Like an anxious little puppy waiting for its treat, the busker’s hat sits in anticipation on the sidewalk, enticing, luring, siren-like but never begging, because the musician behind it is offering up his or her soul in twangy plunking, picking, bowing earnest for all who pass by. He’ll have an audience for about 30 seconds, sometimes a minute. Sometimes people will throw money into the hat. Sometimes people will sneak money out of the hat. Sometimes they’ll take the hat. But the wandering minstrel endures and has the benefit of praise and hopefully gifts … if he or she has a smidgen of talent. Of course, with a short-term audience, all the busker really has to do is learn three or four songs and learn them really well, since no one ever stays around long enough to hear more than that. Troubadours can go into a continuous loop and no one would know the difference. “Wow, that guy covers Neil Young perfectly!” Well, yeah, it’s the only song he knows.
This isn’t true of all buskers, of course. Paul McCartney once busked his tune “Yesterday” on a London street unrecognized and only heard the jingle of a few coins. Sting played the pavement with his hat pulled down and made £40 with no one noticing. Bruce Springsteen would show up on a corner with his guitar. Tracy Chapman began her career busking at Harvard Square. Bob Dylan was positively impromptu on 4th Street at SXSW in Austin. Even Benjamin Franklin was a street performer of his own composed songs, poetry and prose. He was the original beatnik, carrying on about current politics and selling printed copies of his work. No one notices buskers, especially in cities, because no one wants to look a busker in the eye for fear of getting his life story or, worse, feel guilted into dropping dollars into the case.
It’s far different in the mountains for street performers, whose music and efforts are usually appreciated and rewarded. Outside of a coffee shop in Crested Butte, three bohemians are playing on a combined 20 strings — two guitars and a mandolin, while down the street on a bench sits Alex Klivecka, with guitar in hand and banjo at the ready. Alex jumped ship from a Silicon Valley job and hit the road busking from San Francisco to Park City, Utah, to the Colorado Rockies. “I don’t play perfect,” he confesses without remorse. “I can come out for half an hour and leave whenever I want. The crowds are more forgiving.”
“Busking in the mountains is much more friendly than the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. Pearl Street is the Fillmore of busking,” says Tyler Lucas, a multi-instrumentalist. “There’s a lot of talent down there. It’s cutthroat.”
Jackson Melnick is still a teenager, but has busked all over the world, and now performs on the streets of Crested Butte. “I think how cultures respond to buskers tells a lot about how they feel about the arts in general. People who support buskers are the people’s patrons,” Jackson adds with a boyish smirk. “It also depends on your skill level.”
Mountain genre leans toward folk music, Americana and bluegrass, and there’s usually someone sitting around playing Grateful Dead songs. The busker will get requests for everything from Pop Goes the Weasel from a four-year-old to a promenading group needing a birthday song. While it’s true your ear will catch mostly popular culture tunes that pay the most, there are the phenomena of young students at classical music camps who will go solo or gather for a sidewalk chamber concert in places like Aspen during their music festival.
The resilient stock on the beat will brave the extreme elements, oftentimes getting the sympathy or respectful rewards. Andrea Lecos and Cory Obert (hardpressed.com) have played the pavement of Telluride and Ouray and were set up on a sidewalk in Durango when one of those ominous mountain storms rumbled in, badly bruising the sky to black and purple. “It was a deluge, but we kept going,” says Andrea, who wasn’t about to let the climate come between she, her partner and their prospective audience. “It was pitiful, because the streets cleared out, but we wanted to play. An older gentleman who was listening to us started throwing money in our cases and then said, ‘better yet make it a wrap and I’ll buy you a drink next door.’ Even though we wanted to make more money, it was still fun and we could have cared less … we were singing at the top of our lungs to no one and someone got us drunk.”
Minstrel Greg Pettys, who’s traveled the planet via guitar and horn, thinks Telluride’s great for busking. “People take care of you with money, booze and nuggets. People are psyched on the music. They invite you in and, before you know it, you have food and a place to stay. Music opens the doors. When you’re camping in the summer, you can make some pretty good money in the mountains.” Jackson won’t easily part with his own hard-earned coin unless there’s good reason. “Sometimes if there’s an amazing gypsy jazz trio on the street, I don’t feel obligated to give money because they’re just into playing for people and they have lots of paying gigs. But when it’s a dirtbag hippie like myself and he wants that muffin from the health food store, then I’ll toss a buck in.” However, Tyler feels that twinge of guilt. “Sometimes I feel awkward — those begging eyes and droning Dead songs. You feel like you have to give them a dollar.”
Clever performers know how to capture their audiences, as Michael Ruffalo on guitar and Ted Bosler, wearing the washboard, used to. “We’d get on the Mountain Express shuttle bus with all the tourists going up to the ski area. The more we insulted them, the more they liked us and gave us more money,” says Ted, the frontman, who went through their shtick. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are on the musical bus. In case of the unlikely event of a water landing, please use your seat as a flotation device. You will, at the end, give us most or all of your money.” And in between the guffaws, the duo would play their silly tunes, all related to local businesses and events. “The tourists loved us and the locals would grab a six pack and ride around. At the end of the night, we’d go to the bar and spend it all,” the Crested Buttian proudly proclaims.
Andrea thinks the benefits outweigh the sometimes meager living eked out, so she continues on her troubadour track. “You never know what kind of magic can come out of busking. It’s beyond just playing. It’s beyond the coin in the cup. It’s who you reach out there. People will come up and say ‘thanks for making our day.’ You make them happy. Of course, you might make some crazy. It’s a good gig. You reach a ton of people. It’s very low key and there’s no stress of having to carry around your PA, getting to sound check on time, no stage fright and, if you forget the words to your song, who cares, because people really enjoy it anyway and you still make money.” And she feels one of the big perks of busking on the street is always being able to have your best friend with you. “You can tie your dog up to something while you play, but you could never bring your dog to a real gig … and if you have a really cute dog, you’ll get more tips.”
If there’s too much structure in your world, and you can play three or four chords on any instrument while crooning out a few tunes, you may want to consider chucking it all for a life of busking and a sense of independence. The world will truly be your stage.
Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer and musician who is ready to abandon any remaining semblance of structure and give in to her lack of time management to busk the streets of the world. Until then, she’s a feature writer for the Crested Butte News-Weekly who’s been published in numerous mags and rags around the planet. Contact email@example.com
“Climbing Dictionary: Mountaineering Slang, Terms, Neologisms & Lingo,” by Matt Samet
Want to talk like a real climber, but don’t want to make a faux pas at the crag by misusing the word “pinkpoint” in a sentence? Fear not. Longtime climbing writer (and former editor of Climbing magazine) Matt Samet has you covered with the new “Climbing Dictionary” from Mountaineers Books. Not just a reference for newbies — although it is, explaining hundreds of basic terms from abseil to Z-clip — Samet provides plenty of entertainment explaining less-familiar terms like “aggrosheen” (n., profuse perspiration dripping from a climber) and “satchel therapy” (n., mental training learned by doing long runouts). Usage examples abound, i.e., G-climbing (n., alpine groveling, a play off sport-mixed or M-climbing): “The Emperor Face of Mount Robson is mega for G-climbing: Shattered limestone and shale plastered in snow and rime. Might I suggest the 5800-foot House-Haley, a WI5 M7?” More than 650 definitions are covered in the book’s 250 pages, with accompanying illustrations by veteran climbing artist Mike Tea. The “Climbing Dictionary” would make a great gift for a climber close to you when you don’t know what kind of gear to buy them, or a great addition to your bathroom shelf if you are a climber. $15, mountaineersbooks.org
If you’re familiar with Netflix and you’re a mountain person, you might know that the Web-DVD and streaming movie service has “The Eiger Sanction,” the Clint Eastwood 1975 climbing-murder movie, available to stream directly to your computer. Aside from that and a handful of ski and snowboard porn films, the selection of mountain movies is somewhat limited. If you’ve ever sat at home and wished you could watch a climbing or skiing movie without having to pay $29.95 to own it, you’ll want to check out SteepEdge.com, where you can stream, or buy digitally, hundreds of films on kayaking, mountain culture, climbing, adventure racing, mountaineering, mountain
biking, polar adventure and other topics. Films can be rented for three days of watching for $4-$6, or purchased for $12-$25. The selection is mostly British and European films, and is heavy on climbing — but my hope is that someone in the U.S. would be inspired by the idea and start a similar business on this side of the Atlantic — kind of like we did with “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” Steep Edge was imagined as “virtual mountain film festival” by seven British founders who are climbers, hikers, cyclists and entrepreneurs, some of whom founded the Kendal Mountain Film Festival in the U.K. in 1979. steepedge.com
Podcast: Off Belay Podcast with Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller
Chris Kalous and Jamie Lynn Miller have a lot to say about climbing, and almost none of it is about sponsored athletes, the newest, flashiest gear, or news in the world of climbing, The Off Belay Podcast is a candid discussion of the important stuff. How candid? Well, maybe your dog doesn’t belong at the crag. Or your kid. Maybe you should stop bitching when you show up at Indian Creek, the most-famous crag in Colorado (oh, it’s in Utah?), and there are dozens of other people there. Chris and Jamie have had a few guests on the show, but the highlight is their own banter — whether it’s about online climbing forums, guns, hung draws or whatever. Between the two of them, Chris and Jamie have written for Climbing, Rock and Ice, Elevation Outdoors, Women’s Adventure, 303 Magazine, Men’s Health, the Snowmass Sun and others. And oh yeah, the Mountain Gazette, where Chris was the gear editor for a number of years. Jamie Lynn is also an on-air personality at Aspen Public Radio’s Sonic Byways. The Off Belay Podcast might be the most fun you’ll have listening to two people you don’t know talk about climbing you haven’t done. offbelaypodcast.com
Hi, John: I read your article about scars, and since you asked, I’ve got a tale to tell (or maybe a “tail” to tell?).
I was around 12 years old as well, and it was summertime in Pennsylvania. Three Saturdays in a row, I found myself in Allentown General Hospital’s emergency room.
The first Saturday, I was building a model rocket and got a fin on my rocket that wasn’t quite straight. As I cut the fin off, I managed to slice myself between my thumb and forefinger. Three stitches, and a scar.
The next Saturday, I was playing catch at a neighbor’s house. As I slid across the grass trying to catch a ball, missed, and I rammed my knee into a flagpole base hiding in the grass and cut my knee. No stitches this time, no fracture, but a lovely set of X-rays to accompany the second scar.
On the third Saturday, my other neighbors had a truck full of topsoil and a 2×10 as a ramp off the back of the truck for wheelbarrows. It looked like a slide to me. It was a painful slide, followed by an odd limping run up the hill to my house. Determined not to make a third trip to the ER, mom got out the pliers and tried to pull out the “splinter.” That wasn’t happening. On closer inspection, she realized it was bigger than it first appeared. It was sticking out above and BELOW the back pocket of my jeans. Off to the ER. My pants were cut off me. I was given Novocaine to ease the pain before they tried to remove the “splinter.” News travels fast in a hospital. I remember lying on my stomach waiting for the Novocaine to kick in, and a nonstop parade of nurses, who all wanted to see the biggest splinter they’ve ever seen in a kid’s ass.
I just wanted to disappear.
The doctors put a tube in my butt cheek for drainage. I still remember going on a field trip that week, with a special pillow to make the ride more comfortable. The scars are still pretty impressive, since they are about six inches apart.
I saved the splinter for several years, as a trophy of sorts. Chicks dig scars, right?
On the 4th Saturday, my parents wrapped me in bubble wrap and left me in the basement. ;-)
Summit County, CO
Scar Tissue #2
Hi John, Your terrific tale in the June Mountain Gazette (“Scar Tissue,” Smoke Signals, MG #179) put me in mind of a similar incident and since you invited your readers to share their stories …
I lived on a steep hill in West L.A. back in the fall of 1959. I was 13 and, although this may come as a surprise to your younger readers, many of us now-ancients were deep into skateboarding some 50-plus years ago. Of course, our boards were significantly less sophisticated than the current crop of polypropylene-propelled rides. We used metal shoe skates split apart and nailed to the underside of a six-inch-wide sheet of three-quarter-inch plywood.
In any case, it was early Saturday morning and I had climbed out of bed to get in some turns before breakfast. Swooping down our street, I reveled in my newfound sense of vehicular freedom. Coming up against a rather significant curve in the concrete, I leaned into the bend just as I had watched countless contemporaries do the same. Only my turn had tragic consequences. I spun off the board and landed hard on the sidewalk, falling knee, elbow, noggin first.
Of course, my initial response was to instantly sit up and check to see if anyone witnessed my in-line ineptitude. Luckily, no one was around. I soon realized however that it was also unlucky no one was around. My left leg was twisted underneath me in a manner decidedly not as nature intended. I tried to move, but simply couldn’t. I worried over what to do next, when I happened to look up the hill to my house and saw my dear mother standing beside our kitchen sink and framed by the large kitchen window.
I was saved! Mom would see me and come rushing to my side. Mom would soon be comforting me in my condition and rushing me off to the hospital. Oh, dear, dear mother! How could I have mistreated you so terribly? Leaving my room a mess, lying about my homework, ignoring your entreaties to eat my sprouts … what kind of son was I? And there she now was before my tear-filled eyes, beatifically preparing our morning meal, still unaware of her tragically fallen progeny lying prostrate on the pavement.
“Mom! Mom!” I called out doing my best to get her attention by weakly waving my one unscathed arm. “Mom! I’m down here at the corner. I think I broke my leg! There’s blood everywhere! Come quick, Mom, and save me!”
I don’t know for sure if it was my desperate cry for help or some innate parental perception that had her looking up from the sink and out the window directly at me. But just seeing her kindly, compassionate face looking in my direction was balm enough for this wounded soul and comfort for my fractured body. I was to be rescued!
I smiled up at her as our eyes met. She saw my plight. She felt my pain. And then she fainted dead away, falling sideways and straight like a tree slowly toppled by an incessant wind. I knew I was screwed.
Twenty minutes later, a neighbor drove by and stopped to help. He bandaged me up, put a splint on my leg and rushed me to the hospital. En route, I remembered about my Mom lying out cold on the kitchen floor. It was a passing thought, nothing more. I was too eager to see my suture-driven scar.
Summit County, CO
Scar Tissue #3
M. John: Just finished your scar story and am inspired to write. Once, long ago, I was riding my bike to my first youth football practice with two of my better friends. I grew up in a small town in upstate NY, in a world that is rapidly approaching sepia tone in my memory — lots of free time to get up to navigational hijinks via bike. My town had one road with one big hill at the northern edge of my 7th-grade cosmology — always a good thrill to drop in. This particular chain of events marked one of the first times where I had an out-of-body experience unfold: in a separate, yet parallel, universe, I made different decisions — I did not cross on the crosswalk on the wrong side of the road, and if I did (further interspatial tear), a car was not coming up the hill at exactly the right point to preclude me from sliding out across the road to maximize the angle of descent on the correct side of the road.
Regardless, in this world, I stuck to the wrong side and was soon whistling merrily downhill on the sidewalk. In another spatial-temporal rift, I decided that this sort of magic day required an extra element — riding no handed.
As I assumed the full-on arm-extension Christ pose of gravitational glory, a car swiftly backed out of its driveway too close to me to allow for brake engagement. I crashed full on into the poor driver’s back left rear quarter panel, bending my frame and tacoing my front tire. I folded up, over and across her sedan’s trunk onto the utility strip outside her home, looked down and saw the fat tissue of my upper left knee for the first time. I remember this professional-looking woman shooting out of the car that I just T-boned totally distraught. Then, ambulance — me put on a backboard with head restraints for first time.
At this point, my mom shows up — holding it together well, but I can imagine she was not enthused to see me boarded up. I remembered, years later in a WFR course, that she asked me to squeeze her finger, I guess to ensure I was not paralyzed! Two levels of stitches later — 60+ total — and I was gimping around. Was unable to fully participate in training camp, but football is for others anyway — mostly wanted to hang with my friends, I guess.
Several years later, I was called in to testify in an insurance settlement case and stated the facts and feelings clearly. I was apparently awarded a not-inconsiderable sum, which paid for half of my college tuition at the U of M in Missoula — a move to the West I would not have been able to make in the 1990s without this incident, this outcome and the support of my folks to send their last kid out West on the train.
Still here and loving it, now with a perpendicular ACL scar on the other knee.
Sam Fox, Ft. Collins, CO
Scar Tissue #4
John: On snowy winter weekends in Brooklyn, my 12-year-old buddies and I would drag our sleds to the park and test our nerve against “Ball Buster Mountain.” Thinking back on it, it was more of a tiny hill with a big dip toward the bottom, which caused your sled to go airborne and land with a thud, driving an atomic shock right into your groin — hence the name.
One particular Saturday, my pal Jeffrey and I hauled our wooden Flexible Flyers to the aforementioned nut crusher and, finding it too crowded with masochistic thrill seekers, we spent the afternoon trudging up and down every other hill we could find, until it had become too dark to sled. The temperature had dropped considerably and, late as it was, we decided to take a short cut to get home. In our youthful bravado, teetering at the top of a hill thick with trees, we determined it would be the fastest way out. Standing there, our sleds held by clothesline threaded through steering handles; we worried aloud about the treachery of the ride down.
“You go first,” I said. I could barely see Jeff’s face, but I heard him clearly. “I’ll choose you for it. Odds or evens?” Quick to take the advantage, I said, “Evens. Ready?”
We thrust fingers into the air. He won. I shrugged and lay face down on my sled and pointed it into the abyss. Careening into the darkness, I swerved this way and that, around trees, bushes and rocks, and somehow made it to within yards of the bottom before I spotted the silhouette of a tree rapidly approaching. I jerked the sled to the right and instinctively moved my head just a split second before my left shoulder made violent contact with the trunk. “Thwok!”
Jeff, on hearing the sickening crash and then my agonized scream, yelled out into the darkness, “You okay?”
By the time he returned with police in tow, and an ambulance on the way, I was shivering and numb. Scared more of what my parents might say, I pleadingly said to Jeff, “Please don’t say anything to anybody. If you see my brother, don’t tell him.”
As I suspected, my mother sent my brother to look for me. Jeffrey came face to face with him in front of the apartment house.
“You see Stewie?”
By the time I reached the ER, my fingers had turned blue from lack of circulation. The mild frostbite however was no match for the shattered bone protruding through torn skin and the compound fracture of my left clavicle. The cops were kind enough to bring my damaged sled to the ER and called my parents. By the time they arrived, I was lying on a gurney and wrapped in bandages, mildly sedated and very apologetic, but otherwise okay and they sympathetically forgave my recklessness.
After all these years, with every winter chill that comes my way, my shoulder clicks and grumbles and I sometimes cringe whenever I pass too close to a tree. Oh … mom threw away what remained of my Flexible Flyer.
Stew Mosberg, Bayfield, CO
Scar tissue #5
John: Just finished reading the “injury stories bar confab” piece in the new MG and wanted to heartily commend you. Mainly I want to commend you for the large-scale format of MG. Not only does it aid middle-aged eyes control reading glass costs and serve as an ideal supply of ready-to-hand paper for sudden spills, but it is difficult to eat AND read while holding such a hefty periodical. I say that because had I been eating something with one hand while reading that description of a jutting femur and a viscera-smeared tree stump with the other, I might have returned some foodstuffs to nature more quickly than I usually do. I’m glad you don’t see many tree stumps in Silver — I would not want that imagery “bleeding” through my mind every time I saw one. You have a commendable Hemingwayesque economy of expression when you want to use it — sometimes …
Oh, by the way, it was well written.
Silver City, NM
You’re most welcome
Dear John, Dave Baldridge just sent me the piece by Richard Barnum Reece that you published in the MG #180. I just wanted to say thank you and that I’m proud and honored for all involved, especially Richard, for that refreshing reprint. It fits right in with your great tradition. I’m happy that you have Dave on board. I’ve been missing the MG, so I’ll get my sub in without delay. “It’s astonishing how high and far we can climb into the mountains that we love.” John Muir. Keep it up.
All the Best,
Ex-publisher, Powder magazine
35 Mugs of Beer on the Wall
Dear MJ: By my reckoning Big Bob’s calculations (“Big Bob and the Beer Math Saga,” Smoke Signals, MG #180) that it would take 55 pints of Dam Straight Lager for you to realize full payback on your $35 mug investment means you were paying $2.55 per pint back in those days (that’s actually rounded up from a precise calculation of $2.5454544 per pint). That sounds about right for a local microbrew. Adjusting for inflation, it would take maybe an even 35 pints for payback. Then again the damn mug would cost more …
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.
It was cold in those days. Bitterly cold. Long before global warming had even dawned as a concept. Your breath escaped in small white puffballs and instantly froze in a snow-white haze onto your neck gaiter, moustache, the top edge of your parka, and anything else it came in contact with before vanishing into the thin alpine air. One thing to be thankful for was that the wind hadn’t kicked up, at least not yet. Frostbite was a constant unwanted companion, and you had to be continually vigilant for it on yourself, and on your compadres as well.
Last night’s storm had left us with one to two feet of Colorado’s finest dry champagne powder. As professional ski patrollers, we were up on the mountain early making it safe for everyone to enjoy. We were eager to get our work done, as it was going to be one of those Colorado “blue bird” days that grace the covers of many ski magazines. The 12,000-to-14,000-foot craggy Rocky Mountain peaks that formed the perimeter of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area stood solemnly like silent sentinels. They appeared even more majestic this morning, adorned in their new white cloaks projecting up into a cerulean blue sky. Though it’s cliché to say the words, the beauty of the surroundings was breathtaking. We didn’t speak of it though, as we had more-pressing matters at hand.
The sun had just barely poked above Grizzly Peak, albeit still low, as it began its slow, inexorable arc over the East Wall. When the first glints of sunlight found us, we were evenly spaced in a line, one behind the other, preparing to kick off the snow cornice extending over the edge of the West Wall. As we approached the cornice, it became obvious that the storm had whipped it into a thick, creamy texture, like icing dripping off the top of a layer cake. Our entire pro patrol was present. All five of us marching in line like frozen stick-figure marionettes that seemed to be transported from some ancient Himalayan trek in search of the Yeti. The rising sun offered no real warmth, but somehow it provided a psychological comfort just knowing it was there. As my mind shifted gears, it struck me that, with our backpacks on, we were casting long, eerie shadows against the top of the cornice, making us appear like five Kokopellis inching our way across a great white desert. I kept those thoughts to myself.
Conversation was minimal this morning, as cold as it was. Occasionally T.R., the patrol director, would caution someone not to get too close to the edge of the cornice.
We were all aware of that, though. “Kicking cornice” was an acquired technique. The trick was to cautiously work your way out toward the overhang, taking considerable care not to commit your full body weight as you approached the edge. It was a delicate dance, but, to survive, you had to learn it quickly. You would begin by extending your ski poles out toward the edge of the cornice like remote antennae, and then start poking around and feeling for instability. When your senses told you that you were in a good position, you would firmly set your uphill ski toward the body of the cornice and then lift your other ski up as high as you could and slam it down just back from the protruding edge of the cornice. If you hit it just right, a big chunk of cornice would break loose and go cascading down the mountain. With the snow being cold and tender as it was that day, it was not uncommon to kick off a Volkswagen-sized chunk of snow from the cornice and see it crash like a tsunami into the snowfield below, immediately triggering an avalanche. Then, with kegs of adrenalin coursing through our veins, and to delirious hoots and hollers, we would all watch excitedly and with unrestrained pleasure as the avalanche went smoking, boiling and thundering its way 1,000 feet down the slope, finally coming to rest in a dusty white pile of debris at the base of Dercum’s Gulch. It was pure exhilaration doing this work … but somebody had to do it!
It required both luck and experience, however, to hit the cornice in the sweet spot, and the danger was real. If you were too far back when you slammed your ski down on the cornice, it was like landing on a slab of concrete, and painful vibrations would reverberate up through your entire body and shake your fillings loose. On the other hand, if you were too close to the edge, you risked the chance of dislodging the chunk of snow you were standing on and you could end up going ass over teakettle over the edge of the cornice yourself. If that happened and you were lucky … you might end up somewhere near the bottom of the cornice and somehow manage to stop yourself. However, your avalanche route was over at that point. There was no way to get back up onto the sheer cornice wall 10 to 15 feet above you. What was worse … you had to buy beer for the whole patrol that night after work. You also had to suffer the additional ignominy of having the rest of the patrol still standing atop the cornice eyeball you as you picked your way down the Rocky Knolls until you made it safely down to Dercum’s Gulch. Being unlucky wasn’t much better. Landing in the snowfield below the cornice, you might easily become the catalyst/trigger for an avalanche yourself and end up at the bottom of West Wall buried under 20 feet of snow. Well, the good news was … in that case, you didn’t have to buy beer!
We were leapfrogging one another every 10 to 20 feet in order to efficiently dispatch the task at hand. When it was finally completed, I turned to look behind us as we began to move off. The cornice now had a neat, manicured and defined edge to it. It was odd seeing such a neatly trimmed section of the cornice juxtaposed against the wild, unfettered mountain backdrop. At the same time, there was a sense of accomplishment and the unspoken feeling of a job well done.
We worked our way down to the top of Slalom Slope and reconvened. After kicking off some more cornice on top of Slalom Slope, it was time again to move on. The team subsequently skied down one at a time to the next avalanche path on the route.
I watched intently as my fellow patrollers descended through the picture-postcard landscape, leaving a signature of distinctive powder tracks in their wake. Skiing through virgin powder was one of the perks of the job. After all, the snow had to be tested. We sacrificed ourselves!
The magnetic allure of standing atop Slalom Slope was overpowering. This was my favorite ski run and there it was before me a clean palette of fresh powder. Being a powder skier was like an addiction. At that time, and having little to no knowledge of the principles and dynamics of snow physics, I would dive into anything that was steep and deep, regardless of any inherent danger. Ignorance has its ownrewards! This was a lesson I would be learning all too soon.
In the distance, Iheard T.R.’s voice break the silence. “Hey, Josh, are you going to join us?” My reverie broken, I resignedly poled myself over the edge of the upper shoulder of the cornice and into the wide-open, expansive snowfield below it. In an instant, I was immersed in the deep and luxurious powder where I felt most at home. By the third turn, my rhythm was synched in and the white fluffy champagne powder was now smoking and billowing all around me. Beneath me, I could feel the soft yet forgiving resistance of the snow as my skis sank deep down into its womb. Ultimately, my skis platformed out at an immeasurable depth and then immediately began making their ascent back up toward the surface. A face shot of snow cleared from my goggles and I caught a brief glimpse of my ski tips finally breaching the upper surface of the snow. A split-second later, my skis and entire body erupted forcefully from the snow pack bursting out into the pristine alpine air in a poised carved arc before plunging back down into the soft depths. After paying your dues, it’s no longer necessary to think about planting your poles, weighting your skis, completing your turns under the snow, etc. As your body gracefully glides through the snowy milieu, everything happens seamlessly, rhythmically and without thought. Once you get it down, it’s one of the most sensual and orgasmic experiences on the planet. Moreover, when conditions are just right, you can find yourself imperceptibly transported into that quiet, timeless, spiritual Zen space. It was what I lived for!
Approaching the other patrollers, I sank down into a controlled stop. As I stopped, my mind raced back to a time not long ago when I was learning the subtle art of powder skiing. I remembered seeing more inexperienced powder tyros who would tend to overweight their downhill ski when attempting to stop in deep powder. They would immediately go into a downward, spiraling tumble, typically blowing a knee out in the process if their skis didn’t release. If they were fortunate enough to have their skis release, they would then have to search for them in the snow and, if found, subsequently attempt to put them back on again, not an easy task in deep powder. We didn’t worry about those concerns, though, as we were all experienced powder skiers and we all had our bindings cranked down to the “workmen’s comp” setting.
Looking back up, it was a pleasure to see the fresh sets of tracks emblazoned in the powder. A discerning eye would even be able to distinguish who had laid down each set of tracks. Jeff’s were a series of lazy arcs casually meandering across the fall line. Kirk’s were strong, deep set and straight down. T.R.’s were wide, round and balanced. Mine were immediately distinguishable as a tight-carved ribbon straight down the fall line in perfect symmetry. You could learn a lot about skiing by evaluating your tracks.
We regrouped in the relative protection of a flattened-out tree-lined bench just above Lover’s Leap. The procedure on an avalanche route was straightforward. Each patroller skied down one at a time across any potential slide path and everyone else kept eyes on until you reached your predetermined safe destination.
It struck me as almost comical as I watched each patrolman ski down dragging about 20 feet of red avalanche cord behind him. Those were the days just prior to avalanche beacons and, at that time, avy cord was considered state-of-the-art protection. It was made of quarter-inch-wide red nylon cord that you tied off to your patrol belt. Remarkably, it also had an uncanny propensity for knotting itself up around any bush, root, stick, rock, snow snake or whatever you happened to be traveling through. Then this stuff that was supposed to be protecting you would invariably lodge itself around the object and stop you dead in your tracks. The theory was: if you got caught in a slide, the cord would float on the surface of the snow and quickly lead the rescuers to the buried, frozen, patrolman below. It wasn’t much in the way of safety, but it was all we had.
Lover’s Leap was a ski run that had a real pucker factor to it. Narrow and steep, it definitely wasn’t for the uninitiated. Later in the season, thigh-high moguls would replace the smooth white blanket of snow that now lay before us and it would no longer be a danger, but now it needed to be controlled. As T.R. moved closer to the edge, I sensed what he was going to do. The same recurring thought visited me again as it had been all morning. Why weren’t we using explosives? We had them with us in our packs. Were we just carrying them for ballast?
As a first-year patroller, it was my “quiet year.” Innately, I knew that it was best to remain relatively quiet and just absorb as much information as possible. As I was blessed and/or cursed with a keen wit, this was proving to be a challenge for me. I desperately wanted to ask “why don’t we throw a charge in here?” But, somehow, I knew it would be out of place for me to suggest it. As T.R. took another step closer to the edge, the answer began to form in my mind. Patrollers, I think it’s fair to say, are endowed with a full tank of testosterone. These guys, however, seemed to be topped off with an Imperial gallon of machismo. Taken individually, these qualities could be dealt with. Mixed together, however, and laced with a generous dose of hubris, this olio becomes a highly volatile substance and it’s only a matter of time before it finds a way to explode. It was becoming evident that this dangerous dynamic was playing itself out now right before my eyes.
Huddled together now, the rest of us looked on with heightened anticipation as T.R. sliced his ski into the upper edge of Lover’s Leap. Instantaneously, the entire slope began moving as an ephemeral, undulating wave, until its entire contents were deposited in a billowy white berm in the transition at the bottom. Once again, riotous cheers and gleeful shouts ripped through the frozen air. Collectively, we moved forward and were all poised on the edge, peering down at the rocks and frozen ground left exposed from the avalanche as T.R. scooped up a gloveful of snow from the fracture line. “Depth hoar,” he announced decisively! “Depth hoar,” I said to myself. It was a relatively new term to me and I knew it to be the bane of powder skiers and avalanche forecasters worldwide. It presented as the sugary, unconsolidated, ball-bearing-looking snow layer that could readily be found in cold climates just above the ground at the bottom of the snow pack. It served as an unseen lubricating layer for the more consolidated snow pack above to slide on. I thought to myself it should be called “death hoar,” as it would silently lay in wait for the unsuspecting skier to ski upon, triggering avalanche, and, in the process, very likely chalking up another avalanche statistic. It could be controlled, however, with explosives and continual avalanche control techniques.
As exciting as this all was, there was also something disquieting about it for me. I feared that something was inherently wrong. As I looked into the faces of my companions, they almost looked deranged in their excitement. The group dynamic had taken another dramatic turn. Without any discussion, it seems we had opted for kicking off avalanches rather than using the explosives that we had readily at hand. Machismo had replaced reason!
Still feeding on the excitement of the last avalanche, the group was in an ebullient mood as we skied up to The Finger, the final avalanche path on the route. All eyes fell on me and, without a word, I knew it was my turn to do the honors. If you were to rate Lover’s Leap as a “10” relative to the pucker-factor scale, The Finger would be completely off the chart. To be fair, it would be an injustice to call it a ski run at all. It was simply a super-steep, super-narrow avalanche chute that funneled straight down about 80-100 yards, culminating in a thick spruce forest configured with trees at the bottom arranged like pins at the end of a bowling alley. Unlike Lover’s Leap, however, you could not stand at the top and attempt to kick off an avalanche. The upper part of the path was a concave dish, so you would have to jump into it to gain access to the starting zone. If there was ever a place to use an explosive, this was it.
The peer pressure was thick and pervasive. For some reason, I didn’t want my comrades to know that I had missed out on my gallon of machismo. Even though I was a first-year patroller, every fiber in my being was telling me that this was an unsafe situation. The time was at hand and I comforted myself … “surely the patrol director and the other experienced patrollers wouldn’t willfully put one of their own in mortal danger … ”
I took a deep breath, then dutifully, and with some trepidation, leapt out and into the top of The Finger. There was no turning back now. For a brief moment, I was suspended in mid-air before finally landing with my full weight in the starting zone of The Finger with my skis perpendicular to the fall line. Initially, all was well, as I felt the snow settle and crush under my weight. I looked up quickly to bask in the approval of my comrades. Suddenly a loud crack broke the silence, and, as I was looking up, I saw that a large fracture line had propagated up and around me in the shape of an arc. Oddly, my friends appeared to be moving uphill away from me, and, as they were receding in the distance, I perceived the looks on their faces change dramatically from excitement and machismo to shock, horror and even a hint of guilt.
In an instant, I realized that it was me that was moving downhill. Instinctively, I turned to face the direction I was going, leaving all my earthly thoughts behind me. To my shock and horror, I’d been sucked into the vortex of a white tornado traveling at warp speed heading straight down the mountain into the bowels of the earth. The sound was overpowering … crunching … breaking … rumbling … howling. Time seemed to be compressed and irrelevant. Initially, my arms were outstretched in a feeble attempt to ride the storm. In a nanosecond, I felt a wrenching, breaking sensation and, without thinking, I somehow knew that my skis were gone as I involuntarily rolled forward into my first summersault into oblivion. I was spinning out of control now in the white swirling tumble dryer of snow. Out of the corner of my eye, part of a ski flew past me on a tangent traveling at an even higher speed … it seemed to be heading out to another planet. No thinking now … just a pure sense of being. Abruptly … all stop! The rumbling faded in the distance.
Death was quiet … reflective … upside-down … the other side of the mirror … a left-handed world … drifting … drifting … drifting … soft white light … deep silence … drifting.
After an interminable amount of time, and from an unimaginable distance, something began pulling at me, pulling me back from my quiet peaceful retreat. “What is it?” I asked myself from some unknown place. “Leave me alone!” my mind screamed without speaking. Imperceptibly at first, I felt my eyelids begin to move … trying to open. Then I felt an odd sensation on my cheek. My eyelids finally became unstuck. Incredibly, as my eyes began to find their focus, there appeared to be some giant guy positioned there in front of me … standing upside-down. It was patrolman Jeff. Big macho Jeff! He was upside-down and he had just kissed my cheek??? “This must be hell,” I said to myself. “Yuck!” “I can’t believe you’re alive!” Jeff exclaimed, beside himself now. “Nobody could survive that,” he spurted out loudly and excitedly.
My thoughts began streaming now in staccato bursts like a slide carousel in fast-forward, out of control. “Where am I?” ”What’s happened?” ”Am I dead or alive?” Questions seemed to pour out simultaneously. Slowly, my senses began drifting back and I started to feel pine needles, snowflake dust and bark particles raining down on me. Suddenly I realized that it was me who was upside-down. The avalanche had apparently spit me out halfway up a tree, and I was now suspended from a large branch that managed to get hooked around the backside of one of my knees. Dangling down from the branch by one leg, I must have looked like a broken, twisted Christmas tree ornament.
And Jeff was right. This had to be a miracle. Nobody could survive that. As I looked up into the branches above me, I thought to myself, “This must be the Tree of Life.” I said a quick prayer of thankfulness with a promise for more prayers later. As Jeff was anxious to get me down, I quickly did a self-assessment and I was amazed to discover that everything appeared to be working. It didn’t seem possible. Jeff was almost twice my size and he had no trouble reaching up over his head to lift me out of my precarious perch. By now, the other patrollers had worked their way down the now-barren slide path and they were showering me with hugs and expressing their disbelief that I was alive. Temporarily, the cold was no longer a factor for me, as adrenalin was churning inside me like a dynamo.
The avalanche had literally devoured all of my equipment. My equipment assessment went as follows: skis: broken in half; poles: broken in half; goggles: destroyed; company radio: destroyed; bottom of one ski boot: completely torn off with my bare-socked foot protruding from the end.
As bewilderment and shock had set in, it is still unclear to me how they managed to get me out of there. When we finally made our way back to the base area, the adrenalin was wearing off and I began to feel a throbbing pain in my left arm. Upon further inspection, I discovered some significant deformity in my lower left arm and realized that I had broken my wrist. I shrugged it off. It was a small price to pay for surviving such a traumatic ordeal.
Jeff volunteered to drive me to the medical clinic in the company vehicle. He talked excitedly the whole way down there, but I didn’t hear a thing.
It was late afternoon and the resort had already closed when we returned from the medical clinic to A-Basin. Darkness had descended and the cold had settled in completely, now unchallenged by even a hint of sunlight. When it was this cold, the snow was unforgiving underfoot and it made loud creaking sounds as you walked across it. Kweek … kweek … kweek. Jeff and I fell into a rhythm as we made our way to The Pub, the local watering hole at A-Basin, where virtually all of the employees congregated after work.
A question lit up in my mind: “Shouldn’t I be going to church?” My legs kept moving forward toward The Pub, providing my unspoken answer. There would be time for church later. At that point, I felt obligated to buy some beer.
Several lessons from the day began sifting down like new-fallen snow as we made our way over to The Pub. First of all, I was determined to enroll in the next available avalanche school. Apparently, there was a lot more I could learn about snow physics. A-Basin had also taught me a profound lesson: RESPECT! A half-drunk, late-night conversation scudded back to me as I recalled something that Remle (Elmer spelled backward), an itinerant old patroller, used to say. “Ya gotta know mountains, man.” I also had a strong suspicion that there was going to be a dramatic shift in patrol protocol. Patrollers would no longer be using themselves as human explosives.
When we got to The Pub, Jeff opened the door for me, and I must admit that I felt a bit awkward and somewhat self-conscious walking in, sporting a sling and cast.
When the door opened, a welcome blast of warm air immediately embraced me, and a collective cheer erupted from the crowd inside. This was something I always loved about A-Basin in those days. No matter what you did on the mountain — ski patrol, ski instructor, lifts, maintenance, restaurant workers, etc. — when you stepped into The Pub after work, everyone was an equal, and we were all friends. It was family!
That first beer was going to taste good, and I looked forward to buying. Everyone started to gather round, and there were plenty of hugs, kisses, handshakes, high fives and embraces to go around as the A-Basin family welcomed one of their own back to life. News travels fast on the mountain, and everyone was eager to hear about the ordeal first hand. It felt good to finally be able to shake off the cold and revel in the warmth of the family. And, apparently, there was another unwritten rule that I was unaware of. When you returned from the dead, you weren’t allowed to buy beer! It was going to be a long night. Life was good. Very good!
Josh Galvin is a professional ski patrolman at the Breckenridge Ski Resort and a singer/songwriter/performing artist who has released an all-original CD, “Ten Mile Ranger.” He is also a past winner of the Colorado Powder 8 Skiing Championships. This is his first story for the Gazette.
In Denmark, scientists used carbon dating on a ski discovered in Greenland in 1997 to reveal that the single board was at least 1,000 years old. They said the 85-centimeter plank, made from larch, was a common tool for winter travel used by the Norsemen who, in 980 A.D., somehow first crossed the cold open ocean. Older skis have been found in Mongolia, Norway, Finland and Sweden. There are Chinese cave paintings of hunters on skis thought to be more than 2,000 years old. The ski predates Christ, and in some regions, even the wheel.
But the modern birthplace of the sport of skiing is in Kitzbuehel, Austria, where the Hahnenkamm, alpine skiing’s most-famous roller coaster, is run every year. Begun in 1931, the race down the steep white throat of the Strief has only ever been interrupted by drought or war. The entire World Cup was built around the drama of the Mausfalle, and the shudder when you first drop down that face like a man falling by the window.
When Jean-Marc, the Frenchman, asked me to watch “The Race” with him, I felt as if there were offerings I should bring or old precious clothes I should wear. As if he were inviting me to Mecca, or telling me that we would be drinking lager from the Holy Grail. The two of us had met on a press trip and had talked about starting a magazine together, and had become friends in the little pleasures we took in the particulars of travel — a glass of wine with lunch in Italy, or the quality of German beer. I remember how his face lit up when they gave us a Mercedes Kompressor at the rental desk in Munich because they didn’t have the car we had reserved. On the Autobahn, he kept pushing it faster whenever the speed limit lights above the road were clear.
“Ahh,” he smiled. “I have a mee-stress now.”
He had the face of a sunburned badger, like one of those retired athletes on the sideline watching the score. He had the big strong Gallic nose, a shaggy head of pepper hair and sleepy blue eyes that lit up when it was his turn to lead the conversation, which he adored.
He said, “T-e long-eng is too Ameri-can,” when I told him about the book I wanted to write, and the story I wanted to tell. “You pee-pull all-ways talk about what ees-ent t’ere.”
The adrenaline of gravity was still on our faces like coffee with Schnapps from skiing all afternoon. We drank yellow glasses of cold Pilsener at the hotel outside of Orderndorf, outside of Kitzbuehel, and decided we would make a movie about the World Cup season. When the waitress came by, we ordered a bottle of wine and asked for menus too.
“We weel call it t-e Alpine Cir-cus,” Jean-Marc said with boozy authority. “It wheel show what we fee-yul.”
The highlight would be of the Hahnenkamm: behind the scenes with the coaches pacing in long parkas and foreshadowing shots of the slope like an icy slide straight to oblivion; the Austrian soldiers grooming the course with crampons on so they don’t fall off the edge of the earth. And the orange fencing down the Streif like a luge to the first gate covered with the “yellow line” from the piss of fear.
By the time the racers reach the first gate, they are going 70 miles per hour. The name of each winner, the flag of his country and the year he won is painted on the gondolas that you ride up the mountain. Buddy Werner, 1959, was the only American for more than 40 years, until Daron Rahlves won on a shortened course in 2003. And when we thought about who we would follow for our movie, I insisted one be an American, such as Rahlves or Bode Miller. Jean-Marc wanted one to be French, and of course, an Austrian, like Maier.
“But the French are no good.”
His thick face flushed. He looked around the room.
“They’re fading. It would be better if we could find an Italian.”
“Italian?!” Jean-Marc exclaimed, and looked at his big dark hands as if he had given up smoking only weeks before. “Merde.”
The crowds filled the streets. The bars were open all night, and more than 100,000 people took the bright red trains up from the cities, from the farms with their gray, tall uber-Abner bumpkin hats, red and white painted faces and cases of Zipfer biere. Most of them didn’t even bother to get a room, staying warm on the beer and the gluehwine as whole families — mom, dad and the kids — all got drunk together.
But they were good drunks. So we hardly saw any fighting. We would film that too, how skiing was their national pastime and their birthright in the cold speed, the crosses on the peaks and the endless road of snow. We would film the finish lines and high-speed crashes where the racers are into the nets like tossed dolls, like splaying, unfortunate fish. And in the starting house where it’s the cold and the nerves at the same time and there is always the idea of an ocean somewhere far below.
We would film their eyes as wide as headlights as they watched the mountain unfold. The size of the legs they ran on. Their feet skimming the slope. We would make gods out of wind and wine and the history of candy-coated towns with blue walls and warm windows; a beautiful eternity forever lost in the perfect faces of passing women, and that sound of our heels clicking on the cobblestone.
“Austria is t-e heart t-at’s all-ways beat-ing!” Jean-Marc said, and pounded his fist against his chest. “Eet is a love song now.”
It was a beautiful meal, the pumpkin soup in a thick orange broth and the buttery tenderloin of Chateaubriand. Headlights were curving by on the narrow road as it started to snow. I looked at the waitress in the long green Austrian dress and black vest with the straight black hair as we waited for the Williams and thought, “And my room is so close.”
I thought about how a split second can last a lifetime and how for ski racers it’s more important to win the Hahnenkamm than gold. “Because all t-e other race-airs know.”
“Kaiser Franz,” Franz Klammer, waited seven seasons between his third and fourth victories, an entire career. It was only for The Race that he even kept at it. He was still handsome and strong in the easy way he admitted it the night we had dinner with him as the guests of Head Skis, talking about how simply his victories could have been failures, “Maybe that is what I miss the most,” he said. “The nerves.”
The next day, we stopped at the top of the gondola where there is a small museum with posters and photos and a restaurant with big glass windows that looked toward the valley where the racers were all sitting by the fire. It was the first day of training and there were half-eaten plates of sausage and bread, half-empty bowls of cereal, little espressos that went untouched and songs that kept starting and stopping. From a few tables away, we could smell their fear.
“I would say ‘good luck,’” the Frenchman said. “But dey would not hear-ear.”
“The training’s even harder,” Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe told us when we went looking for former racers to interview. “Because you still have to ski the course and there’s nothing to win, or lose.”
Von Hohenlohe was a Mexican-Austrian prince and part-time rock star, who performed as Andy Himalaya or Royal Disaster. His black hair was down to his shoulders and he had thick black sunglasses and a Mexican flag on the back of the black parka that he wore. His beautiful blonde girlfriend was as fine as fresh snow. Each turn of her head revealed another discovery of her white smooth-skin, and she held a cigarette as if it were breathing on its own.
“Can I light that for you?”
Von Hohenlohe said the organizers might as well canvas the mental hospitals to try and find skiers to forerun the course — to “set the line” down the frozen groomed face for the racers to follow. He told us about being on the World Cup, and the last time he raced at Kitzbuehel. The two skiers he was traveling with were a Swiss who had skied for eight campaigns and was thinking of retiring, and an African from Senegal.
“What do you think is cheaper,” the Swiss racer asked Hubertus before the event, wondering if he shouldn’t just go and wait at the next race after the Hahnenkamm. “The hotel in Wengen, or the hospital in Kitzbuehel?”
The Swiss skier chose the hotel. “But the downhiller from Senegal did come,” Hubertus smiled. It was a flashbulb smile. “He didn’t know enough to be scared.”
He said they were like pirates off the train, with their bags, their bright coats and the bottle of wine that they shared. They stopped at every bar. It took them seven hours to make it to the hotel. But they couldn’t stop the morning, and on the gondola, they hardly spoke a word. They dressed like deep-sea divers beneath the deck, pulling their race suits on where it was cold as a morgue. Hubertus said he was curious to notice how his Senegalese friend was getting so pale. “It was a transformation, really,” he said. “He did not look well.”
They stood against the fence to watch the training runs, catching their breath as the first racers came by, and dropped away like marbles. So the Senegalese kept getting paler as he suddenly turned to von Hohenlohe and demanded, “Do you believe in god?”
“Of course,” von Hohenlohe replied. “I am a Christian.”
Then the next racer came, with the battered fabric and desperate scratch of skis as he disappeared down the Streif, on his way to the stark sudden drop of the Mausfalle, where he would have to fight with all his body to resist the forces of gravity and velocity trying to pull him sideways off the hill.
He flew like they all do, like an awkward reluctant bird toward the steep face of the Steilhang. Into some certain disaster or glory waiting far below.
The Senegalese was white as a ghost. He asked von Hohenlohe, “But does god believe in you?”
Peter Kray is the editor-at-large for Mountain Gazette, and according to Fayhee, a hopeless romantic in every sense of the term. His new book, “American Snow: The Snowsports Instruction Revolution,” will be published by the Professional Ski Instructors of America and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors on Nov. 21, 2011.
“In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.” — Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), “North By Northwest”
We ALL know where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001, when the physical and psychic walls came tumbling down. As the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approached, and people began reliving and rehashing the events in bars and restaurants, at work and at the gym, on the trail and on the ski lifts, I noticed that everyone seemed to have a well-honed tale relating to that day and how their lives fit into that day. This was more than just, “I was at school when I heard Kennedy was shot.” The scale of 9/11 was so massive that almost all of us are able to make some sort of six-degrees-of-separation-type connection with the events that unfolded that tragic day. We knew someone who once worked in the Towers. We knew someone who was stranded in Boston for two weeks, unable to get back home to Colorado. As I was verbally test-driving this edition of Smoke Signals, I was astounded by the richness and resonance of the stories I heard as a result of me bringing the subject up, sometimes to chums, sometimes to perfect strangers, by way of asking simply, “Where were you when the planes hit the Twin Towers?” Par for my personal course, my 9/11 experience was a bit off the mainstream radar. My wife, Gay, late dog, Cali, and I were happily ensconced in a motel room at Mile 0 of the ALCAN Highway, in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, ’96 Outback pointed toward the Northwest Territories, which we planned to ingress that very evening. It had already been a sorta weird trip. Several days prior, with Gay behind the wheel, we left U.S. territory at Sweetgrass, Montana, and approached the Canadian border crossing at Coutts, Alberta. As we neared Coutts, my mind predictably wandered back 21 years, to the last time I passed from the Big Sky State into the Sunshine Province. My amigo Ed and I had procured an ounce of red Lebanese hash somewhere along the line and had been doing our damnedest to get rid of it over the course of a journey that had already seen us meander our way from Georgia to Montana. Though we had made an impressive dent in that hash stash, it had not sufficiently diminished in size to the point where we stopped referring to it as “The Big Chunk.” We still had a lot of hash left on the day our extremely disheveled selves were scheduled to cross into Canada. The unspoken unthinkable was starting to get thought and spoken: We had too much hash! — which marked the first time those words had ever visited my young cranial mainframe. Alas, we were going to have to either modify a travel itinerary that was months in the making or we were going to have to … to … dump … that … hash … before crossing the border. That was a mighty depressing proposition. Rather than toss The Big Chunk unceremoniously into a ditch, however, we hoped to find some wayward hitchhiker(s) or fellow backpacker(s), and bequeath The Big Chunk to him/her/them. Stunningly, Ed and I cold not locate anyone appropriate to give our hash to, which shocked us, given that, in those days, you could scarcely throw a rock in the woods without hitting some variation on the partying freak theme. So, as Ed and I approached the Canadian border, a “plan” started gestating within the bowels of thought processes that were without a doubt extremely dulled by massive doses of THC. Rather than give our hash away, and rather than attempt to smuggle it across the border — which, even stoned nitwits such as ourselves knew better than to try — we would just smoke it all before leaving America! Great idea! The only flaw was, when we made that decision, we were only 30 miles from the border. Not much time to inhale what by then was probably 10 grams of moderately strong hash. So, we loaded bowl after bowl and smoked as fast as our respiratory systems would allow and, by the time we passed a highway sign that let us know Canada was a mere half-mile away, we were obliterated, and we still had probably eight grams of hash in our possession. The Big Chunk would not go away. What to do? Three choices: Pull a Bat-turn, throw the hash out the window or plow ahead, consequences be damned. Of course, we opted to follow the path of least wisdom, clear up to the point of no return. The hash was stashed in the pick compartment in my guitar case, which was in the back seat, on top of Ed’s guitar case. Not exactly a sophisticated smuggling operation, but there we were. When only a few cars separated us from the Canadian border authorities, I looked over at Ed and pretty much dookied my drawers. Not only did he look as wasted as a person possibly could be, but he was also sweating profusely, fidgeting uncontrollably and coughing his lungs out. He might as well have had the word “GUILTY” tattooed on his forehead. We were doubtless doomed. So, under the pretense of making sure the hash was secure, I surreptitiously moved it from the pick compartment in my guitar case to the pick compartment in Ed’s guitar case. That way, if — when — we got busted, I could at least pretend I was totally innocent, completely unaware the man I was traveling with, someone I thought was an upstanding citizen, was in fact an international narcotics smuggler! The Canadian customs officers took one quick look at us and asked that we park in the Special Assured Imminent Arrest Area, where several uniformed officials, all of whom were wearing latex gloves, stood smiling. They pulled every item out of the back of the car, wincing as they rummaged through piles of crusty skivvies and malodorous hiking socks that had not been washed in weeks. They went through the glove compartment with a fine-tooth comb. They looked under the hood and in the console and under the floor mats. The ONLY place the customs officers did not look was in the two guitar cases there in the back seat. They likely thought, surely, even obvious stoners such as Ed and I would not be so stupid as to hide the drugs in a guitar case! After an hour of searching, they welcomed us to Canada through gritted teeth. The Big Chunk made it all the way to Vancouver Island. As Gay and I approached the border at Coutts, my home- and business-owning, long-married, semi-responsible self could not help but smile at those memories. I could not help but look at M. John through the prism of time. It would be inaccurate to say I miss that irresponsible pack-toting hippie who used to bear my name. After all, I have plus-or-minus grown up to be the person that young hippie wanted all along to be (mostly). Still, it’s hard sometimes to overcome nostalgia, to wonder where all that youthful innocence went. Little did I know. Little did any of us know. It was Saturday, September 8, 2001. “Have either of you ever received a DUI?” the immigration lady, who looked like an orc, asked. “Uh, yeah,” I responded from the passenger seat. “Then I can not allow you to pass, because, in the eyes of the Canadian government, you are a felon.” Utter instantaneous deflation! Vacation plans mixed metaphorically torpedoed before they ever got off the ground. Just as we were about to turn around, the orc said words to the effect of, “Well … we might just be able to make an exception for people who look as responsible as you two.” Gay and I have done enough traveling that we instantly understood the words, the inflection with which those words were spoken and the words that were not spoken. We glanced at each other and prepared for a border dance we never expected in, of all places, Oh Canada. I was pointed toward an upstairs room that was already populated by several dozen forlorn-looking Americans, all of whom, I came to learn, had, like me, answered honestly when asked about their DUI history. One by one, we were led into a small office, where we heard the exact same obviously well-honed spiel from the orc: For $200, we could pass into Canada. Cash only. No receipt. No guarantee that, the next time we tried to enter the country, the same “opportunity” would be available. Understand? Yes, I understood fully. The entire process took four long hours, which totally screwed up the rest of our travel day. It was dusk as we approached the first town in Alberta, Milk River, which had a public campsite, which we ended up sharing with most of those same forlorn-looking Americans, all of whom, like us, were $200 poorer. By the time we arrived in Dawson Creek, a beautiful little college town, the bad taste of the border crossing experience had begun to dissipate. We were finally feeling like we were on the road, unfettered and free, with nary a care. We found a bar with a TV that had upon its screen, of all fortuitous things, a Monday Night Football game between the Broncos and the Giants. The Donkeys kicked ass, 31-20, and we returned to the motel happy about the result of the game, happy about the fact that, here we were, way the hell up in British Columbia, happy about the fact that, before we left the bar, one of the rather surly locals, who we’d been chatting with, told us that we didn’t seem to suck as bad as most Americans. The only down side was that we heard a cold-weather front was moving down, and, when you’re that far north, that’s news you pay attention to. It was September 10, maybe 11 p.m. Next morning, with Gay in the bathroom enjoying what was supposed to be her last interface with indoor plumbing for quite some time, I turned on the TV to check out the weather report. You all know what I saw. Same thing we all saw. Even as I was trying to reconcile a mild hangover with the images flashing on the screen, the second plane hit. “Uh, Gay, I think you’d better check this out.” We watched for a few minutes before going down to the motel’s breakfast room, which was filled with people staring slack-jawed at the images being replayed over and over. All eyes fell upon us when we entered the room. People started saying how sorry they were. We don’t know how they knew we were Americans, but they all did. It is fair to say we were a bit shaken, but, man oh man, I wasn’t going to let even the biggest attack on American soil in history stop me when I was six hours from the Northwest Territories. We lit out, passing by the last vestiges of civilization, fast getting to the point where the world was defined by wild. We saw bears, moose, raging rivers, endless lakes, thick boreal forests and vistas that did not end till they reached Hudson Bay. We were cut off from the outside world, and the last word we heard before even the AM band went totally dead was, “War.” When we finally anticlimactically arrived at Fort Liard, NWT, people streamed out of houses and businesses to ask us for the latest news, like somehow we had a proprietary cosmic communications connection to the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave. A French-Canadian, whose English was poor and whose accent was thick, told us that he had heard via short-wave radio that the President was unaccounted for and that most high-ranking government officials had already been taken to their secret bunkers. We stayed at a community campground by a lovely lake that night. Ours was the only tent; everyone else had a hard-sided camper or motorhome. The campground host came by at dusk to warn us that there had been some recent bear activity in the campground. He suggested that we remain constantly vigilant. “I’m really sorry,” he said before departing. I don’t know whether he was sorry about the bear situation or what had happened to New York City and Washington. Maybe he was sorry that we lived in a world that required constant vigilance. On September 12, we arrived at an end-of-the-world outpost called, of all things, Checkpoint. The café had a small black-and-white TV with a grainy image and scratchy sound. We could barely make out the face of Donald Rumsfeld. He looked like shit, which I guess is understandable. He was also incoherently babbling something about the media being at least partially responsible for the attack on the Twin Towers. It would be inappropriate to turn this into a political diatribe, so suffice it to say that, with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove with access to the Big Red Button at that particular moment, our nerves were not exactly calm. When we got to the intersection of Canadian highways 1 and 3 — so close to the Mackenzie River, Yellowknife, the Great Slave Lake and Wood Buffalo National Park — names I have been uttering since I was a child — that we could almost touch them, we sighed and, instead of taking a much-desired left, we took a reluctant right and pointed the Outback south, toward a home we hoped would still be recognizable upon our return. Since the border was closed, we had conscionable opportunity to dilly-dally in Jasper and Banff on the way down. Not Wood Buffalo National Park, but not too shabby either. Everywhere we went, people would eyeball our license plates and go out of their way to express heartfelt sympathy. On the Icefields Highway, we parked next to a herd of scary-looking Canadian motorcycle enthusiasts. The biggest, ugliest, smelliest one walked over, extended a brotherly hand to me and said, tears welling up in his bloodshot eyes, “I hope you guys bomb the living shit out of them.” I thanked him, but 1) I did not know who “them” was, but 2) I knew we would indeed end up bombing the shit out of someone, somewhere. It often seems that is the only thing we know how to do anymore. What happened to us? By the time we got back to Summit County, the vitriolic barroom arguments were already commencing full bore. I remember one lady in Pug Ryan’s shouting me down after I mentioned that, maybe, we ought to have our ducks in a huddle before we start sending troops abroad to who knows where in a masturbatory attempt to avenge the 9/11 attacks. She was of the opinion that people like me ought to just shut our traps and get with the national goose-step program, whatever that program might be. My response was, predictably, that, in times of intense jingoistic flag-waving, getting with an undefined program just for the sake of national unity is the absolute goddamned worst thing a person can do because, at such times, that’s when crazy shit like the Patriot Act gets passed by a compliant and inept Congress. And so it went. For months. For years. Clear up until the wounds started healing and people started composing their personal 9/11 stories and telling those stories to each other in measured tones-of-voice. With two 9/11-based wars still raging on the other side of the planet, without the slightest hope of positive outcome, I opted to pull up stakes and relocate very near a completely different border, the other side of which can be found the most-dangerous cities in the world — which was not the case pre-9/11. Two weeks ago, while passing through an airport security checkpoint manned by TSA people, I had my toothpaste confiscated. Last week, while driving down Interstate 10, I was pulled by Border Patrol for no other reason than … who knows why? The National Guard is deployed south of my home. There are people seriously talking about permanently deploying regular military troops along a border that is now seeing erected upon it a 50-foot-high, million-dollar-per-mile wall that will never, ever work, and anyone who thinks it will is deluded. Ten years after 9/11, it has come down to this: The higher the walls you build, the deeper your prison becomes. And that is no way to live. I’d like to hear your 9/11 stories, especially if they have any connection whatsoever to the mountains or life in the mountains. Send them along to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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