were hidden amphitheaters, bighorn sheep, a single spring and a few grassy meadows, and, just when I’d find myself deeper than ever before, exhausted and bleeding at the knees and elbows, I’d glance up at a sun-exposed cliff face and see climbers halfway up a three-or-four-pitch ascent, effortlessly (or so it appeared from my vantage point) on their way to the top of any one of ten thousand possible climbs.

Indeed, during that month, I sat and watched climbers for hours. I marveled at the slow-but-sure effort, the teamwork, the gradual snail-like movement up a tiny crack in the granite. I was intrigued, but not enough to wish to partake in it all. To be sure, I loved clawing my way to the top of random rock piles, and I admired the climbers’ abilities, but felt no desire to join their ranks — I loved the simplicity of hiking, just me and a pair of boots, with endless possibilities in all directions. But, slowly, my curiosity grew and, eventually, I accepted an invitation and gear loan and tried it out: warm desert sun on my back; toes jammed securely into the toes of the nimble shoes; fingertips clinging to rock. This was not at all like the random rambling I had been experiencing on my travels and hikes; indeed, it was the exact opposite: extremely focused and deliberate. Adrenaline at a strangely slow pace. Time warping and sticking you right in the moment (with a big view at the top), which was the whole point of the traveling, the psychedelics and the haphazard study of religion.

Toward the end of my month in Joshua Tree, an opportunity came my way in the form of a van load of climbers headed south and east to Apache Fortress, a lesser-known but first-rate climbing destination a couple hours outside of Tucson. One of the van’s crew had just headed back to Israel for a mandatory stint in the army and had donated his gear — harness, chalk bag, rope and a pair of shoes — to his fellow climbing nomads. Everything was in place — extra gear (including shoes that seemed to fit me), a gang of climbers willing to show me the ropes and a ride to what would surely be another astonishingly beautiful place.

It was a charitable offer, but after giving it much thought, I said no thanks. The full moon was just a few days away, and, since my traveling partner had not returned, I felt obligated to stick to our plan and head down to the Rainbow shindig to make sure he was alright (and to retrieve my backpack and recoup my black market investment). Besides, the hippy fest involved drums and girls and a lunar eclipse/full moon smack dab on the night of the Spring Equinox, a combination that, at the time, seemed to hold more symbolic meaning than the fact that I was sitting in a rock climbers’ paradise and was being handed everything I needed to join their ranks.

I caught a ride out with them and got dropped off just outside of Blythe. They got back on the freeway and headed east toward their next big climbing escapade, and I started thumbing my way south. For the second time in as many months, I’d crossed paths with folks who offered to change the trajectory of my life, and for the second time, I’d gone against my “it must be happening for a reason” philosophy, and stayed the course, whatever that was. It was the closest I ever got to becoming a Jesus freak or a true dirt-bag climber.

Senior correspondent Charles Clayton’s last piece for the Gazette was “New River, Arizona: Three Glimpses,” which appeared in #181. His blog, “Pagan Parenting,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. Clayton lives in Taos with his wife and daughter. 

Read about one man’s experiences with divorce and how climbing helped him get through it.

Mountain Vision #189

Savage Basin

Savage Basin, Imogene Pass 1979

When I was in junior high, I once walked from Manitou Springs to the top of Pikes Peak, non-stop, by way of the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, and returned by the same route, after a couple of hours of hypothermic fits and altitude sickness, and swore I would never do it again. As far as mountain climbing was concerned, this would have to be it. There would be no more.

I slept for two days after that, waking only to wolf down a T-bone steak and collapse into bed again. Lactic acid froze my body into a contorted position, from which I could not rise, and it was several days before I could walk correctly. Sir John Hunt would have to do without me.

The change in altitude had been extreme; from a summer of sailing in Minnesota at, say, 800 feet to 6,000 feet for two days, and then to 14,000 feet. Acclimatize if you can; it was Mountain Baptism.

So, when Lito proposed skiing to Ouray from Telluride, I naturally jumped at the chance. What is a poor boy from the plains to do?

Karen insisted on hiking in low-cut cross-country boots, and only later did I surmise that it was because of her congenitally mangled feet. Alone, and kicking her own steps, she resolutely soldiers on. The Inch-Worm Technique, Lito insists, will always get you there.

Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley. 

Higher, Ever Higher

Cartographic Map

People and various critters aren’t the only things that climb or seek gratification via highness. And contrary to the core beliefs of the Mountain Gazette, higher isn’t always better. We’ve got climbing debt, climbing temperatures and climbing tempers for starters. And then there are the deathless arguments regarding all things marijuana.

1) Up with the climate

Washington stands alone as the only state in the U.S. that had below-normal temperatures for March, which was the all-time warmest on record. Twenty-five states reported record heat climbs, with Colorado, Wyoming and Montana scoring their third-highest temperatures for March and ranking “much above normal” by NOAA. Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico ranked as “above normal,” with California and Oregon coming in at “near normal.” The second-warmest March was back in 1910, well before all this hooey about climate change.

2) The lows of getting high

We saw this coming, no? Colorado lawmakers are recognizing that a) people smoke marijuana, b) they drive cars and c) sometimes there’s cross-pollination. Ergo, the state senate is once again (a similar measure failed last year) moving toward THC blood standards for drivers. Colorado, which already has drugged-driving laws that cover cannabis, is looking at a 5 nanogram THC limit. Activists say blood tests are invasive and inaccurate; proponents of the Senate Bill 117 are arguing what you’d pretty much expect — that stoned drivers are a menace. “I’m just sick of the abuse that the state of Colorado has taken from the medical marijuana industry,” said Sen. Nancy Spence, (R) Centennial. Adding to the chorus: “We are well on our way to a doped-driving epidemic that will match the DUI epidemic that we had 15 and 20 years ago,” said sponsor Sen. Steve King, (R) Grand Junction. Denver Democrat Pat Steadman, however, pointed out that some folks get up in the morning with 5 nanograms in their systems, but they’re not high. Such is the nature of the lasting, fat-soluble THC. Right now, 12 states have THC-limit laws. Other states have zero-tolerance policies.

3) You’d think Wyoming would use that space

While we’re on the topic, we’ll throw in this shocker: California produces more marijuana than any other state! The most-recent stats we found showed 21,667,609 plants produced in the state annually, and no, we have no idea whose job it was to count them. But interestingly, Tennessee and Kentucky hold their own in second and third place, and Tennessee wins the plant-productivity battle, with a stout $706.18 per plant, according to cannacentral.com. Not too surprisingly, Wyoming is one of the worst places for marijuana, with the 49th-worst stats for plants and pounds yielded, and the worst stats for plants and revenue per square mile. While Hawaii is the square-mile champion at $594,676.78, Wyoming’s wide-open spaces ain’t so much: $21.49.

4) Big spendahs

With a scant population of 127, the town of Brian, Utah, has some explaining to do for its $22.15 million in liabilities and the average debt per person at $174,409.45. What’s going on? Town honchos explain that Brian has had to pay for the infrastructure for 1,400 vacation-dwelling units, for starters. Evidently, water projects, public buildings and road improvements just cost a lot here, and with the really little population, those numbers can easily look out of whack. Park City comes in a distant second place in Utah’s climbing debt race, with just $15,427 in debt per person and liabilities of $116.6 million. In comparison, the pay-as-you-go city of Layton has a tidy debt per person of $352.

5) Touchy-feely and high

You can split hairs over this for hours — what constitutes a town or city and who’s the highest in the U.S. But all aside, it appears that Santa Fe takes the honors for the highest real “city” in the U.S. at 7,000 feet. Denver might get bent out of shape over this, since it’s the highest “major metro area” at 5,280, but we’re defining a “city” as a place that has a shopping mall, college, traffic, at least two entries in the racial mix, and a lot of places to drink. That precludes Alma (Colo.) at 10,578 and Leadville at 10,152.

6) Are we safe?

A study published in the Journal of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine analyzed 212,708 people who were treated for injuries sustained in Western outdoor activities. Snowboarding came in as the most dangerous, with 25.5 percent of all injuries, most of them among younger males. Rock and mountain climbing, however, accounted for a scant 4.9 percent. If you really want to geek out on this, get yourself the 2012 copy of Accidents in North American Mountaineering (available in August). That said, from a cardiovascular-numbskull standpoint, the 14-mile round-trip Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is arguably the most dangerous piece of terrain in the U.S. This is because it’s a hike (the label enlists far more participants than a climb) that’s actually a climb, requiring cables if you don’t want to take a major slide. The granite dome snares about 4 million visitors a year, with a very small percentage making it to the top.

7) A speedy little devil

At 867 feet from base to top, Devil’s Tower isn’t the biggest game in the West, but the igneous intrusion is not the easiest, either. It typically takes 4-6 hours for two climbers to summit the Durrance route, and another 1-2 hours to rappel down. So how weird is it that in the 1980s, Wyoming native Todd Skinner climbed the Tower (Walt Bailey route) alone, without ropes or other protection, in 18 minutes?

Long-time newspaperhumanoid Tara Flanagan splits her time between Boulder and Breckenridge, Colo.