Love and Loathing on the River

Bill the river guide was a welcome contrast. I’d spent the last day and a half traveling on a church retreat with a couple of deacon chaperones and a dozen squeaky-clean teenagers. So when we unloaded on the bank of the New River and met the man who would be steering our raft, I sidled close to him. Bill looked like a good guy, relaxed and confident, yet something about him felt edgy. He was old enough to be my father, but his cut, posture and handlebar mustache made him more like the unmarried, childless uncle that breezes into town to sleep on the couch and drink all your dad’s beer.

I wanted to tell Bill that church retreats were not my thing. I was no fan of being bushwhacked with bible verses, and found it near impossible to muzzle my foul, adolescent mouth. But when some of my more-pious pals told me about their plans to raft the New River Gorge in West Virginia, I quickly converted and jumped on the church bus. There’s nothing better than floating down a river. I’d spent enough summer days canoeing and inner-tubing the Mohican near my hometown in central Ohio to know how a day on the water can be carefree, the type of thing a teenage boy conforms to with ease.

Bill introduced us to the river with a couple of good, rollicking rapids and a splash fight with another raft. But as a hissing roar intensified downriver, our guide’s tone changed. Bill announced that our puny sixperson raft was approaching the Double Z, a class-V rapid with balls. It was named after the serpentine path we’d have to cut to avoid the snaggletooth boulders and giant holes strangling this stretch of the river. Bill quickly reviewed our arsenal of strokes and maneuvers. “Good,” he said, firmly pulling his faded ball cap into place. “If you go in the drink, point your feet downstream, don’t let go of your paddle, and hang tight. Someone will fetch you up.”

We clutched our paddles, jammed our sneakered feet under the gunnels, and dipped down the tongue of the rapid. Bill barked above the thunder of shattering waves, “All ahead!!!” We dug into the tumultuous rage, our paddles catching more air than water. We lurched over a dip and bucked up hard enough on a recoiling wave to send a few paddlers into the center of the boat. We went into a slow spin. A leviathan rock crept toward our port side. I waited with paddle poised, confident that Bill would shout a command and slip us past the ragged obstacle.

That’s when I heard it: “All back paddle!” The voice was very wrong, high-pitched, the order screamed like a question. I looked back. Bill was gone. In his place, a soaked, panicked deacon had taken the helm with the charge of seeing us through Hell’s own stretch of the New River. All I could think was, God is dead.

River guides are everything to the recreational paddler. They promise an intoxicating blend of joy and danger. They demand physical exertion and encourage languid rest. They protect, lead and sometimes even provide sustenance. Within the first minutes of the relationship, the paddler develops a burgeoning respect for the guide. It might happen while watching him or her lash down gear, their hands quickly pulling off complex knots without their eyes following the work. Perhaps it’s when he or she covers the rules of the river with calm confidence, but can’t disguise an eagerness for getting back on the water, although they most likely have covered its length a hundred times. Whether it’s on the banks or out in the current, the river guide ends up with a commanding degree of respect and sometimes more.

Yet, these folk are a riddle. For all their knowledge and skill, they come across as riffraff, some hybridization of Huckleberry Finn and a California surfer. The river defines their look. All their clothes are quick-dry and cut for maximum reach and flexibility: short shorts and sleeveless tops. The sun has darkened every inch of exposed skin. Most display pale webbed patterns atop their feet when they kick off their sandals. River men and women alike are strong. The power is most evident in the shoulders, round as wood knots but fluid as pistons. The hair is usually ruffled like it was dipped in the current and allowed to dry in place. Ponytails and braids are tied back tight, the head covered with a seasoned cap or visor. They are coarse, but courteous; grungy, but orderly. They are so uniformly rakish, roguish and tantalizing that they must all possess some closely guarded River Guide’s Manual. Probably resembles a tattered and defaced Boy Scout Handbook, chock-full of rules for dress, demeanor and arcane methods on how to evoke awe, envy and lust from the city folk.

Above all, river people have a relationship with their river. They know its bends and banks, the glassy flat and the sucking hole, its history and moods. They ply a world that is purely foreign to outsiders, a strange realm of water and rock. But a place that calls to us all. Rivers are in our dreams, our religions, our myths. Rivers are synonymous with movement, division and transition. The river is a watery womb, the baptismal promising rebirth and the causeway to the underworld. And it’s the river guide that takes us there. He or she is the boat person, the ferryman, the gatekeeper.

So when I looked back to the rear of the raft and didn’t see New River Bill, I was sure we were all going to die.

Our boat met the rock hard enough to send me into the lap of my friend sitting on the opposite gunwale. The craft bent briefly and started to groan like grinding molars as it shimmied up the rock. The current snatched the upstream side of the raft and started hammering it under. We were going to flip.

“Up! Up! Up!” the deacon shrieked, scrambling away from the swallowing waves.

Everyone else jumped or fell into center of the raft, now quickly filling, so it was like diving into a frothing cauldron.

Someone finally translated the dumbstruck deacon’s command. “High side! High Side!”

Remembering Bill’s sober lessons, we clawed ourselves atop, to where the neoprene was climbing up the rock. The raft leveled out and we slid past the obstacle.

Everyone bounced back into position and awaited the next command. The water in the raft was shin-deep and we moved sluggishly, less like floating and more like dragging. No commands came. The deacon had abandoned his post, throwing our fate to the will of the river. We immediately fell into a juggernaut wave trying to devour itself. With half the normal buoyancy, we smashed through the wave and took on another couple hundred gallons of water. Everyone gave up on paddling and hung onto something: rope, ammo box, neighbor. We hit one more rock, went sideways into a hole, and somebody took a paddle to the head.

The Double Z finally untangled itself and spit us out into an eddy where other boats were waiting. Our yellow raft resembled a cruising crocodile with more of it under the water than above. The center of the boat was a stew of river water, loose paddles, a sneaker and some drops of blood.

A spry guide from one of the other rafts leapt aboard and scampered down to the rear. Before we knew what was going on, he snatched a small bag off a D-ring and ferociously launched it into the river. A line of rope spilled out of the sack like the tail of a comet. The bag splashed down within a halfreach of Bill.

Our guide was floating in the current, facing downstream, paddle in his grip, grinning. He looked like he was captaining a submerged dory. He casually reached for the rope and his fellow river-man reeled him in. Bill pumped himself up onto the rear of the boat, stood on the edge and shook off the river like a dog. “Lost my hat,” he said, taking quick stock of his clients and the shape of his vessel. He smiled. “That was a damn good hat.”

After some bailing, we left the safety of the eddy. I stole looks at Bill while he checked on everyone and watched his strong hands gingerly tend to the head wound. There was more rough water to come; something called Dudley’s Dip just around the bend. Bill sat tall, scanning our path. The water dropped away ahead, a cloud of mist boiled over the void. His stare was calculating, his jaw tight. He swiped his paddle; two quick strokes straightened us out. The banks narrowed and we picked up speed. I should have been scared shitless, mumbling a prayer like the deacon. But my faith was in Bill, back there like a rudder. Damn, he was good. Badass.

He caught me staring. Taking his eyes off the river for only a second, he gave me a jaunty wink. I was smitten with a confusing awe.

At the end of the day at put out, with the rafts bunched on the beach and the buses idling with open doors, waiting to take us back to town, I slogged away from Bill and the river. I didn’t want to leave it all behind, whatever it was I had found that day. People started swapping stories in the bus, retelling the journey like it was nothing more than an amusement park ride. I silenced into a melancholic funk and watched Bill and the other guides sort paddles and life preservers.

Some kids dream of running away to the circus, or shooting for the stars as an astronaut. I sensed freedom and galaxies to explore in that river.

The emotional peaks and valleys left me with a puzzling headache. Only one thing to do: travel more rivers and encounter more of their guides so I could understand what I was feeling.

John wasn’t the best boatman in the four-raft flotilla, but that didn’t stop everyone from jockeying to get a spot on his raft. People wanted to be with John because he was crazy. He spoke in spasms, moved quickly in impulsive bursts and was fearless. His kind of crazy would most likely get him followed by a rent-a-cop in a shopping mall, possibly into a bar fight and definitely kicked out of a public library. But where his mania might land him in hot water in the cities and villages, on the Colorado River, deep in the trenches of the Grand Canyon, his lunacy was a dominant trait. John’s kind of crazy fueled a curious and open mind, unbounded energy and a thirst for adventure. Something told my brothers and me that we would see a different side of this river on John’s boat.

John’s backstory didn’t hurt his status either. A group of us stayed up late one night, talking around a lantern settled into the sand. With a warm breeze carrying the smell of water from where the Colorado churned over a small rapid down canyon, the conversation circled around other rivers and wild country.

Together the group listed off hundreds of riparian miles traveled: The Upper Hudson and Lower Youghiogheny; the Bear and Salmon; the Arkansas and American. Something happens when you get a group of guys sitting around talking about the outdoors in the dark, especially with the accompaniment of beer and whiskey. All storytelling funnels into an unannounced game of oneupmanship. It normally commences when someone introduces a degree of intensity: the height of a cliff, the length of a trail, the ferocity of a rainstorm. Amongst a group that consider themselves outdoorsmen, such a claim is akin to casting a gage down into the sand, daring the bold to take it up. Yarns were spun of out-skiing avalanches, narrowly avoiding lighting strikes and sleeping out in grizzly territory. I played up an encounter with a fearless porcupine in the Blue Ridge Mountains that was intent on ravaging my bag of trail mix.

John listened to all our bullshit, nodding and smiling. He sat leaning against a metal ice-chest, legs stretched out in the sand. When someone added humor to a tall tale John’s big, barrel chest would pulsate with cavernous laughter. The meager light from the lantern only darkened his red-brown face. He sported a shoelace thin braid. It hung to his waist in defiance of his receding hairline. His pigmentation and dark hair started rumors that maybe he was part Navajo, perhaps mestizo. In reality, John couldn’t have been more than a couple years either side of 30, but his sun-creased crow’s feet, well-worn hands and innocent brown eyes made his age impossible to peg.

The talk made it’s way around the circle and someone asked John what he did when he wasn’t running the Colorado.

“We wrap up around here in September,” he said, planting his can of beer into the sand so he could gesticulate freely. “That gives me enough time to wander around a bit before elk season up in Montana and Idaho.” He drew a squiggly line in the sand. (Could have been a northerly track or an antler.)

“So you hunt?” my brother asked after a long pause.

“Yeah, well not really,” John said, sweeping away his sand drawing with a bare foot. “I track and guide. I take hunters into the backcountry so they can bag a big elk. Mostly older guys from the Midwest and back East looking for a trophy. They pay pretty good.”

Maybe it was the beer, or the whispering lull of the Colorado that allowed my imagination to slip so easily to the romantic, but I painted a fantastic picture of John The Tracker. He was in buckskin, creeping low on a scrubby, snow-dusted hill trying to cut sign. His senses animal keen. On his hip, a big hunting knife with an elk bone handle. His hands tinted red from yesterday’s kill. At the close of the day, John The Tracker would ride his horse back into camp leading a bent mule, laboring under a load of meat, hide and rack. Davy Crockett, Grizzly Adams and Jeremiah Johnson would all salute Tracker John’s haul with a brotherly nod.

“In the early spring, I get back on the water,” John continued. “Not down here,” he said, flapping his hands at the black canyon walls. “The Snake. It’s wild. You got to wear a dry suit. Big hunks of ice in the water. Ran this one leg in a whiteout one year. Couldn’t see the tip of your paddle.” He paused again.

I went back to the imagination well. I saw John painted by the hand of Emanuel Leutze, the central figure in a revamped version of “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” The Snake is frothing, shards of ice in the waves like rows of serrated teeth, passengers on the verge of panic, and John anchoring the whole thing. He’s there, erect as a mast, unflappable, one foot propped on an ice-chest.

“By the time that season ends, it’s time circle back down this way.” John stopped talking and took a drink of beer.

The group was silent, trumped. No one was willing to even try to take up the gage after John had wowed us, not with his story, but his existence.

Somewhere in the middle of John’s economical sharing, I had leaned in his direction and planted my hands in the soft sand. By the time he was done, I was practically at his feet in a repose normally seen on the covers of trashy romance novels, the ones with women fawning at the base of some paragon of a man. I loved John in that intoxicating moment.

This is my problem with river guides. I love them. I want to posses them, pull them close and collect all their secrets, their knowledge, but most of all their pure vitality. Out here, on the rivers, along the fringes of our trammeled world, they are alive in a way that makes them glow. It shines in their bronze flesh, wild hair, and courses across their solid shoulders. River people are a reminder of our older selves — explorers, pioneers, frontiersmen — holdouts from the time when every one of us had to have a personal relationship with our habitat. To boot, they are also the kids we were all anxious to outgrow, not knowing that things like puberty and responsibility euthanize the magic of wonderment, curiosity and wildness. Being these things, the river guide embodies a promise. That hidden youth and those lost ways of life are still out there and can be had by those willing to hack it out from where it’s buried. For that promise, I love the river guide.

Yet my real problem with river guides is that I hate them. Their life force, their contentedness, their freedom all make me sick. Sick because they show me and countless others what we might have been if only, somewhere back along the trail, we had meandered a bit. Daydreaming of people like New River Bill and John The Tracker makes the constraints of career, mortgage and domesticity ache just a little more. River people mock our open-24-hour, commuter lane, high-speed-connection way of life with their easier, more natural pace. Maybe if I could woo a river guide, he or she could tell me the secret to satisfaction, how he or she is so damned relaxed. I’d put the formula in a self-help book, sell it to a 100 million desperate souls.

I love the river guides as long as the river keeps us moving. But at the pullout, after I climb into the shuttle bus, and watch as they look forward to their next launch, I curse the river guide. My parting wave might as well be a middle finger. Damn you, river guide! You mock me with your very existence!

On the third day in the Grand Canyon, we came to a stretch of whitewater that promised to jostle us from our lazy moods brought on by hours of slow floating and geology lectures. I took this news lightly as it seemed nothing on this river could even begin to rock our craft. More barge than boat, our inflated fleet comprised four 20-foot-long rafts powered by outboard motors. The design of the vessel resembled a bloated hoagie flanked by two curling sausage-like pontoons. There was a steel deck settled into the center with hatches for ice-chests. Passengers sat on the deck, either leaning against the cushy walls or hunkered atop the ammo boxes. It was nearly impossible to even reach the water from the deck, so the idea of the river rising up with enough force to reach us seemed far-fetched. All previous rapids were rendered to ripples, steamrolled under our mass.

I sat at the base of the long line of lasheddown ammo boxes, a good six feet from the nose of the boat. A young lady sat atop the boxes directly behind me. She craned to the rear, “Is the next rapid bigger, John?”

“Crystal Rapid,” he answered, one hand on the throttle of the big outboard. “Not much bigger.” He bit back a grin.

The river banked to the right ahead and disappeared from view around a big sandstone wall. Everyone relaxed and chatted. Some fiddled with cameras. We glided past the wall and it suddenly sounded like someone had kicked open a jetliner door at 30,000 feet. Not more than a couple seconds away, the river channel dropped away and bounded back up into a quaking pyramidal wave.

“Hang on to something!” John shouted, gunning the motor. I swear I heard a snicker.

Everyone scrambled, grabbing anything that was tied down. No time to stow cameras or glasses, no slow-building thrill. I gripped a cargo line. The young lady hooked her hands into the shoulders of my life jacket.

The raft fell over the drop and I felt myself lift into the air, the rope biting into my fingers. I would later be told that the young lady was completely airborne, feet flailing in the mist, her hold on me the only thing from sending her catapulting to the back of the boat. We landed with a crash. My tailbone bounced off the steel deck and the girl’s face smashed into the back of my head.

No time for an injury report. The nose of the boat pitched back as we ascended the mountain wave. Everyone and everything was thrown back. The entire length of our boat reclined on the slope of the water. We appeared to slow as if creeping to the peak of a rollercoaster’s marquee drop. If we’d been a smaller raft, or a wooden dory or a plastic kayak, I have no doubt that we would’ve launched off the ramp of the wave. Instead, our fat tub of a craft stalled out during the climb and careened into the water like a falling oak. The top third of the wave swallowed us. We were not sprinkled. We were not splashed. We were submerged. For at least a two count, I lost all sense of the surface world — no canyon, no sun — nothing but cold and the guttural rush of turbulent water in my ears. And then it was over. The river flattened and slowed.

The passengers were stunned, quietly taking stock of what just happened. Emotions didn’t have time to form before John came bounding along one of the outer pontoons to the front of the boat. He hooted, an adrenaline grin splitting his face. “That was Hermit! Forgot to tell you about that one.” He put his hands on his hips. “Haven’t seen it running that big in a while.”

A few gave into the thrill and let out a soggy cheer. Others silently stewed and tried to shake the water off their cameras. The young lady pinched and wiggled her red nose.

I looked up at John standing there like Errol Flynn balancing on the rail of a pirate ship. You are good, really good. I love you, you asshole.

Jeff Osgood is waiting for the day when he hops into a raft with a female guide and is never heard from again. Read more of his scribbling at www.jeffosgood.com.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

The violet hour belongs to swallows.

This is the evening span when canyon walls glow with an interior luminosity, when the setting sun simply cannot account for the wash of colors across the land — colors that exist for this one expansive moment each day, hues that Crayola finds impossible to ensnare in wax.

This is the hour when light dances out its last breath before darkness descends, and its sweet death throes enliven the world.

And this is the hour of the swallows. Is it any wonder they swoop in circles of such ecstasy?

I have my favorite swallow-viewing grounds near my desert home, places I specifically go for the aerial show and the communion with small, untethered creatures. These places are my air-show grandstands, islands of sandstone high up in the ether, outcroppings that hoist me into the land of wingbeats and wind. It is on these pedestals that I sit in order to look swallows in the eye.

We can and we do share gazes, so curious are these avian marvels. They approach me and hover, staring at the bumbling landbound invader sharing their space. Eye contact occurs, the human side wonders at the rarity of such a simple moment between species, and then the passerine participant

moves into a dip or dive or twirl, requiring another hit of airborne joy before sating its curiosity anew.

The eye of a swallow holds a brightness amidst its blackness, speaking to the species’ immense capacity for bliss.

Perhaps swallows subsist simply on air — and joy — so effortlessly do they fly and play. A life of such seeming ease must require little sustenance in the form of matter-borne calories. Spirit, breath, air, wind — these, I’m

sure, are the main components of the swallow diet. Insect-catching is mere pretext for their dances in the ether.

They make little sound as they rush through their breezy milieu on lithe wings. Only the slicing of air is heard, the sky seemingly rent to pieces with the sound. It is as if the swallows’ flight cuts through this space, creating an opening to the lighter world hiding behind this sometimes heavy one, and we could maybe escape to it, if only we were fast enough to hit the seam that rides the edges of wingtips and tail-feathers.

Such a sky, shredded by delicate and breathing daggers, this is hope’s home. In fact, the continual existence of the wild — whether it is bound up in skyward feathers or corner-dwelling cobwebs — all of this is hope embodied, a perseverance against the odds. And in this, we find that hope is accessible. We can reach its source — that wild seam — because it is our ground. Wildness, hope, feathers—they’re all made of the same resilient stuff. And in times of suffering, we find that our hearts and souls are made of it, too. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul…”

Even at the airport recently, amidst the travelers’ milieu of madness — swallows.

These were not the violet-green evening-dwellers of my home, but they were swallows, nonetheless, hunting and playing above the tarmac and engine noise. They flew in stark contrast to the lumbering planes jockeying for position on the runway. By comparison, our answer to the problem of gravity seems so clumsy and graceless.

They buzzed the windows where I sat, forked tails silhouetted against the smoggy mountains. Their maneuvering was precise, elegant, spontaneous — a kind of weightlessness we can only dream about. Next to all our necessary accoutrements for flight — the literal and figurative baggage that accompanies us in our skyward travels — the swallows appeared as pure, unadulterated joy in motion.

And I was suffused with that same joy as the surprise of the wild infiltrated an otherwise sterile landscape.

I was reminded of Gary Snyder at that moment, a man with an unwavering faith in wildness. Even as many environmentalists — myself included — decry the destruction of wilderness, the end of nature, the silence of all that is holy, Snyder holds faith. And hope. He writes, “Wilderness may temporarily dwindle, but wildness won’t go away. A ghost wilderness hovers around the entire planet…”

For Snyder, wildness refuses to be extinguished, despite our every attempt to send it along without a return address. It lives on in mould and seeds, spiders and raccoon packs. “It is everywhere,” he says. Even above the tarmac at Salt Lake City International Airport.

This encounter acted as a reminder: In being open to wildness, we will find it. Perhaps under the kindling pile, between tiles in the bathroom or along a busy thoroughfare. I say this not in ignorance of the havoc we wreak on our environment — the subduing and subdividing of our wilderness, the incessant razing and excavating in pursuit of energy and economic development, the toxins we unleash for the sake of a stronger plastic bag or a pineapple in Maine in the winter — but I say this as someone who understands that, in grieving for the battered earth beneath our feet, we must also constantly ride the wings of hope. When we lose touch with that wild seam of hope, then we become crushed under the weight of lost ground.

Thus, the tiny bodies of swallows carry me along when faith is in short supply.

Hope is the thing with feathers …

Driving through northern California on a warm June evening — one car among two straight lines of many — I came upon an enormous swarm of barn swallows, all forked tails and finesse, swooping through and under and around the flight paths of one another. There were easily 50 birds in this natural cloud of insecticide, hunting and playing in easy unity.

I slowed the vehicle to better absorb the multiplicity of rusty breasts and blue backs, the riot of feathered confetti at the roadside. They emulated the gnat swarms they preyed upon, mirroring the gifts of life that sustained them.

I turned back to the road and observed the straight lines of vehicles and asphalt beyond and behind me, the unnatural order

to it all. I wondered how we lost our ability to emulate and honor all that brings us sustenance, energy and life. When did we turn the mirror upon ourselves — rather than outward —Âand become preoccupied with our own small images?

Another evening, lying on the sandstone surface of a swallow-viewing sky-island, enjoying the swooping curiosity of joyful creatures, my literary mind struggled with terms to describe the agility and precision of swallows in flight. I kept reaching for metaphors drawn from aviation or the military — images drawn from man-made machinery.

Now, in retrospect, I am thankful for an inadequate military vocabulary, for these words are ill suited to describe wild perfection. It is a substitution of the imitation for the original — like calling microwaved Velveeta fondue, or tearing down the forest to build a church, a house of God.

It is a reminder to stop looking in the mirror, to recognize how much fuller the world is beyond the human reflection. We live in a vastness that stretches beyond the reaches of words, an idea the writer in me will someday accept. And rejoice.

I have never seen a swallow on the ground. I have never seen one walk, hop or otherwise perambulate. From my experience, they are entirely airborne. I know they eat on the fly, drink on the wing and even copulate in mid-twirl. Males attract mates in shows of aerial prowess. Air, simply stated, is their main habitat. In fact, swallow feet are not even designed for walking; these birds come into this world equipped with short legs, partially fused toes and an innate sense of how to get around the stifling tenacity of gravity’s pull. They gave up their terrestrial ties long ago in evolutionary history, preferring instead to soar beyond their own shadows’ reach.

Yet we, for all that we’ve gained while ascending the evolutionary ladder — our immense capacity for creativity and ingenuity, our complex social systems, our philosophical and scientific traditions — we’ve also abandoned a great deal along the way. Most of us come into this world and go out of it without an intimate knowledge of the earth beneath our feet, how these soils are the basis of our stories and our sustenance. We no longer read the pages of landscape for

survival and identity. We’ve lost our sense of connection and belonging to the rich tapestry of life cradling us. The scientific quest to understand our world — and control it — has only served to distance ourselves from the ground of our existence.

We, like the swallows, have given up our terrestrial ties, but in a different manner and to a different end. Instead of soaring beyond the reach of shadow, we hold our shadow tightly inside, plucking its smoky feathers and rendering it tame, flightless and lacking in hope.

Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul…

What if we allowed that shadowy creature within to soar beyond our science and our sorrow? Would its absence gift us with the language of hope?

“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” said Rumi. The swallows’ way is through flight, kneeling in midair. For us it is the expression of love — love of one’s partner, of one’s kin, one’s work, this land, this life.

Love is perhaps the wildest act in which humans still engage. It is our deepest bow to Other. And in its defiance of reason — the way in which we rededicate our hearts to love despite our accumulated losses — herein lies love’s ever-hopeful wildness.

Like the cobwebs, moulds, rodents and roaches that wildly persist at the periphery of otherwise ordered lives — Gary Snyder’s

“ghost wilderness” — so too endures our un-tamed pursuance of connection and communion. Despite the odds, it rides wings of hope through a landscape of loss, splitting that elusive seam between heavy and light, uniting us with the infinite and wild realm of all that we may never understand.

The violet hour and its swallows are my daily reminder to kneel and kiss this rocky desert ground that I love. And to continually and wildly hope.

Jen Jackson writes from Moab, Utah, where her vocabulary is always inadequate to the task of describing her surroundings. However, she persists, and her work can be found in numerous regional publications, including Mountain Gazette, High Country News and the now (and sadly) defunct Inside/Outside Southwest.

The Devil’s Stairway

“There’s just one particular harbor … so far, and yet so near … ” — Jimmy Buffett, 1987

So how was I to know that in June of 1971, standing at the on ramp to I-95 outside Fort Liquordale, Florida, with my protruding thumb pointed north and west, that 72 hours later I would land a job washing dishes in Yellowstone National Park?

And how could I know that in 1976, after three years of being caught up in the running “boom,” that on b-day July 12th I would run 22 miles across Yellowstone’s Central Plateau, three times longer than any run I’d previously attempted?

Then surely I couldn’t know that after turning fiddy in 2001, that, in defiance of that fiddy milestone, I would run up Pikes Peak in the Ascent race, and even go back again in 2002.

Or that, left with a residue of fitness, I would go back and do the long Yellowstone run again that fall? Or that, in 2009, with the stiff heaviness of years of running skiing biking abusing, I would be back at it?

Best thing I’ve ever done.

Hayden Valley, the Central Plateau, is one of the few remaining wild epicenters in the Lower 48. The place crackles with electricity, charisma, danger. I’ve only gone in there alone.

It’s home of the grizzly — Hayden is where the famous brothers, Frank and John Craighead, did much of their research in the 1960s for their heralded book, “Track of the Grizzly.” I’ve never not seen grizzly sign back there.

It’s the stomping ground of the Nez Perce pack of wolves (and where, on another run, I was one sock away from slithering nekkid into a hot spring, and saw two cans of lupus adults that had been watching me from twenty yards away the whole time. They sauntered off; I slithered in).

Across the Central Plateau. Past geothermal areas that a dozen … few dozen? … of Yellowstone’s 3.5 million yearly visitors ever see, perhaps 0.0005%. (The Park Service does not permit backpacking anywhere along that 22-mile route.)

The trail over Mary Mountain and the Central Plateau follows the old stagecoach route before there was a Craig Pass out of Old Faithful in 1892. Coming in from the west, you still follow two-track before it crosses Nez Perce Creek and into thick lodgepole pine forests.

You sick MG-reading adrenaline-addicted enduro-fux don’t wanna do this chit. Go away.

Okay? Reason with me here.

Reason 1: It’s either 22 or 24 miles across, depending which signs you believe. Or 20.2 if you ask the backcountry office. Yes, the major predators are there (evidence of recent activity abounds): grizzlies and wolves, also the tormenting mosquitoes and the kamikaze deer flies in July. If you stop to adjust or glance at the map, you’re done. Blood donor. They’re insane back there. You bathe yourself in DEET, then you gotta keep moving. Your options are one.

Oh yes — it’s gorgeous in that primal Yellowstone kind of way as you jog along Nez Perce Creek, crossing the old wooden bridges, into the shady forest, across the floor of a volcanic caldera. Entering a special place. A portal back in time some eighty thousand years, before homo e-wrecked-us.

Reason 2: You’re gonna get mad at the trail. Because no one goes back there, and because there’s so much verdurous growth, you run into these open meadows and the trail disappears and you slow as you jog

through uneven sedges in the direction that feels right. The white part of an otherwise green topo map denotes marsh and it does not lie.

There’s one! An orange sign, and you pick up the pace back to an Anasazi Shuffle and consume more miles.

You stop and read a 60-year-old inter- pretive sign; you’re standing where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce camped out on their terrible and sad retreat from the U.S. Army in August 1877.

Onward, then, through uncleared fallen lodgepoles. Damn lodgepoles! They’re ev- erywhere, and you gotta decide if walking around or climbing over is better again and now where’s the trail?

Then you get to run up and over Mary Mountain. Did I mention the mountain?

Dusty, crusty, obsidian and pulverized volcanic tuff, and it’s steep. You gotta leap back and forth over a small drainage for the best line, and the crushed obsidian acts like ball bearings, so you slip as it climbs to a twelve-percent grade.

(This was the Devil’s Stairway in the old stagecoach days. The dudes and dudettes were requested to walk to lighten the loads for the four-horse teams. In 1890 Congressman Guy Pelton died while walking up this road; the beginning of the end for this route.)

Me likes this part. I start at eight in the morning. Now the sun’s climbing high, I’m baking … basking … in the glow of a good mountain sweat, a semi truck in low gear grinding my way uphill and …

“Whoa … !” Large male grizzly track, unmistakable in the powdery volcanic ash … “Whoa! Hello!?” … scratch marks on that lodgepole … seven feet up … You wanna come up with a song at this point. You wanna make a lot of noise.

“Hello bear … are you there … I do care … if you eat me…”

And just because your panting-ass lungs are having a heave, forget about it — you better keep making some noise. Old Ephraim (in mountain man lingo) is around, and he’s close.

“There’s no business like show business … ”

And no puking, either.

So you’re on high alert and the safety cap is off your pepper spray, but the forest opens up and finally you’re over and … there’s the cabin.

A log cabin with a personality (as most do). Safe, solid, cozy and gracefully Feng shuied in the center of a stately lodgepole forest. Thirty steps to the lake, twenty to the pooper.

Eleven miles in now, half way, I empty out my Camelbak onto the picnic table, shoot up more DEET (skeeters not as bad here, 700 feet above the swamps), and gag down a Clif Bar. (Please send me a case of the choco p-butter for the dubious plug, thx. cg.)

Now you’re probably ten miles from the nearest human and you gotta think about the last time you were ten miles from another human.

And: No Service (yeah, I ran with one), no television, no CNN, no escaped convicts, no pooters.

How many people have never been a mile away from another person? A hundred yards?

I’m thinking that after owning and operating Callowishus (!) Tours for twenty years, the Park Service might bequeath the Mary Mountain patrol cabin to me. Backcountry ranger Becky riding up on Saturdays with supplies. I’ll have to ask.

Ten minutes of being epicentered, a short stretch, and it’s back on the trail. Before every tendon and muscle freezes, starved of glycogen.

Now the trail meanders through Highland Hot Springs and it does not seem possible that out there somewhere, out past your envelope of sweat and endorphin and wonder, the world can be going on. There can’t be a rush hour and Wall Street and hate-war violence and environmental destruction and how could anyone not clamor to be where you were right then? Sneaking across an impending volcano, seething, hissing and geologically late for a big eruption. The caldera. The crucible for all things good and vibrant.

The hypnotic buzz from running hours at this pace, shivering in the glow of it all.

And don’t forget about Old Ephraim.

Singing, “Hello hello, what is it, you want to know?”

You catch the signed cutoff — thanks Ranger Bob — away from the old stagecoach road that thins out into nothing.

“Ohhhh!” You jump three feet in the air … “Fuck!”… Big Bison, wide-eyed, he jolts then you skid backwards grasping a tree. “Ahhh!” He stampedes away through the young trees, tossing up a dust storm.

“Dude, you scared the crap out of me!” Bitch.

You moron. With that squirt of adrenalin, you used up 18% of your remaining energy … coulda touched him! If that was a bear …

Then ninety minutes after Mary Cabin, it’s all about to change again: Hayden Valley! A huge rolling meadow of green stretching forever and the brown dots are buffalo and where’s the trail? Well, you still have like seven miles and it runs northeasterly. Shuffle.

The Park Service puts up posts with orange markers, but say the buffalo like to rub up against them, knocking them over.

You keep plodding east, jog when you can, walk if you must, uneven sage meadows. You know to run on your toes in rough terrain, but the muscles balk. It’s hot. Slight tail breeze. Long way to go.

You have topo-choices and get lucky, up that middle ridge was correct … and there’s a fallen Park Service post with an orange trail marker. You prop it up, again commence the shuffle.

A little map surveillance. There’s a big, inviting geothermal steaming way over there, but you’re not about to veer two miles extra.

Trail on, trail off.

You think about getting back, what you want to drink first, second, then third. The water warming in your sweat-soaked Camelbak isn’t cutting it. Civilization is six miles ahead, and you just want a root beer float before you go back to the cabin to stay.

You’re eighteen miles in, you pick up the scant trail, up and over yet one more ridge and there, orange marker, obvious trail that leads out.

You don’t want to go back to the mechoworld, but you can’t go back the way you came, so you sit. You think to yourself, this is it, I found it here, but you’re not sure what “it” is. Perhaps it’s the combination of fatigue, endorphins, the primal beauty, of the sense of impending accomplishment.

Why Abbey went on those long walks toward the end, I suppose.

You’re mainly trail shuffling, but then

again you got your buffalo. 2,000-pound bull standing two yards from the trail and your choices are again: one.

Snorting: the rut has commenced.

Around, preferably upslope toward the trees. If the grizz was to get you now, you really don’t care that much. You’re ’bout done.

Your shuffle is no faster than Elder Hostellers advancing toward the vegan buffet line after a five-mile hike.

And did I mention the seeps? Go way up high again where those people went? Or right through the middle? Yep. Slosh slosh suck muck squish slosh muck suck. Add heavy muddy shoes and now, whacking through sage and sedge, a bit of decorative plant life chaffs your heel and a coupla small rocks are annoying your feet and you’re down to two miles.

And I won’t mention the two secret treats …

Quit walking, you lactic-acid pussy.

So you trudge because it counts for running miles in the story, and you’re try- ing to break six hours. Hikers with poles coming your way … you don’t want to see them or the cars in the distance now, but you shuffle on and there is that root beer float … I bet they can make it with chocolate ice cream. Then grape juice on the rocks then beer. Lots of beer. The buf- fet back at the Inn. Rum and hot chocolate and Advil for dessert.

One more seep crossing, two more buffalo aversions, and damn: there’s the end. Cars everywhere and plump tourists taking pictures of Canada Geese. They don’t know that I’ve just returned from eighty thousand years ago. That I found an epicenter.

1:58 p.m. I walk to the turnout, stick out my thumb.

Well, for reasons aplenty, I’m gonna do this run again come fall; dry trails are just one positive.

I might even entertain the idea of tak- ing along a co-pilot or two. email me. I left a scratch mark on this thin piece of tree, how to find me.

You don’t want to do this chit. Best thing I’ve ever done.

Long-time contributor Cal Glover lives just over the Teton Pass from Jackson.

The Loon of Mystic Heights Pond

Most of our time is spent in Idaho, but Jeannie, my girlfriend, partner and love in life, owns a house on the pond in Mystic Heights just outside Bozeman, Montana. We spend less time in the house on the pond than it deserves, but our irregular visits are cherished, nourishing and always educational. Bozeman and the surrounding area has more people living in it each time we visit, as does the rest of western America and, in fact,the entire earth. An ever-increasing population of humans is referred to by humans as “growth,” but in the natural world it represents the opposite, a diminuendo. Montana friends both close and casual are, as everywhere, treasured, and the six-hour drive between these two homes and circles of friends and the gaps of time between them encourages appreciation of the moment, person and place at hand and leaves less time for taking any of them for granted. Absence really does make the heart grow.

Absence does not have a like influence on understanding.

Mystic Heights is a classic middle-class America suburbia subdivision, with an abundance of normal children from toddlers to teens, dogs of many sizes and breeds with an accent on Golden Retrievers and adults of a wide range of backgrounds, professions, inter-ests and political, social and spiritual leanings. Except this is Montana and Mystic Heights is at the entrance to Leverich Canyon on the northern edge of the Gallatin Range. That is, like other Western housing developments, it is suburbia joined to a wilderness laced with hiking/biking/running/horseback riding and (alas) motorcycle trails and roads. It is not unusual to start a run up Leverich and meet and pat on the head one of the friendly neighborhood Goldens and fifteen minutes later see fresh bear or cougar tracks on the trails of your run, and, on occasion, the maker of the tracks in creature. A few years ago, Jeannie was running alone and was bluff-charged by a bear less than a mile from the house. It was a black bear but grizzlies are abundant in the Gallatin and the experience, regardless of the taxonomy of bears, properly focused her attention on the present moment of survival and the long trail back to Mystic Heights. I ran up a favorite trail one day and on the way back down came across cougar tracks that had not been there an hour earlier, inspiring an unplanned burst of interval training to end the run. (In truth, I am a chugger with increased interval speed training in the jogging range of fleetness, but I call my endeavors running for purposes of communication. What would people think if I said I was going “chugging?”)

And then there is the pond.

The pond was once a gravel pit several miles from town, but Bozeman grew as part of the ubiquitous developmentof western America, extending pavement and subdivisions in all directions. Parcels of land once used for gravel pits, grazing, farming and just filling a natural niche in the environmental scheme of things suddenly took on an economic value as mysteriousandrandomastheoddsof winningthelottery.Capitalisminaction. Mystic Heights Subdivision was platted, lots put up for sale and Jeannie bought one.The gravel pit was lined with bentonite and filled from a spring on the southwest corner. The pond is roughly four acres in size, less than a hundred by two hundred meters across, forty feet at its deepest spot and, because of the bentonite, turbid, though the water quality is called “decent” by one who has analyzed it. As intended, it has become a private recreational center for the denizens of Mystic Heights, a superb swimming hole on hot summer afternoons, a place to paddle or float on buoyant contrivances — canoes, rubber duckies, inner tubes, noodles, inflatable mats and surf boards. Jousting and balancing contests among hormonal teens are spectator events. The pond has been stocked with rainbow and brown trout and there are said to be suckers as well. I have seen minnows, tiny crustaceans and turtles and a few people fishing on the pond and from its banks. I’ve never seen them, but algal outbreaks and fish kills have occurred.

Each autumn, flocks of geese stop at the pond during their laborious annual migration. They make a squawking racket that is endearing to me and annoying to some others, and I love watching the geese prepare in formation for their morning takeoff from Mystic Heights to the next pond south, accompanied by copious and loud communication. I always wonder what they are saying to each other. They leave in waves. Sometimes three or four groups of ten or twelve geese depart in a span of ten minutes, and it is beautiful to watch such graceful, tribal, harmonious creatures rise and form patterns in the sky. Geese are often on the pond in spring, but usually in groups of two or three or four, never in flocks of ten or twelve.

In winter, the pond is frozen and used for ice hockey and New Year’s Day polar bear plunge fests. The rest of the year, it is not unusual to see a wide range of avian and terrestrial creatures on or near the pond. Several years ago, one of the neighbors used the pond as home for his pet duck, a large white bird that couldn’t fly but added a resident neutered wildness to the suburban ambiance. I named him “Fred” in my own mind, but so far as I know he had no other name and Fred was shunned by his wild, multi-colored cousins during their short visits. Perhaps as a consequence, Fred spent an inordinate amount of time on the pond, quacking existentially into the void to no obvious response in order, anthropocentrically speaking, to substantiate his own existence and alleviate his disconnection from his own kind, much like some human beings do. I rather enjoyed Fred’s running commentary and was not distracted by it, but Fred mightily irritated others who were not amused, informed nor entertained by his lyrics. For them, a beautiful day did not include a loud white bird, even on a hot summer day. One day (or night) Fred simply disappeared, either at the hands of his owner responding to complaints or those of a stealth neighbor who had had enough of Fred except, perhaps, for dinner.

Fred’s close cousins, the mallards, are probably the most frequent and numerous visitors to the pond, except for the geese in autumn. I have seen ospreys, egrets, hawks, cranes and bald eagles at the pond. The bald eagle, the national bird and symbol of the United States, like the nation and values it symbolizes, has recently had its extinction rating improved from endangered to threatened. We hope this trend continues and that both eagle and nation make joint comebacks to health and vitality. Deer are often in the yard, and on occasion we have heard elk bugling from nearby fields. I once watched a bear leisurely amble along the bank beneath the towering cottonwood trees on the far side of the pond before disappearing into the fields beyond. A wildlife biologist who specializes in wolves was staying at the house and swears he saw a black wolf in the front yard.

Whether one views it as suburbia in the wild or wilderness in suburbia, Mystic Heights is as symbolic of Montana, the American West, perhaps the environment of the Earth itself as the bald eagle is of the United States. That is, humans tend to think of things as they are as something else. How could we not? My friend Jack Turner reminded me the other day:

“Two hundred billion stars in our galaxy, billions of galaxies. We are spinning around the Earth’s axis at about 15,000 mph; around the sun at I don’t know what; and around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way at around 500,000 mph. Weeeeeeeee… And nobody knows.”

Nobody knows. And, of course, we spin at different rates at the equator, in Anchorage and at the South Pole, and the Earth itself spins around the sun at a different rate in January than in July. I mean, truly, nobody knows. Weeeeeeee.

The only ones with a clue are the ones who acknowledge that nobody knows.

Our understanding of nature is incomplete, and whatever humanity’s selfimposed absence from the natural world does to its own heart, it tends to fragment its deficient awareness of our proper relationship to it. No matter how much we pave, extract from, develop, poison, clear cut, ignore, rape, pillage, plunder and exert our self-anointed, ignorant dominion over the earth, we do not understand the consequences of what we do upon it. We are each part of that inscrutable ignorance.

Nobody knows.

Before we came to Bozeman this spring, our friend Robin, who has stayed in the house for the past year, reported the presence of a loon on the pond for several days. That was exciting news. I had seen but a single loon and heard its lovely, haunting call once in Wisconsin. We had never seen a loon on the Mystic Heights pond and, so far as we knew, none had ever been there. Which only shows how little we knew (know?).

And there he was that first morning, a lone loon on the pond. Rarely did he make his call, but when it came, it was ethereally beautiful. We watched him through binoculars, floating, sometimes paddling, and every so often diving beneath the surface to fish for up to a minute at a time. A bald eagle made a few swooping passes over the pond and loon and then spent a couple of hours in the top of one of the cottonwood trees observing the world and the loon with eagle eye. We watched these things intermittently between chores and work and as distraction from that antithesis of nature tool, the computer, before which I sit writing words about contemplating nature.

While having coffee the next morning, I watched through the front plate-glass windows an interesting exercise by the lone loon of Mystic Heights pond. He (I later determined it was a he) paddled to the east end of the pond without a dive or pause, turned and immediately commenced a furious wing-flapping take-off toward the west end. He quickly built up an impressive rate of speed but rose no more than a foot or two above the water, not nearly enough to clear even the treeless section of the west bank. The loon made an awkward landing in the last stretch of water and paddled immediately back to the east end and repeated the performance with the same result. Something about it didn’t seem in harmony, but I was busy with matters of my own (perhaps no less loony) life and forgot about it. That evening, I timed the loon making a series of fishing dives lasting nearly a minute each. He was good in the water.

The next morning, again drinking coffee and watching the pond as much in procrastination as curiosity, I saw the loon again paddling east. He reached the far end, turned and immediately com

menced a frenzied, wing-flapping effort to take off. His speed was impressive but his height was low and again he made an ungainly landing on the west end. The loon wasted no time paddling like a loon back to the east end and launching another effort resulting in an even more graceless landing, after which he placidly floated as if contemplating his next move and resting. Two take-off attempts seemed his limit.

I retreated to my computer and the internet for some loon research, which quickly revealed that the Mystic Heights loon was a common loon. I learned loons are sometimes known as “the spirits of the wilderness” and have four calls — the tremolo, the hoot, the wail and the yodel. I’d only heard the wail, though Robin had heard a yodel. Adult loons are rarely eaten by other animals, though the young are often taken by raccoons, skunks, turtles and big fish. Adults are sometimes eaten by bald eagles, leading me to surmise that the eagle I watched swoop over the loon and then sit in the tree for several hours was not just whistling “America the Beautiful.” Because their legs are far back on the body, loons are both awkward and vulnerable on land and spend as little time as possible there. Loon bones are denser and heavier than those of most birds and that weight helps them dive for food. Though I was totally impressed that the loon of Mystic Height pond stayed under for nearly a minute, loons can stay down for up to five minutes and dive to 250 feet. One revealing (to my uneducated mind) description read, “Graceful in the water and in flight, they are almost comical on takeoffs and landings. Their size, solid bone structure and weight distribution result in thrashing water takeoffs that can last 100s of feet. The loon’s landing is nothing so much as a controlled crash-glide.” That certainly matched what I had seen, and it pleased me that my bits of research and observation fit so nicely together.

But absence fragments understanding. Because we had never seen a loon on the pond before, and because we had not talked with our seldom-seen neighbors about that loon, we assumed that loons on the pond were a rare occurrence.

“Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness,” said Marshall McLuhan.

We observed the loon for the next couple of days and each morning he attempted two takeoffs from the east with the same inelegant landings on the west end so different from those of the graceful geese. By then, my research had taught me enough to realize that the pond might be too short for the loon’s take-off requirements. For sure, I concluded, a loon launch from Mystic Height pond needed a good wind from the west to succeed, and even that was no guarantee. It occurred to me that this loon was trapped in too small a body of water. Far from being one of the spirits of wilderness, he was a prisoner. With this new understanding that he might have screwed up and landed on a pond with too small a runway, I viewed the loon with new eyes. Nature can be cruel.

What to do?

The anthropocentric response, it seems, is to interfere, which enables our addiction to the illusion of control. By the time my knowledge of loon ways had reached this stage of incompleteness, Jeannie had left for a climbing expedition in Alaska, so Robin and I conferred over morning coffee.

What to do with a crazy loon that had landed on a pond too small? He had been there more than a week. We watched him attempt another take-off and perform another clumsy crash-landing. After some discussion, we decided that, even though the fishing was good and he appeared healthy, his morning take-off attempts were reason enough for the anthropomorphic conclusion that he must be missing the company of fellow loons and he needed help to get off he pond. He clearly needed a longer runway. Robin had to go to work, but she thought she knew someone who worked for Fish & Wildlife and maybe we could contact him later in the afternoon. Like everyone who follows the fluctuating fates of wolf and buffalo, we both know that the true headquarters of Fish & Wildlife departments in most Western states are located deep in the folds of the pockets of the local ranching, hunting and real-estate-development industries. Contacting Fish & Wildlife about helping wildlife is not a step to be taken lightly and we would not, but we were conflicted.

But it was our conflict, not nature’s, and like all things left to nature, it took care of itself naturally.

That afternoon when I returned to Mystic Heights from chores in town, the loon was gone from the pond. Whether the loon got a lift from a headwind or from the bald eagle or was hyper-motivated by ESP that we had even considered calling in Fish & Wildlife is unknown, but neither he nor any other loon has been seen after that.

I’ve since learned that a few loons visit Mystic Heights Pond every spring. Whether they get off the pond in the talons of eagles or a headwind is something I hope to determine by further, better-informed observation in another spring. Either way is as natural as the eagle or the wind or the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. I don’t know whether the loons that land on the pond become eagle food or take off in the first strong wind to fly another day, but, anthropocentrically speaking, the loon of Mystic Heights Pond and the more than six and three quarters billion human beings living on this tiny Earth are all in a space that may or may not be large enough to allow take-off into the graceful flight of survival.

Dick Dorworth, who has been writing for Mountain Gazette since before it became Mountain Gazette in 1972, is the author of “Night Driving: Invention of the Wheel and Other Blues” and “The Perfect Turn: Tales of Skiing and Skiers,” soon to be published by Western Eye Press. He is fond of saying that skiing, climbing and writing are the only things he’s ever learned to do.

Cheapskates Rejoice

Champions emerge from every crappy situation, and our long, lousy economic condition is no exception. Sometimes in the name of environmental sustainability, sometimes as a matter of one-upmanship, extreme thriftiness and downsizing have usurped ramen noodles and Geo Metros to become an art form.

1) Big on Small

Dee Williams of Olympia has become a poster child for the Small House Movement — a phenomenon that’s getting a lot of ink and bandwidth as more Americans are shedding their belongings and asking themselves just how far they can scale back before they’re running around in loin cloths. Dwelling in a $10,000, 84-square-foot home on wheels that’s parked in a friend’s back yard, Williams pays $8 a month in utilities. She has a sleeping loft, one-burner stove and a composting toilet to call her own, space for a couple changes of clothes and a little porch for hanging out with friends, who are best to be small. Curious? The Small House Society has a big list of resources that’ll help cut you down to size.

2) Freeganism

Bolstered by an awful economy, the freegan movement, which comprises a lot of people who hate the word “freegan,” is all about extreme sustainability and living off the wastes of capitalism. If you’re really good at it, you can avoid the ravages of employment and find abandoned digs in which to squat (i.e. Las Vegas). The urban-foraging lifestyle requires bountiful dumpsters for food and other cast-offs, with Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s dumpsters getting good reviews. The downside to getting all your goods on the take: Bedbugs (which have made a bigger comeback than the ’04 Red Sox) and getting busted. Cities that are cracking down: Salt Lake and Sacramento. As far as bed-bugs go, Cincinnati leads the national pack, with the rest of Ohio close behind. Denver is the only Western city to make the top 10, ranking a hearty, scratchy fourth place.

3) Cheapest place in the West

In most of the western U.S., you’re statistically screwed if you want to live cheaply. Tennessee comes in as the cost-of-living champion at an overall index of 89.05, with Hawaii at the high end at 163. In the West, Idaho is the cheapest in 10th place, with an overall score of 92.07. Colorado comes in 31st with a 100.83; Arizona 37th at 104.27; and California in 48th place with 131.46. In housing, Idaho comes in at a reasonable 78.9, while California tops the Western charts at 185.74. FYI — the median 2020 home price in Oahu is estimated at over $1 million. Best to stay in Idaho.

4) DIY disasters

Do-it-yourselfers have taken on a certain swagger these days, accounting for a $160 billion business in the U.S. But before you attempt to join the ranks of Bob Vila, remember that complete failure is a strong possibility. For example, it’s common for DIYers to install bathtubs without hooking them up to drainpipes. And sure, that wax ring under your toilet looks easy to replace, but this widespread blunder has an ugly outcome that requires no elaboration. In Las Vegas, where the housing industry has driven homeowners to despair, home inspectors see Darwinian slip-ups such as ceiling fans installed so low that they hit people’s heads and outlets installed right next to tubs so bathers don’t have to get out to plug in their whirlpool spas. If you need more encouragement to call a handyman: http://blog. servicelive.com/blog/diydisasters/0/0/homeowner-tips-how-not-to-repair-your-washing-machine

5) Hot rocks and yard sales

Last year, a Milwaukee man shelled out $10 for a strange chunk of metal he found at a rummage sale, figuring he’d be able to salvage it as copper or bronze and make a few dollars in these hard times. Too bad he watched a TV show that indicated he probably had a rare meteorite on his hands. A collector then offered $10,000, while posts on the all-reliable Internet said he might make $100,000. The bad news: The chunk turned out to be part of the big Canyon Diablo meteor, which strayed from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and landed in the Arizona desert in 1942. Some jerk stole it from the Meteor Crater Visitor Center in 1962. The Milwaukee man returned the find, which rewarded him $1,000. He says he doesn’t remember where the rummage sale was.

Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 50th Anniversary Edition

Most of us who have gone look- ing for enlightenment in the big hills, armed with crampons or ropes or ice axes or other implements — but without paying for professional mountain guides — have a worn copy of one of the first seven editions of

“Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills” somewhere on our bookshelves. It’s sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide and has been translated into 10 languages, and Mountaineers Books, since it began in 1960, now has more than

500 books in print. The 8th edition of “The Freedom of the Hills” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the publication of this tome of self-reliance, and thankfully, Mountaineers Books didn’t choose to make it a Kindle or iPhone edition. No less than 32 climber-authors were involved in this edition, which includes a few updates — how to travel safely in “border country,” more information on fitness and training specifically for mountaineering and lots of stuff us climbing geeks would get excited about (“fisherman’s knot” is now “fisherman’s bend”!). Still, no chapter on how to convince your partner to lead all the hard pitches, or how to sneak the beers into his/her pack before the climb. Here’s to 50 years of staying alive up there. www.mountaineersbooks.org

Ranger Confidential: Living, Working and Dying in the National Parks by Andrea Lankford

If you’ve spent any amount of time in our beloved national parks, you’ve probably seen some pretty bizarre stuff. A friend of mine who guides in the Grand Canyon once saw a woman actually pick up and throw a squirrel over a cliff at one of the South Rim viewpoints after it scampered up to her and stole some of her snacks. We all probably have our stories. Park rangers have thousands. Andrea Lankford, a former ranger in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains and Denali, finally took up the job of collecting some of those stories, writing them down and sharing them with us. “Ranger Confidential” has a great pace, each story finishing in 12 pages or less, making Lankford that person sitting around the campfire entertaining you with one tale after another. She warns in the book’s introduction that “ranger reality is rated R,” and then gets right to the action, with a ranger arresting a public masturbator standing over a topless sunbather on one of Cape Cod’s beaches, a gunfight, a driver dragging a loggerhead sea turtle to death behind his pickup and a rescue in Yosemite that ends in the confiscation of several pairs of nunchakus from a backcountry martial arts class. That’s all before page 50. You get the picture. Lankford survived her 12 years as a ranger; some don’t. She tells those stories, too. www.globepequot.com

A Life Ascending

It pretty much makes my month when an outdoors movie comes across my desk, and after watching it, I get to give it my “not ski/climbing porn” stamp. In the first few minutes of “A Life Ascending,” you see Ruedi Beglinger, owner of Revelstoke, British Columbia, hut-skiing company Selkirk Mountain Experience, anchor a rope to a snowblower on one side of the hut so he can rappel down the other side and shovel feet of snow off the roof. That’s when I realized that this would be a movie more about a life than about relentless pursuit of the gnar. Beglinger, a ski mountaineering guide, was leading a group of 20 skiers in 2003 when an avalanche ripped loose and

killed seven of the skiers. “A Life Ascending” documents Beglinger’s life as a guide, from snow science, to running a business, to raising his two daughters in a helicopter- access-only hut in the backcountry of the Selkirks. And, of course, the ever-present chance that he might die at work, or have a client die on a trip — and how he dealt with the avalanche deaths in 2003, which, coupled with another avalanche less that 20 miles away that killed seven more people 12 days later, drew negative media atten- tion. Director/producer Stephen Grynberg’s first feature-length documentary is a good one, just in time for ski season. www.alife- ascending.com

Upwards

“If you deny what you know, or what you are, or where you are, you deny the simplest part of being alive, and then you die.”

—Bel Kaufman, “Up the Down Staircase”

The news came circuitously, and slowly, as is the way of these sorts of entrepreneurial endeavors: The Mountain Gazette was once again simultaneously on the clock and on the block, and word came my way that a scion of the Old Dominion was interested in perhaps adding this humble enterprise to his corporate kingdom. Lordy, lordy, thought I, the last MG owner was an Englishman (a man from the country of my birth), now a Virginian (a man from the state where I mostly grew up). “Where do I need to go to get away from these people?” I asked myself, once again thinking that, if Gila Country is not far enough from the roots of my past, then I might have to consider moving to Alaska, or maybe even Bolivia. But, with the Internet and cell phones, as well as the microchip that the government has likely already planted in the brain stem of each and every one of us, truly there is no place one can go to outrun his origins, lest he don a loin cloth and start eating slugs with the Bush People.

But first things first. For those of you keeping score, here is a short chronology of the Mountain Gazette:

• 1966-72: Mike Moore founded and published Skiers’ Gazette from Denver.

• Famed Mountaineer Bob Craig hooks Moore up with Woody Creek, Colo., resident George Stranahan. The two hit it off and decide to morph Skiers’ Gazette into the Mountain Gazette.

• 1976: Moore leaves MG and is replaced as editor by Gaylord Guenin. Office is moved from Denver to Boulder.

• 1979: The MG ceases publication. People like yours truly lament this passing.

• 2000: Stranahan, Curtis Robinson and yours truly resurrect MG and base the magazine in Summit County, Colo.

• 2006: We sell MG to Paonia, Colo.-based GSM Publishing.

• 2008: GSM passes the magazine onto New York City-based Skram Media, which also owns Climbing magazine and Urban Climber. For the first time, the MG is owned by people from, of all things, the East. And flat East, at that. And even worse, urban flat East.

• June 2010: GSM transfers management of its assets to California-based Active Interest Media, a mega-publishing conglomerate. AIM puts out the word that MG is far too small a “title” for its “portfolio,” which also includes Backpacker magazine. If a buyer is not found pronto, then they will close the magazine down. Yours truly, who for a long time back in the dark past, used to be a contributing editor at Backpacker, yells,

“FUCK!!!!” at the top of his lungs, and wonders if, by some weird manifestation of karmic/cosmic convergence, I somehow have become reincarnated as myself before even passing away. Yours truly starts shopping for loincloths and eyeballing maps to find out where the Bush People actually live.

• August 2010: Charlottesville, Virginia-based Summit Publishing, which also owns Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, Elevation Outdoors magazine and Breathe magazine, procures the Gazette. Yours truly is asked to stay on as editor. Yours truly places a hold on his order from bushpeopleattire.com.

So, OK, a couple months ago, there I am, sitting on my front porch, smoking a Macanudo, when the phone rings and a familiar lilting regional accent — one I only hear nowadays when I talk to my brother on the phone — lets me know that, once again, the MG has been acquired by a company located not exactly in the middle of what we consider our prime conceptual area. You can imagine the length and breath of my sigh. I listened for an hour or so to what sounded like the introduction to an MBA honors seminar titled, “How To Say All the Right Things,” then put my retarded noggin in my hands and wondered what was going to become of the magazine that more than one acquaintance has called M. John’s baby. Then I pulled said retarded noggin out of said hands, smacked myself square in the face and said to my cat, who looked even more perplexed than usual (and that’s saying a mouthful), “Well, come what may, at least we’re still alive and kicking!”

Then, a funny thing happened next time I checked my email. I started getting communiqués from people whose opinions I actually care about informing me in no uncertain terms that the new owner, Blake DeMaso, is a perfect fit for both me and the MG. We made arrangements to meet, first in Summit County, then, a day later, in Leadville. The meetings covered a wide swath of conversational territory during a perfect blend of driving through the High Country just as the first tendrils of autumn were visiting the aspen forests and sitting in dimly lit watering holes as people I hadn’t seen in a while sidled up and, via a combination of slurs and yells, filled me in on the latest local happenings.

It was while hunkering down over Fat Tires in the Scarlet in Pb that I told Blake I intended to distill our long, rambling discourse into a very honest Smoke Signals, wherein I would straight-faced let the MG tribe know what is in store for this magazine.

Two things before I do just that.

First, Summit Publishing, which, as I said, owns three — now four — magazines, also has a deal with another halfdozen or so titles covering the geographic spectrum from Washington State to Utah to Vermont. That deal is called Outdoor Adventure Media, which gives Blake and his sales associates the ability to go to the very biggest companies that would have any interest whatsoever in advertising in outdoor media — the Subarus and Apples of the corporate world — and offer them the opportunity to advertise in all of the Outdoor Adventure Media affiliates. Now, I know it’s going to sound to a lot of our long-time readers as though I’m tooting the horn of a corporation I barely know, but I hope you will believe me when I say that, of all the things that, if I could have pushed one magic button while I owned the MG, that would have been it: To find a way to entice advertisers who would not look at us otherwise because we were simply too small and too regional. You have no idea how much breathing room that would have given us.

Those who view those words with skepticism, even perhaps with cynical bewilderment, wondering if perhaps I haven’t turned to the dark side, hear ye these syllables: The magazine publishing world these days is seriously tough. Since the MG was resurrected in 2000, many publications familiar to mountain dwellers have gone bye-bye, among them Mountainfreak, Sports Guide, Rocky Mountain Sports, National Geographic Adventure, ForbesLife MountainTime and, most recently, Inside Outside Southwest. The fact that we have managed to hold on is a flat-out miracle, and, now, the thought that we might have the opportunity to attract some larger advertisers does nothing more than make me breathe a huge, monster sigh of relief.

But—and this is a big “but”—there is now going to be justifiable concern about the effect being part of a magazine group HQed in the Blue Ridge Mountains (with additional offices in Ashville, N.C., and Boulder) that will focus serious effort on attracting advertising dollars from companies that employ people who actually wear ties to work won’t have a deleterious impact on, potentially, every aspect of a magazine that prides itself on oftentimes an anti-corporate attitude and a certain lack of maturity that we feel accurately reflects life in Mountain Country.

That is a perfect valid concern, and one that I share. Blake DeMaso has stressed to me his intentions to return the MG to its attitudinal roots. He has stressed to me that, even though his other magazines might be a bit more traditional in their appearance and editorial offerings, does not mean that the Gazette will come to resemble them. Certainly, time will tell.

Last: The main thing that has attracted me to Blake DeMaso at this point, besides the fact that he used to be a liquor salesman, and the fact that he enjoys and occasional tumbler of whiskey, is the fact that he already knows and loves the MG. He has long had a stack of them in his office in Charlottesville, and can refer to past stories and writers as though he were quoting Scripture. That’s damned sure better than the way things have been the past couple of years.

So, OK, I decided to ask Blake DeMaso, the new owner of the magazine you now hold in your hands, five questions, the answers to which I have included below. Here goes.

MJF: Tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your background.

BD: I am a mountain guy from the small college town of Charlottesville, VA. I like to do most of the same things that people in Colorado and New Mexico like to do: hike, bike, camp, ski, paddle, drink adult beverages … I just do them at 3,000 feet. I have been in publishing for about 10 years, and I consider myself lucky every day to wake up and do something that I love (publishing) that deals with my favorite subject (the outdoors).

MJF: You’ve apparently been a Mountain Gazette reader for years. How did someone living in Charlottesville come to be a Gazette fan?

BD: I traveled out to Colorado a few times a year for the same reason that most of us East Coasters come, which is to take a stab at the big mountains and the deep snow. I figured out quickly that 1) I was not as good of a skier as I thought I was, 2)my East Coast skis and other equipment were not made for Colorado and 3) the beer out West seemed to taste better. So I found myself in a bar, exhausted, drinking beer, and I read my first issue of MG. It wasn’t easy getting copies of MG in Charlottesville, so, before there were subscriptions offered, I had a network of people set up from places where MG was distributed and I would bribe them to send it to me. As soon as subscriptions, were offered I was all over it.

MJF: How did you come to acquire MG and how does it fit into your overall portfolio and vision?

BD: I would say that it was mostly an emotional decision because I love the Gazette, but, as luck would have it, it fits pretty well into my bigger publishing business right now. Honestly, about five years ago, I actually tried to acquire MG so that I could bring it into my national network of independently owned outdoor publications. They turned me down, so about two years ago, I started a magazine on the Front Range called Elevation Outdoors, but I still kept my eye on Mountain Gazette. In terms of editorial and distribution, MG and EO are very different, so when we added MG, it gave me a chance to add a more-extensive distribution network in mountain towns throughout Colorado and the Rockies. All of my publications are mostly funded by advertising revenue, so that they are free to the readers, and adding MG doubled our current circulation in Colorado and the Rockies.

MJF: You’ve expressed a desire to return the MG to its roots. Care to expound on that?

BD: I think the Gazette has deep roots and passionate readers and, while I am always interested in ways to expose new people to the publication, I think that tinkering with the editorial and look and feel of the magazine is messing with what makes the magazine great. Starting with the November issue, we will increase the size of the magazine. We intend to start putting significant effort back into our covers, which at one time people used for wall art. We plan to back off a bit on the theme issues, so we can have a bit more latitude on the editorial copy we choose to run. We want to get our distribution numbers back to where they were five years ago. We plan to resurrect the Mountain Music section and are talking about re-introducing some other departments we used to run, like Bumpersticker, Poetry and Lost Art. There’s a lot to do, I know, but it will be worth the effort.

MJF: There are going to be members of the MG tribe who are going to react to all this by saying, “Here we go again — another Easterner with entrepreneurial aspirations taking ownership of the Mountain Time Zone’s preeminent literary journal.” What’s your response to what many people would consider a reasonable concern?

BD: I know, I know. I have already heard this. I guess I considered myself part of the Tribe before I became the owner. Actually, I still can’t believe that I am now the owner. I have been taking “inspiration” (a publishing term for “knocking off”) from the Gazette for 10 years, so my number-one focus is getting back to where it was when there was an office in Summit County, Colorado. I know there are going to be a lot of skeptics, especially after the last few years. I think it won’t take long before the Tribe realizes we are back on the right path.

So, OK, there you have it. I will say at this point: For the first time in years, I am optimistic about the future of the Mountain Gazette.

As always, I would look forward to receiving your input on these or any other MG-related matters. mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com

Letters – October 2010


The List Guy: Thoughts About Cool Things and The Fine Line

Editor’s note: After priming the creative pump of both yours truly (Smoke Signals,“Listing Who We Are, MG #166) and the MG Tribe (via the two dozen or more Letters we have run on the subject), Dave Baldridge, whose idea it was for people to list the cool things they have done, has come back to us with his reflections on the whole process.

This is a lot deeper water than I ever imagined. The list was kind of spontaneous, and now I’m thinking about what it’s worth, if in fact it’s worth anything at all. At least the psychic rummaging around has been heating, in kind of a weird way, as editor Fayhee aptly puts it.

It’s allowed (forced) me to think for the first time about whether there are patterns in my list. Re-arranging it in chronological order, I see a lot of self-testing, especially in the older things. There’s also a lotta need for validation, but that’s never been any secret, according to my friends. My abundant search for approval probably isn’t all that different from other “cool-thing” pilgrims. Neither does it call for psychoanalysis; it’s just a list.

One unintended byproduct is that it pushed out my adrenaline threshold. Progressively over the years, it’s taken more and more to get high. Better drugs, bigger risks. I’ve come to think of this tendency as “fool’s gold.” It never led me to resolution or peace or lasting satisfaction — it’s an endless highway, littered with lotsa wrecks.

I got good at healing. And falling. As Dick Dorworth described in his 1970s MG classic “Night Driving,” there is an art to healing. Ski racers, he says, are sometimes very good at it.

On the mountain bike trip to Nepal (Item 8), I had a couple of horrendous falls, potential helicopter evac stuff. Came up unscathed both times, although helmet and sunglasses were broken. Previous experience with falling helped. Have had practice healing from broken clavicle, ribs, toe, wrist, hip, nose (21 fractures), three knee/ankle surgeries, several hundred stitches, kidney removal and a couple of times from a broken heart. That last item was the hardest.

When I left the mountains after a couple of decades, my next job took me deep into Native America. It was with a national Indian aging organization, advocating for American

Indian elders. I careened into it with the usual abandon, but this time something was different. Looking back, I feel a real sense of peace and worth about it. The only difference, adventure-wise, is that it was for the benefit of someone else, not for me. That was the key. It turned everything around, opened internal doors that were very rusty. Interesting that this only shows up once on the list (item 26).

Even now, though, it feels good to have all this stuff embedded in my psyche like road rash gravel. It’s hard to get too upset by some account executive freaking out when you’ve been chased by a head-hunting rodeo bull (item 1) or looked an avalanche fatality in the eye (item 11).

As it turns out, if I could ever write a book (never done that), these things on my list would probably be the chapters. I didn’t expect this. My girlfriend says it should be called “Going Big: The Fine Line Between Adventure and Stupidity . . . or How I Got My Knee Brace.”

Anyway, here’s what I, the list guy, hope I’ve learned in the process of getting the brace.

• What’s cool for you may not be cool for someone else. Many won’t understand or care about the coolest things.

• When you go out, take your whole heart with you, not just adrenaline. If it’s not in your heart, it isn’t cool.

• If it matters to you, it matters. Cool comes from inside, not the spectators at the finish line.

• What’s the difference? Maybe only that someone imagined something larger .

• You’re gonna get hurt. Not every time but enough. That’s why more people don’t do cool things. Cool and risk usually go hand in hand.

• Gotta try to live large. That’s what it’s all about. Well, that and being kind.

• Don’t compare self to anyone else after it happened. Winning or losing has no home among cool things; it orbits on the periphery.

• Visualize. Many a man hath seen himself in dreams. Try to channel the best before you launch.

• Roll with the punches. They can be important parts of the cool things. Sometimes they can BE the cool things.

• Nike got it right. If you don’t do it, you’ll never know. I’ve lost far more through hesitation than impulsiveness.

• Cool is a luxury of hindsight. When it’s hitting the fan, cool is meaningless.

• Breaking the rules isn’t always important. There’s enough drama to go around without taking down the system. Usually.

• If it was done with love, it’s been cool. Every time.

• The coolest, toughest adventure of all is the internal one.

Thanks again for the platform.
Dave Baldridge,
Albuquerque

Whither art thou, MG poetry?

Hey man! What happened to the poetry section? You all don’t believe in supporting and publishing the poetic insights of the mountain folk any more? I have been out of the West for a year and was shocked to not find a poetry section in the current issue that I eagerly scooped up as soon as I returned.

First the size and then the bombardment of advertising and now the poetry section!?! I understand you all have to make money and give you praise for being able to survive the black plague of publishing, but the poetry, the mountain prose, the heart and soul of the only outlet of expression we mountain people have!

Please tell me there will be more, every other issue or that I missed some serious philosophical reason for its banishment.

Sorely and sincerely yours,
One more Lost Mountain Poet,
Jen C.
Pb

Editor’s note: Not only did I have the great fortune to have received this Letter, but I had the even greater fortune to meet young Ms. Jen C. recently at a watering hole in Leadville, where she, her mother and her two sisters organized the first annual GreenerLead Festival, which was a rousing success.

That said: Verily! Yes, yes, yes, our esteemed Poetry Section has been gone for several issues now, mainly because our poetry editor moved on to greener and far-less-lyrical pastures. It is our intent to relaunch our Poetry Section as soon as we find a replacement editor.

A Third Phase Wilderness

Dear John: So much of Idaho’s potential wilderness areas, like Utah’s, are neglected, as Brook Williams suggested in “The Middle of Nowhere” (MG #170), not because of lack of beauty but because of their remoteness,

and therefore, invisibility. Two huge and beautiful places on the

Payette National Forest near McCall, the Secesh and Needles roadless areas, are even recommended by the U.S. Forest Service for Wilderness protection. But they haven’t gotten the attention of the designated Wilderness areas, despite being equally spectacular. Anyone who has gone to McCall has seen these areas, but they hardly know it. People drive beside these roadless areas and between them or enjoy them at a distance; advocates rant and rave about Wilderness either pro or con, but few actually go into them to see their guts. Few know these enormous wild places for their inherent values.

But Brook’s main point is more germane: these areas have their highest human value for being nowhere. Their profound solitude is a great bargain for evolving humanity as we look at the places we came from. Wildlife moves through these invisible places from Hells Canyon Wilderness on the west to the enormous River of No Return Wilderness: wolves,wolverine,bears,elk,pileated woodpeckers, great grey owls, eagles and many of the other beasts that live there. These proposed Wilderness areas are the connective tissue by which species will survive in the future as our climate changes. There are no trails through large portions of this land and other trails that lie forgotten or lost. It is raw land in the presence of untamed nature. There is nothing sweet or tame about this third phase of wilderness; it is a punishing landscape that sometimes manages gentility and grandeur.

These are places that people go to find out who they are in the silence of a vast loneliness. I hope that we will know enough to protect each of these little-known places to maintain their loneliness, their grandeur and more simply, their obvious wildness.

Mike Medberry,
Boulder

We Were Liberal Arts Majors!

Dear John: I realize that I subscribe to Mountain Gazette and not Math Gazette but I am still puzzling over the “simple” math included in the piece, “Death: Germ vs Bear” by Laura Pritchett (MG #170). In this article, Ms. Pritchett concluded that we are much more likely to die from bacteria than bears because bacteria are so much more abundant, and presented a calculation that estimated that there are about 100,000,000,000,000 (10^14) bacteria per human. The mathematical logic employed in calculating this number appears suspect.

It is stated that there are 10^29 bacteria in the world (the most commonly cited number is actually 50-fold higher than this) and that one percent of this number is 10^24. It is not clear why one percent of this number is used but one percent of 10^29 is 10^27, which is 1,000 times larger than 10^24.

If the more commonly used estimate of bacteria in the world is used (5x 10^30) and divided by the number of people in the world (7,000,000,000 or 7 x10^9), you come up with roughly 7 x 10^20 bacteria per person. This is 7,000,000 times more bacteria per person than the number stated in the article. So if you were worried about bacteria before, you can now be seven million times more concerned.

Regards,
Wayne Van Voorhies
Las Cruces, NM

Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.