The Gazette at, uh, 40

Karen Chamberlain With Mike Moore

Photo of Karen Chamberlain with Mike Moore by Bob Chamberlain

I’m still getting used to this idea of a 40th-anniversary celebration for a publication that spent around 20 of those 40 years in a deep coma (we all thought it was dead). Can we really say that a publication, which lived for only one decade, then pulled a Rip Van Winkle, actually rose up and lived again?

Well, I think we can — as Mountain Gazette founder Mike Moore said in the first issue in 1972, “Why not?” Especially since refounder M. John Fayhee very deliberately set out to resurrect and carry forward the old publication, rather than just start up a new one with the old name. He scoured the West to scrounge up the aging survivors like me from the Seventies publication, while also looking for new young blood to seduce into the indulgence of speaking from the heart about things you love, an indulgence that ruins you forever for the practice of what passes for journalism today in publications that actually pay serious money, where you’re just supposed to paw through the hearts and minds of others and keep yourself out of it.

Now Fayhee, the Natty Bumppo of this expedition, has asked those of this band of brothers and sisters who were actually alive and writing in 1972 to give some personal reflections on Then and Now and what went Inbetween. He also asked us to keep it to around 800 words, which is an unusual Mountain Gazette request, but understandable, since otherwise this issue might weigh too much for the average reader to handle unaided. And he also asked us to try to avoid the usual reflective funk about how everything has been really going to hell on our watch.

In 1972, I personally was in further retreat from the world, living in a shack six miles by ski from the mountain town to which I had retreated six years previous. That sounds depressing, but it really wasn’t. My retreat was, as Conrad said in “Lord Jim,” “in good order,” and it was also a pretty nice shack — although ultimately a little small (16’ x 20’) after our daughter joined my partner and me and our young son. It offered a mix of 19th and 20th century living; we had to haul water from a nearby spring, the toilet was about a hundred feet due east and the bathtub was a big bowl that also served as my partner’s bread-rising bowl (no baths on bread day). But we had electricity for the long nights, the windows faced south and gathered a lot of sun, and it was an easy place to warm up with a wood stove, which I kept fueled by strapping myself into the snowshoes and a rope harness on sunny afternoons and going up on the nearby hillsides to haul down a matched pair of dead-standing aspen.

It was in fact a pretty cushy life — a civilized life, there six miles beyond the plowed-out part of civilization. I was ostensibly there to write — and did, some, first for the Skiers’ Gazette, then when the name and mission changed toward the ambiguous, for the Mountain Gazette. But mostly, I guess I was there to stare at the wall or out the window and think, or go out and ski around and think, because that’s mostly what I did. Think about the world I was retreating from.

There where civilization and nature coexisted and contended in an often delicate balance — that was where I began to distinguish between “the world” and “the earth.” There’s this planet here, which we are on; that’s the earth. And we are one very successful species in a thin layer of what geologists call “fluff,” life, spreading over the restless rock and wind and water of the planet, and what we do as a species is create worlds that we superimpose over the earth. Our worlds are imagined and partially executed reorganizations of the earth and its fluff of life to make the earth more accommodating to ourselves and our needs and desires.

There are, as I see it, only two ways to look at the past forty years both positively and sort of intelligently. One is to say, wow, we have sure gotten adept at turning the earth into a world. This isn’t just a matter of the technological changes of recent decades (like this device on which I not only “write” but also store my brain). The world we are still making has also essentially permeated what passed for relatively untouched “nature” in places where most of us Gazetteers like to hang out; everything is subdivided into units by use, and all of it is being overlaid by information about it. We have wolves again, here and there, but most of them have radio collars to keep someone informed about where they are, what they’re up to — just as most of us voluntarily carry a variation on the radio collar that keeps someone else informed about where we are, what we’re up to. There’s really no putting things back; there’s just going forward.

A second way to look at the past forty years is to say that today we know a hell of a lot more than we did in 1972 about what we are doing to the earth in this process of creatively laying a world over the earth. And also what we are undoing for the earth. We may be gradually turning ourselves into a reflexive species — a species that thinks more inclusively about what we are doing and undoing while we are in the process of doing it. And even before we start doing it.

So today — much more so than in 1972 — there is a tension between our increasing knowledge of how to manipulate the earth into serving our world vision, and our increasing knowledge of what happens to the earth when we so manipulate it. Never mind that the hard-charging manipulators have dominated the politics and economics of the past forty years; they have not achieved their goal of silencing the reflexive voice always posing the obnoxious questions: Do we really know what we are doing? Couldn’t we think this through a little further?

Exploring and resolving the tension there, between those two competing cultural drives, may be the work of the next forty years — 2050 is the current long-range planning horizon for most governments and agencies that have no choice but to keep on doing, but with a growing awareness of what we are doing. And undoing. And that exploration doesn’t all have to be “scientific” and data-driven; it’ll be a lot more accessible if a lot of it is anecdotal. Sometimes we get that in the Gazette. I just hope the Gazette doesn’t fall into another 20-year Rip Van Winkle, either due to being too serious or too superfluous.

George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter: A Memory More Like a Dream” and “Dragons in Paradise: On the Edge Between Civilization and Sanity.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo. 

Dick Dorworth reflects on Edward Abbey, and his influence on him

Keeping It Free…

Free Concerts

Snowmass Village has a stage that uses the natural incline of the slopes for a perfect day of music in the mountains.

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, nothing ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free …”

 — “Me & Bobby McGee,” by Fred Foster and Kris Kristofferson

It’s all about being free. Free Ride. Free Falling. I’m Free! Free Bird. Free your mind. Free your soul. Free love. Free spirited. Free the people. Free your heel. Free beer. Break free. Fancy free. Free agent. It’s a way of life. But, apparently, for some reason, it’s unanimously agreed that there is no free lunch. Fortunately, there are free concerts, and lots of them, for you to flee freely to throughout spectacular mountain venues where we can pack up the picnic baskets and Pibbers, the wine, the kids and the pooches and head out for an evening of social noshing and dancing. And … it’s free!

Snowmass Village has the venue with the views, a kick-ass sound system and amazing stage at their Thursday Night Music Series, which began in June and rocks the valley through August 16. Bring seats and whatever you want to chow down on, although you can purchase grilled foods along with beer and wine at the shindig. It’s kid friendly with a bouncy house and activities to amuse the little ones so you can thoroughly enjoy the music. Check out the schedule at snowmassvillage.com.

Up in Steamboat Springs, the summer viewscape is lush with five concerts, starting at 7 p.m. on assorted nights. Although pets and your personal alcohol stash are not permitted, you can buy libations there. Check out steamboatfreeconcerts.com, then head on over to Vail where Jazz at The Market in the tent at Solaris (141 East Meadow Drive) kicks off the summer through August 26, from noon to 3 p.m. Click over to vailjazz.org. Just down the road a piece, Frisco is gathering for their Concert in the Park Series at 120 Main Street. You and your leashed pet can join them Thursdays, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. through August 16. Right around the corner in Dillon, catch the Friday Night Concerts at the Amphitheatre until August 31. While you’re there, hang out for the Sunset at the Summit concert series presented by the Lake Dillon Foundation for the Performing Arts, on Saturdays at 7 p.m. from July 7 through September 1. You can find all these events listed at coloradoinfo.com/summitcounty/events.

On the Western Slope, Rob Miller of Pickin’ Productions decided there wasn’t enough free music and created three new series in Ouray, Ridgway and Paonia, splitting the summer up nicely between the towns and booking some great acts into each. You can spend June in Ouray (OK … next year, and do hit the Orvis suit-optional hot springs), July in Ridgway (Town Park) and August in Paonia (Town Park and grab some of that valley’s magnificent organic produce and wine too). All shows start at 7 p.m. And being Ridgway, not only are they endeavoring to build a real stage, they have an afterparty at the Sherbino Theatre at 10 p.m. with the opening bands. More info at community radio KVNF.org.

Want classical? Durango’s Music in the Mountains (musicinthemountains.com) offers some of their series for free, as does Aspen (aspenmusicfestival.com). Durango also has a free concert series throughout July and into August at Buckley Park, Thursdays 5 to 7:30 p.m. which you can access at durangoconcerts.com.

Hard to get to but well worth the journey are the Crested Butte concerts, both in town and on the mountain, along with down-valley Gunnison concerts.

Downtown CB’s Alpenglow series is smack in the middle of wildflower-filled vertical views every Monday at 5:30 p.m. through August 22 (crestedbuttearts.org). Chill out a few days and take the free bus up the hill on Wednesday between July 6 and August 24 for some fine performances at the Red Lady Stage on Mt. Crested Butte. Gunnison cranks out the tunes for two nights, Fridays at 5 p.m. in the Gunnison Arts Center courtyard and Sundays at 6 p.m. in Legion Park. You can check out all those concerts at gunnisoncrestedbutte.com/events/free-concerts.

High above Boulder on the Front Range, the Gold Hill Inn celebrates 50 years of food and music this summer with both down-home and uptown musical acts and free shows throughout the year. Check out their summer freebies at goldhillinn.com. And if you’re in the area, head over to Estes Park for their Thursday Night Live! free performance series, at 7 p.m. at Performance Park found at estesart.com.

Whether you’re already living in the hills or need a breather from the lowland heat, jump your favorite transport and head on up to the mountain stages to enjoy free music of every genre because the road isn’t just calling you, it’s screaming in four-part harmonies, for free.

Dawne Belloise is a freelance writer, photographer and vocalist living somewhere between the alternate universes of Crested Butte and Boulder. Contact dbelloise@gmail.com   

Letters #190

MG190 letter's

Envelope: Jeffree Peas, Colorado

We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette.

PolySci at 12,000 Feet

Mr. Fayhee: My first letter to your publication. Feel ever free to edit liberally. I always manage to miss the submission deadline for poetry, for your Rivers issue and photos of The Best Dog on the Planet (who is named Dylan and is Hopi, born in Tuba City to the Rez Dog clan, for the Rescue Dog clan) for your Mountain Dogs issue. But something happened yesterday that warrants recording in some public venue, and since I’m sitting beside the Dolores River in the foothills of our beloved San Juans, and the story took place on the Continental Divide at Monarch Mountain Ski Area, your mag comes most to mind.

There was a contingent of soldiers at Monarch this week. I showed up on a Friday, day-six in a row tele-skiing five different areas in a last hurrah with my Monarch pass. The mountain was bedecked in desert-camo fatigues, which I took notice of before I’d even leashed my skis, being newly not-quite-single-it’s-complicated. The kid soldiers on the slopes had minimal cause to shave yet, which was heartbreaking. The guys in the lodge were older — thinning hair, some graying — and wore more of a “been-there, done-that” look, and I’m sure they had been, and had done.

I hadn’t talked much to anyone all week, riding chairs by myself, masticating on life and love. This day I wanted intel. I have a dear friend in the Special Forces who had been deployed to Afghanistan at the age of 50, just after 9-11. I learned from him only weeks after that invasion that not only was an attack on Iraq in the works, but that SpecOps was already there. Inconceivable — what the hell did Iraq have to do with anything? A few months ago, an Iranian handyman named Farhad was building me a new deck. His father was secret service for the Shah before the revolution, and every male in his family had been beheaded. Farhad himself had escaped as a teenager through the snowy mountains of Iran, found asylum in Japan and then America, and will soon have U.S. citizenship. He told me back in December that the reason Obama pulled the U.S. troops out of Iraq early was to have them available for the planned invasion of Iran. What? Three months ago this sounded ridiculous. Now, not so much. A lot of saber rattling lately.

From quizzing my civilian chairmates, I quickly learned the skiing soldiers were army, made up of units from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, and were on the mountain for “winter conditions training.” I did not get into geopolitical discussions of why this was ominous until I rode up with a 65-year-old retired CSU professor who was also a Vietnam vet. I told him that he certainly had earned the right to voice whatever he thought about a potential U.S. invasion of Iran, and he chuckled a little, “yeah, I do get to have a kind of street cred on this one.” We pretty much finished each other’s sentences about why Iraq and why Iran, and the last word was habitually “oil.”

The next chair I shared with a third-year poly-sci student from Florida, out on spring break. His university-version of upcoming events was analytical, but surprisingly inevitable. At 20 or 21 years old, he’d been a kid when the towers came down, and he was not so much callous as cavalier about the need for us to invade yet another Middle-East country. He guessed that Israel would strike first and we’d have to go in to clean up the mess. But he was certain from his university-led discussions that the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan had not been learned, that the U.S. was still hopelessly naïve about what comes after the invasion, and that it was a shame what would happen to these guys in camo fatigues skiing here today.

Which brings me to an aside: desert camo fatigues in the snow? Really? Please tell me that our guys and girls in the Hindu Kush are not wearing desert camo. Reminds me of the jungle camo worn by the soldiers on the spaceship in “Aliens.” Jungle camo in outer space — really?

Eventually, I rode up with a young volunteer, in his desert camo fatigues, nary a facial hair yet sprouted. So polite, and willing enough to answer my open-ended questions. He talked about how hard it was on the lungs at 12,000 feet, coming from sea level, that he’d never seen snow in his life until yesterday, and how it was important to learn to snowshoe and set up camp in the cold. He said, “Well, we went into Iraq because we thought there were weapons of mass destruction. Turns out we were wrong, but this time we KNOW there are, so we have to go take care of them.” Lord, I wanted to hug the kid and say — no, not “thank you for your service,” but “sweetheart, please be here next year.”

A couple evenings before this, my 12-year-old god-daughter in Avon had been working on a homework assignment on the Iraq war. “We went to war with Iraq because Saddam Hussein threatened President Bush’s dad, right?” I held my tongue and my breath until her mom — a nurse in her late-50s with street cred similar to the Vietnam vet’s — answered, “We went into Iraq because of oil, Emma.”

“Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?

… Oh when will we ever learn?

Oh when will we ever learn?”

Here’s to the young soldiers whooping it up at Monarch Mountain in March 2012. I hope to God you’re back next year, and I’ll buy you a beer, if you’re old enough to drink by then.

Suzanne Motsinger
Flagstaff, Arizona

Remembering Cal Glover

Dear John Fayhee: My husband and I have been traveling to Teton Valley for the past seven years. We were drawn to the area because of my husband’s friendship with Cal Glover. They were both in high school together, specifically in the same German class —  Cal would introduce us to all his friends out west in German, quickly adding that they met way back when in Ft. Lauderdale High School, but Bob went north to Massachusetts and he jumped on his motorcycle to head West as a young man of 18 to Yellowstone. If you know Cal, you can just picture him saying this, and in the same breath asking “Where you all from?” and maybe even adding a story or two. His passing was a sad shock to us. Our visit there in February was difficult but glad to be able to see Kim Carlson, his widow, and offer our sympathy to her in person. Reading the Teton Valley newspaper, I saw your notice/website about his writings from past issues and the most recent story about his dog, Toby. I just wanted to tell you it was a fitting tribute to Cal and we so appreciated seeing his collective writing in print.

Thank you for honoring his life by his stories.

Celeste Wilcoxson

Anti-‘Arrested Development’

Sir: Had to respond to the “Arrested Development” Smoke Signals column in Gazette 186. Wow. I mean … wow. I guess nobody likes to give up their freedom unnecessarily, but really …
Let’s see: You admit to disliking law enforcement even as a kid because you engaged in “recreational windshield smashing” and they presumably stopped you. Not a single word about how the folks whose windshields you smashed felt about it. I suppose now if some young punk does some recreational windshield smashing on your personal vehicle, you wouldn’t have anything to say about it, right? Since any kind of infringement on a kid’s desire to wantonly destroy other people’s property is just, like, the man being all heavy and stuff.

But, okay, what you did as a kid was totally cool, and nobody should push you around and tell you to stop destroying other people’s things. Hmmm. But then you get your panties in a twist about living in an area with lots of drug smuggling going on, and having to be waved through checkpoints. I had to reread the piece just to be sure I understood. You object to being waved through checkpoints, or, at the absolute most, having to answer the simple question “Are you an American citizen?” This you equate with living in “police state.”

Deep breath.

Would you like to know what it’s actually like to live in a police state? The cops don’t just wave you through a checkpoint. They stop you and demand money. Or they haul you off to pokey. Then they demand money. And that’s if you’re a white American, ergo privileged. If you’re a local, it can be much worse. They are most definitely not “courteous and professional.” And Lord help you if you write a public column, or even private letter, describing them as “zygotes” or “midgets.”

I might agree with the all-cops-are-pigs line if you could describe behavior like, oh, a dirty cop who breaks taillights like some redneck Southern sheriff from the ’50s. Then you might have a point in your screed. But as you say repeatedly in your column, the police you by your own admission were “messing with” were nothing if not courteous.
When folks treat you respectfully it behooves you to return the favor. If you want to carry a chip the size of Texas on your shoulder, well, that’s your right. But while you do it, you ought to be da** glad you’re living in America and not an actual police state. I thought the Mountain Gazette was a fun, funky, independent paper. This one column just made me a future non-reader.

Sincerely,
Lawrence Pearlman

Pro-‘Arrested Development’ #1

Hi John ! Recently I spent 10 days in beautiful Southern Colo. Stayed a few days in Durango, a few in Pagosa Spgs. Ski’d both & totally enjoyed myself & the wonderful San Juan Mtns! I happened to pick up a copy of Mountain Gazette #186 and enjoyed several interesting & well written articles. My favorite was your piece: Smoke Signals — “Arrested Development.”

I can’t tell you how very similar we are in our feelings regarding law enforcement and especially the Border Patrol. I won’t go in to all the details, but needless to say, you and I share a lot of common feelings and have had many very similar experiences. Interestingly, pretty much all of my friends feel the same.

I have lived in southern AZ (Tucson) for 40 years, and in the last few years, the Border (where I used to trek and explore backcountry and camp a lot!) has been ruined by BP! There are so many things wrong with this. Your article covered nearly all issues, very well. Additionally, I will add that gun trafficking into Mexico has been enabled by “border police.” (I forget the name of the incident, but it was in the news). Also, the most horrendous murdering along the border was actually done by that deranged Minuteman (Anglo) crew that broke in and killed that family down in Arivaca.

I am much more nervous & afraid of meeting BP than I am the occasional “illegal(s)” along trails or backcountry roads.

Thank you for your writing and your work putting out a top-notch publication.

Peter Ianchiou

Pro-‘Arrested Development’ #2

Dear Mr. Fayhee: Like many of your other works, “Arrested Development” packs a punch with refreshing lack of inhibition, factual accuracy and entertaining prose. While I largely agree with your portrayal of modern law enforcement, I submit that the problem is much worse in scope and severity than unpleasant traffic stops and intrusive questioning by “pimply faced” tweenie cops near the Mexican border.

From forest rangers issuing parking tickets at trailheads to TSA strip searches at the airport, the number and variety of uniform-wearing, gun-toting agents of the law is at an all-time high. In spite of state and federal budget crises, there’s seemingly no lack of money to wage war, abroad or domestically. But our military-like buildup is not limited to our Southern border. For example, that notorious hotbed of crime and illegal immigration, Fargo, North Dakota, recently acquired bomb-detection robots, digital combat communications equipment, Kevlar helmets and a $265,643 armored truck with a rotating turret. Google it if you dare. At roughly 100,000 Fargoan souls, that’s $2.65 for every man, woman and child spent on one police truck. Sure, it comes with a gun turret, but, aside from Fourth of July parades, what the hell are they going to do with it in Fargo? This isolated example is representative of a nationwide trend. If this stuff can happen in Fargo, well, so go Billings, Boise and Bend.

Though I might sleep easier knowing that the streets of Fargo are safe from wayward Canucks, I’m deeply concerned about America’s troop withdrawal from two wars. While the thousands of returning combat soldiers have honorably served our country, they are going to be largely unemployed and possessing of a skill set centering around warfare. Because we’ve been an occupying force in Iraq and Afghanistan the past 20 years, today’s soldier is also highly trained in traditional police functions including detective work, interrogation techniques, crowd control and arrests. Thus, since 9/11, cops have been trained & armed like soldiers and soldiers like cops, and it’s a safe bet that many returning vets will seek a career in law enforcement.

As for the mushrooming police population, consider it a federal jobs program like the CCC of the 1930s, but with PTSD thrown in. I say this with no disrespect, but out of common sense and legitimate concern. I’m sure that some of these men and women will make fine police officers. Many, however, will have not only discharged their weapon in the line of duty, but taken human life in combat. On the other hand, very few cops ever discharge their guns directly at another human being while on the job, let alone actually shoot and kill one. The prospect of a new generation of hardened combat vets filling our swelling police ranks should concern us all.

On a more mundane level, the very nature of police work has changed radically in the past 20 years, and for the worse. Increasingly detached from the people they supposedly protect, cops no longer help old ladies navigate crosswalks, drive Otis to the Mayberry jail to sleep off another bender or even perform basic crime-solving. Such fuzzy-bear love is a waste of good money. Police cruisers are now profit centers on wheels whose captains are expected to meet predetermined quotas of money that is poured back into the system in a self-perpetuating cycle.

Though your editorial is limited to encounters with cops, most people who don’t work in or around the legal system typically don’t appreciate the fact that cops are but robotic minions to the Darth Vader of law enforcement, prosecutors. These hyper-religious, politically motivated, self-righteous, suit-wearing, briefcase-toting demigods, who are promoted on the basis of successful and high-profile convictions regardless of truth or justice, have been given god-like power by the United States Supreme Court in the form of “prosecutorial immunity” for all deeds and misdeeds committed in the course and scope of employment. Completely immune from their often-miscreant behavior, prosecutors answer to absolutely no man and certainly not the people they purportedly serve.

The methods by which prosecutors do evil include the obfuscation,
distortion and, if all else fails, complete fabrication of the facts, suppression of evidence, lying, engaging in nefarious legal tactics, advancing absurd interpretations of the law and basically doing most anything to obtain a conviction upon which their financial, social and political lives depend. To make matters worse, the vast majority of prosecutors are non-elected, government employees, no different than a city building inspector, but with the power to destroy another’s life. Prosecutors’ actions are all too often motivated by their religious beliefs, personal agendas and the delusional belief that they have the omniscience of god. But absolute power combined with absolute immunity will corrupt any human.

Unfortunately, your statement that we are declining into a “police state” is a fait accompli. Good luck to us all.

Brad Purdy,
Boise, ID

Mountain Media #190

BOOKS: “The Responsible Company,” by Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley

The Responsible Company

By now you’ve likely heard the story — in the late-’60s, itinerant surfer and big-wall climber Yvon Chouinard began hand-forging climbing gear in a seaside shed under the name Chouinard Equipment. He eventually added a clothing line, which grew into outdoor apparel giant and environmental champion Patagonia, a company that now banks somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million a year. Somewhere along the way, however, Chouinard became a poster child for socially and environmentally conscious business management, and his latest book, “The Responsible Company,” distills what he and co-author and Patagonia veteran Vincent Stanley have learned on the subject throughout the company’s 40-year history.

Early in the book, the authors reveal that Patagonia’s attention-getting practices have them keeping some odd bedfellows theses days, most notably price-slashing juggernaut Wal-Mart, which Patagonia has been consulting on environmental improvements over the last few years.

It seems Wal-Mart and countless other major companies are coming to the sobering realization and fairly common-sense ideal that Patagonia has operated on for years — “doing good creates better business.” In other words, the less resources and energy consumed by a company, the more profit they will make.

Despite some modest examples of Patagonia’s successful environmental initiatives, the book isn’t rife with the kind of horn-tooting one might expect from a book on business published by a for-profit company. On the contrary, Chouinard and Stanley level the playing field by stating that Patagonia is not the model for a responsible company, and there is no human economic activity that is yet worthy of the popular buzzword “sustainable.”

In addition to an interesting state-of-the-union address on business and the environment, the meat of the book is a sort of elemental style guide for responsible business practices, something useful for not only CEOs and corporate bigwigs, but anyone looking to create a more meaningful existence at work.

So perhaps responsible is the new sustainable — any company can boast about philanthropic work or financial donations, but it requires something more to take responsibility for the inherent environmental and social damage done by your company and make steps to alleviate it.

$19.95, www.patagonia.com

-Andy Anderson

MUSIC: “A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door,” by The River Whyless

River Whyless

As if nodding to the muse of nature that inspired it, “A Stone, A Leaf, An Unfound Door” begins with the sound of footsteps next to a nearby stream. After a few folky, fiddle-filled movements, the music gains strength, as curiosity often does when looking under the right rocks. The wandering tune reaches a celebratory high point and then gracefully descends. Such an orchestrated outline follows the full arc of an album, but this is only the first song of ten.

The River Whyless, a four-piece folk band from Asheville, NC, has created a musical wonder with their first album. Though at times sounding similar to Fleet Foxes or The Head and The Heart, the dual-songwriting efforts of Ryan O’Keefe and Halli Anderson have laid the foundation for something thoughtfully original as well as genuinely Appalachian. Underneath it all, the crisp, flowing rhythms of Matt Rossino on bass and Alex McWalters on drums both anchor and elevate the artful song structures. Freshman effort or not, The River Whyless has created a unified, coming-of-age album that’s best ingested in its entirety. For a quick taste, check out “Cedar Dream Part II,” “Great Parades,’” “Pigeon Feathers” or “Stone” … or “Unfound Door” … or you might as well just listen to it all. Go to www.riverwhyless.bandcamp.com, where you can listen to the album and name your price (hello, free music!) for an instant download, as well as check for upcoming tour dates.

— Jeff Miesbauer

APPS: Columbia GPS PAL

GPS PAL

While some branded smartphone apps seem to be little more than a thinly veiled marketing gimmick, the GPS PAL app from Columbia Sportswear stands out as a truly useful tool that just happens to be stamped with a brand name.

The GPS PAL, which stands for Personal Activity Log, provides GPS tracking with the ability to log photos, notes and videos as waypoints along the route. It tracks distance, time, pace and elevation automatically and provides a cool summary when your route is finished. The app also automatically syncs your routes and trip reports to an online journal, where they can be shared, compared and organized.

As a climber, I could see the app being extremely useful for approaches with difficult route-finding, but hikers, backpackers, runners and mountain bikers will find it an easy replacement for a GPS unit in most cases. It has already come in handy for measuring progress on training runs and relocating poop bags on after-work hikes with my dog.

Add to that the fact that it costs nothing, doesn’t require any map downloads (it maps through Google), tracks well without cell phone service and works better overall than some apps I’ve paid five bucks for, and the GPS PAL is a real keeper. The only real downside is that running the GPS for long periods of time (multi-hour hikes) seems to drain the phone’s battery quickly.

Free, GPSPAL. Columbia.com

— AA

I Want A New Drug

I Want a New Drug

A bottle of Pear Brandy made by Peach Street Distilling, Paonia, CO. “To get the pear into the bottle, the distiller drops in a lit match, sets the fruit on top, and watches while the vacuum created pulls the fruit down through the neck.” — Dave Thibodeau, Peach Street Distillers

Politics has been called the world’s second-oldest profession. If this is the case, then, in this country, the third is making moonshine. Long relegated to illegal backwoods operations by draconian federal and state tax laws that favored large producers, the art of distilling spirits was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth and the activity was kept in the shadows. There was good reason not to get caught breaking the law. Adherence to federal code governing alcohol production is policed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Trades, formerly the ATF, the same people who brought you the Waco and Ruby Ridge tragedies. Some law-enforcement agencies arrest and prosecute those who violate the law; these guys are licensed to kill. A decade ago, changes in tax codes allowed small producers to begin producing liquor and turn a profit. In 2003, the American Distilling Institute was founded to help promote the nascent industry. At that time, the association recognized 69 operating craft distilleries nationwide. Today there are more than 240, with projections of this number doubling by 2015. With craft distillers currently operating in every Western state, the movement resembles the craft-brewing industry of the early 1990s, which was a period of rapidly rising consumer interest and explosive growth.

Founded in 2004, Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey can lay claim to being the oldest legally operating distillery in Colorado. A partnership between Woody Creek locals Jess Graber and George Stranahan, (also component to the reawakening of this journal), the whiskey was once distilled from mashes made at another of Stranahan’s former business concerns, the Flying Dog Brewery, when it also operated in Denver. Both have since changed hands, but unlike Flying Dog, Stranahan’s Whiskey continues to be produced on Kalamath Street in the Mile High City and distributed around the state. Having recently taken delivery of new copper pot stills and fermentation tanks, they aim to triple their production over the next year, with hopes that some of their product might actually make it out of Colorado to points far and wide.

On the other side of the state, Peach Street Distillers in Palisade first put fire under its still in 2005. Taking advantage of being located in the heart of Colorado’s fruit- and wine-producing regions, they have put together an award-winning lineup of products that include Colorado Straight Bourbon, Goat Vodka, Jackalope Gin, Jack and Jenny Peach and Pear Brandies (including the Pear Brandy pictured above with the fruit grown in bottles carefully suspended from the tree branches), several styles of Grappa and other unique products. Peach Street proudly points out that theirs was the first bourbon produced in the state. According to press release, a common misunderstanding is that bourbon must be made in Kentucky, and although there are strict laws governing what a bourbon is, the spirit can technically be made anywhere in the United States. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Bourbon must be made from at least 51% corn, aged for not less than two years in new charred American oak barrels, and nothing can be added at bottling to enhance the flavor or color. As with all of Peach Street’s spirits, they use local Colorado ingredients, including the famed sweet corn of Olathe. This “commitment to excellence in creativity and quality” was cited as determining factor in Peach Street being awarded the “Distillery of the Year” award at the 9th annual Craft Distillers Conference held in Louisville, KY, in April of this year. Plans are underway to expand the tasting room, as well as to acquire several of the buildings that they currently occupy, as well as to put up over 100 barrels of bourbon in 2012.

Claiming title as “the world’s highest distillery,” Breckenridge Distillery operates their production facility and downtown tasting rooms up in Breck at an elevation of 9,600 feet above sea level. Breckenridge produces award-winning bourbon, vodka and rum. The bourbon is curious in that it contains a high amount of rye in the grain mixture that forms its base. This differentiates it from many American-style bourbons that might finish sweeter. They also produce an original line of bitters infused with alpine herbs intended to create remarkable aperitifs with flavors evoking the rare beauty found in the mountains around them.

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO, and would love to hear about hooch made near you. Drop him a line: beer@mountaingazette.com  

Swimming in Deep Holy Water – A Haitian Odyssey

Deep Holy Water

Sketches and excerpted emails by Jake Welch.

The joke I tell is that I thought my twenty-three-year-old son Jake, a river kid since he could crawl, said he was going to Tahiti. Six classes short of receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, he quit school, much to the dismay of his parents. In fact, he was bound for Haiti — to serve a nobler cause and, in doing so, test himself against larger forces in the universe. Scramble the letters in Haiti, throw in a “t”, and you have the famed Polynesian paradisiacal dreamscape. If you are a father, it is easy to hear what you need to hear.

After the mandatory gnashing-of-teeth episode, I performed a random survey of male friends (of a familiar age span) who I consider successful (in both conventional and nonconventional ways) human beings. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that at one time or another they had all, for different reasons, “dropped out.” Jake glibly called his retreat a “stepping back.” Exercising a father’s prerogative, I failed to mention that I had abandoned my pursuit of an English Lit degree decades ago and headed to the mountains. Years later, I circled back to academia between river seasons and picked up the damn certificate.

When I suggested that perhaps it was easier and cheaper to “step back” four decades ago, hardly any of my peer group disagreed. One curmudgeon with a contrary soul even dared to question the social, educational and employment value of today’s increasingly overpriced climb up the wobbly ladder of college education. Heresy!

The last time I checked, Haiti was still recovering from a devastating earthquake, but overflowing with historical oppression, widespread poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, corruption and the reemergence of cholera. Haiti, I soon learned, is also swarming with Americans, evangelical and otherwise, looking to do good and, if possible, harvest a few Haitian souls. The Haitians, especially the young (a major portion of the population), hope to harvest a few greenbacks.

Who can blame them?

Haiti drawing

Jake has never been a churchgoer, unless you consider that, on one of our annual river reunion trips, I brought him and the dozen or so other helpless children and teens into the fold of “The Church of the Flowing Water.” Complete with magic words, a sacred wine-bottle brimming with holy river water and a wallet-sized-you-are-part-of-the-river-forever-club card, the baptism was a big hit. Outdoor secularism with a sprinkling of pagan-fairy dust at its worst. To this day these now-young adults refer to themselves as members, river brothers and sisters. Jake, I suspect, is an agnostic with a spiritual hunger appropriate for someone his age. In the land of plenty his moral compass has pointed him to the land of poverty.

Somehow he managed to convince the Haiti-bound leader of a local evangelical group (in the college town where he lives) that he was a “Christian at heart.” Likely as not, the evangelicals saw a sincere applicant, as well as a donor and a potential convert. Folks who join the two-week mission must pony up roughly $2,000 — a good chunk of change — which goes toward various endeavors: supporting the orphanages, medical clinics and other programs on the island. The caveat, as mentioned earlier, is that one must also be a Christian of the evangelical stripe to join the mission. The impulse to help the less fortunate is an honest one; the desire to spread an Old Testament faith to hungry, poor people whose condition places them in a vulnerable situation, sticks in my craw. Apologists would rightly argue that the two are inseparable, have been and always will be. Jake insisted that he could slip under the pagan-detecting radar.

In a sense, these well-intentioned churchgoers have become “adventure missionaries.” Modern-day skeptics have given brief trips to locations like Haiti another name: “medical tourism.”

Jake also made the bold claim that he intended to stay for a year. I asked how he would accomplish that goal in a poverty-stricken country with no slack in the economic rope and his tenuous connection with a religious organization. “No worries, Dad,” he assured me. At the bottom of his emails, he leaves a proclamation, as well as a message to himself:  “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up to much space.” Egad! When I first read it a few years ago, the maxim sounded so familiar to my youthful inner ear, I had to stop and catch a breath. Once, on our way home from a river trip, I set about to seek an alternative mantra, or at least balance the scales. We came up with another axiom: “If you’re not dancing around the mystery, you’re running in circles.”

Well, here I am. I talked with Amber about the needs of the facility a bit and asked (in a round about way) if I could be useful. She said that the man to ask would be E.P. Later, after the group brought out play-doe, jump ropes and tiny airplanes for the kids to play with (a scene which quickly dissolved into jubilant chaos despite the best efforts of our team leader), Amber brought me to talk to E.P. I told him my desire to stay in Haiti for an extended period of time, and what meager skills I possessed. Long story short, he said they can use me. I helped teach a pack of preschool aged kids about the six days of creation. We handed out colored pages, one for each day and colored pencils. This occurred in a village far up a rough cut dirt and clay road. School here is held for four hours a day as the children must have time help parents work. In rough concrete structures kids are packed in thickly along bench rows and teachers stroll around with a length of electrical cord to keep order (though I never saw them actually strike a child, only the desk in front of them). Teaching is done by rote memorization: the teacher says something and the students, as one, call out the answer or parrot back. Even the youngest children are taught in this manner, which is rather depressing but I can’t figure out how else I would do it given the large student-teacher ratio and the simple lack of teaching materials. Only the students who really hunger for knowledge will progress in this sort of classroom. I was grateful to be able to supply them with the rare experience of coloring.

When Jake was nearly five, skinny and bespectacled, I dropped him over the gunnel of my dory into the flat water of the Main Salmon. All morning he had been watching the older kids, laughing and shrieking, leap off their respective boats. He had danced around the deck, badly wanting to join the club of daredevils, but could not bring himself to conquer his fear of the unknown. My encouraging words had little effect. That’s when I did what any good father would do. I lifted the whelp up and pitched him feet first into the River of No Return.  He never had a chance to be frightened in that terrible way. Call it the Sink-or-Swim School of Experiential Learning.

Of course Jake had his lifejacket on and the river was deliciously summer warm. When he surfaced, he stared at me in euphoric astonishment. How could I do such a thing? How could I not? He had discovered The River, not from shore or a boat or story, but through total immersion in the holy water. For the first time he felt the River — its current, warmth, sound. It was as if, at last, we shared some long-lost secret.

The boy had been liberated; I, of course, was doomed. For the remainder of the trip, he pestered me relentlessly to leap off the boat into the now-familiar “great unknown.” Since he could not pull himself up, I became his personal hoist. Once the flatwater fear was conquered, he turned his attention to the rapids. He wanted to swim the fast water.

Haitian drawing

His mother would never have allowed me to dump him overboard when we floated Westwater Canyon two years earlier. He was only three, the water was colder and the motherly instinct not to be trifled with. Theory #1: After sons know they have the fundamental, unconditional love of their mothers in the bag, they begin to look toward the sperm donor, their father, for something different. What that is, they are not sure. Thus begins the dance/wrestling-match-as-embrace of father and son as the latter begins the voyage, more often meandering than not, to adolescence and perhaps, one day, to manhood. Except that there is always another father cutting in. Call him the ghost-dancer. Call him grandfather. The duo is really a trio and they must learn to move in harmony.

I am not a Christian, but I’m not against spreading the good word (others will be even more surprised to discover) provided there is no coercion involved. People need stories, a spiritual history which can guide them and help them relate to people very different from themselves. Don’t underestimate the power of a little common ground. As far as my own beliefs go I will say that I find the Christian condescending, self righteous attitude fairly unappealing but that I believe that the universe is a far more passionate, intelligent and loving arrangement then atheists are likely to give it credit for. If you need to put me in a box, tick ‘other’; meanwhile I’ll be off doing tai-chi on a slack line, singing silent prayers in mantra to the jesus-buddha cooperative fellowship. That being said I am surrounded by Christen folk who do credit to their religion. Despite my misgivings about how they handle their beliefs, they are sacrificing their money, time and energy to bring a little relief to people in need. Their gentleness of spirit, their unselfconscious brotherly love, their passion for helping and their complete acceptance of me, a stranger, will ever serve as an example for me.

Around the age of 10, Jake discovered that he no longer wanted to be a mere passenger in my boat. The dory, ponderous and inhabited by parents and an annoying sister, never struck his fancy. With the purchase of a cheap, six-foot-long inflatable raft, best used for floating on lakes, the fledgling departed the dory-nest. Although he remained willing to listen to basic instructions for brief periods, he preferred the time-tested method for extracting the most fun out of rapids: Follow your friends no matter what. Over time he navigated the Rogue, Lower Salmon and Grande Ronde.

Just as a son’s growth is incremental and all but invisible on a day-to-day basis, so the father’s role in relation to his son changes imperceptibly. One day the person you thought you knew has already gone around the river bend onto the next stage of development, and the father is left onshore, scratching his balls and wondering “Where did that kid go?” If he is to perform his role adequately, Daddy-O must catch up and get out in front, but out of the way, of the young boatman who must never know what the ancient mariner is up to. A father begins a period of calculation: when to intercede, when to step back. Timing is everything.

I’m staying pretty safe. The orphanage in Mirabalais has big walls and if I do leave them, it’s always with a guide of some sort. The people have that island time mentality which makes them very friendly and easy going, though of course I’m never sure how much of my presence (a potential source of wealth) affects that. I’m getting better at smelling it out though, picking up the “something is not quite right here” signals that don’t rely on language. There is a furtive hand signal they’ll make to me when they want to usher me away from a group to ask for something.

The first night I was here I got thoroughly involved in helping clean a well that had just been dug, no easy task considering the hole goes down 230 feet. It all happened rather spontaneously as I was standing around trying out my meager Creole, B.S.ing with some Haitian well diggers and an old man from Oregon who had brought all the equipment (on his own dime, no less). Evidently everyone decided that my Creole was good enough to translate for them so I suddenly found myself in the midst of a project. My god it was glorious. I translated instructions and plans, I carried gravel, I helped patch piping, I feed piping down the hole and I watched dials on the massive machine which served as kind of a well digger’s Swiss army knife. We solved small mechanical problems together and hauled gravel.

One fella told me about his life a bit: ten younger siblings, parents too old to work and his own family to support. He is not married because he can’t afford the traditional ring, so he wants to buy a motorcycle with which he can work shuttling people around (a young person’s job as common as street vending). I sympathized with his plight and the load he had to carry. Later, rather out of the blue, he said ‘I pray to god that he will help me, and after I will pray that you will help me buy my motorcycle.”

Haiti house drawing

The summer of 2006, we launched from Mineral Bottom on the Green River. Jake, just turned 17, was rowing his own raft, a used 13-foot Pioneer model fitted with a pirate flag and a rag-tag crew of two other adolescents, the sons of fellow boatmen. His rig looked like his bedroom: straps flying, gear lying about, empty soda cans floating on the floor, granny knots galore, cooler open to the 90-degree heat. It was a floating nightmare. At the put-in, he ignored my suggestion that his oar set-up might need some adjusting. Fair enough. The 40-mile run down to the confluence with the Colorado is mostly flatwater. At lunch on the second day, Jake ran afoul of one of his River Uncles who found his tie-up unworthy of a boatman. It is hard to tie a knot around sand. River Uncle nudged the raft off shore, watched it circle an eddy, and then called out, “Is that someone’s raft floating away?”

I owe him a beer.

When we reached the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, the head of infamous Cataract Canyon, the mood among the boatmen changed. Though we were running on relatively low water and the danger of a serious mishap, even disaster, was minimal, the reputation of the rapids in Cataract and the residue of communal high-water memories, combined with the soaring temperatures, left us rubber-legged. Over the decades, enough of us have participated in, seen or heard the horror stories that we approached the rapids — Mile Long and Big Drops, to name only two — with caution, even at low water. Under a merciless sun, we preferred to nap.

Jake picked up on the vibe, listening closely as the most-experienced boatman pointed out the pivotal moves through the rapid. Unlike the past, he did not hover close to me. As the sorting-out process of who will run in which group at one of the Big Drops began, he made it known he preferred to be included in the first group of three or four boats, to follow one of his Uncles through the maze. Usually the novices and first-timers watch the first runs to gain information and their visual bearings.

I would wait on shore and watch.

Following an experienced boatman on the approach to a rapid is not as simple as it sounds. Spacing between boats can shrink, but usually expands, and, before you know it, you have lost sight of your lucky charm. Soon enough, Jake was on his own.

Nevertheless, he executed a flawless entrance, never flailed at the oars, navigated the brown-water maze seemingly effortlessly, and at the bottom of the rapid, wore a grin that lasted the rest of the day.

There is no trash service in Haiti. Garbage is simply tossed on the ground or into big burn piles which go up in cloying, plastic smelling smoke when ignited. This is the practice here at the orphanage, much to the offense of my northwest eco/health friendly sensibilities. It’s hard to come up with an alternative, though I’ve been trying. The sight of this beautiful land, strewn with the flotsam of man’s livelihood has had a visceral effect on me, mostly because there is no reprieve: everywhere you go, there is garbage. An unsettling vision of the future which we never get in America because we pile all our junk out of sight.

So I decided to try and solve the trash problem, if only in the walls of this orphanage, to the best of my ability. The easiest materials to process are the soft ones, food and paper products. So I went online to learn about paper making and composting. Dead interesting and both these projects require very little in the way of start up materials or expert knowledge. This is essential, because none of these techniques for waste management would have any great impact unless I could pass them on to the children of the orphanage. That is the crux.

There is a little banana orchard on the property, which looks beautiful until you walk in and see all the discarded clothing, candy wrappers (again courtesy of the teams who stay here), old building materials, paint cans, razor blades, broken bottles, diapers, used maxi pads etc. The adults throw their junk away there and so the kids do the same.

I thought about how nice it would be to hang out in the banana orchard, were it more hospitable and how important it is for kids to have wild spaces to play in. I had a really strong hunger to make the orchard into a nice place but the enormity of the task and the seeming futility was holding me back. What would I do with the garbage anyway? So I go to my journal to work this out.

I should go collect trash, not with the notion of ‘solving’ anything, nor getting anywhere, for there is nothing to solve and nowhere to go. I should do it for its own sake… because at the bottom of it all I am the one who is thirsty for a beautiful world.

So I went to collect garbage.

Three years later, Jake and I ran the Rogue alone. The morning we launched, the fall weather was glorious, the river virtually empty of other boaters and the river corridor awash in fall color and birdsong. We had a muddled discussion about rowing; I assumed we would share the task. Jake, however, announced that he wanted to row the entire river. Like the intermittent flash of a lighthouse on a fog-bound coast, he had been sending me a signal: he will “guide” me down the river

Perhaps he sensed my 22-year-old secret? Over time fatherhood had imperceptibly nibbled away at what I would call my “edge” — that blend of boldness, measured risk-taking and quiet confidence that had informed my rowing as a guide. A greater degree of caution, and thus, hesitancy, had crept into my mind. An eight-year-old and a three-year-old will do that to you.

We floated on low water — sun-lit, sparkling green and rock-infested. Not unreluctantly, I made myself a comfortable spot in the front of the raft and settled in. All I had do was keep my mouth closed. Sooner or later Jake would ask for advice on where to enter rapids. It is one thing to follow a run, another to be in the lead.

The first day he spurned even the gentlest of suggestions. At the entrance to one particular rapid (which even had me confused), I asked, “You got it?” No reply.  He was lost. We washed helplessly over a pour-over, bumping and grinding on a series of ledges. It was a sloppy, potentially bottom-ripping run. I said the very thing I hoped not to. “What the hell are you doing?”

As we bore down on a similar rocky maze Jake broke his silence, “What do you think?” Our roles temporarily restored, I gave some quick instructions and he nailed the run. At less-confusing rapids downriver Jake asked specific questions of the “do-you-see-what-I-see?” variety and made his own calls. We camped early. For reading material he brought along Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” an apocalyptic tale of a father-and-son road trip unlike no other.

If there is such thing as harmonic convergence, we stumbled momentarily upon it over the next couple of days on the Rogue. The rapids came one after another, fast and with little interruption. Perched on the bow I called out the names, pointed out markers, obstacles, the sway of the current. Jake’s runs were clean, his rowing effortless. We seemed to be of one mind, an extension of one another for the time being.

My policy so far is no hand outs. Mostly because it simply is not sustainable for me to be buying candy and drinks and motorcycles, but also because I think there has been too much careless giving. In our desire to help it’s easy to react emotionally and go for the quick material fix. This is disempowering and enables dependency. It’s very much a ‘give a man a fish’ vs. ‘teach a man to fish’ sort of situation.

Not to say that material donations are not important or needed, after all, people must have food in their bellies and healthy bodies before they can think about developing their situation. But giving must occur out of genuine sensitivity to a person’s need, not simple a reaction to our own confused guilt. The trouble is that there are not many jobs available in Haiti, especially for young people. So the streets are filled with vendors, on the move or in little temporary stands, selling everything from blow dryers to painting reproductions to refilled soda bottles (buyer beware) to ethnic looking wooden bowls. They can get quite intense sometimes, especially in the tourist rich areas where there is a lot of competition. It’s difficult not to react defensively and forget compassion for those who want to make an honest living.

Right before Jake flipped for the first time in his rowing life (Chittam Rapid/Mile 78/Main Salmon) on our annual dory reunion trip in July 2011, I gave him the usual bit of finger-pointing, hand-waving, ex-river guide advice on how to make the run. He was suffering a case of poisonous butterflies that threatened to erupt into projectile Technicolor vomiting. I know the feeling.

Chittam looked big and gnarly, but manageable. In hindsight, I misread the rapid, underestimating its ferociousness. The crux move was a tight, stern-first left-to-right cut across the tongue of a fast-moving river through a sizable lateral wave and hopefully into the purgatory of slower, eddy-like water. At high water, Chittam has been known to cause problems. Indeed, the Salmon was running so fast and high (18,000 cfs) that the Forest Service had issued a cautionary warning to private boaters on its webpage.

To knowledgeable shoreline observers, Jake was probably doomed from the get-go. That afternoon there was no slow water above Chittam Rapid. Once you pulled out from shore, the current immediately carried you away. No time to gather yourself, no room to correct position, no margin of error and, thus, little forgiveness. Jake later voiced a sentiment that most first-time flippers would appreciate: Whatever the reason, he didn’t feel right above the rapid. A little voice whispered: You are going to flip. The longer he listened, the louder the voice grew. Perhaps his desire to run in the first group rather than watch a run had something to do with his flip. Perhaps following behind the Old Man had given him a sense of false confidence.

It all happened in an instant. He missed the cut, hit the diagonal, got pushed back out into the wall-hugging churlish wave set sideways, and, before he could straighten up his raft, he was over. He surfaced under the raft, worked his way out, but couldn’t figure out where he was. e crawled atop the raft, still stunned. I happened to be in the eddy below and tossed him a line and with the help of Eric, a 30-year Grand Canyon veteran guide, corralled him to shore.

The chips are down here at this orphanage in Mirabalais: they know I’m not a Christian and they don’t want me around. The trouble sprang from my decision to not attend church last Sunday. I didn’t make this choice without due consideration. When deciding to go against the herd, it’s important to spend some quality time shifting through the social and personal consequences. Actually that is a bit of a fudge; I knew soon as I woke up that I wasn’t going to church. Later I figured out why it was the right choice. I instead went to organize the attic, which was one of the projects I use to escape people for awhile.

Later Pastor Luke, who I had been working in the clinic with three days a week, asked me where I had been. Up to this point I had successfully maintained a philosophical smokescreen in casual conversations about belief, but direct questions like that are hard to get around honorably.

“At worship,” said I. (True enough, I try to make all my work with my hands an act of worship.)

“Where? There (indicating the church)?” he persisted.

I couldn’t lie, so I just tapped my heart. It is with my belief that church isn’t what happens in the building.

“… in your heart?” he said. “Why were you not at church?”

“I worship alone.”

“No” he said. “No, you cannot do that. Here we worship together.”

“I worship alone,” I said, walking away.

Determined to have to last word he said, “You cannot worship alone.”

So just yesterday, after rather an uncomfortable week where I sensed what was to come, I was summoned into Pastor Yves office. I was rather sick with dread, for reasons that are unclear to me, but on another level kinda digging all the drama. There with several other people present he laid it out for me: your beliefs don’t align with ours, we want you to leave. To their credit they were very respectful and non-judgmental but it was still a very tense, emotionally charged scene. The details of the conversation are fuzzy to me, and rather irrelevant; we went round and round for awhile, dancing in the thorny land of reason and religion but it came down to this:

My hard work didn’t matter to them, nor did my ideas for improvement that I was willing to spearhead, nor did the potential positive influence I could have on the children here. It didn’t matter that I came here to help people, nor that I came here to explore my relationship with the wild, unseen potential that works in the world (sometimes referred to as god) or that I am open some of the very relevant and valid teachings of Christianity. What mattered in the end is that I don’t think the bible is the end-all-be-all of religious discussion. What mattered is that I think there is not one path to God, but many. What mattered is that I am not so arrogant as to think that I and my people alone are keepers of the truth.

These people had been so welcoming to me, so loving and open and generous, I didn’t think that my own personal situation/preference would offend them so greatly (especially considering the value I might have). It’s a strangely delicious paradox, to be savored perhaps, that these same wonderful human beings are absolutely inflexible and closed minded with regard to the central tenants that rule their life.

A month after he left the U.S., Jake returned home far short of his stated time goal of a year. His principled stand about not attending church services could easily be viewed as a case of not knowing which hill to die on. He had gone to right the world, put his finger on the scale of justice and fairness. Would an hour in church have fatally compromised his stated fundamental principle and goal: to help people? Could he have not meditated or dreamed of rivers he had run or mountain he had climbed amidst the hallelujahs?

But he had also gone to Haiti to remove himself from the all-too-familiar, to scrape away some of the social and psychological barnacles. Perhaps he came to realize things about himself that he didn’t like or wasn’t aware of: Helping people is tedious, relentless work; they are not always grateful; historical victims can become today’s predators; a solitary retreat in a communal, overcrowded country is hard to find; empathy and capacity for helping had limits; a shower is nice; so is food and friends back home.

Jake had not been completely honest with the evangelicals. It is possible that his refusal to go to Church was something of an unconscious ruse, a way to force them to toss him out. Then he would not have to bear the burden of quitting so early in the game.

It is also unfortunate that no adult in the evangelical congregation failed to get past their rigid orthodoxy and into a young man’s hungry heart. About the time he arrived home, a YouTube video, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus,” appeared. The video had been posted by Jefferson Bethke, a recently graduated student of Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon (outside of Portland). Pacific University is a small, independent, liberal arts college with long-time ties to the United Church of Christ. Bethke, who is Jake’s age, is certainly not a river-loving pagan. He evangelizes online. Within twenty-four hours, his video had scored a million hits. By April 2012 the number rose to 20 million.

That’s a lot of hungry young hearts in search of food for the soul in the 21st century.

Spirited atheist, long-time parent and MG senior correspondent Vince Welch co-authored “The Doing of the Thing — The Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom” in 1998. His latest effort, “The Last Voyageur — Amos Burg and The Rivers of the West,” will be released by The Mountaineers on October 5, 2012. Welch’s blog, “Rivermouth,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. 

Read Wandering Sacred Shores, another feature from our July issue

Wandering Sacred Shores

Wandering Sacred Shores

Dawn found us perched at cliff’s edge, overlooking the Pacific. The pangas were long since out on the water, searching for gilled prey, and the tiny cinderblock-built fishing camp was ghostly quiet. Even the resident dogs held a seemingly respectful silence, as if they knew that their fates, too, were pinned on the bounty of the day’s catch.

With coffee in hand, we walked the craggy Mexico shoreline, absorbing spray at the watery intersection of moon’s playful drag and gravity’s covetous leap. High tide caressed the cliffside incessantly, obsessively, a dangerous adoration that had stolen more than one resident of the fishing camp. The interstices between elements make for the most precarious lives and livelihoods.

Our walk soon brought us to an impromptu concrete shrine holding a skull fashioned out of a buoy. This, perhaps, was made in honor of one of the lost fisherman, proffering a portal toward communion with him. Maybe his family left regular offerings for him — colorful shells, stones lovingly shaped by the tides, driftwood with knotholes, the ocean’s artistic offerings. And maybe they hoped he would sense their sustained love, find refuge in it, and then bring their prayers to the ears of the saints. The small shrine was not only hallowed access to the dearly departed, but it was a portico toward divine grace.

In Baja, these reliquaries blanket the countryside, some as simple as candles lovingly placed in a small cave. Others are grandiose, with tall, brightly colored walls, glass cases for photos and votives and murals depicting the Virgin de Guadalupe or Christ and the Sacred Heart. Offerings range from flowers and rosaries to cigarettes and liquor bottles. We frequently found these small altars along roadsides, especially near dangerous curves and cliffs. In this way, Baja’s highways are a landscape of loss and holy space, a divine drive amidst watchful saints, cross-shaped cordon cacti and the eternal flame of the cirio or candlewood.

The Catholic faith is very much alive in Mexico; it is evolving, not simply some fixed remnant of another time. Here, it is pertinent to people’s lives, malleable enough to match each individual’s joys and concerns. It speaks in terms of the everyday, not the elite. The saints are just as willing to listen to a supplicant offering tobacco as one with jewels. They are as eager to populate shallow caves and arid earth as they are churches or cathedrals.

A religion that once protected salvation from the masses by imposing a high tariff now finds the populace storming the gates, taking what has always been rightfully theirs. Access to God’s grace no longer sits on scales awaiting the requisite amount of gold. Instead, spiritual currency is of subjective value. As such, each shrine, whether made of simple seashells or soaring adobe walls, is a thing of beauty, speaking to the heart and hopes of its creator.

This was true even for a foam skull looking longingly at land from its small, shore-bound shelter — a shrine built to honor death and to hope for a better life through the intercession of celestial beings.

In Mexico, Christ and his entourage of saints walk amongst the masses — just as they always intended.

Farther south, we learned Cerritos Beach is no longer the desolate shoreline of the previous decade. Large resorts have sprung up, a gated RV park blankets the nearby desert and tourists like us swarm the surf beach and beach bar. No furtive candles in the rocks. No holy gaze surveying the sea. It seems the gringo influx has displaced natives and saints alike. The locals now commute to collect trash at the RV park for 50 pesos per bag while the Virgin and her Son seek shelter and employment elsewhere.

We went for a hike through this changing landscape, exploring neighboring beaches by traversing the rocky points segregating each cove. Atop the lower tier of rocks, enormous tide pools offered their warm embrace while tiger-striped fish flittered beneath us. In one me-sized puddle, I floated on my back, ears submerged, enjoying the womb-like calm of the pool with the faint sensation of pounding surf filtering toward my awareness.

Instead of retracing our footsteps along the coast, we wandered back on a rural road paralleling the beach. There, we found a fascinating mix of people and economic realities. The path we walked skirted working farms and modest ranchos, abandoned and unfinished multi-million-dollar homes and inhabited Turkish palaces. An enormous yellow hotel sitting on a point overlooking Cerritos Beach — which we dubbed Banana Manor — has a room atop its phallic turret that rents for $900 a night. Within view of this opulence, mutts scavenged for food and fought fleas while a lone horseman sat on his pony bareback and stared over the waters. Here, Mexico’s past and present seek the terms of an uneasy truce. And the years-long conflict has displaced the saints.

The abandoned homes — ruins of the recent economic collapse — stood on the shoreline battlefield where the forces of nouveau colonialism recently made a hasty retreat, conceding the coast to scavengers and tides. The wounded buildings sat open to the elements, devoid of the warmth and memories habitation creates. Careful brickwork spiraling toward 20-foot ceilings, storied mosaics, polished beams, the artistry of human hands — it had all been created, unknowingly, for entropy and erosion’s pleasure.

Unintentionally, the villas had also become monuments to the unrevealed — just like the shrines. Though their creators had meant them to be bulwarks against the outside world and its unknown undercurrents — a cocoon for one’s delicate mortality — life’s uncertainties had prevailed. This space of onetime dreams, of perished plans, of crumbling monuments to wealth and self now had to allow that there are forces at work greater than one’s means. We can’t buy our safety, serenity or salvation. Nor is it anyone’s to sell — as Mexico’s faithful have learned.

Perhaps this is where the lost saints of Cerritos now reside, amidst the toils of men who unwittingly built testaments to loss and change. Much like the fishing village shrine to the north, these skeletal remains held space for forces beyond our control.

We hit Punta Santo Domingo near sunset, and Tyler had a chance to surf on the point’s small waves. Our camp sat atop a rocky outcropping where shrines had been placed, likely by and for area fishermen — in honor of those who travel among tides of abundance and loss. Statues of Jesus and the Virgin de Guadalupe stared out over the bay, blessing the waters and those who cross it, including my beloved.

I sat near the holy sculptures and reflected upon these acknowledgements of death and the divine, the inescapable and interconnected energies that shape our world. These energies were now visibly at work on the half-built palaces full of unrealized dreams, each tumbling brick a transcendent footstep among us. And they were imperceptibly weaving their unrealized plans into my own life. Acknowledged or not, the holy, the ghostly, the unseen and unknown — the saints — continue to march through our lives.

My companion soon trudged up the crumbling hillside as purple dusk descended. A salty-wet and smiling kiss was our nod to the divine. To mark this, I placed a heart-rock at the Virgin’s feet. And, as always, she and her Son faithfully cast their gazes upon our watery surroundings, serving as a rock-bound reminder that, if we humbly hold space — landscape, heartscape, dreamscape — the divine will freely walk among us.

Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last piece for the Gazette was “Forgetting in a Landscape of Memory,” which appeared in #188. Jackson’s blog, “Desert Reflections,” can be found at mountaingzette.com. She lives in Moab. 

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See more vintage content in Flashback, where we resurface an ancient issue of MG!

Just Three Things to Remember

Just Three Things to Remember

Why do they call it golf?
Because all the other four-letter words were taken.

Targhee Village (aka Spudgusta; bordering Idaho potato country). Men’s informal Thursday. Random foursomes, two dollars each in the pot.

First up, hole #1.

I reach for my driver. Well, it’s not actually my driver, as I broke mine over a tree three days ago. Fucking thing misbehaved. Markida reluctantly handed me a loaner.

The three other guys drive it out there pretty good. One guy clears Ditch Creek by twenty yards. I get my stance, few Sergio wiggles, head down, eyes on the dimple at the back of the ball, easy back swing, balanced athletic position, coming down … wrists releasing …

… then comes that 3/100ths of a second where I semi-consciously decide to change it all … I break one of those 87 different commandments … I start to look up … and it’s a top-spinning worm-burner skimming along earth-bound for all of 57 yards …

“Damn it!”

I approach that foul egg of a demon dragon, a Top Flite 3 … as if … select my Rescue 3. This club performed very nicely when I first got her. A hybrid between a wood and an iron, designed to get me out of the rough. But over this summer she’s performed sporadically. I had to slam her head into the ground a couple of times. Fickle bitch.

This ball I hit more squarely, it lasers out of there, not more than two feet above the fairway where it hits … rolls … oh no … don’t start off like … into the ditch.

“Arrrggghhh!”

The other guys hit good shots. I’m lying “two in three out” as I pluck my wet ball from the one-foot-wide ditch and drop it two feet farther from the flag.

Okay, nine iron. This is an easy club for most golfers to hit. Just one or two things to remember here … and I flash back to my first lesson, the pro demonstrating in slow motion …

“ … the grip, so the Vs are pointing to your arm pits, the ball a ball-width or two behind in my stance, athletic position, I bring the club back slowly, left arm straight, left knee bending slightly, weight shifting back, the turn … slightest pause at the back swing, then open up with my hips, hands and elbows still close, weight shifting forward, releasing my wrists, club face square, the club striking down on the back of the ball before it hits the ground, through my divot, follow through with my belt buckle facing my target. This is a club that most recreational players will hit between 100 and 120 yards from the flag. Now I’ll hit it at a regular tempo.”

That’s how fuckin’ nutz  this sport is. Golf’s an all-too-true metaphor for life. Undulating terrain … unbalanced swings … traps … hazards … penalties … bad shots good lies … good shots unlucky bounces … finesse and etiquette in and around the populated greens … all that concentrated effort only to finally end up in a hole in the ground. I try so hard to stay on par, but the truth is I’ve carded a lot of bogeys, double bogeys and two days ago an 8 on the par 3 sixth hole.

Those standard and upright citizens (shirts with collars are expected for men) who can synthesize the most components and compete evenly among others in a socially accepted behavior prevail. We rogue-ish mountain types flail.

I take a deep breath, draw the 9-iron back, just think of one thing that one dimple and I hit it with that perfect click … club center, and toward the flag … bouncing one foot from the flag … and carrying recklessly onward … and beyond the green, into the steep rough.

By now, my mind and body tense up, breathing short, gritting my teeth … just the opposite of what you hear: “Loosey goosey,” “easy when it’s breezy, easy all the time,” “slow it all down.” “Relax.” Relax hell, I want to beat something, someone, anyone. So if all else fails, “Grip it and rip it!”

Okay, here comes the 60-degree. A lob wedge. Designed to lift the ball out of the rough … delicately … just keep my head and upper body still and legs planted … practice swing … now hit it just like that pop out she comes and it looks good for the first bounce, but Miss Dimples defies all laws of nature as she gains speed running past the hole six feet … I can sense my three playing partners’ disgust and pity.

Now, the putter. The other three have holed out so I step up, a few practice sings, yes, just there … plink … and it takes an impossible right turn before she stops two feet from the hole.

“Ugh.”

My putter was forged two levels beneath Hell’s Deepest Cellars …

Even top pros miss the easy two- and three-footers. You anticipate the “yips.” That means right at the last instant you question your performance: Did you grasp your shaft too tightly and how hard do you strike the ball and there is two or maybe three inches of break? And the “miss it” part of “don’t miss it” echoes in your brain and you twitch right at the crucial moment …

Golf is a game of confidence, a good player once told me.

I think it’s because I have the protester gene welded into my DNA from the ’60s with Nam and Nixon and all the nuts stuff oozing out directly opposite the explosion of artistic and musical and so many other enhancements so we’d all vacillate, shape-shifting our consciousness back and forth between paranoia and Peak Experience. Three-one-hundredths of a second and you think of too many things or the wrong thing and you doubt your swing your life your very reason for existence and it’s manifested in a “yip” and you miss the two-foot putt. Your cerebral cortex didn’t want to. Something misfired in your reptilian complex.

Hell, dude, professional baseball players are hitting a 5-ounce baseball being thrown directly at them at speeds upwards of 100 mph, spinning, curving, and any decent batter can take a 30-ounce round stick of wood and hit that 5-ounce spinning sphere squarely in 38/100ths of a second and you can’t hit this bright white 1.62-ounce dimpled ball perched up on a tee lying dormant right beneath you? And help yourself to a couple of practice swings …

I line up for the two-footer and the other three guys are standing oh so silently around me, one has picked up the flag. One good player told me Tiger Woods says grip it as lightly as possible. Just because it reflects my weird-ass life, I hit the ball right handed, but putt lefty. Don’t ask. I read a two-inch break here. I strike the ball and it breaks … toward the edge … catching the edge … spinning around the cup 270 degrees … and in! Kerplinkadink. The drug is in the kerplinkadink. The scores reported: 4, 4, 5 … and my 7.

Okay, next hole. Par 4.

This time I don’t hit the worst drive, but it hooks left and brings the water hazard into play. Golf doesn’t seem to attract the scientist types, but it should, as the cosmologists  would find there’s a black hole right here at Spudgusta. It has swallowed up entire solar systems and even galaxies and at least two hundred of my golf balls. But it brings out the club I am most adept with, my ball retriever, a recent birthday present; replete with telescopic extenders and a ball-size day-glo basket.

Now the four-iron. This club brings instant anxiety. The hardest clubs to hit are the lower irons, as six-time-major winner Lee Trevino, the “Merry Mex,” said, “If it starts lightning hold up your 1-iron. God can’t even hit a 1-iron.”

At this point you’re asking, “Why do you keep playing?”

It’s because I have logged lots of miles running in them thar hills in and around Yellowstone and Jackson Hole. In fact, as of this writing 38,189. Add a hundred-thousand moguls + or – and a few thousand miles of schussing and crashing on light cross-country ski gear. All that mountain biking. Motorcycle accidents. Sixty planet revolutions. Arrggghh. The left knee is gone. In fact, when Obama Care slides through, I’m going in for an entire skeleton replacement.

So I was looking for another way/reason to stay outside. Golf! You’re outside, beautiful places. Make some new friends. Satisfy the old competitive urges. So I just took it up. Nine years ago.

My best score here at Spudgusta is a 41 for our nine-hole course. Five over par. The record round, from the best golfer in these parts is Chris Inglis. He’s one-quarter Nez Perce Native American. He’s carded a 28!

My four iron from about 150. Of course it splashes into the water. What else did you expect? But one of the other guys lands his ball in the thicket, one other hits into the tall grass, so I don’t feel that bad. They shall share my suffering.

I pull out my 56-degree for my penalty shot, 40-yard shot to the hole. With a miracle, I can make par. And don’t watch, you’re making me nervous …

You gotta hit under the ball, practice swings skim the grass just like that step up, pause, how long to pause? Shite, I didn’t check my impact point keep going they’re waiting … hit it squarely just that hard club back now forward aim there which dimple … and I skull it. Hit it one-quarter inch too high … but it bounces out of the duff and onto the green  stopping five feet away from the hole.”

“Good shot, Cal.”

“Lucky.”

I miss the five-footer by a foot, then almost missed the tap in, so it’s a 6.

Now, let’s move onto the epicenter of horror and mayhem, hole #6. Par three. Over a dank brown lagoon. Draining it in the fall reveals a golf ball graveyard.

One local guy I played with a couple of years ago boiled the whole game down this way:

“There are just three things to remember in golf. One, keep your head down. Two, keep your fucking head down and three, keep your goddamned fucking head down.”

I’m having problems with that one lately. I keep looking up and seeing scary shit going on all around me. The planet and its citizens veering into deep rough. Into the thick stuff, and we’re gonna have to pull out that rescue hybrid and get back on the fairway.

My heart’s in the mountains. Escapism. These thirty years of running over these wonderful mountain trails, uphill forever, to 10,000 feet! The Top of the World! Grinding above all that complicated humanism. And also shuffling across the volcanic caldera that is Yellowstone Park. My heart and mind soar freely out there, past sour pyschodramas, beyond cities, living in that exact moment.

No score, no parameters, no penalty shots, no bad swings.

But as I’m running low on miles, I try to spread out what’s left. Some days, some rounds, better than others, yes? On sore knee days, there’s the bike or easy ski touring. On good days, do I have one more Pikes Peak Ascent left in me?

Only one of the other three guys lands his ball on the green, one goes over, the other guy flirts with disaster as his ball stops on the edge of the slope above the lagoon. I step up, tee my Callaway (yeah, I drowned the Top Flite on hole #5). A practice swing, then I remember tip #79, about the torso and I turn my shoulders … slight pause … balanced there open up the hips swinging through and CLICK! That beautiful sound when you hit it right “on the screws” … the whistle of the ball through the air when it’s hit perfectly. The ball flies up … arching toward the flag … down from its pinnacle … toward the flag … “Go!” … it lands with a heavy thud four feet from the flag … takes two short bounces and stops three feet from the hole.

“Good shot, Cal.”

“There ya go.”

“Nice one!”

Okay, FYI, I compensated for the two inches of break … and made the putt. A birdie! Won points for the team. It would be the only hole to which I contributed, but the other guys played well and our team won. I begrudgingly accepted my eight dollars.

Golf backwards is Flog. So you now have MJF’s, MG’s and my permission to flog any friend, relative or spouse even hinting at taking up this *%#&! sport. Remember, for every 400 yards of fairway, there are 800 yards of rough. But for every 400 yards of mountain trail there are 400 yards of  birdies, eagles … you tell me …

So golf and life: The meta-four-iron. It’s that comeback shot. Not the 150-yard 9-irons the pros hit that land on the green and roll back to within inches of the hole. No, the 7-iron I hit on #6; it makes me want to come back and play one more time. One more perfect mountain trail, evoking exuberance. One more perfect swing.

Kerplinkadink. 

Long-time contributor Cal Glover, a tour guide in the Greater Yellowstone area, passed away last December. This story was submitted several months before his death.