The Hermit Trail

Grand Canyon illustration

Ed Abbey and I traveled all over the Southwest. I was a college sophomore and “Desert Solitare” had been in print for only four years. I kept a cheap, dog-eared copy in my red Kelty external-frame backpack and everywhere I hitchhiked across the Southwest, there was Ed.

We had great conversations as we thumbed across the Colorado Plateau, from the Glen Canyon Damn to the Gila, the Henrys, Madera Canyon and the Dragoons.

He was there that night in Hussong’s in Enseñada, Mexico, when I met a ranch manager at the bar and he suggested we visit the place he was caretaking along the coast. On the way to the beach, we suffered a fierce hailstorm, got soaked. I tried to dry my jeans by the ranch house fireplace, but, because of too much tequila, my attention wavered. The jeans burned up, and I crossed the border at Tijuana wearing a beard and a lightweight cotton skirt.

Ed was in my pack with the fringed Pendleton blanket I’d bought at the pawn shop on Route 66 in Gallup. I didn’t know it was a female blanket. It was cheap and I wanted to stay warm. Sometimes, I wore it draped around my shoulders or tied to the top of my pack. All across Navajo and Hopi land, I got sly smiles from children, uproarious laughter from adults and rides in the back of trucks.

Abbey was my guide. He taught me never to let college interfere with my education, how to question authority and how to find myself by getting lost. He went with me to Canyonlands, Arches, Wupatki and everywhere on the Coconino. Abbey was even with me on the Hermit Trail in the glaring light and suffocating heat of the Grand Canyon, and he was just as glad to crawl out of that overrated hole in the ground as I was. To hell with all those glorious sunrises and sunsets. I needed beer. I needed rest. And I needed to get laid.

I knew it wasn’t a good idea to take two girlfriends to the bottom of the Grand Canyon on the same hike. I knew the Hermit Trail was a long, hot nine-mile slog 4,300 feet down to the river, but I wanted less traffic than on the Bright Angel Trail, with its hordes of tourists and farting, shitting mules. I knew what I wanted, but I had no idea how much trouble I’d get into or what I’d find at the Colorado River’s edge.

What I didn’t know was how much water to take, even in March. Nor did I know the benefits of caps, hats, anything to cover my overheated head. But I’d learn. Oh, yes, I’d learn.

In the morning descending into the center of the earth, the first mile below the rim, hikers are confident, calm, poised. Backpacks are not yet heavy, thirst is not anything like what it will be by late afternoon, and the lack of shade is of no consequence. Hikers stretch out and get distance between each other. The full-on heat of the canyon is not yet apparent, at least not in early spring. It’s joyful to swing out along the trail walking, deeper and deeper away from the traffic, congestion and gawking tourists with their cameras, ice cream cones and fear of leaving the paved viewpoints on top.

Molly, Susan and I spread out. We attended college together and wanted to hike the Grand Canyon on our spring break. It had seemed like a fine thing to do back in Colorado with late-winter snow still on the ground, and no warm Chinook winds to melt patches of ice. So we made the drive down through Durango, the Four Corners, on to Kayenta, Tuba City, Cameron and in. Seeing the canyon in late afternoon light is unforgettable. As we drove, we thought about how fun it would be to play in the river so far below us, we couldn’t even see it.

Susan had her dad’s big Ford Galaxie station wagon and agreed to drive, which gave me time to flirt with freckle-faced Molly with her long straight hair, cute dimples and warm smile. I didn’t know how well I’d get to know her until we got close to the bottom. Then she took off her shorts and top and swam naked in one of the pools. Underwater, she dipped and dived, her smooth white skin submerged below the green surface of the water, a college boy’s fantasy if ever there was one. I’d been reading Abbey and somewhere he’d written about “rosy-bottomed skinny-dippers.” Had he been down the Hermit Trail, too?

But before we got to the pools and Polly’s birthday suit, there were miles of hot, dusty trail. After a few hours, my canteen was almost empty. I had no chewing gum and my tongue was getting thick and heavy. Little sparks seemed to float near my eyelids. I finished the canteen and soon wanted more water but, in the glare of mid-day, all I could find was shimmering, bleached-out rocks. The trail wound down. First, I wanted water, then I begged for shade, but there was none of that, either.

Instead, what there was under that glaring, brutal sun was a group of bouncy, boisterous Boy Scouts. Didn’t they know they could die out here in the depths of the Grand Canyon? What sort of Kool-Aid was in their canteens anyway? And, if the Boy Scouts were a shimmering haze of uniforms, patches and pins, on the flat, dry Tonto Platform, I thought I saw a wiry little man skipping down the trail, poking at rocks, turning them over and setting them back. It was high noon and I thought I was seeing things — a brown leather elf wearing nylon shorts and sandals. He looked not just sunburned but sunbaked, like a dark chocolate chip cookie left in an oven overnight. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing and assumed we’d had too many beers the evening before at our camp up top.

We’d packed all wrong. Too much food. Canned goods, mostly. Too many clothes. Winter wear for Colorado utterly unnecessary where we were headed. The sleeping bags were too heavy and I don’t remember any tents. What I do remember is becoming overheated, wanting water, then wanting shade, willing to settle for death if only the vultures and coyotes would be quick and clean. Sharp claws gripped behind my eyeballs. Dust in my nose made it hard to breath, and those damn Boy Scouts up ahead kept singing.

I knew I should have felt more responsibility for the young women I was with, but they seemed to have more stamina than I did, and they had sense enough to bring caps while I thought my long hair would keep me cool. Without a hiking stick, I slipped and tripped every now and then, sliding a few feet closer to the bottom. As for the brilliant colors and snapshots of geologic time in the heart of the canyon, it was all stone to me. I was as dry as a hobo’s shoe.

Just when I was ready to give up, fall behind a rock and wait for darkness, death, anything, out of the corner of my eye I saw the tiniest little white cloud.  A few minutes later, it got larger, and the hot desert wind seemed to be a trifle cooler. The cumulus cloud grew. I said a quick prayer for shade and was overjoyed when the first cold drop of rain splattered in the dust before me. Suddenly, scattered drops became a deluge. What had been an insufferable descent into hell became a rush to get out of the cold, driving rain mixed with spikes of hail.

We came around a corner to find Hermit’s Creek and a likely ledge for shelter. As we ducked under it, we were surprised to see a dozen other hikers with wet hair, soaked shirts and saturated packs. My death march was over. From rain running off the alcove I scooped cold, clear water in dripping handfuls. We had a few snacks. The eagles let go of the backs of my eyeballs. I was delighted to see how lovely Susan and Molly looked in their wet, clinging T-shirts. It was the early 1970s and liberated women wore no bras.

Renewed, refreshed and keenly interested in sharing my sleeping bag that night, when the rain ceased we swung on down the trail. In another mile, we could hear the river, though we couldn’t see it. Water kept flowing down rivulets and off canyon walls. I was as happy and as ecstatic in that moment as I had been depressed and forlorn forty minutes earlier.

Life had taken on new meaning. I would live to tell the tale. To hell with the vultures, the coyotes and the Boy Scouts. I had two girls ahead of me on the path, a pack full of food, a wet bandanna around my neck for extra cooling and the welcome roar of a river getting louder in my ears. It would be an exciting night to be alone with Susan and Molly. I would be the hero, the guide, the interpreter. I would make up stories about prospectors, tell them about my favorite children’s book, “Brighty of the Grand Canyon,” whip up Dinty Moore beef stew as canyon cuisine, wait for the stars, the cool night and the need to sleep close.

And then I saw them. Large hairy males wearing loin cloths dead ahead on the trail. Tall, muscular, bearded, like some throwback to the Stone Age. What the hell was this? We had almost made it to the bottom. I wanted to be alone with these two young bra-less co-eds, but, instead, we’d stumbled into a camp of degenerate, dope-smoking male hippies in need of food and females. While I was trying to determine what kind of threat the lean, muscular and totally bronzed Neanderthals might pose, Polly took off her clothes …

Stunned, I watched as she swam and splashed, making little noises about how cool the water was. I particularly liked her backstroke. Shapely breasts exposed, silken alabaster thighs moving slowly through the pool. Suddenly, there was a large splash. One of the cavemen had taken off his loincloth and jumped in. They started to swim and laugh together. I thought about reaching for a rock to bean him on the head when he swam by, but then I saw his four friends grinning ear to ear and talking to Sarah, who had just started to take off her T-shirt, too. I looked at my arms. As white as the belly of a trout.

So much for all those hours spent in the college library. My moment of confidence and tranquility ebbed away. I sat down hard on a rock, took off my pack, looked for a map and realized this was the end of the trail. The Colorado River was just below us. I had thought I’d find privacy. I thought at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, the girls’ inhibitions would fall away. You know, back to nature in the basement of time.

But I had not counted on stumbling into a male hippie enclave hiding from the National Park Service. Their 14-day camping permits had long since expired. Instead, the merry band lived on food from any backpackers who had extra and who were returning to the top. When that ran out, they drew straws from blades of grass to see who would make the long hike up. We had arrived just in time. I had brought food and females.

Dejected, I watched a milk-white mermaid and a bronzed Greek God gambol in a pour-off pool. The Grand Canyon suddenly didn’t seem so grand anymore. Then the lizard man showed up.

He wasn’t actually a lizard man. He was a man who studied lizards and looked like one. He was a scientist from some university back east and this was his spring break, too. I don’t know what he’d been smoking, but a decade earlier he’d been hiking the Hermit Trail, crossing the Tonto Platform, and had seen the very first, only, one-of-a-kind, bonafide lizard with hair on it. Naturally, he was surprised. Delighted, but surprised. Quickly he reached for his camera only to remember that he’d forgotten to put in a new roll of film.

The lizard lounged, did a few push-ups, posed on a rock, showing off its hairy chest and a few small tufts of hair on its legs. Frantically, the scientist groped to load his camera, finally the film was in. He quickly closed the camera’s back, leaned down to take the photo that would make him world famous, and the hairy lizard disappeared. Without a trace. Into the vastness of the Grand Canyon. Into the brightness of high noon.

Skeptically, I listened to his story. It didn’t sound too probable to me, but what the hell? How was I to know that a colony of renegade hippies would make off with not one but both of my girlfriends? Reality was pretty strange down here below the rim. Anything could happen in the heat of the day.

I looked again at the scientist. He’d been stained mahogany by the sun. Then I looked closer. If he’d found a lizard with hair on it, he himself had no hair. Nowhere. He was as bald as a river rock. Seemed a little odd, but he was telling what he thought was a rational story about why he’d returned to the same spot on the Hermit Trail every March for the last sixteen years. This was the imp I’d seen hours ago.

I was sympathetic. At least I’d found someone not interested in gawking at the two girls I’d led down here to a canyon oasis. Still feeling sorry for myself, I looked up. By then, we were close to the river and a large group of rafts was coming by, including a National Park Service rig hidden in between the other rafts. The swimmers had decided to sun themselves on a boulder and didn’t see what was happening.

Ah ha! I thought. I’m saved. The Park Service will bust these law-breaking cavemen, give them fat fines, handcuff them, haul them out by water and leave me in peace with my naked nymphs. Hooray for the man with the gray shirt and golden badge!

But the hippies, long overdue up top, had been expecting an official visit. Just as I started to run down to the rocks to receive a tossed line from the short-sleeved ranger, the king of the vagabonds, naked as the day he was born, jumped off the boulder he’d been lying on with Molly, swam a little ways off shore, climbed on another rock and yelled at the passing boaters, water streaming off the long hair that ran halfway down his shoulders, “MY NAME IS KING RICHARD AND THIS IS MY BATHTUB — BE GONE!!!”

Startled by this brazen exhibition of premeditated madness, the Park Service ranger forgot to throw the rope. He drifted into frothing Hermit Rapid the wrong way and, despite paddling hard toward shore, the current pulled him into the river’s main channel. Like the other rafters, he was gone. And so was my hope for solitude and sex.

The cavemen, the girls, the lizard man, all began to laugh. I didn’t.

It would be a long restless night, followed by more nakedness the next day with accompanying giggles, hand holding and God knows what else. I slept alone in the sand counting the stars. Wondering how long it would take to hike out.

The morning of the fourth day, we began the long trek up, minus most of our food, which we had donated to the hairy hippies. Susan and Molly gave big hugs to the Neanderthals, hugs that seemed a little too long for such newfound friends, but who cared? I was going up, climbing toward the rim and sanity, to the real world and not this crazy canyon scene.

My legs and thighs hurt. Thankfully, the muscles we use hiking uphill are different from the muscles used going downhill or I would have been immobile. I was feeling pretty good until those rowdy Boy Scouts came by, shouting and singing and way too happy for the hard hike ahead. Hours and hours later — or was it days, weeks, months? — we finally topped out, took off our packs and collapsed. Molly and Susan were beat, exhausted, too much heat they said, and quite frankly, a real expanse of sunburn.

I was not sympathetic. Secretly, I wished that we’d all gotten sunburned together, but that had not come to pass.

Truly in need of shade and rest, we made it to the Ford station wagon and down the road to a cheap motel at Cameron, Arizona. I was perking up. Here was my chance. Having experienced the beauty and wonder of the Grand Canyon, I was ready for a long, slow night in a motel room with two college co-eds. We got the room. The last one they had.

Heart pounding with anticipation, I opened the door to two single beds. I showered, they showered, shades drawn, we re-hydrated drinking glass after glass of water. They put lotion on each other and whimpered softly, exclaiming loudly as they applied cream to the more painful bright-red, sunburned places.

Then they slept. And so did I.

On the floor.

The author teaches at an institution of higher learning on the Colorado Plateau and prefers to travel incognito 

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Editor’s note: This story was obviously submitted well before the November election and, thus, may appear dated.

Author’s note: The apparition quotes are drawn from original quotes from Hunter S. Thompson and Edward Abbey, mashed together in a couple places and edited lightly for continuity]

I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Stave One

It was long past dark on Christmas Eve 2008 and I was still at my desk. I had a backlog of political blog entries to read, several recordings of Congressional hearings to watch and nearly a dozen Internet bulletin board comment-thread “flame wars” all going at once.

Upstairs, the stockings had been hung by the chimney with care, and my finally asleep children’s heads were filled with dancing visions of a gift-wrapped wooden pirate ship play set — said set still requiring “some assembly” by daddy.

A cheery if threat-tinged motivational suggestion floated down the stairs from the wife: “Honey, we still need to wrap several gifts and clean the kitchen. And, remember, my parents will be here at 6:30.” A.M., that is.

“Humbug” is what I barked toward the door. Because I had work to do.

My name is Ebenezer, and I am a very important man. My work is far too important to yield to a Hallmark-holiday festival of drunkenness, gluttony, merriment and sloth. And in-laws. Especially in-laws. Particularly raving right-wing Fox-News-immersed in-laws.

You see, while everyone else was celebrating a particularly joyous holiday season — we had after all just elected in a landslide a liberal/progressive/hip African-American savior, who would travel the skies on Inauguration Day and send hope down our chimneys and leave change in our stockings. But I knew better.

“Humbug,” I said again, to no one in particular. So, I went to the “comment here” section below an online op-ed about how Obama was going to bring Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Liberals and Conservative alike and typed it in: H*U*M*B*U*G.

As if to underscore my gloom, a Steve Earle song came across the Pandora Radio web stream, one referring to another Christmas, exactly twelve years earlier.

It’s Christmastime in Washington
The Democrats rehearsed
Getting’ into gear for four more years
Of things not getting’ worse
The Republicans drink whiskey neat
And thanked their lucky stars
They said, ‘He cannot seek another term
They’ll be no more FDRs’

There’s foxes in the hen house
Cows out in the corn
The unions have been busted
Their proud red banners torn
To listen to the radio
You’d think that all was well
But you and me and Cisco know
It’s going straight to hell

“Man, that Earle guy knows what’s up,” I thought to myself. But then I got even more depressed, because more than a decade has passed, and nothing at all has changed. Check that; it’s gotten worse.

It went on like that for a while — brooding over the dimly lit screen of my computer, then flying upstairs to wrap a gift, then hurrying back to check my internet conversation threads, until, despite myself, I drifted off to sleep, still seated at the keyboard. And with that, I entered a fitful slumber.

Stave Two

Although technically asleep, my mind was by no means resting. That damned song kept passing across my consciousness:

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help you out
Come back Woody Guthrie to us now

So come back, Emma Goldman
Rise up, old Joe Hill
The barricades are goin’ up
They cannot break our will
Come back to us, Malcolm X
And Martin Luther King
We’re marching into Selma
As the bells of freedom ring

As the bells of freedom ring … bells ringing … bells … BELLS! I awoke with a start. My forehead was resting on the keyboard and my computer was beeping to tell me to get the hell off.

I became aware of a presence in the room. I turned to find a ghostly apparition next to me in the room. “Great Marley’s Ghost,” I shouted, for it was Steve Earle himself. “What do you want with me?” I wailed. “Much!” is all he said. “Why do you trouble me?” I asked. He simply replied, “You will be haunted by two spirits,” then he pointed a guitar pick toward the bookshelves on the back wall, and with that he was gone.

“Thanks for nothing,” I shouted at no one in particular. But it was late of hour, and I was much in need of repose, so I slumped into my office chair and fell promptly back to sleep.

Stave Three

My slumbers were soon interrupted by a second apparition. This one had a shaved head, wore a Hawaiian shirt and clutched in one hand a pistol and in the other a tumbler of whiskey, while between his teeth he clenched a cigarette holder, which he removed with a curled index finger and began waving about the room. “Goddamn bats,” he screeched, then leveled his gaze at me. My voice-activated webcam recorded the conversation, which went as follows:

Ebenezer: Who and what are you?

Apparition: I am the ghost of Raoul Duke. [Then gesturing towards the window] Rise and walk with me.

We left my room and after passing through a haze of smoke, entered what appeared to be a Las Vegas casino. Casino security staff approached to try and take the pistol from the apparition.

Ghost of Raoul Duke (GoRD) [tucking the pistol in his waistband]: Don’t take any guff from these fucking swine.

GoRD [gesturing at the drunken crowds around the craps tables]: It’s a strange world. Some people get rich and others eat shit and die. Who knows? If there is in fact, a heaven and a hell, all we know for sure is that hell will be a viciously overcrowded version of Phoenix, with everyone being driven slowly and quietly into the kind of terminal craziness that comes with finally understanding that the one thing you want is not there.

Somewhere in the casino, a slot machine paid off; the crowd cheered raucously.

GoRD: What passes for society is a loud, giddy whirl of thieves and pretentious hustlers, a dull sideshow full of quacks and clowns and philistines with gimp mentalities. Freedom, Truth, Honour — you could rattle off a hundred such words and behind every one of them would gather a thousand punks, pompous little farts, waving the banner with one hand and reaching under the table with the other. In a nation run by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together. The only ones left with any confidence at all are the New Dumb. It is the beginning of the end of our world as we know it. Doom is the operative ethic.

Ebenezer: Why won’t people wake up and see all the madness and deceit?

GoRD: Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. The importance of Liking Yourself is a notion that fell heavily out of favour during the coptic, anti-ego frenzy of the acid era — but nobody guessed back then that the experiment might churn up this kind of hangover; a whole subculture of frightened illiterates with no faith in anything.

A red convertible Cadillac pulled out of the casino bar and stopped at our feet. It was driven by a massive and clearly intoxicated man of Pacific Island descent.

Driver: Let’s give that boy a lift.

GoRD: We can’t stop here — this is bat country.

They grab me by the shoulders and push me in. We roar off through a swarm of bats and pterodactyls, and come to a stop next to a hotel swimming pool. There appears to be some sort of political convention going on.

Ebenezer: What can we do about this official madness and deceit and violence, why can’t we get off our asses and throw the bums out?

GoRD: The massive, frustrated energies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote. This is like being told you have a duty to buy a new car, but you have to choose immediately between a Ford and a Chevy.

GoRD [Gesturing toward a fat couple in matching red-white-and-blue track suits]: Who does vote for these dishonest shitheads? Who among us can be happy and proud of having all this innocent blood on our hands? Who are these swine? These flag-sucking half-wits who get fleeced and fooled by stupid little rich kids like George Bush? They speak for all that is cruel and stupid and vicious in the American character. George W. Bush was a natural-born loser with a filthy-rich daddy who pimped his son out to rich oil-mongers. He hates music, football and sex, in no particular order, and he is no fun at all — all the dumb bastard could show us, after eight years of total freedom to do anything he wanted with all this power, is a shattered national economy, disastrous defeat in a war, and a hand-picked personal staff whose collective criminal record will blow the minds of high-school American History students for the next 100 years. Jesus! Where will it end? How low do you have to stoop in this country to be president?

GoRD [Shouting]: This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 300 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

Ebenezer: Well, what about Obama? Democrats seem to think he’ll fix everything and usher in a new progressive era.

GoRD: We’ve come to a point where every four years this national fever rises up — this hunger for the Savior — and whoever wins becomes so immensely powerful, like Obama will be now, that when you vote for President today you’re talking about giving a man dictatorial power for four years. The whole framework of the presidency is getting out of hand. It’s come to the point where you almost can’t run unless you can cause people to salivate and whip each other with big sticks. You almost have to be a rock star to get the kind of fever you need to survive in American politics.

Ebenezer: Why don’t the media expose the charlatans then?

GoRD: Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Bush to slither into the White House and launch a war on Iraq in the first place. You have to get Subjective to see things clearly. Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

We left the convention in the Cadillac and ended up at some kind of farm. There is gunfire and explosions. And strange birds shrieking in the woods.

Ebenezer: Since 9/11, Bush built up a massive security apparatus and world-wide military machine waging overt and covert wars all over the globe, while spying on everyone everywhere. Where the hell are the right-wingers who supposedly fear big government?

GoRD: We are turning into a nation of whimpering slaves to Fear — fear of war, fear of poverty, fear of random terrorism, fear of getting down-sized or fired because of the plunging economy, fear of getting evicted for bad debts, or suddenly getting locked up in a military detention camp on vague charges of being a Terrorist sympathizer.

GoRD [Blowing smoke rings towards the ceiling]: The towers are gone now, reduced to bloody rubble, along with all hopes for Peace in Our Time, in the United States or any other country. Make no mistake about it: We are At War now — with somebody — and we will stay At War with that mysterious Enemy for the rest of our lives. It will be guerilla warfare on a global scale, with no front lines and no identifiable enemy… We are going to punish somebody for this attack, but just who or what will be blown to smithereens for it is hard to say. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, or all three at once. This is going to be a very expensive war, and Victory is not guaranteed — for anyone.

Ebenezer: Bush said we were on a righteous crusade against the Axis of Evil, that we are the Good Guys.

GoRD: We have become a Nazi monster in the eyes of the whole world, a nation of bullies and bastards who would rather kill than live peacefully. We are not just Whores for power and oil, but killer whores with hate and fear in our hearts. We are human scum, and that is how history will judge us. No redeeming social value. Just whores. Get out of our way, or we’ll kill you.

We moved into a kitchen. There are piles of books and papers, old posters and perhaps twenty televisions all tuned to different channels.

Ebenezer: I know, I know. The fix is in, and we are savage and hated. So, where do you find solace then?

GoRD: The Edge … there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. So, every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas … with the music at top volume and at least a pint of ether. I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.

Ebenezer: Ye Gods, this is vicious and ugly. Spirit, remove me from this place. Leave me. Take me back. Haunt me no longer. (Jesus! Did I say that? Or just think it?)

And with that he was gone. Since it was even later of hour, and I was in even greater need of repose, I slumped back into my office chair and fell promptly back to sleep.

Stave Four

Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, I heard another bell ringing. Dammit, I had fallen asleep on the keyboard again. Sitting up to get my thoughts together, I soon became aware of yet another apparition. This one was tall and bearded and wearing flannel. He threw a crumpled beer can at my computer, tucked a monkey-wrench into his belt and then motioned toward a beat-up pickup truck that had appeared in my basement office, into which he climbed behind the wheel and glared at me like a vulture contemplating road-kill.

Apparition: Come in. Come in, and know me better, man.

Ebenezer: Say, did you pass a guy in a Hawaiian shirt when you came in?

Apparition: Among apparitions I have but one hero, and that is Raoul Duke. I honor him because he reports the simple facts, in plain language, of what he sees around him. His style is mistaken for fantastic, drug-crazed exaggeration, but that was to be expected. As always in this country, they only laugh at you when you tell the truth. He is one who sees — a seer.

He again beckons me into the truck, so I climb in amongst a pile of empty beer cans, dog-eared books and bottles of molasses.

Ebenezer: Alright, but before we go, I need to know who you are.

Apparition: I am called Henry Lightcap, but known as The Ghost of Cactus Ed.

He shifted the truck’s transmission into low-range, whereupon we plunged into a roiling flash flood, eventually coming to rest high-centered and hanging halfway out over the edge on the rim above a vast desert canyon. The silence of the place was deafening.

Ghost of Cactus Ed (GoCE): Alone in the silence, I understand for a moment the dread which many feel in the presence of primeval desert, the unconscious fear which compels them to tame, alter or destroy what they cannot understand, to reduce the wild and prehuman to human dimensions. Anything rather than confront directly the antehuman, that other world which frightens not through danger or hostility but in something far worse — its implacable indifference.

GoCE [Stamping his feet]: We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there. Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.

Ebenezer: Yeah, but the Republicans insist that wilderness is a waste of valuable real estate.

GoCE: What most humans really desire is something quite different from industrial gimmickry, that is, liberty, spontaneity, nakedness, mystery, wildness and wilderness. And joy. Has joy any survival value in the operations of evolution? I suspect that it does; I suspect that the morose and fearful are doomed to quick extinction. Where there is no joy there can be no courage; and without courage all other virtues are useless.

Ebenezer: Naked joy in the woods, that reminds me of the last time I took mushrooms. But I am too old and have too many responsibilities for that now.  What can we do to defend wild places now?

GoCE: The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders. Every Boy Scout troop deserves a forest to get lost, miserable, and starving in. Our job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don’t know anything else worth saving.

Ebenezer: But wilderness — actual on-the-ground wilderness — is wild, and can be dangerous and scary. It freaks a lot of people out when bad things happen.

GoCE: If people persist in trespassing upon the grizzlies’ territory, we must accept the fact that the grizzlies, from time to time, will harvest a few trespassers.

As the truck shuddered and tilted forward a bit, Cactus Ed slammed it into gear and we careened down a canyon trail, until we came to a graded dirt road, which we followed to an industrial site. There were giant bulldozers kicking up huge plumes of dust, strange trucks on balloon tires crashing about in the sage, long lines of trailers marked “hazardous” and drilling derricks spewing flames from their tops.

Ebenezer: My God, it’s even more medieval than I imagined. It’s something out of Dante. This cannot be the only way to grow our economy.

GoCE: Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. Everywhere I look, I see my own country overwhelmed by ugliness and mediocrity and overcrowding, the land smothered under airstrips and super-highways, the natural wealth of a million years squandered on atomic bombs and tin automobiles and television sets and ball-point pens.

Ebenezer: But the Republicans say we need more activity just like this, or our economy will crash and the terrorists will win.

GoCE: For more growth, we must give up the very qualities that make a high standard of civilized life still possible…for more development, we will transform what we prize into temporary jobs…and fat bank accounts for the powerful minority of land-speculators, tract-slum builders, bankers, car dealers and shopping mall hustlers who stand to profit. What we need is an optimum industrialism, neither too much or too little. Technology boosters say it’s the entire package, plagues and all, or nothing, but it is not true. We can pick and choose, we can learn to select this and reject that.

Ebenezer: The Republicans insist that we are ordained by God to uncover and use every bit of fossil fuel we can find, that’s why God put it there.

GoCE: From the point of view of a tapeworm, man was created by God to serve the appetite of the tapeworm. Whatever we cannot easily understand we call God, this saves much wear and tear on the brain tissues. I believe in sun. In rock. In the dogma of the sun and the doctrine of the rock. The world is older and bigger than we are. This is a hard truth for some folks to swallow.

Ebenezer: Speaking of God, one of the people who ran for the GOP Presidential nomination is a Mormon.

GoCE: Mormonism: Nothing so hilarious could possibly be true. Or all bad.

We drive onto a highway and down into a shimmering desert city. Pulling into the driveway of a small house, we enter to find its occupant watching television on which there’s a conservative politician bloviating about “democracy” and “liberty”.

GoCE [Kicking the TV with his boot]: Bullshit! Democracy — rule by the people — sounds like a fine thing; we should try it sometime in America. Counterpart to the knee-jerk liberal is the knee-pad conservative, always groveling before the rich and powerful. Our “neoconservatives” are neither new nor conservative, but old as Babylon and evil as Hell. A true libertarian supports free enterprise, opposes big business; supports local self-government, opposes the nation-state; supports the National Rifle Association, opposes the Pentagon.

Ebenezer: Liberal; conservative; or libertarian — which has become and arm of the GOP — what choices are there besides statism or authoritarianism?

GoCE: There’s anarchism. Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners. Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.

Ebenezer: You know, there were protests by the left at the Democratic nominating convention this year. It was an echo of Chicago in 1968, complete with riot police beating up everyone who got in their way.

GoCE: A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government. Representative government has broken down. Our politicians represent not the people who vote for them but the commercial interests who finance their election campaigns. We have the best politicians that money can buy. The purpose and function of government is not to preside over change. But to prevent change. By political methods when unavoidable, by violence when convenient.

Ebenezer: But I don’t want to get arrested or beat up, or go to prison. I’ve got kids. I don’t want a psychopathic cell mate.

GoCE: Here’s how to overthrow the system: brew your own beer; kick in your tee vee; kill your own beef; build your own cabin and piss off the front porch whenever you bloody well feel like it.

Ebenezer: We’ve elected another charismatic Democrat; all the liberals are ecstatic, but I don’t buy it. He’s just more of the same corporatist DLC crap; beholden to Wall Street

GoCE: The one thing worse than a knee-pad Tory is a chickenshit liberal. The type that cannot say “shit” even when his mouth is full of it. Among politicians and businessman, Pragmatism is the current term for “To hell with our children.” “Be fair,” say the temporizers, “tell both sides of the story.” But how can you be fair to both sides of a rape? Of a murder? Of a massacre?

Ebenezer: There’s been a huge meltdown on Wall Street. The bankers committed gargantuan acts of fraud and theft and made bad bets that crashed the economy, now they are getting bailed out no questions asked while the middle class is eating a shit sandwich.

GoCE: When the biggest, richest, glassiest buildings in town are the banks, you know that town’s in trouble. One thing more dangerous than getting between a grizzly sow and her cub is getting between a businessman and a dollar bill. That’s why administrators are respected and school-teachers are not: An administrator is paid a lot for doing very little, while a teacher is paid very little for doing a lot. There is no force more potent in the modern world than stupidity fueled by greed. Nothing so mean could be right. Greed is the ugliest of the capital sins.

GoCE: It’s not all gloom though, take comfort in this: the rich can buy everything but health, virtue, friendship, wit, good looks, love, pride, intelligence, grace and, if you need it, happiness.

We leave the truck behind and strike off on foot. After walking for a very long time in silence, the apparition stops and spreads his arms out toward the vista of canyon country that lies before us.

GoCE [Speaking toward the horizon as in a benediction]: May your trails be dim, lonesome, stony, narrow, winding and only slightly uphill. May the wind bring rain for the slickrock potholes fourteen miles on the other side of yonder blue ridge. May God’s dog serenade your campfire, may the rattlesnake and the screech owl amuse your reverie, may great sun dazzle your eyes by day and the Great Bear watch over you by night.

Ebenezer: That’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s just too goddamned brutal out there to take seriously. NOTHING HAS GODDAMNED CHANGED.

GoCE: When the situation is desperate, it is too late to be serious. Be playful. In my case, saving the world was only a hobby. Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast…a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourself and your life for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.

Ebenezer: But what should I do? All I can do is write. Why should I write?

GoCE: Why write? Write to entertain your friends and exasperate your enemies. To record the truth of your time as best as you can see it. To investigate the comedy and the tragedy of human relationships. To oppose, resist and sabotage the contemporary drift toward a global technocratic police state whatever its ideological coloration. To oppose injustice, to defy power, and to speak for the voiceless.

He knelt down to the ground and picked up a handful of bones from the skeleton of a long-dead coyote and then held them for a moment in silence. Then he ground the bones into dust and they drifted off on the breeze.

Ebenezer: Answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of things that May be, only.

(A pause)

Ebenezer: Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.

(A pause)

I heard the sound of coyotes’ mournful howls. It sounded almost as if they were saying my name.

Coyotes: EBENEZER! EBENEZER! EBENEZER!

Overcome and trembling, I reared my head back and howled back at the distance: “No, Spirit. Oh no, no.” Then I stood up, drained, and an awakening washed over me like a waterfall deep in a hidden canyon. I turned to the spirit and spoke.

Ebenezer: Spirit, hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. I see now that nothing ever really changes, but the important thing is what we do with our lives. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. I will not burn out or turn away from life and hide in my basement seething on internet chat boards.

At that, the apparition transformed into a Turkey Buzzard, craned his neck toward me and croaked: “remember, Life is too short for grief. Or regret. Or bullshit.” And then he flew spirals into the sky and disappeared from sight.

Stave Five

I must have fallen back asleep onto my keyboard, because I awoke once again to the ringing of a bell. Nope, it was the doorbell this time, and I was in my own bed. Church bells began to ring. Christmas morning was before me!

Oh glorious, glorious! I ran to the top of the stairs and shouted: “Merry Christmas, wife. Merry Christmas, kids. Merry Christmas, in-laws. And God bless us, every one.”

Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale, Colorado, with his wife and kids. 

 

Marshall Pass

cliff

All illustrations by Michele Murray

All roads lead somewhere if you can make it that far…

Hmmm, I’ve been on this road at least a thousand times before, though maybe not in this lifetime …

The situation was the result of an error in the phenomenon of mechanical navigation. Batteries must have been running low in the sextant. The stars were wobbling on their axes, not speaking truthfully to my technical instruments. Night-time astral-bodies in the sky were obscured from my eye by The Big One — that great ball of plasma in our sky: the Earth’s Sun. Once you make a couple of wrong turns and realize you don’t know where you are, you find yourself committed to your journey because now I have to see what’s around the next bend. Yeah, you could turn around and maybe you should turn around — you might even ACTUALLY TURN AROUND before all the other people wonder WHY DIDN’T SHE TURN AROUND? when they read about the discovery of your foolish ass a year after you have disappeared on the other side of this new (to you) mountain.

Maybe I “should” turn around. “Would-should-could” — those are some kind of auxiliary verbs, I think, like the other verbs joggling around in my 5th-grade memory cells:“be-am-is-are-was-were-have-had-has-will-shall-would-should-or-could.”  Yes, I think these are all some kind of verbs unlike the action verb, “turn around.” Why am I perpetually in this situation, unable to do something as seemingly simple as turn around?

Examination of the immediate vicinity: The edge of the dirt road is crumbly and fairly steep, but the width of the road is not completely unmanageable should I decide with logic to turn around.

I “could” turn this Subaru around if I wanted to, utilizing about 5-7 forward-and-backward turns. That wouldn’t be a K-turn or a Y-turn; rather it would be a W-turn or a VW-turn.

Cliff: Unfathomable in the sense of leagues below the abyss “SHOULD” I go over the side, demonstrating another action verb: PLUNGING TO DEATH. At the least, I would-should-could sustain a serious injury if I crash.

If I decide to turn around, I would have to be vewy vewy cawful.

The edge of this dirt road is unreliable in that sort of soft shoulder kind of way.

This is exactly the kind of place a person in a car goes over the side and no one finds her until the middle of elk hunting season — the last hunting season — the one right before Christmas when men return home to their annoyed wives all smelly and dirty but nonetheless happy with themselves for that personal stink of freedom.

Hmmm, I might not go over the edge if I turn around carefully and I might even find myself headed safely back to the starting point where I THINK I made a wrong turn and I might then possibly figure out where I am. On the other hand, there is one more bend in the road, one more high spot beyond my current topographical horizon and a person really probably should see what’s on the other side for the sake of that time in the future when a person will have to rely on memories of places she’s explored because I’ll likely end up sitting beside the window sill of the State Mental Hospital for a long time one day. SIGH … I look forward to wearing jammies and working on jigsaw puzzles all day when I am retired.

THE MIGHTY LORD O’ GOD DIRECTS MY SUBARU!

I have no say in the matter. A power larger than my steering wheel is in control. I’m just a piece of biota in the sea of life. Besides, I am certain the LORD-O-GOD has been here before, probably just this morning. Thing is, sometimes the LORD-O-G puts a big impassable boulder in the road, or washes it out, or arranges other events of interest — such as that wild buckskin mustang mare with the soft eyes trapped up to her bloody belly in a cattle guard way out in the remotest part of central Nevada. My, that turned out to be quite a day … Sheesh! I’m not ready for a day like that again…

I don’t know where this road goes but I am going to follow it as long as my car keeps rolling.

I am bleeding like a leaking box of wine, too, and down to my last single tampon and last single beer (Stella Artois — a tall can and an O.B. — the super-dooper kind).

This has got to be Gold Camp Road. I know where I am now. I am somewhere above Cheyenne Mountain. I’ve been here a thousand times before.

Fork in the road with a sign pops up: “No trailers beyond this point.”

Hmmm, well I’ve got that going for me. No trailer. No boat. No ATV no dirt bike no cellular service no tampon and no beer in reserve. Where the heck does this pass come out? How far from my destination have I strayed? Can my Subaru make it?

These questions enter my mind, as does my underwear. Some women are completely fastidious about their moon-cycle. They keep gear handy — things like “emergency applications” — and they always have a plan. I knew a woman who would change up her hygiene equipment every twenty minutes or so in order to avoid the sensation of actually feeling that warm, moist, evacuation of human-genetic-effluent being expunged from her body. She washed compulsively and changed her panties all day long. A great amount of money and women-lore goes into learning how to get rid of that dark little stain of dried blood on cotton.

Cold Water. That’s the key to removing fresh blood from fabric. If it’s dried blood — then that solution ain’t gonna work, though. If it’s a blood stain on your skirt or dress slacks, yer looking at an awkward visit to the dry cleaners. You can tell the Korean behind the counter that it’s grape juice or wine. They know what it is. They can get it out for $. It’s not worth the embarrassment to me. TAKE MY MONEY, GIVE ME MY CLEANED SKIRT BACK AND DON’T TELL ANYONE.

Women sometimes have fevers, feel nausea, suffer headaches, a bit of disorientation and intermittently experience emotional sensitivity during this celestial-vestigial-carnilogical-uterineal event. If I “spot” (that is to bleed through the gear a little bit), I toss my panties away. Forget that cold water and neurotic gotta-clean-it-like-a-raccoon-with-a-fish-at-the-river reaction. Throw it away. Done. Such was the case today: stuff the offensive panties under the car seat for trashing later. Stuff some facial tissue down there instead. Good. Unfortunately, in about an hour, my jeans got spotted as well.

No problem. I can handle this. I’ve still got a swimming suit and fishing waders I can put on.

A woman colleague of mine confided to me an event in the Amargosa Desert where she had been mapping volcanic stratigraphy with her male boss. She is a bit older than I am and recounted that the onset of menopause for her meant higher flows for a while — flows that verged on draining the life out of her. During that field excursion, she began to bleed like that giant Achilles in “Jason and the Argonauts” — the ORIGINAL Argonauts movie with Kirk Douglas (1960s science fiction at its finest). Kirk Douglas unscrewed a door in Achilles’ ankle and emptied his entire bodily contents of fluid like a discharge from Hoover Dam. That’s how my friend was describing her bleeding. She was literally draining to the point of passing out. All she could do was apologize to her boss, who turned the expedition around and headed back to the truck to return to base camp. She bled heavily through her pad, her panties, her trousers and left a pool of blood on the front seat. She had to lie down to rejuvenate and try to generate more blood overnight before getting up in the morning. Her flow eventually stopped short of a medical emergency.

That scenario made me wonder how women in Neolithic societies must have dealt with the flow? My lesbian gym teachers in Jr. High school (What? Yeah — they were Lesbos for real. So what? I’m not making this up. They were.) — told me that some primitive societies consider menstruation to be a curse — “The devil is with her,” they said of the Neolithic people muttering in Neolithic camps.

bear illustration

DIGRESSION 

I asked my huzbun if anyone in his family ever told him Bible stories. He said no. I asked him who then told him about the devil? He asked, “What’s the devil?”

END DIGRESSION

Those lesbian gym teachers told me a lot of information about adolescence, but not in enough detail for me to grasp the entire picture. For example: sex-Ed. Yeah, all of us kids knew it was called sex-Ed because it was supposed to be educating us about sex. We were nervous. However, at no time did the “film-loops” we watched ever show any sex. There was a cartoon of a uterus and a diagram of menstruation. They showed where pubic hair was going to start growing one day. (“Over my dead body! Not me!” I swore.) They showed a cartoon of the egg and then the sperm swimming against the egg’s big body, and then the egg began to multiply. I saw a schematic silhouette in cartoon of an erect penis but they didn’t show a sperm coming out of a penis. They didn’t show a penis in a vagina, either.

As a consequence, I left the room not knowing exactly where my vagina was (I was skeptical about that) or that I would be bleeding from a mysterious place between my legs from which I also pee. (Clueless.) I also did not know that a penis goes into the vagina or that sperm comes out of the end of the penis or that babies come out of the vagina. Why would I figure that out on my own? I didn’t live on a farm. I never saw what animals do. Television and movies simply did not show that stuff back then. When I did learn about what happens during sex from Patty Sellers — she was Catholic and was the most experienced girl I ever knew — I thought that she was making it up. Sex was completely science fiction: a lie, a bad story, had to be some sick person’s idea of a joke (a joke from a sick person like my VBF Patty …).

grasshut illustration

I left sex-Ed class and stumbled through my adolescence one incident at a time, all the while Patty Sellers (my college roommate by then) laughing at me. My first date in college was with a handsome timpani player in the orchestra a couple of years older than me. I went to his house to “neck.” I was ready for some “heavy petting.” During this process, the poor man partially disrobed me and attempted to “go down on me.” I had no idea WHAT he was doing and was so freaked out that I grabbed my clothes and ran straight out of his house half naked and snuck my way back to the dormitory. I woke Patty up to tell her the weird action of this psychopath. She laughed her ass off at me, told me what he was attempting to do, and then tried to get me to introduce him to her in the future. I was aghast people would do such things to each other and avoided him the rest of the year. I hope he understands now that’s what happens when you date a really naïve virgin from Aurora, Colorado.

My current exploratory drive up the pass of this very familiar mountain consumed a quarter of my already half-empty tank of gas before I considered myself lost. The errant journey required at least half of my last beer before I reached what I assumed was the summit. I pulled off the road to peruse the scene and assess my situation (and to formulate some explanation to provide my huzbun should I ever see him again, as to maybe why I did not make it home that evening).

View: Wow! Ponds! Time to fish! In the meadow below me, beaver ponds leaked through a marshy bog down the inclined valley linked one to another in a sequence like pearls on a string. No sign of rising brookies on the surface, though. That might change if I were to look more closely.

My plan: I needed to change into my swimsuit and waders for hygiene’s sake anyway. Stuff those tainted blue jeans under the seat with stained panties to commiserate together in the dark. The hike to the ponds would involve sinking and trudging through knee-high slime and lumpy bumpy marsh grass with mosquitoes sticking their proboscises between every sweaty pore in my exposed face and forearms. The ardor of this feat will require my beer ditty bag. My beer can rides in a little ditty bag that attaches to my fishing fanny pack by a thick Velcro strap. My huzbun thinks this little bag was designed to carry a water bottle, but I know better.

I nursed my warm, half-a-beer on this hike through mucky marsh to discover there are no fish in the meadow ponds out in the middle of this mountain paradise. My legs were sinking knee-deep into the black ooze. I tried to turn, but my feet were stuck. I was now a human popsicle stick for a bear should one come by. My legs were stuck in the marsh by suction and sinking an inch with every tug. I had to sway my body forward and allow air to seep down into the mud before the bog would release my foot. I did this leaning, sucking, teetering march under the afternoon sun, with mosquitoes blaring in my ears all the way back to the car, every once in a while turning to see if some sneaky trouties were rising behind my back. No sign. By the time I made it back to semi-solid ground — enough solid ground to stop and partake of my Holy warm beer — the can was severely diminished. Sadly, a light came on the side of the can: “Low on beer.” I wasn’t totally without emergency rations. I was on my way home from a party in Gunnison the night before and in my Subaru was a vat of vegetarian lasagna, 1½ gallons purple pomegranate-blueberry juice with rum, tossed salad, 2 pieces of homemade pound cake, jumper cables, a tool box, 2 shovels and a spare 7-foot 3-weight fly rod. I had 5 royal wulffs, assorted elk-hair caddis, baetis, terrestrials, nymphs, pulpa, pupa, larvae and octopus patterns. No spare tampon or beer, though.

In primitive societies women were (are?) removed from the community arena and made to stay inside special huts away from everyone else because “She gots the curse.” On my return hike to my car from the beaver ponds, I had the insight that these poor girls had been poked, impregnated, miscarried, birthed, lost babies and suckled babies ever since they were nubile enough to become the apple of some horny old goat’s eye and this was not going to end for any reason as long as they were fertile. By the time these girls had been through the gamut month after month for a couple of years, it was probably one of them who had the idea to make a special hut and to get away from the bastards for a while — no men, no kids

Tell ’em I gots the curse. Tell ’em all to stay away and I mean it.” The ancient women probably had lovely candles, incense, soft music and chocolate in the special huts.

DIGRESSION 

When women spend time together, say working in an office or taking the same class on a regular basis, they begin to menstruate at the same time. Fact.

END DIGRESSION

Sign on the primitive society women’s hut: “Stay away — Devil in here!”

I returned to my car from my marsh hike sweating, bleeding, nursing the dregs of my dying can of beer and having not seen a trout. I got in my Subaru and rolled it back onto the mountain road wondering where I would come out and how far off course I was from any road leading home.

What will my huzbun think of me? Will he make some kind of “rule,” like I have to start calling him and telling him where I am, when I am leaving or HEY!! I know where I am now — I’m on Rampart Range above Rainbow Falls. I am near the Hayman Fire area. Hmmm, maybe this is Idaho …

I drove on but not so apprehensively now. The road was in better condition on the far side of the pass. Strangely, I saw in the speckled shadow being thrown by aspen leaves overhanging the road ahead a doe lying in the road on her belly with legs folded under her. Her head was up and her ears bent toward the sound my approaching car.

Oh, God. Is this the big event you planned for my day? Is this why you directed me here? Is this deer partially severed? Half-paralyzed? Broken-legged? Semi-eviscerated? Did you bring me here to dispatch her? Move her? Comfort her? Bear witness to her suffering?

I slowed my car down, shifted to neutral, rolled the window down and turned the engine off. As I quietly approached, she attempted to get up by extracting one leg from under her belly. My car slowly rolled past her with only the sound of my rubber tires crunching in the gravel. I looked. She flopped her ears at pesky flies and settled back down in her spot on the road in the shade. Just resting her fat deer belly. No traumatic event in my path to deal with today.

I rolled a little ways past her, reengaged the engine, turned on my music. Lucinda Williams popped up on my iPod through the radio singing one of her soulful, burnt-out-old-whore kind of songs. After not very long, a convoy of ATVs approached me coming from yonder mountain head-on driven by brown-clad BOY SCOUTS — the older ones who have peach-fuzz cheeks and bony knees and bobbing Adam’s apples. They probably did not know the downhill-uphill law of mountain driving, which would require that I (being the downhill driver) was required to yield and backup so that they (being the uphill party) could pass.

They slowed down as we all approached head-on. Eyes were big. I don’t know what they thought they were looking at, but it was simply a woman in a Subaru wearing a bikini and rubber pants. Not like I was a cougar or anything as exciting. I know they were waiting for me to speak, like what could I possibly say? They were expecting the beginning of an adventure, I am sure. They were expecting me to say, “HELP! My baby is lost in the woods and I don’t know where to find her AND my leg is broken — a compound fracture. I think I’m going into a state of shock and I have a snake-bite!”

That’s what Boy Scouts look for in the forest: women with compound fractures, snake bites and missing family members — babies are better. Instead, I told them:

Hi, fellas — hey, please watch out for a deer sleeping on the road up there. She’s OK, not hurt or anything, just napping in the shade on the road. Say you guys, I haven’t been on this road before. Am I gonna bust an axle if I go any farther — because I’ve busted an axle before and I don‘t want to do that again. Do you think the rest of this drive is OK for a car like mine?

They surmised my situation, evaluated my vehicle and told me no problem that the road is good enough for cars and they would watch out for the deer. I wondered if any of them had any beer. Better not ask. There were old guys with them — the protective type. I waited until they all passed — all nine of them. Probably Eagle Scouts. They had no idea they are talking to a lady without panties bleeding in her waders. I am pretty sure they didn’t have any beer.

Maybe this is Old Monarch Pass or maybe Red Mountain Pass. I should have asked them what this mountain pass is called.

Willie on the iPod!!! Everything will be good for sure now. Keep going. Watch out for boulders and deer on the road. Never you mind about the rum and purple juice in the cooler. The LORD-O-G doesn’t believe in mixing hard alcohol with driving.

At least not yet.

DIGRESSION 

I dated a Greek bookie in New York City for a while whose sole objective was to make a living without doing anything legal for his entire life. When he was a kid in New Hampshire, he worked at a fast-food joint and accidentally left the fry-o-lator on high after his first shift. The place burned down and he was given an insurance adjustment with all the other employees for the rest of the summer. Same summer, he got new job at a movie theater and learned that during the show no one knew where he was, so he would slip out and go to a third job with the highway department hired to sit in a folding lawn chair on a cliff and count cars that went by every hour. He would take a nap in the chair while collecting three paychecks and make up numbers to write on the log sheet. One afternoon, he woke up because the boss had come upon him and kicked his chair out from under his napping ass. He liked the money, though. He was only 13 years old but he was already completely addicted to having a lot of cash in hand for little or no output.

THAT GUY — the flaky dishonest illegal shifty two-timing lying slippery weasel Greek bookie from New Hampshire living in New York City — that guy once barked at me, “Why do YOU WOMEN always run out of tampons? You know you’re going to need them. It happens every month. Why the big surprise every time it happens, like you forgot? Why don’t you buy more than one month at a time of those things???

I don’t know. He runs out of cigarettes all the time and it’s not like he’s ever NOT going to want a cigarette again for the rest of his life. Despite that, I started to buy boxes of tampons by the case. I stowed them in my purse, office drawers, my bassoon case, my sister’s house, my mom’s house, my other sister’s house, my boyfriend’s house, my other boyfriend’s house … I had caches of tampons on the scale of a squirrel going into deep winter with a bevy of teenager girl-squirrels menstruating left and right in squirrel moon-cycles (which I think is like every other week …). I kept this up for a really long time until I began to travel internationally. I really had to limit myself to the barest of minimum of carry-on stuff so as to avoid checking luggage and I took to buying tampons on the road again rather than transporting caches of them. THAT is how I ended up in the High Country without a beer or tampon, both of which I direly needed.

END DIGRESSION

I headed down the mountain enjoying my iPod despite lack of beer and noticed the little lever that points to a series of tick marks that symbolize the state of my gasoline capacity was hovering BELOW the letter E. I know exactly how much forward motion I can get out of one gallon of gasoline in each of my vehicles. I also know that the little lever will move up or down with respect to how level the car is and therefore how skewed the last drops of combustible carbon-based liquid might be lying in the tank relative to the floating bobber in there. (I don’t know if there is a floating bobber in there, but that is how I imagine the system works, kind of like a toilet bobber turning the input of water off in the reserve tank — right?) I don’t usually get excited about the E on the gas tank meter. That lever can go way way below the E before the red gasoline-gauge light comes on the dash. If I am driving with a nervous type of person and he or she seems to be getting upset about that little red gasoline-gauge light, I will cover it up with something like with a piece of black electric tape for their sake until we can coast into a station. Besides, there is a reserve, and that is usually a gallon in my experience and a car can usually get AT LEAST 10 miles more on reserve — even if it is a gas hog — so 10 miles is a lot of distance yet to put on the wheels. No worries.

In this frame of mind, I focused my energy into downhill economy mode utilizing coasting and gravity whenever possible, cursing any slight incline in the rolling mountain road.

OMG —  I’m in New Mexico — I know where this road goes … WHERE DOES THIS ROAD GO?

I was in an urgent state.

One time I came rolling out of a steep, rocky mountain gully into the back pasture of an apple orchard in New Mexico. The rancher would normally have shot first but he was so amazed to see a little red clown car of a Toyota come climbing over the boulders that he allowed himself the opportunity to get to know me. Another time, I made my way onto another dirt road way below the “E” on my gas-o-meter and about five miles into the red gas-tank light being on. I had no idea how far I would have to go to find gas. I evaluated the quality of maintenance on the fences along the roadside to try and determine how close I was to a habitable place where I might beg for some gas, provided I was not surrounded by pit bulls, dobbies, rotties and guns. On that other trip, I eventually drove past a lively Mexican dance going on under a tin-roofed pavilion, so I spruced myself up, entered the bar area and asked for gasoline. No gasoline there, but the tortillas were fresh and the beer was free.

I don’t remember any painful long walks due to lack of gas — OK, maybe one. I have actually run out of gas and had a dead vehicle on the side of the road twice. The first time, however, after I slept in the vehicle till morning — the condensation created a mini-reservoir of liquid from vapor phase overnight, and the F-150 straight-six 3-on-the-tree pickup truck started up “va-ROOOM!” and we (truck and I) made it to the next off ramp somewhere north of Las Vegas, New Mexico, and coasted into a gas station right next to the pump before she died for good. It was at least 30 years later that I ran out of gas for the second time and I attribute that to being in someone else’s car (the gauges you know are all in different places in different vehicles …)

On today’s particular journey, I eventually popped out on a more-developed dirt road and took a left because left went downhill. I passed the Boy Scout jamboree camp full of chaperones milling about, big tents and empty pickup trucks with ATV trailers. That road joined up with a paved road, which led to a four-lane highway, which led to Poncha Pass, which opens out onto the Great Alluvial Plains near Salida. Bought gas, beer, tampons and some of those cheesy-peanut butter crackers. Made it home before my huzbun got home from work. He had no idea where I had been. I didn’t tell him about the journey, either. Save that kind of info for when we are old and I need to tell him something to get him all riled up about so he won’t die. Just being with him in our house and being surrounded by calm, stable time together makes me feel centered. Keeps me out of jail, too. When he came home, I could tell he sensed my day had been full of stories that I was not going to share. Instead, I told him:“I don’t know how old I am on a day-to-day basis, but I do know that when I finally become really old, I am gonna scare myself. Oh, and I’m on my period so watch out.

He shook his head slowly in agreement.

Long-time contributor Michele Murray is a geologist, concert bassonist and dog trainer who lives in Lake George, CO. 

Wild West

Smoke Signals by M John Fayhee You certainly don’t have to be a news junkie to know things in Border Country have been a bit dicey of late. I mean, even dicier than usual. A recent Yahoo News entry, headlined, “Government border town crackdowns on the rise,” caught my eye. It leads with a couple tales about a recent municipal election in Sunland Park, New Mexico, the only American town that lies south of the Rio Grande. The story details allegations of extortion and financial kickbacks among town officials, and, more colorfully, that a mayoral candidate tried to force his opponent out of the race with a secretly recorded video of the other man getting a topless lap dance. In addition, the Yahoo News story continued, former Mayor Martin Resendiz dropped a bid for Congress after admitting in a deposition that he signed nine government contracts while drunk. By the sixth paragraph, the story detours 70 miles west, to Columbus, N.M. (more on fair Columbus in a moment), where authorities a year ago arrested the mayor, police chief, a town trustee and 11 other people who have since pleaded guilty to charges they helped run guns across the border to Mexican drug cartels. I cannot say why those of us who choose to hang our sombreros near the southern border find ourselves more than anything almost indifferently shaking our heads, shrugging our shoulders and maybe even grinning a bit when we read such things. Sane people would justifiably pack up the Outback and head post paste to more socially normal environs (read: toward the great white north). But then you get into that seven-month winter thing so many of us down here try so mightily to avoid. Still, even the most avid Border Country/Southwest/desert-o-philes wince a bit when we read stories like the above-referenced Yahoo News piece. We might try to limply rationalize the situation by saying things like, “Were it not for the crazy-assed ‘War on Drugs,’ things wouldn’t be quite so bad.” Or we might say, “Look, the border situation is not nearly as nuts as it’s made out to be by non-border-dwelling politicians trying to pander to the lowest common electoral denominator.” We might point out that, come what may, we at least have superlative green chile and incomparable year-round hiking and backpacking opportunities. Or we might observe that, insane though the border situation might be, at least we rarely lack for colorful media fodder. Whatever your sociopolitical inclinations, whatever your proposed solution(s), there’s no denying, when one approaches the frontera these days, whether for business, recreation or to commit major felonies, one had best cinch one’s saddle on tight and, at all times, be ready to duck. The closest legal border crossing to where these words are being penned is just south of the aforementioned Columbus, N.M., at Palomas, Chihuahua. About 80 driving miles from my front door. Columbus is the place where, in 1916, revolutionary forces under the command of Pancho Villa crossed into U.S. Territory (this being a mere four years after the Land of Enchantment became our 47th state) and launched an attack that resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians and eight soldiers attached to the 13th Calvary Regiment. That attack predictably spurred a response by the U.S. military that can charitably be called “not entirely successful.” Today, Columbus is one strange village, boasting a demographic mishmash that includes alternative-housing/architecture devotees (read: people inclined to construct abodes out of materials that, in more-civilized realms, would cause shock and dismay on the part of building inspectors), Border Patrol agents, drug-and-gun-runners, tough-as-nails ranchers, retirees, eccentrics, loners, survivalists, religious zealots and, if the rumors are true, numerous higher-ups from the Mexican drug cartels who have moved north of the border to escape the violence they themselves have caused in Old Mexico. There are a couple interesting restaurants, a few art galleries, a museum or two, Pancho Villa State Park and a cantina — along with beaucoup foliage boasting skin-penetrating spines, a healthy selection of rattlesnakes, oppressive heat and all the blowing dust you could ever want in a town. It was at the bar one day that I got a representative taste of the way things are in borderland limbo. I used to work for one of the area daily papers. There was a 70-something man from Evergreen, Colorado, who was about to embark upon a four-year effort to hike the entire Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The plan was for him to hike one state section per summer (New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho/Montana). The man was an avid Rotarian, and he planned on interacting all the way to the Canadian border with Rotary Clubs located near the CDNST route. (I believe he was trying to raise money for some good cause.) Since, stunningly enough, there was actually a Rotary Club in Palomas, the man opted to symbolically kick his 3,100-mile journey off with a gala at the famous Pink Store (a popular cantina/restaurant a few blocks south of the Mexican border crossing), even though the official CDNST southern terminus lies several dentition-jolting hours away near Big Hatchet Peak, over in the Bootheel. I ventured down to Columbus to hook up with the man and his somewhat substantial entourage/support team, with the idea of penning a piece for the paper, which is not too big a stretch, as the CDNST passes very near Silver City. (Verily, I hike upon it several times a week.) Though certainly in fine fitness fettle, the man from Evergreen, being a septuagenarian and all, rationally had hired a Sherpa in his mid-20s from Nepal  to join him on his journey — for on-trail company, in case of emergencies and, I would assume, to help carry supplies. (I do not recollect how the man from Evergreen made the acquaintance of the young man from Nepal.) Rather than risk problems getting the Sherpa back into the U.S., the man from Evergreen left him in my highly responsible company at Pancho Villa State Park, where the entourage planned to camp, while he and his fellow Rotarians sacrificed virgins over in Palomas, or whatever it is Rotarians do when they gather in lawless border towns. This Sherpa kid was cool. He had summited Everest twice. His wife had also summited Everest, and, matter of fact, the Sherpa had actually proposed on the very top of the planet’s highest mountain. It was not long before we decided to make our way over to Columbus’ sole watering hole. Even though it was only 4 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, the bar was full. I had over the years made the acquaintance of several Everest summiteers, but I had never tipped brews with one. I was looking forward to hearing some death-zone tales. Sadly, the ambiance was not what you would call conducive to storytelling, even barroom storytelling. The reason was that the town’s police chief was standing in the middle of the bar in full uniform. It was not his official presence, however, that drew the undivided attention of those there gathered. Rather, it was the fact the police chief was about as drunk as a person can be. In addition, and very captivatingly, he was also boisterous, obnoxious and, to add a little icing to an already very surreal cake, waving his sidearm around in a manner I believe most firearms experts would have deemed “unsafe.” The police chief’s assistant was also in there, and, though his visage bespoke minor concern with the way things were progressing on the potential negative incident front, it was obvious he felt compelled to serve as a wobbly wingman for his superior. Before long, both of them were waving their sidearms with one hand while holding shots of tequila in the other hand. Many toasts were given, and, in partial defense of the two inebriated law-enforcement personnel, only one of them — the chief — accidentally discharged his weapon, and, since the only thing that got shot was a ceiling fan, which, for all I know, deserved it, I guess I can’t very well conscionably make any disparaging statements about local weapons protocols. Still, the young Sherpa, who seemed somewhat taken aback by all this, and I decided that — who knows? — after another few shots of tequila, the police officer’s aim might take a turn for the worse, so we aimed ourselves at the door. “Wait a minute,” the police chief slurred when he saw us leaving. “Where do you think you’re going?” “Uh … ” “You’re not going anywhere … at least not until …” (and here I must digress by pointing out that by now he was pretty much waving the recently discharged sidearm so close to my nose that I ended up inhaling gunpowder residue) “ … you drink another shot with me … ” (and here I feel a need to digress yet again by stressing that 1) I had not yet done a shot of tequila with the police chief whose gun barrel was pretty much defining my immediate viewshed, 2) I dislike tequila so much that I never, ever drink that shit unless 3) I feel compelled to do so by someone waving a revolver under my nose) “ … and I give you your get-out-of-jail-free card.” The bartender, an obviously once-comely lass, who looked 50 but was probably more like 40, sported one of those looks not uncommon to practitioners of her chosen vocation. Like, “You know, I should have taken that cosmetology school scholarship offer when I was 18 …  ” But she also seemed bemused by the proceedings. Without hesitation, she handed me a shot of tequila, most of which was thankfully sloshed onto the floor when I traded saludos with the police chief and his underling. I choked the remainder down, thanked all involved and, once again, pointed my feet toward an exit that seemed to be getting farther away by the minute. “Wait!” the police chief shouted. “Don’t you want your get-out-of-jail-free card?” “Well, of course I do!” I responded. “How could I let concerns regarding my immediate mortality allow such a patently absurd thing to slip my mind?” I stood patiently as the police chief, who could barely maintain his balance, rummaged through the many pockets adorning his ill-fitting uniform. He was without a doubt earnestly searching for something palpable; this was not some sort of law-enforcement comedy routine, at least not one that was intentional. Finally, exasperatedly, he looked at me and said, “Hold this,” and handed me his gun, which, I stress yet again, had recently been, albeit accidentally, discharged in a public place populated by several dozen potential victims/witnesses, in an area literally crawling with people sporting various types of badges within radio-able distance. So, along about now, here’s what’s going on in my head: Even in a hamlet as off the grid of normality as Columbus, someone with a modicum of civic sanity had to have noticed that an otherwise innocent ceiling fan had been mortally wounded in the town’s one watering hole. That someone very well might have made an effort to contact officialdom, which, of course, would have been the police chief and the one other cop in town who was on duty, both of whom were drunk as fucking shit in the bar and one of whom was responsible for killing the ceiling fan. When neither the police chief nor his personal Barney Fife could be reached, there would likely be further concern — this being a part of the world where police officers often suffer violent ends — and, then, the effort to contact some form of non-drunk, on-duty law enforcement would be expanded to include the Luna County Sheriff’s Department and local federal agencies, like Border Patrol, DEA, INS, ICE, FBI, ATF and the various and sundry other law-enforcement sub-species that patrol the borderlands in ant-like profusion. I’m standing there wondering what would be the chances of one or more of those people busting through the front door of the bar, weapons drawn, and noticing in the darkened interior, a ratty-looking dirtbag, holding a service revolver in front of the town’s police chief, who right then is searching diligently through his pockets in such a way that, to an outsider whose pupils had not yet adjusted to the dimly lit interior, might seem as though he’s being robbed? Finally, the inebriated police chief managed to find a business card bearing his name, his title and the calming words, “Columbus Police Department.” He held the card upside-down two inches in front of my eyes and said, if I were to find myself in any sort of legal trouble, all I had to do was pull that card out, and all would be forgiven. “It don’t matter where you are or what you do,” he stressed. I thanked him profusely for his generosity, took the card and once more began my long trek toward the exit, thinking, “Bueno … now I can commit armed robbery in Duluth and, should I get caught, all I would have to do is pull out a business card handed to me by the shit-faced police chief in Columbus, New Mexico, and I’d be released from custody, no questions asked.” “Wait a minute,” the shit-faced police chief called out. “I forgot to write ‘get out of jail free’ on the card.” So, once more, I was asked to hold his sidearm — upon which now resided both my fingerprints and my DNA — while he searched from collar to shoe laces for any manner of writing implement. He finally located a broken pencil stuffed in one of his pants cuffs, took the card back from me, placed it on the bar and scrawled words that for all the world seemed to be: “smsdkwersuwgd,” his penmanship not being up to Japanese calligraphy master snuff. The Sherpa and I finally emerged blissfully unscathed into the harsh light of the Chihuahua Desert. We stopped by the liquor store and purchased a couple six-packs and returned to Pancho Villa State Park to watch the sun set and to await the return of the Rotarian septuagenarian, who, for all I knew, had been kidnapped in Palomas by his fellow Rotarians, who were right then penning their ransom note. At the edge of the park, there’s a teensy little hill, which we ascended with our beer. We sat on the rocky ground side by side. From our humble perch, the Sherpa looked around, at the proximate Tres Hermanas Mountains, north to the rugged Florida Mountains, west to the Sierra San Luis, south into the heart of Mexico. All around was the most desolate part of America’s most-desolate desert. “I somehow thought America would be … different,” the Sherpa sighed. “This is not America,” I responded. “This is something else entirely.” “Why do you live here?” he asked. “I don’t know … I just love it down here,” I said, shrugging my shoulders the way dwellers of the Border Country often do. I don’t think he understood. Right then, I believe he was thinking about how, in a few months, he would be hiking through the Colorado Rockies, where the days of drunken police chiefs waving weapons in bars have long since passed.

Read more of Fayhee’s ramblings on his Smoke Signals blog

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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.

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Ode to the World's Best Traveled Man

Bruce Hayward Editor’s note: Dr. Bruce Hayward (1928-2011) was a long-time professor of biology at Western New Mexico University (my alma mater) in Silver City (my current home town). He was known in professional circles as one of the world’s foremost chiropterologists. As such, he was often referred to as “Batman.” Dr. Hayward was not only renowned, but very, very cool. He was a professor who got invited to student parties. More importantly, he was an educator who inspired those he taught, to the degree that many of his students opted to major in the sciences solely because of Bruce’s influence. At his outdoor memorial service last fall, on prominent display was the last in a long line of Bruce’s passports. As I as thumbing through it with a combination of awe and jealousy, Mark Erickson, a close friend of Bruce’s, said words to the effect of, “If you think the passport is impressive, you should see his journals.” Ends up that, as Mark indicated, Bruce had spent a lifetime not only visiting an estimated 150 countries (!!!) in all, but recording his journeys. By the time he passed away, those meticulously crafted journals filled seven giant file-cabinet-sized boxes! And that was just the first batch. Few professional writers produce that quantity of verbiage. Those journals would take first form by way of notes handwritten by Bruce while he was in the field. Upon returning home, he would transcribe his notes into typewritten form. Then he would bind the typewritten pages and add photos and memorabilia. The notes covered everything from scientific observations to observations about a given country’s culture. On the way home from Bruce’s memorial service, my creative juices started percolating. I borrowed a copy of Bruce’s last passport, which was set to expire this year, and my wife scanned in several of the more captivating pages. Then my friend Cat Stailey, a biology student at WNMU, spent many hours reading journals from trips that corresponded to the various stamps in Bruce’s final passport. Though it is an understatement to say the following package represents only the tip of the iceberg, we feel it satisfactorily represents the travels and the mindset of the world’s best-traveled man, a term I believe needs a bit of elucidation. Sure, there are people who have visited more countries than Bruce did, at least partially because there are lots of folks who collect passport stamps the same way peak-baggers collect mountain summits. But, Bruce’s journals show that traveling for him was more than just an effort visit as many countries as possible. Travel for Dr. Bruce Hayward was about making deep connections with people and places. He was not just well traveled, he was WELL traveled. A big thanks to Cat Stailey, for taking the time to put all this together. — MJF  Pitcairn Island, October 2006 “As usual, I look out my window upon getting up. I see a big olive-green chunk of rock 1100’ high, 1.75 square miles in size looming out of the choppy sea… This is an impressive, formidable island; landing will not be easy. Today will be an interesting set of events. I’m looking forward to going ashore on Pitcairn, it should be exciting.” “Pitcairn, population 51 people, has a police presence (from New Zealand). This surprises me. There’s a stern police sergeant, a more mellow constable. He’s bummed out at the moment — no beer (and none till 5 Dec).” Armenia, May 2005 “This area is the heart of the integration of Neanderthals (who never got to Africa) and Cro-Magnons who came north from Africa. The hypotheses of why Cro-Magnons replaced Neanderthals are many and fascinating.” “So few people realize that the works of Nature far surpass the works of Man. The ugly monastery is supposed to be pretty; I don’t think so. The stream in the canyon, the birds in the rushes — that is the scenery worth seeing.” Trinidad, March 2006 Caroni Swamp: “Clouds threaten behind us. Mangrove branches arch overhead forming a tunnel. Aerial roots dangle overhead like Christmas tinsel. Out of the swamp, we enter an open lake. Now I see the herons and scarlet ibises flying over in flocks of 2’s and 6’s. I glance left. Wow! An island of red and white spots. This is the famous roosting area, an island of mangroves.” Asa Wright Refuge: “Honey-creepers come within a foot of me — boy! Such intense colors! Shiny cowbirds are the antithesis of the other birds, solid black with a hint of iridescence. A golden-winged woodpecker spends all day digging a new hole on the underside of a dead branch in the distance.” “Once we leave the refuge, large homes blot the landscape, clearing the forest and planting ornamental shrubs. Having seen the Rainforest at Asa Wright, I feel sad to see what civilization has done to this place.” Georgia, June 2005 “The homonid fossils found here are older than any site in Africa. These people made stone tools for 2 million years!” “A plaster statue of Stalin stands majestically against a far wall, almost lost in the dim light. It hasn’t been maintained. Yet it seems to shed ‘a light’ or presence of its own, being separated from all this trash around it. It must have been elegant once.” Pakistan, August 2006 “I’m standing on a pass 15,520’ in elevation, higher than any mountain in the Continental U.S. by a thousand feet. The Himalayas are immense in every respect.” “The road to Eagle Nest is probably the worst road I’ve ever been on. I think of all my friends and relatives who would freak out on this road. It’s not for flatlanders!” “The valleys and white Himalayan Peaks surround me; it’s like being in a theater with wide screen projection. I feel almost like that. The river is a tiny line below us. Farther along, the curves, potholes, rough surface never seem to end. On and on!” “In Gilgit the number of armed guys wandering around with assault rifles is a bit puzzling. I am told that these guys keep the Shiites and Sunnis from molesting each other. Aha! We’ve gotten to the edge of the nasty region of Pakistan!” “I wake 18 August 2006 at 0645 in Gilgit, Pakistan, a very far corner of the world. I often ponder this wonder — where I am, why I am here. Isn’t this a privilege? It beats being in Silver City this morning. There’s time for veranda sitting.” Ethiopia, Jan./Feb. 2005 “Lalibela, Ethiopia has the longest archaeological record in the world. Some say it is the cradle of humanity. The australopithecine fossil, Lucy (50 bone fragments and teeth), which I saw in Addis yesterday, comes from here. It dates to 4.5 million years ago. ‘She’ was half man, half ape, 3.5 feet tall, weighing only 7lbs., possibly the earliest man-like character.” “St. Mary’s Church, in Axum, is supposed to contain the Ark of the Covenant. No one, let alone us, gets to see it. A guard watches the entrance 24/7/365. Does he get to see it? I doubt it. I wonder if it’s really there. Possibly this is a game. At any rate, I’m not impressed, except by the lovely Spring flowers that grow around us (bougainvillea, jacaranda, and some orange ones).” “A pair of kids have found a neat way to get tourists to stop for their pictures. They walk along the road on stilts. Tourists cannot resist the ‘cute index’. Well, the kids get their money, store it in their mouths since they don’t have any pockets. Original!” “[Name redacted] sure is a bizarre fruitcake or possibly a full-blooded idiot. The things she talks about and asks questions about are amazing. She begins a bizarre conversation with our guide, Girma. ‘Girma, these people don’t seem to be circumcised. Why?’ Poor Girma! From here she asks about castration, its uses, traditions, biological efficacy. Strange! Whatever brought this up? Is she truly a dirty old lady, going around looking at penises?” Canada, Alberta, September 2010 “A lady stops by my table to tell me how dapper I am (my Providenya cap and beard); she has been watching me all during her meal. People often tell me that I look very Muslim; I’ve not been called dapper before. Well, that’s an interesting way to start the day.” “We’re standing at the shallow end of Lake Louise. Overrated. Suddenly, a short-tailed weasel, rich brown with a white belly runs over the rocks in front of us. I’m stunned! One seldom sees these animals in the wild. While we’re exclaiming and rejoicing, it comes back, closer this time. It explores under rocks no more than 6’ away… ignores us completely. This is the highlight of the trip.” Bhutan, Oct./Nov. 2004 Paro Valley: “The afternoon will be devoted to hiking to the Tigers’ Nest (Taktshang Goemba), a small monastery on a thin ledge about a thousand feet above our valley. Legend has that it was established by Guru Rinpoche, a re-incarnate Buddha, the guy who started Buddhism in this country in the 8th century. This story says that he rode a winged tigress which landed on this very narrow cliff. He declared it sacred and a monastery was built here (using the same winged tigress? Construction must have been very difficult).” “Thimpu is the only capitol city in the world without a stoplight. However, there is  a main intersection where a serious lady cop stands under an umbrella and waves cars through in several directions. Her white-gloved hands move rhythmically, almost as if in a dance.” Australia, Feb. 2007 Thursday Island: “In most places in the world you don’t drink the water. In Australia, you don’t eat the food.” Burma (Myanmar), Jan. 2010 Inle Lake: “What I am seeing is a large floating bog; called a floating garden by the locals. It’s a small village of sorts with houses on stilts. Steps lead up to the second floors where people live. They raise crops out here. The streets are waterways.” “The #1 reason for this trip is about to happen — an annular eclipse of the Sun. Locals drift in to watch the gringo watch the eclipse; a better show for them than the eclipse perhaps. They borrow the eclipse glasses, are very impressed by what they see. Little kids freak out.” “Bagan is the city of temples and stupas! A large lighted stupa provides an exotic introduction to this city. Ox carts block the streets at times; horse and buggies whip around; ghost like, bicycle riders w/o lights appear and disappear.” China, April 1999  “I sat in a park today; watched people and wrote notes. The Chinese watched me as well, and are fascinated by my cursive handwriting. In no time, there are 6 people standing around me watching me write notes.”

 

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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.

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The Fire Rings of Halfmoon Creek

A few miles outside Leadville, Colorado, lies Halfmoon Creek Road, which, due to a perfect storm of geophysical circumstances that have graciously lent themselves to the modern Rocky Mountain recreational experience, is one of the most car-camping-dense places in Colorado. Such would likely not be the case were it not for the fact that its first five miles, though unpaved, are suitable for passenger car passage. Or, more likely, it’s the flip side of the chicken-and-egg coin: Were it not for the fact that the Halfmoon Creek Road accesses an outdoor enthusiast’s wet dream, in all likelihood, the road would not be maintained as well as it is. At the point where Halfmoon Creek Road becomes passable for only high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles lies one of the most iconic single trailheads in the Western United States. Head south from the parking lot, which has had to be expanded twice in the past couple decades to accommodate the tsunami of visitation, and you find yourself on the main trail to the summit of Mount Elbert, which, at 14,440 feet, is not only the highest peak in Colorado, but the highest in the entire Rocky Mountain chain. Head north, and you find yourself on Mount Massive, at 14,421 feet, the second-highest mountain in Colorado and, therefore, the second-highest in the Rockies. It also boasts more territory above 14,000 feet than any other mountain in the Lower 48. As if all that is not enough, the trail that provides access to the summits of both Elbert and Massive is a contiguous section of the Colorado and Continental Divide trails — a section utilized by both the Leadville 100 foot and mountain bike races. Combine those summits and those world-famous trails with easy access from the heat of the Front Range with the fact the Halfmoon Creek Road, which hovers around 10,500 feet, passes by literally dozens and dozens of perfect campsites — including three official Forest Service campgrounds — and you’ve got a magnet for the huddled masses. On any given summer weekend, you will have trouble finding a place to pitch even a small backpacking tent up Halfmoon Creek Road. Along the road and beside the creek, there will be entire RV villages occupied by four-wheeler devotees, camper-trailer compounds sporting entire tribes of trout-hunters, clusters of tents the size of houses into which are crammed with the vocal spawn of fading lowland farm towns and, of course, entire refugee camps worth of state-of-the-art tents occupied by every variation imaginable on the Fourteener-bagging theme. There are scads of body Nazis, dirtbags, retirees and oxygen-gasping families-of-four on vacation from Ohio. Given the car-camping intensity of Halfmoon Creek Road, which, I should add, has the added benefit of being flat-out beautiful despite its Europe-esque population density during the non-snowy months, it should come as no surprise that it also is home to more fire rings than can be counted. It seems that every spot level enough to hold rock in place has a fire ring. Larger sites usually seemingly inexplicably have multiple rings. Some of the sites have literally dozens. The area from which the accompanying photos were taken sports literally 30 or more. Even acknowledging that some are old and disintegrated, while others are built in inappropriate places, it is still a bonafide head-scratcher why these areas have so many fire rings. Perhaps this is at least partially a reaction to the ever-increasing social isolation of Americans; rather than everyone, even perfect strangers (or perhaps especially perfect strangers) gathering at one central fire ring, individuals or groups obviously prefer to huddle around flames with familiar company. Or, more likely, they are shunning the great communal unknown. I believe there is more to it than that, though. It seems to me that different people prefer different kinds of fire rings. And, why not? We each have our own architectural preferences. Each fire ring is an expression of its builder’s aesthetic taste(s), combined with his or her engineering capabilities, combined with the availability of at-hand construction materials: rocks. With that understanding, my wife, Gay, took the time to photograph most of the fire rings in the aforementioned place that has spread around it more than 30 fire rings. We have interpreted the nature and/or aesthetic leanings of the builders. Thanks to my drinking buddies Allan Cox and Shawn Gordy for adding their observations. And feel free to add you own interpretations of these photos or of fire ring photos you have taken yourself. mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com is the address. M. John Fayhee’s monthly blog, “War Paint,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. His website, mjohnfayhee.com, is now up and running and contains much in the way of Mountain Gazette-related material.   

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Colorado Songs

M John Fayhee: Smoke SignalsAuthor’s note: Though this represents a stylistic change of pace for Smoke Signals (I thought I’d give my liver a break for a month), a book project I have been working on for several years has given me the opportunity to research songs about/from Colorado, most of which have the word “Colorado” in their title and/or their lyrics. I have herein opted to share the fruits of that research. There is no doubt that there will be many reactionary exclamations along the lines of, “Fayhee’s a frickin’ moron! How could he not include [such and such a song] or at least something by [fill in the blank].” Well, I am all ears. Please send suggestions (as well as any corrections to this list) to mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com. I would also be interested to hear songs from other parts of the Rockies, especially those that contain state names within their titles or lyrics. • John Denver, who was born Henry John Deutschendorf, penned the lyrics of “Rocky Mountain High” (Mike Taylor composed the music) after watching the Perseid meteor shower with friends near Williams Lake, outside Aspen. It was recorded in August 1972 and released the following year. Because he lived most of his adult life in Colorado, a large percentage of John Denver’s discography hailed from the Centennial State. Many of his tunes make reference to his adopted home state, but, if you’re going to seek out a Denver song not named “Rocky Mountain High” that is about Colorado, your best bet is “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado.” • Bob Dylan, another singer who, like John Denver changed his name (from Robert Allen Zimmerman), at one time maintained a second home in Telluride (maybe he still does). In “Man of Constant Sorrows” he sings: “I’m going back to Colorado/The place that I started from/If I’d known how bad you’d treat me honey/I would never have come.” And, in “Wanted Man,” he sings: “I might be in Colorado or Georgia by the sea/Working for some man who may not know at all who I might be.” (Note: Contrary to some published reports, Dylan’s “Romance in Durango” is not about the southwestern Colorado town that is home to Fort Lewis College, but, rather, the nice big city that is in Mexico.) • While still with The Flying Burrito Brothers, Rick Roberts wrote, “Colorado,” which was included on that group’s self-titled 1971 album. “Colorado” was covered by Linda Ronstadt on her 1973 album, “Don’t Cry Now.” Roberts went on to help found Firefall. Several versions of “Colorado,” as performed by both The Flying Burrito Brothers and Ronstadt, can be found on YouTube. • Stephen Stills’ “Colorado” is an example (of many) of a great mountain-based song with lyrics that you wonder how much pot these folkies were actually smoking back in the earliest days of the Rocky-Mountain-High era. To wit: “I am a man/I live alone/Don’t much bother me/It won’t be long/Come a woman who wants to be near/Me and my mountains, we’ll be right here/Colorado.” At least the tune’s catchy! • James McMurtry, the son of Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry (of “Lonesome Dove” fame) sang in “No More Buffalo” (“Live in Aught-Three”): “We headed south across those Colorado plains/just as empty as the day/we looked around at all we saw/remembered all we hoped to see/looking out through the bugs on the windshield/somebody said to me/no more buffalo, blue skies, or open road/no more rodeo/no more noise/take this Cadillac/park it out in back/mama’s calling/put away the toys.” This one also boasts a catchy tune. • Merle Haggard recorded two Colorado-based songs, “Colorado” and “Lucky Old Colorado.” • Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” from his “Rear View Mirror” album, is one of the most fetching songs about the state. Steve Earl does a wonderful cover of “Colorado Girl” on his “Townes” album, which is a tribute to the late Van Zandt. • If you are inclined to travel to the deep, dark, musical past — a past that was hilariously skewered by the 2003 movie “A Mighty Wind” — you might like the Kingston Trio’s folk classic, “The Colorado Trail,” which was written by Carl Sandburg and Lee Hayes. The fact that this song came out a solid decade before the Colorado Trail was even conceived, much less constructed, is perplexing. But any song that contains the near-Wordsworthian words, “Weep, all ye little rains/Wail, winds, wail/All along, along, along/The Colorado Trail,” is worth a listen, if for no other reason than to thank the gods that the early-1960s folk music scene was short lived. This toe-tapper can be found on “Melanie’s Melodies of the Rockies: Soothing Songs of the Old West for Home and Fireside” album. One listen to this dog and you won’t be able to resist lacing on your boots and running as fast as you can 500 miles from Denver to Durango on the Colorado Trail. It should be noted, as you’re scrambling to download “The Colorado Trail,” that no other album that has ever been produced contains the word “Colorado” in as many song titles as does “Melanie’s Melodies of the Rockies.” It should also be noted that, sadly, this is not THE Melanie (Safka), of “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain”) fame. • Even though it may be considered a mildly good-natured anti-Colorado song, National Lampoon’s “Colorado,” sung by, of all people, Chevy Chase, is actually a surprisingly melodic satire of “Rocky Mountain High.” “Colorado” is found on the 1973 “Lemmings” album. • Folk singer Chuck Pyle is often referred to as the official singer/songwriter of the High Country. His 2007 album, “Higher Ground: Songs of Colorado,” contains one song named “Colorado” and another named “Moonlight on the Colorado.” But it’s his “Little Town Tour,” which begins, “Bayfield, Cascade, Manitou, Palisade … ” that is most interesting in that it includes the names of almost every single mountain town in the state. • While, admittedly, its Colorado connection is somewhat oblique, Tom Waits’ “Nighthawk Postcards (From Easy Street),” which appeared on his seminal 1975 live album “Nighthawks at the Diner,” contains the lines, “Maybe you’re standing on the corner of 17th and Wazee streets, yeah, out in front of the Terminal Bar, there’s a Thunderbird moving in a muscatel sky.” Those words were penned long before LoDo  — which Waits would hate — spontaneously combusted. The Terminal Bar is long gone, but the building, which now houses Jax Fish House, remains. • One of the great musical shames of the past decade is that Denver-based DeVotchKa is not a household name from Maine to Australia. That changed a bit with the release of the Academy-Award-nominated film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” which was completely scored with DeVotchKa songs. It did not appear in the film, but “Commerce City Sister,” with its line, “You know I ain’t never going back to Commerce City,” expresses the sentiment of many people who have actually visited Commerce City, an industrial Denver suburb. Hopefully, “Little Miss Sunshine” will serve as a gateway drug for many future DeVotchKa fans. This is truly a wonderful musical ensemble. • No Colorado-based song list would be complete without mention of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which spent a lot of time in the state. One of its long-time members, Jimmy Ibbotson, still lives in Woody Creek, where he performs often. One of the Dirt Band’s best-known songs that contains the state’s name is “Colorado Christmas,” which was actually written by the late, great Steve Goodman, who served as a mentor for folk/rock legend John Prine. (Goodman and Prine co-owned a bar in Chicago named Somebody Else’s Troubles, after one of Goodman’s best-known tunes.) • You’ll be forgiven if the words “Ozark Mountain Daredevils” have not entered your thought processes for many years. In the mid-1970s, this band from Springfield, Missouri, was one of the hottest acts in the country, and their “Colorado Song” (by Steve Cash and John Dillon) was released on their first album, “The Ozark Mountain Daredevils.” This song is highly recommended, despite its second-to-the-last verse, which consists entirely of “aaaahhhhh” being repeated over and over, and the last verse, which consists of “lalalalala” being repeated over and over. At least those lyrics are easy to remember. • So, OK, it’s technically a song about leaving Colorado, but that can easily be overlooked, due to the fact that Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham” is flat-out one of the best songs ever penned. It has been covered by many artists, including Joan Baez, Dolly Parton and the Starland Vocal Band (yes, they of “Afternoon Delight” fame). The lines “I was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire/And I stood on the mountain in the night and I watched it burn/ I watched it burn/I watched it burn” are made lovely by Harris’ voice. • Folk diva Judy Collins was actually born in Seattle, but she grew up in Denver, where she attended East High School. Many of her songs contain references to Colorado. Few songs about the state are more accurately evocative than Collins’ “The Blizzard (The Colorado Song),” which contains lines that show the singer was intimate with the realities of life at altitude: “One night on the mountain, I was headed for Estes/When the roads turned to ice and it started to snow/Put on the chains in a whirl of white powder/Halfway up to Berthoud near a diner I know.” You never heard the Ozark Mountain Daredevils singing about chaining up in the middle of a blizzard. They would have just lit a joint and waited for the blizzard to pass. • So far, these Colorado songs have been a bit on the heavy, philosophical side. Fun needs to be part of the equation, and that’s where Bowling For Soup’s “Surf Colorado” comes in. With lines like, “She’s traded rattlesnakes for bunny runs in Colorado Springs,” it’s easy to overlook the fact that this song is essentially a rant by a Texan who’s angry that his paramour left the Lone Star State to move to Colorado without him. Also, the fact that the album upon which “Surf Colorado” appears is titled “Drunk Enough to Dance” ought to gain it some style points in the hedonistic High-Country resort towns. • There’s no denying that, when John Denver released “Rocky Mountain High” in 1973, it marked the first time that many Americans gave the Mountain Time Zone the mental time of day. Many people even believe that “Rocky Mountain High” was in and of itself responsible for drawing nationwide attention to Colorado, the same way Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” drew attention to Utah’s Slickrock Country. But Denver was not the only person singing about the Rockies in 1973. While it does not mention Colorado specifically (and, hey, if the official state song, “Where the Columbines Grow,” doesn’t even mention Colorado, then all bets are off), Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” was in the top 20 at the very same time as “Rocky Mountain High.” Walsh was living outside Nederland in Boulder County when he recorded “Rocky Mountain Way.” The fact that it makes no sense at all does not diminish its place in musical history. • In the mid-1970s, Dan Fogelberg wintered outside Nederland, Colorado, otherwise known as Ned (its residents are known as “NedHeads”). A decade later, with his popularity definitely on the downslide, Fogelberg released “High Country Snows.” The title song will never become a mosh pit favorite, unless there’s irony at play, but it still does justice to life at altitude, as does “Nether Lands” — which is close enough to “Nederland” that we’ll call it good. • The Grateful Dead performed at least two songs that contained references to Colorado, “Me and My Uncle” (“Me and my uncle went ridin’ down/South Colorado, West Texas bound”) was actually written by John Phillips, of Mamas and Papas fame (Judy Collins and Neil Young were anecdotally connected to the song by way of extreme drunkenness in a hotel room in 1963). And “I Know You Rider” (“I’d shine my light through a Colorado rain … ”) is considered “traditional.” • Even though none of his songs contain the word “Colorado,” Elton John did record his 1974 album “Caribou” at the famed Caribou Ranch outside Nederland. The best-known song from that album was “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” but one of the lesser-known tunes was “Cold Highway,” which contains the lyrics, “Where the corners turn blind like the graveyard ground/Oh your black icy snare once cut down my friend/In the deepest dark winter when the world seemed to end.” Before it burned down in 1985, Caribou Studios housed record efforts by dozens of world-class acts such as America, Badfinger, the Beach Boys, Chicago, Phil Collins, Rick Derringer, Earth, Wind & Fire, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joel, Carole King, John Lennon, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Petty, Rod Stewart, U2, War and Frank Zappa. Rumor has it that, in addition to its isolation, the main attraction to the Caribou Ranch was its altitude, which apparently allowed singers to hit, appropriately enough, high notes that they could only dream of at sea level. •  Any song containing the lyrics, “I didn’t kill that man, I called it self-defense/Now I watch the world go by through a twelve-foot barbed-wire fence” deserves to be listed, especially if it’s titled “Colorado.” That would be performed by 19 Wheels (from the album “Six Ways from Sunday.”) **Visit Smoke Signals for more content from M John Fayhee

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In 1972, there were no mountain bikes, snowboards and damned few snowmobiles. There were no AWD SUVs. (Getting around was a lot harder.) There were no GPSs, only tattered maps and dinged-up compasses. (It was a lot easier to get lost.) There was no yuppie 911. (You were pretty much on your own.) There were no X-Games, only the Olympics. There were no real-time blogs from Everest, only handwritten postcards with exotic stamps that usually arrived at their destination long after the sender returned home. There was no Eisenhower Tunnel, only Loveland Pass. (Boy, was that ever dangerous!) There was no Eagles Nest Wilderness, only the Gore Range. M. John Fayhee is the editor of the Mountain Gazette. He lives in Silver City NM. His blog, War Paint, can be found at mountaingazette.com. A comparison of Edward Abbey and Hunter S. Thompson by Fayhee

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