Forgetting in a landscape of memory

The Cabin

The Cabin

Upon our arrival in the canyon, with an evening chill following our footsteps down the steep grade, he confided that he might be suffering from Alzheimer’s. His eyes brimmed over, even as he laughed at the realization’s awkward profundity. I tried to comfort him, to hug him — as his trip leader and as a stranger. He pushed me away. He wanted to be alone with his mind and his fate. I had simply caught him at a weak moment.

We were in a remote reach of the canyon, miles from a road, a trailhead, a cell signal, a familiar voice or touch. Divorced from comfort and home. We were living on the canyon’s terms, with its flood-rushing river. And he, in turn, would also live by the terms of a mind — a self — rushing headlong into the unknown.

But he refused to leave.

Before embarrassment usurped candor, he told me how his wife had noted some strange behavior, but he hadn’t believed her. That his mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s, a dark misery for a once-sharp woman. That he never thought it would come on so fast. He pointed at his water bottles on the ground. He was sure he had filled them before the hike, and now they were empty. Had he actually forgotten to fill them? It didn’t occur to him that he had consumed the water on the walk in.

The plastic bottles, the mundane source of his realization, caused him to cry anew. And then the door into his heart abruptly closed. The remainder of the week found me wondering at the interior life of an inscrutable man. Which were the quirks that comprised his being in this world? And which were signs of its slow withdrawal? What could be chalked up to the man, and what was derived from his sudden absence? Unable to know, I simply observed: the strength of his work ethic, his disregard for group conventions, his occasional and brilliant wit, his confusion at meal times.

I once witnessed him standing alone, empty-handed, swaying, staring at the ground. There is no sight lonelier than that of a man again witnessing his own departure — and bearing its hollow emptiness.

Though the mind can be our worst enemy, it is at times our only comfort. Oblivion with a heartbeat seems a cruel existence. And perhaps crueler is the life of the loved one who bears a husband’s passing but continues to see his face, feel his touch, smell his scent, hear his voice — grief renewed and impermanence reaffirmed every day.

In contrast, our week together found us working in a landscape of memory, a place that has not yet forgotten. A long-ago cowboy chipped out our route of descent from the canyon wall. The man chiseled his name into the sandstone and constructed a small cabin overlooking the river. The building still stands, now holding only rusted bedsprings, mouse droppings and memories of ghosts.

Up-canyon from the cowboy cabin is a millennia-old wall of pictures, including bighorn sheep, turkey tracks, human figures and concentric circles. A wavy line — a seeming horizon — extends 50 yards across the rock face. Above it appears a celestial body with a tail, perhaps denoting the passage of Halley’s comet long ago.

The long-departed still tell a story in this place. The desert holds remembrances and present reality with equal grace.

However, cabins crumble and carvings fade, as do our bodies and minds. Succession, loss and the slow entropy of forgetting, while painfully poignant, make room for the next surge of stories and songs. And if we are fortunate, a heart or two will hold the spark of our memory long after the embers of our life are reduced to smoke. Remembrance becomes the greatest gift from — and for — the departing and the departed. Whether writ on a canyon wall, heralded by an empty water bottle, or carried silently in the depths of one’s soul.

Jen Jackson lives in Moab, Utah, where she writes to as an act of memory and presence in the midst of this all-too-fleeting existence.

Big Bend

Open Sky
Photo cred: James H. Evans

I keep coming to Big Bend because other people do not seem to go there much. There are spurts of visitors in the spring and the fall and that is about it. In heat, I can own the whole place. This summer night is silent, no insect sound, just the occasional scream of a falling star. The rain has failed for eleven months. Big Bend is drying out. The terrain is a natural barrier and so in this zone, from Presidio down river to about Del Rio, human traffic has long been light. I once met a guy in a village in Mexico who had a bull get loose and head north. He crossed the river on horseback, trailed the bull over a hundred miles to Fort Stockton, lassoed it and somehow got it back home. What struck me about his story is that he didn’t think it much of a story. He was the kind of person Big Bend — on both sides of the river — seemed to breed.

The river is almost gone. Since the 1930s, the demands on the Rio Grande have exceeded the natural flow. Since about 2000, the river has failed to make it to the sea. With global warming and a drier weather pattern, it is certain to decline yet more. In the middle reaches of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the annual floods ended in the early seventies when Cochiti Dam broke the back of the river. Now the cottonwood bosques are becoming senile and in a century will be gone if this management continues because there is almost no replacement by seedlings dependent on the yearly flood cycle of the natural stream. Which brings me to Big Bend, the only national park on the entire eighteen-hundred-mile river.

It was supposed to be half of an international park joining the Sierra del Carmen with the Chihuahuan Desert on the U.S. side, or at least that was FDR’s notion. This never happened. Now there is talk of walling off the river lest some Mexican come north and terrorize us with decent food. Big walls are the new form of American installation art. The federal government is also building new housing for Border Patrol agents within the park to catch a non-existent flow of migrants. This is becoming a problem on the frontier of the empire. Last fall, I had drinks with some Border Patrol people on the Arizona chunk of the line. Their station had 350 people and bagged only 300 migrants a month. They were a little concerned that the public might some day learn what it cost to catch a poor person seeking work.

I come to Big Bend to be alone. For years, people have told me why they do not come here. It is in Texas. It is a dead end with a long drive in and out. It can be very hot. It is a desert. One guy told me it was the commodification of the natural world. Yes, and be sure to tell others.

I avoid the river with the two major campsites and also avoid the Chisos Mountains with their forests and facilities. I prefer to dry camp at various primitive park sites. So far, I have never run into anyone at such locales, but there is no guarantee my luck will hold. Like all fine places, there is nothing to do. And as a bonus, in Big Bend there is not a lot to see by conventional standards. If one is careful, one can find a patch of creosote and dry ground that does not pester one with vistas. At night the stars make a lot of noise but I have gotten used to that.

I seem to blunder about aimlessly and then get tired and sit down for a spell. I have never had a big idea in Big Bend and of course I am very grateful for this fact. There was a time in my life when I would hole up in Marfa writing books and periodically would become insane because of marauding art galleries, a serious menace in the area. I would drive to Big Bend and sit down very quietly and these seizures would pass. Also, I am here to tell you that one of the best roads in the United States runs from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend, a two-lane slow path along the river through little canyons. Don’t bother to take photographs in Big Bend. James Evans owns the place and frankly you should simply buy his books and save yourself some time. He not only has what it looks like, he has what it feels like and means. This is a very rare thing.

Big Bend is a place to be. And not much else. To my knowledge, anyone having an epiphany there is summarily executed. I cannot prove this but I am a creature of hope.

Lately, I have realized I have spent my life surrounded by two kinds of professional liars — the normal Chamber of Commerce felons and the pious trolls of academia. They have always said there would be enough water, they have always said you can’t stop people from coming here, they have always said national defense was job number one, and that if we simply had some more meetings, it would all work out. They have always lied. Big Bend, for me, is a haven from this talk. It is pretty much uninhabitable and the Mexican side is equally isolated. I have a friend who ran dope in this area for years — he’d bring it north through Panther Junction. One of my first visits to Big Bend was when he showed me his former haunts and routes, including where in the beginning he’d crawl through the bosque on his belly dragging a burlap bag of grass. He soon advanced to better days and was doing about $750,000 a month when he made a fatal error: he refused to pay a bribe to a U.S. Custom agent because of his prejudice against crooks in law enforcement. This moment of integrity cost him five years in a federal pen.

Three javelina root around in the brush by the river. The sky is overcast and soon comes the first rain in months. The arroyos run here and there from desert showers. The walls of the wash are red and lavender and yellow. The water rolls over the rocks and the ground comes up and slaps my face with scent.

Just across the river is the village where they killed Pablo Acosta.

He’d come back from the United States in 1976 and found disorder. The man in charge of the plaza in Ojinaga just upriver had quit his post and no one knew exactly who to contact for payoffs. Drugs were small time, a sideline in a poor area. Acosta grew with the industry and soon things were big enough that the Mexican federal police set up a headquarters in town to collect their cut. Acosta also shipped money to the Mexican army. By 1983, Acosta was big time and bringing planeloads of cocaine in from Colombia. He once considered executing my friend.

And then he was gone. He was murdered by a Mexican commander with the help of the FBI.

That happens in that business and in this place.

Just to the west is the gouge of Santa Elena Canyon, the river now a latte color from the waters rushing in from the flooded arroyos. The thunder is near now, and lightning slices the sky. Steam rises from the road as fresh raindrops fall.

A couple pulls over by the suddenly rising waters, she carefully wades out a short bit and he takes photographs and this is right across the river from the machine-gunned building where they took down Pablo and my God life is good at this moment and I suck down the breeze and believe, well, if only I knew what I believed.

Chisos at Night
Photo cred: James H. Evans

The Chisos Mountains loom like gods in the mist and across the river the Sierra Carmen walls off Mexico. Los Diablos stand around and chat. They are a firefighting group formed in Boquillas del Carmen, the Mexican village just across the river. The Diablos fight fires in Big Bend and elsewhere — last spring, they were up to save Los Alamos, NM, America’s city of scientific death. On the rocks are small wire creations of scorpions, roadrunners and ocotillo cactus. They go for five or six bucks a piece and a hand-printed sign says the money helps schools in Boquillas. Traditionally, visitors to the park went across the shallow river for breakfast and to buy little bits of Mexico. 9/11 ended that for Boquillas and Santa Elena a ways upstream and both villages fell apart. The small wire figures are contraband and the government warns against such commerce. The Federal authorities also ask visitors not to give water to any illegals they may encounter in the desert but to promptly call 911.

The sign says that God will bless for any donation.

The creosote is brown. Dead prickly pear heaps dot the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The diggings of the javelina show desperation. I woke up at gray light on the ground and listened and there was nothing, not the dawn song of the coyote, not a single note of birdsong. Nothing.

A ranger says in time this place will be like the Sahara. He goes off on how the U.S. has the habits of a cancer cell and is killing the earth in general and Big Bend in particular.

The fresh air is suddenly rich in scent after the first slight shower in eleven months.

Down by the river, the government has posted a warning: “Beware of Javelina! Protect Your Property. Javelina in search of food may rip up your tents.”

At the mouth of Dog Canyon, a javelina bolts. The early camel corps came through in 1859 as they tested the Middle Eastern beast for the War Department, an early foray in national security. The experiment was cut short, when the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, decided to quit his job, and lead a movement to destroy the Union. Before things settled down, 600,000 Americans were dead.

Back at the Boquillas crossing, Los Diablos laugh. Their caps sport the flags of the U.S. and Mexico, plus a big red devil.

There’s talk of reopening the crossing in the spring of 2012. But I am not sure my fellow citizens can bear such a risk to their safety.

There was a moment in my childhood when I realized my family and my school and my friends and my neighborhood all meant death. I took to sleeping on the roof until my parents outlawed this behavior.

But when I roll out my bag in Big Bend and look up I remember this and know, at least for a little moment, why I am here.

The sky has always meant freedom to me.

Big Bend still has sky.

Charles Bowden is the author of many books, including “Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family,” “Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future” and, most recently, “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” Bowden’s last story for MG was “The New Colossus,” which appeared in #184. He lives in the Chihuahuan Desert. 

Read about one man’s journey through climbing and divorce in Where It Ended

Destination Occupy! Your Principled Resistance Tour Planner

“For months the great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy
Land was chatted about in the newspapers everywhere in America
and discussed at countless firesides.”
— Mark Twain, “Innocents Abroad”, 1869

It started with a frustrated street vendor in Tunisia, who set himself on fire and ignited an Arab Spring. Or maybe it was Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Libya’s Benghazi-centered breakaway, Madison’s capitol take-over, Spain’s “Indignant” movement, Greece’s Aganktismenoi (“The Outraged”), or … — maybe you’ve already formed an opinion of the circumstances, but, by autumn 2011, a fair number of public parks and squares world-wide looked like Yosemite’s Camp 4 in the 1970s. A sometimes motley and contentious, always opinionated crowd of campers gathered into discussion groups and planning committees with as much passion as dirtbag climbers debating “first ascent” ethics.

After Wall Street’s bronze bull statue was briefly “occupied” by a group of American protestors and scenes from New York’s Zuccotti (nee Liberty Plaza) Park had become a nightly news-bite, one multi-millionaire presidential wannabe (former pizza-chain mogul, talk-radio host, “success gospel” preacher) felt moved to say, “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” while another (a mega-millionaire job-hunting ex-venture/vulture capitalist/governor) fretted, “I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare.”

While thinking of class warfare on the 10th anniversary of the opening of our apprehensive empire’s ongoing experiment in perpetual “extra-judicial” detention known as Guantanamo, I bought this little book that’s been touted as a philosophical grounding for the burgeoning protests of 2011:

Time For Outrage
"Time for Outrage," by Stephane Hessel (Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 2011)

The book’s red cover does looks a lot like the “Quotations from Chairman Mao” that a Fidel-cap-wearing, latte-sipping fellow revolutionary thought I’d found as I browsed the shelves of Tucson’s Revolutionary Grounds coffeehouse/bookstore, but in a tale of divergent career paths from the seldom-mourned Chairman/Emperor Mao, it was written by a French Resistance fighter whose life after World War II has been devoted to universal human rights and non-violent principled resistance.

Occupy! FUQs

After duly considering some Frequently Unanswered Questions:  Quis (who?), Quid (what?) Quando (when?), Ubi (where?), Cur (why?), Quem ad modum (in what way?) and Quibus adminiculis (by what means?) through many long winter nights, this out-of-seasonal-work warrior’s thoughts lightly turned to vacation planning.

Now, as mud-season rules mountain trails and High-Country powder slopes become time-sensitive minefields of corn and concrete, the editorial brain-trust has permitted me to share my resources for designing your own once-in-a-lifetime Occupy! Adventure.

“Indignez-vous” and its English translation, “Time for Outrage,” have sold more than 3.5 million copies world-wide since its publication in late 2010. Now 93, Stephane Hessel exhorts oppressed younger citizens to turn outrage into a force for change. Though some reviewers have disparaged “Indignez-vous” as reminiscences of an old man that lack examination of the extenuating circumstances of the oppression he cites, I suggest using it as a pocket guide to your own journey of resistance.

Here you may wonder, “Well, resistance to exactly what?” Good question, future traveler! Shall we turn to M. Hessel’s little red book? “The wealthy have installed their slaves in the highest spheres of state. The banks are privately owned. They are concerned solely with profits. They have no interest in the common good. The gap between rich and poor is the widest it’s ever been; the pursuit of riches and the spirit of competition are encouraged and celebrated.”

He continues, “The basic motive of the Resistance was indignation. We of the French Resistance and combat forces that freed our country, call on you …” — and I can’t help personally reflecting just a little on whether my dad came home from World War II with an “American Dream” of obscene profit for a wealthy 1% amid social insecurity for 99%; but I digress — back to Hessel: “Franklin Delano Roosevelt articulated the ‘Four Freedoms’ he felt people ‘everywhere in the world’ had a right to enjoy. Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.”

Points taken, and I could go on quoting old Stéphane until I get labeled a Francophile and placed on a “do not serve Freedom Fries” list, so I’ll just note that Hessel’s “Indignez-vous” and outrage led him to help write 1948’s United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and leave the rest of his story in his books and writings for further consideration. If you’re curious about what some Americans resent about the concept of an elite 1% pillaging the economy while everybody else eats humble pie, click on something called Wearethe99percent.tumblr.com. It had this graybeard 99%er mumbling worker-solidarity slogans.

So, let’s say you’re feeling outraged, indignant and want to know when and where to go. Ah, fellow traveler, look no further, for this is an election year in the empire, and the world-wide web of social networking is a dream date for any budding revolutionary, at least until evil corporate/empire genies take over the filtering technologies of your local internet provider. Facebooking protestors, cell-phone-wielding citizen journalists, tweeting reporters, adbusters.org and an on-line group called Anonymous (self-described as “a decentralized network of individuals focused on promoting access to information, free speech, and transparency”) have worked around almost every attempt to block information about protest times and actions. For the latest techno-wizardry designed to defeat jack-booted digital censorship thugs, my best advice is to visit the group of disaffected youths that haunt certain parks and internet cafes in almost every mountain resort town. Your source may have a hard time trusting anybody who doesn’t fluently speak the jargon, so approach slowly and with latte in hand.

OK, now you’ve done your networking research while finding common ground with some local rabble-rousers, and may be ready to book passage on the 2012 Resistance Tour. Since experienced “Occupiers” are already on the ground in most major urban areas around the world, climate considerations, the proximity of family and friends and your own “bucket list” of travel desires should be your guide. I do, however, have a few suggestions to offer, and some of them could re-define adventure travel.

According to one Spanish “Indignant,” some of the “Occupy Wall Street” organizers visited Spain in July to research techniques, and now we have a vast pool of experienced citizen-protestors on our own shores. Pick a city, and take an expendable tent. With proper timing, you could help shut down a port for a day, or get yourself YouTubed while overzealous authorities go all redneck on you. For overseas adventures, tread lightly in any country that doesn’t remember its last election, beware the zealots of any class, and the world is your oyster. Faded empires Britain (Olympics anyone?) and Rome have fresh “austerity measures” to keep the masses unhappy. Greece and Spain should be restive as always, and springtime weather on the Mediterranean sure looks attractive.

Closer to home, the Repubs will convene on Tampa, Florida, in August, and the week after that, it’s up the coast to North Carolina for the Dems. Meanwhile, all political candidates will be pressing flesh and pounding our eardrums in search of votes, and a little “occupation” theology birdie tells me that some should be facing uncomfortable questioning by an indignant constituency. I’m just saying …

A merry band of “occupiers” followed the Rose Bowl floats through Pasadena a few months back. Though national television didn’t see fit to leave the cameras running, by all accounts, the parade-watching crowd cheered them on, and several thousand joined in. This opens an entire season of civic-minded possibilities — just avoid steaming piles left by equine-mounted royalty and remember to keep waving at the masses as you pass. Don’t enjoy crowds? OK, consider helping a foreclosed neighbor re-occupy a bank’s “troubled asset” with resources from www.occupyourhomes.org.

Occupy Tour
Photo cred: B. Frank

IF YOU GO

For more ideas, search for 2011 word-of-the-year “occupy” on your favorite corporate search engine (two sites that come up on my searches are: www.meetup.com/occupytogether/ and www.occupyeverything.org), network with the home-grown resistance ideologues in your own backyard and then follow your conscience to a deeper understanding of an observation spoken during the year I first embraced principled outrage as a motivational tool: “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free!’” (Martin Luther King, supporting Memphis garbage workers on April 3, 1968).

The day after MLK delivered the above speech was a reminder that ideologues with guns can end lives and terrorize dreams, but 2012 can reaffirm the ineffectual nature of violence and intimidation against a citizenry grown indignant with the status quo. Now go “occupy” your own destination, and see what the FUQs are all about.

 

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “Snipe Hunting in the War Zone: A Diary of Peculiar Madness,” which appeared in #186. Frank, author of “Livin’ the Dream,” splits his time between the Four Corners and the Border Country.  

 

A Different Kind of Storm

 

State of Emergency

Intoxicated by two red-eye flights and a 17-hour layover in Moscow, I arrived in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, at 5 a.m. The apple trees were in bloom — an uplifting welcome after a long grey winter in the Rockies.

I’d come to this small Central Asian nation to follow in the footsteps of Ella Maillart, a Swiss adventurer who had explored the region in the 1930s. It was an era when few Westerners, not to mention single women, were traveling in the area. Smitten with our Swiss heroine, myself and two friends, Jaime and Ann, an expat living in Bishkek, were headed for the Tien Shan mountains to ski a peak called Sari Tor that Maillart had tackled back in her day, then venture into the surrounding terrain that had yet to be tracked by skiers.

Over a welcome breakfast of French toast and tea, Ann mentioned protests were rumored for that day in Bishkek. But local friends had laughed off the possibility, telling Ann that, if it rained, no one would come. So we continued logisticizing and mapping out errands to complete before leaving the next morning on our two-and-a-half-week trip into the mountains.

Later that afternoon, Jaime and I stood at the window of Ann’s third-story apartment, waiting. The sound of chanting, a repetitive round of Russian, had already reached us, long before the tide of men swelling through the street. Red Kyrgyz flags snapped in the air among raindrops. We watched spellbound as a crowd swarmed a city bus, rocking it like a broken vending machine till all the passengers had tumbled out. They rolled the bus back to the middle of the four-way intersection below, bringing traffic to a halt.

The drum tap of gunfire broke the unfamiliar quiet that had settled as traffic ceased. Located just four blocks from the Presidential building, the White House, Ann’s apartment was close enough to the fray that we could smell the chemical stench of black smoke climbing into the leaden storm clouds. Burning tires? Burning buildings? One guess was as good as another. The Internet, international phone lines and television had been cut, but soon we began receiving Tweets and text updates. Fed up with corruption, nepotism and exorbitant price hikes, protesters were storming the White House, demanding that President Bakiyev resign. We greedily waited for updates to flash across Ann’s cell phone.

Damage caused by looters
Our sources of information as we were housebound-texts from friends and CNN. A woman surveys the damage caused by looters the previous night. Multiple blocks were ravaged like this. In the nights to come, citizen militias would roam the streets patrolling for looters. They'd share information by Twitter and texts as to where the looters were and move en masse to the location.

Hours passed. We crowded the window like voyeurs at a peep show. A lone cop car patrolled the street with a group of teenage boys running after it, throwing rocks at its back window, the glass shattering into a messy, tangled web. A policeman exited, marching toward the boys as he raised the Kalashnikov’s site to his eye.

“Is everybody ready to duck,” asked Ann, anticipating the potential for stray bullets.

I wasn’t sure whether to turn my eyes and shield my heart from the potential of watching one human hurt, possibly even kill, another, or if witnessing the act would somehow pay respects to the pain and outrage that had driven the boys into this standoff. I thought about screaming or of throwing something down to create a distraction. But I was scared — scared how they’d react to a foreigner inserting herself into their fight. Scared of the consequences. That moment and those questions still haunt me.

As night fell, we turned off the lights, drew the curtains and moved around the apartment with headlamps. The two-and-a-half-weeks’ worth of food, iodine tablets for water purification, gallons of fuel and cookstoves sitting in the living room, sorted and ready for the expedition, provided some level of security. Many of Ann’s fellow expat friends were moving to safe houses outside the capital under orders from their employers. The U.S. Embassy staff had moved to the American air base. But, considering our location on the third floor of a large apartment building and our arsenal of ice axes and crampons, we felt safely ensconced. We watched through carefully-pulled-back corners of the curtains as the streets below flooded with looters. Until sunrise, men of all ages streamed back and forth, carrying their treasures — bags of food, appliances, sporting goods, display racks, potted plants, anything and everything.

International expeditions are synonymous with uncertainty and risk, but the revolution had taken this adage to a new level. The Tien Shan’s snowy glaciers weren’t the problem, but the land between here and there was lawless. So we waited, settling into a storm-day routine, albeit of a different kind, with long cups of tea, naps, reading and, for me, long interviews with the revolutionaries still bandaged and marked with streaks of bright green disinfectant, still running on empty and searching for missing loved ones.

There were so many. Gulbubu, a grandmother whose calf had been peeled open like a banana by a grenade. Sitting next to her rickety hospital bed, I asked, if she’d known the outcome, would she have still gone to the protests.

“I’d do it again,” she said, wincing as the nurse turned her to administer a shot. “I’d lie to my children and tell them I’d be back soon. Change needs this kind of sacrifice.”

There was Ulan, a 41-year-old electrician who hadn’t slept in three days and was subsisting on cigarettes.

“We aren’t thinking about food or sleep; we are thinking about when we will hear about a punishment for the blood of the killed people,” he said, adding that the perpetrators should be punished for seven generations — a reference to the deep tribal ties that bind Kyrgyz to one another and the requisite knowledge Kyrgyz are supposed to have of their family’s ancestry. Later, Ulan asked if I could publish photos of accused gunmen and associated decision-makers back in the United States to help aid in their capture.

And there was Mirlan. When we entered the small café, the old women nipping the morning brandy whispered “revolutionary” to each other, tipped off by the gauze bandage wrapped around his head like an ear warmer. The men caught his eye and nodded their respects. The bandage was from a grenade blast that had ruptured Mirlan’s eardrum and killed his best friend as they helped carry dead bodies out of the melee.  Over a plate of greasy piroshkies, Mirlan told me how he’d helped kill one of the snipers captured by the crowd. They beat the sniper to death, then burned his body in one of the many fires raging throughout the city. If anything, Mirlan seemed proud. He had helped destroy a head of the Hydra that was killing his people.

After eight days of sitting out the storm, we received the answers we’d been waiting for — the military and police had declared allegiance to the interim government and the U.S. Embassy determined it safe to travel. Twenty-four hours later, we were alone. Alone in that fear and awe-inspiring way, where each action counts a little more because you are your best and only ally. Quiet white tongues of snow spilled off the mountains and pooled in a broad, wide valley where we set our tent. Peaks rose in every direction and appeared just right for touring, with low-slung saddles at the head of each valley that provided good access to ridges with beautiful lines swooping down the nearly 15,000-foot peaks. High above treeline, the only voice the wind had left was what it pitted against the ocean of snow where our orange tent sat. The solitude and serenity of the place was a quick-acting tonic, and we felt the tension from the chaos of Bishkek melting away. Ten days felt impossibly short. But 10 was better than none, which, while waiting for the military to declare allegiance to the new government, was a distinct possibility. Eager to ski, we skinned to a hill behind our base camp, ready for the requisite sleuthing needed before
venturing higher.

We quickly slipped into the rhythm and routine of life in the Tien Shan — our palates reacquainted with the subtle flavor of snow-melted water; moving more quickly at our coordinated routine of managing three people in a two-person tent; and, each day, the skinning became easier as our lungs and bodies adjusted to the altitude. The snowpack was less stable than we’d hoped, so the steeper lines we’d drooled over upon arrival were no longer an option we felt comfortable pursuing. But we kept busy and happy, exploring the different valleys, wandering over the passes, trying to somehow absorb the vastness of such an expanse of mountains void of people and, of course, lots of skiing.

From time to time, we’d talk about Ella Maillart — imagining the amplified wild frontier feeling the place would have had in the 1930s. We’d talk about Bishkek, wondering if anyone else had been evacuated; if Bakiyev had been found and what might have become of him and his inner circle; how many of the injured had died; and whether we’d return to calm or chaos. But, out here, Kyrgyzstan’s socio-political well-being was inconsequential to our skiing.

“Basically, we’ve got 35 centimeters of wind slab on top of 30 centimeters of depth hoar,” said Jaime, hollering up to where Ann and I sat, spotting and recording data from the snow pit she was digging. It was a beautiful line — 2,500-feet of continuous unbroken snow down a 35-to-40 degree face. We’d been so good — easing up on the throttle, skiing low-angle lines and running our decision-making against heuristics designed not only to address subjective things like snowpack, terrain and weather and the devil of decision-making, the human factor. But we were antsy and the test results showed that the wind slab was strong enough that we might be able to get away with it. Eventually, we acquiesced to caution and continued down the ridgeline to the south.

Two days later, our decision justified itself when a slope of similar angle and aspect slid. It sounded like a window shattering, except it kept on as if the entire mountain was made of glass. My skis were off from stamping out camp, and I floundered in the sugar snow like a loser in a three-legged race running through thick mud. Frantically, I tried to marry my snow-clogged boots into my bindings while sliding forward. Rationale about how we’d taken alpha angles was overridden by the primal instinct to survive. The first slide triggered another one on an even larger, adjacent slope and the sound started all over again. But, thankfully, as geometry promised, the debris stopped just short of camp. The mountainside was scoured. The slide had run 800-by-1,500 feet clear to the ground. An additional two slides had been remotely triggered a mile up-valley, and the slope directly behind camp now featured a long, jagged crack, its gentle angle having kept it from releasing. It took a few minutes for my legs to stop shaking.

Three days later, we returned to Bishkek. On the surface, the city appeared normal. Mirlan, Aida (my translator) and I met for breakfast. They wanted to look at pictures of mountains they would never see, and I was eager for political updates. Mirlan had undergone two surgeries to drain blood from his ear, but his hearing was still compromised. Bakiyev supporters roamed Bishkek, and Mirlan had received death threats for his involvement with a youth political party associated with the protests. Despite it, he said it hadn’t changed his resolve to become involved in politics and see the changes through that people had died for. Mirlan was convinced Bakiyev’s henchmen were looking for him, so he and Aida (they had begun dating after our initial interview, but that’s another story) were planning to head for Aida’s home village until things felt safer.

The bandage was gone from around his head, and he was sharply dressed in slacks, a button-down shirt and leather shoes with sharp-pointed toes, but he looked terrible. Dark circles stained his bloodshot eyes. He only paused for air between cigarettes, as if nicotine was his oxygen. As Aida walked me out to get a taxi, she said that Mirlan was hardly sleeping and, when finally he succumbed, he’d cry, thrash about and repeatedly yell his dead friend’s name. She didn’t know how to help. We talked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Aida knew about it from the web, but said that people in Kyrgyzstan didn’t talk about that sort of stuff and counseling techniques were outdated. What if it wouldn’t go away? she worried.

Horses heading over Suok pass
As we skied out of the mountains back to the road we were greeted by a herd of horses nearing 100 heading over Suok pass to their spring pastures. The sheep would follow in a few weeks.

Checking my email in an Internet café, I received word that, while we’d been in the mountains, an acquaintance had died in an avalanche in Colorado. She wasn’t the first friend the mountains have claimed, and I know she won’t be the last. Walking back to Ann’s apartment past the tired memorials of wilted flowers and brown stains on the concrete, thinking over the familiar refrain, at least she died doing what she loved, and reliving my own close call with the avalanche, I wondered about our mountain tribe’s acceptance of danger in pursuit of passion. Or any group for that matter, whose lifestyle excludes them from most life-insurance policies.

Molly hiking Ridge
Molly hiking up a ridge for another good descent.

But what if it wasn’t untouched powder slopes or a remote mountain ridgeline? What if it was a question of justice and the risk centered on a standoff in the concrete of the capital square? Examining the faded photographs fixed to the White House’s gate of young Kyrgyz boys killed by their government, I wondered if I’d have the courage to show up in a similar situation and how many of my cohorts would be there. Could we channel summit fever into fury for the greater good?

But I’ve never been forced to choose and, living in southeastern Idaho’s hills, I doubt I ever will. It’s a luxurious privilege. Examining the newly erected memorial — a small series of concrete slabs on a lawn adjacent to the White House — I couldn’t help but wonder if, despite the riches that a life in the wild has afforded my soul, somehow the luxuries have softened, even stolen from some aspect of my spirit. Would I, would we, have the strength to stand up to a brutal regime? Reruns still played through my mind of that standoff between the boys and police. My hesitation, my silence scared me and makes me wonder if I would.

 

Molly Loomis’ work has appeared in Backpacker, Outside and Sierra magazines. She is grateful to the Hans Saari Memorial Fund for making this trip possible. For more stories about Molly’s adventures around the world, visit www.mollyloomis.com. She looks forward to getting back to Kyrgyzstan someday soon and meeting Merlan and Aida’s baby. Until then, Loomis can be found on the west side of the Tetons in Victor, Idaho.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mountain West News: Reporting on the Rockies

Shellie Nelson, sole editor and employee of Mountain West News, taking a second to pause from reading what's relevant. Photo, Jon Kovash.
Shellie Nelson, sole editor and employee of Mountain West News, taking a second to pause from reading what's relevant. Photo, Jon Kovash.

Where do you go for daily-breaking news from the mountains, besides our brain-dead local TV news outlets, with their vacuous cops/sports/weather formats and abhorrence for crossing state borders?

Mountain Gazette and the Paonia-based High Country News are among the small handful of print media that specifically address themselves to the American Rocky Mountain region. Both are largely literary and investigative efforts that require long lead times and long shelf life.

But there are a lot of people doing good reporting on the Rockies every single day that most people never become aware of. They write for the few city dailies in the region, for scores of small town weeklies and sometimes for prominent national publications.

On any given day there might be a great story in the Casper Star-Tribune about fracking, a story in the Santa Fe Reporter about living wage laws, maybe a story from the Salt Lake Tribune about water rights for nuclear power, a story from the Crested Butte News about High-Country global warming research, a story from the Silverton Standard on the current avalanche danger, a story in the New York Times about the “red snow” phenomenon in ski country and a report from the Aspen Times on a newly released forest plan.

Such a daily reading regimen would contribute greatly to one’s sense of neighborhood, and to, borrowing a Tom Wolfe phrase, the “shock of recognition” that comes from realizing that our little far-flung communities have much in common. But what a hassle that would be! Imagine the hours it would take to pore over 50 or 60 publications every day and winnow out what is important and interesting to Rockies dwellers.

In fact, Shellie Nelson, up in Missoula, is paid to do exactly that, and she says it’s “the best job I ever had.” For five years now, Nelson has been the sole editor and sole employee of Mountain West News (mountainwestnews.org), which has since 1999 been the only website that presents a daily aggregation of news from across the Rockies.

Nelson’s workday starts at 4 a.m. in her living room, where she begins scanning headlines, speed-reading stories from all over the Mountain West and finally deciding which ones will get a link on today’s Mountain West News edition. She also has to rewrite headlines, fashion story summaries and intros and somehow marshal it all into a coherent presentation. To that end, there are sections that offer both a guide and a tip-off to the Mountain West News editorial agenda: Community, Environment, Western Perspective (regional essays), Tribes, Public Lands and Opinion. The end result is obviously the work of a seasoned and thoughtful editor, and it illustrates how even a modest human staff can easily outperform the notorious algorithms that govern sites like Google News. Nelson has noticed that “When you Google ‘grizzlies’ or ‘wolverines,’ you get sports stories.”

Mountain West News gets about 200,000 hits a month and has a subscriber list of 4,000. These are small numbers by internet standards, but the subscribers include a lot of influential regional decision-makers, from both government and industry.

These days, this kind of journalistic effort rarely comes from the private sector. In this case, the enabling benefactor is the O’Connor Center For The Rocky Mountain West, a regional humanities/education think tank based at the University of Montana. The Center came to be in 1992, thanks to a large endowment from actor Carroll O’Connor (“Archie Bunker”) and his wife Nancy, both U. of M. alums. Most Mountain Gazette readers would resonate with language from the guiding principles that were declared: “ … this mountainous, trans-national region of North America is unique … and requires special attention and study.”  News is the Center’s longest-running continuous program because it addresses that notion squarely, simply and effectively, and on a daily deadline to boot. The website is friendly to occasional visitors, but a daily visit is considered mandatory by many who just want or need to know stuff: journalists, teachers, environmental and social activists, civil servants, local office holders, CEOs and small business owners.

Funding comes from the University, grants and individual contributors. Nelson says in response to “staff compression” at the region’s larger newspapers, she has had to depend more on the smaller weeklies. In the future, she hopes that grants will be found to pay freelancers and regional reporters for longer, investigative pieces.

Senior correspondent Jon Kovash once produced the award-winning syndicated radio show, “Thin Air,” which was produced at KOTO in Telluride. His blog, “Mountain Architecture,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. 

Jail Time In Cell 4 In The Coconino County Jail

Jail Time in the Coconino County JailThe jail cell door clangs shut. I am in a tiny concrete room with a concrete bench and a concrete wall that shields the stainless steel toilet from a viewer’s eyes. The only viewers that will peer in through the thick window for the next long hours will be the detention officers of the Coconino County Jail. I am here on purpose. I am here alone.

The first thing I do is scan the room for something, anything I can write with. The officers have taken my jewelry, wallet, pens and notebook. They have left me my hearing aids and partial dentures. I’m grateful for that. At 71, my hearing is fading. I need to hear every sound and word that echo outside. And I might be able to use my dentures to scratch a message into the wall. Protect the Sacred Mountains. Stop Spiritual Genocide.

But the walls are flecked with brown spots and I am squeamish. I take notes in my mind. The choked howls coming from the cell next door. The thud of a body slamming against a thick door. The carving in my cell door, an Indian in a feathered head-dress and the letters NDN. My friend in a cell across the hall, tracing the words Protect the Peaks on his window; and the fact that he and I are the only white people I see in the tiny windows or being taken into a cell. Those not-so-subtle demographics are the same as the last time I was arrested twenty-five years ago to protest a breccia pipe uranium mine being drilled into sacred Havasupai land thirteen miles south of the Grand Canyon.

I am in this barren room because I’ve committed civil disobedience to protest a local ski resort’s plan to make snow with inadequately treated wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks, a high-desert mountain sacred to thirteen tribes. Because I have friends from five of those tribes, I refused to step away from the huge excavator that was gouging a pipeline trench in the living rock. I stood fast also because I am forty years older than the next oldest of my companions. Look, I wanted my action to say, you do not have to be young to be filled with passion. You do not have to be young to act. 

The howls next door have faded. Hours stretch ahead. With no pen, no paper. There is nothing but the dirty walls and locked door — and the knowledge that outside this county jail, my friends are collecting bail. They know I am in here. I’ve never in my life felt less alone. In that, it is more than my white skin that makes me different from the others locked behind these heavy doors.

I trace words with a fingernail on my forearm. I am here. I will remember every detail. And I will write.

Sojourner is the author of “Bonelight: Ruin and Grace and the New Southwest,” “Delicate: Stories,” “Solace: Rituals of Loss and Desire,” “Going Through Ghosts” and, most recently, “She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction.” She lives in Flagstaff. Her blog, “Hoodoo,” can be found at mountaingazette.com

Mountain Media: Books #187

“The Straight Course: Speed Skiing in the Sixties,” by Dick Dorworth

The Straight Course

Nowadays, the average person will have approximately five to seven careers. Less limited than previous generations, the choices for careers are endless and, with that, finding the “right path” can be daunting, overwhelming and demoralizing. Which is why long-time MG senior correspondent Dick Dorworth’s latest book, “The Straight Course: Speed Skiing in the Sixties,” is so relevant 50 years after the events he describes. The ’60s were unsettled and challenging for the country and the world of skiing. Despite pressure to ski within a certain style, politics that could make any patriot of ski dissent and challenges with injuries and his personal life, Dick held strong to what he knew skiing did for his life and how it filled it with more meaning than if he gave up when his path appeared blocked. “More important was the hard (and hard earned) knowledge of something not right.” By staying true to his heart and path, he accomplished incredible achievements in speed skiing. Dick’s honesty about looking within to find that truth and, once found, never letting go, offers new generations a way to find direction through the confusion. After all, “a company job is not necessarily the best thing a man can do with the time in his life.” Time might be better spent skiing over 100kph down a fast, unrelenting speed track. “The Straight Course” is a fascinating look into the history of a pivotal time in skiing, while offering wisdom for finding our own way through the world. $15.95, westerneyepress.com

 “Fred Beckey’s 100 Favorite North American Climbs,” by Fred Beckey

Beckeys favorite climbs

Besides starring in the world’s most hideous climbing outfit (on p. 209), I spent two weeks with The Fred on three of these routes (Prodigal Son, Touchstone Wall and Crimson Chrysalis) while he was working on this book in 1996-98. His goal was to climb every route in this “guidebook,” a feat I’m pretty certain no climbing guidebook author has ever achieved; Fred didn’t quite either. But “guidebook” might not be the right term for this publication, which suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s the size of a small table (13.2 x 9.4 x 1.3 inches) and weighs 5.2 pounds. It looks and feels like a coffee-table book, but when you read it, it describes climbs, with topos and photos and other basic information — yet, you wouldn’t stuff it in your pack and head out. In short, it’s a guidebook inside and a coffee-table book outside. So, to appreciate this book, you have to look at what’s in it. “Beckey’s 100 Favorite Climbs” (there are actually more than 100 — 29 of which were Fred firsts) is a catalogue from the jam-stuffed brain of the most knowledgeable, experienced and well-traveled climber in American history. Fred introduces readers to peaks like Ironman in the Adamant Range, Oubliette in the Ramparts and Golden Klattasine in the Coast Range. These aren’t peaks on the tongues of your typical Western U.S. climber — hell, I had no clue something like Gimli Peak existed until I started reading this book. This book is a mind-opener. It’ll make you realize why you started climbing to begin with, and that there’s a whole lot more to see out there than what you originally thought. After waiting 16 years, I am not disappointed. $79.95, patagonia.com

“The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington,” edited by Rees Hughes, Corey Lewis

Pacific Crest Trailside Reader

This is not a guidebook, but rather a collection of writings about the Oregon and Washington stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail (there’s a companion volume for California). This means that the book is short on maps and “just-the-facts” information about flora and fauna, but large on firsthand experiences of folks who’ve trod the iconic trail. There’s blissfully little poetic navel gazing and plenty in the way of good stories about any aspect of the PCT experience you can imagine. Jogging the entire 2,600 miles. Figuring out/being given your “trail name.” Journeying with goats, children or painful injuries. Getting lost and being rescued. Hiking at night, or alone, or through the ash fall of the Mt. St. Helens eruption. Coming face-to-face with bears, lynx, huge toads, heart attacks and hypothermia. And always, through all three sections of the book — “Forests Forever” (Oregon), “Lava, Moss and Lichens” (Southern Washington) and “The Great White North” (The North Cascades) — folks suffer through chronic sogginess and all manner of precipitation, particularly toward the end, when hikers are racing Pacific storms and Old Man Winter to the Canadian border. The book itself might not change your life, but some of the essays within probably will, and, if nothing else, you’ll be inspired to shake off that dusty pack and seek out some adventure of your own. $19.95, mountaineersbooks.org