There are few Mountain-Country nightmares more universal, more ass puckering, than the notion of unintentionally/accidentally (and, ergo, generally sans control, because, if you had control, then you would either be doing this on purpose or, failing that, not doing it at all) skiing into the trees. Avalanches trump that nightmare, sure. And being caught upside-down in a hole while kayaking, falling or getting bonked on the noggin by a rock while climbing and maybe getting pulled for a faulty taillight after consuming something on the order of 47 tasty, frothy, carbonated beverages all make the Land-of-Vertical-Terrain-lifestyle oh-shit list. But skiing into the trees (as opposed, by a wide margin, to “tree skiing”) holds it own, at least partially because a high percentage of those meeting their maker on the slopes do so while interfacing at unfortunate speeds with aspens and blue spruces, neither of which give much when impacted by a flailing human life form whose last thoughts are likely focused big time on some frantic variation on the can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees theme. This reality is most certainly exacerbated when one’s skiing skills can best be described as “mighty poor,” because, after all, were one’s skiing skills better than “mighty poor,” then, in all likelihood, one would not find oneself barreling into the slopeside or trailside rough and, even if one did find oneself doing just that, then one would stand some chance of being able to rectify the situation before things got Really Bad on the physiology front. You may feel perfectly comfortable in classifying me as a “mighty poor” skier, which is a bit weird, as 1) I have spent one serious amount of time with my leather boots three-pinned into touring skis, 2) most of that time has transpired in the backcountry boonies of the Colorado Rockies (i.e.: rugged, challenging terrain) and 3), while not hinting for even a moment that I’m fit to carry Carmelo Anthony’s jockstrap or anything, I have participated in sports my entire life and possess at least a modicum of balance and reflexes. Yet, I have never really managed to translate a lifetime’s worth of admittedly low-rent athletic acumen into anything even resembling competent skiing, even though my life has largely been spent dwelling in places where the drunkest guy/guy-ette at the end of the sleaziest bar can chug his or her 39th beer of the morning and go out and ski 2nd Notch or Zero Chute with stunning sangfroid. For many winters, I psychologically dealt with my oft-mortifying skiing incompetence by spending most of my winter outdoor recreation time tromping through the woods on snowshoes, which, in a way, worked just fine, because I am more than anything a walker/hiker/backpacker, and snowshoeing is the closest approximation of those activities when you live in a place that boasts five feet of snow on the trails for half the year. But, well, here’s the thing about snowshoeing: Even though it is a sport with many positive components, it just is not all that fun. Or at last not as fun as skiing, even if your skiing skills are, as I said, defined as “mighty-poor.” So, after a few years of laborious snowshoeing, I decided to put my energy back into touring. I never have much liked visiting ski areas, mainly because, when I have a few extra hours that allow me to get out in the backcountry, I’d just as soon go to a place with a few less thousand out-of-control Kansans and Texans. Fortunately, I have generally lived in places where I can access backcountry trails pretty much by walking out my front door. Which is exactly what I did on the day I’m getting ready to tell you about here. Dawn had yet to even fully break when I threw my boards over my shoulder and headed out to the kind of trail that people who dwell in lesser places fantasize about visiting once a year on vacation. This is a trail I have traveled upon so many times — in all seasons, skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, biking — that, if I live to be 100 and never, ever visit that trail again, I will go to the grave with every curve and contour still seared happily into my cranial on-aboard navigation system. It was mid-January and a tad nippy there at 6:45 a.m. Meaning, yes, the trail was a bit on the icy side. If there is one skiing skill I do have (all things being relative, of course), it’s that I am fairly strong on uphills. I have decent endurance and I have developed acceptable technique with my fish-scale Karhus. Yet, the slip-slidiness of the frozen tracks that day made for slow going. Slow going, I should stress, on the ascent. I knew as I climbed that the descent would be a horse of a whole nuther adrenaline-based color. I turned around at the usual place and pointed my boards down in the direction of what I then feared might very well be an impending mishap. (Yes, that would be a self-fulfilling prophesy.) Yet, as I said, this is a trail I can ski in my sleep. Though there were a few moments when my eyes splayed wide, I made it most of the way down without misfortune. But I did the thing you never do: I relaxed and let my concentration wander before I was technically and metaphorically out of the woods. At a place I know like the back of my hand, a place that I never had problems with before, I found myself 1) because of the iciness of the trail, skiing way faster than I would have liked, 2) losing control just as I arrived at a big curve above a drop-off into an aspen grove and 3) using especially colorful language. Before I could even properly soil my knickers, I was headed willy-nilly for those aspens, and there was seemingly nothing that was going to get between me and an imminent direct interface with a tree, except, perhaps, another tree. I had visions of the front-page story in the local paper, and my buddies coming out to eyeball the Place Where It Happened. “How could anyone hit a tree here?” they would ask, shaking their heads slowly, as they made their way to the wake, where their solemnity would at least be assuaged somewhat by the free beverages my widow would surely pony up for. It’s important at this point to stress that, compared to the speeds that real skiers routinely achieve in this ski-crazy part of the country, my forward momentum was likely laughable. I once covered a pro ski event at Keystone, and, from my perch mid-mountain, scant feet from the course, I watched downhill racers zipping by at speeds that made them seem less skiers than corporeal manifestations of the Doppler Effect. Later, I heard they were traveling at almost 80 mph! I was even more dumbfounded than usual. Me, as I was headed toward that grove of aspens? I would be surprised if I had even achieved double-digit miles per hour, but 1) it seemed to me at that moment quite fast enough to result in measurable calamity and 2) I know from personal experience that it does not take much on the speed front to intercourse oneself up when one impacts a tree. Though I am not exactly proud to relate this, this I know because, a couple decades prior, I lived in Grand Lake, Colorado, where I was employed by the town government to run its admittedly modest tennis program. (That was not a bad gig, let me tell you.) I know this will come as a stunner to many of you, but, one night, I over-imbibed at a long-gone watering hole called the Corner Pub. There was a fairly substantial line of pines between said bar and the one-room, refrigerator-less, bathroom-less, $100-a-month attic I then called home. Now, you would think that one as practiced as I was/am in both the art of over-imbibing and the art of mostly accurate perambulation would have been able to miss that line of trees by a wide margin — especially when you consider that I had to walk by those pines numerous times every day. And it’s not like those trees went into sudden, unexpected camouflage mode. No, they were right where they always were, doing what they always do. Despite the fact that I was not exactly sprinting, and despite the fact that my drunkenness autopilot was surely doing its best to make sure I was practicing some semblance of involuntary evasive action, I still managed to pretty much head-on collision one of those pines hard enough that I remember looking up into the night sky and wondering what my feet were doing all the way there in the middle of the Milky Way. Thing is, amusing (at least to my drinking chums) though that mishap was, the main point here is that my shoulder was bruised and contused enough that I could not swing a tennis racquet for a solid week. As I began to accelerate my way that icy morning toward that grove of aspens, I don’t know how fast I was moving (surely, I had not achieved double-digit miles per hour), but I was definitely going faster than that night in Grand Lake — the very night I became a proponent of aggressive clear cutting — when that malevolent killer tree jumped out of the darkness and knocked me on my ass for no apparent good reason. Researchers of all things human-brain related surely have studied the fact that, sometimes, when shit is about to hit the fan, time slows way down and sometimes it speeds way the fuck up, and this inexplicable reality is not just a matter of how one person handles shit hitting the fan and how another person handles it. With any given person, it can go either way, depending on who knows what. Most times, with me, time speeds up, and that means I don’t usually muck up a potentially dangerous situation with extraneous thought. My wuss gland usually just kicks in of its own volition, and, in the context of skiing, that generally means that I automatically go into slide-into-third- base mode, with skis up, in hopes of fending off whatever I’m getting ready to crash into with the largest and most powerful muscles the human body has to offer, by way of a personal sacrifice to the tree deities. This time, though, time slowed way, way, way down. It was as though God had just sprayed the world, Agent Orange-style, with a big batch of Quaalude dust. The birds were now tweeting as though you applied light finger pressure to an old LP, just to see if you could hear any subliminal references to devil worship. My breathing, which I knew had to be operating at a hyper-inflated, fear-induced rate, seemed instead like I had inhaled a bucket of molasses (in January). I felt like I could have composed a long and heartfelt good-bye note to my beloved in the time between when my skis parted ways with the trail and when I arrived air mail, special delivery, into the midst of those trees, with, I’m sure, a look of abject terror defining my countenance so vividly that, when search-and-rescue finally peeled my mug out of the aspen bark, an indentation of my petrified visage would have been left behind like a Basque sheepherder tree carving. With time moving at about quarter speed, I tried mightily — to the point that I could both hear and feel my quadriceps separating from their attendant tendons — to engage the most aggressive snowplow ever initiated. Then, with all hope for a happy outcome slipping by fast, my lizard brain came up with a survival plan that, to this day, I cannot fully explain in any manner save the most basic transitive relation. What I did was this: While continuing to apply every ounce of positive energy I could muster to my largely ineffectual snowplow, I lifted my gloved left hand, which still retained, within its increasingly weak grasp, a ski pole, and pointed my index finger directly at the aspen that, in fractions of a nanosecond, I would soon impact. I do not know why this felt like it was the right thing to do, but that’s exactly what it felt like: The Right Thing To Do. Now, at that time of my life, I was deep into martial arts training, the deepest I ever was and ever would be. One of the main concepts you hope to get a grasp on when you’re trying to learn how to bust your fist through concrete blocks without shattering every bone in your upper body is this thing called chi. Matter of fact, the generation and studied utilization of chi is probably the most important concept when you’re learning any martial art. And the goal is to be able to call forth the chi power that flows through us all, flows through every living and inanimate object under the sun, without really having to think about it. It’s one thing when you’re applying every ounce of your concentration onto an imminent attempt to bust concrete blocks while a dour-looking Korean Grand Master is scrutinizing your every movement, but it’s an entirely different thing when you’re out in the woods by yourself and about to ski into an aspen, which, as my buddy Milt said after hearing this story later that day, at least has softer wood than many other kinds of trees. In that Quaalude-dust, molasses-breath slow-motion time, I focused every molecule on my internal energy into that extended index finger. I tried to use my skull as a cosmic antenna to attract every gram of chi that happened to be in the neighborhood that particular frigid January morning. And, then, finally, I made first contact with that tree, finger first, and finger only. And all of the physics that applied to my there-and-then condition — momentum, inertia, gravity (of both literal and figurative varieties), equal-and-opposite reactions, all that shit — met head on with the chi that was spewing forth from my body, my existence, and zeroed in on that one frail extended digit, which did not exactly “hit” that tree, but which, rather, met that tree, as though I was doing nothing more than reaching out to touch it, as I often do with trees. And I came to a complete stop, like I was doing nothing more than pushing a doorbell that happened to be attached to a side of an aspen out in the middle of the glorious Colorado High Country. It was like, all I had to do was push that doorbell, and doors would open to entire new worlds. Which, I guess, in retrospect, is maybe exactly what happened. I would like to schuss my way to this story’s denouement by saying I emerged from the woods that day unscathed. I cannot say that, because, powers of chi notwithstanding, physics still played a large role in the experience. My left index finger was, not surprisingly, truly trashed. I never went to the orthopedist, because, for some reason, that just did not seem quite right. But I’m sure there were at least two fractures, a dislocation and some torn soft tissue. For most of the next year, that finger pointed at about a 40-degree angle to starboard. But, like most things, it eventually got better and now, by looking at it, you would never know that it was one day long ago used to push an aspen doorbell at the exact moment I was trying as hard as I could to gain access to a place I still wonder if I ever really, truly visited. Maybe I was just peeking through the window. There is a reason why I decided to share this story. For a long while now, I’ve wanted to solicit from our readers mountain-related stories about their digits, about the things that have happened to their fingers (we’ll get to toes another time) that show in some way, direct or circuitously, the impacts, good and bad, that life in the mountains can have on these particular parts of our anatomy. The plan is run one story per digit, so we can compile a composite portrait of mountain hands, and tell the stories that came from those hands. I am open to stories about injuries, accomplishments, thumbs used for hitchhiking trips, wedding bands placed and removed upon ring fingers, hell, whatever our readers can come up with. As usual, I’m interested in how those stories reflect upon Mountain Country and one’s relationship with Mountain Country — lessons learned, lessons not learned, wisdom gained, wisdom lost. At the same time, I want pictures of these digits, even if, after all these years, they’ve healed or gotten worse. I’ll need these stories, along with photos of the digits-in-question, by Feb. 1, 2011. Send them along to mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

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Naked Streets

So I’m headed down 28th Street in Boulder to Mickey D’s for another heart-stopping sausage-and-egg muffin. Let me explain that 28th Street ranks with the butt-ugliest streets in any town in North America from Toronto to Juarez, including Detroit.

The stoplight is flashing red, obviously malfunctioning. I cautiously pull into the left-hand turn lane and stop and flip on my turn signal. I carefully look in all directions. The first three cars in the oncoming lane move across the intersection very slowly and the cars behind them all stop. A guy in an Audi waves me across the intersection.

I clench my teeth and creep across, knowing that some buffed-out, over-caffeinated, entitled software engineer at some start-up doomed to failure is going to charge across the intersection and T-bone my old 4Runner. And then yell at me for going too slowly and getting in his way.

But nothing happens. I cruise across the intersection and on to maybe my 10,321st sausage-and-egg muffin.

You need to know that Boulder is a fairly good place to live, but that there about 21,487 really important people that live here who drive as if the rest of us don’t matter. They are usually driving high-end Eurotrash cars or, if their last start-up flamed-out, Subies. In their minds, there are simply no rules that apply to them. When they don’t have their hands in their pants, because no sane person would sleep with them, they are driving while texting, talking on the cell or doing their eye makeup in the mirror (this is not just an indictment of men; there are woman assholes in Boulder, too, maybe more).

So this moderate, mindful reaction to a traffic light malfunction must have been an anomaly. When I finish my breakfast-in-a-wrapper, there will 297 cars backed-up at the same intersection with two of Boulder’s Finest with donut crumbs on their chests and one Deputy Sheriff trying to straighten out the mess.

Nope. Not true. When I reach the intersection again, the red lights are still flashing in all directions and traffic is moving slowly but efficiently.

This got me to thinking. If drivers in Boulder can manage a busy, malfunctioning intersection, why couldn’t more laid-back folks do the same thing in mountain towns where summer and winter traffic can sometimes just stop dead for minutes at a time due to a red light when no one is moving across the intersection on the green light?

A little research found that this concept is called Naked Streets, something the Euros have been doing for years, and it seems to work. And not only does traffic move more efficiently, but there are fewer fender-benders at these intersections. “Reports often cite the town of Drachten, Holland, as an example. Accidents at one major intersection fell from 36 in four years to two in two years after the traffic lights were removed.” This from a New York Times article of 9.2.09.

So, how about a little traffic experimentation in mountain towns? It might just make us a little more civilized and free to manage our own traffic instead of mindlessly reacting to traffic lights. That we would no longer be supporting the international traffic light cartel, the thousands of government employees that maintain the lights and the criminals who manufacture those traffic violation cameras is a good thing. That our Finest would have more time for donuts is a better thing.

Alan Stark, who used to be MG’s assistant editor, owns and operates Boulder Bookworks. boulderbookworks.com.

Talking Turkey

In many ways, the Thanksgiving turkey has become a metaphor for the downfall of our bloated and broken American civilization. Once the sacrificial bird that united the Pilgrims and Indians (that’s the version that is completely devoid of revisionist history), it’s now a word used to describe idiots, has become a common incendiary device with the advent of deep-fat turkey fryers, and helps make Thanksgiving the leading day in the U.S. for house fires. If you have any doubt: http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=3vZnuYK2Wfg

1) Hunting for advice?

Turkey hunting is the second-leading cause of hunting accidents, yet it remains a relatively safe sport, with 100 out of 3 million turkey hunters in the U.S. getting hurt in the pursuit of the almighty bird. To add to your own safety, here’s a bit of advice from the Colorado Division of Wildlife: “Don’t wear turkey colors. Red, white and blue are colors found on a turkey’s head.” Anyway.

2) Turkeys talking

Dan Maes, Republican candidate for Colorado governor, said that, although he had initially supported environmentally friendly programs such as Denver’s bike-sharing project, he had to reconsider his position. He said such programs are in fact a veil for much more complex schemes. “If you do your homework and research,” he said, “you realize that (encouraging people to park their cars and ride bikes in the city) is part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty.” At press time, Maes was trailing Big Time in the polls.

3) The lure of tryptophan

The Golden State has the glory of producing the most turkeys in the American West, growing roughly 15 million each year. (Minnesota leads the nation at a rather gross 48 million.) It’s no surprise that Butterball produces the most turkey meat — 1,330 million pounds a year. Americans devour 17 pounds of turkey apiece annually, while folks over in Israel set the world record at a stout 22 pounds. The largest dressed turkey on record was recorded in 1989 in London. The bird came in at a respectable 86 pounds. Animal rights groups are quick to point out that such weight gain isn’t healthy; if human babies gained at the same rate as farmed turkeys, they’d weigh 1,500 pounds at 18 weeks.

4) Turkeys join Nixon on pardon list

Last Thanksgiving, President Obama issued an official pardon to a 45-pound tom named Courage, meaning that, instead of gracing the table at the White House, the bird would instead travel — live! — to Disneyland to serve as grand marshal at the theme park’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The President described the bird as being saved from a “terrible and delicious fate” by “the interventions of Malia and Sasha — because I was planning to eat this sucker.” A second bird named Carolina also received a pardon and was sent along as a stand-in if Courage couldn’t stand up to the job. The birds were set to retire at a ranch after fulfilling their duties.

5) Turkey spending

If you’re still pissed at Arizona because of its tough stance on illegal immigration, know that someone there has a heart. Consider the case of the Mount Graham red squirrel, which recently won a $1.25 million federal grant. The money is going toward tracking collars, radio transmitters, cameras and canopy bridges for the endangered rodents, to be erected on State Route 366 near Pima as well as Forest Service Road 803. The idea is to keep the 250 existing squirrels (down 15 from last year) from becoming roadkill, and officials believe they will be able to save the lives of at least five squirrels this way. That’s $250,000 per squirrel and suggestive of the work of turkeys at the financial helm. Note, though, that the webbing used in the bridges is military-grade nylon with a minimum vertical clearance of 20 feet.

6) The burp of relief

If salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter or any other pathogens become your dinner guests this Thanksgiving (speaking from personal experience in which I and 16 others suffered Thanksgiving food poisoning at work, I implore you to follow the stuffing guidelines as if your last gasp depended on them, and indeed it does), rest assured you’ve got the legal guns on your side (assuming you didn’t poison yourself). The Seattle-based Marler Clark law firm specializes in big-time food poisoning and has represented clients in almost every big food-borne illness outbreak in recent U.S. history. The firm won $15.6 million for the most seriously injured survivor of the 1993 Jack in the Box E. coli debacle, was recently on the front lines of the Iowa egg recall and nationwide salmonella outbreak, and has been involved in most of the big cases in between. Known for a way with words, Bill Marler has issued such tomes as “Who Needs Al-Qaeda when you have got E. Coli?”

7) Turkeys take flight — sort of

According to FAA accident reports from a few years back, a pair of coyote hunters from Ft. Peck, MT, were chasing their prey from the air when the passenger accidentally shot the fuel tank and right wing of the aircraft, causing it to crash. The hunters survived, as did the coyote, and somewhere in all this is a karmic hint about fair chase.

8) Dead Turkey

A 20-year-old man was stopped near Lakeview, OR, for speeding and cops determined that he was driving a stolen car out of Idaho. With that, he was handcuffed and placed in the back of the cruiser, where, ostensibly, he would ride in safety to the nearest jail. However, while the officers were out of the car, he brought his hands to the front of his body, squirmed through the hole between the front and back seats, and set off driving the squad car. He hit speeds of 90 mph before hitting some tack mats. He then drove on flat tires awhile longer before a cop was able to ram him with his cruiser and send the stolen cop car into a spin. Unfortunately, the car rolled and the driver, whose hands were compromised by handcuffs, had been unable to fasten his seat belt.

Why We Do It

In 1923, English mountaineer George Leigh Mallory was asked why he intended to climb Mount Everest the following year. He replied “because it’s there.” Those three words, regarded the most famed in all of mountaineering, might also be the raison d’être for any outdoor activity. The mountain-bike rider traverses a rocky trail because it’s there, just as an evening stroller saunters to a woodland pond because it’s there.

Yet the being of outdoor venues doesn’t fully account for their attraction. Indoor activities clamor more for our attention. This may be why outdoor aficionados often speak of the mental benefits of their pursuits. The mountain-bike rider may boast of the adrenaline kick of a precipitous trail, just as the philosopher may praise the tranquility of a silent shore. And as readers of this magazine know, outdoor life is said to be good for you.

So, we are active outdoors for many reasons. Or are we? Might there be a single unifying reason that explains it all? Moreover, in the ongoing environmental enlightenment, might outdoor activities be part of the Gaia? In 2005, questions such as these were included in a three-year joint initiative by the Nordic countries to probe the interactions between the environment and public health. Together, the Nordic countries are an ideal crucible for such inquiry. Their populations are among the most physically active of the world, which contributes to their consistently high scorings in international comparisons of happiness. They are all social democracies with well-developed welfare systems, so solutions to problems are transferable across borders. And, save for Finnish, their languages are mutually intelligible, so international meetings may be held without interpreters.

The quest was commonsensical; the countries wanted to know where future healthcare spending might be headed. Mental health was singled out as a principal concern, in step with the World Health Organization prediction that, by 2020, mental maladies and depression will be the second-most-prevalent public

health challenge worldwide. That set the agenda for the Outdoor Life and Mental Health project that started in 2006, peaked in an inter-Nordic congress in 2007, finished in 2008, and published its findings in 2009. The findings are largely of interest to welfare administrators and healthcare professionals. But, turned around, they explain why we seek the outdoors, as do three principal findings of interest to those of us attuned to the outdoor experience.

First, regular physical activity is beneficial in the prevention and treatment of many lifestyle illnesses. Yet, to date, it mostly has been prescribed as an antidote for overweight, obesity and cardiovascular maladies. It has been little used in the prevention and treatment of mental maladies. That should change, as physical activity is known to help people overcome angst and depression.

Second, physical activity is most effective when done outdoors. This is because the physiological benefit of physical activity is more or less independent of where it takes place, while the mental benefit can be fully realized only outdoors. In turn, this is because mental benefit depends on the interplay of many stimuli, and only outdoors can we experience the interplay that involves the whole person.

Finally, even in small amounts, natural environments are beneficial. Post-operative patients recover quicker if they can see a bit of green nature through the windows of their hospital rooms. Even short walks in natural surrounds have measurable psychological effects. In urban environments, ready access to green spaces helps improve health, lower mortality and reduce social problems.

The overall conclusion is that the outdoors isn’t just undeveloped landscapes in which some of us romp. It’s where our minds still function, despite the veneer of what we call recorded history. For, 90 percent of the time we humans have existed on Earth, we’ve been hunter-gatherers. In computer terms, we’re still thus hardwired, despite generations of programming to cope with the complexities of our increasingly urban lifestyles.

Most likely, all who have taken to the outdoors for recreation have experienced the truth of that conclusion. I admit to having been aware of it in advance, as the 2007 inter-Nordic congress of the Outdoor Life and Mental health project was held at a course center on the shore of Lake Sem, in the municipality of Asker, the exurb of Oslo where I live. I felt that its findings ought to be boiled down in English and made available to the outdoor world at large. So when the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment asked me to translate an extract of the report, I agreed on the spot. The extract in English was published in April 2010 (see Further Reading box). This Dateline Europe column is based on that enjoyable task.

M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. His Dateline: Europe column appears monthly in the Gazette.