Deliverance

A few months back, I told you, in a Smoke Signals titled, “Hot Air,” about the two times I found myself, through no fault of my own (understatement), up in the wild blue yonder in a hot-air balloon. I might have even casually mentioned something about how BOTH OF THOSE BALLOONS CRASHED!!!

Anyhow, part and parcel of that “Hot Air” tale was a little tangential aside about a certain river-rafting trip I took the day after the second of those aforementioned balloon crashes. I believe I wrote words to the effect of, “ … but that is a story for another time.” Well, this being Mountain Gazette’s annual Rivers Issue and all, I guess there’s no time like the present.

To refresh your memory: I had been given an assignment by the editor of a long-defunct magazine named Adventure Travel to venture forth to the steamy reaches of north Georgia to pen a piece about a company that offered “Adventure Orgies,” which, provocative name notwithstanding, was nothing more than a different stupid adrenaline-based activity each day for a week.

On the very first day of my Adventure Orgy — verily, within the first few hours — I was surprisingly more-or-less Shanghaied to take a balloon trip with a crazy-as-bat-shit pilot that resulted in a crash-landing, a wildfire, guns being leveled at me, police being called and, of all perplexing things, a Chattanooga TV news crew arriving on the scene so quickly they seemingly were parked in the very field we set ablaze on the off chance that an errant hot-air balloon might fortuitously fall out of the sky and crash at their very feet. A news story from God, if ever there was one.

The scheduled second segment of our Adventure Orgy was a full-day raft descent of the Chattooga River, which straddles the border of Georgia and South Carolina. This is the very section of river upon which significant portions of the whitewater scenes from “Deliverance” were actually filmed. My guide, the man I was essentially profiling for Adventure Travel, assured me that the gnarliest scenes from “Deliverance” were filmed on the Tallulah River, which, I’ll admit, in my battered state, was something of a relief. For, you see, I had not recovered from that balloon incident. The deep gash on my right shin was oozing all manner of repugnant-colored fluids, my left shin was swollen so badly that it looked like some sort of Frankensteinian mad scientist had grafted a partially decomposed watermelon onto my leg and my tongue, which I near-bouts bit in two upon impact, was lolling involuntarily, like what you’d see coming out of a tranquilized rhino’s mouth in a National Geographic wildlife documentary.

We drove to the quaint mountain town of Clayton, Georgia, where we met our two partners in river crime: a  sports editor from an Atlanta TV station and none other than Billy Redden, who, at age eight, was the banjo-picking boy in ”Deliverance,” though, as I mentioned in “Hot Air,” it was not he who actually picked those haunting notes that, to this day, strike fear in the heart of any non-Southerner who ventures forth into the more rural parts of Dixie. The national eight-year-old banjo-playing champion crouched behind Billy Redden, whose arms were literally tied to his sides, and slid his arms through Billy’s jacket and, without being able to see the instrument, picked the strings flawlessly.

It did not help mitigate any preconceptions that I might have held when, before meeting Billy, who works as a professional river guide for Adventure Orgy Guy, I was told how he “auditioned” for the part of the (non-) banjo-playing boy in “Deliverance.” “They went way up in the sticks and picked out the most inbred, retarded-looking kid out of the local elementary school. And there were a bunch to choose from. Out of all the available material, they chose Billy. Then, just to make him look even more inbred and retarded, they shaved his head.” Of course, based upon that vision, combined with actually having watched “Deliverance,” I naturally assumed that Billy Redden would be the walking, talking epitome of every negative Appalachia-based stereotype imaginable. I assumed that he would likely be a perpetual drooler whose best attempts at fundamental articulation would mirror those of Jodie Foster when Liam Neeson first made her character’s acquaintance in “Nell.”  Ends up that Billy, by then in his 30s, while not necessarily the most handsome man I have ever met, was a totally great guy, witty and funny, and, if there was a drooler on the scene, it was I, due to my wounded tongue situation.

We partially inflated the two, two-person, 11-foot rafts right there on the sidewalk in downtown Clayton, where both Billy and Adventure Orgy Guy were well known. The 17,000 passersby — all of whom had a mouthful of chaw and were named Clem — who stopped for a chat (our raft-inflating procedures apparently being the most noteworthy event to have transpired in Clayton since the last summer’s Hog-Sloppin’ Festival) were surprised to hear that we were headed for the Chattooga. “All y’all ain’t gonna run Bull Sluice, are all y’all?” was a question pondiferously drawled by every single one of those 17,000 curious chaw-chewing Clems. And when Adventure Orgy Guy answered in the affirmative, every single one of those 17,000 curious Clems slowly shook his head, let out with a feigned nervous whistle, and said words to the effect of: “Well, best of luck to all y’all. Wouldn’t catch us’ns trying to run Bull Sluice this time of year.”

It will come as no surprise that these exchanges caught my attention, but I said nothing, at least partially because any attempts to speak all sounded like I was the guy tied to the chair with the gag stuffed in his mouth in a million Hollywood movie torture scenes, where, try though I might to spill the beans about where the drugs and money were hidden and where the torturers could most easily locate my cohorts, all I could do was grunt.

Once we got on the river — me with Adventure Orgy Guy, Billy Redden and the Atlanta TV sports guy in the other raft — Adventure Orgy Guy, after much apparent mental cud-chewing, said: “You probably heard all 17,000 of those Clems back in Clayton asking about Bull Sluice.” “Grunt.” He proceeded to tell me that Bull Sluice is one of two Class-5-plus rapids on the section of the Chattooga we were going to run and that it had claimed literally dozens of lives over the years. Forgive me that I am not familiar enough with death-based river terminology to describe this properly, but it is a very short and steep rapid — a waterfall, now that you mention it — that changes directions three times in about 100 linear feet — once at the top, once halfway through and once again at the bottom. You start out going over the waterfall at about 10 o’clock, then you’ve got to alter your heading to about 3 o’clock, then you’ve got to go back to 10 o’clock, all while you’re attempting to negotiate a rapid that, even if it didn’t have three major turns, would be dangerous as hell.

“Don’t worry though,” Adventure Orgy Guy said, reassuringly (at least in theory), we’ll be on the river a couple hours before we get to Bull Sluice, and, by then, you and I will be very comfortable paddling together. It’ll be great!” (This from the man responsible for placing me in a hot-air balloon that crashed-landed the previous afternoon.) The plan was for Billy Redden and the Atlanta TV guy to portage around Bull Sluice. Adventure Orgy Guy and I would pull over above Bull Sluice, walk downriver to shit our pants and devise an appropriate stratagem, return to our diminutive raft, clean our pants out, then tackle a rapid that might as well be named “Death Waterfall from Hell,” after which I would either have to clean my pants out yet again or arrive at the medical examiner’s office with skivvies full of caca.

Since we had a couple hours to kill before we ourselves were killed, I opted to chill with the scene, which was wonderfully mellow. Even though the first day of winter was literally 72 hours away, it was sunny and warm. The passing scenery was straight out of Appalachia central casting. We paddled by scads of overall-adorned, dentition-challenged men, who, stunningly, were also named Clem, sipping jugfulls of moonshine while tending to their stills. We passed veritable tribes of corpulent women — all named Bessie May and Shirley Sue — sitting on riverside front porches shucking corn and green beans and smoking pipes while stirring vats of possum gizzard stew (or something like that).

Captivating cultural distractions aside, the thought of Bull Sluice never completely left the back of my mind. Quite the contrary. Every time a squirrel farted on the riverbank, my eardrums translated the noise to the roar an impending life-swallowing rapid. Until finally, inevitably, we came to the spot where the roar was no longer a figment of my squirrel-fart-based imagination. We pulled over and, as Billy Redden and the Atlanta-TV guy started carrying their raft around the rapid, Adventure Orgy Guy and your humble narrator ventured forth to eyeball Bull Sluice with the idea of coming up with a plan that did not involve direct interfaces with mortality, or, better stated, did not involve direct interfaces with mortality for yours truly. My part of that planning process consisted, as predicted, almost entirely of shitting my pants when I laid first eyes upon the sphincter-puckering power of Bull Sluice.

As Adventure Orgy Guy was pointing out the myriad ominous hydraulic intricacies of Bull Sluice, all the while stressing the many, many potential fuck-ups that we, more than anything in the world, wanted to avoid because, even the slightest, teeniest mistake at any of those many, many fuck-up points would most certainly result in a series of soulful obituaries in the Clayton, Georgia, newspaper, I came to a realization that, while not exactly stunning — insofar as “surprise” is a necessary component of the definition of the word “stunning” — was at least a bit disconcerting on the self-perception front. When you’re an outdoor writer on assignment for a magazine named Adventure Travel to pen a story about a company that offers something called Adventure Orgies, you are vocationally, if not dispositionally, obligated to live up to certain big-balled personality stereotypes. And none of those stereotypes include overt displays of pants-wetting wussiness when faced with a mere Class-5 death waterfall. Yet, I realized, much to my simultaneous chagrin and relief, there was no way in hell my increasingly shriveling nuts were going through Bull Sluice. Mortifying though it might have been on several levels, it was actually a very liberating moment.

When I relayed, via a series of grunts and hyper-kinetic hand gestures, this non-negotiable reality to Adventure Orgy Guy, he seemed crestfallen. He also looked like he considered me to be a total pussy, which was just fine with me. The best stories are the ones you live to tell.

I, of course, thought that we would then portage our raft around the rapid and proceed upon our merry un-dead way. Ixnay. Adventure Orgy Guy beckoned Billy Redden to join him in the raft we had stashed upriver. “This way, you’ll at least be able to get some photos of us going through Bull Sluice for your story.” To say Billy Redden looked shocked would greatly minimize his contorted visage. Yet, Adventure Orgy Guy being his employer and all, he hung his head and dutifully made his way to the top of Bull Sluice. I stood below the rapid, camera at the ready.

A few minutes later, the little raft, which looked, against the fearsome immensity of Bull Sluice, like a toy boat bobbing in the surf of Oahu’s North Shore, shot into the maelstrom. There was no visual run-up — one nanosecond, they were not there, the next nanosecond, 14 kinds of fearsome hell were breaking loose. They entered Bull Sluice OK, but, at the 90-degree dogleg in the middle of the rapid, Billy Redden got his paddle caught between two rocks, and the force of Bull Sluice ripped it from his grip so intensely that the banjo-playing boy from “Deliverance” came within a single ass molecule of being pulled from the raft at a place that all but assured his doom. It looked at that frightening moment like his last above-water act was going to be a very wide-eyed, frantic arabesque penchee. The look on Adventure Orgy Guy’s face was a mix of fear and resolute determination that I will carry with me the rest of my days. He was down an engine in the middle of one of the most-notorious river rapids in the entire country, and, if he did not perform in extraordinary, superhuman fashion right then and there, fatalities were likely, which, while adding the potential for some spice to my Adventure Travel magazine story, would likely have negatively affected the overall vibe.

In the time it took me to snap off one photo, they were out of the rapid. Adventure Orgy Guy pulled it off and saved the day. Their raft drifted limply to shore, its occupants spent in a way that all but assures many weeks of deep introspection. Billy Redden wobbled onto shore and staggered downriver a few feet, where he plopped down on a rock, lit a cigarette and muttered to himself, over and over, “I ain’t never going through Bull Sluice again … I ain’t never going through Bull Sluice again … ” And I could tell he meant it.

Later that evening, on the long drive back to town, it was obvious there was something on Adventure Orgy Guy’s mind. It was just he and I in the truck, and we’d been drinking pretty heavily in silence for the better part of an hour. He finally said, “You know, you and I had been psychologically working our way up to Bull Sluice all day. I think if we had just gone through like we planned, everything would have turned out fine.” The implication, of course, was that, if Billy Redden (a professional river guide, I stress) had died in that rapid, it would have been my fault. I’ve got to admit, that observation rubbed me a bit wrong on numerous levels. But I really didn’t give it any further thought till I was back home, sitting in front of my computer, getting ready to write the Adventure Orgy story for Adventure Travel magazine.

Right then, as we were bounding down the darkening Appalachia highway, beers in hand, there was much still to ponder. After all, we had a horseback-riding trip planned the next day. And, after that, rock climbing, wild boar hunting, mako shark fishing and, should I live that long, ocean sailing. There was still much that could (and did) go awry. But all that’s a story for another time. And what a story it is …

Anne Story: An Unknown From the Seine

If you’ve ever taken a first-aid course, you may recall her face, as most likely you have kissed her likeness. Resusci Anne, as she now is known, is a famed mannequin, used round the world to teach mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Reproduction of original death mask by Lorenzi. Photo by M. Lorenzi

Her creation for that role came about in the late 1950s when an American doctor met a Norwegian doctor at an international conference on anesthesia held in Norway. Dr. Peter Safar, the American, was one of the pioneers of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He believed that people could best be taught the technique by practicing on a mannequin. Dr. Bjørn Lind, the Norwegian, was on the staff of a hospital in Stavanger and knew Åsmund Lærdal, a local toymaker whose biggest seller had been a doll named Anne. Lærdal also made plastic imitation wounds for use in teaching first-aid skills. Might he take Anne into first-aid?

Lærdal agreed immediately, as he knew the value of resuscitation from having once rescued his two-year-old son from drowning. Development took two years. The mannequin was given a head that could be turned and had a chest that would rise as it was inflated. He chose to make its face female, as he feared that men might be reluctant to kiss a male image. He knew and had been moved by the story of the death mask of an unknown young woman whose body had been fished out of the Seine River at Quai du Louvre in Paris in the late 1880s. Her features were beautiful and serene but not sexy, perfect for the purpose. He kept the name of his popular doll and named the mannequin Rescusci Anne.

The mannequin quickly became the method of choice in teaching resuscitation in Norway, then throughout Europe and then in the USA and round the globe. With time, she gained new talents, including submitting to chest compression to simulate maintenance of blood flow to the brain. She became the standard means of teaching cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), as well as artificial respiration. To date, some 300 million people have put their lips to hers and have pressed her chest, making her the world’s most kissed and most touched female.

The identity of the original drowned woman of the Seine will never be known; hence her name in French, L’Inconnue de la Seine (“The Unknown of the Seine”). Likewise, why she drowned will remain her secret. Like rivers flowing through other big cities, the Seine is a watery dump for the corpses of murdered people and a magnet for suicides. There were no blemishes on her body, so apparently she died by her own hand, perhaps to escape the pangs of unrequited love or hopeless poverty. Why the staff at the Paris morgue chose to have a modeler take a death mask from her corpse also is unknown, though her enduring appeal is a clue to their motivation. Moreover, there’s no record of what led to copies of her white plaster death mask being made and sold across Paris and then across Europe, to hang in the studios and homes.

The story of L’Inconnue de la Seine and her hauntingly beautiful death mask inspired poets and writers. Among them were Albert Camus, who described her as the “drowned Mona Lisa” and Vladimir Nabokov, whose 1934 poem L’Inconnue de la Seine in part reflects the Russian myth of Rusalka, the water nymph that inspired Dvorák’s opera by that name. Avant-garde photographer Man Ray illustrated Aurélien, the 1944 novel by surrealist Louis Aragon, with 15 photographic interpretations of L’Inconnue de la Seine. Paradoxically, the unknown woman of the Seine is among the world’s most known.

Even the mask that led to her fame remains a mystery. The Lorenzi family model makers on the Left Bank, where the modeler for the original death mask is said to have been based, are still in business, though now in a suburb southeast of the city. They believe that the smooth skin and rounded cheeks of the mask indicate that it was made from a living, not drowned woman. One explanation might be that the teenager who sat for the mask did commit suicide in the Seine, but years after the mask was made. But she might also have gone on to a happy life, unaware that an image of her teenage self would one day be known the world over.

More Info
Wikipedia has “L’Inconnue de la Seine” entries in English and in French. Details of the Resusci Anne mannequin are on the Laerdal Medical website with pages selectable in English and other major languages. Copies of the original death mask made by Lorenzi are listed in the company’s catalogue online (in French only). Full-size masks (catalog no. 943) cost € 130 plus postage, and small replicas, about 6 inches high (catalog no. 944), cost € 107 including postage. (The exchange rate at press time is about  €1 = $1.33.)

M. Michael Brady is MG’s regular Dateline: Europe columnist. He lives in Norway and works as a translator.

Dory Cooks

Once upon a time on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, before the evolutionary ingredients of post-industrial-strength river tourism — hairnets, gourmet menus, the Norwalk virus, food handlers’ licenses, coolers the size of refrigerators, rigorous spot kitchen inspections, a river food ethos of “plenty” rather than of “enough,” the potential of routine waste — and before crew members were counted as part of trip allocation, thereby making crew who served only one function (cooking) expendable (one more crew member equaled one less paying passenger), there were dory cooks. Iron men and wooden boats? Harrumph! Golden women and wooden boats, guardians of the movable feast, unsung heroines of the river hearth.

Ah … dory cooks — the queens of riparian cuisine, the mistresses of mastication and the arbiters of river etiquette. Like the boats, they could do it all. They were fun and fun to watch, sturdy but graceful under pressure or in repose, practical when the going got rough, beautiful without effort or insistence. Outdoor women who were able to orchestrate riverside banquets, leap tall kitchen tables in a skirt in a single bound, stay up late to sing and dance and rise early to boil a pot of cowboy coffee, break and mend hearts, corral unruly boatman, tend to passengers, pull an oar when necessary, lend an ear. Amazonian in spirit, women who practiced the art of river cooking for large numbers of people, at times under difficult conditions, more often than not with a smile (there are many kinds) and steely determination to get the job done. Women who, after the culinary course had been set, might wander off for a smoke, a drink or a river bath and then reappear, as if by magic, carrying an apple cobbler baked in a Dutch oven.  The able princess-guardians of the Kitchen — the heart and soul of any dory river trip — made things look far easier than they were. Their work always began long before the put-in.

To feed roughly 32 people (including crew) over 18 days on a limited budget required deliberate planning and healthy imagination. It was customary for dory cooks to begin trip preparations in the drafty, cob-webbed, desert-smelling cathedral-like warehouse in Hurricane, Utah, days before put-in, most often without pay. Personal pride and esprit de corps took the sting out of the paltry economics of the dories’ shoe-sting operation. After reviewing the passenger list, the ladies of the ladle performed the mystical calculus of figuring food quantities for 54 river meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner with dessert) based on number of passengers, gender, size, child, adolescent or adult, special needs and even time of year. A river cook’s job included finding any usable food in jars and cans from the previous trip, in accord with the prevailing ethic of non-waste. Make-do, make-it-up, but make-it-work. There were standard menus to tweak and numerous runs to the local market to pick up last-minute items. Dory cooks often drove to the wholesale warehouse in St. George to hand-pick the fruits and vegetables. There were #10 cans to peel the labels off and mark accordingly. An equally time-consuming task was to pack and label ammo cans and black bags and assign an equal load to each dory. The cook picked a “kitchen” boat to carry the kitchen gear as well as a “produce” boat to husband the trip’s supply of perishable vegetables and fruits. The amount of ice (oh, wondrous ice!) in coolers the boats could carry was limited and lasted only a few days, at most. All the dory cook’s efforts were borne with three goals in mind: to create varied and tasty meals for a large group of generally hungry people over a two-week period, to avoid the cook’s nightmare (a food scare) by having enough food and finally, to limit waste. After food prepping and packing, they turned their attention to tackling another vital task — assembling a complete kitchen outfit that would not set them howling at the moon for lack of a Dutch, a sharp knife or a favorite coffee cup. These were the pre-historic days before eye-catching outdoor catalogues carried an endless variety of quality kitchen accoutrements and other cool river stuff.

On the river, dory cooks routinely performed the impossible. They managed the food supply, the order of meals, special requests and where the ingredients for the day’s meals were located in each dory through the use of Sacred Notebooks, not to be touched by mere mortals, the unwashed boatmen. Each cook kept her own idiosyncratic, undecipherable code to the mysterious workings of the Kitchen in her holy grail. It was rarely out of her sight. She communicated her wishes (demands?) to boatmen through the medium of “pull lists.” Boatmen dared not argue with a dory cook who said that, indeed, the #10 can of peaches was in their boat. After six or seven days, with meat and vegetables gone or dwindling in quantity, the new challenge was to make tasty, satisfying meals from canned foods and long-lasting vegetables. Again, dory cooks made Julie Childs look like a fast-food burger slinger. It was also a matter of economy, both financial and ethical. Rather than create a sense of endless plenty, dory cooks operated on the premise of doing more with less — open-faced sandwiches, GORP containers on each boat, peanut butter boards before lunch, pre-dinner appetizers — all to take the edge of growing appetites. Serve enough, and a bit more, and know that everything tastes better when you are in the outdoors. The spice-box ammo can was the dory cook’s best friend. Out of reasonably priced food stuffs, they delivered quality meals.

On the River, dory cooks chose the location of the Kitchen, referencing weather conditions, shade and sunlight, sunrise and sunset, access to water, distance from boats and, most importantly, the scenic view. In the early days, they cooked on fire pans and wood-burning iron stoves and delegated firewood, fresh water and garbage duties to boatmen. Each woman had her own unique style, special meals, unspoken kitchen rules and a bag of culinary tricks to avert disaster and make more out of less.

Despite sublime scenery, roaring rapids, pretty boats and charming boatmen, what happened in the River Kitchen could make a good trip great or a not-so-good trip worse. The value of the role the dory cook played in river trip dynamics could not be underestimated. A welcoming invitation to “help” in the kitchen gave female (as well as male) passengers an opportunity to participate and socialize on a more intimate, democratic level than in those pretty wooden dories. Small talk, laughter and a cocktail lubricated the social machinery and made for genuine group cohesion. A dory cook was likely to hear passenger concerns early on, and relay information and firm opinions to the trip leader to meet an unanticipated need or head trouble off at the pass. Given the number of female passengers, dory cooks offered a viable alternate sensibility to that of the sun-baked, well-intentioned boatmen, no matter how alert or “sensitive” to the female vibe they were.  Most boatmen would have agreed that a female presence in the crew (whether in the kitchen or at the oars) was not only desirable, but essential, to any good river trip. And when one of the boatmen went down with an illness or injury, dory cooks stepped into the breach to row the boats. With changing times, some dory cooks went on to become boatmen, just as covetous of their craft as their fellow rowers. In “The Hidden Canyon,” Ed Abbey described the dory cooks at the start of his trip, “Our cooks are two able and handsome young woman named Jane and Kenly. Both are competent oarswomen as well, and can substitute for the boatmen if necessary.” Indeed.

Dory cooks shepherded rookie boatmen through stomach-churning rapids with generous, sound advice, led passengers around difficult rapids, bartered with other river trips for coffee, restored kitchens washed away by flash floods, cooked in raging rainstorms, nursed hung-over boatmen back to life, treated raging cases of toliosis (foot fungus), smoothed the ruffled feathers of picky passengers, hiked side canyons, carried every medicine, trifle and good-luck charm in their decorated iron-purse-like ammo cans, added the ineffable quality of femaleness to the Canyon, decorating themselves with an array of scarves, dresses, bandanas, bathing suits, caps, hats, bonnets, shawls and jewelry that brought color, light, music and dance to the stone cathedral, the river corridor of sand castles and cloud creatures. Professional in their work, the dory cooks of decades past were fun-loving, light-hearted practitioners of the river maxim “function in disaster and finish in style.”

Ah, dory cooks!

Senior correspondent Vince Welch’s last piece for the Gazette was “Terror and Wonder,” which appeared in MG #177. He lives in Portland, Ore.

Bob Chamberlain’s Mountain Vision #178

Roll-Out the Barrels/The Red Onion, Aspen c. 1975

In the 1950s, there were a couple of guys named Earl that hung around the Red Onion a lot. One was called Eatin’ Earl and the other was was called Drinkin’ Earl. Drinkin’ Earl’s real name was Earl Morse, and Eatin’ Earl was really Earl Eaton in military dialect, the guy who showed Pete Seibert the back bowls of Vail while on a hunting trip.

Well, one day my friend Jim came looking for Drinkin’ Earl, and went upstairs to the second floor, where Drinkin’ Earl lived in a room right above the Saloon itself. Jim looked around, and finally spied an Army cot, pushed up against a window, with an Army blanket, and what looked like Olive-Drab sheets. Now Jim had been in the Mountain & Cold-Weather Training Command, but had never seen Olive-Drab sheets before. To get a better look, Jim walked right up to the cot, and on close inspection, saw that the sheets weren’t Olive-Drab at all, but were just regular white sheets that had never been washed!

Mayor McCheese, and mountain culture, missing

Leftover Salmon sans Mayor McCheese.

Leftover Salmon’s iconic Mayor McCheese has been missing since the new millennium went double digits: The 40-pound, three-foot-tall plastic figure disappeared on New Year’s Eve 2009/10 when Colorado’s self-described “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass” musicians played at The Ogden in Denver.

Since the early 1990s, LOS toured with the McDonald’s playground figure, originally liberated from a Denver chain in the 1980s and granted custodial care to Leftover Salmon when a friend moved from Crested Butte. Audiences would work the cheeseburger head up to orbital warp speeds as its sesame-seed bun surfed mountain crowds far and wide.

Leftover Salmon fans regularly “stole” the Mayor, then returned it once they had their way with it — and the band had its way with the pranksters.

After one woman posed with the head — riding it naked — the musicians photocopied her picture with the caption, “Have you seen this cheeseburger?” and hung it on every telephone poll within a half-mile radius of their gig. (Luckily, she had the good sense to put a bag over her own head before straddling the infamous noggin).

Another gig gag in Washington led to a ransom note demanding 500 pounds of feed corn for the wide-grinning mascot. The corn worshippers ceremoniously returned the Mayor in full splendor, with a 30-piece marching band ushering him in. Little did the bar owner know that Leftover Salmon members made good on their end by passing out plentiful corn feed to the crowd, who expected the Mayor’s return that night. As the marching band came in, corn began a flyin’.

“It looked like a beehive for the next half hour in the room,” said Leftover Salmon front man Vince Herman. “We never played that venue again. They were a little pissed.”

The Mayor’s latest disappearance is perhaps symbolic of the changes Herman sees in mountain towns altogether: the vanishing of true ski-bum traditions.

“The early 1990s made a festering ski culture in Crested Butte,” Herman says as he recalls a 1990 boisterous gig at the Eldorado. “People were psyched to be on the mountain, the town was fun and cheap, and people slam danced. The faster the bluegrass, people went nuts because of what the ski towns were in the 1990s … they were really connected to each other; club owners were really tight, as the locals were. If we were starting the band today, I don’t think we could have that strong physical response. Now the mountains are populated by a different kind of ski bum. They have to have more jobs, they can’t buy a house — ski corporations are mainstream and not allowing the delicious divergence that once was … there’s a little less personality being brewed out there. We’re all becoming a little more white bread.”

And though Leftover Salmon hasn’t received ransom or any communication from the Mayor McCheese kidnappers, and the musicians “fear the worst” for their cheesy friend, Herman still maintains hope, for both the Mayor and ski town culture.

“I think the rowdiness of ski towns is ready to happen again because of the fall of the real estate market,” he said. “Mountain towns are where young people went to retire, and I think they can be again.”

River rats and ski bums alike can catch Leftover Salmon, most likely sans McCheese, June 12 at State Bridge near Bond, Colo. The band is playing at the Grand Re-opening party of the New State Bridge Amphitheatre (which officially opens May 28), after a fire destroyed the property in 2007.

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

Fourteeners and Fire Season

“Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs,” by Gerry Roach

Coloradan Gerry Roach has climbed about a million mountains. That’s not an exact number, but compared to most of us, it might as well be. Whatever the real number is, it’s so high that most of us have no concept of it. He’s climbed 1,200 named peaks in Colorado, including all the Thirteeners, and all the Fourteeners, which he completed in 1974. Most folks who move to Colorado’s Front Range spend their first winter here skiing, then buy Gerry Roach’s Fourteeners guide the next summer, when they realize they still want to do something cool in the mountains after the snow melts. This year, 12 years after the second edition of “Colorado’s Fourteeners,” Fulcrum Publishing is putting out the third edition of this bible of peak-bagging. This fatter edition adds another 70 pages, with new features of GPS coordinates and Roach’s own scoring system of mountain climbing, so you can keep track of your “R Points” as you tick off hikes. I don’t know exactly how it works, but it’s based on a peak’s elevation, length of the approach and climb in time and distance, elevation gain and technical difficulty of each pitch. The West Slopes on Mount Bierstadt, which you can climb with hundreds of people any Saturday during the summer, gets 140 R Points, while the 5.8 Prow on Kit Carson Peak gets 1,285 R Points. Still a steal at $22.95, with all the beta in here. www.fulcrum-books.com.

“Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout,” by Philip Connors

Philip Connors is the typical run-of-the-mill U.S. Forest Service employee. Except, you know, he can write like hell. His writing has appeared in such highbrow places as Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Nation and Salon.com. When he left a job as an editor at the Wall Street Journal to become a fire lookout 10 years ago, I’m sure he wasn’t hoping to get his hands on an adventure that would provide grist enough for him to write a book that would one day be reviewed in the Mountain Gazette. But here we are, and I’m not going to not use this opportunity to tell you this book is great, like Norman-Maclean-“Young-Men-and-Fire” great. Ruminations and history of wildfire, the Forest Service, work and solitude might make you jealous of Connors’ five-month-a-year job up in the lookout in the south part of New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. Like this: “Most of us, if we could change one thing, would either make our seasons longer or forego days off, the longer to enjoy our state of grace and the quicker to attain it. Once you can sit on a stool for an afternoon, unmoving and unmoved by anything but light on mountains, you have become a sensei of the sedentary and need answer to no one for it, except perhaps your husband or your wife.” Connors is wrapping up his book tour out West this month. $24.99, HarperCollins.com.

The Original Mountain Slamdance

“Conversation didn’t seem necessary when I put the accordion down and swung some young lady around the floor.”
– Lawrence Welk

Pete Dunda performs outside in Crested Butte. Photo by Dawne Belloise

You’re wondering what a dance step ever had to do with dots. Or bubbles. Or what this has to do with mountain music. Maybe you remember how your elderly grandparents carried on about some guy named Welk with a bubble machine and his own orchestra and a TV show. Well, polka is back with a new fervor and it’s not just a geezer three-step anymore. The lively bounce has evolved into the modern equivalent of Slovenian slam dancing, drawing in younger crowds who grew up with mosh-pit ethics. Grab a brewski, a partner and twirl into the sea of musical bumper cars, because anyone who can count to three and is still breathing can polka. The trickiest part of the groove is not to slosh your beer on the downbeat, because the old timers on the floor frown upon wasted brew.

Early Central European immigrants, who came to mountain towns for work in the mines, brought with them musical traditions and culture that involved accordions, concertinas, horns and drums that broke into impromptu home jams and consequently ended up on packed barroom dance floors extending into the streets. You can bet the immigrants knew how to hold on to their drinks and their partners in the heat of the whirling oompah. Every mining town from the late-1800s into the 1900s had its own band composed mostly of the original work-hard/party-harder clan who hailed primarily from Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Ireland and Italy. After washing off the ore dust, they’d often grab their instruments and the entire family would head to the bar, which was an extension of the living room. Often, a toddler’s first steps were a three-step polka.

The Pete Dunda Band has been playing the polka-dancing circuit since 1976, but Pete’s been on the polka party scene for more than 40 years, taking accordion lessons since the age of seven — six-plus decades ago. Spanning a 23-year Air Force career as laser physicist and jet fighter pilot to being the ultimate polka king, Pete has continuously played various Rocky Mountain holiday events. He remembers earlier times in high-altitude bars. “It was very crowded and very wild in those days,’ he says. “At the early dances, you couldn’t move on Memorial Day … but the Fourth of July was obscene.”

The cultural generation gap was a bit wider then, as the old timers came to polka but the younger and newer locals and visitors would just want to bounce around spilling their beer all over everything and everyone. Pete remembers a quarter-inch of fermented amber liquid engulfing the entire floor and submerging the electrical cords for the band’s equipment just waiting to add even more spark to the already lively steps. “It got to be a drunk-out. Someone was going to get hurt on the dance floor,” he worried, but no one ever did, and the party was carried forward. These days the floors are jammed with all ages of dancers, couples young and old happily smashing into each other while laughing hysterically, like an upright rhythmic game of Twister between good neighbors.

Polka was probably invented by a Bohemian Polish peasant woman named Anna Slezak in a small country town outside of Prague in the early 1830s. It was composed to a folk song entitled, “Strycek Nimra Koupil Simla” (“Uncle Nimra Brought a White Horse”). Anna called the step “Madera” because of its quickness and liveliness, but “pulka” is Czech for “half-step,” which refers to the rapid shift from one foot to the other. The accordion, the backbone of the polka, was patented in 1829 and had only buttons and not the modern piano accordion with keys, which came into vogue around 1885.

After WWII, more German and Slavic immigrants to the United States brought their traditional folk songs and adapted them to polka mode as the craze of the ’50s brought various styles of polkas and the popularization of both the dance and the accordion. Names such as Yankovic, Cantino and Welk all put the dance on the floor and into the mainstream. Polka parties were held at local bars to celebrate the victories, homecoming and family. Jake Spritzer Sr., an old-timer from a mining family in Crested Butte, learned to polka as a young child, as his father played accordion. In those days, the Spritzer family had a band, but they would also play solo. “Nothing was planned,” Jake remembers. “They’d just sit down and do it. They were all very talented and several others around town also had instruments.”

Spritzer recalls how the locals would spill out into the streets dancing because, “The bars were so packed you couldn’t walk in or out. I was little, so I thought every town did this.”

Most mining-town populations in the Rockies did dance and play with abandon whenever they could carve a moment from their harsh real-world lives. Not only a stress relief from being cooped up in dark, dank mines all day, it was a celebration of memories of the old country. The homemade dandelion wine common and abundant in those days helped loose the feet and spirit. Back in the post-WWII days, the Fourth of July and Memorial Day were Jake’s favorites when, “Everyone would get together at each other’s houses and share lots of food. Everyone would stop over here and over there and accordions would be played.” It was a moving feast that ended up in the bars for a polka and a waltz.

It’s important to carry on tradition … being spun in tight circles while knocking back pints of libation in the swelter of a frothing dance floor where all that dizziness perhaps imitates love, invokes a collective memory of the old world and music that certainly makes everyone euphoric. Give in to your inner bohemian and save us a dance …

Check out the Pete Dunda Band at petedunda.com; for more info on the Rocky Mountains’ largest polka fest and club, visit bigskypolkaclub.com; in Colorado, the Edelweiss Club is a German dance organization with great info at tevedelweiss.org

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

Portrait of the American Climber

Film: “Portrait of The American Climber”

Filmmaker Oakley Anderson-Moore’s father, Mark, was a “full-time” climber for 13 years starting in the early 1970s. He picked fruit during harvest seasons and climbed when he wasn’t picking fruit. In this incredibly exhaustive journalistic effort, she tries to capture that story, and an incredible amount of the other stories in the history of American climbing. By the time the film was finished, literally hundreds of people were involved in the grassroots effort — including the 50 or so legendary climbers interviewed, and the more than 150 donors who contributed upwards of $14,000 on Kickstarter.com. The film is so grassroots that the filmmakers stayed at my pal Lee’s house when they stopped by the American Mountaineering Center in Golden to do an advance screening. Climbers interviewed by the crew (who crossed the country to do many of them) include Royal Robbins, Tom Frost, John Gill, Allen Steck, John Bachar, Lynn Hill, John Long, Ron Kauk, Ed Webster, Peter Croft and Tommy Caldwell, just to name a few. Tons of fantastic historic footage, including the opening scene in the film, archival news footage of the first ascent party topping out on The Nose on El Capitan in 1958. Oakley’s father wasn’t a famous climber, but he’s sharing the stage with about every other famous climber in American history here. I’ve been excited for this movie to come out ever since the advance screening in November 2010. “Portrait of The American Climber” is a nice balance to compliment all the contemporary climbing films that celebrate the most-difficult-route-du-jour — we spend all this time looking forward in tiny increments, but not enough looking back at the pioneers who got climbing to where it is now. www.rockadventuremovie.com