River tales: Heartfelt, Sad and Patently Absurd

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I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

— Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

1) I’m not, she said

Richard Brautigan wrote the peculiar and brief “Trout Fishing in America” in the summer of 1961 while camping with his wife and baby daughter in the Stanley Basin. Piloting a beat-to-hell Plymouth wagon they bought with a $350 tax refund, they’d camp beside streams and the author would set up a card table and an old portable typewriter. He recorded the names of trout-bearing creeks and rivers in his notebook: Big Smokey Creek, Queens River, Big Pine Creek, Salmon River — you get the drift. In that time, some lasting sage entered the American literary scene. To wit:

“I remember mistaking an old woman for a trout stream in Vermont,
and I had to beg her pardon.”
“Excuse me,” I said. “I thought you were a trout stream.”
“I’m not,” she said.

2) Desperate measures

American Rivers’ annual top-10 list of the country’s most-endangered rivers is a more depressing read than, say, Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. Completely guaranteed to put you in a crappy mood, the 2011 list is about rivers at their ecological tipping points, and is largely about dams and desperate extractive industries that have run out of safe places to do their bidding. Topping the nominees is the East Coast’s Susquehanna River, which has taken a major hit from natural gas fracking. Three Western rivers made the list, with California’s Yuba River in fifth place. Here we have two outdated federal dams blocking migration for the threatened steelhead and spring-run Chinook salmon. In Washington, threats from a Canadian mining company put the Green River at No. 6. Opponents are quick to point out that a big mine next to Mount St. Helens, in an active earthquake zone, is a prescription for water-quality disaster. In Wyoming, we have the possibility for natural gas drilling and a potential environmental blowout on the headwaters of the Hoback River, listed at No. 7.

3) Stay here

Take your choice of Mountain West rivers and thank your stars. Our point is, if you’re going to hang out in, on or next to rivers, you need to select them with the Limb-Severing (Or Worse) Monster Ratio in mind. You won’t need to worry about that in most of the Mountain West, but if you leave here and travel to, say, the murky, stump-riddled Trinity River that flows down through Dallas and around Houston, don’t say we didn’t warn you. Here you will encounter the alligator gar (probably a bunch of dead bodies as well — if the gars haven’t gotten to them). This fish gets up to 10 feet, has an alligator-like snout, a double row of dagger teeth, AND it can live outside the water for up to two hours. It could, like, come to your tent or motel room. Anyway, it gets a lot worse once you leave the States. There are tons of river monsters, but the absolute most loathsome is the tiny Candiru catfish — the Amazon’s most-feared fish. The Candiru is known for entering orifices and dining off the victim’s blood. There’s an apparently true story about a man urinating into the Amazon, and — you got it — a Candiru swimming up the urine stream and into his penis. A surgeon removed the fish after four days, after it got particularly problematic. Spiny gill flaps … Don’t leave home.

4) That damned fish is a lot scarier than this

While we always wax poetic about how nice Portland is, with its fine beers and environmental cheeriness, it appears we’ve got some weird crap going on with the Willamette River. While there have been no sightings of the justifiably maligned Candiru fish, there have been several reports in recent years of an unmanned, phantom rowboat making its way about the Willamette. When officials are called to the scene, the boat allegedly disappears right in front of them. Evidently, there is a creepy, unfinished mansion across the river, where the builder reportedly hanged himself in the elevator shaft. He probably heard the story about the Candiru.

5) Go ahead and jump

If gravity and water are on your agenda, consider the West’s finer swimming holes, some offering the ultimate vertical experience. Check out Aztec Falls in Deep Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest. The sissy ledge is a mere 30 feet, with the big ledge at 60. There’s also the well-attended Mushroom Hole in Tahoe National Forest above the Middle Yuba River. At roughly 30 feet, it’s one of the most popular leaps in the northern Sierra. Now, if open-river swimming is more to your taste, consider the June 23 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, a scant 28.5 mile dip in the pristine waters surrounding New York City, starting and ending at Battery Park.

Way of the Mountain #188

Rivers are the lifeblood of the planet, and the sculptors of mountains. Where I live, on the cusp between the jagged peaks of the Southern Rockies and the mesa tops of the Colorado Plateau, winter is finally relinquishing its hold and mud season still in force. Soon we will have our brief warmth, after bouts of storms and possibly even late snows.

Sometimes it seems like we live in a world of two seasons in Colorado — winter and summer, and what’s between them is a no-person’s-land where anything can happen — hot sun, cold snow, driving rain. Here’s a selection of short poems for this season between seasons.

— Art Goodtimes
Maverick Draw

Mazurka

Early morning snow flurry melts
within an hour.

During which, Dream Queen,
what did you achieve?

I listened to a crow’s mazurka
on a pebble roof.

— Anne Valley-Fox
Santa Fe

Common Sense #14

People who hold themselves
with the grace of a cat
do not fear the jump
from one platform
to the other

— David Patton
St. Louis

Jail Bait

Legs forming a perfect four,
bare shoulder leaning
into the side of the shore’s
ramshackle tackle shop.

Hook, line…

Johnny rsvp’d twice
before lock up.

— Kierstin Bridger
Ridgway

Envy 2

I envy the dirty and alive,
the sleeping tired
Who rise to no care
but to get out there
And ride snow water dirt
Lungs pounding and tight,
cursing and vivid.

— Bryan Shuman
Laramie

Anabasis

In spite of my
skinned knees

I pull myself up
square my shoulders

and keep on
going.

— Nancy Davenport
Menlo Park

On The Road

The gray swirls of its coat
still startling in the daylight,
the wildcat’s
guts spill across the Sumatran highway
and confirm its determination
in this jungle
to survive.

— James Penha
New Verse News
Jakarta

The Raindrops

Play the aspen leaves
Like piano keys.
They do not recite; they write.
And they recall nothing.
Bathe me
In symphony.
I am shattered; I am mended.
And this is my religion.

— Erin Duggin
Leadville

 

 

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.

Rivers of Cameroon

Editor’s note: My wife, Gay, and I just returned from a trip to Cameroon, during which we visited three different rivers. Herein, we share some of the photographs, along with appropriate annotation, from those tropical watercourses.

— MJF

The Chari

1] We visited Kalamaloué National Park, in the far north of Cameroon, specifically in hopes of viewing elephants. We first spotted these two juvenile males on the other side of the Chari, which is in Chad. The elephants made their way across the Chari right to where we were standing with our guide, our driver and a park ranger. Once the ranger realized the elephants were coming in our direction, he ordered us to beeline post haste to the vehicle, which, with the elephants a few meters away, upped the adventure quotient by refusing to start.

2] People crossed the river between Cameroon and Chad all day long with absolute impunity.

3] The Chadian capital of N’Djamena as seen from the Cameroonian side. The main visible edifice in the presidential palace.

The Lobé

1] Barely visible, off toward center/left, is a small monkey that was coaxed out of hiding in the impenetrable foliage by our guide, who apparently spoke fluent simian-ese. The chances of Gay and I seeing that monkey on our own were nil.

2] My kingdom for a basketball court. We visited a pygmy village on the side of the Lobé, where we met with this dude, the local chief, whose spear, lore had it, had once dispatched a full-grown elephant. The chief reluctantly let me hold his spear, but once I started taking aim at a nearby tree, he asked for it back.

3] The word “pygmy” is, by all accounts, a pejorative. I was unsuccessful in my attempts to learn a different name by which these vertically challenged people could be less insultingly addressed, but failed. “We just call them ‘pygmies’,” said our guide.

4] Lobé Falls, about 20 meters high, is supposedly one of the few cascades in the world that empties directly into the ocean. When we arrived, we witnessed a local lad come within a whisker of drowning. We did not see how he arrived at the lamentable circumstance of being swept out to sea right before our very eyes, but it was only via the gallant efforts of several locals that the boy was saved by the skin of his teeth.

5] For a man who is repulsed by the idea of eating food with his hands, this was a tough feed — locally caught shrimp (heads still attached) and the ever-present French fries and fried plantains served up in a small restaurant near Lobé Falls.

6] Gay and the guide effortlessly paddling a hand-made wooden boat that can hold 10 people in a squeeze and, judging from the effort it took to haul it onto shore, probably weighed several hundred pounds.

7] It took some coaxing, but the guide eventually gave in and let me try my hand at paddling the boat. Though I have considerable experience paddling canoes on flatwater, my attempts to keep this vessel pointed in a straight line were not wholly successful. The guide was still laughing about my poor paddling several hours later over beers.

8] Canoe carved out of a single tree trunk.

The Ebogo

1] A short hike through the jungle from the Ebogo was this massive, 1,175-year-old tree. We never did get a grip on the name of the species, as the guide did not know the English name. We were constantly frustrated by our inability to understand French.

2] At 800 kilometers in length, the Ebogo is Cameroon’s second-longest river. At the time of our visit, it was less than a meter in depth. The rains were late. The flood-stage line, which was clearly visible in the proximate jungle, was about six meters high.

3] Modern African architecture (how to say this tactfully?) leaves a lot to be desired. These were the nicest new buildings we saw during our visit. They are tourist cabins that had never been opened because of some sort of bureaucratic snafu.

Crash Landing

Smoke Signals by M John Fayhee“With your feet on the air
And your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head’ll collapse
If there’s nothing in it
And then you’ll ask yourselfWhere is my mind?
— The Pixies, “Where Is My Mind?” 

There’s a stunningly fine line between a “misunderstanding” and an “incident.” And the best time to try to suss out the relative lexical semantics associated with those two words is definitely NOT while you’re on a 747 that has yet to reach cruising altitude and is headed at 600 miles per hour out over the Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately, I was right then in no condition to be pondering the subtle nuances of etymology. One second, there was relative calm. The next second, every head on the plane was turning fast toward the distant recesses of the coach section, as five flight attendants made their post haste way to seat 58C. Guess who was sitting in seat 58C?

Admittedly, I was not exactly in a jovial mood to begin with, though it was not my dour disposition that caused the flight crew to descend upon me. It was the action of a well-dressed middle-aged Oriental gentleman in seat 57A. Almost as soon as my posterior was planted, I had started to doze off (read: pass out with my tongue lolling out of my head) but, before achieving total blissful insentience, I was jerked back into consciousness by an agitated, albeit understated, conversation by my seatmates, a young married couple. “I thought this was a non-smoking flight,” said the women to her husband. “It is. Maybe we should call the stewardess,” the husband responded to his spouse. With great effort, I cracked one eye open and saw the aforementioned gentleman in seat 57A smoking a cigarette. It was here that my foul mood asserted itself. “Dude, there’s no smoking allowed,” I snarled. His reaction, while holding his cigarette in between his index and middle fingers, was to draw deeply, turn around, look straight at me, and blow two full lungs of smoke directly into my face. It was total instinct when my hand shot out to grab the cigarette from the man’s mouth. It was surely the result of fatigue associated with an arduous six-week trip that reached something of a climatic anti-climax with an ill-advised all-nighter that ended a mere hour before take-off that caused my aim to be askew. Basically, I overshot my target. Not by much, mind you, but enough that, in something of a physical manifestation of a Freudian slip, instead of snatching a smoldering cancer stick with my digits, two knuckles made solid contact with the schmuck’s lips.

The Oriental gentleman did not react calmly. Verily, he went ballistic, screaming maniacally in Chinese, blood seeping from his mouth, trying to climb over the back of his seat to have at me.

It was borderline anarchy. And, when it seemed things couldn’t get any more chaotic, all of a sudden, smoke started filling the cabin. Turns out the irate Oriental gentleman’s cigarette, which had been lost in the shuffle, had starting burning a hole in seat 57A.

My photographer buddy Norb and I had been sent by Backpacker magazine to the most remote corner of China’s Yunnan Province, to cover the first commercial rafting descent of the class-39 Yangtze River through 17-mile-long, 11,000-foot-deep Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We had no intention whatsoever to so much as stick a toe into the Yangtze through Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We, rather, planned to hike above the river, where we could more easily witness the inevitable carnage.

About two seconds before we were scheduled to leave for the People’s Republic, those malcontents in Tibet who have lived for 50 years under Beijing’s unconscionable repression decided now would be a good a time to revolt. Why they couldn’t have waited another month, who can say? But, as a result of their actions, all of Tibet, and those parts of China proper that bordered Tibet, were pretty much closed to foreign visitation while the People’s Liberation Army went about liberating a whole bunch of Tibetans of their mortality. Well, guess where Tiger’s Leaping Gorge is? Not to worry, we were told by the proprietors of Sobek, the company that was charging customers something like $20,000 apiece to risk life and limb in Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. They would simply add our names to their special-exception permit list, and all would be well.

So, we arrived in Hong Kong, where we had a two-day layover before our flight to  Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, with a sense of ease that ought to have, right off the bat, worried us.

The plan was to hook up with the Sobek people Dali, a lovely little mountain town eight hours by bus from Kunming. Sobek co-founders Richard Bangs and John Yost had some bad news for us: They had forgotten to include our names on the permit — meaning, because Tiger’s Leaping Gorge was, as I indicated earlier, closed to all non-special-permitted foreign visitation, we would be legally prohibited from venturing there to cover the impending rafting catastrophe. The liaison to the Chinese Sports Ministry said, maybe, we would be able to get some sort of special dispensation if we took a hand-written note from him to the Public Security Bureau — the dreaded PSB — in Lijiang, the next sizeable town up the road. While understanding that the scribble he had jotted down might very well have been an admonition to the Lijiang cops to shoot us on sight, we boarded yet another bus for half a day to Lijiang, where the local gendarmerie handed us a typed note in English stating, unambiguously, if we tried to go to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge, we would be arrested, jailed and “eventually” deported.

Were it not for hefty quantities of fortifying beverages, that typed note would likely have signaled an ignominious defeat. But Norb and I have always been far too stupid to face failure without doing something asinine to make that failure even more undignified. We opted after numerous adult beverages to defy the PSB. Somehow, some way, we were going to make it the last 60 miles to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We had two days before Sobek was scheduled to run the Yangtze.

We hatched a scheme that was deceptively moronic. We figured, after our conversation with the PSB, they would surely be on the lookout for us, which would be pretty easy, since there was only one road from Lijiang to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. Ergo: It would not take much in the way of law-enforcement acumen to catch us in the act. So we opted, rather than walk through the middle of town early in the a.m., to sneak through the back streets to hook up with the road we needed to be on. Thing is, this was long enough ago that round eyes were decidedly unusual in small-town China. For the most part, as we slinked our way along muddy alleys as wide as my desk, people eyeballed us warily and silently from the shadows. Then, we passed in front of a goddamned elementary school, which literally disgorged before our very eyes. Every one of the 6,000 students had evidently, the very day before, learned two, and two only, words of English: “Hello” and “Good-bye.” Not that it mattered to Norb and I at that moment, but these 6,000 screaming schoolchildren displayed no discernible pattern whatsoever in the use of their limited English vocabulary. A third yelled “hello” at the top of their little lungs the entire time we passed by, while a third yelled “good-bye,” while the remaining third used both terms randomly, like they were trying to work out the lyrics to the old Beatles song. In short, our attempts at subterfuge were counterproductive.

Then, though, a miracle happened: Through no fault of our own, our dumbass selves were suddenly on the road to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. Then, another miracle happened: We managed to hitch a ride in the back of a dump truck all the way to the village of Dachu — walking distance from our destination. Next morning, we hired a rickety boat to take us across the frighteningly roiling Yangtze to the downriver gateway to Tigers Leaping Gorge!

An hour later, up walks from the opposite direction, of all perplexing and disheartening things, the entire Sobek crew.

“Uh, aren’t you folks supposed to be rafting this section?” we asked.

“We decided it was too dangerous,” was the almost-indifferent response. With that, they were off. Off too was the story we had traveled 12 time zones to cover. For the next four days, we did not know what would befall us when we emerged on the upper end of Tiger’s Leaping Gorge, whether there would be a troop of PSB agents standing there ready to arrest us. And we did not know what would become of our story once the editors at Backpacker learned that the Sobek people had sanely pussied out at the very last possible minute. Those were not things we could control, so we pressed on, took pictures and, on those few instances when they did not sprint away from us screaming, chatted with locals. Lack of Sobek carnage notwithstanding, it was an astounding hike through one of the deepest canyons on the planet.

Two miles from civilization, we walked right through the middle of (and I am not making this up) a Chinese prison chain gang, dressed in ripped-up striped suits, breaking rocks with sledgehammers, just like in the movies. This was not a happy-looking lot, and the thought that, maybe in a few hours, we would be joining them in their labors almost made us piss our pants. But, when we arrived in the first town large enough to have bus service, not a single person paid the slightest attention to our presence.

We were free.

And that was it. We returned to Hong Kong for one last night before this demanding adventure was over and done with. What could possibly go wrong?

Funny you should ask …

We arrived in Hong Kong during the earliest hours of October 19, 1987, otherwise known in fiscal circles as “Black Monday,” the worst single day in the history of stock exchanges. By lunch time, Hong Kong, a place that survives off the electronic shuffling of dollars, pounds sterling, francs and yen the way most societies survive off food, water, shelter and oxygen, was in utter turmoil, and, by the time the closing bell rung, the entire colony was shaken to its core, because, in one short business day, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the third-largest in the world in terms of actual capitalization, had lost almost 50 percent of its value. By the next day, when the shockwaves of Black Monday rippled their way to New York, the Dow Jones would suffer its biggest one-day loss ever.

Even as people were running down Salisbury and Nathan roads, bumping into buildings and wailing in abject despair, Norb and I, being insulated from the vagaries of the stock market via our perpetual destitution, opted to deal with this international crisis-in-the-making by venturing forth into the Kowloon evening. Our destination was Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, an Aussie-owned bar so popular with ex-pats and tourists that, if you did not arrive on the scene by happy hour, your chances of getting a seat were nil, and if you did not have a seat, there was nothing to do save stand there in the middle of walkways the wait staff traversed in their noble quest to slake thirsts.

We thought we were ahead of the crowd curve, but, given the fact that half the inhabitants of Hong Kong were at that very moment liquidly lamenting their newfound residency in the poor house, Norb and I arrived at Ned Kelly’s too late to get seats. The only spot I could find to even stand was next to a 10-top horseshoe-shaped booth — at that moment completely filled with a group of very loud, young and drunk Aussies. The 10-top was the closest table to the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. Every time a waitperson passed through those doors, I had to suck in my stomach and hold my breath, lest I get knocked over. At one point, my attention wandered ever so slightly, just as a waitress from, of all places, Evergreen, Colorado, exploded through those swinging doors holding high above her head a well-laden tray. I leaned back as far as I could, as fast as I could, and, as she passed, my center of gravity was no longer centered and, as a result, the smallest part of my ass made the slightest contact with the edge of that 10-top table and, as it did so, I could hear behind me 10 tall glasses of beer topple over in unison, like bowling pins.

The rowdy Aussies saw what had happened and were good-natured about it. Still, they were all soaked from the waist down, so they left to change into duds a bit drier. Bad as I felt, when the Aussies left, Norb and I found ourselves with ample seating. Shortly after we took advantage of the situation, a young Canadian, who was living and working in Hong Kong, asked if he could join us. He said he was meeting someone, an Englishman, who arrived in short order. The two men chatted conspiratorially and, under the table, a wad of folded bills was passed from the Canuck, who received in turn a small foil-wrapped packet from the Limey. Almost immediately, the Canuck asked if Norb and I would be interested in joining him back at his flat. “I’ve got something here that you might enjoy,” he said, without indicating exactly what that “something” might be. We said sure, and, minutes later, we were in a 40th-story abode about the size of my car, which the Canadian shared with one of his countrymen and two locals.

The Canadian had purchased from the Englishman back at Ned Kelly’s several grams of opiated Kashgari hash, which was debilitatingly potent. After one hit, Norb and I found ourselves fused to the couch, completely unable to so much as twitch, for the rest of the night.

It would have been one thing if that were essentially this end of the story. But, well — shit! — the entire time we were parked comatose upon the Canadian’s couch, one of his roommates, a young yuppie-type of Chinese heritage, had been … trying … to … commit suicide. He had lost his entire family’s multi-generation wealth during the Black Monday meltdown and wasn’t handling the situation in any way that, say, Thoreau would have sanctioned.

He had arrived shortly post-smoke, and, after exchanging pleasantries with the Canadian, he calmly placed his hat, briefcase and umbrella aside, screeched at the top of his lungs and dashed full speed to the closest window, which he impacted with the top of his noggin. The window, fortunately, was closed tight. Before anyone could react, or, in the case of Norb and I, not react, he had the window open and one leg was dangling 40 stories above the street. This man was not bullshitting; he was going out that window. In one of the more heroic acts I have ever witnessed, the Canadian, who was surely as stoned as were Norb and I, was up and pulling his disconsolate roommate back into the land of the living. This suicidal savior dance proceeded apace every 15 minutes until the figurative roosters began waking a Hong Kong that, in economic terms, was in utter ruins, and thus pretty much remained until China reclaimed its territory a decade later.

There came a point when Norb and I had to move. With Herculean effort, we wobbled back to our hovel, retrieved our filthy piles of gear, hailed a taxi and made it to the airport by the skin of our teeth. We parted ways, Norb headed for Sea-Tac by way of Tokyo, me headed toward Stapleton by way of San Francisco.

And so I found myself in seat number 58C, with a gaggle of flight attendants huddled around me. The irate Chinese guy had been moved up toward the front of the plane and the smoking seat had been doused with hot coffee.

One of the flight attendants leaned over my seat and asked: “You think we can make it all the way to San Francisco without further incident,” she drawled.

“I thought of it more as a simple misunderstanding,” I responded.

With that, I crashed hard, and, when I awoke, we were on final approach to economic chaos that had no bearing whatsoever on my humble little life.

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