Letters #193

Letter art

Envelope: K.Laskey  Silverton CO

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

Setting The North Face history straight

Dear Editor, Just for the record, I noticed an error in regards to the founding of The North Face in the 40th-anniversary edition of Mountain Gazette that I should point out. Not that this was an earth-shaking
mistake, but I was the sole founder of The North Face in 1963 and I sold the company in or around 1970. Hap Klopp was never a partner of mine and entered the company’s activities long after the company was founded, and I had sold it to two brothers from the East Bay who owned a ski shop in Concord or Lafayette (don’t remember now just exactly where they were from, but one of those two places). Klopp happened onto the scene if I remember correctly as he was going to or related in some manner with the Stanford Business School and was doing
a case study of TNF as an entrepreneurial small business. He hung around our offices for a bit while he gathered his information and then that was more or less the last we saw of him. Later, and I do not remember
the circumstances, he somehow bought out the brothers who had bought the company from me.

Anyway, no big deal, but I had heard a number of times over the years that Klopp has posed as the founder and this simply is far from the fact of the matter and I wanted to set the record straight. As I said above, this is not earth-shaking news!

Best regards,
Doug Tompkins

‘Dateline: Europe’ will be missed

Dear Mr. Fayhee: Not sure who made the decision to drop Michael Brady’s “Dateline: Europe” column, but I want to register my disappointment over this decision. Brady’s column was a major reason that I subscribe to your magazine. Although I enjoy the regional nature of MG, I also enjoyed, at least as much, if not more, the cosmopolitan atmosphere that “Dateline: Europe” provided. It’s unfortunate that you don’t feel this way. The Rocky Mountain West can be very parochial and self-centered and I find it a healthy change to read about other regions.

Please reconsider your decision. You’ll probably lose at least one subscriber if you don’t, as the magazine is very much diminished without Mr. Brady’s articles. In fact, I suggest you add more writers like him. I wouldn’t mind reading about other mountainous regions of the world than just the Rocky Mountains.

Kind regards,
Ted Johnson
Belgrade MT

Misguided decision

Dear MJF: I was disappointed you wouldn’t allow any of your own comments from the past to be posted in the “Mountain Gazette’s 60 Best Excerpts” section of your 40th Anniversary issue (MG #191).

I have read Abbey, I have read Thompson and, for my reading time, I would rather have some MJF on hand.

I like Abbey and etc. Yeah you have had other good writers, yeah the best-of section had some good stuff — but still — I always read your stuff, whereas I don’t have the same drive, desire or need to read all the others. For whatever reason, your writing hits the spot, so please suspend the modesty for the next anniversary issue and allow your comments to appear in the best-of section. (I/we may not be around for another 40th anniversary — so why don’t you pull off a 45th or a 48th or some such, and allow your words to appear in big and bold print in the MG 43rd Anniversary Issue?)

So long.
Kevin A. Yuan

Gun Thoughts

John: I’m not a climber, but enjoyed MG #189 about those who do — dog issue is still the best  — but, thinking about topical issues, have you ever considered one on guns?  I’ve lived in the Colorado mountains most of my life. I own guns and I used to hunt. But, ever since I was a Boy Scout in the 1950s, it has never occurred to me to carry a gun when I camp, fish or hike. Lately, I have become aware of several acquaintances who do carry weapons in their backpacks, even on short day hikes. Is this becoming the norm these days? It might make an interesting issue just to try to find out how your readers feel, experiences they’ve had, etc. You have at least one reader who’d be interested.Cheers.

Roger Miller,
Nathrop, CO

Parodied Parody

John: When I first read the “Rumble in Hawai’i” story by Craig Childs  in #187, I thought it was well-done and useful, a cautionary tale of how easy it is to get on the wrong side of the locals even in your own country and with the best of intentions. But I have to give credit where it’s due. Robert Shepherd’s parody of the “ugly Coloradan” in #189 — booted, backpacked and obtuse — is brilliant. I especially loved the conceit that if a natural disaster — fire? flood? windstorm? — wipes out your gazebo, your land becomes everybody’s. A perfect expression of cultural arrogance. (I’m just glad he didn’t identify himself as a Californian. We already have a bad enough reputation!) OK, kinda mean but definitely funny.

Walt Read
Fresno, CA

J-Tree Paradise

John: Charles Clayton’s “Jesus and the Joshua Tree, or How I Almost Became a Climber” (MG #189) reminded me of J-Tree’s effect on this non-climber. While not a religious experience per se, I certainly thanked Gawd for that place during my visit. It’s a park that always held some level of enchanting curiosity for me. If I had to place an objective attraction on it, it’s the desert Seussical landscape, groves of goofy-looking lily relatives resembling toy poodle arbors, the botanical reincarnate of the Muppets’ “Animal” in the hugantic desert palms, and, of course, the rock formations, some literally appearing as vertical geological jigsaw puzzles or even ice cream cones. I recall one that was a perfect V cut into the cliff with a perfect sphere cradled perfectly in the top! J-Tree was all I’d hoped for.

What I didn’t expect was the climbing-friendly rocks! I am not a climber and have little, if any, interest in (though appreciate the skill involved) scaling up walls and back down when I could be coursing in and out of canyons seeking oases and staking out austere mountain passes looking for desert bighorns. However, by the amount of climbing one sees there, you can’t help but feel some sort of tacit peer pressure, and the fact that the large-grit sandpaper rock surfaces make for fairly easy jaunts up 89-degree surfaces made me a dilettante free climber for that week.

In the mornings and after dinner, all I’d have to do is put a boot up and lean forward and upwards to start my way to some outcropping 100 feet above me. It was on some of these perched rock jumbles I have some of my fondest J-Tree recollections. The friendly free-climbing allowed me to scale up to vantage points to see the solar carpet and purple shadows see-saw with each other across this fantastic landscape — a religious experience of its own kind.

Tony Smith
East Longmeadow, MA

Editor’s note: Given the fact that our snail mail address is two states away from where our editor lives, handwritten, typed and scrawled Letters to the Editor often take a while to reach the Official Desk. These next three letters were sent our way last spring. The stagecoach to Gila Country is running slower than ever.

Even More Colorado Songs

Hi, Mr. Fayhee: The Colorado Songs article was wonderful. (Smoke Signals, “Colorado Songs,” MG #185.) It was surprising how many songs exist referencing Colorado. Many of those listed are new to me. And you are right, in that this reader and others can come up with more. Here’s one: A group called Grubstake has a folk-oriented tune that might be called “The Colorado Song”. Harry Tuft, a local folk legend, is one of Grubstake’s musicians, along with three or so others. He runs the Folklore Center in Denver.

The song deals with visitors to CO that stay, thereby adding to the population.

I recall one stanza running something like: “Now we’re having trouble with the jet set/Them lazy no good bastards love to ski/ And they all want fly to Colorado and buy up all our mountain scenery.”

The chorus is roughly: “Oh you can visit now and then/Bring your money and your friends/Just don’t forget to leave when you get through.”

I suppose other Western states enduring an influx of folks have similar songs and sentiments.

Thanks again for a fun article,

Rainer (Said Ry’-ner) Hantschel
Denver, CO

Utah Songs

Hello: I live in Colorado. I know all these Colorado songs and like them, but let me make a suggestion for the finest song about our neighbor to the West. “Utah,” by the Osmonds, off of their hard-rockin’ 1972 album “Crazy Horses.” It is one of the most amazingly non-specific songs ever written … no references to anything that might make Utah a special place, except that the Osmonds live there, and they are going back there because it’s home and “the place to be.” (The least they could have done is make a pro-Mormon pitch like they did on their follow-up album, “The Plan”). That said, it’s a good solid rocker by a truly astounding and underrated group of young men.

Dan Groth
Durango, CO

Shouldn’t have got that MBA

Dear John, Hey — I figured I could call you John as 1) I love the Mountain Gazette, 2) Sometime in the ’80s, my ex-wife & I were just coming down from hiking Greys Peak ( I believe … at 57 now I can barely remember my name, much less which 14ers we hiked) and you were hitchhiking down the road + we gave you a ride, 3) I’m re-reading your book, “Up At Altitude” 4) I pick up this great copy of MG at Ken Sanders’  Rare Books — EARTH FIRST!

Hey — great magazine — A. Stark’s article, “Cosmic Justice” (MG #185) strikes a cord — in 1975 myself + ex brother in law + other best friend camped up the rock north of Nederland + hiked Arapahoe Peak — then, as the road was too tough to drive a fucking Ford Fairlane back down to Boulder to get booze (before Pearl Street was rebuilt), my pal + I hiked from Rainbow Lakes to Nederland to hitch to Boulder. I too noticed these cows, all smarter than me — all trying to deter me from
getting my MBA.

I should have listened.

Anyway, I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy your publication — like Bowden’s “Tucson City Weekly” in the ’80s — like Jim Stile’s Moab Rants — like DeVere Hinkley’s ’80s single-spaced typed eight-page missives from Cowley, Wyoming — “The Cowley Progress” — the must-read “A Man Can Believe Anything.”

Take Care — keep it going!

In the Service of Her Majesty — Mother Earth! EF!

Dave Naslund
SLC, UT
Loving life behind the ZION CURTAIN

A Sport That Encourages Drinking & Smoking!

Hi! Well March did come in like a lion in these parts — but it sure seems way to lamb-ish too soon! Snow is certainly fading fast — faster than ever I’d bet! Some would claim it’s been mud season all winter. Of course, we’re spoiled here with our geographic advantage — skiing’s been fine to great — alpine @ Wolf Creek and nordic all over our little corner of the state. I don’t mind the mud — it goes away on ground and shoes —eventually. I only hate the wind — the Chinese claim it’s evil — I won’t argue that. I am looking forward to hiking now, I must admit, though, I suspect the beetle-killed pines may pose a real danger when the winds rip!

In the meantime, there’s disc golf — I think you’d really like it, M. John F. You can smoke & drink before, during & after and throwing things at a target satisfies the primal urge — hunting?

Anyway, I wanted to send in a decorated envelope, haven’t gotten to fully digest the dog issue of MG and didn’t want to wait for the next issue. Love ’em all — only wish they were LONGER — with more info, fotos, etc.

If you want to play Pagosa’s sweet disc golf course, look me up and I’ll get you discs & show you around the course — it’s truly a sweet one! Won’t be ready for a bit of course, got to dry up the ice, snow & mud!

Happy Spring!
Addi G.
Pagosa Springs

Editor’s note: The following two Letters were addressed to long-rime MG contributor George Sibley in response to his article, “The Colorado: The First River of the Anthropocene,” which appeared in MG #188.

Hi George: Greetings from Silverton, where the aspens in my yard finally popped their buds just yesterday …

Really enjoyed your piece in MG and the turning two-by-four studs back into trees analogy! Thanks for injecting this much more useful perspective into the mind-numbing litany of “woe is us” literature on the River.

FYI — CSAS, in discussing our organizing premise, talks about the “anthroposphere” and the “music of the spheres” (atmos-, litho-,cryo-, and anthropo-spheres) … the anthropocene is the context for all this!

Cheers,
Chris Landry, Executive Director,
Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies
Silverton CO

George: Beer or wine? I want to know what to buy you in appreciation of your latest work. In fact, whiskey is not out of the question.

I thoroughly enjoyed this essay each time I read it and only curse the Gazette’s format for the difficulty of scanning it so I can distribute it to my fellow members on the Grand Mesa Water Conservancy District board — even if it’s to watch them choke on the word Anthropocene. Congratulations on another fine job.

Thanks again.

Jim Durr

Mountain Media #193

Buried in the sky

BOOKS: “Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day,” by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan

During every Himalayan expedition, the behind-the-scenes work of hauling gear, setting up camps, scouting routes and fixing rope lines falls on the backs of high-altitude workers, or Sherpa climbers, as they’re commonly known. But who are the Sherpa people? What compels some to become high-altitude workers? And on K2, the world’s second-highest peak, does the mountain goddess Takar Dolsangma answer their prayers?

In their new book, “Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day,” Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan answer these questions while telling a gripping story of the August 2008 disaster. Instead of the usual glorified gush from surviving sponsored mountaineers, the story centers on the Sherpas, giving a cultural context to their perilous work amid their most sacred places.

The authors neatly lay out each of the characters’ backgrounds, personalities and philosophies as if laying out gear before an assault on the mountain. As they push for the summit, the story degenerates into a tangled mass of rope, ice, rock and dead or dying climbers. Despite multiple storylines, this book clearly communicates the imperceptible Death Zone logic and impossible language gaps that led to the deaths of eleven climbers, Sherpa or not. The story’s flow receives help from the book’s many maps, color photos and notes.

Shocked by the death of her friend Karim Meherban in the accident, fellow climber Amanda Padoan sought to uncover how such a tragedy could happen. With help from her cousin, Peter Zuckerman, the authors thoroughly researched the story, but also pioneered a new, exciting perspective that raises the bar for all mountaineering literature. Sure, it still implies the age-old question: why climb? But when asked in the context of Sherpa climbers, the answers reverberate deeper and reveal more than ever before. $26.95, www.wwnorton.com

— Jeff Miesbauer

Utah Wasatch Cover

BOOKS: “Utah’s Wasatch Range: Four Season Refuge,” by Howie Garber

Abruptly rising thousands of feet above Salt Lake City, Utah’s Wasatch Range forms a stark boundary between the western edge of the Rocky Mountains and the eastern front of the Great Basin. And, with 85% of the state’s population living within 20 miles, the range’s constant battle between conservation and development is just as stark.

Photographer Howie Garber has been exploring and taking photos in and of the Wasatch for 40 years, but his first book, “Utah’s Wasatch Range: Four Season Refuge,” is much more than just a photographic retrospective of his career in these mountains. Garber’s expansive collection of landscape, wildlife and outdoor sports photos are paired with essays from conservationists, business leaders, scientists and government officials that detail the intricacies, beauty and fragility of this cherished range. The result is both a tribute to the home of the “Greatest Snow on Earth” and a cautionary message of the many threats faced by these craggy peaks.

The book’s essays, written by everyone from skier Andrew McLean to U.S. Congressman Jim Matheson, run the gamut of subjects from geological history to watershed stewardship to the contentious nature of the Wasatch’s unparalleled ski
terrain. For those looking for reason to believe in preserving the Wasatch’s endless recreation opportunities, pure water and accessible wilderness, Garber’s beautiful images of golden aspen stands, craggy quartzite summits, diverse wildlife and powdery ski descents make the perfect companion for the words of so many important local voices.

Collectively, the book’s photographs and words make for many things — a visual tribute, a case for conservation, and most of all, something that anyone who has ever spent time in the Wasatch will find a deep appreciation for. $39.95, www.utahswasatchrangehowiegarberphotography.com

— Andy Anderson

The Old Breed

SHORT FILMS: “The Old Breed,” by Cowboy Bear Ninja

In 2011, climber and filmmaker Freddie Wilkinson received an invite to go and climb the second-highest unclimbed mountain in the world, Saser Kangri II, in Asia’s Karakoram Mountains. The invite came from Mark Richey and Steve Swenson — two men with careers, families and lengthy lists of successful climbing expeditions under their belts. Eager to pull out one more major first ascent before retiring from big-mountain expeditions, the pair recruited Wilkinson — 25 years younger than both men — as the third member of the team.

In “The Old Breed,” Wilkinson documents the trio’s climb while also exploring what compels a pair of men in their mid-50s to travel halfway around the world and risk their lives in pursuit of an unclimbed mountain. For Richey and Swenson, the trip to climb Saser Kangri II represents what might be one of the final chapters in a long and illustrious mountaineering career. For Wilkinson, it represents a chance to share in one of a dwindling number of major unclimbed summits with two climbers he had long admired.

Due to the complex nature of what Wilkinson refers to as oropolitics, many sections of the Karakoram have been closed due to tensions between the bordering nations of India, Pakistan and China. When these areas are finally opened, it presents a bounty of first ascent potential for alpinists. And it’s such a political sea change that allows these three climbers to venture in pursuit of Saser Kangri II’s unclaimed summit.

But when Swenson falls ill on the mountain with a dangerous lung infection, the film delves into the age-old mountaineering struggle between the magnetic pull of the summit and a climber’s capacity for self-preservation. The film dabbles with the oft-discussed reasons why we go to the mountains in the first place, but it’s ultimately about how even as we age, the raw, wild spaces and expansive summits of the world offer something we can’t get anywhere else. www.theoldbreedmovie.com

— Andy Anderson

It’s all in your head: Shred music

geoff snow-face

Photo by Chris Segal, Crested Butte Mountain Resort

It’s here, it’s finally here… the month we’ve all been waiting through the off-season brown, beefing up with pot lucks, brews and conditioning classes in anticipation of burning quadriceps and lifts cranking up to take us to the magnificent white glory. It’s cause for celebration. Opening day costumes, copious brews, facial hair encrusted in icy splendor and music to help drown out the deafening sound of your lungs as you huck yourself down the slopes.

That means you’d better revisit your iPod, like, now, and get some new favorite tunes loaded up, whatever your preferences run, because a decent playlist is as essential as good ski equipment. Music makes the inexperienced more confident as it glides them into a rhythmic schussing of their very own beat and makes the seasoned shredder immortal. No one genre is going to suit every snow condition or style, so you may want something less challenging on your initial ride up (some classic Dead or Marley, perhaps?), only to switch gears to something to rip by (kick in the Red Hot Chili Peppers). Pow days might require a bit of Led Zep (“Immigrant Song” is a good one to have snow nuking non-stop into your face.) Modest Mouse to Beatles tossed with Widespread Panic and seasoned with a touch of Drew Emmitt could be sunny daze cruising happily ever after choices.

You’ll certainly want your personal listening device as Thanksgiving nears and the incessant, repetitive holiday music starts crankin’ on your nerves from blaring outdoor speakers. Having a headset on is also a legitimately recognized means to ignore annoying conversationalists who take up precious time yammering away when you could be making another run. Less talk equals more gravity enhanced slope action.

If you want to slam to the same beat as the pros in your favorite ski movies, but don’t have the time to seek out every song, you’re in luck … someone’s already done the task for you. A whitewater raft guide named Jesse Lakes realized there wasn’t a site anywhere to be found with a comprehensive list of all those fabulous tunes featured in the dramatic drops those extreme sick birds take to, so he created skimoviemusic.com, where you can search by movie name or its maker, skier or company, and then download it through just one click into iTunes. He’s also created ridertunes.com for snowboard tracks and, when the lifts close and you grab your other board, you can download your faves from surfertunes.com. Pretty damn brilliant and convenient … search less, ski more is the motto here.

It’s also worth noting is that most of the opening-day celebrations at many of our favorite snow-farming resorts include music to stomp your ski and board boots to. Not wanting to give up a good party, some mountains carry on the revelry throughout the month and into the next. Vail is kicking off its 50th anniversary on November 16 with a new gondola and continuing their mezzo centenarian birthday with an impressive concert line-up for their Snow Daze, December 13 through 15, which includes The Shins, Michael Franti & Spearhead and Wilco. Get yourself tickets and info at www.vail.com/snowdaze.

Out in Crested Butte, the drive to the end of the road is definitely worthwhile for their opening Free Ski Day November 21 and the wrap of their half-century celebration as they head into their 51st year (www.skicb.com). You can also ski free on your own birthday (hopefully, it falls sometime during winter lift operations and may it scream snow like a banshee for your special day). There’s live music slopeside on the deck of Butte 66 with the return of a much-loved surprise band that can’t be named at this time, and thrown in for fun is local community radio KBUT (www.kbut.org), which will also be spinning tunes between the lifts .

Aspen opens its slopes November 22 with the amazing Reverend Horton Heat funking up a free concert on the Upper Gondola Plaza on the 24th and, since no one knows what time this shindig kicks off, you’ll have to check in at www.aspensnowmass.com.

With all the sacrifices and dances to honor and implore Ullr, this year is sure to be big and deep, so don’t wait until the last minute to recrank the iPod, because you don’t want to waste any time getting to the slopes for your dance of vertical kinetics.

Dawne Belloise is a freelance journalist, photographer and vocalist happily entrenched back in the Shire of Crested Butte fully amped for really deep winter with new helmet speakers and a large stash of downloaded tunes. Give her a shout at dbelloise@gmail.com  

The Best Bar in America

Recently, the Craft Brewers Association of America held a contest to try and find the “Best Beer Bar in America.” Members of the beer-drinking public were invited to vote through a website, and, not surprisingly, the winning institution is located in a place where the population within a 20-mile radius of the bar easily exceeds the total resident headcount of several Western states. More people equals more votes, and the numbers behind the math make perfect sense. But perhaps the calculus behind the concept is more intriguing — what makes a bar “the best?” It is a fascinating question: What makes a certain bar great, and another average? A question elusive enough that it has been ruminated upon in many MG Bar Issues. The subject is even lofty enough as to warrant treatment in a film of the same name as this column, currently in post-production/pre-release (see MG #154).

The theme is similar to the lifelong pursuit of the American dream that the good doctor, Hunter S. Thompson, undertook and used as a recurring motif throughout his writings — his mad search for any sign of the Aquarian-tinted, utopian hippie dream of the ’60s that captivated his imagination so, as reflected through the twisted lens of Las Vegas, or the alternate reality of a presidential campaign.

After reading most of what was published, it is unclear to this writer whether Thompson ever found what he was after, but what is clear is that much of the research was conducted in a wide variety of drinking establishments. And why not? For certainly, it is in the best bars in America where the elusive truth about our reality often appears, and wherein some of the finest that this country has to offer can be found …

For instance, take the Millsite Inn, located on the Peak-to-Peak Highway up above Ward, Colorado. Time was when an aspiring beer writer might take to the hills on a Saturday evening with his best girl, in search of some of that high-lonesome sound they kept talkin’ ’bout on the volunteer radio station each and every Saturday morning down in Boulder, and find himself and twenty other revelers in the company of local legends like Buck Buckner, Pete Wernick, the boys from Leftover Salmon and international prodigies like Radim Zenkel, the Czech virtuoso of all things mandolin. Long-haired, long-bearded, long-in-the-tooth mountain men sat in the shadows of the bar taking long tokes from cheap cigars and long pulls of rail whiskey while shooting dark looks from deepening brows at us long-haired, long-bearded, ne’er-do-wells as we asked the barmaid what was on tap other than Currs, a shame worth enduring to score a tall pitcher of Lefthand Brewing Co.’s Sawtooth or Odell’s 90 Schilling Ale (we still had to share our smaller but not-so-cheap cigars furtively outside between the vans, however).

Or take, perhaps, Alma’s Only Bar (aptly named, as the other drinking establishment in North America’s highest-elevationed incorporated town is a saloon), which was at this same time, as we found out, a great place to meet long-haired, long-bearded, long-in-the-tooth mountain men that were wacked out of their minds on LSD on a Saturday evening. A chance run-in with space cowboys is always disconcerting when oneself is not also trippin’, and, after a day spent learning to drop a knee at the hands of two “friends,” who also happened to be working ski patrol at Loveland that season, and subsequently in uber-physical shape from patrolling on tele for the two previous months, my beat-to-shit muscular and cardiovascular systems weighed with such force on my mental capabilities that the beguiling dudes in the corner talking excitedly about a string of completely unrelated abstractions just about threw me over the edge. ’Twas on this night that Alma’s Only Bar happened to have a new beer on tap, the now-august Hazed and Infused pale ale from Boulder Brewing Co. At the time, this was one of the most hopped-up beers on the market, and let’s just say that this experience did for hops and I what Burt Reynold’s mustache did in “Smokey and the Bandit” for D-bag dudes and the Pontiac Trans-Am. Yes, it was love at first sip, and the rest is history.

But to get back to my point … all the while he searched for his notion of the American dream, it seems to me that the good doctor was constantly looking for a twinkling reflection of his own vibrant “madness” in the twisted misshapen mirrors of the people he encountered. I don’t know if he ever saw it (perhaps in the strange moment that he relates where he is sitting for a few minutes alone with Nixon in the back of a limo talking football), but, if it happened elsewhere, it was not
mentioned, or I am remiss in my recollections. What I do know is this: While good beer on tap helps, the best bar in America is determined by the patrons. It’s you, and me, and the other freaks that sit and converse and share our wild dreams in these spaces and places about the matters and times that concern us that can make any bar the best bar in America, even if just for an evening.

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO, where he spends his leisure time brewing his own beer. Got your own thoughts about the best bar in America? Drop him a line at beer@mountaingazette.com. 

Bob Chamberlain’s Mountain Vision #193

San Francisco Ski Show

Used Shoes, San Francisco Ski Show 1976

In the course of auditing my tax account, the Internal Revenue Service ruled that I was allowed to take a deduction for one pair of skis a year, but could not deduct my boots. As they saw the matter, the boots could be conceivably be used for purposes other than skiing. What those other purposes were was not clear. My attorney made the analogy with his three-piece suit, which he was required to wear in the courtroom, even through he only appeared in court only about once a year. It was necessary for his profession, but could be worn places other than in the courtroom, so was not deductible.

I can hardly see myself clomping into a courtroom in my Lange boots, or being able to sit comfortably as a juror for any considerable length of time. Or wearing a three-piece suit in a snowstorm, for that matter, although it may already have been done. So there you are, ski boots are not deductible.

If “skiing” is not a sport, but a “way of life,” then ski boots are not sporting goods, but life-supporting goods, so they should be chosen with care, and made to last. Which is how they were originally made — leather starched over a last — until Hans Heierling’s hands were no longer enough to sew the elephant hide he used in his last boots. Thus began, by default, the era of plastic. At last, or so we thought.

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

If the world doesn’t end

cartographic

Winter has some serious competition this year in the form of The Shift, which is slated around the date of Dec. 21, and at which time, as you very well know, the world will split into higher and lower dimensional realities. We’re not exactly sure how winter is going to play out in the new scenario, so we’re using our current Third Dimension, where other people’s bad luck/decisions/situations make for fun things for the rest of us lowlifes to talk about. Those of us who move on to the Fifth Dimension won’t be doing this kind of crap anymore.

1) Winter You Gotta Wonderland

We got to wondering if there were any real, sanctioned Winter Wonderlands out there. What we were looking for were places that are so goddamned wonderful that you almost can’t stand it. Instead, we found a story about allegedly great wintry places to retire because, if you don’t have to work, you don’t have to go outside in the towns’ really repulsive weather. Places like South Bend, Indiana. What the hell? Anyway, according to U.S. News, there are lots of great crappy wintry places to go if you don’t plan to go outside and deal with the fact that you’re in such a crappy situation. On the list: Juneau, Alaska; Syracuse, N.Y.; South Bend; Marquette, Michigan (where, in winter, you can usually saw off your own limbs without anesthesia after 20 minutes of being outside); Minneapolis (a relatively okay place due to a bunch of skyway tunnels to run around in, sort of like a gerbil habitat) and Aurora, Colorado (Aurora doesn’t necessarily have hideous weather, but if you’re moving to Colorado, you might as well take all your retirement money and spend three weeks in Aspen instead). There also were a few places where you might actually want to go outside: Burlington, Vermont, Salt Lake City and Portland, Maine.

2) Action-packed winter sports

It’s never too early to start getting all lathered up over the next Winter Olympics. If you want to get your sport listed for competition, a good place to start is by petitioning the International Olympic Committee via sites like Change.org or GoPetition.com. Really, it’s that easy; otherwise there’s no way they’d have curling or biathlon. That said, it’s anyone’s guess why the maniacs who race their cars on the partially frozen lake at Georgetown, Colorado, for example, have not had some sort of Olympic invitation/recognition. We digress (and to be fair, we should mention that they often place orange cones somewhere near the place where ice becomes water). You can plan to see women’s ski jumping added to the 2014 lineup at Sochi, in addition to a figure skating team event, a luge team relay, ski halfpipe for men and women AND the long-awaited biathlon mixed relay, which pretty much has everyone at the Mountain Gazette foaming at the mouth and/or experiencing bowel failure. Evidently, the XGames have had some influence on the addition of more extreme sports. Wielding his usual rapier wit, IOC president Jacques Rogge had this to say: “Such events provide great entertainment for the spectators and add further youthful appeal to our already action-packed lineup of Olympic winter sports.”

3) The winter of our discontent

While zillions of people attempt to escape the winter cold every year and thaw out in Arizona, we’ve got some real bad news. Both the Kingman/Lake Havasu City and Prescott areas apparently suck the good vibes out of people, or perhaps people with bad vibes are attracted to these locales, creating a vibrational suckhole that puts these spots among the top-10 saddest places in the United States, according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. It goes without
saying that Boulder took the top billing as the happiest place in the country (see Olympic sports entry for MG staff reaction to Boulder’s inherent perkiness). Conversely, out of 188 MSA’s (metropolitan statistical areas), Huntington-Ashland
WV-KY-OH took top billing as the saddest place in the country, followed by places like Youngstown, Ohio, and Beaumont, Texas. Coming in at No. 9, Prescott has a bunch of firecrackers who predominantly rank low in their feelings about their physical health and life in general. At No. 8, the folks in the Kingman/Lake Havasu City area ranked 52nd for emotional health, but completely fell apart on physical health and overall life evaluation.

4) Precision research on winter clothes

Operating on the assumption that colder, more-wintry places force people to buy warm clothes that are more expensive by nature, we learned many things in our extensive investigation. First of all, and no surprise here — folks in Jackson buy a lot of clothes — an average of $361 a month, according to Bundle. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s sartorial average is $121, with places like Sheridan ($119) and Rawlins ($97) holding the numbers and fashion down. If you seriously don’t want to dress to impress, Montana and Idaho are where you need to be. Montana has a scratchy $85 monthly average, with Livingston coming in at a paltry $81. Idaho’s average is $86, and if you really want to scrimp on style, Caldwell is your place at $53. We checked out Silver City, N.M., home of the Gazette’s esteemed editor, and folks there are parting with $91 a month on clothes.

5) Dirtbags, all

We were looking for some fun, weird-ish winter festivals to talk about here, and encountered the usual ice-water plunges, and, naturally, the après-Christmas fruitcake toss in Manitou Springs, Colorado. But ranking among the World’s Top-10 Winter Festivals, according to MSN Travel, is Dirtbag Day at Big Sky Resort. Held in March, it’s not so much about douchebags, although there is some statistical crossover here. It’s more about hardcore skiers and riders who hit the bars at night, with hygiene as a distant consideration. Anyway, on Dirtbag Day, the dirtbags get to dress up in whatever they want. “This is our Halloween, New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras all in one,” one of the participants told The New York Times.  

Way of the Mountain #193

Elections are over. Time to let go the human drama. And dig into the spirit of place where you live. Awake to what lives beneath your feet … Two poets from Ridgway this month — must be the several hot springs there (Orvis, Wiesbaden, Ouray) that makes for such good poets …

— Art Goodtimes, Cloud Acre

47 km North of Squamish

Wet silence of flakes
Gives way
To the heavy rush of falls
And I’m drawn
Sneakers like slippers
Into the soft powder of
The muffled white woods

— Bryan Shuman
Laramie

The Old Barn

the old barn
stands open to the sky
and the steaming breath
of black horses searching for grass
in the muted gold of winter

— Cathy Casper
Eagle

Avalanche

What was thicker
than a man and
a thousand times
stronger snapped
at the waist from
the breath of what
consumed a gorge we
labored all day to traverse

— Kevin Patrick McCarthy
Locuto.com
Boulder

Driving. Blizzard.

My wish is for
eighteen more
of you in the
world, says
the five-year-old
to his big sister,
and we sit back
into the sum total
of what we
know.

— Erika Moss Gordon
Ridgway

Snowy Woods

Along Cottonwood Pass
the loggers’ road
covered in deep snow
becomes a skier’s delight
winding through pines

— David Reynolds
Fountain Valley

Ice Verse 3

Our girls red cheeked
tasting this evening’s snow

Coldplay in the background
trying to capture Satie
The mad Frenchman’s “Gymnopedie”
plays us out

No lyrics
only notes fading into dark
credits rolling and blame

— Kierstin Bridger
Ridgway

Coming Back from a Moonlight Ski

when i am
dead
dead
dead
coyotes will leave
tracks in fresh snow
and stars will shine
at night, then
who
who
will be watching

— Carl Marcus
Wilson Mesa

Summerville Trail

Talus slope
Chirping marmot
Bear? Me? Both?

— Joseph Van Nurden
Gunnison

Old Haiku Chair

old haiku chair
just off the trail
has 4 legs and half an arm

— Jimi Bernath
from “Weathering” 
(Porcupine Books)
Englewood  

Ruined

Machu Picchu

First view of Machu Picchu before sunrise from Intipunku. By Colegota

Author’s note: Several years ago, I was given an assignment by a glossy outdoor magazine to pen a story about hiking Peru’s famed Inca Trail. After I completed the hike, but before the article appeared in print, there was an editorial coup d’état at the magazine and my Inca Trail piece was a casualty. I have long wanted to nudge the story into print and decided — what the hell? — now’s as good a time as any. Please note that, even though this installation of Smoke Signals is longer than usual, this is still a truncated version of what turned out to be a very long example of Fayhee bullshit.    

For my entire adult life, I had fantasized about this, the moment I was about to embark upon the train ride that would take me to and deposit me at Kilometer 88, a skanky trackside cluster of shacks so dismal it deserves a pedestrian name like K-88, which marks the beginning of the 55-mile Inca Trail. I had wanted to hike the Inca Trail for so long that I can’t remember when or why that particular dream began. Its lack of palpable paternity aside, the dream consisted of many rational components: Trekking along an arduous route through the heart of the Andes. World-class mountain scenery combined with the colorful Quechua Indian culture, which is descended directly from the Incas. A cobbled pathway that pre-dates the “discovery” of the “New” World. And, most importantly, Machu Picchu, the famed “lost” (and found) city of the Incas uncovered (if not discovered — a little etymological two-step, there) by the American archeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911.

For many years, political circumstances (read: the Sendero Luminoso unpleasantness, which often specifically targeted tourists) convinced my wife Gay and me to give Peru a wide berth (call me a pussy). Things have changed enough in the past few years (though they are slowly changing back, from what I hear) that we finally decided to pack our packs and make the long-anticipated journey to the heart of Inca-land.

The train from Cuzco to Kilometer 88 huffs and puffs its way up several switchbacks as it climbs up the mountainside out of Cuzco, a city of 300,000 that is located at almost 12,000 feet. After it crests out, we begin our descent into the Sacred Valley of the Rio Urubamba, which we will follow all the way to the trailhead.

It’s wonderful, though stark, countryside, more arid than alpine, despite the elevation and despite the fact that we are only 16 degrees south of the Equator and less than 100 miles west of the Amazon Basin. The kilometer signs slowly tick by as we make our way through small towns I’ve been reading about for decades: Izcuchaca, Zurite, Ollantaytambo, the lyrical Inca names flowing into the each other like the swift water of the river we are following. (Translated, those lovely names probably mean things like “Snarling, Rabid Dog-ville” and “Place Where All the Seething Displaced Senderos Now Reside.”)

Halfway between Cuzco and Kilometer 88, the snow-covered peaks of the high Andes begin to appear in the distance. It is both sobering and frightening to realize the mountains we are now eyeballing are almost 9,000 feet higher than the loftiest peaks of Colorado.

We stop briefly at Kilometer 82, an alternative starting point for the Inca Trail. A few members on the teeming backpacker masses with whom we are sharing the train shoulder their packs and get off. Fifteen minutes later, we’re there: Kilometer 88, one of the most-famous trailheads on the planet. Much to our delight, “only” about 200 other hikers disembark. The rest of the pack-toting hordes stay on the train, which goes all the way to the town of Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. (I should note here that you are only allowed to hike the Inca Trail in one direction — toward Machu Picchu.) Gay and I dilly-dally on the side of the tracks, re-organizing our packs and preparing for a hike that, though famous and well-trod, is, by all accounts, pretty damned difficult.

When we’ve got our ducks in a huddle, we walk down toward the trailhead. Much to our dismay, we see before us a line of hikers 50 yards long. Since the Inca Trail is part of the massive Machu Picchu Cultural Park, there is paperwork to be filled out and money to be handed over. It takes more than an hour to buy our entry permits and fill out the requisite forms, which are stamped and handed back to us by a couple of no-nonsense-looking (and well-armed) gendarmes whose demeanor can best be described as desultory, like, shit, I joined the Peruvian Army to see the world, and here I am issuing hiking permits to gringos and Eurotrash.

The trail starts out at 7,500 feet, following the Rio Urubamba through a wonderfully shady eucalyptus grove. It’s very easy going at first, and we are both beaming. After all these years of planning and, more importantly, dreaming, I am finally beating feet upon the Inca Trail.

Our orientational arsenal consists of one pleasantly outdated guidebook, “The Inca Trail,” by Richard Danbury, and one non-topographic map that looks more like a placemat you’d find at Denny’s than it does a useful trail tool. It’s the best we could find in Cuzco, though, as there don’t appear to be any “real” maps of this area.

It becomes obvious from the get-go that we will need neither a map nor a guidebook to stay on the trail. This is tread that has been used as a fundamental transportation artery for so many millennia by so many uncountable gabillions of people that you could near-bouts navigate it drunk with your eyes closed in the dark. At this point, the trail is actually just that: a trail — good ol’ dirt and rock — rather than the Inca-crafted stonework “highway” we will walk upon for the last two-thirds of the hike.

It is almost 1 p.m. before we leave the river bottom and begin our first ascent, into the valley of the Rio Cusichaca. Though it is hot, I press Gay — who only enjoys hiking if she can do so at a pace that borders on — how to say this tactfully? — deliberate — to push on without a break. As much as I am trying to deal non-negatively with the numbers of people on the trail, truth be known, I am worried about getting a campsite. That’s another little gem that our guidebook has laid on us: In a land with this much severely vertical terrain, level turf is a rarity. There are only a handful of decent camping areas on the entire trail, and many of them are taken early in the day by employees of the tour companies.

The overwhelming majority of the people who hike the Inca Trail sign on with these companies, which employ local Quechuas to do the dirty work, such as carrying everyone’s packs, running ahead to lay claim to entire valleys and having tea and crumpets prepared when the customers arrive.

It’s not like we did not have the opportunity to sign on with a guided tour company. You can’t swing a dead cat in downtown Cuzco without hitting someone who’s trying mightily to sell you an all-inclusive, deluxe, guided, provisioned, portered journey along the Inca Trail. And the cost is certainly not prohibitive, anywhere from $50 per person per day to $200, depending on quality of food, gear and guides.

Much to the chagrin of my wife, I have never liked the idea of being guided along a trail, especially one as obvious as this, and I certainly can’t abide the notion of having someone else carrying my pack. It’s cheating, and my purist glands can’t handle it. Many people argue that, by hiring guides and porters, you are mitigating your visitation impact by putting money directly into the local economy. That’s a perfectly valid perception, but just one that I personally prefer not to buy into for selfish reasons that might karmically catch up with me at some point, like when my aching right Achilles tendon finally gives out for good.

Temptation along the Inca Trail does not just take the form of the pre-paid, pre-arranged guided tour companies. For the first day and a half, we pass dozens of freelance porters, locals who sit alongside the trail, offering to carry the packs of any gringos whose tongues are clearly dragging in the dust. Since these sturdy men only charge a few bucks a day, it’s not long before Gay is seriously considering making the freelance porter leap, with or without spousal approval. I am married to a woman who loves hiking and camping about as much as a person can. But she viscerally hates carrying a full pack, and she can’t, for the life of her, understand why she married a fool so stupid/egotistical/stupid that he won’t consider even for a moment giving in to good sense when opportunity knocks as loudly and as inexpensively as it does with these trailside freelance porters, all of whom smirk as we approach.

Just before the village of Huayllabamba, we pass the first decent-looking campsite, right on the banks of the Cusichaca. Good thing it’s too early to even contemplate parking it for the night, as it has been completely commandeered by a tour company that, judging from the scale of the operation, seems to have the entire population of Germany as its clientele. Rows and rows of identical tents are set up side-by-side, making it look like a massive 19th-century cavalry encampment. Though we have been assured that these companies have no legal right to dibbs entire camping areas, the fact that they get there first and take up every available inch of level land means they, de facto, do dibbs these areas. My concern for finding a satisfactory place to pitch my tent this evening grows.

Within the modest city limits of Huayllabamba, we pass two more guided-tour-dominated camping areas, each with surly looking Quechua men scowling at any passersby who so much as cast a fleeting glance at “their” heavily tented domains. Several customers are in the camps, sitting in cushy lawn chairs and sipping refreshing beverages. They cast furtive glances at those of us humping our way up the steep hill under the burden of full packs. But they don’t glance long, before returning to their conversations about, I’m sure, this season’s most intriguing interior tent decorating schemes.

Real backpackers carry their own stuff, I tell Gay, and they are the only ones who have any right to say they’ve “hiked” the Inca Trail. Gay glances over at the reposed, comfortable beverage-sippers and sighs.

We are now following the lovely little Rio Llulluchapampa through a tight canyon. The hiking wheat is beginning to get separated from the hiking chaff, as one-by-one, our trail brethren begin to get hit head-on by the double whammy of altitude combined with the severity of the terrain. Gay and I find ourselves passing just about every person we saw in line back at the trailhead, and we don’t even feel as though we’re pushing it too hard. Guess that’s one of the advantages of living for multiple decades at altitude.

We cross the Rio Llulluchapampa on a small footbridge at about 3 p.m. Just past the bridge is a wide-open field with numerous tent-sized flat spots. This close to the Equator, it’s dark by 6, so we run over and lay claim to what ends up being a wonderful and fairly private site. Over the course of the next few hours, a fair number of other hikers straggle in, and we lose any sense of privacy, but we’re still off pretty much by ourselves in a place that boasts the two most important components of camping: astounding vistas and a secluded spot for the wife to piss.

For most of the day, mist has been mixing with fog and clouds off in the distance. Just before dark, all visible atmospheric gas dissipates and we are facing one of the most awesome sights I have ever witnessed. On the other side of the Llulluchapampa Valley, the mountains are eye-popping: Several thousand feet straight up and covered with luxuriant, cliff-hanging vegetation. If that one wall of mountains was the only scenery we saw on the entire trip, we would have reported back to our chums in the Mountain Time Zone that we had witnessed one of the most astounding mountain vistas on the planet. But, as the puffy white clouds parted in the distance, we came to realize that most of what we were seeing were not puffy white clouds at all, but, rather, the snow-covered summits of the Salcantay Range — the highest mountains in the area, which make Elbert and Massive look like gentle hills.

Most people take four days and three nights to hike the Inca Trail, though it can certainly be done in three days, and, more importantly, it can be done in five. Or six. No matter how many days you take to hike from Kilometer 88 to Machu Picchu, there is one day that stands by its high lonesome self on a pedestal built atop a base of reverence, awe and dread. That day is called, well, “The Second Day.”

The crux of The Second Day is a pass called Abra Huarmiwañusca, which translates to “Dead Woman’s Pass.” There are three passes on the Inca Trail, each lower than the prior. Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the trail, is a respectable 13,776 feet — higher than I’ve ever carried a full pack in my life. The statistics alone certainly had Gay’s undivided attention. More than that, though, she found the nomenclature captivating.

“Bet the woman who the pass was named after had a husband who wouldn’t hire a porter to carry his poor wife’s pack,” the love of my life stated as we shouldered our loads and hit the trail.

Since the exact nanosecond we got out of the tent, the freelance porters started arriving, assuming that a long night of sleeping on the ground would convince a fair number of gringos to utilize their services. And those porters were right, as many of the people we crossed paths with the first day hit the trail pack-less. All seemed a bit embarrassed when that point was raised by my hyper-sensitive self.

The trail immediately shot skyward through one of the most intense sections of cloud forest in the area. Cloud forest — bosque nublado in Spanish — is one of those biomes that many people lump under the generic heading of “jungle.” It is hyper-dense forest, usually at 6,000 feet or higher, that collects most of its moisture from the air, rather than from the soil. Cloud forest is always thick with bromeliads and vines, and it’s always cool and shady. The cloud forest through which the Inca Trail passes is heavily laden with many species of orchids, making the walk a favorite among flower-o-philes.

It is also home to numerous exotic species of animals, including the Andean (speckled) bear, the puma, the colpeo fox and the pygmy deer. And, for those who pay attention to this sort of minutiae, there are supposed to be a couple species of venomous snakes hereabouts. Though, truth be known, Godzilla could be standing in a patch of cloud forest three inches from your face and you wouldn’t see him; the vegetation is that thick and impenetrable.

Soon we pass out of the bosque nublado and into the sun-scorched open. Far ahead, we could make out Dead Woman’s Pass, still three hours away. It is was hot and dry, and scores of red-faced backpackers looked like they could, and probably would, pass out at any moment as they made their lead-footed way upward. The freelance porters who had stationed themselves along this section of trail had more business acumen than an entire university full of MBA candidates. Their services at this point were so much in demand that they could pretty much name their price. In addition to negotiating pecuniary remuneration, they were also demanding food, gear and, for all I knew, blow jobs. Weary backpackers were having arguments over who was going to hire which porter.

I felt good, at least partially because, unlike most of my fellow hikers, the altitude was not affecting my long-time mountain-dwelling self. And I’m a good uphill hiker. So I was able muster a modicum of physical dignity when I reached the summit, where the teeming masses were all lying flat on their backs, near death, tongues lolling out of their mouths. My trail brethren could not have been more sprawled out had they been dropped en masse from an airplane. While I stood on the pass, saying things like, “I can’t believe we’re here already,” I got a sobering visit from the little devil that often pops up on my shoulder and whispers unsweet somethings into my ear.

“Your time is coming, asshole,” he said. Then the little devil grabbed my head and faced it downhill. I hate long steep downs, and they hate me. And we were about to embark upon the first of three nasty, quad-killing Inca Trail descents.

Unbelievably beautiful though it was on the pass, it was also very windy. Gay and I dropped down a few hundred feet on the other side, and ate lunch behind some huge boulders with a jovial group from England, who, despite the fact that we were only two days out, were already fantasizing out loud about food. “Hey, mate,” one of the Brits said to me, after learning my nationality, “you don’t happen to have any American cheeseburgers with you, do you?”

“No,” I replied, “but I did bring some freeze-dried steak-and-kidney pie and a few pints of Bass.”

“Ah, steak-and-kidney pie … I’d kill for steak-and-kidney pie,” he replied. (Author’s note: Even though I was born in the U.K., and even though most of my family continues to reside there, I disavow any cultural connection to a food item known as “steak-and-kidney pie.”)

Everyone was in good spirits, despite the fact that many people on the Inca Trail were obviously having trouble with the physical part of the hike. Gay and I both noticed that there were good vibes all along the trail, the lack of solitude notwithstanding. Part of that could have been because most of our fellow hikers were from Europe, where crowds in the backcountry are the norm. There was more to it, though: We had all come halfway across the world to experience this experience, and that gave us some significant common ground with each other, a feeling of on-trail camaraderie that you don’t often find along the human-dense footpaths of, say, Rocky Mountain National Park or the Presidential Range, where every other hiker is viewed by most people as a solitude-killing interloper.

The toe-scrunching 2,000-foot, two-mile descent into the Rio Pacamayo Valley took only an hour, but it provided a sign of things to come. By now, more and more of the “trail” consisted of perfectly placed, almost cobblestone-like rocks and steps, all laid together with expert precision by the Incas millennia ago. Though the engineering was worthy of all of the intellectual appreciation I could muster, it was not the sort of perambulation venue that my corpus delecti liked. The stone steps determined the length of my stride, and my footfalls were not exactly softened by the granite. Toward the bottom of the valley, I began to wonder if I would be the only Inca Trail hiker in history to hire a freelance porter to carry his pack on the downhills.

The scenery was astounding enough that, every once in a while, I forgot about the fact that my knees and feet were starting to send more and more red alert-type messages to my cerebral cortex. This was bonafide Andean alpine country, with lush meadows, waterfalls and towering rock faces that framed the entire valley.

Grim reality, Inca Trail-style, reared its head at the bottom, though. Every square millimeter of ground that was even remotely level was taken over by the guided tour companies, the employees of which were scurrying around like butlers on speed preparing lunch for their non-pack-carrying customers, all of whom were probably so damned parched that, if they didn’t get a spot of tea within two minutes of their arrival, they’d lie down and die. The guides were running down to the river to fetch water, setting up tables and chairs and hunkering over propane stoves cooking all manner of chow that smelled far better than, as a random example, our energy bars. We stopped only long enough to fill our water bottles, before heading up to the Second Pass, two miles and 1,000 vertical feet away.

It felt wonderful to be hiking uphill again.

For the first time since we arrived in the Andes, serious, rather than decorative, clouds moved in. The wind kicked up and, with the sun blocked, it was chilly going up the Second Pass, located at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet. Halfway up the pass lie the ruins of Runquraqay, where there are numerous potential campsites. We were early enough that no tour groups were on the scene, but it was cold enough that we opted to move on, but not until we checked the ruins out. Though by Inca Trail standards, it’s fairly small taters, we spent 45 minutes marveling at the intricate engineering, running our fingers along the seamless, mortarless stonework.

Then we hump it up to the crest of the Second Pass, where there are a couple of alpine lakes and several primo campsites. Again, the misty-chilled weather chases us down, into the valley of Sayac Marca, the most amazing set of ruins between Kilometer 88 and Machu Picchu.

On the way down, we noticed something startling: We are completely alone. The crowds have finally thinned out. Me and the missus have dusted the masses. We be bad.

Once again, the descent took place primarily on bone-jarring stone steps built by Inca craftsmen well before Christopher Columbus set sail, and, by the time we reached the trail intersection for Sayac Marca — which, like Machu Picchu, was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham — our thighs hurt so badly, we were ready to camp right there in the middle of the trail. We pay a short visit to the ruins before walking stiff-legged off to Chaquicocha, a campsite visible from Sayac Marca a half-mile away. Once more, we find a great place to pitch our Clip-3, with views that are ball grabbing in every direction. To the southwest, we can see Sayac Marca, with sheer mountain walls behind the ruins and the glaciated giants of the Andes behind that. To the north and east are waterfalls, and in every direction are cloud-forest-covered cliffs.

Chaquicocha itself has a small building that boasts flush toilets and running water, with a nice pipe spring outside. Like most of the campsites along the Inca Trail, there’s a little more trash than one would ordinarily find in American national parks, but, all told, we’ve been pretty impressed by the cleanliness of the trail, despite its high amount of use.

We get to the 11,742-foot Third Pass just as the sun is rising above the Urubamba Valley, many thousand feet below us and just as the porters working for a guided tour company are in the process of disassembling their massive, Raj-esque camps and packing up. From the looks of things, there were a lot of people here last night, but they have already departed. The porters go about their work with precision and speed borne of uncountable such camp-breakings.

These porters are almost otherworldly with regards to their on-trail abilities. They remind me very much of Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, a tribe with which I’ve spent a lot of trail time. For the entire hike, we’ve been passed by long lines of porters carrying 50-kilogram loads on rudimentary wooden packframes. They literally run up and down the trails wearing nothing more than flip-flops or ratty old running shoes. Their legs look more like gnarly tree trunks than human appendages. I do notice that there don’t seem to be many old porters, though. It doesn’t matter who you are, you carry enough weight enough times at a fast rate up and down a rock trail, and your knees are going to eventually give out. (Just ask long-time hutmasters in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, most of whom have nicknames like “Gimpy” and “Shuffles.”)

All for a couple bucks a day. And my guess is workman’s comp is not real big here.

Just before we begin the last — and by far the longest (5,000-plus vertical feet) — descent of the hike, I find myself standing next to a group of Dutch people who are part of a guided tour. They are having some pertinent skinny laid on them by their Peruvian guide, who’s orienting them to the surrounding territory. If there is one reason I would choose to hire a guide, it would be this: The constant barrage of information and interpretation along the trail. Several times, we’ve overheard lectures about the flora and fauna and the local history, and we have been envious.

Just below the Third Pass are the intricate, stone-step-thick ruins of Phuyupatamarca, through which the trail passes. This is a good warm-up for what we now face: Something like 3,000 steps from the Third Pass to the Trekker’s Hotel, where we plan to camp on our last night on the Inca Trail. The trail here passes through cloud forest as lovely as anything we have seen so far. Orchids in full bloom line the way, and several species of hallucinogenic hummingbirds flit around, sucking nectar from brightly colored bromeliads. I absolutely cannot believe I don’t have any pot or acid with me.

Yet, I can scarcely concentrate on the surrounding beauty, and the excitement of being spitting distance from Machu Picchu has dissipated into a torrent of pain covering every corpuscle from my quads to my tootsies. Gay, likewise, is one hurting unit. As a matter of fact, everyone on the trail by this point is wincing with every step. It has been more than a day since our last piece of dirt tread; everything since the Second Pass has been rock solid. And the sheer verticality of the descent is brutal. No switchbacks. Straight down, step after step after step. It’s like the stairway to Cirith Ungol that Gollum leads Frodo and Sam on. And here’s the main thing: These Incas must have been some short-legged people, because these steps are less than one-hiking-boot’s-worth deep and about four inches high. So, a man of regular gringo height has to choose between taking baby steps hour after hour or taking the steps two or three at a time, risking an ass-over-teakettle kinda slip that likely wouldn’t reach its logical conclusion for several captivating minutes.

By the time we reach the Trekker’s Hotel, our quads and calves are so shot, we are having trouble even lifting our feet. The descent into the Trekker’s Hotel ruined me, even more than my many descents into Mexico’s Copper Canyon and the Grand Canyon. I would kill for just one fucking switchback.

The hotel complex is a borderline civilized amenity. There’s a restaurant that serves decent food and more importantly, beer. Lots and lots of beer. There are indoor restrooms, some dingy dorm rooms, pay showers and several dozen terraced campsites. The one we picked out necessitated a stroll through a campsite already dibbsed by a tour company. It had the benefit of being close to the restaurant, should thirst require multiple journeys to and from camp (which ended up being the case). The resident guide scowled and said we couldn’t camp there. I scowled back and invited the diminutive lad to try and stop me. I thought his goddamned head was going to explode from anger, but he said nothing. Later, I bought him a beer and, from that moment on, I was his best friend. He even courteously pointed out to me the place located, sad to report, behind a rock scant feet from the front of our tent, where all the guides like to squat (despite the proximate indoor plumbing) when they pass through. And I thought it was my funky hiking socks that were befouling the air. Man, was I ever relieved to learn it was piles of nearby guide caca instead!

Gay and I did muster the energy to stiff-leggedly stroll down to the nearby ruins of Wiñay Wayna, which were only partially excavated and which looked like a giant, terraced baseball stadium. Despite our leg pain, we were overcome, for about the 200th time since we left Kilometer 88, with the unrivalled, multi-tiered grandeur of this place. I mean, these Incas could build some shit. How on earth could folks as dialed-in as the Incas seemed to be lose a home game to a couple hundred conquistadores? And, more importantly, how can we import some of this construction consciousness into the States, where a high percentage of new construction looks like it was built with the specific intent of turning into compost within about 15 minutes of the last nail being driven in? Planned obsolescence did not seem to be part of the Incas’ building code.

Huarmihuañusca
Huarmihuañusca, also known as “Dead Woman’s Pass”. By Colegota

Soon after hitting the hay, my stomach knotted up at the thought that we were now only a few hiking hours away from a place I had waited my adult whole life to visit. Shortly after that thought dissipated, I realized that it wasn’t the notion of finally visiting Machu Picchu that caused my stomach to knot up. I was getting sick. Fast. My belches tasted very much like the fake bacon bits that 1) had been “aging” in my food bag since the previous summer (or maybe it was the summer before that) and 2) I had sprinkled liberally upon my delectable freeze-dried dinner.

There’s a locked gate just past the Trekker’s Hotel, which the local constabulary doesn’t open till 5 a.m. It’s every Inca Trail hiker’s plan to arrive at Intipuncu, a small ruin with a perfect view of Machu Picchu, at dawn. It was still dark when we arrived at the gate, which was good, as I found myself having to run off the trail several times to befoul the turf. In my condition, I hiked slowly — too slowly to make it to Intipuncu by dawn, which we likely wouldn’t have done anyhow, given the fact that our legs couldn’t have been any stiffer had we strapped two-by-fours to them.

Then, there it was, two miles away, just like we had seen in hundreds of photos over the years: Machu Picchu, the only abandoned city in the Western Hemisphere that can rival Guatemala’s Tikal, which Gay and I have visited twice. The large tribe of Inca Trail hikers gathered at Intipuncu all agreed: Seems a lot smaller than we expected! Indeed, Machu Picchu looked tiny, even inconsequential from this distance. Just as we were prepared for the kind of let-down that often arrives at the seminal moment of any dream trip, the overcast sky opened up and a large stream of sunlight hit the ruins directly, and the entirety of South America’s most-famous archeological site glowed orange and yellow, like it was spiritually radioactive. The tribe gasped as one. It was like, “OK, we’ll all just shut the fuck up right now and feel humbled.”

It took 45 minutes to reach the outskirts of metro Machu Picchu. It got larger and more grandiose and more powerful-feeling with each step. We arrived at 8 a.m., by which time I was feeling very, very poorly. Unlike most of our trail brethren, who only planned to stay half a day at the ruins before returning to their long, windy journeys to wherever, we had planned to spend three or four days exploring Machu Picchu. There’s only one hotel at the ruins, which costs about a million dollars a night. So, we hopped one of the frequent buses for the 30-minute ride down (way, way down) to the aforementioned hamlet of Aguas Calientes. We got a nice room for about $5 a night and I basically slept the rest of the day away. By evening, the rotten fake bacon bits had enthusiastically egressed my premises (much to the chagrin of the local plumbing, which was up to general Latin American standards), and I was feeling fit.

We spent the next three days, 12 hours a day, savoring every molecule, every nook and cranny, every nuance of Machu Picchu, flat-out one of the world’s best backpacking destinations. Just about all of our fellow trail hikers had moved on, but, every day, a new batch of hikers came in, dirty, limping and with the kind of gleam in their eyes that only comes from taking the hard way to a cool place. There was definitely a hierarchy within those indescribable ruins: There were those who had walked there and those who did not. That’s exactly the way it should be.

To read the full version of this piece, go to mjohnfayhee.com  

The Hermit Trail

Grand Canyon illustration

Ed Abbey and I traveled all over the Southwest. I was a college sophomore and “Desert Solitare” had been in print for only four years. I kept a cheap, dog-eared copy in my red Kelty external-frame backpack and everywhere I hitchhiked across the Southwest, there was Ed.

We had great conversations as we thumbed across the Colorado Plateau, from the Glen Canyon Damn to the Gila, the Henrys, Madera Canyon and the Dragoons.

He was there that night in Hussong’s in Enseñada, Mexico, when I met a ranch manager at the bar and he suggested we visit the place he was caretaking along the coast. On the way to the beach, we suffered a fierce hailstorm, got soaked. I tried to dry my jeans by the ranch house fireplace, but, because of too much tequila, my attention wavered. The jeans burned up, and I crossed the border at Tijuana wearing a beard and a lightweight cotton skirt.

Ed was in my pack with the fringed Pendleton blanket I’d bought at the pawn shop on Route 66 in Gallup. I didn’t know it was a female blanket. It was cheap and I wanted to stay warm. Sometimes, I wore it draped around my shoulders or tied to the top of my pack. All across Navajo and Hopi land, I got sly smiles from children, uproarious laughter from adults and rides in the back of trucks.

Abbey was my guide. He taught me never to let college interfere with my education, how to question authority and how to find myself by getting lost. He went with me to Canyonlands, Arches, Wupatki and everywhere on the Coconino. Abbey was even with me on the Hermit Trail in the glaring light and suffocating heat of the Grand Canyon, and he was just as glad to crawl out of that overrated hole in the ground as I was. To hell with all those glorious sunrises and sunsets. I needed beer. I needed rest. And I needed to get laid.

I knew it wasn’t a good idea to take two girlfriends to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the same hike. I knew the Hermit Trail was a long, hot nine-mile slog 4,300 feet down to the river, but I wanted less traffic than on the Bright Angel Trail, with its hordes of tourists and farting, shitting mules. I knew what I wanted, but I had no idea how much trouble I’d get into or what I’d find at the Colorado River’s edge.

What I didn’t know was how much water to take, even in March. Nor did I know the benefits of caps, hats, anything to cover my overheated head. But I’d learn. Oh, yes, I’d learn.

In the morning descending into the center of the earth, the first mile below the rim, hikers are confident, calm, poised. Backpacks are not yet heavy, thirst is not anything like what it will be by late afternoon, and the lack of shade is of no consequence. Hikers stretch out and get distance between each other. The full-on heat of the canyon is not yet apparent, at least not in early spring. It’s joyful to swing out along the trail walking, deeper and deeper away from the traffic, congestion and gawking tourists with their cameras, ice cream cones and fear of leaving the paved viewpoints on top.

Molly, Susan and I spread out. We attended college together and wanted to hike the Grand Canyon on our spring break. It had seemed like a fine thing to do back in Colorado with late-winter snow still on the ground, and no warm Chinook winds to melt patches of ice. So we made the drive down through Durango, the Four Corners, on to Kayenta, Tuba City, Cameron and in. Seeing the canyon in late afternoon light is unforgettable. As we drove, we thought about how fun it would be to play in the river so far below us, we couldn’t even see it.

Susan had her dad’s big Ford Galaxie station wagon and agreed to drive, which gave me time to flirt with freckle-faced Molly with her long straight hair, cute dimples and warm smile. I didn’t know how well I’d get to know her until we got close to the bottom. Then she took off her shorts and top and swam naked in one of the pools. Underwater, she dipped and dived, her smooth white skin submerged below the green surface of the water, a college boy’s fantasy if ever there was one. I’d been reading Abbey and somewhere he’d written about “rosy-bottomed skinny-dippers.” Had he been down the Hermit Trail, too?

But before we got to the pools and Polly’s birthday suit, there were miles of hot, dusty trail. After a few hours, my canteen was almost empty. I had no chewing gum and my tongue was getting thick and heavy. Little sparks seemed to float near my eyelids. I finished the canteen and soon wanted more water but, in the glare of mid-day, all I could find was shimmering, bleached-out rocks. The trail wound down. First, I wanted water, then I begged for shade, but there was none of that, either.

Instead, what there was under that glaring, brutal sun was a group of bouncy, boisterous Boy Scouts. Didn’t they know they could die out here in the depths of the Grand Canyon? What sort of Kool-Aid was in their canteens anyway? And, if the Boy Scouts were a shimmering haze of uniforms, patches and pins, on the flat, dry Tonto Platform, I thought I saw a wiry little man skipping down the trail, poking at rocks, turning them over and setting them back. It was high noon and I thought I was seeing things — a brown leather elf wearing nylon shorts and sandals. He looked not just sunburned but sunbaked, like a dark chocolate chip cookie left in an oven overnight. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and assumed we’d had too many beers the evening before at our camp up top.

We’d packed all wrong. Too much food. Canned goods, mostly. Too many clothes. Winter wear for Colorado utterly unnecessary where we were headed. The sleeping bags were too heavy and I don’t remember any tents. What I do remember is becoming overheated, wanting water, then wanting shade, willing to settle for death if only the vultures and coyotes would be quick and clean. Sharp claws gripped behind my eyeballs. Dust in my nose made it hard to breath, and those damn Boy Scouts up ahead kept singing.

I knew I should have felt more responsibility for the young women I was with, but they seemed to have more stamina than I did, and they had sense enough to bring caps while I thought my long hair would keep me cool. Without a hiking stick, I slipped and tripped every now and then, sliding a few feet closer to the bottom. As for the brilliant colors and snapshots of geologic time in the heart of the canyon, it was all stone to me. I was as dry as a hobo’s shoe.

Just when I was ready to give up, fall behind a rock and wait for darkness, death, anything, out of the corner of my eye I saw the tiniest little white cloud.  A few minutes later, it got larger, and the hot desert wind seemed to be a trifle cooler. The cumulus cloud grew. I said a quick prayer for shade and was overjoyed when the first cold drop of rain splattered in the dust before me. Suddenly, scattered drops became a deluge. What had been an insufferable descent into hell became a rush to get out of the cold, driving rain mixed with spikes of hail.

We came around a corner to find Hermit’s Creek and a likely ledge for shelter. As we ducked under it, we were surprised to see a dozen other hikers with wet hair, soaked shirts and saturated packs. My death march was over. From rain running off the alcove I scooped cold, clear water in dripping handfuls. We had a few snacks. The eagles let go of the backs of my eyeballs. I was delighted to see how lovely Susan and Molly looked in their wet, clinging T-shirts. It was the early 1970s and liberated women wore no bras.

Renewed, refreshed and keenly interested in sharing my sleeping bag that night, when the rain ceased we swung on down the trail. In another mile, we could hear the river, though we couldn’t see it. Water kept flowing down rivulets and off canyon walls. I was as happy and as ecstatic in that moment as I had been depressed and forlorn forty minutes earlier.

Life had taken on new meaning. I would live to tell the tale. To hell with the vultures, the coyotes and the Boy Scouts. I had two girls ahead of me on the path, a pack full of food, a wet bandanna around my neck for extra cooling and the welcome roar of a river getting louder in my ears. It would be an exciting night to be alone with Susan and Molly. I would be the hero, the guide, the interpreter. I would make up stories about prospectors, tell them about my favorite children’s book, “Brighty of the Grand Canyon,” whip up Dinty Moore beef stew as canyon cuisine, wait for the stars, the cool night and the need to sleep close.

And then I saw them. Large hairy males wearing loin cloths dead ahead on the trail. Tall, muscular, bearded, like some throwback to the Stone Age. What the hell was this? We had almost made it to the bottom. I wanted to be alone with these two young bra-less co-eds, but, instead, we’d stumbled into a camp of degenerate, dope-smoking male hippies in need of food and females. While I was trying to determine what kind of threat the lean, muscular and totally bronzed Neanderthals might pose, Polly took off her clothes …

Stunned, I watched as she swam and splashed, making little noises about how cool the water was. I particularly liked her backstroke. Shapely breasts exposed, silken alabaster thighs moving slowly through the pool. Suddenly, there was a large splash. One of the cavemen had taken off his loincloth and jumped in. They started to swim and laugh together. I thought about reaching for a rock to bean him on the head when he swam by, but then I saw his four friends grinning ear to ear and talking to Sarah, who had just started to take off her T-shirt, too. I looked at my arms. As white as the belly of a trout.

So much for all those hours spent in the college library. My moment of confidence and tranquility ebbed away. I sat down hard on a rock, took off my pack, looked for a map and realized this was the end of the trail. The Colorado River was just below us. I had thought I’d find privacy. I thought at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the girls’ inhibitions would fall away. You know, back to nature in the basement of time.

But I had not counted on stumbling into a male hippie enclave hiding from the National Park Service. Their 14-day camping permits had long since expired. Instead, the merry band lived on food from any backpackers who had extra and who were returning to the top. When that ran out, they drew straws from blades of grass to see who would make the long hike up. We had arrived just in time. I had brought food and females.

Dejected, I watched a milk-white mermaid and a bronzed Greek God gambol in a pour-off pool. The Grand Canyon suddenly didn’t seem so grand anymore. Then the lizard man showed up.

He wasn’t actually a lizard man. He was a man who studied lizards and looked like one. He was a scientist from some university back east and this was his spring break, too. I don’t know what he’d been smoking, but a decade earlier he’d been hiking the Hermit Trail, crossing the Tonto Platform, and had seen the very first, only, one-of-a-kind, bonafide lizard with hair on it. Naturally, he was surprised. Delighted, but surprised. Quickly he reached for his camera only to remember that he’d forgotten to put in a new roll of film.

The lizard lounged, did a few push-ups, posed on a rock, showing off its hairy chest and a few small tufts of hair on its legs. Frantically, the scientist groped to load his camera, finally the film was in. He quickly closed the camera’s back, leaned down to take the photo that would make him world famous, and the hairy lizard disappeared. Without a trace. Into the vastness of the Grand Canyon. Into the brightness of high noon.

Skeptically, I listened to his story. It didn’t sound too probable to me, but what the hell? How was I to know that a colony of renegade hippies would make off with not one but both of my girlfriends? Reality was pretty strange down here below the rim. Anything could happen in the heat of the day.

I looked again at the scientist. He’d been stained mahogany by the sun. Then I looked closer. If he’d found a lizard with hair on it, he himself had no hair. Nowhere. He was as bald as a river rock. Seemed a little odd, but he was telling what he thought was a rational story about why he’d returned to the same spot on the Hermit Trail every March for the last sixteen years. This was the imp I’d seen hours ago.

I was sympathetic. At least I’d found someone not interested in gawking at the two girls I’d led down here to a canyon oasis. Still feeling sorry for myself, I looked up. By then, we were close to the river and a large group of rafts was coming by, including a National Park Service rig hidden in between the other rafts. The swimmers had decided to sun themselves on a boulder and didn’t see what was happening.

Ah ha! I thought. I’m saved. The Park Service will bust these law-breaking cavemen, give them fat fines, handcuff them, haul them out by water and leave me in peace with my naked nymphs. Hooray for the man with the gray shirt and golden badge!

But the hippies, long overdue up top, had been expecting an official visit. Just as I started to run down to the rocks to receive a tossed line from the short-sleeved ranger, the king of the vagabonds, naked as the day he was born, jumped off the boulder he’d been lying on with Molly, swam a little ways off shore, climbed on another rock and yelled at the passing boaters, water streaming off the long hair that ran halfway down his shoulders, “MY NAME IS KING RICHARD AND THIS IS MY BATHTUB — BE GONE!!!”

Startled by this brazen exhibition of premeditated madness, the Park Service ranger forgot to throw the rope. He drifted into frothing Hermit Rapid the wrong way and, despite paddling hard toward shore, the current pulled him into the river’s main channel. Like the other rafters, he was gone. And so was my hope for solitude and sex.

The cavemen, the girls, the lizard man, all began to laugh. I didn’t.

It would be a long restless night, followed by more nakedness the next day with accompanying giggles, hand holding and God knows what else. I slept alone in the sand counting the stars. Wondering how long it would take to hike out.

The morning of the fourth day, we began the long trek up, minus most of our food, which we had donated to the hairy hippies. Susan and Molly gave big hugs to the Neanderthals, hugs that seemed a little too long for such newfound friends, but who cared? I was going up, climbing toward the rim and sanity, to the real world and not this crazy canyon scene.

My legs and thighs hurt. Thankfully, the muscles we use hiking uphill are different from the muscles used going downhill or I would have been immobile. I was feeling pretty good until those rowdy Boy Scouts came by, shouting and singing and way too happy for the hard hike ahead. Hours and hours later — or was it days, weeks, months? — we finally topped out, took off our packs and collapsed. Molly and Susan were beat, exhausted, too much heat they said, and quite frankly, a real expanse of sunburn.

I was not sympathetic. Secretly, I wished that we’d all gotten sunburned together, but that had not come to pass.

Truly in need of shade and rest, we made it to the Ford station wagon and down the road to a cheap motel at Cameron, Arizona. I was perking up. Here was my chance. Having experienced the beauty and wonder of the Grand Canyon, I was ready for a long, slow night in a motel room with two college co-eds. We got the room. The last one they had.

Heart pounding with anticipation, I opened the door to two single beds. I showered, they showered, shades drawn, we re-hydrated drinking glass after glass of water. They put lotion on each other and whimpered softly, exclaiming loudly as they applied cream to the more painful bright-red, sunburned places.

Then they slept. And so did I.

On the floor.

The author teaches at an institution of higher learning on the Colorado Plateau and prefers to travel incognito 

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Editor’s note: This story was obviously submitted well before the November election and, thus, may appear dated.

Author’s note: The apparition quotes are drawn from original quotes from Hunter S. Thompson and Edward Abbey, mashed together in a couple places and edited lightly for continuity]

I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Stave One

It was long past dark on Christmas Eve 2008 and I was still at my desk. I had a backlog of political blog entries to read, several recordings of Congressional hearings to watch and nearly a dozen Internet bulletin board comment-thread “flame wars” all going at once.

Upstairs, the stockings had been hung by the chimney with care, and my finally asleep children’s heads were filled with dancing visions of a gift-wrapped wooden pirate ship play set — said set still requiring “some assembly” by daddy.

A cheery if threat-tinged motivational suggestion floated down the stairs from the wife: “Honey, we still need to wrap several gifts and clean the kitchen. And, remember, my parents will be here at 6:30.” A.M., that is.

“Humbug” is what I barked toward the door. Because I had work to do.

My name is Ebenezer, and I am a very important man. My work is far too important to yield to a Hallmark-holiday festival of drunkenness, gluttony, merriment and sloth. And in-laws. Especially in-laws. Particularly raving right-wing Fox-News-immersed in-laws.

You see, while everyone else was celebrating a particularly joyous holiday season — we had after all just elected in a landslide a liberal/progressive/hip African-American savior, who would travel the skies on Inauguration Day and send hope down our chimneys and leave change in our stockings. But I knew better.

“Humbug,” I said again, to no one in particular. So, I went to the “comment here” section below an online op-ed about how Obama was going to bring Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Liberals and Conservative alike and typed it in: H*U*M*B*U*G.

As if to underscore my gloom, a Steve Earle song came across the Pandora Radio web stream, one referring to another Christmas, exactly twelve years earlier.

It’s Christmastime in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed
Getting’ into gear for four more years
Of things not getting’ worse
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thanked their lucky stars
They said, ‘He cannot seek another term
They’ll be no more FDRs’

There’s foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You’d think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It’s going straight to hell

“Man, that Earle guy knows what’s up,” I thought to myself. But then I got even more depressed, because more than a decade has passed, and nothing at all has changed. Check that; it’s gotten worse.

It went on like that for a while — brooding over the dimly lit screen of my computer, then flying upstairs to wrap a gift, then hurrying back to check my internet conversation threads, until, despite myself, I drifted off to sleep, still seated at the keyboard. And with that, I entered a fitful slumber.

Stave Two

Although technically asleep, my mind was by no means resting. That damned song kept passing across my consciousness:

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barricades are goin’ up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We’re marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring

As the bells of freedom ring … bells ringing … bells … BELLS! I awoke with a start. My forehead was resting on the keyboard and my computer was beeping to tell me to get the hell off.

I became aware of a presence in the room. I turned to find a ghostly apparition next to me in the room. “Great Marley’s Ghost,” I shouted, for it was Steve Earle himself. “What do you want with me?” I wailed. “Much!” is all he said. “Why do you trouble me?” I asked. He simply replied, “You will be haunted by two spirits,” then he pointed a guitar pick toward the bookshelves on the back wall, and with that he was gone.

“Thanks for nothing,” I shouted at no one in particular. But it was late of hour, and I was much in need of repose, so I slumped into my office chair and fell promptly back to sleep.

Stave Three

My slumbers were soon interrupted by a second apparition. This one had a shaved head, wore a Hawaiian shirt and clutched in one hand a pistol and in the other a tumbler of whiskey, while between his teeth he clenched a cigarette holder, which he removed with a curled index finger and began waving about the room. “Goddamn bats,” he screeched, then leveled his gaze at me. My voice-activated webcam recorded the conversation, which went as follows:

Ebenezer: Who and what are you?

Apparition: I am the ghost of Raoul Duke. [Then gesturing towards the window] Rise and walk with me.

We left my room and after passing through a haze of smoke, entered what appeared to be a Las Vegas casino. Casino security staff approached to try and take the pistol from the apparition.

Ghost of Raoul Duke (GoRD) [tucking the pistol in his waistband]: Don’t take any guff from these fucking swine.

GoRD [gesturing at the drunken crowds around the craps tables]: It’s a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die. Who knows? If there is in fact, a heaven and a hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix, with everyone being driven slowly and quietly into the kind of terminal craziness that comes with finally understanding that the one thing you want is not there.

Somewhere in the casino, a slot machine paid off; the crowd cheered raucously.

GoRD: What passes for society is a loud, giddy whirl of thieves and pretentious hustlers, a dull sideshow full of quacks and clowns and philistines with gimp mentalities. Freedom, Truth, Honour — you could rattle off a hundred such words and behind every one of them would gather a thousand punks, pompous little farts, waving the banner with one hand and reaching under the table with the other. In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together. The only ones left with any confidence at all are the New Dumb. It is the beginning of the end of our world as we know it. Doom is the operative ethic.

Ebenezer: Why won’t people wake up and see all the madness and deceit?

GoRD: Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. The importance of Liking Yourself is a notion that fell heavily out of favour during the coptic, anti-ego frenzy of the acid era — but nobody guessed back then that the experiment might churn up this kind of hangover; a whole subculture of frightened illiterates with no faith in anything.

A red convertible Cadillac pulled out of the casino bar and stopped at our feet. It was driven by a massive and clearly intoxicated man of Pacific Island descent.

Driver: Let’s give that boy a lift.

GoRD: We can’t stop here — this is bat country.

They grab me by the shoulders and push me in. We roar off through a swarm of bats and pterodactyls, and come to a stop next to a hotel swimming pool. There appears to be some sort of political convention going on.

Ebenezer: What can we do about this official madness and deceit and violence, why can’t we get off our asses and throw the bums out?

GoRD: The massive, frustrated energies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote. This is like being told you have a duty to buy a new car, but you have to choose immediately between a Ford and a Chevy.

GoRD [Gesturing toward a fat couple in matching red-white-and-blue track suits]: Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush? They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. George W. Bush was a natural-born loser with a filthy-rich daddy who pimped his son out to rich oil-mongers. He hates music, football and sex, in no particular order, and he is no fun at all — all the dumb bastard could show us, after eight years of total freedom to do anything he wanted with all this power, is a shattered national economy, disastrous defeat in a war, and a hand-picked personal staff whose collective criminal record will blow the minds of high-school American History students for the next 100 years. Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?

GoRD [Shouting]: This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 300 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

Ebenezer: Well, what about Obama? Democrats seem to think he’ll fix everything and usher in a new progressive era.

GoRD: We’ve come to a point where every four years this national fever rises up — this hunger for the Savior — and whoever wins becomes so immensely powerful, like Obama will be now, that when you vote for President today you’re talking about giving a man dictatorial power for four years. The whole framework of the presidency is getting out of hand. It’s come to the point where you almost can’t run unless you can cause people to salivate and whip each other with big sticks. You almost have to be a rock star to get the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics.

Ebenezer: Why don’t the media expose the charlatans then?

GoRD: Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Bush to slither into the White House and launch a war on Iraq in the first place. You have to get Subjective to see things clearly. Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

We left the convention in the Cadillac and ended up at some kind of farm. There is gunfire and explosions. And strange birds shrieking in the woods.

Ebenezer: Since 9/11, Bush built up a massive security apparatus and world-wide military machine waging overt and covert wars all over the globe, while spying on everyone everywhere. Where the hell are the right-wingers who supposedly fear big government?

GoRD: We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear — fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts, or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer.

GoRD [Blowing smoke rings towards the ceiling]: The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy… We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, or all three at once. This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed — for anyone.

Ebenezer: Bush said we were on a righteous crusade against the Axis of Evil, that we are the Good Guys.

GoRD: We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world, a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us. No redeeming social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or we’ll kill you.

We moved into a kitchen. There are piles of books and papers, old posters and perhaps twenty televisions all tuned to different channels.

Ebenezer: I know, I know. The fix is in, and we are savage and hated. So, where do you find solace then?

GoRD: The Edge … there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. So, every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas … with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether. I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.

Ebenezer: Ye Gods, this is vicious and ugly. Spirit, remove me from this place. Leave me. Take me back. Haunt me no longer. (Jesus! Did I say that? Or just think it?)

And with that he was gone. Since it was even later of hour, and I was in even greater need of repose, I slumped back into my office chair and fell promptly back to sleep.

Stave Four

Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, I heard another bell ringing. Dammit, I had fallen asleep on the keyboard again. Sitting up to get my thoughts together, I soon became aware of yet another apparition. This one was tall and bearded and wearing flannel. He threw a crumpled beer can at my computer, tucked a monkey-wrench into his belt and then motioned toward a beat-up pickup truck that had appeared in my basement office, into which he climbed behind the wheel and glared at me like a vulture contemplating road-kill.

Apparition: Come in. Come in, and know me better, man.

Ebenezer: Say, did you pass a guy in a Hawaiian shirt when you came in?

Apparition: Among apparitions I have but one hero, and that is Raoul Duke. I honor him because he reports the simple facts, in plain language, of what he sees around him. His style is mistaken for fantastic, drug-crazed exaggeration, but that was to be expected. As always in this country, they only laugh at you when you tell the truth. He is one who sees — a seer.

He again beckons me into the truck, so I climb in amongst a pile of empty beer cans, dog-eared books and bottles of molasses.

Ebenezer: Alright, but before we go, I need to know who you are.

Apparition: I am called Henry Lightcap, but known as The Ghost of Cactus Ed.

He shifted the truck’s transmission into low-range, whereupon we plunged into a roiling flash flood, eventually coming to rest high-centered and hanging halfway out over the edge on the rim above a vast desert canyon. The silence of the place was deafening.

Ghost of Cactus Ed (GoCE): Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse — its implacable indifference.

GoCE [Stamping his feet]: We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there. Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.

Ebenezer: Yeah, but the Republicans insist that wilderness is a waste of valuable real estate.

GoCE: What most humans really desire is something quite different from industrial gimmickry, that is, liberty, spontaneity, nakedness, mystery, wildness and wilderness. And joy. Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.

Ebenezer: Naked joy in the woods, that reminds me of the last time I took mushrooms. But I am too old and have too many responsibilities for that now.  What can we do to defend wild places now?

GoCE: The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders. Every Boy Scout troop deserves a forest to get lost, miserable, and starving in. Our job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving.

Ebenezer: But wilderness — actual on-the-ground wilderness — is wild, and can be dangerous and scary. It freaks a lot of people out when bad things happen.

GoCE: If people persist in trespassing upon the grizzlies’ territory, we must accept the fact that the grizzlies, from time to time, will harvest a few trespassers.

As the truck shuddered and tilted forward a bit, Cactus Ed slammed it into gear and we careened down a canyon trail, until we came to a graded dirt road, which we followed to an industrial site. There were giant bulldozers kicking up huge plumes of dust, strange trucks on balloon tires crashing about in the sage, long lines of trailers marked “hazardous” and drilling derricks spewing flames from their tops.

Ebenezer: My God, it’s even more medieval than I imagined. It’s something out of Dante. This cannot be the only way to grow our economy.

GoCE: Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Everywhere I look, I see my own country overwhelmed by ugliness and mediocrity and overcrowding, the land smothered under airstrips and super-highways, the natural wealth of a million years squandered on atomic bombs and tin automobiles and television sets and ball-point pens.

Ebenezer: But the Republicans say we need more activity just like this, or our economy will crash and the terrorists will win.

GoCE: For more growth, we must give up the very qualities that make a high standard of civilized life still possible…for more development, we will transform what we prize into temporary jobs…and fat bank accounts for the powerful minority of land-speculators, tract-slum builders, bankers, car dealers and shopping mall hustlers who stand to profit. What we need is an optimum industrialism, neither too much or too little. Technology boosters say it’s the entire package, plagues and all, or nothing, but it is not true. We can pick and choose, we can learn to select this and reject that.

Ebenezer: The Republicans insist that we are ordained by God to uncover and use every bit of fossil fuel we can find, that’s why God put it there.

GoCE: From the point of view of a tapeworm, man was created by God to serve the appetite of the tapeworm. Whatever we cannot easily understand we call God, this saves much wear and tear on the brain tissues. I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock. The world is older and bigger than we are. This is a hard truth for some folks to swallow.

Ebenezer: Speaking of God, one of the people who ran for the GOP Presidential nomination is a Mormon.

GoCE: Mormonism: Nothing so hilarious could possibly be true. Or all bad.

We drive onto a highway and down into a shimmering desert city. Pulling into the driveway of a small house, we enter to find its occupant watching television on which there’s a conservative politician bloviating about “democracy” and “liberty”.

GoCE [Kicking the TV with his boot]: Bullshit! Democracy — rule by the people — sounds like a fine thing; we should try it sometime in America. Counterpart to the knee-jerk liberal is the knee-pad conservative, always groveling before the rich and powerful. Our “neoconservatives” are neither new nor conservative, but old as Babylon and evil as Hell. A true libertarian supports free enterprise, opposes big business; supports local self-government, opposes the nation-state; supports the National Rifle Association, opposes the Pentagon.

Ebenezer: Liberal; conservative; or libertarian — which has become and arm of the GOP — what choices are there besides statism or authoritarianism?

GoCE: There’s anarchism. Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners. Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.

Ebenezer: You know, there were protests by the left at the Democratic nominating convention this year. It was an echo of Chicago in 1968, complete with riot police beating up everyone who got in their way.

GoCE: A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government. Representative government has broken down. Our politicians represent not the people who vote for them but the commercial interests who finance their election campaigns. We have the best politicians that money can buy. The purpose and function of government is not to preside over change. But to prevent change. By political methods when unavoidable, by violence when convenient.

Ebenezer: But I don’t want to get arrested or beat up, or go to prison. I’ve got kids. I don’t want a psychopathic cell mate.

GoCE: Here’s how to overthrow the system: brew your own beer; kick in your tee vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.

Ebenezer: We’ve elected another charismatic Democrat; all the liberals are ecstatic, but I don’t buy it. He’s just more of the same corporatist DLC crap; beholden to Wall Street

GoCE: The one thing worse than a knee-pad Tory is a chickenshit liberal. The type that cannot say “shit” even when his mouth is full of it. Among politicians and businessman, Pragmatism is the current term for “To hell with our children.” “Be fair,” say the temporizers, “tell both sides of the story.” But how can you be fair to both sides of a rape? Of a murder? Of a massacre?

Ebenezer: There’s been a huge meltdown on Wall Street. The bankers committed gargantuan acts of fraud and theft and made bad bets that crashed the economy, now they are getting bailed out no questions asked while the middle class is eating a shit sandwich.

GoCE: When the biggest, richest, glassiest buildings in town are the banks, you know that town’s in trouble. One thing more dangerous than getting between a grizzly sow and her cub is getting between a businessman and a dollar bill. That’s why administrators are respected and school-teachers are not: An administrator is paid a lot for doing very little, while a teacher is paid very little for doing a lot. There is no force more potent in the modern world than stupidity fueled by greed. Nothing so mean could be right. Greed is the ugliest of the capital sins.

GoCE: It’s not all gloom though, take comfort in this: the rich can buy everything but health, virtue, friendship, wit, good looks, love, pride, intelligence, grace and, if you need it, happiness.

We leave the truck behind and strike off on foot. After walking for a very long time in silence, the apparition stops and spreads his arms out toward the vista of canyon country that lies before us.

GoCE [Speaking toward the horizon as in a benediction]: May your trails be dim, lonesome, stony, narrow, winding and only slightly uphill. May the wind bring rain for the slickrock potholes fourteen miles on the other side of yonder blue ridge. May God’s dog serenade your campfire, may the rattlesnake and the screech owl amuse your reverie, may great sun dazzle your eyes by day and the Great Bear watch over you by night.

Ebenezer: That’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s just too goddamned brutal out there to take seriously. NOTHING HAS GODDAMNED CHANGED.

GoCE: When the situation is desperate, it is too late to be serious. Be playful. In my case, saving the world was only a hobby. Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast…a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourself and your life for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.

Ebenezer: But what should I do? All I can do is write. Why should I write?

GoCE: Why write? Write to entertain your friends and exasperate your enemies. To record the truth of your time as best as you can see it. To investigate the comedy and the tragedy of human relationships. To oppose, resist and sabotage the contemporary drift toward a global technocratic police state whatever its ideological coloration. To oppose injustice, to defy power, and to speak for the voiceless.

He knelt down to the ground and picked up a handful of bones from the skeleton of a long-dead coyote and then held them for a moment in silence. Then he ground the bones into dust and they drifted off on the breeze.

Ebenezer: Answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only.

(A pause)

Ebenezer: Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.

(A pause)

I heard the sound of coyotes’ mournful howls. It sounded almost as if they were saying my name.

Coyotes: EBENEZER! EBENEZER! EBENEZER!

Overcome and trembling, I reared my head back and howled back at the distance: “No, Spirit. Oh no, no.” Then I stood up, drained, and an awakening washed over me like a waterfall deep in a hidden canyon. I turned to the spirit and spoke.

Ebenezer: Spirit, hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. I see now that nothing ever really changes, but the important thing is what we do with our lives. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. I will not burn out or turn away from life and hide in my basement seething on internet chat boards.

At that, the apparition transformed into a Turkey Buzzard, craned his neck toward me and croaked: “remember, Life is too short for grief. Or regret. Or bullshit.” And then he flew spirals into the sky and disappeared from sight.

Stave Five

I must have fallen back asleep onto my keyboard, because I awoke once again to the ringing of a bell. Nope, it was the doorbell this time, and I was in my own bed. Church bells began to ring. Christmas morning was before me!

Oh glorious, glorious! I ran to the top of the stairs and shouted: “Merry Christmas, wife. Merry Christmas, kids. Merry Christmas, in-laws. And God bless us, every one.”

Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale, Colorado, with his wife and kids.