It may be the longest cattle drive anyone does anymore. The cows have been on the mountain for four months or more, getting fat eating every blessed chewable thing they can reach. Just about every cattleman in the nation would truck their animals as far as these critters will have to walk to winter pasture. They are hamburger plants, not distance runners. You’d have to be crazy to trail a herd right down the main north-south corridor from Telluride to anywhere. The Switzers are that kind of ranching family though, a little different. They aren’t mountain people in that the fanatic spiritualism that runs in a streak through the clan is a product of dwelling for generations in an ascetic vacuum of empty desert. Great-grandfather Switzer had bought a piece of McElmo Canyon and the badlands beyond that was the size of a county in Vermont. He also locked up most of the grazing leases in West Fork of the Dolores River Valley. They say he had the same jihadi gleam in his eye as the current crop of Switzers, who are in close and immediate communication with the Lord and recognize a sinner by the look on his face. If you think you might have that look, head the other way.
The route takes the cows right through the middle of the town of Dolores. By then, the herd has been trailing for days, off and on. It used to be there were more places big enough to park a congregation of cattle that size and let them eat and rest, but most of those places have been carved up. Now you have to push the cows a little harder than cows would naturally go. It takes all fifty Switzers cowboying and every body they can find who can ride a horse to keep them grouped. A lot of people help willingly, as it is, after all, probably the longest cattle drive anyone does anymore and the authenticity of the experience is unquestionable.
The thing about herding cattle is to understand that one thing they do well is walk around. They don’t go fast, but they go willingly, for the most part, and would be going somewhere after a while even without your encouragement. Your job is to point them. A cowboy galloping around shouting “Yeeha” doesn’t speed up a herd one bit. It might just scatter them like a rack of billiard balls and you’d be the next two hours coaxing the calves out of the thickets. Just gently get them all going the same direction. Sit back and watch the parade. If you’ve got good dogs, you can just idle along in the truck if you’ve only got a few cows. The Switzers had hundreds.
They got to town about noon that year, spread out for half a mile. Railroad Avenue was pretty much solid cow from one end to the other, and the early crowd at the Hollywood Bar & Cafe drug off their stools to watch the longest cattle drive in the country troop buy.
Among the blurrier spectators, Dexter B. had found it was safer to drink early in the day, as the various agencies charged with enforcement of restraining orders and arrest warrants didn’t seem to get fired up till late afternoon. That’s when they had chased him into the alley and cuffed him the last two times anyway. Dexter is a flight risk the same way a homing pigeon is. If you need to drop a leaned-over tree that’s otherwise going get in bed with you some windy evening, Dexter is who you would call, only you wouldn’t call him, you’d just go down to the Hollywood and maybe knock back a couple of drafts while you talked it over. Dexter is a mountain person. He knew that the deputies couldn’t get around town any better than anyone else. Not when there were two dozen four-footed animals in town for every person, and that’s not factoring in the dogs. The cops wouldn’t be motoring by.
If you could get to the north-side streets, you could drive around the herd’s flank and proceed a couple of blocks toward or away from the center of town. Leaving the city limits was like going the wrong way at the Hajj. A lot of the locals were creeping down side streets trying to get to the bank, the market or the bar. One of these was Mark Morane in his flashy Jeep, running a little late. Mark leaves his Jeep in town on nice days and switches to his motorcycle, which he keeps in a garage on Fourth Street, for the last five miles in to his office. Born and raised nearby, Mark is a lawyer, which is not a well-represented population among mountain people. Mark is no exception to this generalization and, birthplace notwithstanding, would be a dense-atmosphere-sucking flatlander if he lived to be a thousand. He can’t help it.
Immobilized in the stream of steers that day were a number of automobiles that had encountered the bovine frontal system in the middle town and become embedded in its flow. Southbound vehicles could sustain a walking pace while watching a shifting vista of four-to-six shit-smeared cattle bottoms like a drive-in movie. Northbound wasn’t going much of anywhere, and this group included Victor, who was headed up to the West Fork in the strangest thing he had ever driven, and that included just about anything with wheels or tracks. It was a 1974 NATO military fire truck built on a German Unimog chassis. The Unimog was an internet purchase, kind of an impulse thing, bought by the owner of a resort that is so far from the nearest fire department you may as well not bother calling. The Unimog had been delivered “as is” on the back of a flatbed, from a shipyard in Baltimore.
Luckily, its driver was a genius of the physical. Last month, when somebody put his truck in the ditch and his equipment trailer like a barricade across the rest of the road, Victor loaded up a bunch of timbers and built a road right over the damn thing and got the valley’s commuting population home that night. This morning, he had poured a quart of Baltic seawater out of the fuel filter of the Unimog, purged the fuel system and rebuilt the throttle linkage with a piece of wire he found on the ground.
Born on a ranch in Chihuahua, his size put him in the position of jockey for the family’s race horses, till, still in his twenties, he was too old. He was fluent in Spanish, diesel and horse. A mountain person, he knew the Unimog had been mistreated. As it stood 37 hands at the shoulder and was skittish and ill-tempered, he wasn’t about to push it.
There’s not a lot of foot traffic when the herd is coming through and it’s best to watch your step for a couple of days afterward. This day, one of the scarce pedestrians was Patricia the Yoga Instructor, tall and lovely beyond words, to whom cows may carry some sort of bleed-over sanctity from a geographic proximity to Hinduism of the “sacred cow” type, which has some kind of vague association with Yoga. At least their outfits are the same. You might think she was walking among the herd because they are a natural thing, like a mayfly hatch, which is to be neither applauded nor decried, but simply lived through, endured. Patricia seemed to be, at times, only lightly tethered to the earth. Bright fires of health shown out through her skin and blobs of inadvertently jellified males bobbed in her wake. She didn’t seem to notice, but despite her ethereal aspect, Patricia, a mountain person, was actually strong as an ox and quick as a snake. She was also well used to walking through cow shit and simply didn’t want to be late for her class. Among the herefords, Patricia stood out like a statue of Madonna on the backs of the Penitents.
It all might have played out peaceably but for the Lady in the Burgundy Escalade. The car shined like a new penny except where it was streaked with fresh cow excrement to the tops of the windows. She must have been doing ninety down the stretch of 145 that had served as the herd’s latrine for the last couple of days. There was nobody else in the car, but if you don’t think the situation was explosive, it had Texas plates.
There are pockets of a toxic gas that chemists refer to as nobium-bromine-butane, nobrotane or nobrane for short, which leak from depleted oil wells and gather in invisible bubbles across the state of Texas. Though mostly concentrated around Crawford, hazardous nobrane enrichments occur randomly statewide and many, if not most, of the states residents have suffered the effects of nobrane poisoning. Loss of brain tissue is immediate and dramatic and the resulting voids are often inflated with an indelible sense of self-worth. In its end stages, nobrane poisoning can result in “Texas Vertigo,” the chronic sensation that the world is revolving around you. The lady in the Caddy weaved right then left, gunning the ponderous, careening burgundy tank around one group of cattle and another, gaining a cow length each time till she came up short against a solid wall of shitty rumps. This was ridiculous. She gave a tap on the horn.
She gave another tap, then two more solid honks, then, with a fury that was palpable through the grape-colored skin of the preposterous auto, she mercilessly straight-armed the horn button, lurching the car forward while screaming noiselessly at the windshield.
The effect was spectacular. Cows scattered from the epicenter as if launched by catapult. A dozen turned left up Fourth Street toward the bridge and a similar number did a complete about face and were galloping upstream, creating havoc among the following herd. Cows in front of the Escalade were climbing over one another and one big calf went down in the rush. When it scrambled to its feet, it was under the Unimog, which presented the calf with a situation for which there was no behavioral precedent. It began to bawl at terrific volume and throw its 50-pound head-bone against the empty 200-gallon water storage tank on the underbelly of the Unimog, making a noise that was not of this world. The lady was still leaning on the horn, perhaps frozen there by the magnitude of the reaction, but the call of the Escalade was now lost in the din.
In the vicinity of Eighth Street and still gaining speed southward now flew Jacob Switzer at full gallop on a horse the size of a locomotive. Sparks flew off the pavement where the giant’s hooves touched down and, passing Seventh, Jacob grabbed his coiled lariat, stiff as a cable by design, from where it hung next to the saddle horn and began to whip the flying steed across its flanks. He wrenched his mount’s head up when he was fifty feet from the Escalade and set it back on its haunches where it slid to a stop directly adjacent the Caddy’s left front tire. Raising the coiled lariat over his head, he smote the hood of the car with the terrible strength a just and all-powerful God had given him. It left, the first time, a crescent-shaped dent that would hold a gallon of water. “You.” “Stupid.” “Stupid.” “Stupid.” “Bitch.” Jacob intoned, beating on the hood with every word. Then, considerably calmed, he headed up after the group of cattle that had taken off toward Mancos.
Forty head of stampeding cattle were southbound at a high rate of speed along First North. It looked for a moment as if it might be the end of Patricia, trampled two blocks from her house, but she turned to meet them and raised her hands in front of her, palms out, as if delivering a blessing on the multitude. She floated a couple of feet to the right or left as the circumstances dictated and the thundering pack flowed around her like water.
Mark wasn’t so lucky. Oblivious to the ruckus, he had just opened the door of his Jeep and had one foot on the ground when 980 pounds of terrified beef smacked into the door two inches from the handle. The impact flattened the door against the body of the Jeep and jerked Mark out of it. He was deposited face up and perfectly centered for an instant across the backbone of the rampaging steer. There he stayed for four or five seconds, certainly not long enough to make the buzzer, but adequate time to carry him to the reviewing platform in front of the Hollywood Bar & Cafe.
“This your first rodeo?” asked Dexter.
“That was a tough draw, Mark,” said another.
Victor got out of the Unimog fire truck and was amazed to find he could not extricate the calf from under his rig. It was totally blinded and beating itself slowly to death repeating the opening bars of the Dirge for Martian Gong. The racket was making it hard to think. Victor had the inspiration then that he might motor slowly to the park, where the bar ditch was three feet deep and drive right down the ditch with wheels on either side, effectively raising the Unimog off the calf. His path took him and the stumbling calf right in front of the gallery outside the Hollywood.
“Hey Victor,” shouted Dexter, “I hope you’re not expecting that little calf to pack yer goofy rig all the way to Dunton.”
Cooper lives near Dolores, Colorado, in a state of disgruntled bemusement. He lists his occupation as “fabricator,” which just about covers it. His last story for the Gazette was “High Water,” which appeared in #178.
Beyond the service industry shroud, there is madness and mayhem in Moab. Within each river guide, shuttle driver, restaurant server, bike mechanic and hotel operator, there exists an undercurrent of something more. This undercurrent is a man rolling down Main Street in a handmade hamster wheel. It is the annual fashion show, wherein minimum-wage workers get to be top models — bedecked in mini-blinds or vacuum hose — for a night. It is Molotov cocktails tossed off Hurrah Pass at 2 a.m. It is a 28-day Daily run on the Colorado River. It is a stealth mission to turn the iconic “G” on the cliffs above town (“G” for Grand County) into a directive to “Go Away!” during Jeep Safari. It is the brilliance of Moab Community Theatre, the thrill of breaking world records at the Pumpkin Chuckin’ Festival, and the hushed glory of prominent community members dancing with nearly naked skydivers — leather-bound leg acrobatically propped up on bare, brawny shoulder — at the bar on Halloween.
Yes, we are a tourist town. Yes, we survive by the grace of our guests, living thanks to those who love our surroundings. But Moab is also something more. There still exists an element holding steadfast to eccentricity amidst the onslaught of gentrification and commodification. For, once we’ve lost our idiosyncratic heart — beating to a rhythm as unpredictable as summer monsoons and sudden rock fall — then the real Moab is dead. Eccentricity is vanquished. And I will have to plant the seeds of my landscape love elsewhere.
Moab needs its eccentrics. It needs its darers and dreamers. They are the essential artists painting on the canvas of the day-to-day, reminding us that this life is less desperate — and more urgent — than we suppose. The eccentrics advise us that imagination is not a childhood relic, that dreams need not be confined to the brain and that conformity is the first sign of societal heart disease. But eccentricity is a dying breed, relegated to the shadows — especially during tourist season.
My boyfriend, Tyler, is an import to Moab from Durango, a town where, much to his sadness, the flame of eccentricity is flickering out. He came to Moab for me, but other loves have since abetted the original, including mountains, canyons, friends and the town itself.
He, too, is a daring dreamer, an important addition to the Moab milieu. Together, we ran the Colorado at high water on an air mattress, asking hapless boaters, “We just woke up; where are we?” and noting, “Wow! We’ve never seen the Dolores this big!” Inspired by the sweeping cinematography of a National Geographic documentary, he built operational camera equipment — an enormous jib and a dolly — out of scrap metal. During the first month of our courtship, he bought us a 1971 Streamline trailer to live in. He is my mountain man — a firefighter, a flawless feller of trees, a fearless adventurer. And he is my artist — with an ear for the essential, an eye for the emotional and a mind for the intuitive. And when he dresses as a bunny to run the half-marathon or plays alt-country versions of Lady Gaga on the guitar, no one around him can take this life too damned seriously. Like any good nonconformist, he helps me to see the comic within the consecrated. And for that I am grateful.
Tyler was a Moab resident for just a week when he experienced the town’s harbinger of the holiday season, the Winter Sun Festival. We ran the 10K, we visited the craft fair and we bundled up to stand among the crowds on Main Street for the annual Electric Light Parade. This is Moab at its shining finest. The spectacle is an assemblage of trucks full of teenagers and bisexuals on bicycles, antique tractors and elaborately decorated trailers, livestock and live music, dance troupes and costumed groups. The unifying theme is that every entrant — animal, vegetable or mineral — is adorned in lights. And the greatest beauty is that, for 30 golden minutes, Main Street is closed to everything but this one, locals-only holiday event. Suddenly, Highway 191 isn’t bisecting our town, cleaving west side from east with the noise and girth of semi traffic. Instead, it’s simply Main Street. And it belongs to Moab, a town not worried about making a buck — because there isn’t one to be had in December.
I was thrilled to share the parade with Tyler, the neophyte Moabite, to show him that this desert town is much more than the Slickrock Trail and Jeep Safari. We are passionately quirky in ways our visitors will never know. We live hidden lives of authenticity, colorful communion and song. Our increasingly short off-season is full of creative pursuits — parades, fashion shows, theater and craft nights — to while away the darker, carefree hours. We give off a shine that money can’t buy when winter is at its worst. I wanted Tyler to know that he was in the midst of kindred spirits.
At the parade, he got it. He loved it. And I loved him for loving it.
Following the procession, Frankie D’s Bar hosted an after-party with Moab’s best (and only) disco cover band, Sparkle Motion. The bar is housed in a Quonset hut painted with enough magic and memories — or alcohol, I suppose — to make its origins seem less humble. One never knows when Frankie’s will implode with debauchery — it’s hit or miss, directed by some devious turn of collective consciousness — but when the masses arrive, it’s disorderly perfection.
Ty and I sat in my darkened car parked across from a crowded Frankie’s, downing the contents of my thermos (a drink we labeled Hepatitis C on the Beach in honor of one of Moab’s many eccentrics). As any good, recession-era dirtbag knows, you do your drinking before entering the bar, to save money.
Just as we were about to make the move from car to bar, a straggler from the Electric Light Parade rode his bike across our field of vision, headed toward Frankie D’s. The scene was double-take-worthy.
His bike trailer was on fire.
Initially, the flames were small and confined to one portion of the trailer. We assumed that it was perhaps a portable barbecue — in Moab, why not? However, as he swiveled and swayed his way across the street, the mobile conflagration grew. When he hit the curb in front of the bar, the trailer broke free from the bike. With this, he finally became aware of his dangerously flickering hitchhiker.
We watched from our shadowy vantage, unobserved and absolutely titillated.
The cyclist stood above the trailer blaze and scratched his chin, seemingly unperturbed, puzzling over the predicament as if it were a simple mechanical problem that could wait until morning. But inspiration struck, and even in the dark, we could see it light up his features. We watched him unzip, extract, aim and fire. His urine flow was so copious that, not only did our hero douse the blaze, but hardly a wisp of smoke remained in the aftermath.
The alcohol that likely led to the fire’s ignition also helped to put it out. The inundated bladder saved the day for the inebriated brain. It was a glorious display of bodily self-correction. We silently cheered from the car.
Seconds later, a figure emerged from the bar. She wore a glowing, spinning electric fan on her forehead and a boa bedecked in sparkling lights. It was none other than Moab’s Queen of Westwater, our most infamous and beloved eccentric, trained (among other things) in the arts of branding and bondage. She stormed over to reprimand the hapless biker, fan spinning on forehead all the while. We desperately wanted to hear what was being said, so I inserted my key in the ignition to roll down the automatic windows. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten that the key-ignition combo prompts illumination of the dome lights and commencement of buckle-your-seatbelt beeping. I’d blown our voyeuristic cover. We froze. But the Queen of Westwater and the King of Firewater didn’t notice. And we’d already missed the bulk of their absurdly surreal confrontation.
With the eventual dissipation of the spectacle, Tyler breathlessly broke the silence in the vehicle with, “I think I just fell in love with Moab.”
And he’s been falling in love ever since.
Finally, we made our way into the bar for a typical night in Moab — fires, fans, freaks and all — our lives painted vibrant by the creative palettes of our compatriots in nonconformity.
Jen Jackson resides in Moab, where she will spend the off-season learning the finer arts of driving a 1976 Kenworth W900A, servicing a Stihl MS290, shooting rabbits with a .22 and loving this life —quirks and all — with an ever-bigger heart.
The Days collectively winked. They smiled. They licked their full and rosy lips. The Days lined up in front of me, just waiting to be taken. With an easy equanimity borne from frolicking amidst the wild and green, they waited. Some tapped their toes and hummed contentedly. Others danced joyfully in circles. The first three sat cockeyed on barstools at the Dirty Shame Saloon, rang the bell and ordered another round of something dark and yeasty. The first Day belched moistly without covering his mouth.
Earl old pal, god of weather, graciously bestowed upon this adventure into the imagined and unknown clear skies and breezes mild. Two conditions imperative considering my mode of transportation: VW camper bus with high-rise fiberglass turtle-top, a vehicle that is entertaining as hell to keep within the lines in any kind weather. Be it inclement, be it fair. It’s just easier in fair.
The bus putted on, faithfully if not enthusiastically, over one state line and then another. In celebration of the busted radio, I composed psalms to the Roadtrip to sing along with the arrythm of the engine. Often I pulled off the road, listening to rivers meander, stretching my long and restless legs, letting the two big dogs out to pee and frolic. I watched the odometer tick off miles and I grew thirsty. I imagined English would be waiting at the Dirty Shame, wedged solidly between Days One and Two, ordering another round.
He was not. Prayers to Earl and myself answered, I arrived two hours ahead of schedule. This never happens. So I continued up the byway in search of a site therein to revitalize. I parked the bus in the cool shade of dense and fragrant pine gathered about an old service road, and let the big dogs out to romp. I romped right along with them through tall trees until the overgrown gravel road gave way to primitive trail and the trail gave way to thick impassible brush. Eliciting goose bumps, I stripped down and cleaned up in a chill and snow-lined creek, decided to go cowboy (cowgirl?) — very liberating — and pulled on fresh and faded blue jeans and a clean T. I brushed my hair. I brushed my teeth. I fished a barley wine from the cooler and drank deep.
At the Dirty Shame, Rick, Bartender Proprietor-Priest, poured me a tall one, relaying that English had phoned to say he was two hours behind, his intended route yet to be plowed out from the past season’s heavy snows. But with a Moose Drool bedded down patiently before me and new friends in the making, none of the waiting mattered. The big dogs were invited into the establishment and life was sweet. So I made those friends and nursed that beer, while the big dogs lounged on the worn wood floor.
Day One tipped his hat to me and promptly fell off his barstool. It had been a long one.
The sun was just narrowly above the hills when in walked English, throwing open the door to release long, sinewy fingers of cigarette and cigar smoke, friendly vulgarity and loud guffaws. I stood up and walked over. We grinned and wrapped our arms around one another. Squeezed. Tendrils of soft dark hair were blown askew and into his dark, mischievous eyes. It was a very nice effect. He was wearing a thick cotton shirt that had seen better days, a tattered pair of shorts, and he smelled like the forest. For all of my waiting, the payoff was fine.
I introduced English to my new best buddies at the bar. With eyes bleary, Days Two and Three scootched over to make room as he pulled a battered barstool next to mine. Spread-eagled and snoring, Day One hadn’t budged from his spot on the floor.
All through the evening, the bell was busy ringing. Thirst was no longer a dilemma. Another Rick grabbed a guitar from the back of the room and played Celtic folksongs for a while. He really was good. Barkeep Rick joined in at times and was pretty good himself. Old Bernie told a few tall tales and we all belly laughed. Bernie had been in the valley for a very long time. I felt like I had been in the valley for a very long time. It was beautiful. Before English and I ended up joining Day One, who was clearly passed out cold and had begun to drool, on the floor, we thought we’d call it a night. We slept entwined and peacefully in the bus parked on the grass and weeds behind the saloon, beneath a starry starry sky, full moon, big dogs, thick blankets.
In the wee hours, Day Two arrived naked — without a stitch of cloud cover, entertaining temperatures in the high teens and masterfully finger-painting a layer of serious frost onto the inside of the bus’ windows. It was so cold, Day Two’s teeth were chattering loudly and her knees were knocking violently. All three of us were in dire need of hot coffee. We walked over to the wee mom & pop, cozy’d up to another fine drinking establishment. Yaak Valley: population 300 give or take, two taverns, one one-room schoolhouse, one place of worship and one sparsely stocked store offering bad but gratefully hot coffee in leaky paper cups. It was easy to see wherein the priorities of this populace lie. Good for them. We reclined in the bus, watching the sun straddle the hills, while eating trail food and sipping steaming Joe. Day Two burned her tongue on the coffee, cussed sweetly under her breath, smiled sheepishly and quickly began to warm up.
Adventure beckoned. We left behind the bus and boarded English’s late-model pickup. Up the road we traveled. The big dogs sat eager in the back of the extended cab, long tongues lolling, twitching noses poked out of windows. Past cabins and homesteads, past the board-and-bat schoolhouse, past the little log church, past a few more cabins. Up the road we rolled until it was flanked by continuous forest, and then out into the woolly wild we ventured. Packs packed and boots laced. We were keenly aware these woods were home to black bear and grizz, big cats and an assortment of ungulates. Neither of us had hiked often in grizzly territory and it felt a little spooky. I watched the big dogs closely.
Upon returning down valley, for two bucks each, we bathed at the Yaak-O-Mat, finding our way back to the Dirty Shame. It was handily the next building over. We ordered burgers and brews and let the good times continue to roll. We saw a few new faces. We made a few more new friends. A slight woman, brown hair gathered into an awkward ponytail, burst like a balloon into the saloon and, wasting no time, tried to talk a familiar patron out of paying any attention to the ring on his finger. He was a good sport about it. A short while later, she slipped into an unintended cartwheel behind the bar, both feet flailing in midair, legs splayed. Her landing scored low but she appeared unharmed. Rick paid her little attention as he poured another round. Sometime before last call, in through the front door, the ponytailed sprite maneuvered a child’s bicycle, resplendent with glittered banana seat and colorful plastic streamers hanging from the handlebar grips. She peddled forth a few feet before tipping over, joining Day Two who, with moss ground into her knees and forest detritus in her hair, had curled up on the floor for a nap.
A blond man walked up to English and me, grinning wildly and dancing with his own round belly while adroitly balancing a drink within his big, chapped paw. He winked at me. He winked at English. He introduced himself as Jeff, flirting with me and teasing English about his mop. He wondered where we were sleeping, so we told him. Jeff said that was no good, offering his cabin located a few miles up the road. He wasn’t using it. What about the big dogs? Without the slightest hesitation, Jeff said to bring ’em along. I pictured a cobwebbed and drafty shanty with an outhouse if we were lucky. Probably no running water, likely no electricity. Hey, just like the camper bus only perhaps a bit roomier.
We arrived to Jeff unlocking the door and flipping breakers. He motioned us in with a hearty sweep of his big, burly arms and mixed himself a drink for the road from a cupboard in the kitchen. He told us to enjoy ourselves and then he left. Just like that.
The cabin was not cobwebbed, nor was it drafty. The cabin’s interior was blanketed in hardwoods and softwoods, comfortable furniture and picture windows that would offer 180-degree views of the sunrise, mountains, river and meadows. We selected a bedroom and made ourselves comfortable, if not ready for sleep forthwith. One big dog made three circles on the braided rug at the foot of the bed and began drafting ZZZs. The other, chin resting on front paws, kept an alert canine watch from down the hall. When all was said and done, we closed our eyes, slowed our breathing, and were carried blissfully away to our own private dreams.
Day Three bolted upright as dawn cracked bright and shiny. We let him out the front door along with the big dogs and found coffee to brew. We reclined on the sofa and watched the big dogs chase Day Three around the frosty meadow.
We found ourselves in a vast and lonely sea of mountain acreage. We moved casually around in our birthday suits, swimming peacefully in the low tide of morning sun that slowly crested through shade-less windows.
There were more Days of course, as I had created quite a few of them. But they had traveled ahead as a group to the top of the next valley east, damn near a stone’s throw from Canada. Days Five and Six, an extremely athletic pair, had already strapped on snowshoes and were camped out at the base of Terriault Pass, sharing an exceptionally succulent apple. It was snowing again in the high country and English and I would catch up with them soon enough. Meanwhile, we had mountain to climb and road to travel.
And on the seventh Day, I rested. I still had a long, long way to go.
Tricia M. Cook writes from a wee hamlet snuggled into the eastern toes of the North Cascade Mountains. Her last story for Mountain Gazette was “Eating Wolf,” which appeared in MG #176. Catch her bimonthly blog, “Living Beyond Lost,” at mountaingazette.com.
Here’s Pierre, taking stock of his life: He’s got the job on the Mountain, with plenty of time to ski, a place to live, and his “Honey” to take out dancing when he wants, and enough change in his pocket to have a beer or two in the bar. This is it.
So here he is, contemplating the seasons still to come, and wondering how long he can continue to do this, how long before too many people make it impossible. And what about Taos, when will it be time to move on? To keep this happening, this life. Because this is “The Life.”
Senior correspondent Bob Chamberlain lives with his dog at 8,000 feet in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley.
I left 25 years ago, and except for occasional news about former
acquaintances, a few obituaries in quirky rags of various hues and distributions and one casual mention of the town’s oldest dive bar finally burning down, I’ve gone years at a stretch without thinking of my time here. Even now, I’m only stretching my legs before continuing a long drive back to my current life.
This place was once my hometown. It was one of the first destination ski resorts in North America, and like most “last best” towns betrayed by travel mags out to make a buck, it suffers the afflictions common to other pick-your-poison elite retreat/real estate development zones that dot the Mountain West. The streets are familiar, but the stores are up-scale and mostly empty of shoppers, seasonal-worker safehouses I once hung out in are gingerbread restoration projects geared to flip on the next boom cycle, dogs are on leashes and so are most of the people I meet. I’ve had about enough nostalgia for one walk and am heading back to my truck to get the hell out of town, when I look up and the unmistakable facade of the old bar materializes from the mists of my memories.
Through a Glass
Like the rusty prow of a cargo ship moored among yachts, unpretentious but imposing, it rises above its neighbors. The barn-shaped roofline still defines the block, and the front door is just as unassuming as the last time I stepped in after a long night-shift to sip one beer before closing time. Only problem I can see with having a cold one before leaving town is that, according to a reputable source, this dive burned down about five years ago. Temporarily suspending disbelief, I open the door, and confront another problem — the entry hallway that used to smell like spilled beer and vomit is clean, carpeted. There are posters on the walls, and a revealing light that makes me want to turn and leave before I reach the inner door. Thinking that this feels like the start of a long trip toward the bright light that supposedly awaits all mortals, I push open the final door.
There are the exposed log beams that have long supported the second floor’s mysterious goings-on. A few tables sit empty in dim corners. A small television emits stale scenes from a wall at the far end of the bar. The pool tables are in the places I remember, and the row of stools could be propping up the same cast of characters who used to nod in my direction before turning back to their own stories. I look down, and there is an old dog, lying just inside the door where an unobservant tourist might kick him and cause the bar’s regulars to raise their own defenses. I step over the sleeping dog, and head for an empty section along the bar. No heads turn, which can be a good sign when you have no acquaintances in a place like this.
No taps. Bottles of swill beer lined up on the back-bar, and in front of the patrons. The bartender sidles over, and I ask for his darkest brew. He pulls a can of Guinness from one of the wooden-framed coolers I remember, sets it and a cold glass in front of me. I mention that it’s been a long time since I passed this way, and it seems not much has changed, at least in here. He nods, and says with a half-apologetic smile of long practice, “No, except that you can’t smoke here anymore.” My lack of reaction must encourage him to add, “Smells better, anyway, for working in here all day.”
I nod, and he grabs more beers to replace empties down the bar, where guys about my age are solving the budget, reducing taxation, restarting the economy and greeting a recently returned regular in a swirl of barstool bonhomie I figured had gone up in smoke when this bar burned to the ground. Next pass, I’ll try to ask the bartender about the story of a fire, but for now the fine tawny head of the stout in front of me demands attention.
Through the dark glass, I see ghosts of the naïveté that once eyed me from the back-bar mirror while I sorted through the temptations, vicissitudes and possibilities of a wide-open ski-town in full roar. The other old guys down the bar must’ve been young then too, and we may have roared together or butted heads a few times many beers ago. More and more these days, I wander through my old haunts this way, looking and listening for familiar markers that say whether the old ways were just passing fads, or are as venerable as some old buildings and the mountains that surround them.
In the spreading glow of the nearly empty glass, a decision must be made. To move down the bar, ask about a few friends that might have survived to become one of the late-afternoon regulars at this old bar from my half-remembered past, or to quietly pay up and move outside into the late afternoon’s light. On the edge of town, I could drive past more history, and in the next town, see if that one friend still lives in the house I helped him finish. There we could search for more memories, or I can move on through the high sage desert to a dirt road I once drove to its end, where coyotes howled me into the dawn of a new day.
As the bartender comes my way, I glance through the bottom of my glass once more, and a certain amount of clarity returns as the old dog by the door glances up and waits.
Long-time contributor B. Frank is currently traveling incognito through climes hotter than Dante’s imagination. He is the author of “Livin’ the Dream: Testing the Ragged Edge of Machismo” (Raven’s Eye Press, 2010) and occasionally scribbles The Ragged Edge missives to MG readers.
Author’s note: This story told in full is much too long to fit in this space. To find the complete ration of BS, please go to mjohnfayhee.com.
It was a law-of-diminishing-transportation-returns kind of sweltering Third-World overland journey that began well before dawn in Santo Domingo on a jam-packed, barnyard-fowl-dense, 1960s-era, shock-absorber-free school bus designed to accommodate legs no longer than those borne by pygmy kindergartners. The journey ended 16 arduous hours later when we were deposited by a very inebriated dump truck driver in front of the humble headquarters for Isla Cabritos National Park — which we found only because of a map hand-drawn by a prostitute back in Santo Domingo who was apparently the official cartographer of the Dominican National Tourism Office (don’t ask) — in the village of La Descubierta (translated: “The Discovered”). My photographer buddy Norb and I were so beat-up and shell-shocked from the trip that we could scarcely stand straight. And we were thirsty.
Before we had the chance to deposit our mountain of equipage, up walks a small man named Angel, the assistant administrator for Isla Cabritos. He seemed absolutely stunned at having to deal with tourists, much less camera-and-notebook-bearing tourists from the Great White North.
Since we had spent more money than anticipated on our journey from Santo Domingo (we were charged extra at every juncture because we had so much shit), our first order of business was changing American dollars into Dominican pesos, a task, we were informed, made more difficult because La Descubierta had no bank. Good news, however, in that there was a local man who would be happy to sell us black-market pesos at a highly deflated rate. And, even better news, according to Angel, the man worked out of the back of a bar he owned! Great! Instead of converting dollars to pesos and pesos to beer, we could just go directly from dollars to beer!
So, we strolled over to the black-market bar, which was just then opening for the evening. Come to discover that La Descubierta was home to exactly two watering holes: the daylight bar and the nighttime bar, an insightful exercise in community-wide organizational logistics. You’d have to be pretty damned drunk to screw those hours up.
Angel said it wouldn’t be long before the place was hopping. And he was right. Within an hour, every non-married female in La Descubierta descended upon that bar like locusts upon a cornfield. And every one of those fillies sat around Norb and I, forming a solar system of orbital estrogen.
“Uh, Angel,” I finally asked, “so, heh heh, what’s up with all these fawning nymphets clawing at us?”
“They all want to marry you, so they can move to America,” he responded in a tone of voice that suggested he thought I was perhaps a tad simple.
Then the DJ took up his post. There are many positive statements you can make about Dominicans. They make great rum, beer and cigars. They are good chess players. They have organized themselves a very impressive national parks system. And they can flat-out dance. These people pop out of the womb dancing. The infants dance. The old people dance. The cripples dance. The nerds dance. Everyone dances all the time, aided and abetted by the fact that few are the moments in the DR when there’s not music blaring from every edifice and automobile in the entire country. And it’s rhythmic music. No trance, drum-and-bass or C&W shit here. It’s all variations of the DR’s endemic style: merengue. Music that enters your body less via your ears than via your skin pores.
It was not long before every single goddamned one of those proximate nubile nymphets was lining up to boogie with Norb and I. But here’s the thing: Not only am I the worst dancer who has ever drawn breath, but I also HATE dancing. My DNA carries nary a strand of funkiness gene. I am literally incapable of tapping my foot to a metronome. This is bad enough in my normal life, where I am generally adept at avoiding dance-laden environments. But, here I was, in a huge bar with music throbbing and a dance floor 12 feet away populated by 200 gyrating Dominican ladies, all of whom were under 20, and all of whom, according to Angel, wanted to bear my children. Wasn’t long before the ladies of La Descubierta finally succeeded in pulling me out onto the dance floor, and, the exact nanosecond I made my first tentative twitch, trying mightily to match arrhythmic chromosomes to pounding salsa-infused merengue, all music-based movement within the four walls of that bar ground to a screeching halt. An immediate cessation of dancing. The DJ stopped spinning tunes. Mouths hung wide. Eyes popped. Hands were raised palms out in desperate hope of warding off an affliction that hopefully was not contagious. Visages that, an instant prior, had been gleeful now stared at me in abject horror. Birds fell dead from the sky. Somewhere in the distance, a dog wailed mournfully.
“Maybe if you drank more beer,” Angel suggested, sympathetically, when I skulked back to the table, mortified. Well, there’s a thought.
Sadly, what with the throbbing music, the giggling, gyrating damsels and the 447 beers, not much of the way of strategy-honing transpired that night, so we agreed to meet Angel for breakfast to see if we couldn’t formulate a plan for visiting Isla Cabritos.
At this point, some actual facts are required. Isla Cabritos National Park — at 130 feet below sea level, the lowest point on any ocean island in the world — is located in the middle of Lago Enriquillo, a 102-square-mile endorheic lake that is the largest inland body of water in the Caribbean. Isla Cabritos, about eight miles by one mile, lies seven miles from the closest land, a point just north of La Descubierta. Lago Enriquillo is also home to about 15,000 endangered American crocodiles, which can reach 20 feet in length, and a great many of those bunk down every night on Isla Cabritos.
I mentioned earlier about how much gear Norb and I were carrying. Not only did we have full backpacks, necessary for our upcoming ascent of Pico Duarte — the highest and coldest point in the Caribbean — but we also had with us two one-person Sevylor inflatable kayaks, along with all the necessary kayaking accoutrements. The main reason we had those kayaks with us was because, later in our visit to the DR, we intended to paddle down the Rio Yuna, which we ended up doing successfully a month later. We brought those Sevylors to La Descubierta in case we needed them to paddle across Lago Enriquillo to Isla Cabritos, though the thought of having our nuts sitting inches from the waterline in easily puncturable kayaks while making our way across a lake populated with 15,000 20-foot crocs did not exactly titillate us. We were hoping to locate sturdier aquatic transportation.
Angel told us over fried platanos and tomatoes the next morning that the park owned a Zodiac that, for a slight nominal fee, we could rent. He also volunteered himself and the services of a cook, again, for a slight nominal fee. The only problem, he said, was the one outboard motor the park owned was right then in a state of disrepair, and he did not know when it would once again be functioning. So we made our way to the mechanic’s shop, where we found 1) three mechanics sitting around a table playing cards and drinking rum at 9 a.m. and 2) a boat motor spread willy-nilly around the facility in about 1,000 pieces. This was not encouraging, but Angel, after talking with the drunk, card-playing mechanics, assured us the motor would be purring like a kitten within hours. And so it went for three straight days.
There was very little to occupy us as we waited for the boat motor to not get repaired. We did a bit of dayhiking. We caught the few local sights. We whiled away many hours in the daylight bar. We whiled away many hours in the nighttime bar, where, thankfully, I was never once pulled back out onto the dance floor.
La Descubierta’s daylight bar was an interesting affair, less a public house and more a public works project that happened to sell alcohol in large quantities. The “bar” was actually a baño, a place where a rivulet that flowed through the middle of town was dammed and transformed into an ersatz swimming hole that served as a bathing facility utilized by every resident every day. As such, it functioned as a town plaza, with cool water, beer and the ever-present merengue being blasted continually through speakers the size of refrigerators.
Pleasant as those three days were, Norb and I were getting a tad antsy, especially because we were coming to understand that the reason for our delay had less to do with a boat motor lying in 1,000 pieces on a drunk mechanic’s floor that it did with Angel’s 1) lack of desire to actually go out to Isla Cabritos and 2) his fervent desire to milk Norb and I for as many free drinks as possible. So, that evening at the nighttime bar, we announced that we would be leaving first thing in the morning with or without him. In a stunning coincidence, Angel arrived at dawn with the Zodiac in the back of a truck. With him was a cook/fetcher/toter/slave. We drove to the put-in and started loading gear. Just as we were getting ready to launch, my hyper-keen journalistic eye noticed that, at the stern of the boat, right where the motor was supposed to be, there was no motor. I mentioned this to Angel, who said the motor was still lying in 1,000 pieces on the drunk mechanic’s floor and, therefore, we would have to paddle those seven miles across the croc-infested waters of Lago Enriquillo, something we could have done three days earlier.
It took several hours to fetch Isla Cabritos. We made camp under a disintegrating palapa that was part of a long-abandoned meteorological camp that was deserted because no reliable fresh-water source could be established. Angel stressed to us in no uncertain terms that we needed to keep our eyes peeled for scorpions, which, he said, thrived on the island.
At dusk, we crept down to the beach, which was filled to brimming with crocs. It was an exotic scene: glass-flat lake water, the verdant mountains of Haiti rising in the distance, several thousand crocs a stone’s throw from our prostrate selves. And these creatures were, as advertised, huge. They rested with their mouths agape, which added to their fearsome vibe, though, in truth, while on land, they were very skittish. (Angel stressed to us that, while in their native liquid element, they were assuredly not skittish.) The slightest sound, such as, but one random example, me cursing through clenched teeth because I just crawled across a cactus spine, had the crocs dashing back into the lake.
After breakfast, Angel showed me the old meteorological station outhouse. While so doing, he brushed aside the dry-rotted wooden toilet seat, leaving me with a smooth slab of concrete upon which to sit. I reclined and, as I did so, my left hand barely nudged the remnants of the dry-rotted toilet seat. I do not know what compelled me to look back at that exact moment. But look back I did, and what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a scorpion the size of a house cat sprinting out from under the dry-rotted toilet seat remnants toward my exposed butt cheek, poison-tipped tail pointing like a lance at a jousting match. I had to act quickly, lest my ass get skewered. Thing is, I was right at that exact moment in the middle of a digestively awkward set of circumstances. I had little choice, though, but to immediately jump up — pants still down around my ankles — ongoing bowel movement notwithstanding. When I looked at those pants, the sole pair I had brought with me to Isla Cabritos, the sight was not pretty.
I arrived back at the palapa naked from the waist down, my befouled Grammicis held out at arm’s length. I was greeted by, shall we say, perplexed looks. I cleaned myself and my pants as best I could down at the lakeshore while a snickering Angel stood watch just in case any crocs with especially low culinary standards were lurking nearby.
Shortly after our otherwise uneventful return paddle to La Descubierta, I strolled down to the daytime bar one last time for a beer and a swim. We were scheduled to leave town at midnight on the red-eye dumptruck run back to Santo Domingo. Word of my unfortunate scorpion encounter had obviously preceded me, as I was greeted by barely suppressed giggles that soon gained momentum until the entire crowd was rolling on the ground, belly-laughing and trying to catch its collective breath. There was nothing for me to do but laugh along with them.
Toward late afternoon, I found a shady spot back in the woods and dozed. When I awoke, the bar was closed. I sat alone, enjoying the rare quiet and solitude. But not for long. Just as a sliver of moon began to rise, women began streaming to the baño. There were toddlers, teenagers, young mothers and grandmothers. Someone turned on a radio, but kept the volume low. All those women entered the pool. There was storytelling and laughter and gossip and commiseration. Women started washing each other’s backs. As bars of soap began disappearing beneath the surface of the water, the women started subtly moving as one to the rhythm of the radio, and the surface of the pool began undulating, almost imperceptibly at first, then gaining energy, with little waves lapping on the sides, until, at last, water started escaping the pool, wetting the ground. At that moment, in the murky light, with an entire town’s worth of women submerged to their bosoms, there was no telling who was pretty or not, who was old or young, who had varicose veins or who had a protruding tummy. At that moment, they were all the loveliest things I had ever seen.
And there was my lecherous self, sitting in the shadows, pulse well past heart-attack level, sweating profusely, too fearful to move, lest I have added voyeuristic-pervert peeping tom to a resume that already included scorpion-dodging pants-shitter and inept dancer.
I tiptoed over to the nighttime bar. Norb and Angel were there, wondering what had become of me. I did not tell them what I had just witnessed. All I knew was, for the only time before or since in my life, I wanted to dance. And dance I did. My spasmodic gyrations were not things of beauty. But they were things of joy. And, before long, I found myself in the middle of the rhythmic throng, and we were all moving as one, even if for only one short night, and only one short song.