Float-trip season is on, and for those of us lucky enough to have won a permit lottery, the arduous planning process has already begun. If, like me, you find that floating down some remote canyon on a 100-plus-degree day in Utah necessitates the life-saving presence of copious cans of ice-cold beverages, then you understand the complex nature of determining the correct quantity to pack. Failure to crack this nut results in the number of beers available on the raft being equal to the amount that you want to drink, minus one. This is completely unacceptable, and avoidance of this tragedy is a sound gauge of the relative experience level of the trip planner or river guide. Likewise, should you have the misfortune to witness glass bottles being loaded onto watercraft en masse, run like hell, as this is a sure sign that whomever is in charge has no fucking clue what they are doing. Glass on the river is about as cool as the presence of Cesium 137 in coastal Japanese waters.
My first experience of craft beer in a canned package happened in 2003 at a backyard BBQ in Boulder. Fishing through an icy cooler in the dark, I grabbed one of the remaining cans from the water, cracked it, and took a gulp. Expecting the piss-thin flavor of Milwaukee’s finest, I was completely shocked as a floral explosion of hop aroma and bitterness consumed my senses. Swallowing hard, I tipped the can and chugged the rest of the magic elixir, convinced I had found some rare and holy artifact. Clutching the empty, I staggered towards the lights from the house to ascertain the brand, in hopes that it was locally produced and that I would be able to find more in the morning. About that time, the hostess, known to some as “Evil Annie,” appeared with a huge funnel and hose contraption and a gallon of some railroad gin, which I believe consisted of cheap tequila mixed with Rufinol and turpentine. Regardless, waking up the next day, red-eyed and blurry, four words stood on the barren plain of my blasted brain like distant monuments on the desert horizon — Oskar Blues, Lyons, Colorado.
Since 2002, Oskar Blues has been packaging their brews in cans for the portability cans offer in outdoor recreation, and for the protection that the fully sealed and light-blocking package affords the beer inside. They currently offer five styles year-round in their 26-state distribution footprint, led by their flagship Dale’s Pale Ale. Oskar’s would like to invite all kayakers to the Lyons Outdoor Games to be held June 10-11, 2011, on the mighty St. Vrain River in downtown Lyons.
A long-time supporter of wild and scenic rivers, New Belgium Brewing Co. in Ft. Collins, CO, proudly supports conservation and preservation efforts on four western rivers through their Skinny Dip campaign, and recently via a $300,000 grant to SaveTheColorado.org, an effort to preserve the Colorado River flow. 2011 will be the third year that the brewery has released its flagship Fat Tire Amber Ale in 12-packs of cans, an effort that was pioneered with the help of Oskar’s in Lyons. Additionally, canned versions of Mothership Wit and Ranger IPA are available in Colorado and select Pacific Northwest markets.
Up in the Summit, Pug Ryan’s brewpub has entered the canning revolution, offering up their Pali Pilsner (named after a run at A-Basin), and the needs-no-explanation-for-the-name Morning Wood Wheat. Pug Ryan’s and the Dillon Business Association would like to invite you to the first-ever “Summit of Bluegrass and Brews” to be held at the beautiful Dillon Amphitheater on the June 24-25. Twenty-four breweries from across the Colorado will convene for two days of bluegrass music and craft beer on the shores of Dillon Reservoir.
For those of you lucky enough to be running the Smith in Montana or one of the arms of the Salmon through Idaho this summer, keep your eyes out for the multitude of canned craft brews proudly brewed under the Big Sky. Kettle House Brewing Co., of Missoula, MT, has recently expanded to 10,000bbl of annual production capacity, supporting their distribution in western Montana. Look for their Eddy Out Pale Ale, Double Haul IPA, and Cold Smoke Scotch Ale in the 16-ounce ”pounder” package. Missoula is also home to Big Sky Brewing Co., whose Trout Slayer Ale, and oft-imitated but never-equaled Moose Drool Brown Ale, are widely available in cans throughout the West.
If a lighter brew is your preference to beat the summer heat, Great Northern Brewing Co. of Whitefish, MT, markets canned sixers of its flagship Black Star Golden Lager in six states (MT, WA, OR, CA, AZ, NV), with Colorado to be added later this summer.
Got beer related-event news that should be included in the MG? Drop me a line: email@example.com
June 25, 2005 Cache Bar, Middle Fork of the Salmon River take-out, Idaho
Her eyes follow me as I row toward the boat ramp, and a ghost-like feeling from years ago creeps up my spine, icy and tentacle-like. It’s like when Billy died. No, it’s not that bad. Can’t be. I couldn’t take it if it were.
The girl sits atop a granite boulder onshore. She’s small, blonde and pretty, maybe nine or ten. She’s wearing a floppy sun hat that would make her unbearably cute except for that scary, children-of-the-corn look on her face. Must be with the private rafters de-rigging on the ramp. I meet her gaze and force a grin, and she snaps back with a start, as if waking from a bad dream. Her mouth turns upward at the corners in a mechanical smile, but the sadness never really leaves her big, blue eyes.
All the privates and the other commercial guides are looking at us like that, watching as we slowly break down the trip. A trip that was great until the final minutes. You know they all care, they mean well, but you just wish they’d stop staring at you like you’re the fucking Elephant Man.
The ramp is the usual cluster, minus the normal sense of happy, organizational bustle. Instead, the place is like a losing football team’s locker room. The ambulance is gone and the bus took most of the guests back into town for showers, a change of clothes and phone calls to loved ones, during which they’ll process their grief, saying you wouldn’t believe what just happened, we watched it all go down, it was horrible. But we, the boatmen, have to de-rig the rafts and load the trailer, dump the groovers and trash, and get back to Salmon ourselves. The work keeps us busy, which is good, but all we really want to do is sit down under a tree, hang our heads, and sob. Management sent two off-duty guides to help us, and thank goodness for that. Without their help, we’d be here until dark doing what should be a one-hour job.
By the time we finish loading, the seven of us are among the last people on the ramp. Frank, a grey-haired, old-school Grand Canyon and Middle Fork guide, greasy cowboy hat and all, reaches into a cooler on the back of the trailer and extracts a mostly empty bottle of Captain Morgan. “Bad luck to bring back un-drunk liquor,” he says, taking a pull. He removes his hat, revealing a bald, sweaty pate, wiping his forehead on his sleeve. Bottle held limply at his side, he wags his head, an empty gaze directed at his feet. “Goddamn,” he mumbles, “I’ve had a smoke and a shot of rum and I still can’t get the fuckin’ taste out of my mouth.”
I cringe at this because I taste it, too. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, or the taste of my own blood from cut and bruised lips, or the stale air I inhaled while helping Frank try to breathe life into a man, a husband, a father of two lovely daughters. But it’s definitely there: sickly and stale, nauseating. The taste of loss. Something I really don’t need. Not now. Not ever.
June 20, 2005 Boundary Creek, Middle Fork put-in, Idaho
Boundary, like most popular river put-ins, is a place where you seemingly always run into old friends and acquaintances, at least you do if you’ve been in the river-running culture for a couple of decades.
The night before our first launch of the season, I caught up with Jane, a long-time friend from South Africa, and a fellow guide. She was working in Idaho for the summer, taking a break from her other rafting job on the White Nile in Uganda. We spent the evening talking about our lost loved ones (her dad had just passed away), lost loves (I’d just lost my girlfriend) and the inevitable discussion about why we, two supposedly intelligent people entering middle age, were still guiding — and still single. Was it a calling? An excuse to avoid real life? The only thing we knew how to do? Ten years of talking about it and neither of us was any closer to an answer.
But the river heals all. At least that’s the cliché I’d like to believe. Most of the time, it works, anyway. I’d just come off a Grand Canyon trip where I had 18 days to process the recent heartbreak. But when your partner dumps you by email (while you’re off skiing in Switzerland), then promptly moves out, gets engaged to a much younger guy and announces she’ll never see you again — all within five weeks — well, even running Lava Falls and watching two billion years of geology drift by can only do so much. It was better than self-medication through drinking at least. Though I’d done a lot of that lately, too. Unlike the river, booze generally doesn’t help. But sometimes a little self-destruction is all you can manage.
Rigging paddleboats on put-in morning, I ran into some folks from back home in eastern Idaho, launching their own float trip. They asked about my winter and I told them about the ski trip, the break-up, the Canyon. They then decided to fill me in on my ex’s activities during my time abroad — like seductively hanging on every guy in the bar at the local ski hill. So much for Grand Canyon therapy. Where’s a fucking gin-and-tonic when you need one?
My new round of self-pity was cut short when a school bus rolled in, spewing forth our guests for the week. They were a pretty typical group: an abundance of married folks in their fifties and sixties, a handful of kids and exactly one blonde 19-year-old girl, whom the all-male crew had anticipated, having spotted her “stats” on the trip roster. We do that, you know, scan the guest list for females of desirable age, height and weight. Yeah, we’re pigs. Not that our lechery gets us very far. Nowadays, they’re all old and married, or almost a kid, like this one.
We promptly put our folks to work, forming a fire line to load gear onto the boats. I positioned myself between the rafts and a string of guests headed up by a pudgy, middle-aged guy who seemed none too steady on his feet. Nothing unusual there, as our guests tend to be that cross section of America who work behind computers and get most of their exercise dodging salads. Wow, I thought, this guy’s getting winded just standing there, even before he starts trying to huck fifty-pound dry bags around. Must watch him this week. But then he boarded one of the oar boats, I captained a paddleboat the first day, and with 23 guests to get acquainted with, I almost forgot about him.
His name, it turns out, was Steve. By the end of the trip, I’d never forget him.
Steve’s daughters did get in my boat that first day. Jean, the 19-year-old, was a cute, smart, articulate college student. Physics major, no less. It turns out that her not-so-steady dad was a 51-year-old nuclear scientist at Los Alamos. “But the real brain is Teri,” Jean said on the boat that afternoon, nodding at her sister, a freckle-faced brunette with the self-conscious smile of a 15-year-old stuck with braces. “She’s the math whiz,” Jean said. Given that dad was Doctor Science and Jean obviously no slouch, I safely assumed teen-aged Teri could out-calculate my dirt-bag, raft-guide ass in her sleep.
The first day, we pulled some miles, getting into camp late. After slaving over a hot grill, carefully preparing “Burnt, Raw Chicken in The Dark” (as the crew was fond of calling it), I pulled up a camp chair on the beach to read “The Kite Runner,” a popular tear-jerker set in war-torn Afghanistan. Teri and Jean sat nearby to read as well. It turned out Teri was also reading “The Kite Runner,” while Jean enjoyed D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers.” Over the course of the six-day trip, we had something of an informal book club going, spurring some nice conversations in between the guides’ mandatory beer-drinking sessions.
I noticed that Steve, his wife Mary, and their daughters were unusually close-knit. Nineteen-year-olds simply don’t camp right next to their parents and little sister on these trips, but Jean did. They slept side-by-side under the stars when the weather was good, and in adjacent tents when it wasn’t. Also on the trip were three close family friends, including a fun, personable couple heavily into bird watching and a guy named Arnie, a perpetually cheery fellow always ready with a kind word and a hearty laugh. They were low-maintenance folks, thoroughly enjoying the river, the scenery and each other’s company, despite persistently rainy weather.
It wasn’t until the fifth day that I had occasion to chat with Steve, and then it was an unsettling conversation. I stood with coffee mug in hand, waiting in line behind Jean to use the groover — our portable toilet — at Survey Camp. We were chatting amiably when I noticed Steve struggling across rocky terrain twenty yards away. His head was listing to one side, as he stood with a helpless look on his face, afraid to move. He weakly called Jean’s name and she ran to him, her cheery morning mood instantly turning serious. I started to help, but thought better of it, not wanting to embarrass Steve. Jean helped him across the rocks to where I was standing and leaned him up against a ponderosa pine. She left to use the facilities, leaving me with her dad, who manually supported his own head as he leaned on the tree. Steve, sensing the awkwardness of the moment, explained he had a muscle control issue that would be okay after taking medication. “The wheels came off about three years ago,” he said, between clipped, shallow breaths. He described how he’d endured three lung cancer surgeries, lost part of his lungs and diaphragm. “It sucks,” he summarized, staring at the ground. Arnie later told me Steve was a fairly serious road cyclist before he got sick. He had become shadow of his former self, in the physical sense at least. I listened sympathetically, not knowing how to offer support, my thoughts drifting back to the painful memories of my own family crises: my mother’s lost battle with cancer, my father’s excruciating, prolonged death from AIDS. I offered to take him on my oar boat for the day, the only gift I could think of under the circumstances. He said that would be nice, looked me in the eyes and smiled. “I’m so glad the girls are having a great time on this trip. Thanks.”
After Jean returned and helped her father back to their campsite, I approached our trip leader, Neal, and Brandon, another senior guide for the company. I described the encounter and discussed Steve’s condition. They had recently heard the story from Steve as well, and seemed appropriately concerned. Shockingly, Neal said we had not received any medical info on Steve prior to the trip, which left me wondering if that was the result of a bureaucratic snafu or a deliberate omission by Steve and his wife to insure his participation on the trip.
As I finished rigging my boat that morning, Steve walked steadily down to the shore with the other guests, looking okay. He said he would be riding in Neal’s oar boat for the day, as he had a rigged a backrest for him. No worries, I told him, glad to be free of the responsibility.
The sun emerged in all its glory as we floated into Impassable Canyon, always my favorite part of the trip. The river flows deep and green between towering walls of granite and the rapids gather energy, the Middle Fork swelling with each new tributary. A couple of our inflatable kayakers spilled and swam in the bigger water, but nothing serious. The melancholy of my recent heartbreak wouldn’t quite let me go, but at least I could feel the Middle Fork working a little river magic. I come back year after year for that dose of positive juju: the surging power of moving water, the refraction of sunlight in its depths, the subtle excitement of an upstream breeze blowing spray across the cresting waves. I also see that magic in the people around me. That’s what guiding is, I suppose — constantly reliving and rediscovering the wonder of rivers, through others and in your own heart, every time you’re out there.
On the final day of the trip, we ran the last of the major drops on the Middle Fork. The inflatable kayakers eventually gave up and boarded the rafts, tired and chilly in the morning shadows of the deep canyon. As we reached the confluence with the Main Salmon, our flotilla of seven boats had only one remaining rapid to run: Cramer Creek. It was also the biggest and most unpredictable drop of the trip.
Forest fires during previous seasons had stripped much of the surrounding high country of its forest cover. Over the following years, powerful thunderstorms caused numerous creeks to flash flood, emptying massive volumes of boulders, sediment and trees into the canyon. In some areas, the entire river was temporarily dammed, drowning major rapids beneath temporary lakes. As the relentless river carved away this alluvial debris, new rapids formed, the biggest of which was Cramer, sometimes called “De-rig” rapid, located on the Main Salmon just above Cache Bar, the take-out. Like any young rapid, Cramer was rapidly evolving, as water levels changed and high water tumbled unstable boulders in the channel.
Guiding a paddleboat, I followed two oar boats across the flat water above the big drop. I was a bit anxious, as my crew included Jean, Teri and some younger kids. It wasn’t the strongest crew, but at least they were healthy and enthusiastic. I thought Steve and his wife Mary had chosen wisely by riding in Neal’s oar boat, a decidedly more stable platform. Neal was out in front, leading our little flotilla toward the rapid and take-out, about a mile away.
As the thunder of Cramer became audible, a horizon line appeared before us, the pulsing turbulence of the rapid’s gut occasionally leaping into view beyond it. I steered my raft toward the right bank for the scout. I had not seen Cramer since the previous July, and was wondering if high water had changed it once again. But Neal wasn’t pulling over. I thought that unusual, but he and most of the crew had been down the week before, so I guessed he felt okay to read-and-run. Reluctantly I followed, rather than foul the boat spacing and get left behind.
Neal disappeared over the drop. An oar and one side of his raft briefly popped into view a moment later. Christ, he took a hit. I didn’t notice much about the next boat’s line, as I focused on aligning myself right of center, the entry I remembered from the previous summer. As the drop came into view, I saw that our position and trajectory was less than ideal. Below me was a startlingly huge, river-wide wave: crashing foam on the right and left, a towering and intermittently breaking green curler in between. I was already moving toward the center, the meat of the wave. Right or wrong, I made a split-second decision to continue that path. Turning would slow me down, and even if we crashed and burned down there it was a clean swim, in deep water, with no sticky holes that I could see. Time to go big. We came in with as much speed as we could muster, the green wall rising above us, surging at the worst possible moment, breaking over our heads. The boat crashed to a halt and spun sideways. I sensed that familiar rising, listing feeling that usually precedes a flip. Teri tumbled into the foam and I grabbed a boy next to me as he nearly followed. I moved to the high side, thinking we were going over, bodies struggling to hang on. But the raft came down upright. We recovered Teri, who was still close to the boat, scrambled back into position and commenced to celebrate our sketchy but successful run, hooting and hollering and raising our paddles in a high-five salute. One of the kids, distracted, stared downstream. He said, matter-of-factly, “Hey, look.”
I turned and saw a body lying supine across the front deck of Neal’s boat, legs draped over the side. The cockpit was empty, both oars unmanned and dragging in the water. Neal hunched over the body. Shit.
We paddled hard to catch up. A look of dread spread over Teri, barely recovered from her swim. She knew. I knew. Steve had swum Cramer, too.
It was floating mayhem as we tangled with a group of private rafters trying to help out. Neal jumped back on the oars and pulled toward the right bank, wisely landing about a hundred meters or so upstream of the boat ramp. The ramp itself was jammed with rafts, vehicles and what looked like a hundred people. I eddied out just below Neal and scrambled onto his boat.
My first thought when I saw Steve was that he was dead.
He was cyanotic, skin blue and gray, and his eyes bloodshot, yellow and vacant. Neal said he had an airway and very labored breathing. I took his pulse — weak and thready — and found him totally unresponsive. But his color slowly improved with each croaky breath. It was cool and cloudy out, so we quickly gathered a sleeping bag and fleece to warm him up. I located the satellite phone, dialed an emergency number and handed it to Neal, who moved into to his designated trip-leader role as emergency coordinator.
Brandon and I worked to warm up Steve while Arnie shouted in his buddy’s ear. “C’mon, Steve, breathe, you can do it. You beat cancer! This is nothing! We’re pulling for you, come on!” Steve’s wife Mary, sat on the front of the raft, sad, calm, resigned. She shook her head grimly. She was giving up. In the background, I could hear Teri in the paddleboat, crying. Jean was trying to reassure her sister. “It’s okay, they’re doing everything they can.”
Minutes passed as Neal contacted Life Flight and the Salmon ER. One of the other guides sent a guest down the road to the ramp to ask if a doctor was present. Amazingly, he returned with a young female physician who’d been a guest on my friend Jane’s trip, now de-rigging at the ramp. The doctor checked out the patient and came up with the same assessment: hanging on by a thread. She called up to Neal. “What’s Life Flight saying?”
Neal appeared composed and clinical behind his sunglasses. He was on the clock doing his leadership bit now, but I knew the emotions, the self-doubt, the what-ifs, would hit him later. “Fifty-five minutes,” he replied flatly.
The doctor stared me dead in the eye, pursed her lips and slightly moved her head to the side. Way too long. I readied a face shield and timidly suggested we consider assisted breathing, a suggestion that quickly became moot. Steve convulsed and vomited water and sputum. We log rolled him to one side and let him drain, but within seconds his grayish hue turned blue once again. I took a distal pulse as the doctor tried his carotid.
“I got nothing,” I told her.
“No pulse. CPR, let’s go.”
She pulled back the sleeping bag and Steve’s shirt, revealing evidence of the battle he’d fought for three years: his torso was completely perforated with surgical scars. Grabbing a face shield, I tilted his head, pinched his nostrils and put my lips to that thin sheet of plastic, staring into blank eyes as I exhaled. It took a couple of tries, adjusting his head and flattening the mask, but air went in and his chest rose — though something wasn’t quite right. He had to have more lung capacity than that.
The next hour was surreal: breathing, compressions, my lips bruised and bleeding from pressing too hard on Steve’s mouth, the voices around us, more news of delay from EMS. All the while, Arnie never let up his vigil, never stopped voicing encouragement to his best friend. Frank took over breathing after about 10 minutes, but the doctor, on a mission, continued compressions. Almost dizzy, I sat back and tried to comprehend what was happening.
And Billy came to me.
Five years before, I’d been kayaking with a friend named Bill Danford on a class IV-V section of Idaho’s Teton River Canyon. Things went really bad, really quickly, when Billy broached his kayak across two rocks mid-stream. Though I was able to get to him, I failed to free him from his boat. He literally drowned in my arms. The event shattered me. I have lived with the guilt of failure and the guilt of survival ever since, only recently coming to terms with that day.
In the aftermath of Billy’s death, I repeatedly told friends I imagined the only thing worse would be losing a commercial client, someone who put their entire trust and faith in us to ensure their safety. I said if I ever lost a guest, I was done, I wouldn’t be able to guide, or even to boat at all. Prior to Billy’s death, I’d witnessed two Colorado river fatalities, suffered by other river parties, one of which was a commercial trip. And now it was happening to us. We were losing one.
So, is this how two decades of floating and fun and friends comes to an end?
I looked around, catching my breath. Neal was performing flawlessly as a leader, while Brandon and Frank worked with the doctor on Steve. The other guides were efficiently directing and caring for the other guests, who continued to look upon us with trust and faith — despite the fact that we were losing the battle. It’s difficult to articulate, but I could feel their support, not just for Steve and his family, but also for us. They knew we were trained and competent and there for them — and that we were hurting. But they were there for us, too.
Okay. Win or lose, I’m right where I’m supposed to be. It sounds hopelessly corny, a cliché, but the situation made me want to be a better guide, a better person. Fuck quitting.
I rowed the boat down to the ramp as a local first responder vehicle approached, twenty minutes or so since our first emergency call. They beat Life Flight to the scene, but the nearest hospital was a two-hour drive away. I relieved Frank on breathing duty, though I knew at this point we were just going through the motions. As we continued CPR, the first responders set up an AED, a compact defibrillator, but Steve had nothing to give. The electronic voice of the AED indifferently bleated “no shock advised” after each analysis. He was gone.
We kept going for another half hour, mostly for the benefit of the family, Arnie, the crowd around us and for our own collective conscience. I looked up at one point and saw Jane, quietly packing her trip. Our eyes connected and she gave a serious nod. She was with me throughout, and I could read her mind: that could be me, breathing into one of my own guests.
Nearly an hour into the rescue effort, docs at the Salmon ER finally gave us the okay to call it. I felt momentary relief, but immediately began dreading my next duty, or what felt like my duty. I paced around the rescue vehicle a couple of times, trying to hold back tears, trying not to look at the raft on the ramp, a dead man lying on it, staring at a gray sky with lifeless eyes. Hold it together. Do what you’ve got to do.
The girls were at a nearby picnic area with the other guests. Teri sat by herself, head in hands. Stunned guests milled around, organizing personal gear, preparing for a long, quiet bus ride. I knelt before Teri as she raised a disbelieving face, eyes streaming with tears. What do you say when words are wholly inadequate?
“I’m so, so sorry.” I hugged her, then took her cheeks in my hands. “But now you’ve got to be strong, okay? Your mom and sister are going to need you, too.” Sure it was trite, but so true. As an adult orphan who’s been there with my own siblings, I knew this first hand. There’s strength in numbers, especially family. Hell, maybe that’s why this was different than the last time for me. I was with my family. River family.
Teri nodded, managing a weak smile. Her braces were beautiful.
Jean caught my eyes and came to share an embrace. “You guys were awesome,” she said. “I’m so sorry you had to deal with this.” I was dismayed that she was “apologizing” to us. She didn’t know it, but those few words were tender mercies, probably saving us years of guilt. Before my eyes a lovely, college-aged girl became a woman: strong, intuitive, compassionate. Personal qualities I’d taken for granted in another young woman I’d met on the river years before. A woman I’d recently lost.
Mary, the girls and Steve’s friends gathered around his body as he lay on the raft, strangely parked on a concrete boat ramp like a funeral pyre ready to be floated and set alight. Arnie broke down, finally surrendering, sobbing over his friend. I should have told him that when I go, I hope a buddy like him is by my side. The girls cried as well, but Mary appeared stoic throughout, perhaps finally facing a future she’d long known would come.
Yes, Steve had cancer, and yeah, he died. But watching his loved ones around him, saying their good-byes, I wondered if I’d ever be so lucky.
August 3, 2005 Moose Lake, Jedediah Smith Wilderness, Teton Range, Wyoming
I pack away the GPS and check my watch: 4:30 p.m. I’m done logging data for the day, but I’m still looking at a 10-mile hike back to the trailhead. Before me, Moose Lake is a translucent spectrum of blues surrounded by wildflowers and alpine meadow: bright yellows, blues, reds and greens fluttering in the wind like a field of prayer flags, their mantras heaven-bound. I inhale deeply and feel rarefied alpine air massaging my skin. Despite the fatigue from a long day of mountain walking and the prospect of the hike ahead, I’m feeling very much alive and healthy. I’m at my other seasonal job, with the Forest Service, mapping trail conditions in the Teton high country — an ideal place to reflect on an eventful, intense summer.
I guided three more six-day river trips in the Salmon River country after we lost Steve, twice as trip leader. “Everything can go wrong this week,” I told my first crew, “and this will still be the best trip of the season.” Sometimes I’m overly obsessed with details when I’m head guide, but after this June, maybe I’ll learn not to sweat the minutiae. Hell, all three of those trips were the best trip of the season.
And perhaps the first one wasn’t as bad as it felt at the time. Steve spent his final days with friends and family on the Middle Fork — rather than in bed, attached to a morphine drip, the way my mother went out. I know that’s little consolation for a wife and two young women who watched him fade away, but perhaps they’ll see it that way some day. People always said that about Billy, that “he died doing what he loved.” Until recently, I said that was bullshit. I couldn’t get past the memory of his suffering, of his frantic struggle to get his head above water, to breathe, to simply stay alive. But taking the long view, it’s starting to make sense.
I confess that the traumas of my past have left me with a steamer trunk full of baggage: bitterness, anger, resentment and a fear of further loss. This baggage has cost me dearly, even in the best of the times, leading to self-alienation and helping sink my last relationship. I was so afraid of losing her — of reliving the cycle of pain and grief —that my fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I withheld my soul, and lost a big piece of it as a result. Watching Steve’s family and Arnie in their finest hour provided invaluable perspective: they gave each other 100 percent of their love, though Steve’s days were undoubtedly numbered. Hell, none of us gets out of here alive, so why be half-assed about it? Life’s too short to be guarded, to hang out in your comfort zone waiting to die a “dignified,” peaceful death in your sleep. Sure, Steve could have sat on the couch and lived awhile longer, but he chose to take a chance and share a special, somewhat risky place with his family. It went wrong, but they lived life for real, together, all the way to the end.
Steve’s passing gave me the push I needed to follow some long-time aspirations of my own: this winter I hope to volunteer with a malaria prevention program in Uganda, while kayaking some big water on the Nile — with Jane, of course. I’m also planning to make my way to Cape Town, South Africa, where I’ll train for my childhood dream of blue-water sailing, work on my skipper’s certification and maybe join a yacht delivery crew headed back across the Atlantic. With any luck, I’ll be home for the summer, guiding on the Middle Fork once again. Yeah, fuck quitting.
Am I expecting a cathartic journey that will make it all better, mend a broken heart and answer the big questions? Oh, hell no. But time, especially time on the water, is bound to heal some (better than liquor, anyway), and maybe spark a little passion. Who knows where it will lead next, who I’ll meet, how it may alter the course of my life?
Most of us too often forget to celebrate love and life, the only gifts we’re given that really matter, until we witness death first-hand. It is a visceral, dreadful, final reminder of how fleeting and precious our existence really is. How many times must we be reminded before we finally heed the lesson?
Author’s note: This piece was adapted from an email I sent to friends and family in the summer of 2005. I did indeed travel to Africa during the winter of ’05-’06, following the very itinerary I imagined — including a sailing voyage across the Atlantic. I currently live in Steamboat Springs, with a wonderful lady and her daughter, and continue to guide part-time on Idaho’s rivers.
A refugee from Los Angeles, Rob Marin has performed a wide variety low-paying jobs on the Pro Leisure Tour, from dishwashing and journalism to ski patrolling and sailboat delivery. He currently teaches geography and mapping technologies in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Editor’s note: This is a chapter from, and provided the conceptual impetus for, the recently released book, “The Return of the River: Writers, Scholars, and Citizens Speak on Behalf of the Santa Fe River” (Sunstone Press), which Ms. Bello edited.
Every evening when the light turns golden and the Sangres glow red, my husband and I make our way to the Santa Fe River. The dry course we follow is a bed of sand and rock between high, eroded banks. We watch the clouds, pay attention as the trees drop and regain their leaves, notice the patterns left in the sand by wind and intermittent water. We come in all weathers and all moods, sharing the triumphs and challenges of our day or simply walking in silence. The river is our tonic, an open space curative that offers rejuvenation day after day. As the wheel of seasons turns, I grasp that this channel contains not water but the flow of our lives.
In the heart of winter, Elliot and I are often the only people out at sunset, but as the weather warms and days lengthen, we begin to see our neighbors. Even on the finest days, however, we see no more than a handful of people, a few dogs sniffing the sand.
“Why aren’t there more people here?” I ask Elliot one day. It seems strange that in a town full of nature lovers, this open space corridor is often abandoned.
“Maybe they don’t realize this is the river,” he says. “They forgot.”
Once upon a time, this river flowed like any other in northern New Mexico. It meandered down out of the mountains along a sandy-bottomed, ground-level bed surrounded by willows, cottonwoods, farms and meadows. As I walk the deep gash that is so easy to mistake for an impressive arroyo, I try to imagine what it once looked like. I can barely see it.
Gone are the native plants, the animals and fish that once thrived here. Denied water, the river’s bed of sand has grown lifeless, its banks fallen in. The near horizon opens on barren fields. Fields where food was once grown, irrigated by arterial acequias. Those fields are called lots now, and everyone knows it won’t be long until houses grow out of them.
After a half-mile or so of walking, the few cottonwoods and elm trees that grow along the path fade into grey-green chamisa and dried grasses. My friend Sarah won’t walk this section of the river.
“It’s too brown and dry,” she says. “And so depressing.” This is where the junk cars start to rise out of the brown earth, and the cholla cactus grows thick as weeds. I have heard things like this before. Newcomers say, “I miss the ocean, trees, rain.” They say, “You call this a river?”
I don’t mean it to be, but my voice is sharp when I remind Sarah that the river is dry because we drink it.
One evening in March, Elliot and I abandon the river and walk up a ridge overlooking Santa Fe. The sun has just set, leaving a band of orange along the horizon.
“Where does the water for so many houses come from?” Elliot asks. “It should be sand running from these taps, not water.”
I scan the dusk-washed land. Junipers are sprinkled over a sea of dried grass. The piñons are gone, dead from the long drought we’ve been in. Lights shimmer in the black expanse stretching before us, blocks of light following the highway south. If there is enough water for all of these homes, how can there not be enough for the river?
Wherever the water comes from, too much is being asked of this land and too little is given back. The river that has supported settlements in this valley for over a thousand years no longer flows. It is a bed of sand. And the city grows, and grows, and grows.
As the days turn warm, the river begins to run with snowmelt. Muddy. Frothing. Roiling with the trash that has lain unwashed all winter. Foam swirls against concrete, against rock, against sandy riverbank.
Elliot and I squat side by side and watch the torrent. There’s no crossing it tonight. The water splashes up against us, cold. If this river’s singing, the song is a dirty one, the kind that pours from a downtown bar late on a Tuesday night. The river has reclaimed its channel, liberated by reinforcements of melted snow in the war against containment. It is like a prisoner whose face twists with anger, sadness and relief when finally freed. A prisoner who runs away as quickly and violently as he can.
The water level changes slightly each day, leaving behind dark, wet spots in the muddy banks. Prints from people, dogs and birds spatter across the damp sand. The metal caging that was supposed to protect the banks from erosion hangs empty. Tree roots caught in the wire mesh are all that remains of the soil they grew out of. Elsewhere, the path has literally fallen into the river. A new one runs through the cactus a bit farther from the river.
Decades ago, efforts to stabilize the banks led the Army Corps of Engineers to wrap heavy wire fencing against the river’s sides. They strapped stones into retainer walls, and paved the riverbank with concrete rounded to look like rocks. The cutting of the riverbed was encouraged to safeguard the increasing density of downtown buildings from catastrophic floods.
This kind of “maintenance” reflects the way Santa Fe has perceived the river. It is an extension of our plumbing, a faucet that can literally be turned off and on at will. The river is the drain that carries wasted storm water away, but is not thought to need water of its own. When it starts running again, south of town, the water is treated effluent.
Up at the reservoirs, it is someone’s job to decide how much water to release to the river, how much to hold. The city’s water glass needs to be filled before the snow melts, but the reservoir must not overflow. It is a job that swings between stinginess and excess. I wonder how the person at the gate can bear to let any water loose, or to keep it contained.
In early April, the group American Rivers declares the Santa Fe the most-endangered river in the country. It is strange news, coming at a time when the river has begun to run peacefully. The rush of water has slowed to an ankle-deep ripple. It has found a curving path through the wide riverbed, and runs braided in the loveliest sections. The nondescript trees growing out of the rocky sand turn green. I am happy to see the color, but then realize the trees are Siberian elms, an invasive species. Other plants come up — mustards, mallows, verbena. Three cottonwoods burst open with the freshest, lightest green leaves imaginable. Finally, slender willow leaves emerge from the few pockets where they have survived.
Every afternoon, children can be heard playing in the water. Families come fishing. I see an elderly couple walking hand in hand, and later sitting and watching the water. A beaver has been sighted just east of the section Elliot and I walk each day after work. A beaver. We stay out past dusk in hopes of seeing it.
I have always taken pleasure in walking along the river, but now that it flows, just as its name suggests it should, a sense of wonder and gratitude overcomes me. It is the reverse of witnessing an amputation. Indeed, it is a resurrection.
Water flows again through the heart of our community, restoring a semblance of balance to the river. It is as if a special pair of glasses have been given to me, allowing me to glimpse the invisible thread that connects the willows and rocks, the wild alfalfa, the raven flying soundlessly overhead. Allowing me to see this oversized arroyo for what it is meant to be — a living, breathing, riparian ecology.
What else does the river offer that we have forgotten in our thirst for its liquid? Beyond mere sustenance, what else is carried in its arms?
While walking the river, I have awakened to its emptiness. Each time we take a drink, we drink the river. Instead of flowing along its course, it runs through our bodies. How can we not become attentive to the needs of the river, when it has been sacrificed to sustain us?
The empty riverbed is my responsibility because I, too, am a container for the river. In gratitude, it is time to return those waters to where they belong.
I am driving to work one morning before dawn on Alameda, parallel to the river. The sky behind the mountains is rich with pinks and reds. A great creature swoops in front of my car, flies low in front of me. It is a bird, I realize, slamming my brakes in surprise. A great blue heron flying upstream. My heart leaps into my throat. A heron on the Santa Fe River.
Migrations, rhythms, cycles. Before me is the hope of the river — a reminder of what has been broken and what will be healed. Before me is a fragment of balance.
At the hospital parking lot, another nurse comes up to me. “I was driving behind you when the heron flew out,” she says. Though we only know each other by sight, she takes my arm and squeezes it. “I wept when I saw that, and I was so glad someone else saw it too.”
Our hearts are as broken as the river. It is time to piece this tapestry of ecology, of community, back together.
At an Earth Day celebration, the Santa Fe Watershed Association has a booth. They have two displays of river water habitats. A plastic basin holds river water from the Pecos River. Filled with floating leaves, dirt and other natural debris, it is home to scores of bugs — stonefly, riffle beetle, dobsonfly, mayfly — and those only the ones visible to the naked eye. The signs of a robust, intact waterway.
Another plastic basin contains a sample from the Santa Fe River. It is dry, empty except for a few red rocks and some sand. Someone comes up behind me and asks if they can pour some water into the Santa Fe basin. After all, the river is running, even if it doesn’t have any life to speak of. Most people agree that the beaver swam back to the Rio Grande.
I join the association. It seems like a small step, but never before have I translated my yearning for something, or my anger and frustration, into collective action. In her book, “The Open Space of Democracy,” Terry Tempest Williams asks, “At what point do we finally lay our bodies down to say this blatant disregard for biology and wild lives is no longer acceptable?” I have reached that point. I can no longer abide living a block from a river called most-endangered in America. It is as if I have crossed a threshold and burst into passionate flames. Only a restored river can put this fire out.
It might be years before the Santa Fe River sees year-round water and fully recovers from its degraded condition, but after a only a month or so of flow, it shows signs — like the heron and beaver, but smaller and perhaps more significant — of its return.
I marvel at the ability of the land to repair itself given a trickle of water and the attention of caring citizens. Dozens of small stone check-dams built by folks on their evening walks have done their work well, terracing the water flow and reshaping the riverbed. Sand bars have formed, and the river’s bottom is now lined with rocks and pebbles. Most incredible of all is the algae. First a coat of slime on the river rocks, it grows into a thick moss, and finally begins streaming with the water. Yellow green growth where once lay dry red sand. The joy of water and light and plant cells.
It only makes my fire burn hotter.
The river might flow for months yet, until late June. Inevitably, it will stop. The river dries up, year after year. The willow and cottonwood stems planted in a burst of optimism — let’s restore the living river! — will shrivel up and get washed away during a late summer monsoon.
“The world is going to be saved by people saving their own homes,” Pete Seeger said. I am relieved to have found my way to this truth. The world’s problems are too big for me. The river is a block from my house. I have known it in all weathers, all lights. I drink it in every glass of water from my sink. My heartbeat quickened when the heron swept across my path. Perhaps the world will be saved by people saving themselves.
I have heard people say, “There isn’t enough water for the river. It would be wasted if it ran downstream. We need it for our homes, our businesses.” The city hydrologist says that the river is considered a renewable resource, like wind power. What she means is that the water is renewable. It refills the reservoirs each spring after a wet winter, and thus can be used freely.
The river itself, however, is not renewable unless it is given water. The river is dying and will continue to die — its banks deepening and falling in, the native vegetation dead, the animals gone along with their habitat.
It is time for a reordering of priorities. A minimum amount of water necessary to sustain a living river should be released year round, period. If this were the case, we wouldn’t go thirsty. We would adapt, learning very quickly to live within our means. Water conservation measures, including rain catchment and greywater systems, would become our way of providing for the future, as opposed to dependence on “foreign water” like the San Juan River.
The Santa Fe River is our physical connection to the past, a tangible link that connects the generations that have come before with those who will follow. It spans time and history, anchoring us to our home. It is the thread that stitches us back into the tapestry of the wild, pointing us gently away from destruction and toward conservation.
The river is the place where the natural world, the mythical world, the spiritual and the historical worlds enter our bodies, our minds. Without it, we are adrift. Our land becomes as meaningless as a textbook on the past, a story without life.
The feast day of San Isidro, patron saint of Agua Fria village, comes in late May. I slip into the back of the church and add my voice to the choir. The deacon leads us in praising San Isidro, thanking him for tending the fields, the orchards, the acequias and the river.
A hand-painted banner of the saint is carried down the church’s aisle. Elderly women follow close behind the deacon; the choir with its guitars falls into step after them. The rest of us follow, singing the alabado de San Isidro. We proceed down the road, and turn toward the river. When the water comes into sight, there are dozens of people along its banks. Our voices grow stronger when we see them, and we carry the saint forward to those waters.
Flowers are handed out. Children give them to their grandmothers, to their neighbors, to conservationists and politicians. The deacon asks us to line up along the river, to raise our hands. He prays for the river, that it may flow and be strong, and that it bring spiritual strength to all in our community. We cry amen, ojalá, and drop our flowers into the running water.
They are red and gold. For a moment, like me, the water bursts into flames.
A nurse, herbalist and poet by training, A. Kyce Bello now works on honing her radical homemaker skills. She regularly takes her two small daughters to play in the dry riverbed.
They thought it was probably going to start dropping soon. The river was already higher than any flood since the gauges went in back in the ’20s, so the safe bet for forecasters was to say it had just about peaked. “Highest water ever recorded” would be a fair statement. How much water that was in actual volume would be hard to say. It was off the chart.
Floods like this are supposed to be a spike in the pattern. Once the level started down, it was expected to fall off dramatically, which would be good. The Green River wasn’t anything I recognized at this level. The camps were gone, the side hikes under water. The river was painfully cold and going so fast it was hard to get all the boats landed in one place. I’d had a sketchy time of it just pulling in to the notch in the tamarisk trees where my boat was tied up and the hissing current still had hold of it, bending it downstream against the branches, everything trembling and creaking. I was tied up to a sprinkler head, and by that I mean my boat was tied up there, as I sometimes don’t make a distinction. There was no other solid feature on the manicured lawn along the river bank adjacent our hotel. It was only a few steps to our rooms at the River Terrace, Green River, Utah’s most luxurious accommodations.
The River Terrace had room decors in three colors, Too Red, Too Green and Too Gold, with fuzzy wallpaper, gilded fixtures and the feel of a fin de siecle brothel. The good thing was you could make it cool and dark as a cave inside, even while the sun was turning the parking lot into a shimmering pool of asphalt. Most of the floor space was taken up by coolers full of food for the second half of the trip. A ragtag group of boatmen (gender neutral) were draped over everything, pounding 3.2 beer with little effect and waiting for someone to decide what the hell to do.
We’d already had these passengers for six days through Desolation Canyon. It was a charter trip, and they were all related. There were a couple of young kids, maybe 9 and 12, their parents and their grandmother, somebody’s sister and her whole family. One lady had only been out of the hospital for three weeks after major cancer surgery. Not your ideal adventure team. There must have 19 or 20 of them in five boats, expecting a mellow family trip. Not so. It was running 55,000 cubic feet per second, twice the highest level I’d ever seen and screamingly fast. We only needed to spend an hour on the water to make a day’s miles, but it was an anxious hour. The rapids were fine, homogenized into lengthy sets of huge standing waves, but the eddies, boils and whirlpools tossed the dories around like little pieces of bark, and the drift was truly frightening.
You’d be watching a 200-year-old cottonwood tree float by, 60 feet long, root ball as big a Lincoln, in full leaf, with birds’ nests full of twittering squab, and the sucker would just disappear. Gone. You’re sitting there in your gaily-painted eggshell thinking, “Where’s it coming up, for God’s sake?” Then, 90 seconds and 100 feet from where it went down, the whole crown would suddenly explode out of the water like the skeleton of Moby Dick, execute an agonized pirouette, crash down into the river and vanish. Lordy. There were railroad ties, telephone poles, the entirety of a single-lane wooden bridge, a 5,000-gallon cylindrical steel tank that chased us for miles and 700 dead cattle, bloated like bagpipes, all on their way to Lake Powell with everything the river could wrench loose. There was some discussion as to whether it would be wise to continue.
The second half of this trip included Labyrinth and Stillwater canyons on the Green River and Cataract Canyon below the confluence with the Colorado. It’s kind of an odd trip, in that there are 120 miles of serene flat water winding through spectacular scenery, then all hell breaks loose for a few miles, after which you find yourself in the silted wasteland of the upper Powell Reservoir. You can do most if it in an open canoe, but better not take the Grumman through Cataract — known as the “Graveyard of the Colorado” — which is a much different story.
I’m not sure how the decision was made or who made it. The chain of command was a bit murky, but it might have been me. It was probably me. We already had a two-boat trip that left a couple days ahead of us on predictions of dropping water. The leader of that trip was one Bego Gerhart, our best Cataract hand and no fool. Other trips were proceeding as usual. Cataract Canyon was five days downstream, and the thinking was, it would be manageable by then. The passengers were clueless and game. We all were. We loaded up and left.
It was easy to make the miles. There’s not much in the way of gradient for the first couple days, but that didn’t matter. Because of the intense flow, we were hauling ass. The problem was stopping. There was four feet of fast water over the root crowns of the tamarisk and the banks were a continuous thicket of palsied branches, talus and cliff. The river was backed up for a mile into Barrier Canyon, but we rowed to the end of it anyway, looking for a camp. It finally cliffed out in the brush and most of us slept on the boats. The mosquitoes were the only happy ones. We camped the next day on a 30-degree pitch, scattered in the boulders like bighorn sheep. We camped where no man had camped before. Whenever we could get all the boats stopped in one place, for lunch or just to take a breather, we would jam a stick in the mud at the river’s waterline as a gauge and ponder it like an oracle, brimming with portent. It didn’t look so good. It was still coming up.
We burned five days getting to the confluence, but the water was gaining on us the whole way. It was a colorful convergence. The Colorado River really is red. The Green is really green. It takes them half a mile to mix. It was like pulling on to an on-ramp with the Pacific Ocean in the next lane. Some of your boatmen-types will pride themselves on their finesse with the river, their ability to read water so well as to be able to make the river do most of the work for them. OK, maybe I even am one of those people, but it was not happening here. Every stroke I took was as hard as I could pull and it often didn’t seem to make any difference at all. Suddenly, you’d find yourself on some huge hurtling tectonic plate of water that appeared under the boat and have about as much control over where you were going as if you were rowing say, Greenland. And this was the flatwater, three miles of which there is between the Confluence and Spanish Bottom, a short distance above the first rapid in Cataract.
We got to Spanish Bottom at the same time as the helicopter from Channel 2 News, a Salt Lake City station. They set down right next to the semi-permanent camp Canyonlands National Park personnel had set up to advise (read: warn) boaters about the high flow. Big motor rigs had been tipping over. People had drowned. No one had been through Cataract in three days and it was still coming up. Somebody on the helicopter handed me a note from Bego, leader of our trip two days downstream. The chopper had touched down at his camp above the Big Drops to make sure he was OK. The note said, “Do not go below Spanish Bottom. We are evacuating our trip. I flipped somewhere in the North Seas. Paul tipped over somewhere below there and had people in the water right to the top of Big Drop One. Do not go below Spanish Bottom.” Bego had finally tipped a boat over, which was about the only bright spot. He’d been doing this for 18 years and was starting to get a big head about his skill level.
I’m still digesting the import of the note when we hear an outboard engine fire up. There were a lot of people standing around, and the noise got everyone’s attention. It was a Moki Mac motor trip whose departure marked the first descent of Cataract in the previous 72 hours. “Pete said he was going to go today,” one of the rangers chimed while everyone was hustling to the bank to watch them leave. Their people were all wearing two life jackets.
We boatmen types were anxious to see the first rapid anyway, so we take off at a lope trying to catch a glimpse of the Moki boat going through, but it’s a half mile and hopeless. He’s gone. The rapid is a quarter mile long and has but two waves. Two tumultuous heaving Himalayan waves with whirling vortices of confused turbulence erupting on their surface and crests of foam and backlit amber water that built and broke from all directions and rolled down the looming face in rushing fronts the height of a man. It took your breath away. Our tallest Scandinavian boatman, Eric, rounded the last corner, raised his eyes to the spectacle, missed a step and twisted his ankle, big time. We cut him a crutch and went back to camp.
Our first few minutes at Spanish Bottom hadn’t been all positive. Downstream prospects were nil. Eric was a functional monopod. Another boatman, Greg, had climbed in with the news chopper and flown off. We were down by 30 percent in 20 minutes, worse than the carnage at the battle of Bull Run. I suppose I should mention that Greg wasn’t just one of the boatmen. He also owned the permit under which we were running the trip. We had leased the use of his start-up river outfitting company, but brought our own boats and staff and clientele. That’s where the murky part comes in. He was technically just another boatman, but it was technically also his trip, and he wasn’t looking forward to writing a lot of refund checks.
Eric’s ankle swelled up like a football and misery was at large. It was hot and buggy and dusty and humid and the river was a voracious grasping thing nobody wanted to go near, which is a weird thing when you’re a professional river guide with paying customers in tow. One commercial trip had been on the beach for three days and was out of food. Another trip’s lead boatman had refused to proceed because of the quality of the gear he had been sent out with. He had rolled up his “trash” pontoons and was waiting for new tubes to be delivered by jet boat from Moab. “You can’t point that many directions at once even when your boat does hold air,” he said. Later, when he unrolled the replacements to find they were in worse shape than the originals, he would hike out Red Lake Canyon and never be heard from again.
Back at their “Bug Camp,” the rangers’ radio crackled. It was the Park Service’s rescue boat stationed down below the rapids. “Moki motorboat capsized in Big Drop Two and went through Satan’s Gut upside-down. May have been entangled in timber. Boat came apart. At least one injury. Broken leg. Assisting with rescue.” It had been about 15 minutes since they’d left.
Next morning comes early. We’re thinking of trying to set up a jet boat shuttle to take our people back to Moab. “Hey, it was a bad call, OK?” one might explain. “Who coulda known? Drinks are on the house and please don’t sue. Better than drowning any one of you, eh? Except maybe you, Martha. Just kidding.” That sort of thing. Might work. Except, who then floats around the corner on a Gypsy wagon of a big rubber boat than Greg and five other susceptible late-night patrons of the Poplar Place bar, whom he has primed to row some dories through the biggest whitewater in North America flowing at historic high levels? They had launched after midnight and floated down in the dark. Such is the power of decision-making in bar environments.
The suggestion was obvious and didn’t sit well. “I have brought some non-pussies to row these boats out through the scary water.” The boatman who had recently become my wife was ready to tear his throat out. People had died. There was no room on the beach for macho. The last boat to try it tipped over. It was 33 feet long and weighed five tons. We’ve been “practice” flipping the dories on the way down here by having everyone stand on one side. They tip right over. We weren’t taking those people into the Big Drops. No way.
Greg retreats, but not far. There’s a way to complete the trip, within reason and not kill us all, he maintains. We’ll get a helicopter. We’ll run the boats to the top of Mile Long rapid and chopper them to the lake from there. It’s not that far. Greg knows the guys at Rocky Mountain Helicopters. He does heli-skiing with them in the La Sals in the winter. He’ll set it up on the Park Service radio.
We’re all at cross purposes. The rangers have been told from on high that if a rowing trip decides to leave, they must accompany it in their spanky-new 20-foot Zodiac with twin 50s for back-up. They don’t want to. The boatmen aren’t frightened exactly, but they’ve seen the situation now and recognize the gravity. Still, there is a once-in-a-lifetime experience available here. Nobody had ever made bold to try Cataract at this level or even half this level in a dory before. How cool would that be (if we lived)? The passengers are still game. Lacking any alternative, they still believe us.
We decide to try it first thing in the morning. We’ll go down the river as far as Range Creek, where the big shit starts. We’ll run a few drops, give the folks a helicopter ride over the biggest damned rapids anyone has ever seen and drop them off at the top of the reservoir. Somehow or another we’ll get them home from there. Terrific plan. Thus begins the longest day.
We arise early, shovel down some pancakes, load the boats, rig flip lines, check and recheck spare oars, life lines, latches, everyone’s life jacket and shove off. We run a rapid, totally helpless. There’s two feet of vertical relief in the water at the eddy lines and the towering waves won’t stay in one place long enough to point at them. They rear up suddenly off the beam and slap the boat a dozen yards sideways, spinning it like a top and tilting from rail to rail. It’s not boating, it’s rodeo. Just trying to hang on for eight seconds, then eight more. Range Creek seems a long way, but we make it, and that is quite enough. We pull the boats up the beach clear into rocks, where they will be dry till the next Ice Age begins to melt off. Just like we’d planned it, a helicopter soon comes clattering around the corner, and sets down on the beach.
We had dampened a patch of sand for him to land on and had a guy out on the beach indicating wind direction. As it just so happened, we’d been doing a lot of stuff with helicopters around that time. The previous fall, we had airlifted a whole trip out of the Grand Canyon as an experiment in avoiding the three-day misery and 500-mile road trip of a Lake Mead take-out. We had woken up in the morning below Lava Falls and had breakfast on the rim at Toroweap Point, a mere 80 miles from the warehouse. It turned out to be too expensive to do regularly and the helicopters had a hard time getting the boats off the ground. Too much flat surface catching the downwash. “It’s like trying to lift yourself by your bootstraps,” the pilot had said.
The captain of this craft shuts the thing off and climbs out. His name is Doug and he’s a little wiry guy in cowboy boots and ranch wear whose first step is to stop and roll a cigarette. Greg thinks all the boatmen should take the first ride and go scout the whole canyon by air. Sounds prudent to me and I climb in shotgun. The ship, an Alouette Llama, looks pretty well used. There are rips in the seat, a big ding in the windshield, the glass in a couple of the gauges is shattered and missing in others. When he gets the thing fired up, it rattles and shakes so badly it doesn’t matter if you can see the gauges or not. The needles are bouncing from peg to peg like pinball flippers. It comes right off the ground though in a deafening racket and we’re quickly at the dogleg in the canyon where there’s a long straight section of nearly continuous rapids that ends in the Big Drops. From five miles away, you can instantly see the legendary reversal at the top of Big Drop 2, drawing in the unimaginable mass of the river like a white black hole. They call it Niagara.
Doug laid the ship over on its side as we did an abrupt U-turn directly above the great hole and I could stare directly down into the foaming maw with nothing but air between me and it. Doug had taken off the doors for a better view. When we set back down on the beach, I was certain that the Llama was the only proper craft for Cataract that day.
We begin to shuttle the people down to the beach at Ten Cent Rapid, the last one above the reservoir. Doug flies the people on a short detour round the field of spires and pinnacles known as the Doll’s House by way of accumulating actual vacationing points. We’re still having fun, right? Then he’s ready to take the gear and kitchen down to camp, only he doesn’t have a sling and it would take a dozen trips to haul it all in the cockpit. “Throw it all on one of those boats,” he says, “I’ll just tie on to that.” “Are you sure?” I ask him right out, “We haven’t had the best luck trying to fly these things.” He fixes me with a cool eye. “Throw it on,” he says.
We use my boat, the Tuolumne, as the flying cargo container. There’s the kitchen full of cast-iron cookware, stoves, food, tables; the toilet set-up goes in a hatch by itself. I cram personal baggage into every hold till the lids will barely close and there is still a mountain of baggage on the beach. I look up at Doug. He’s leaning on the bubble of his chopper, rolling a cigarette. “Throw it on,” he says. We pile the whole mound on the decks and run a rope through it, then make a sling out a couple of stern lines, the stoutest available rope. Last time we did this, we had several days and a nearby hardware store to puzzle it out. Even then, the first boat wouldn’t come off the ground till we had taken everything out but the oarlocks. I’m a little skeptical about the prospects this time and figure I’ll take my camera up behind a big rock away from flying debris to watch the attempted lift-off, in case there’s a dramatic photograph to be made. As if to raise the stakes, Doug says he would like us to push the boat out into the river before he lifts it so he won’t have to worry about sand in the machinery. I have visions of Doug and his helicopter trolling my boat through the biggest whitewater on the continent like a 17-foot fishing lure. That’d serve him right, the cocky bastard.
Doug puts fire to the Llama. A dozen of us tug the Tuolumne into the water and shove it out. I hightail it to my perch. Doug waits until the boat is fully in the current and picking up speed downstream before the copter rocks a little on the sand and bolts into the air. From my perch among the boulders, I expect to see the aircraft hit the end of its tether and be jerked from the sky like a broken kite. Instead, in an explosion of spray, the Tuolumne leaps into the air like a big red salmon and is instantly headed downstream at a hundred miles an hour, trailing the helicopter at a 45-degree angle. Downwash is not a factor if the load is never below you. “Try to learn something every day,” I tell myself.
Doug sets the boat on the beach like I’d just pulled in with the bow post bobbing in surge, hits release and heads for home. He’s almost out of gas. The rest of us will have to find our own way to camp. We’ve still got the snout rig, a formidable craft, 22 feet long, 36-inch tubes with a 20-horse Merc. It’s quicker to turn than the big rigs, and that’s what matters. Then there is our 17-foot Avon Spirit rowboat. They will both have to go to get us all there. Greg’s rescue party has doubled the size of the crew.
So we ran Cataract that day, which turned out to be the absolute peak day, and were the only ones that did. Franklin, our trainee baggage boatman, rowed the whole thing by himself and was the only one on earth to do that, too. We stopped above Niagara and stared down the step incline into the depths of a hole that could have digested an uninterrupted stream of three bedroom houses moving by at 20 miles an hour. There was a narrow slot of continuous current directly off the right bank, but, though smooth, the water sloped down into the chasm of Niagara at an impossible angle. It seemed as if it would surely draw you in.
It didn’t though. We survived, and it was good. The people even enjoyed their trip across the reservoir the next morning and didn’t mention lawyers once. Mission accomplished, sort of. We still had seven dories abandoned in Cataract Canyon, but I wasn’t interested in recovering them any time soon. Let the water drop for a couple of months. Let’s watch TV, play hearts or something.
Well, that wasn’t in the cards. There was unfinished business. The company needed the boats for other trips. The Park Service wanted them out, too. Six days later, we were back on the beach at Range Creek and the water was still Oh-God-Help-Me high. Sixty eight thousand was the official tally of cubic feet of water hurtling by every second. We had always figured that thirty five was the top because we’d had a trip go down at thirty three and their eyes were wide as saucers. We put two boatmen in each boat, everybody wearing two life jackets, and did a little silent beseeching just in case. I was genuinely gripped.
I don’t remember much about the trip down to the Drops. Mike Tagett, my partner that day, did a lot jumping around to the high side and we were slapped repeatedly by breaking waves that made a crack like the bow had been stove in. I was rowing a beautiful little MacKenzie dory that was set up for my wife, who is 5’3”. I couldn’t get my feet under the braces and was rolling around the deck like a bottle in the bilge water. We got down to Number 1 and made it across the rocketing current sheer into the eddy on the left that was filled with logs and all manner of spinning drift. A rapid going upstream in the eddy had standing waves a couple of feet high.
The river was still gnawing at its banks and the trip to the scout rock was through large loose angular rubble. The river looked the Brooks Range had been liquefied and poured into the canyon. Mike was next to me shouting in my ear, but I couldn’t hear him. The ground was vibrating and spray from minor waves pelted our faces from 50 feet away. I was trying not to look at Niagara and concentrate on my run. Everybody else thought the right slot was still open, but it was narrower still and steeper yet and I thought the boats would surely fall off the sloping ledge of water and be vaporized. I was going left. I had made up my mind.
The left was a stupendous V wave. The left side of the wave was a huge crashing lateral that was flipping the motor rigs. The same thing had happened to all of them. They would come in powering right in hopes of blowing through the right side of the wave and tucking in below the Hole. It was going so fast and it was so hard to get the scale that they all ended up with the whole boat in the monstrous left lateral, which was curtains. Guaranteed. If you didn’t get right, whatever the reason, you were going through the quarter-mile of continuous gnarl known as Satan’s Gut. The other side of the wave was a piedmont of water that rose to a peak near vertical. It had dual nature. One was a stationary tsunami of beckoning glass and the other, when the top had built beyond the vertical, was a towering mass of tumbling foam and solid water that broke upstream and rolled down the face like a liquid storm front. It would swallow a dory like a pea. The cycle took about 15 seconds.
Getting out of the eddy was a chore by itself and, when we passed the first little marker wave, I was truly shaken. The marker was huge. I began to push the boat forward like I had never pushed before. Everything was gigantic. We were moles on a heaving continent of brown water. The wave rose up before us and over the bow I could see nothing but sky. We were flying.
The wave broke right under the oarlocks. I could hear it rolling down the face behind us. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever done in a boat and it was sheer dumb luck.
Tim Cooper wrote his first story for Mountain Gazette #76 (?) when he was 24. He’s more than twice that age now and hasn’t learned a goddamned thing. He’s still in Dolores, CO.
Always threatened to run off and join the circus? Good news… it’s within the realm of possibility with even more options and you can stay based in your mountain home paradise. You can still run away and throw your hat, and most of your clothes for that matter, into the world of burlesque. It doesn’t matter what gender, age or body type, you can take off in your new chosen career in this traditional enticingly provocative musical strip tease revue that’s making a huge comeback in both mountain towns and cities. If you’re unfamiliar with real burlesque and its variety of entertainment, it is in essence Gogol Bordello meets Mae West at Cirque du Soleil and the entire evening is sabotaged by the Keystone Cops as Nina Simone sings from a second story cathouse window while brightly colored feathers rain down from the skies.
Originally burlesque was a parody of the more ruling classes in England in the 1800s, making a travesty of popular songs, opera arias and other music that the audience would easily recognize. As it developed, the shows depended on comedy and a variety of acts including titillating strip teases that really didn’t show much but the audience thought they saw what they wanted. It gained its sleazy reputation decades after arriving in America and as the art of “Burley-Q” went into decline in the ’30s house managers depended more on female nudity to draw crowds. Alas for progress as porn became readily available and strip clubs and titty bars became the bastard child of the once grand offshoot of vaudeville. Not that there’s any shame in heading off with a fistful of singles to your favorite strip joint, but it’s refreshing to see authentic burlesque make a fervent return to whistling crowds.
And what better place than mountain towns where costuming up is a natural way of life and people are wondering what to do in their off season doldrums? In Durango, Colorado, a gaggle of talent unveiled itself at the initial call for auditions for a new troupe being put together. Bare Bones Burlesque and Salt Fire Circus director Tami Graham says, “Everybody’s Durango based. It’s amazing all this talent, an amazing oddity. It’s the perfect convergence of performance artists, musicians, jugglers, dancers and singers. We even have a strongman.” The show supports five musicians who play everything from a saw and Tibetan horn to traditional drums, bass, violin, accordion guitar, keys… but in an unusual genre. “It’s sort of gypsy meets circus meets its own style,” Tami has a difficult time putting their original music into a specific category. Current burlesque shows utilize live music, canned music and tracks and depending on the taste of the stripper and the act it can range from classical striptease songs and jazz to BB King and Marilyn Manson…. with accents marks for bumps and grinds, of course.
Having successfully survived its third winter the show is a combo of old time circus with burlesque and sells out quickly. “It’s because we all like to be entertained. The sex appeal of burlesque is enjoyed by everyone… men and women. These are very real talents. It’s a great adult circus and mountain towns have always supported great entertainment,” Tami has a sense of showmanship beyond the beloved bar follies of beer and wet tee shirts. The troupe plans a summer tour this year through Crested Butte, Aspen, Steamboat and lots of other mountain locales. “We all know people in all these towns because we’re mountain folks ourselves and these audiences make it fun since they’ll come to the show in costume at the drop of a top hat,” Tami says. For the past couple of years small mountain communities witnessed the unbridled kitschy antics and talent of the Yard Dogs Traveling Road Show, a San Francisco based vaudeville troupe, who performed to full houses and whose numerous fans mimicked the performers’ stage style attending their shows with painted faces, bustiers, bowler and top hats. Mountain men groomed their curled mustachioed guise for weeks prior while women browsed online Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogs.
Down in southern Colorado, Peaks and Pasties have been shakin’ up the shimmy since 2008 with traditional burlesque and boylesque shows. That’s right men, in boylesque you too can dress to undress. The delightful Lola Spitfire, director/creator of the troupe confirms there’s no age limit for performers in the genre, “The legends of burlesque are sixty and seventy year olds who still perform, take their clothes off and twirl fire tassels. The beauty of makeup and corsets is that burlesque is a celebration of all body types and all ages.” Finally, there’s hope and encouragement for even geezer girls… it’s all in the art of squeezing anticipation from the audience. “It’s a strip tease, you don’t see all the goods but you see enough,” the sultry Miss Spitfire says.
If you don’t know how to do it but have a burning desire to twirl fire tassels and learn the artistry of stripping there are schools across the Rockies in places you would never expect. Miss Spitfire is the headmistress of The Spitfire and Sparkle Academy of Burlesque in Pueblo and a producer of The Colorado Burlesque Festival, which takes place in Denver July 7 through 10, 2011. This gives you plenty of time to get your act together, find your corsets, boas, learn to juggle, redefine your id and pump up everyone’s libido. Burlesque is still alive and strutting it and we’re all invited.
Wherever you are right now, drive 14 miles. Depending on the direction you’re coming from, you’ll either turn right or left at the fourth unmarked dirt road. Follow this road until it forks. Turn and drive toward the sun — east or west, depending on the time of day.
After a sufficient amount of time, pull over and park your vehicle under the big juniper tree — the one with the illegal fire ring, shotgun shells and beer cans under it. Be careful so that the glass shards don’t puncture your Go-Lite neoprene shoes. After parking, fiddling with your gear and checking the nifty compass on your key ring that doubles as a faux carabineer (strong enough to hold the weight of, well, your keys), it’s time to hit the trail. Drop into the first wash on your right and follow the coyote tracks. After two hours of brisk power hiking — or 30 minutes meandering — you will come to a large, red rock that is distinguishable from the other large, red rocks by its largeness and redness. Admire it and continue on.
Soon, you will cross an extraneous road. And another one. And then another goddamn road. Curse it, piss on it … and then get used to it. There are many more. Next, when the wind shifts direction, so should you. (And remember, keep drinking water! This is the desert, after all, and there are many more roads to piss on.) Next, ascend — all the way to the top! — the sand-slide that forces you to take three steps back for every half-step forward.
However, if you hit the pristine, untrammeled, untouched area, you’ve gone too far. Stop and go forward in time.
Finally, after hours, days — and sometimes years — of this, after cursing the author, after asking repeatedly, “Are we there yet?”, you take off your Oakleys, open your eyes and realize, holy crap!, you’ve always been there. The whole time you’ve been waiting to get to the money spot that’s worthy of bragging rights and interminable slideshows, you’ve been surrounded by expanses of redrock, fine coral sands, pungent sage, inviting potholes, forgotten drainages full of remnants of the past, canyon wren song and the dizzying swoops of swallows. The first Indian paintbrush of the year is blazing at your feet, and the most beautiful cloudscape that no atlas can map is above your head.
In your search for that one brushstroke of Eden, you missed the whole damned canvas full of paradise.
Now that you’ve reached your destination, don’t retrace your steps to the car — in fact, think about abandoning that hulk of metal — but instead find a way to make a loop or a zigzag or a geometric shape we don’t yet have a name for. Thank the author for your enlightenment. Send money. Repeat as necessary.
There are maybe a dozen of us, sitting on folding chairs at the center of three empty acres of old cracked concrete, listening to a young man and the wind play on a long wooden flute, and watching a dancer courting the concrete.
She lies on it, slithers along it, lays her cheek on it. But the concrete is unmoved. Finally she rises and walks off into the vast flatness of the slab, past the brown stickery weeds growing out of the cracks, walks to where its flat horizontal plane ends in a long vertical plane of more concrete, while overhead a flight of geese honks toward the horizon, a distant train answers from a crossing somewhere off toward Commerce City, and the cirrus-streaked sky is what it always is, everywhere.
Watching the dancer trying to humanize this vast forlorn and empty place, my mind wanders off to something Ed Abbey wrote back in the 1970s — a newspaper article someone sent me. I carried it around for years, folded up in my first copy of “Desert Solitaire,” until that book wandered off as books do, the clipping with it.
It was a short essay about a visit to an abandoned pier or dock area somewhere in New Jersey, where Abbey lived and worked before he moved full time to the Great American Desert. The nut of the piece was his observation that that abandoned, filthy, polluted, derelict industrial remnant rotting into the water was the real American wilderness. Or the new American wilderness, something like that: basically, it was an American wilderness — a made-in-America wilderness. It was not the kind of place around which anyone would think of making a “wilderness park,” but at that point in its devolution it met the basic “uninhabited by humankind” criteria of wilderness.
To say anymore would probably be putting words in his mouth — a good way to get haunted by his acolytes, some of whom probably have that little essay laminated. But back when I first read it, that little essay made me think about my own life — a little defensively. That’s the unsettling quality of Abbey’s work, like this dancer’s work too.
At the time I was — so I thought — living on the edge of the real American wilderness, up in the mountains of Colorado, a quarter-mile or so from the boundary of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Officially Designated Wilderness Area. We were winter caretakers six miles beyond the end of plowed-out civilization. Me, my partner in parenting, our young son, and eventually our even younger daughter, who is now the dancer trying to engage, embrace the three-acre concrete slab.
Speaking only for myself (a luxury the dancer didn’t have then), I was there for the same basic reason that Robinson Jeffers sent messages back from out in the middle of nowhere most of his life:
“…for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there are left the mountains.”
From my perspective, that pretty well says where we were, and why. I did not delude myself that we were “self-sufficient” in any meaningful way: we packed in a lot of canned goods and dry staples every fall, earned mostly by working construction on houses that represented the ultimate tentacular sprawl of “the monster,” and what I mostly did while there was try to write things that would sell in “the thickening center” from which I imagined myself to be in a kind of Byronic romantic retreat. It was not what today I would call an economically, philosophically or environmentally sustainable situation.
But that place was where daughter Sera was born, out of the Perseid meteor shower one August night. In her early years, we imagined Sera to be a “Heidi,” a child of the high places, the still pure and unspoiled places. And for a time, that seemed accurate: the first time we took her to Denver in the summer, she all but collapsed, basically passing out on the bed through the hot afternoons. I imagined her becoming a permanent resident of the High Country, like me.
But at some point, she — moved on. Moved down, I should say, down into the thickening center. She kept to the mountains into her college years, following Norman McLean to the river that ran through Missoula and the university there. She majored in dance — the daughter of two not very successful artists who did not learn from our bad examples.
But while there, she learned about a dance teacher sat Smith College in Massachusetts that intrigued her, and through a masterful act of National Student Exchange wangling, she managed a senior year at Smith on Montana in-state tuition. And after graduating, she followed her mentor to “Monster Central,” moving not just to New York City, but uptown to Harlem.
She was there to help get a very multicultural dance company started, and effort that ebbed and flowed for several years — she actually got praised, by name, in a New York Times dance review once, some kind of a benchmark for young dancers. But it was also where she began her flirtation with that other American wilderness Abbey wrote about so briefly, the made-in-America wilderness of uninhabited ruins exhausted and abandoned by industrial civilization. Our “wildernext.”
Dancers in New York need some kind of paying work to support their habit, and she karma’d her way into a job at Battery Park — the extension of the original park, up the side of the island, an enlargement of the island literally built on the rubble dug out for the basements of Manhattan’s skyscrapers and dumped in the Hudson River. It started as a summer temp job, but she discovered an affinity with plants, and on the strength of that, plus her affinity for working well with others, was invited back the next summer. And when the dance company finally ebbed terminally, the Park took her on full time, benefits and everything, with the title of “horticulturalist” — a dancer with one survey course in biology, but a good mind and good OJT.
While working at the park, she got a crash course in “reinhabiting ruins” on and after 9/11. She was working that day — hit the ground when the second plane went over the park full throttle a few hundred feet above them. The rest of that day and for the next month, she worked through the death-snow of asbestos and gypsum that fell on everything, turning the lower city into a temporary ruin dominated by the seven-story mountain of debris at its center. She’s one of several thousand “9/11 heroes” named in a memorial book the city created.
But — living in New York, living in Harlem. Jeez. I visited her there a couple of times. The best thing about the neighborhood she lived in was that it was in fact a neighborhood. A busy one. It was not dangerous, in the way we outlanders think of New York as being dangerous, because there was always someone around, someone watching, loafing, listening, commenting; it would have been embarrassing to try to commit a street crime there (although bodies — ODs — occasionally turned up in the little park across the street from her building). It would have been easy to find a fight if you wanted one, but nobody seemed to be really looking for one. It was my first experience at being an invisible, ignored minority. Trying to sleep up in her fifth-floor apartment (the elevator often worked), with both the humidity and the temperature of that heat-island hovering in the eighties at midnight, I reminded myself that at least it wasn’t a dangerous neighborhood; it was too damn busy, too damn noisy to be dangerous, but damn I wished the guys drinking and yucking it up down by the goddamn dumpster would just shut up for a bit …
The old apartment building she lived in was handsome, with once-polished marble in the foyer, and the elevator was probably once the wonder of the block — but it was the same marble, same elevator a century later. The walls of the apartment had that layered look that old apartment buildings get after the consequences of scores of residents have been painted over and over again.
Going out in the morning, I wasn’t depressed by the city, I was oppressed. To me, it was a city of stone ruins — ruins still inhabited, ruins even loved by their inhabitants. But it was stones that had been floated into place on the strength of dreams, visions and hopes that were either worn out or getting that way; the stones no longer floated in place; they weighed. To me, the city felt heavy with a past that was wearing out. It was infiltrated in a lot of places by tall alien invaders of glass and aluminum, but the overall feel to me was a weight of stone that was no longer buoyed by a future.
Walking around downtown, I remember coming around a corner to see, there before us, the marble entrance to one of the older Manhattan bridges, built when the city still had its magical future — a magnificent structure that seemed to say, this is not just a bridge, this is a monument to the idea of crossing. Crossing to what? Well, today, it crosses to Brooklyn, Queens, wherever, but that hardly warrants such a monumental entrance.
It was the same throughout the city, for me. The Empire State Building — again the city’s tallest skyscraper — is as graceful as a muscular mountain of stone can get, a monument to reaching (as opposed to the blocky arrogant monuments to in-your-face bigness that now don’t even exist as ruins). But it is a monument to a time when “empire” was still considered worth reaching for, not yet a dirty word. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with its cathedral towers, and went below it to the old Brooklyn Ferry dock, where Walt Whitman’s lines to “Mannahatta” are inscribed to the fabled skyline across the water — but inscribed on a fence, not a gateway.
What did Sera see here? But I remembered my father paying an early fall visit to the cabin we were living in up at our place six miles beyond plowed-out civilization. He saw no romance, no vision; he just saw a kind of decrepit cabin, surrounded by weeds and woods and mountains, where we were proposing to raise his grandson. “It’s dirty,” he later told my sister, who was traveling with him. So why should I expect or hope to see what my daughter was seeing in this slow heavy settling at the thickening center?
What I could really see was that she was working really hard to stay there. From 125th Street in Harlem where she had a sublet, it was about seven miles down to Battery Park. When the weather permitted, she bicycled down the parkway along the Hudson; other days she took the subway. If the weather turned really miserable while she was at work, she might have to lug her bicycle home on the subway. Just getting to work struck me as a day’s work. And when the summer air squatted over the city and didn’t move for days, squeezing the shit out of thousands of bags and dumpsters of not-yet-collected garbage, and even cold baths and wet sheets at night couldn’t keep the body temperature under 100 for long when the whole damn heat island was over 100 … It was a hard life, far harder than anything I had ever experienced in my retreat to the mountains.
Somewhere out of all that — mostly out of the park and her work there, I am guessing, but maybe also out of the mountain of 9/11 debris on top of the growing weight at the laboring heart of an industrial civilization growing older — out of all that, she hatched the idea of going back to school, and next thing we knew she — a dance major — was applying to graduate schools in Landscape Architecture. And she got accepted, back in Colorado at the University of Colorado-Denver campus.
Where she now seems to be evolving toward some kind of a vision for the reinhabiting, the resurrection of places like the wilderness created by the world from which Ed Abbey and her father were in retreat. The late afternoon event on the concrete slab was the culmination of an independent study in which she was applying a dancer’s perspective to a place similar to Abbey’s piers — a place worn out and left behind by the forward march of America, a made-in-America wilderness that was what was left of a row of abandoned warehouses after two of them had burned, opening the space up to the sky and the rain of nature in the form of precip, wind and seeds. “For the cold, abandoned feeling already present in the space,” she said in her paper about the study, “what is offered is an excellent starting point for seeing the human body in a landscape where the code of industry is written.”
In Abbey’s terms, she is exploring the wilderness — but a rougher wilderness than Arches or Maroon Bells-Snowmass. In Jeffers’ terms, she is engaging the monster — but at the end of its age, not its beginning, and not as an adversary, but as a researcher wondering how it can be restored to some kind of life.
In the spring term, she will be designing “Roots,” a journal the Landscape Architecture program puts out. The theme for “Roots” this year is “Forgotten Spaces.” “There are some places that cling to life through decay,” the prospectus for the journal says. “They exist, not as they once did, but rather in a suspended state where neglect and time have displaced their former purpose.” Such places (like the three-acre concrete slab) “are peppered throughout the urban landscape and beyond, are quite likely undesirable, and assuredly have untapped potential.”
One July weekend when she was only five, Sera and I hiked through the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Officially Designated Wilderness Area, to visit friends in Aspen — I’m not sure what I was thinking, a five-year-old on that kind of hike. We were under-prepared for the amount of snow that was still on West Maroon Pass that year, and the nastiness of a July afternoon snowstorm that caught us; I had to posthole up to the pass, carrying Sera on my back, to the shelter of a rock on the other side where I put her in a sleeping bag for a while to warm up. I was too terrorized myself by my own unpreparedness for how really nasty it had gotten to feel cold or tired.
Warm again in the woods below the pass, the storm transformed into a cold but gentle mountain night. We were full of the exhilarating gaiety you feel when you realize you’ve done something stupid but gotten away with it. We laughed when I charred our wet socks trying to dry them out, laughed at the new pair I made for her by cutting the fingers off an old pair of wool gloves.
But I can’t help but think what a relatively tame wilderness mine is today, compared to these abandoned, poisoned, haunted “urban wildernesses” for which she is beginning to develop some kind of a still-embryonic vision for restoration, resurrection, reinhabitation — but by some new “code” for the land, not the “code of industry” in which the straight line, flat plane and monstrous rectangular enclosure dominate, constructing an efficiency that might inadvertently starve whatever it is in humans that leads them to dance.
It is both a proud and forlorn moment for a father, to realize that, somewhere along the line, after your years of tending, extending and pretending to lead, show, set examples, et cetera, your offspring have sprung off into some totally new and unanticipated arena of life, where you are only going to be able to watch from the near edge, wondering what the hell they are doing — and marveling as they do it. The wildernext.
Senior correspondent George Sibley is a writer, father and retired educator living and working in Gunnison, Colo.
Local Apparent Lunchtime is one variable of celestial navigation that is usually possible to estimate with a great deal of accuracy. When you are not allowed to handle the oars, or raise a sail, and your craft is only an inflatable rubber life raft, your mind travels naturally toward something good to eat. At sea, after two weeks and some heavy weather, it’s a crisp salad with plenty of ripe tomatoes you’ll want. But on the river, it may be only a long drink of cool water, and a ham sandwich. Why a ham sandwich? Because given the choice between a ham sandwich and Eternal Bliss, the correct choice is a ham sandwich, since nothing is better than a ham sandwich!
Despite my grown-up age, I’m suffering a premature case of panic at the thought of what lies ahead. Call it existential dread, a kind of pre-terror before the real thing arrives and wraps me in a stomach-churning, middle-of-the-night state of icy apprehension for the rest of my life. I had hoped to secretly enjoy the warm, sticky nostalgia that often accompanies a visit to the scenes of one’s youthful meanderings and misdeeds. Dangerous Daryl, who is sitting beside me on the shuttle bus to the Portland airport, appears unfazed about what is coming. Our fellow passengers are two couples, roughly in our age range (mid-50s to mid-60s), certainly not of our mountain tribe, and about to embark on their holiday. They are in high spirits. The women giggle at one another’s jokes; the men, wearing pressed jeans, new tennis shoes and cotton Hawaiian shirts, nod and grin. Happy campers.
To gauge our sociability, one of the men leans toward Dangerous and in a conspiratorial voice announces that they are on their way to the Hawaiian Islands. Idle, good-fellow vacation banter follows. The women eavesdrop, until one, eyeing our backpacks and antique kickback chairs, brings the verbal ships-in-the-night-love-fest to a halt. “Where are you two going?” she asks. It is clearly a demand dressed-up as a request. I am not sure why, but before Dangerous can reply, I blurt out “1972.” Silence fills the shuttle bus like icy Arctic Ocean water pouring into a sinking boat. The women lean closer to the men; the men fold their arms and wait. Dangerous, who cannot hear out of one ear, is still smiling. The few seconds of pause feel like an hour in time-out. Finally, my she-interrogator has sized me up as the smart-aleck I am. “Ha! 1972. Ha! Ha!” Everyone breaks out in laughter. She is, however, not done with me. Arms-folded-and-teacher-like, she waits for the correct answer: a place, a destination, a fixed point on the map. How can I tell her this is no laughing matter? Where Dangerous and I are headed, Place and Time are inextricably entangled, a motherboard of tall tales, communal narratives, decades-old rumors, fleeting glimpses and fading memories.
In fact and space, we are bound for the Mountain Round-Up and Pig Roast, the biannual rendezvous of Bear Valley-Ebbetts Pass residents past and present. The three-day event is held in the hamlet of Sheep Ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The better-known town of Murphys, California, is nearby. In 1860, gold was discovered in the area. A boomtown sprang up overnight, harboring five gold mines and fifteen saloons. At one time, the two-story Pioneer Hotel and Bar, ground-control center of the Mountain Round-Up, competed mightily with the Eagle Hotel for patrons looking for comforts and distractions. The last time I attended a Round-Up, nearly 30 years ago, I was single, immortal, foot-loose and fancy free in a way only mountain life allows.
During the early 1970s, Dangerous and I lived in Bear Valley/Mt. Reba ski resort, an hour’s drive and a few thousand vertical feet up Highway 4 from Sheep Ranch. The marketing department had labeled the area “the best kept secret in the Sierras,” an oxymoronic phrase that to this day carries the scent of mountain tomfoolery and a sliver of truth. Due to historically outrageous amounts of snow, Ebbetts Pass (Highway 4) closes in the winter. Marketing the concept of an uncrowded destination ski resort, vacation homes and luxury condos (with a relatively limited night-life, a handful of shops and minimal, but essential, services) on a dead-end winter highway with snow banks ten to fifteen-feet high in places, however, was always going to be a challenge. Nearby Lake Tahoe, glamorous but swarming with tourists, was the perfect Las Vegas-like foil for The Secret.
In spite of these climatic and geographical handicaps, the area showed promise when it opened in 1968. Throughout the early 1970s (if you didn’t count the drought years of 1975 and 1976), the area thrived. Ski racers, instructors and patrolmen came from the nearby ski areas of Dodge Ridge and Lake Tahoe, as well as resorts in Utah, Colorado, France and New Zealand. Hollywood celebrities, seeking sanctuary from the publicity storm, arrived with their families and found themselves welcomed into the life of a small mountain town. The lack of through-traffic and the intimidating amounts of snow gave the area the lure of a ski-town beyond the pale, a location where you could get in, but perhaps not get out. The pristine natural beauty was enough to make you cry. The lift lines on Mt Reba were ridiculously short midweek, the ski passes reasonably cheap. Demo equipment could be purchased for a pittance. One could step out one’s door and cross-country ski into the backcountry. Locals were friendly, irreverent and hard working (depending on the season). Lacking entertainment and with time on our hands, the community embraced the child-like concept of making fun out of high-altitude thin air. The Mad Hatters Ball (to celebrate the end of the season), the Bastille Day Parade (to celebrate French Independence day, but mostly an opportunity for locals to make and wear silly costumes and parade flagrantly through town) and the Spring Street Olympics (to get the same locals out of the bars on those stunningly beautiful warm spring days in the Sierra) were anchor events in a sea of chronic spontaneous efforts at making our own fun. None of these events were scripted. Ski-resort management had yet to realize the value of these “natural” happenings, much less corral and co-opt the local madness into marketed events. Signs of a maturing community appeared — a library, a fire station and a grammar school. Locals became involved in local governance. Nevertheless, Bear Valley had the feel of a frontier village wonderland, a place with promise, where the first residents might claim bragging rights for having stumbled upon a real find.
The two cops in town were actually Alpine County sheriffs. Markleeville, the county seat, was on the eastern side of Ebbetts Pass and unreachable for seven or eights months of the year. Thus, the Law Enforcers and the Law Benders were stuck with one another. To their credit, the cops realized that the locals, though hopelessly beyond redemption, were harmless, fun-seeking missiles. As long as the miscreants were reasonably well-behaved and willing to listen to a common-sense warning why they should not be spinning donuts in the icy parking lot in an overcrowded VW van, a relatively harmonious relationship existed. How can you make an enemy of someone who you may be sitting next to at the bar on Saturday night swapping horror stories of driving up the Pass in a whiteout with no chains? Live and let live. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Hide and seek. The handful of restaurants, shops and bars coupled with the jobs on the mountain provided enough employment to keep economic life viable. If you found your way to Bear Valley and stuck it out, you had landed in an unlikely high-altitude Paradise, the perfect place to misspend one’s youthful capital.
Depending on who you talk to, the Round-Up/Pig Fest has been going (with occasional unscheduled lapses) since 1980. The location in the Sierra foothills has remained steady, although the exact venue had changed on occasion, usually without warning. Attendance ebbs and flows depending on births, deaths, weather, regular jobs, the feeling that you may have outgrown mountain reunions, the desire to avoid people you hoped to never see again and the wish to not disrupt the stories you have told yourself (and possibly your children) about those glorious days in the mountains. The chances of being reminded of who you once thought you were, or worse, that you haven’t changed one iota and are the same self-absorbed, beer-swilling, fun-loving, risk-taking suntanned idiot boy (or girl) are better than average. Returning to Sierra Mountain Past Time (SMPT) is more akin to making one final late run in the black-diamond zone of the mountain with a storm rolling in. Advance at your own peril.
It was Dangerous who alerted, then cajoled, me to this year’s Roundup. Given our ancient common mountain vices and background, it is hard to believe that we fall on different points along the political spectrum until I remember that he once owned a Doberman named Killer and was a volunteer deputy in town. He was also an excellent ski-instructor and damned good, cool-under-pressure dinner cook who tolerated no excuses when a waiter or waitress failed to pick up an order within ten seconds of the order-up bell. Think of the position Roger Maris or Roberto Clemente played; Dangerous is now firmly ensconced somewhere in the bleachers, high in the bleachers. No matter. He can’t help himself and has been generous enough to use his executive business card that allows us to literally walk through the car rental agency at the Sacramento airport and step into an upper-tier vehicle that screams speed and comfort. As we drive out of the parking lot, Danger hands me his GPS. I have to search my short-term memory for the meaning of the acronym: yes, of course, GROUND POSITIONING SYSTEM. Good to know where you are going and how to get there. It is, however, yet another nagging reminder that the shape of Time and how I measure it at 60 has undergone irreversible change. I lack the will to scale the peak of my hard-earned indifference to electronic gadgetry and so I fumble halfheartedly with the pocket-sized nuisance. Danger finally pulls over and rescues me from my Luddite intransigence. He pushes a few buttons and magically the compact screen lights up with a cartoon image of a highway in primary colors of our exact location (in real time), estimated arrival time and mileage. He slaps the miniature gadget to the windshield, a screen upon a screen.
No sooner do we miss the off ramp that will carry us east toward the Sierra, and then the seductive voice of a woman challenges my “we-don’t-need-no-stinking-map” inclinations. This is not the gravely, no-nonsense tone of a post-modern ramrod like Rowdy Yates/Clint Eastwood of “Rawhide” fame. I have, however, heard the faceless feminine intonation with the tidal pull before. But where? Everywhere, of course: shopping malls, robo-calls, grocery stores, kitchen gadgets and social networks. Welcome to the 21st century. I cannot help but like her. She is calm and self-assured, I suspect, as long as we do her bidding. She-who-must-be-obeyed will get us to the Mountain Round-Up whether we like it or not.
Near Lodi, we bend and wiggle east on two-lane back roads through farm country. The spring sunshine is California-dreamland-soft; the scene at 75 mph is all blue sky, green fields, honey and promise. I put my hand out the window and surf the warm air. Danger and I swap mountain stories built on common memories. When he offers another interpretation (actually based on facts that I did not know, but suspect are true) of some of my long-cherished mountain narratives, I am forced to reconsider the possibility of large and time-consuming revisions of the mountain stories I have been telling myself for thirty years. Shit!
Dare I count the numerous leave-in the-middle-of the-night road trips to Tahoe, Reno, Sun Valley, Sandpoint, Jackson Hole and Aspen 35 years ago, tra-la-la-ing along back roads and empty desert highways, through anonymous towns and over mountain passes, gloating when our sense of direction matched reality, cowering when the flashing red lights pulled up behind us as we hid the beer under the packs and gear. We traveled on cheap gas and a shoestring; I could hear an unlikely crowd — Muir, Whitman, Frost, Kerouac, Watts, Roethke, Dickenson and Thompson — in the jam-packed backseat arguing or singing or sighing over the great American landscape. I shudder to think what they might say about my present mode of travel, not to mention my growing affection for the electronic Muse. Historically, I have been inclined to driving beater tank-like station wagons with one hand on the wheel and a creased, coffee-stained paper map on my lap. Leaving in the dark was mandatory, if only to make miles and have breakfast in some nondescript café as the sun came up. Who was that unabashed romantic of the road, distance and scenic viewpoints? Embedded in the wiggly lines, symbols, colors, numbers, altitudes, place names and road notes, of course, was a universe of chance, mystery, adventure, error and redemption, cycles, rhythms and seasons, overwhelmingly American in nature, though not obvious at the time. To this day, a tired cardboard box of yellow, weightless, marked-up maps sits under the stairs, calling.
The fun of those mountain joy-riding adventures, of course, was the promise of an encounter with the unexpected and the raw thrill of physical movement over great expanses. With a smattering of Western literature coursing through my addled brain, the myths of the West — frontiers, greener pastures, fresh starts, eternal possibilities, heart-stopping beauty — came alive. Oblivious to any consequences less than extremely serious, we courted serendipity and the offerings of the road — broken-down cars, roadside attractions, lonely miles of desert highway, cold green rivers on hot days, bars, hitchhikers, restaurant waitresses, scenic wonders that came and went in the bat of an eye and left our ignorant souls brimming over. What would my electronic Muse have to say about the pleasures of taking the wrong turn, straying off the beaten path, getting lost? Enough. I can hear the grating sound of my memories side-slipping into the gully of Nostalgia. Me thinks it’s time for a shot and a beer to halt the unseemly descent into wistfulness. Dangerous and I stop at a roadside establishment seeking refreshment, something rundown, earth-smelling and dark enough that customers go unrecognized at lunchtime.
Wallace, Valley Springs, Mokelumne Hill — the valley and foothill towns roll past and recall vague, pine-scented memories. We reach San Andreas and turn into the spring-fresh-green foothills of the Sierra. An hour of winding, light-dappled back roads brings us to Sheep Ranch at our estimated time of arrival. We have avoided the joys of getting lost. Our electronic guide purrs, and then falls silent. Sheep, which outnumber residents, crowd the Main Street. We slow to a crawl. Up ahead, the Pioneer Hotel. We drive through the gate. Base camp. Ground Zero. Visitor’s Center to SMPT.
The Pioneer Hotel hasn’t changed in thirty (or one hundred?) years. The two-story, century-old hotel exudes a shabby, effortless charm and a structural predisposition to leaning. The wrap-around veranda is lined with overstuffed couches and easy chairs, the perfect location for morning-coffee-spiked-with-bourbon and repetitious storytelling. If nothing has changed (and everything), the interior is complete with creaky floorboards, a belly-up bar, ornate red wallpaper, high-ceiling rooms and Gold Rush memorabilia. Being a virtual tinderbox, smoking is not allowed in or near the wooden building The grounds around the hotel are green and overgrown. Black oak and ponderosa pine line the broken-down wooden and barbed-wire fences. There is no gas station, store or post office in Sheep Ranch. The town had its zip code revoked (it is unclear why) and residents pick up their mail in nearby Mountain Ranch.
Dangerous and I linger in the car, engine running. Escape is still possible. Four figures pitch horseshoes on a patch of dirt along side the hotel. They turn, they stare at the sleek rental car, huddle together unable to recognize the occupants, unsure if we are friend or foe. We can still back out of the parking lot slowly and dash for cover, if only the sheep will move.
The short guy with the grey mustache and cowboy hat, we both agree, is Cowboy. Portuguese ski-instructor-contractor-sailor-restaurateur-rancher-in-an-apron and primary organizer of the Mountain Round-Up, Cowboy is pushing 70. He moves light-of-foot like a man half his age and bears a passing resemblance to the actor Tommy Lee Jones. It takes longer to recognize Miller, 44, and son of close friends, who was in grade-school during my time in Bear Valley. Husband, father of three, Olympic-caliber racer and now a contractor in Murphys, Miller has the square jaw and compact build of his father, Jack, who died recently. When I arrived in the mountains, I somehow was pulled into the orbit of this mountain family, relative stable planets in the ski resort universe of shooting stars, black holes, and time warps. I ate at their dinner table, worked in their shop and slept on the floor of the family cabin after all-night sessions cobbling together editions of The Bear Valley Spectator and Boogie News, the resort’s first, only and last newspaper. The other two beer-clutching, horseshoe-tossing miscreants remain temporarily beyond our collective recall. Over the next two days, this failure of memory will be a recurring problem. Only when someone mercifully pitches a name to a face will the lens of recollection wheel into focus.
As we climb out of the car and step into the deep end of the pool of the Past, we are greeted with embraces, laughter, disbelief and beers. A round of bullshit chatter before Miller escorts me to a prime location between two pickups in a grassy corner of the compound, a rickety wooden fence at my back, a location I can crawl to if I revert too old habits. I am frankly touched by Miller’s concern of my welfare. A small wonder! He insists on helping me put up my two-man tent and asks if I need another cold beer. Base camp for an aging fun hog, my observational post to watch the Reign of Terror as it is unleashed. Later, we will spend a portion of the afternoon in the shade of his mobile home discussing fathers and sons. For now, I arrange my sleeping bag, fluff my pillow and place my headlamp within reach. I resist the urge for a quick nap. The couches on the veranda beckon.
Throughout the morning, a crowd trickles in. The families pitch their tents: circus-sized, room-sized, two-man. Others circle their trailer-homes under the ponderosa pines, wagon-train style. Solo pilgrims squeeze their lightweight miniature tents between the enclaves. The camps of non-breeding mountain bachelors are sprinkled around the perimeter, the outliers and boundary sentinels, the Swedish farmers of the High Sierra. Couples have taken rooms in the red-curtained, whiskey-stained, ghost-haunted hotel. No one will sleep well in the paper-thin-wall rooms with the bar below. A rolling tribe of children cruise the grounds before I realize they are not the spawn of my generational cohorts, but the grandchildren, rug rats of once-upon-a-time rug rats, evidence that it will be impossible to escape or soften the notion that Time has passed, is passing, will pass without some form of medication. Damn the little beasts!
Cowboy has spent the day preparing the 120-pound domestic pig for roasting. He has stuffed it with onions and garlic, and marinated Porky in some Portuguese concoction of mint and rosemary. The blaze he started this morning, fueled with a steady supply of hardwood, has turned into a fine pile of embers. Thirty or more of the usual suspects mull around, waiting for Cowboy to skewer the pig end to end. They are like characters out of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” eager to join the procession to The Pit where the sacrifice will be laid to roast. A brown bottle of tequila makes the rounds. Sips instead of gulps, signs of adulthood, the moderation only the memory of youthful dancing along the edge can bring. Warnings about falling into The Pit are issued. Everyone nods in agreement. It is common knowledge that a decade or more ago (memories are fuzzy as the exact date), one of the evening tenders took a tumble into the Pit, only to emerge miraculously and without injury, her down jacket sprinkled with small bonfires and the smoke of burning fleece rising into the hill night air.
If all goes to plan, the pig will take 15 to 18 hours to cook. Cowboy has circulated a sign-up sheet for volunteer pig-guardians among the crowd. Duties include stoking the fire, rotating the beast on the spit a quarter turn every fifteen minutes throughout the night, keeping revelers out of The Pit, listening to stories you have heard a hundred times and telling your own stories as though they were brand new. Determined to pace myself and stay the course, I have taken a midnight shift. Charlotte, wife of Jack, mother of Miller and Henry, one-time co-editor of the Bear Valley Spectator, owner of The Dirty Nickel Co., and present-day hospital administrator, will stand watch with me. As the night grows chilly, the crowd closes in around the roasting pig. Gone are the wild days, the uproarious mountain behavior along with the stamina to push boundaries. The din is the tempered conversation of travelers who have survived the journey over the Donner Pass of our Mountain Life, managed not to devour one another, wonder how they got here and rejoice in that simple fact. When Charlotte fails to show up, I am left to shoulder the pig-guardian duties alone under a chilled mountain sky filled with stars. It is dark and beautiful.
Any chance for serious reflection is short-lived. Out of the shadow a figure emerges and sidles up beside me to join in the communal hypnosis a crackling, red fire pit offers. “Nice pig,” a feminine, non-GPS voice growls. A creeping sensation runs along my spine. I should know this voice. Ex-mountain girlfriends are not to be ignored or tampered with, even after three decades. Avalanche territory. Rainbow Star and I exchange safe pleasantries. It is not long, however, before the slippery slope of the Scorned Woman/Paul Simon “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” Past beckons. Rainbow Star, of the sharp tongue, long memory and big heart, was always a woman to speak her mind. Her un-sugar-coated, tequila-stained review of my personal shortcomings would sober anyone up. It is far too late to beg forgiveness. I could agree to my relative immaturity with little cost, but I decide to feign loss of memory and well-timed silences. I can only cringe and hope the dawn comes up sooner than later. We agree to agree that “Life is funny” and let it go at that.
The smoke from the roasting pig wafts up into the second-story rooms on the backside of the Pioneer. A shadow appears at one of the windows. Annie Oakley, one of the bevy of fast, beautiful, untouchable ski-instructor-goddesses that left me gasping in the bars and on the slopes years ago, yells down in her throaty voice, “Is the hotel on fire?”
As the night wears on, the bulk of the crowd wears out. We mountain elders, who once skied all day, worked in the local restaurants at night, made sure the bars closed safely, made all-night runs to Reno to ski and gamble, saw the sun rise and repeated the routine day in and day out, are in retreat. I slip into the shadows beyond the cozy camaraderie of The Pit. In the belief that I will need my wits about me for the next day, I resist the temptation to visit The Bar. I crawl into my tent, congratulating myself for adult-like behavior. Before my head reaches the pillow, I am nose-diving into the Land of Nod, the muffled laughter of the next set of nocturnal pig-tenders playing a background lullaby in my ears.
The scent of freshly-brewed coffee percolates into my tent. Out of my sleeping bag, past The Pit with its handful of blurry-eyed, last-men-standing tenders, I drag myself toward the kitchen to fetch a cuppa Joe. The morning sky is a warm blanket of blue, the spring sun like a child’s yellow balloon on a short string. Whispers and giggles drift from the nearby campsites of families and couples. It’s an outdoor, circle-the-wagons sleep-over with a hundred of your closest friends. The breakfast crew is hard at work, preparing a small feast for a large crowd. Classical music, idle chatter, Bloody Marys. I’d like to help ,but the over-stuffed couches on the sunlit veranda are calling. I slip out and park myself lizard-like in one of the upholstered nests, sipping coffee with sunshine on my shoulder. I suspect I may be approaching a minor version of Wonder unwittingly. Does it happen like this? By chance? Can it last for an hour, a day, a week? Well, maybe ten minutes … an eternity.
Abe, Cowboy and Rose’s son, sits down next to me. Abe is in his late-thirties, soft-spoken with his father’s mannerisms and his mother’s eyes and build. A one-time ski instructor (like his old man), Abe grew up in Bear Valley. In his twenties, he did his time in the ski resorts of the Rockies, but returned to the Sierra foothills, Ebbetts Pass and Bear Valley: home. The last time I saw Abe, he was a mere sprout, one of the throng of eight-and-nine-year-old grommets who swarmed the mountain, skiing like they had come out of their mother’s bellies carving G-slalom turns. He remembers me, probably due to the stories his old man told him about our adventures cross-country skiing over the Sierra from Bear Valley to Mammoth Mountain or the sailing voyage in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. We share the sunshine and what-are-you-doing-now stories. Abe segues into a litany of fond memories about growing up in Bear Valley: snow camping, trudging through snow up to his waist, snowball fights, digging out the car with his dad, rushing to see a cabin on fire, summer hikes and backpacking trips. He remembers having a free rein, going into “town” to the general store, the Red Dog Saloon or the Altitude 38 (long since torn down) to hang out, play games and drink rounds of Shirley Temples at the bars. Someone was always around to keep an eye on the kids. He had never forgotten the first time his father took him into the Red Dog Saloon to show him where his name had been carved into the slab of varnished hardwood that served as the bar.
It is an unexpected relief to hear a young mountain dude talking about his “good old days.” I am spared the sound of my curmudgeonly self bemoaning the loss of my own good old days in the mountains. Wonder has ambushed me again.
Abe laughed at the thought that as a child he had the feeling of “missing out” on things that kids in flat land towns and cities had access to — malls, MTV, fast food, cool toys. He thought mountain life kept you humble. He treasured his father’s admonitions, once upon a time an irritation, about the importance of getting the seasonal work done in preparation for winter — cutting cord wood, cleaning gutters, patching holes, watching over burn piles, prepping ski gear. Not much fun, but there was something in the labor that made you feel alright.
Surveying the stirring campers and campsites, Abe marveled at the extended family and decades-long friendships of his parent’s generation.
Wonder of a different kind catches me napping. What of the Fun and the Mountain Party atmosphere common to ski-resorts? How did my parent-friends with mewling spawn like Abe manage? Late to the parenting game and with 16-year-old daughter who would love to know everything about her father’s Mysterious Past, I shudder, glad that my wandering ways did not allow me to father and try to raise children at the same time I was on the search for “peak” experiences in whatever form I could find them. Abe had seen it all, what he called “the good, the bad and the ugly” of the mountain scene. As he got older, he experimented with various drugs and drinking, not unlike kids in the suburbs and city. As he said, “The adults seemed to have fun with them, so why not?” Ouch! In hindsight it was plain to see that the trouble with life in a small mountain resort was that everything was hidden in plain sight.
As he reached adulthood, Abe found the most disturbing part of mountain life to be the realization of the casualty list among his parent’s (and my) friends. Serious consequences of the dark side of fun — jail-time, financial problems, addictions, family break-ups, despair, death before its time — awaited those who did not (or could not?) stop or slow down their partying. In the mountain culture of the late-’60s and ’70s, drinking and drugs were common recreational pursuits that dovetailed with the outdoors be-here-now, pedal-to-the metal, experimental, spontaneous exuberance. Was it any different than risk-taking at sea-level or the valley? Perhaps, in the sense that the mountains offered natural beauty and challenges that cracked your heart wide open on a daily basis. Strong, athletic bodies coupled with an unusually high degree of physical and mental freedom attracted a contingent of like-minded, risk-taking, free-wheeling souls, disciplined when discipline was called for and certainly not careless when climbing or skiing, but who liked to push the limits whether on the slopes, in the backcountry, all-night road trips or at the bar. Just where that mystical line, the boundary between soaring light and bottomless dark, good fun and irresponsible behavior, calculated risk and mindless foolishness lie was ever the challenge.
And there on the couch in the spring sunshine with Wonder tapping me on the shoulder and Abe as my unsuspecting cross-generational time-guide, a wave of sadness sweeps me away. It is the Dolores of Loss, the reawakening of the knowledge that, in the midst of the high times, strong bodies, playfulness, and blue skies of Mountain Past lurked shadows and portents of danger. Over the last two decades, a handful of mountain and river brothers had been lost to their demons, alcohol the main, but not only, protagonist. Two friends in particular had served as mentor-like figures. Talented, fun-loving, generous free-spirits who welcomed me to the mountains, taught me to ski and climb, shared the secret places, got my nose out of my beloved books and showed me how to have fun, to make mirth. Major characters in the core narrative of my mountain life, they had become figures in a cautionary tale. It is an inescapable fact that both friends, at some point, crossed into the Steep and Deep and Dark of self-destructive behavior. It is a troublesome observation that I strain to understand. Had they not seen the line? Was there no line to see or did they simply keep moving it beyond sight, and eventually, reach? When did the Creative Fun, the Mountain Energy morph into something else? Most of us recognized the Black Diamond signposts ahead and turned back.
Abe had opened his own door to Mountain Past and I was not going to let him escape without the question that always nags ex-mountain people: “Had life in the mountains changed substantially, for better or worse?” Abe, however, is saved by the breakfast bell. Place, Time and Memory give way to the search for a plate of huevos rancheros … and more java. A week later Abe emailed his response:
“There used to be a whole ‘mystery ski life’ that the world found intriguing and now that ski life is more a hobby for most. This has changed for the ski-bum too … It used to be neat to ski bum and sleep in the parking lot, but in today’s multi-million dollar neighborhoods, ski-bumming is frowned upon. That is another change I see is the people who flock to ski areas. It used to be everyone did. Rich and poor and young and old, would join up and having skiing in common. Today it is the old timers, the young people working at the mountain, and the wealthy who build huge houses. The wealthy usually only come up to their house several times a winter and never hang out with the others. There is now sort of a class separation at the ski areas.”
By mid-morning, the next wave of celebrants has begun to arrive. They come from the valley and the foothills and descend from familiar-sounding places along Ebbetts Pass — Alpine Lake, Bear Valley, Tamarack Springs, Ganns, Cottage Springs, Dorrington, Big Trees, Arnold, Fly-in-Acres, Avery and Forest Meadows. More tents go up. Circles of kick-back chairs sprout on the overgrown grass; teenagers prowl the grounds, looking to catch their parents in activity they have been warned about. The couches on the veranda are crowded; pockets of people in earnest conversation float about, shrink and expand, evaporate. A number of the owners of trailers have set up outdoor mini-bars, specializing in a variety of unnamable concoctions with rainbow-colored stir sticks, pink straws, umbrellas, flamingos. It is part circus, part pilgrimage of the usual and the unusual suspects: ranchers, bikers, bush-oakies, wine-makers, construction guys, lift-operators, grandparents, school teachers, young mountain hipsters, solid middle-class business types, beauty and adrenalin seekers, ski patrolmen, waiters and waitresses, hairdressers.
Clang! Clang! Clang! The horseshoe tournament is in full swing. Along the margins of the narrow strip of packed earth between the pits stand the spectators who encourage one another to distract the contestants with friendly verbal abuse and reminders of decades-old foolishness. The game itself, tossing U-shaped pieces of iron at a metal pole in the middle of a wooden, three-sided unfinished rectangle, suits aging bodies and wandering minds as long as none of the spectators crosses into the zone of rise, arc and descent, an apt metaphor for this crowd. It is a mountain minimalist exercise suited best, really, for mountain palaver. Opponents, of course, are paired together at opposite ends of the pits to pester the hell out of one another. Up on the porch, slumped in the couches, groups of ex-ski racers, instructors and patrolmen cruise the backcountry of their mortality, comparing health notes — hearing aides, cholesterol levels, blood pressure, skin cancers, back problems and colonoscopies.
The great mountain sun begins to dip behind the ragged ridgeline. The kegs have been tapped and the crowd hums. Cowboy holds court around The Pit, where the fun-loving specters of my Mountain Past have gathered in close tribal quarters. Pigpen, one-time renegade architect, loaned me a pair of wooden Bona skis for the cross-country ski trip to Mammoth nearly four decades ago. I cringe, wondering if he recalls that I brought the skis back in battered condition, looking like they had been run through a wood-chipper; HazMat (Hazardous Material), one-time Snow-Lord of the road crew and part-owner of the infamous Crazy’s Cantina — Latin Cuisine and Local Abuse (where many of us found work at one time or another), snaps digital photos for posterity’s sake. There is “Tomato,” who I shared a house with one season; Berta, who seems to have undergone a transformation, and Christine, who seems to have hardly changed at all, inform the assembled audience that they are on their way, “Thelma and Louise”-like, to Disneyland after the Round-Up. They dare anyone to accompany them. Tim gave me my first job in the mountains, a primo position as waiter at the Red Dog Saloon, my first season. Sam, a lead patrol man, who allowed me to tail him (to gather information for an article for the local paper) on an early-morning mission to set off avalanches with a very large and cool artillery gun. And T.R., the sky-diving parachuter, welder and ski-patrolman, who, upon my spontaneous request at a boisterous summer party, cut a sunroof in my late-model-beater station wagon with his welding equipment, even as the synthetic headliner caught fire and smoke billowed out of the side windows.
Despite being a non-drinker, Ricardo T. (one of the founding members of the Grunge Brothers Band) takes out a portion of the fence while backing up his pickup to unload equipment. Cowboy reassures him that he has more carpenters than he knows what to do with. Ricardo and his brother, D., who lives and works in Aspen, and two other locals, serve as the perennial Mountain Round-Up house band.
The Pig is done! Cowboy begins the lengthy task of carving the meat. In the hotel kitchen and dining room, a small army of helpers lays out the long tables with an astonishing buffet of pot-luck dishes and deserts. A steady stream of load-bearing runners brings platters of roast pig to the noisy dining room. The dinner bell sounds. Lines form. Soon, the tables in the dining room are full. The mischief-and-merry-makers overflow out on to the deck and the line of stuffed couches and chairs. A spring evening in the Sierra. There will be no cues, ceremonial speeches or blessings.
The Grunge Brothers, stationed on the elevated front porch of the Pioneer Hotel, begin their first set. Their repertoire is solid ’60s and ’70s, cut with some of their own tunes. Below them, the level green lawn fills with couples, but it is Sexy Sadie and Dirty Dan who take to the dance arena first and promptly steal the show with their “Pulp Fiction”/John Travolta moves. As the evening light fades and the safety of darkness arrives, the reluctant, the hesitant and the shy slowly drift onto the dance grass. By the second set, the pairs turn into trios, which reshape into circles of dancers that reform into larger circles until the crowd reaches a kind of critical rhythmic cross-generational mass. Ex-ski patrolmen lurk along the fringes. They will tell you they are there to keep us safe. Cowards, one and all!
Despite being musically and rhythmically handicapped, I cannot resist the gravitational pull of the Mountain Dance. I slip into the fray and find myself momentarily paired with 31-year-old Cleo, daughter of Tommy and Suki. Cleo insists on leading. Tommy, jack-of-all trades and mountain mechanic, once tore apart and rebuilt the engine of one of my numerous station wagons (with minor, hold-this-tool help from me) when he learned that I was preparing to drive to Sun Valley in a vehicle that had white smoke spewing out the tailpipe.
My enthusiasm has arrested my common sense. Cleo throws me about like the downhill racer crashing and bouncing and somersaulting down the course and through the safety fences before being launched into space in the iconic sequence of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” I am at her mercy, if she has any. How long I can keep up before I my shoulder is separated or I collapse is anyone’s guess. An ancient Sinatra tune plays in my head. We’re dancing in the dark and it soon ends/We’re waltzing to the wonder of why we’re here/Time hurries by we’re here and we’re gone. The dance of the mountain generations is not for the faint of heart or the wobbly of leg. I am running out of breath. When Cleo turns her head, I seize the moment and run for cover … to the sanctuary of The Bar, the den of antiquity. I should know better.
Noisy, crowded, bourbon-warm light, a panoramic and daunting mirror on the back bar revealing all, the close camaraderie of the damned and the delighted. Anchored firmly to the century-old bar, where a dozen empty shot glasses are lined-up and waiting for refills, are the usual suspects. I suffer a flashback in sepia. The adult voice in my head urges me to retrace my steps and sprint for the safety of my tent and sleeping bag. A voice rises above the din, “Get over here!” It is Cowboy. Maybe just one.
It is a straight-no-chaser crowd, equal amounts men and women. This group seems determined to not go quietly into the Mountain Night. There will be no pondering over Time on these premises. No nostalgic reminiscing or cheap hindsight wisdom; no blinking, no averted gazes, no excuses or sentimental poems, no palaver about going to heaven or burning in hell. This crowd is charging down the fall line together in search of an irreverent act, an old-fashioned, up-lifted vertical digit waving out the car window at the High-Speed Passing of Time and its inevitable corollary, our own mortality. We will settle for a Toast, or two, and so we raise our glasses in unholy communion. To save ourselves from ourselves, we perform simultaneous toasts — to our departed, gone-before-us, mountain brothers and sisters, our “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I” high-altitude companions; to our misspent youth, powder snow, cabin-fever and driving without chains; to the Red Dog Saloon and the Altitude 38, Vaurnets, the Slide on the Stanislaus River and black ice; to Jean-Claude Killy and Spider Sabitch, “the agony of victory and the thrill of defeat,” the butterscotch aroma of ponderosa pine and the pungent odor of Jack Rabbit Black ski-wax; to the volunteer fire departments, heart-breaking mountain beauty, summer unemployment checks, snowcat drivers, forgiving local cops and to our kids’ generation and those here already and those to come; to the wonder and terror of it all.
If there is a Morning Here After, no one is particularly worried.
Long-time contributor Vince Welch is presently at work in his backyard shed sanding down the rough edges and putting the finishing touches on a biography, “The Last Voyageur — Amos Burg and The Rivers of the West.”
Author’s note: Some names have been changed to protect the guilty, the innocent and those in between, but especially the author from crank emails, libel suits and felonious criminal retaliation. The whimsical aliases are based, in part, on the colorful personalities or past behavior of those who skied past the gates of my imagination without permission.