The Colorado: First River of the Anthropocene

Colorado River

Reading the same old conventional wisdoms over and over makes me impatient, to the point where I start to say things that I know will piss everyone off, even most of my friends, just as a way to say, c’mon, think about it for a minute, dammit! It’s always a mistake — but what the hell: here goes.

Jonathan Waterman’s recent book, “Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River,” hit the tipping point for me. Not because it’s any worse than any of the rest of the books about the Colorado River; it’s not. But it’s just the same old sad story, a mingling of lamentation, nostalgia and repugnance for a river presumed to be ruined if we don’t stop … whatever. And maybe it is ruined, for a geological moment here; it is certainly a river with problems. I would definitely say it is a river beyond “restoration” at this point — restoration as “the river that was” anyway. But does that mean it is “ruined?” A half-built house has problems that are very different from the problems of a house that is falling down — but you don’t solve those problems by trying to turn the boards back into trees. And if for no reason other than the eventual boredom of hearing a sad story over and over, I’m not going to just agree that the Colorado River has been ruined by its problems until I’ve heard at least one more perspective on the river. I want some judgments on the river from an Anthropocene perspective.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I am not above reproach in this business of literary lamentations about the Colorado River. Back in 1977, I wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine about the Lower Colorado River, arguing finally that “this cannot go on this way,” an essay that became a PBS-type film in 1981. Also in 1981, environmental journalist Philip Fradkin brought out “A River No More,” lamenting what we have done to the Colorado. Not long after that, Marc Reisner wrote the environmentalist epic “Cadillac Desert,” lamenting what we’ve done to the entire American West with emphasis on the Colorado River; a few years after that, Colorado journalist Jim Carrier wrote “The Colorado: A River at Risk”; and just a few years ago we got “Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West.” And now we’ve got the latest in this literary cottage industry, Jonathan Waterman’s “Running Dry”the book that hit the tipping point for me, and precipitated this effort to see if there isn’t some way out of this “dead pool” of nostalgia and lamentation.

Some factoids: Over the 35 years since my Harper’s essay, these regular predictions of near-death notwithstanding, the Colorado River now provides some or all of the drinking water for around 10 million more people than it did in 1977 — around 35 million of us today. If you’re eating fresh vegetables in mid-winter, you probably have to thank the lower Colorado River to some degree. The southwestern cities that depend on the river, and that most of us depend on directly or indirectly for jobs, complex networks of finance and transportation and communication, a vast menu of entertainment, et cetera, et cetera, have mostly at least doubled in size in that time.

Meanwhile, from the Mountain Gazette perspective, the Colorado still has almost as many stretches of good whitewater rafting as it did in 1977 (although it had lost a lot in the decades before), a lot of good-to-great fishing (with some improved fisheries), a lot of beautiful scenery with new “wild and scenic” stretches being protected, not to mention flatwater reservoirs for those who like that kind of thing — and the industrial management processes that operate this great American playground are pretty discrete, so that it is possible, for example, to spend a couple weeks floating down the Grand Canyon, only seeing a few other parties besides your own, and feeling like you truly are in a great natural wilderness and you don’t have to think about the high level of crowd management and planning that goes into nurturing that feeling.

I hasten to add that I am not deluded that everything is fine on the Colorado River — far from it. There are major problems that we need to address on the river, from the headwaters all the way down through that vast delta that now begins at Parker Dam and spreads the river from Phoenix and Tucson on the east all the way around through a lot of desert farming to Los Angeles and San Diego on the west. The creeping consequences of diverting too much water from the headwaters for out-of-basin metropolises, the cattle-caused breakdown and depletion of mountain streams, the salt-loading from some irrigation runback on top of the natural salinity of the river, evaporative losses that further degrade water quality, siltation behind reservoirs and a lack of silt in the Grand Canyon, loss of both riparian and aquatic habitat for wildlife, loss of most of the old delta — there is no shortage of problems facing us up and down the river. But, with the exception of the recently “discovered” global climate change looming over everything, these situations were already problems 35 years ago, and some of them — irrigation-induced salinity, loss of habitat, degradation of streambeds caused my human and livestock activity — have actually been addressed with some success over those 35 years.

I would certainly agree that our enhanced level of “environmental awareness” has been important in motivating those improvements and “corrections” to our often naïve and clumsy works on the planet. But I raise the question: Are we doing what we do, to undo what we’ve done, for reasons that really make sense in the way the planet works? The fact that we are still writing and reading the same old “river-no-more” book about this situation makes me think, no, we aren’t. There’s a problem of context and focus. It may not be a problem of not thinking right about this river; the problem might be a way in which we are not thinking right about ourselves.

Let me try to explain. A couple three weeks ago, I had a discussion with another writer about what geological epoch we are living in. He said “the Holocene.” I said “the Anthropocene.” We didn’t get much beyond that, and probably won’t for another, say, 300 years; it turns out to be a religious question, about beliefs that lie below reason for both of us. But it is not a minor distinction; those two words encapsulate two diametrically opposed concepts of the relationship between the earth and ourselves that we ought to at least be aware of.

Most plainly, “Holocene” refers to a climatological epoch in which we humans have been impacted by things happening on earth (climatic moderation, disappearance of planet-cooling ice sheets, et cetera), while Anthropocene refers to a biological and climatological epoch in which the earth has been impacted by things happening among humans (advanced technologies, release of banked carbon, et cetera).

The Holocence Epoch began somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, depending on whose criteria you like, when the last glacial epoch of the Pleistocene eased up and the Big Ice retreated again in its mysterious way. The climate moderated, things warmed up, and plant and animal species tough enough to survive the cold deserts in the shadow of the Big Ice more or less exploded into that dangerous kind of success that nature usually rewards with a nasty comeuppance, as ecological limits get pushed to the breaking point. The megafauna explosion that ended in population crashes thousands of years ago was probably one example of those Holocene “success tragedies”; the passenger pigeon was an example from historical times; extreme cycles in populations of small mammals like the lemmings or gophers are apparently always going on somewhere.

There is, however, one successful species that has swarmed on the earth in the most recent 10,000 years of the epoch my friend wants to call the Holocene — but this species has not yet crashed on the ecological reefs, and that is because for the past 10,000 years or so it has shown remarkable creativity in adapting to its own ecological consequences with new, ever more concentrated and sophisticated systems for social and economic organization. That’s us, of course. And despite constant and accelerating warnings from those who study such phenomena, we seem thoroughly disinclined to do anything aggressive to control our own swarming. We instead continue to manipulate the environments we live in to squeeze out yet a little more for us, knowing that we do it at the expense of other forms of life, and through irreversible changes in those environments — but what choice do we have? No free people could tolerate — right? — the levels of external and internal discipline and social structure it would take to bring us back into some level of balance with what we think of as nature, which was the world before us. Today, the planet throws its worst shots at us — diseases, drought and famine, flood and famine, tsunamis, hurricanes, supertornados — but our scientists conquer the diseases before they can really take hold; our managers and NGOs move enough food around to keep some of the famines in hand; and growth spurts somewhere in the world soon make up for the loss of a few hundred thousand, or million, somewhere else. We continue to swarm, and to invent new social and economic systems to enable us to live in even larger concentrations, and to squeeze just a little more out of the ecological support systems. We know about peak oil and climate change, but seem increasingly incapable of real action on any of it; instead we continue to indulge our own inner denier like we indulge the public ones, hopping in the car to go to the store or the nearest trailhead, confident that, if the scientists and engineers and managers can’t come up with another silver bullet, then it’s too late anyway and we might as well enjoy the last days.

Depending on how you choose to look at it, our continued ability to change the planet to serve us rather than changing ourselves is either a tragedy (meaning we’re learning something the hard way), a travesty (meaning a meaningless comedy of errors that isn’t even funny) or a miraculous achievement. And why not at least explore the last alternative, since it suggests a sense of optimism, however illusory it might turn out to be?

Which brings me back to the Colorado River, and why I think we need to start looking at it from an Anthropocene perspective. What choice do we have? The cities of the desert keep growing, and are not going to stop growing because they cannot: the global population continues to grow because we cannot or will not stop it, and the people will go where they can. And wherever people go, there needs to be water there for them, and it is one of the cornerstones of the American Way to say with the engineers: “Can do!”

So we are going to keep on remaking the Colorado River in the image of man’s growing needs: the First Anthropocene River.

So what is the Colorado River going to look like when its reconstruction is done? This is where the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Colorado River is kind of out in front of the pack in the anthropocentric reconstruction of the earth portion of the planet. (The oceans are another world.) We have decided that we need the Colorado River to continue to look as much like it used to look as possible. “Need” is deliberately chosen there; we need this the way we need food to eat, water to drink. It can go to places where it is reduced to rational piping and plumbing, but there have to still be significant segments of it that “look natural.” Phoenix can do what it will, but the Grand Canyon must remain the Grand Canyon.

Sometimes this is pretty easy. The Gunnison River (my home basin) has a tributary, the Taylor River, that has a beautiful stretch of canyons — 20-plus miles. And at the head of that canyon stretch is a dam that used to be late-summer storage for a big irrigation district a hundred miles downstream. But some new dams on the mainstem of the Gunnison gave the irrigators a closer, better place to store their late water. So all of a sudden, they did not really need the dam up the Taylor River. One can hear the chorus that would erupt today: “Tear it down! Free the river!”

Instead (this being back when it was not yet a sin to be Anthropocene), a “local user group,” made up of Taylor River irrigators, the local anglers club, a couple rafting companies, the reservoir concessionaires and some wealthy second-home owners, went to the Bureau of Reclamation and proposed that the storage at the top of the canyon be used to run the river like a “natural stream,” only with periodic adjustments for special needs (late-summer irrigation, a river-runner event, et cetera) and also with the kind of year-to-year regularity that storage affords when the highly irregular Western water cycle does its extreme events. So now, every spring, the local user group sits down and figures out how the water will be released from the dam to operate the river. No one is entirely indulged, but everyone gets most of what they want, and it is a lovely little river — entirely a human economic and aesthetic construct at this point, but as beautiful and natural-looking (in a dependable sort of way) as it ever was.

So, sometimes it’s easy — especially when the cities of the plain across the mountains have not yet come looking for water to move out of the river and into their plumbing. What about a mountain river that’s not so lucky? Like the mainstem of the Colorado River in Colorado. Its major headwaters watersheds — the Fraser, Williams Fork, Blue and Eagle rivers — are so water-rich that they made a significant, and very convenient, eastward bulge in the Continental Divide. Today, two-thirds of the waters that originate in this bulge now go through the Divide in tunnels to the cities and farms (mostly the cities) of the East Slope rather than down the Colorado to the southwestern deserts.

Geologists say that this eastward bulge in the watersheds was the consequence of a huge glacial lake that broke through the Gore Range during some previous warm spell between Pleistocene glaciations. Had that not happened, the Gore Range might have been part of the Continental Divide, and those headwaters streams might have all been part of the Platte-Missouri Basin already when we Anthropocenes arrived a century and a half ago. It would have saved a lot of work — but that misses the point of the Anthropocene: imagining the work and carrying it out is what we’ve been all about.

The work today, a task finally being taken semi-seriously by the cities east of the Divide that have dewatered the streams, is to rebuild the rivers from which they have taken two-thirds of the water: to reconstruct them so they still look and even function like natural rivers — important to the human economy — and can adequately meet downstream obligations. (Those downstream obligations, I should note, are strictly the obligations to humans created during the Anthropocene; for the next half-millennium or so, it no longer includes the much longer-standing obligation the river apparently had to convey the entire Southern Rockies and the disruptive Colorado Plateau south to the Gulf of California as rubble and silt. An impressive but ultimately kind of meaningless task, maybe even more meaningless than creating huge transient cities in the desert.)

Much has been made of a recent agreement between Denver Water and something like 60 regional, county, municipal, agricultural and industrial water-oriented organizations west of the Divide in the Upper Colorado River tributaries, but no one seems to be announcing the Anthropocene triumph: when the cities of Eastern Colorado complete the job they are just beginning (and it will require many more cooperative agreements), the Colorado River mainstem will be, from top to bottom, a completely man-made river, the “first Anthropocene River” — and a lot of it, most of it in the Southern Rockies, will look really natural and beautiful.

The agreement involves fairly small numbers, for something that took five years to negotiate. For a surprisingly modest amount of water — around 18,000 acre-feet a year, less than a tenth the amount that now goes annually to the cities across the Divide — Denver Water will be investing millions of dollars in the Upper Colorado River. Much of the money this go-round goes to sewer plants that increasingly lack any dilutive capability in their systems due to reduced flows. But the rest — the ultimate Anthropocene act — will go to reconstructing some sections of the river where the amount of water taken to the Front Range has left the flows too shallow and sun-warmed to support the aquatic systems that fish, kayakers and those who cater to fishermen and kayakers depend on. They are going to construct a scaled-down version of the former river.

A friend in the Eagle River valley, who is less impressed with this cooperative agreement than many others, explains it thus: “They are putting backhoes and bulldozers into the water, to convert a former river into a creek.” There’s a more Anthropocene way of saying that: It will be a stream that will fit the amount of water still available.

It’s not cheap, maybe a million bucks a mile, more or less — it’s still a fairly new operation. But it is a definite step up in a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of rivers — say, from the engineers’ sense in the 1950s and before that a river was just a sort of sewer system for excess water on the land, and straightening channels made it function more efficiently. It is also a definite step up for Denver Water, which for most of the 20th century vigorously, even violently, resisted the idea that taking water from the headwaters of a river conferred any moral obligation. There’s a man named Chips Barry to thank for that change, although he was by no stretch a man who thought that rivers should run free just because they used to. He was a man of the Anthropocene all the way, but came to understand that the new world had to be remade somewhat in the image of the old one.

One could go on in this vein, but the point would be the same: wherever you go on the Colorado River, you are looking at a river that has been remade to render multiple services to a swarming species that likes to eat, drink and make merry. The question is whether the humans who benefit from all this are going to be able to adapt to the reality of their lives and acknowledge the miracle associated with the dual facts that there is still water in the Grand Canyon as well as in the faucets of Denver and LA, or whether we are going to continue to indulge the “nostalgia centers” in the cortex that can only see the half-empty river, but not the opportunity to half-size the river to appear full. That of course will probably precipitate other unanticipated problems to work on — but that is the road we are on; it’s what we do to avoid having to get some control over ourselves and our numbers.

The last step in the remaking of the Colorado River will probably be to bring certainty to the most common lamentation: “the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.” Get used to that one — and not just for this river. Once we have thoroughly “firmed up” our control and utilization of the world’s freshwater resources — only a very small percent of the total water on the planet — no river will be drowning itself in that salty cesspool. It is wonderful that life has learned to live abundantly in saltwater, but that is another world on the same planet; it neither needs the leftover piss-in-the-ocean semi-fresh water from rivers, nor misses the evaporation that enables the recharge of those rivers in our mountains.

Watch a river at work — tearing stuff off the hillsides it can’t keep from running off of, then piling that debris in front of itself in leveler places, forcing itself into meanders, staying with the land as long as it can even as it continues to move the land around — there’s no evidence that a mature river is in any hurry to get to the ocean. And the rich delta zone it pushes as far as it can out into the sea before it succumbs to the sea — a river’s last hurrah. Why shouldn’t that final life zone instead be a lot of rich farmland and a megacity or two to contain the masses? There are problems to solve there too, of course — usually that “freshwater” isn’t that fresh by the time it gets to its final lowlands. The job of reconstructing the river in the image of ourselves and our needs and desires is not done; there’s plenty of work for another generation or two. As Ed Marston, former High Country News publisher, said to me once, “No generation should be expected to solve all the problems for the next generation.”

But there’s also the possibility that that “nostalgia center” in our cerebral hard wiring may be powerful enough so we find we just cannot tolerate the idea of the Anthropocene, and most of us (especially if we read all the sanctioned books of lamentations) will be like the ancient dispersed Jews: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” We’ll continue to paddle down the work-in-progress in our miracle-fabric boats with the lightweight carbon-fiber paddles and our freeze-dried foods and Nalgene bottles, deploring what we see as we write the next lamentatious epic in crocodile tears. And so we will abandon the half-done project — maybe the barely begun project, the first time life itself has ever presumed to take an active role in the evolution of life — and the world will become even more intolerable until three-fourths of us die fairly quickly from something, and the remainder goes back to the simple life, which will not be so simple …

We should probably also do whatever we do or don’t do in the secure knowledge that eventually, regardless of our efforts, the Colorado River will be back at its own primal obligation of removing the Southern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau, grain by grain, flood by flood, down to the sea-level peneplain that water dreams of. We know that the dams, as we currently know how to do dams, are only good for maybe half a millennia, maybe a little longer; that’s one of the problems we pass on to the next generation. But the real challenge might be making Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver last even that long. Unlike the climatological ages preceding this one — the Pleistocene with its flow and ebb of glaciations, the lovely moderate Holocene, the hot steamy eras like the Carboniferous to which we may be returning as we begin recycling all that banked carbon — the Anthropocene, at this point, depends on whether nostalgia or imagination will capture our minds from here on out.

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” 

— Stewart Brand

Senior correspondent George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter” and “Dragons in Paradise.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo. 

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


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

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


In spite of my
skinned knees

I pull myself up
square my shoulders

and keep on

— 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

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



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.


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.

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 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, 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

Occupy Tour
Photo cred: B. Frank


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: and, 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.  


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 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 (, 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