Crafting the Stoke

Dude in neon bodysuit pounding it circa 1988, prior to the Craft Brewing revolution. Greg Stump – The Blizzard of Aahhh’s

I’ve been waiting for the snow to fall. I’ve been waiting for the snow to fall, and cover us all!” If, like me, those simple lyrics by the String Cheese Incident cause a stir deep inside as the fall colors fade and the nights become crisp in the High Country, you too may be feeling the onset of the stoke for another winter season in the mountains.

At Crazy Mountain Brewing Co., located in Edwards, CO, the stoke is on not only for winter, but for the exciting developments afoot this season. A production brewery founded a little more than a year ago in the Vail Valley, Crazy Mountain is the brainchild of Colorado native Kevin Selvy and Marisa Aguilar. Kevin honed his brewing chops at the venerable Anchor Brewery in San Francisco before returning home to set up his own shop. Since pouring their first beer last January, they have opened a tasting room, begun distributing six packs locally and will begin shipping a wider range of beer styles packaged in 22-ounce bombers this fall. The Vail Valley has been rough on breweries, with several closing doors or changing hands in the last few years. When asked about this, Kevin stated that the local market has been fantastic, and the support they have gotten, as well as the exposure to travelers from all over the country and the world, has been a huge factor in their early growth. With distribution deals pending in four states, a 10,000-square-foot expansion planned for the fall, and with the beer now served at most fine-dining establishments and at Vail Resort this season, Crazy Mountain is way out ahead of the game, and is hopefully in the early stages of becoming another mountain brewery success story.

If you will be lucky enough to get in some days at Vail Resorts this season, I am happy to report that they will be offering several quality craft brews from the aforementioned Crazy Mountain, as well as the Breckenridge Brewery. The standard selection of Euro-fizz lagers and other InBev/Anheuser-Busch products round out the bill, with the addition of Coors products to please the home-state crowd.

While I’m on it, I’d like to give a shout-out to Coors (or Molson-Coors now), for their long-standing contribution to Colorado brewing history, and for making one of the best hangover cures out there, Coors Light. Yes, along with sex and guacamole omelets, nothing staves off the agony of the morning after like an ice-cold Silver Bullet.     

While ascending the lifts towards the back bowls at Vail or on the chairs at the Beav this season, it is probable that, amongst the flocks of families and tourists, you may glimpse a rare and fabled creature, descending the slopes with gusto, knees tightly locked together, resplendent in all his radiant neon grandeur. Yes, you know the man of whom I speak. He is member of an elite group of holdouts, skiers who hit their prime in the late-’80s, and, though ravished by time, are still able to pound the slopes like the pros of yore, and still fit inside the glowing cornucopia of faded glory that is their original-issue neon body suit.

Some may deride these veterans with terms such as “Manther” (this being the male form of “Cougar”) or “Plake.” In their defense, I offer only Greg Stump’s 1988 cinematographic masterpiece, “The Blizzard of Aahhh’s” as their raison d’être. Fashion being circular, all indications are that the 2011-12 season will witness the widespread return neon to the slopes. Facing the distinct probability of a new batch of body suits being manufactured in this palate, take heed. For those thinking that you have the skills to roll the excess of style that is a neon body suit, think again. The man that can rock the neon body suit is a lot like Tom Selleck and his moustache — Selleck belongs to the 1% of men that own and operate a truly “lady-killing” mustachio. Yours, on the other hand, represents the other 99% that vary in lady-killing ability on a scale ranging from Burt Reynolds to those of Freddy Mercury. Before taking the plunge on the neon body suit, heed the guiding principle of Socrates and Know Thyself.

Erich lives and works in Durango, CO, where he generally rocks it. Drop him a note at beer@mountaingazette.com

Sing for Your Supper

Busking in a mountain town
Busking on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. Photo by Dawne Belloise

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 dbelloise@gmail.com 

Climbing Dictionary

“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

Steep Edge Online Film Rental

Films: Steep Edge online film rental

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

Off Belay Podcast

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

Letters #182

Envelope: Claydia Sanderson.

Scar Tissue #1

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. ;-)

Brian York,
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.

Rich Mayfield,
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?”

“Nope.”

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.

Shawn Gordy,
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,

David Moe,
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 …

Ken Ryder,
Bozeman, MT

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

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.

North By Northwest

“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 mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.  

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