Though variations on this conversational/argumentative/conceptual subject had been percolating and ping-ponging between my ears pretty much ever since I first landed less-than-gracefully as a Western tenderfoot/greenhorn/newbie/moron/dumbfuck in Gila Country in the summer 1976, the whole notion attained something at least resembling cogitative coalescence one winter afternoon as I sat (not for the first time) quaffing a few brews in Sluice Box Saloon. Several stools to my starboard were three corpulent bubbas, all of whom were attired in the height of retro flatland ski fashion, and all of whom hailed from a state that decorum mandates I not herein name. They were a jovial enough lot, though their jocularity was often punctuated by boisterously stated examples of extreme political incorrectness that, were one inclined toward stereotyping, one would consider pretty much cliché for the state I shall not herein name.
Fortunately, the local resident sitting closest to these three bubbas was not yours truly; rather, it was Big Del, who ordinarily avoids conversations with tourists as aggressively as he avoids alimony payments. This go-round, though, he was apparently enticed into friendly banter with the bubbas via a tried-and-true method: he was offered unfettered access to the bubbas’ pitchers of beer, which were being re-filled in a manner that could best be described as “frequent.”
This was a time in the M. John autobiographical train wreck when my normal tendency to socially interact with folks at the bar, even bubbas from the aforementioned state I shall not herein name, was mitigated by a ruminative mindset based upon the fact that, after 24 years, I had decided my time in the High Country was fast drawing to an end. I was torn about that decision clear down to my marrow, and my life at that point consisted of one period of second-guessing a move not yet made followed by another period of second-guessing my second-guessing, until, finally, the sum totality of my mental processes became nothing more and nothing less than a flushing-toilet-like downward spiral dominated by future perfect verb tenses. (It is often not so easy being me.) As I sat there at the Sluice Box that winter day, my life at altitude played between my ears like one of those old scratchy black-and-white movies from the ’30s, wherein the actors’ voices all seem about two seconds out of sync with the sound. And, out of that not-pleasant, but not-totally-unpleasant meditative state comes bellowing from the barrel-sized voice box of Big Del, “What the FUCK does that have to do with anything?” You could hold a gun to my head and I would not be able to tell you what prompted Big Del’s verbal outburst — he and the bubbas might have been talking about yet another impending ski-area expansion or they might have been talking about the last time the Sluice Box’s unsavory men’s room was hosed out — but I can say sans compunction that, when such outbursts occur in the vicinity of Big Del, you’d best be ready to duck. But these three bubbas hailed from a place where educational standards are not high. They did not back down.
“Hay-ull,” drawled the Alpha Bubba, “we been skiin’ up here for near-bouts 30 years.”
“Well, asshole,” Big Del responded, “I’ve been livin’ up here for near-bouts 30 years!”
“Yeah, but there are, uh, three of us, which means we got a total of, uh … ” (and here the Alpha Bubba removed one of his rear-entry ski boots so he could utilize his toes throughout what ended up being a long and apparently mentally challenging ciphering process) “ … let’s see … 30 times 30, no … 30 plus 30 times two … no … 30 plus 30 is 60 plus another 30 is … 90! The three of us have been comin’ up here skiin’ a total of 90 years!” beamed the bubba, apparently mighty proud of his advanced mathematical skills.
And so this chronological dick-swinging contest proceeded apace for another five minutes, till Pattycakes, a bartender who weighs about 95 pounds soaking drunk, looked up from her cribbage game and yelled “that’s goddamned enough!” and all three bubbas and Big Del post haste changed both the subject of their inebriated discourse and their tones-of-voice.
But I, sitting there innocent and alone, could not change the subject, at least not within my cranium, for that subject, as I mentioned several hundred words ago, had been with me for decades. And that subject, germane to my impending exodus from the High Country, is/was/always shall be this: In a part of the world defined by residential impermanence, how does one temporally measure one’s connection to place?
For many years, I covered for local papers various High Country municipalities. It was not uncommon for people addressing town council meetings to begin their presentations with a recitation of their relationship with the area. “We first began visiting before the local ski area even opened. We would drive up almost every weekend for years so the kids could ski. We eventually bought a condo, which we sold to buy a town home, which we have owned for 14 years. Now we spend six months a year here and hope to one day live here full time.” You can imagine how many variations on this theme there are. I swear, it sometimes sounds like Klingons reciting their various martial accomplishments when trying to impress the family of the mate they are wooing.
I have long thought that it would make life in the Mountain Time Zone easier if there could be established a rating system, a way for people who have been “coming here to ski for 30 years” could lean upon an equation that established plus-or-minus common denominators with, say, people who were born here, but left for seven years, then came back two autumns ago, and people who were born in Iowa but who have been living here for 35 years, and people who live down in the city, but who come up every weekend to play.
And then, just as that thought began to grow both branches and roots, I looked up above the Sluice’s back bar where, for more years than even local old-timers can remember, is hung a faithful copy of one of the single best pieces of art ever produced by the hands of man: The well-worn and well-known painting of the dogs playing poker (based upon a series of 16 paintings by C.M. Cooper commissioned in 1903 by Brown & Bigelow to help sell cigars). And my question was answered before it was even fully posed. Though I have never been a very good poker player (I’ve always preferred blackjack, because, when one wins, one does not draw down the bank account of one’s chums, but, rather, the evil house), for many years I participated in regular games — sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly, sometimes weekly AND monthly. Ergo: I have at least a rudimentary understanding of the hierarchy of poker hands, which, I reasoned sitting there in the Sluice in a pondiferous frame-of-mind, could, by way of a translation process that admittedly would likely not stand up to scrutiny by a professor of logic (unless, of course, that professor was a poker player), be applied to the sociology of the transient West. So, even while Big Del and the corpulent bubbas from the state that I shall not herein name began to ramp their contretemps back up, I pulled out a pen and reached for a stack of proletariat stationary: cocktail napkins.
Before I proceed, it’s important to stress that there’s no way to compare poker hands to cultural dynamics without relying a bit too much upon aesthetics-based subjectivity, a subjectivity that, for example, rates a troop of dirtbag snowboarders living in the back of a camper well above a troop of well-coifed Boulder-based developers. This is not to say that decks of cards do not contain within their various suits and ranks the seeds of subjectivity. Verily, until the late-1700s, aces — the people’s card, as it were — were the lowest of the low, a reality that has partially survived the past 300-plus years by way of hands — such as straights — wherein an ace can still be used as either the highest or the lowest card. Until the earliest days of the French Revolution, the king was of course the highest card and it was near-bouts treasonous to suggest otherwise. As guillotines were dealing very effectively with royal pretensions, the people’s card displaced monarchal precedence.
Moreover, the subjectivity of the deck continues with the assumption that higher numbers are somehow superior to lower numbers. Certainly, there are instances when and where such is the case. Having nine beers, for instance, is generally better than having two beers — unless, of course, you’re trying to talk your way out of a DUI. But, with cards, we’re not talking about anything save numbers printed upon heavy paper. There’s no inherent reason why 10s should automatically be “better” than 9s. Still, the deck we now play poker with is what it is; its subjective components are now neatly corralled into a stack of 52 cards that have a potential of 7,462 combinations, and the ranking of hands is based not upon aesthetics or personal political or numeric prejudices, but, rather, by the mathematical probability (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of a given hand occurring.
Thus, the following rankings do not correspond seamlessly to real-life poker algorhythms. Still, if the transitioning of part-random, part-manipulated card combinations to real life was good enough for Dmitri Mendeleev, who was inspired in ways my non-scientific mind can not fathom by the hierarchy of poker hands when he invented the Periodic Table of the Elements in 1869, then it’s good enough for me as I’m trying to fit the round pegs of mountain-town sociology into the square holes of common denominators. And, as usual, if you have any Mountain-Town poker hands you’d like to add to the list, please fire them off to firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Royal Flush: Technically, this is just the highest form of a straight flush, a 10, jack, queen, king and ace of the same suit. (Here we should note that suits, despite the opinions of many players, are not hierarchal. Exact hands of different suits — say, a 7-high straight spade flush and a 7-high straight clubs flush — are tied and thus split the pot.) The Mountain Country sociological equivalent of this hand is someone who lives in a cliff dwelling, a pueblo, hogan or tipi who still speaks Ute or Navajo as his or her first language.
• Regular straight flush: Someone who still maintains enough Native blood coursing through his or her veins that they retain legal enrollment upon tribal rosters. The mathematical chances of being dealt (as opposed to drawing into) a straight flush, of which there are 40 possible permutations, is 0.0015%.
• Four of a kind: Born in a mountain town, went to high school in a mountain town, moved back to the mountain town directly after college, kids enrolled in local schools, serves on numerous town boards because it’s the right thing to do rather than because of self interest. Chances of being dealt four of a kind: 0.024%
• Full house: Same as above, the only difference being that you were not born in a mountain town, so you make up for that inexplicable cosmic oversight by diligently volunteering for trail projects and town clean-ups and such. Came to a town with enough money saved that you could get your toe in the real estate industry before prices sky-rocketed. Chances of being dealt a full house: 0.14%.
• Flush: Grew up in a city within drivable distance of a mountain town. Family drove up to ski or hike almost every weekend. Always knew you were going to forego any semblance of a real life by moving to a mountain town minutes after graduating high school. Worked for years doing menial jobs and lived for years in a rented room the size of a closet. Now work for the town government in a quasi-respectable gig. Met your wife, a long-time local schoolteacher, on a chairlift. Have health insurance. Chances of being dealt a flush: 0.20%.
• Straight: Moved to a mountain town with the idea of staying a season or two before moving back down to the flatlands, but ended up never leaving. Bought a condo, and rent rooms out to help pay for the mortgage. Still work at the ski area or in the restaurant industry in order to procure a season pass. Probably will end up one day moving back down to a city that’s close enough to the mountains you can still drive up to rub elbows with those who were once your neighbors and co-workers. Do not have health insurance. Chances of being dealt a straight: 0.39%
• Three of a kind: Moved to a mountain town for no other reason than being offered a job, but realized after living in that town that you liked it enough to maybe stay, maybe forever. Chances of being dealt three of a kind: 2.1%
• Two pair, high cards: Moved to a mountain town for no other reason than being offered a job and, though you’re making the most of it, will leave as soon as you’re offered a better job somewhere else. Chances of being dealt two pair: 4.75%.
• Two pair, middling cards: Workers who come to a mountain town for one season and leave after one season, but who for the rest of their lives regret leaving.
• Two pair, low cards: Visitors who live close enough to a mountain town that they visit often, and who dream about being able to move to the mountain town, but can never pull it off.
• One pair, but high cards: Second homeowners who do not act like they are official residents of the mountain town in which their second home is located and who, despite their second-homeownership relationship with the town, volunteer for trail projects and town clean-up days. Chances of being dealt one pair: 42.25%.
• One pair, but middling cards: Tourists who have traveled long distance for years to visit a mountain town and who love the mountain town and who are always in a good mood and tip wait-people well.
• One pair, low cards: Workers who come to a mountain town for one season and leave after one season, and never regret leaving.
• High card, face-card level: Second homeowners who act like they own the mountain town the minute they arrive, ones who immediately start attending town council meetings and castigating the locals for being rubes.
• High card, middling: New resident to a mountain town who immediately wants to turn the town into the place he or she just left.
• Seven high (the worst hand possible in poker): Carpetbagger developers who drive up to the mountains from the safety of their gated flatland McMansions to build ugly condo and retail complexes that they push through local town boards by utilizing hordes of lawyer whores who, while touting the supposed economic and aesthetic benefits of their proposed projects, tacitly hold the threat of legal action over the head of the community they’re invading should their development not be approved.
• Lowball. Long-time locals who have forgotten that they too once rented rooms the size of closets just so they could ski every day.
• Joker: People who think, just because they’ve lived in the Mountain Time Zone for more than 36 years, they are wise enough to reduce the sociology of the turf they inhabit to a series of poker hands, when, in actuality, that sociology has more in common with the Periodic Tables of the Elements.
Mountain Gazette editor M. John Fayhee’s latest two books, “Smoke Signals: Wayward Journeys Through the Old Heart of the New West” and “The Colorado Mountain Companion: A Potpourri of Useful Miscellany from the Highest Parts of the Highest State,” can be purchased at your local bookstore or ordered directly from mjohnfayhee.com.