Out of Water

In the shadow of Homa Mountain, near the shores of Lake Victoria, long before I called the San Juan Mountains and southwest desert my home, I saw a tree shaped like Christmas and approached it.

Elijah, my Kenyan host brother, stood atop a distant ridge waving to me vigorously. “Hallo,” I shouted back to him, waving cheerfully. On this bright day filled with horizon, it seemed such a fine idea to bring a little taste of American Christmas to my host family, a parting gift for their year of generosity.

The tree was small, maybe five feet in height and three inches in diameter, so I cut through its trunk with little effort. Dragging the tree half a mile to my home was also easy, since I was very fit, walking miles every week that year to bus stops, the lake shore and the homes of distant friends and relatives.

My host sister met me at the opening in the dense wall of euphorbia that surrounded our compound of huts. Elijah stood behind her, shaking his head and speaking in Luo, a language I had not mastered. No matter. The sentiment was clear.

“Laura Adhiambo,” Mary Auma said sternly in fluent English. “Did you not see that this was the only tree of its kind?”

During my year out of water, I had committed many errors, cultural and otherwise, but, from her tone, I knew this one trumped all. Calm and disciplined, with an inner strength I admired and coveted, Mary Auma had become a hero to me; her disappointment hurt like a slap.

The tree I felled was likely Callitris robusta, which to the untrained, eager eye looks like cedar. Starting in 1950, Kenyan agro-forestry programs distributed several types of trees in South Nyanza, my family’s home province. C. robusta was especially suited to the climate and land and would provide generations of timber and fuel, both of which were in short supply. With visions of a better future, my host family had secured one sapling and planted it near their garden of groundnuts. I deserved the slap.

Later that day, someone leaned the tree in a corner of my host parents’ hut. Embarrassed but relieved, I honored the gesture of conciliation. Pieces of wood and other found items became ornaments. Sheets of notebook paper became stars and snow.

“Tell me about snow,” said Mary Auma, and so I described snowflakes, cold air, wet mittens, white outs, snowdrifts.

As we sat in the mud and dung home with no running water or electricity, contemplating the resource whose life I’d just cut short, everything sounded ridiculous. “We pop corn kernels then string them together with a needle and piece of thread. Also, there’s this silvery metallic stuff, long strings of it, that gets draped on the tree limbs … and red and white candy in the shape of canes … oh, and strings of green and red electric lights … ”

Out of kindness, I believe, my host family did not ask what happened in America to the venerated trees once the holiday was over. How would I explain trees lying curbside waiting for the garbage truck?

Ten days after Christmas, my year in Kenya ended. Our focus now was on the year past, the friendships formed, the miracle of bonds that transcend culture and distance. But when my host father delivered the traditional pre-travel prayer in his shuttered hut, the decorated tree still occupied its corner.

In Kenya 1979, where old tires became sandals and scraps of clothing were endlessly reinvented, I can hope this Callitris robusta had multiple afterlives. Over 30 years later, I imagine Elijah’s capable hands creating a small statue or new handle for the door of his mother’s hut. In Mary Auma’s hands, a branch or two may have helped boil a pot of morning tea, enjoyed then by the entire family while they swapped stories and laughed about the odd American girl who was very sweet, though a bit simple, and so very far out of her home water.

Laura Kerr is a fish in water where the Santa Cruz and Animas rivers flow. This is her first piece for MG.

On Resurrection

vA saloon from a lifetime ago

A Dive

I left 25 years ago, and except for occasional news about former

acquaintances, a few obituaries in quirky rags of various hues and distributions and one casual mention of the town’s oldest dive bar finally burning down, I’ve gone years at a stretch without thinking of my time here. Even now, I’m only stretching my legs before continuing a long drive back to my current life.

This place was once my hometown. It was one of the first destination ski resorts in North America, and like most “last best” towns betrayed by travel mags out to make a buck, it suffers the afflictions common to other pick-your-poison elite retreat/real estate development zones that dot the Mountain West. The streets are familiar, but the stores are up-scale and mostly empty of shoppers, seasonal-worker safehouses I once hung out in are gingerbread restoration projects geared to flip on the next boom cycle, dogs are on leashes and so are most of the people I meet. I’ve had about enough nostalgia for one walk and am heading back to my truck to get the hell out of town, when I look up and the unmistakable facade of the old bar materializes from the mists of my memories.

Through a Glass

Like the rusty prow of a cargo ship moored among yachts, unpretentious but imposing, it rises above its neighbors. The barn-shaped roofline still defines the block, and the front door is just as unassuming as the last time I stepped in after a long night-shift to sip one beer before closing time. Only problem I can see with having a cold one before leaving town is that, according to a reputable source, this dive burned down about five years ago. Temporarily suspending disbelief, I open the door, and confront another problem — the entry hallway that used to smell like spilled beer and vomit is clean, carpeted. There are posters on the walls, and a revealing light that makes me want to turn and leave before I reach the inner door. Thinking that this feels like the start of a long trip toward the bright light that supposedly awaits all mortals, I push open the final door.

There are the exposed log beams that have long supported the second floor’s mysterious goings-on. A few tables sit empty in dim corners. A small television emits stale scenes from a wall at the far end of the bar. The pool tables are in the places I remember, and the row of stools could be propping up the same cast of characters who used to nod in my direction before turning back to their own stories. I look down, and there is an old dog, lying just inside the door where an unobservant tourist might kick him and cause the bar’s regulars to raise their own defenses. I step over the sleeping dog, and head for an empty section along the bar. No heads turn, which can be a good sign when you have no acquaintances in a place like this.

Darkly

No taps. Bottles of swill beer lined up on the back-bar, and in front of the patrons. The bartender sidles over, and I ask for his darkest brew. He pulls a can of Guinness from one of the wooden-framed coolers I remember, sets it and a cold glass in front of me. I mention that it’s been a long time since I passed this way, and it seems not much has changed, at least in here. He nods, and says with a half-apologetic smile of long practice, “No, except that you can’t smoke here anymore.” My lack of reaction must encourage him to add, “Smells better, anyway, for working in here all day.”

I nod, and he grabs more beers to replace empties down the bar, where guys about my age are solving the budget, reducing taxation, restarting the economy and greeting a recently returned regular in a swirl of barstool bonhomie I figured had gone up in smoke when this bar burned to the ground. Next pass, I’ll try to ask the bartender about the story of a fire, but for now the fine tawny head of the stout in front of me demands attention.

Through the dark glass, I see ghosts of the naïveté that once eyed me from the back-bar mirror while I sorted through the temptations, vicissitudes and possibilities of a wide-open ski-town in full roar. The other old guys down the bar must’ve been young then too, and we may have roared together or butted heads a few times many beers ago. More and more these days, I wander through my old haunts this way, looking and listening for familiar markers that say whether the old ways were just passing fads, or are as venerable as some old buildings and the mountains that surround them.

In the spreading glow of the nearly empty glass, a decision must be made. To move down the bar, ask about a few friends that might have survived to become one of the late-afternoon regulars at this old bar from my half-remembered past, or to quietly pay up and move outside into the late afternoon’s light. On the edge of town, I could drive past more history, and in the next town, see if that one friend still lives in the house I helped him finish. There we could search for more memories, or I can move on through the high sage desert to a dirt road I once drove to its end, where coyotes howled me into the dawn of a new day.

As the bartender comes my way, I glance through the bottom of my glass once more, and a certain amount of clarity returns as the old dog by the door glances up and waits.

Long-time contributor B. Frank is currently traveling incognito through climes hotter than Dante’s imagination. He is the author of “Livin’ the Dream: Testing the Ragged Edge of Machismo” (Raven’s Eye Press, 2010) and occasionally scribbles The Ragged Edge missives to MG readers. 

Slide

Mountain Gazette - Slide
Illustration by Keith Svihovec

Friends try not to stare, but they can’t help it. Stop with them at the garage to pick up some motor oil or lag screws — floaty toys in summer or cider jars in fall — and they stop cold in their tracks. They did not see it coming, this descent. You did not seem so obsessive, like a hoarder, like those addle-eyed freaks on TV. But it’s hard not to notice. The paint cans, the fire pump, the beer fridge, the rubber boots, the broke-down saws all turn, apparently, invisible. Skis are all they see.

Skis tucked in cinder blocks. Skis leaning on stovepipe. Skis hanging, properly, from a ceiling rack scabbed together with rough-cut scraps: tips in two-by-twos, tails in plastic six-pack holders, scissored in thirds. Skis with spiders. Skis with dust. Skis with bindings that look like paper clips and hold like a vice, bindings that were only available for two seasons in the mid-1980s, which have lasted against all odds, like Madonna or Prince. Side-cut skis that don’t edge on ice. Straight long skis that slide fast in slush and turn poorly in slop, though god knows you tried.  For years, for decades.

Which ones do you use? your friends ask.

All of them, you say.

Then they know they are in for it. The stories. Skis you stuck like a cage into the crust to keep your bivvy from sliding down the ridge. Skis you held like swords to fight off coyotes encircling the tent. Skis you wear every Tuesday, no-whining day, to slog with friends up this same untracked road and back down. Once you saw wolverine tracks; often you see elk. Not the skis you wore when you fell — those like the ligament are long gone — but the ones you wore after surgery, inching back, sliding through hoar frost tinkling like glass, tentative but stubborn. Stubborn, too, on the lifts in your leather, in your three pins, shrugging off the sneers at resorts or near-resorts — Targhee, Bachelor, Bridger Bowl, Purgatory — splitting a half-day pass with a friend and switching jackets after each run, eating jerky from the pocket of your anorak with the dirty Kleenex and the slushy cans of Pabst or Rainier. Sometimes, when you were learning, you skied with these pink Minnie Mouse poles to keep your arms low. Then later: for the hell of it.

You can’t show your friends the ones that didn’t make it. Skis you shredded on cinders, red stone rooster tails spewed behind each sunlit turn. Skis that delaminated in the woods. Bindings epoxied then heli-coiled until screw holes grew wide as dimes then nickels, until wood puddled to rot. And you don’t show them the tool kit with steel wool and zip ties, screwdriver and wood screws, matchsticks, duct tape, candles, wax.

Time is getting scarce. There are other things to do: hiking, biking, kayaking. Your friends fidget, check a watch, gaze out the open door.

You show them the snowshoes you use to take the nephews to the gravel pit to sled, the ones you used to carry for emergencies, like the time you got lost on a trail you’d skied a thousand times before and ended up in a canyon bottom and had to climb back up and …

Why don’t you carry them anymore?

You shrug.

Because we’re dumb?

But it’s not true. You’re older; you’re wiser; you have more discretion. You are a better skier, a more balanced person. You know that it is time to leave this musty hole. Get on with life. But you’re not ready; you’re not even really in the garage anymore; you’re thinking ahead to the day, not too far from now, when you’ll haul them out, one pair at a time, and not put them back. By mid-winter, they’ll be stacked on the porch, strewn in the woodshed, stuck in the shed-side berm, the full selection in full view, in case you have to decide fast before dark to head out in blue jeans with no cap into the dusk, onto the snow, because what the hell else is there to do? Just slide.

Ana Maria Spagna is the author of “Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus,” “Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw” and, most recently, “ “Potluck: Community on the Edge of wilderness.” You can eyeball her blog, “Wet Wool,” at mountaingazette.com. Spagna lives in Stehekin, Wash. 

Behold the Ski Boot

Mountain Gazette - Behold the Ski Boot
Illustration by Keith Svihovec

A ski boot sits on the floor of my bedroom, next to the box where its mate resides. It’s new — a Tecnica. The “foot” part is black, the sides white. Orange swirls splash across its surface. I was told the names of these boot parts (and a lot of other technical information) when I bought them at Flat Iron Sports. But I was too distracted by the feel of the boots on my feet to remember the details: last year’s women’s model — ladies,’ as Larry called it — strangling my right foot and calf, and this year’s men’s model cradling my left. Snug. Warm. Full of promise.

“What do you think?” Larry asked me.

I leaned my back against the carpeted riser where I sat and stalled. I’d already promised Larry that buying a men’s model didn’t bother me. Two years ago, I bought a men’s road bike because I have long legs, but mostly because all the women’s bikes were pink or pale blue. But a brand-new ski boot wasn’t a purchase I expected to make.

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a girl,” I said, “or because I’m from Minnesota. But I worry about having too much boot for my skill level.”

Larry and his coworker Peter laughed. I’ve only known them for an hour, but Larry feels like my own personal buyer, and Peter reminds me of Santa Claus. Together, their laughter makes me relax.

“That’s human nature,” Peter said, shaking his head.

The last time I skied, I was at Grand Targhee, over the pass from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The first day, the clouds were so thick I couldn’t see more than a few feet past the tips of my skis. My then-boyfriend disappeared ahead of me while I snowplowed through the fog and talked to myself: “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay.” I longed for clear blue skies so I could see where I was going, until the second day, when the winter sun illuminated the mountain. I looked down from the chairlift and swore. The mountain dropped away from under me, more of a snow-covered cliff than a hill. That’s what I’ve been skiing? I thought. But by the end of the trip, I followed my then-boyfriend down most slopes without checking the color of the run; I was loosening up on my feet, bending forward instead of leaning back. Wishing I lived out West so I could do this some more.

I told Larry and Peter that was eight years ago; they said no problem.

“You look pretty athletic, and you’ll be out with your friends,” Larry said, gesturing at the empty space where my roommate stood before she left the fitting to head to work. “They’ll push you. It’ll be a quick learning curve.”

I smiled at being called athletic. But it was probably more like nine or 10 years ago, enough time for the then-boyfriend to become the husband and then the ex-husband. Enough time to live out — and unravel — what felt like a lifetime of dreams, until I felt out of place sitting in the bar in a ski town. Prior to Targhee, my downhill experience was limited to Afton Alps in Minnesota, an ice bomb smaller than Targhee’s bunny hill. I have two vivid memories from Afton, both from junior high. In the first, I am sliding down a black diamond on my back, head first, resisting the urge to wave at the skiers on the chairlift as they stare down at me with mouths agape. In the second, I am unable to stop. At the bottom of the run, I take out an entire rack of skis with the tips of mine and then slide over a snow bank, once again on my back, skidding to a stop in the parking lot. I rarely tell that story; I can’t get the words out around my laughter. And I’m not sure how I can tell a story like that and then say, “I just moved to Crested Butte. It’s a backcountry-skiing mecca, and the birthplace of mountain biking. I don’t do either.”

Before my roommate and I went to Flat Iron Sports, we walked up the rec path toward Mt. Crested Butte, killing time during the off-season. We walked quietly while my small black herding dog ran to the end of her leash and barked at the empty horse corrals. Then Laura asked: “Do you know if you want to shop for skis or a snowboard yet?”

I smiled down at the brown grasses on the edge of the path, the way the sun lit them up from behind. Snow is late this year.

“No,” I said. “I always assumed I’d learn to ski, but the idea of snowboarding makes me smile.”

I looked up at the mountains around me, stoic and removed and covered in snow. I tried to imagine winter — snow banks taller than my car, ski tracks down Red Lady’s bowl. But I couldn’t quite picture it. Couldn’t conjure the feel of getting onto a ski lift, winter wind pinching my cheeks as I flexed my fingers to keep them warm.

“I don’t really know how to decide,” I said instead. “I think I need to go learn about both so I can get smart about buying gear. I doubt I’ll buy anything today.”

“So, where does this pair fall in the general price range for boots?” I asked Larry.

He wandered over to the wall of boots in front of me, picking them up one at a time. High-end boots two and three hundred dollars more than mine.

“We don’t really carry anything less than five,” he said, which is less than the pair on my feet. I know what he is really telling me: they only sell quality boots. “I could take 15 percent off for you.”

I debated putting the purchase off for a week — going home and having Laura tell me once more it’s okay. That I can go from not knowing if I wanted to ski or snowboard to buying ski boots. Expensive ski boots. But the shop keys were hanging in the door, the florescent lights overhead bouncing off the darkening windows. Somewhere, the sun was setting, and Larry and Peter had stayed past closing time for me. Had looked at my feet and measured them, addressed the way they are long and narrow and prone to falling asleep in ski boots. Had carefully fitted each boot until I settled on the Tecnica. Had treated me like I was for real, not some kid falling down a slope. And before Laura left, she had coached me: “If you find something you like, go for it. You’ve been saving for this, and you’re ready. Go for it.”

So I did.

For a week now, the ski boot has sat on my floor. I glance at it periodically and then out the window, wondering when snow will arrive for good. Marveling at the way snow means everything here: the start of my job, the return of people to town, the beginning of learning to ski. I wonder how long I will have to wait until my new life truly begins, and that is when I understand why I bought those boots. When Larry told me to stand on the riser and slip my foot into the boot, he told me to push against the front of my calf — to really crank it down.

“I don’t worry about selling you a man’s boot, even though they’re stiffer,” he said, kneeling in front of me. “You have long legs so they won’t pinch your calves and you’ve got some strength there.”

And standing there, I could feel it, too. I could see me, strong legged and upright, skiing down a mountain. Sometimes that is the power of a material thing — a simple piece of gear. It gives us the vision of where we are going, something to believe in before we have fully arrived.

Alissa Johnson is an associate editor at the Crested Butte News. You can find more of her writing at alissajohnson.wordpress.com.

High Water Lines

High Water Lines“You oughta go look down by the bridge — that ol’ boy got some equipment wet.”

“He don’t have much sense anyway … ”

The old-timer’s club had been at the town store, drinking coffee and waiting for the café to open, when I walked through their circle and heard these lines.

High Water

Now, at a breakfast table near mine, one asked another, “You gettin’ any work done these days?”

“No, just waitin’ for the river to drop outta my hay meadows. Gettin’ all my irrigation done though.”

“Irrigation and fertilizin’ too,” said another old man.

Sometimes, it’s best for a dirtbag writer/river rat to keep his head down and ears open for a little high-water wisdom from some long-time neighbors of the last free-flowing river in the Colorado River system.

Plates of eggs, potatoes and bacon arrived, the old men’s conversation drifted to other topics, and within hours I’m in a shuttle van cruising past the flooded property by the river bridge, marveling at the assortment of tractors, stock trailers and trucks half-submerged by the Yampa River at flood stage. I am eying the sacrifice and idly considering the decision process that led to this so-called “flood damage.”

Put it down to “don’t have much sense,” or to misplaced trust in past high-flow marks? No time for research, because (to misquote old John Muir) the river is calling, and some of us must go.

One thing about group river trips — you never know who you’re going to meet at a campfire, and I happen to be sitting by a guy named Geoff one night. He lives on a property that has river frontage in the Yampa Valley, and I make plans for a visit.

Lines

A week later, and I’m back in the valley, on a hill overlooking two ways of living with a river in flood. Describing a river’s path through the landscape, it’s natural to face downstream. River left, a mature grove of cottonwoods; river right, a few cottonwoods with their lower foliage browsed off at cow-reach. River left, no sign of erosion; river right, a desperate attempt to the river’s advance into a pasture that cattle have mown to lawn height. Left, a riverside fringe of young cottonwoods with water flowing between the trunks; right, a fleet of earth-moving equipment transports a pile of dirt to the undercut riverbank, adding to a new levee.

Right, a large sign advertising the ranch headquarters as an investment property. Left, a conservative mention that the property is owned by an organization whose mission is “to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth” — and about here I could turn this exploration into a self-righteous screed about right and left, with an I-told-you-so finger-shaking at the failings of the Old West land use model vs. the New West vision of land as “view shed” for a telecommuting populace of uplinked do-gooders. Luckily for all of us, as my new river pal Geoff showed me around the ranch on river left, the history of the Yampa Valley (and of ranching in the Interior West) cut through stereotypes of right and left, old and new ways.

The Yampa River leaves a canyon just upstream, meanders through the valley’s meadows, and picks up speed again farther west. Taking the path of least resistance, it adjusts course by testing the banks for weak spots. When high water pushes the river from its banks, old decisions pay off, or rise to haunt the current owners.

River left is the Carpenter Ranch, begun by a cattle baron from Texas and sold to the Republican scion of a shoe-factory owner from Chicago and points east. The young Republican became a homesteader, his town’s first attorney, a player in local and state politics and a lobbyist for Western ranchers’ interests during the Great Depression. This “new” Westerner eventually became the first manager of the Taylor Grazing Act, which attempted to codify the use and conservation of grazing lands managed by the federal government in the Interior West. (The Act’s successes and failures will be listed at another time.) In the decades that Ferry Carpenter owned the ranch, a decision to fence the river off from his prized cattle herd inadvertently created a home for river otters, an idyll for birdwatchers and a safety valve that allows the Yampa to renew the ranch’s bottomlands by spreading high-water flows through a healthy riverside grove of narrow-leaf cottonwoods, box elder and red-osier dogwood.

River right is a ranch that placed most of its holdings under a conservation easement, a decision that precludes the slice-and-dice hobby ranch cycle that has boomed and busted many mountain valleys of the New West. (Many readers may name a favorite valley as victim of this plague, while others will need to buy a grizzled mountain denizen a few beers for further diatribes on the subject.) Still, the river eats away at the owner’s investment, with only the newly built levee between river and pasture, in a holding pattern that sends the river’s cutting action to downstream neighbors. The few cottonwoods are aging, and no saplings crowd the riverbanks.

High Water Lines

When a river drops, it’s tempting to repair damages, congratulate winners, blame losers and ignore lessons that high water offers; but this tale of left and right riverbanks confounds sound-bite politics. The current owner of the Carpenter v on river left is the non-profit Nature Conservancy, with a stated mission to “conserve the natural and agricultural heritage of the Yampa River Valley.” The ranch on river right is run for profit, and has signed conservation easements that are monitored by the Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife. Both sides are still working cattle ranches, creating opportunities to apply lessons that may help keep the river and its valley healthy.

In this year of flooding in the Rockies, late summer is a good time to walk the high-water lines of your favorite river. You’ll see flotsam from past decisions, in the roots of doomed trees exposed by undercut banks and ruined machinery. Look closely, though, for cottonwoods and willows sprouting from the rich soil left by receding floods. If you get to the High Country, walk a creek to timberline. Notice here, too, that high water has fed lines of new life on the banks, while setting a fresh course to follow. Talk to some neighbors about what you found, and listen for the freely shared observations of old-timers over early-morning coffee. These may cut across political lines, and could help remind us how to live beside our last free-flowing rivers.

[Writer’s note: My tour guide of the ranch on river left was Geoff Blakeslee. As the Conservancy’s “Yampa River Project Director,” it is his job to measure the pulse of the river, the valley, its inhabitants, and to show a dirtbag writer around the Carpenter Ranch. I appreciate his patience. The Ranch hosts research projects, and is open to the public for bird-watching and education. For more on Ferry Carpenter, read his “Confessions of a Maverick,” State Historical Society of Colorado, ISBN 0-942576-27-6.]

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “In the Zone,” which appeared in MG #180. Author of “Livin’ the Dream,” Frank splits his time between the Four Corners and the Borderlands.