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. 

Don’t Know What You Got ‘Til It’s Gone

Jerry was way ahead. No slouch, he can usually be found near the front of the group talking smart and bad-mouthing his country. But today he was on fire. It was a crisp spring morning up on Red Mountain. A moderate climb with good grip, not quite corned up and far from anything fresh. He was two switchbacks up as we all cruised along in our own personal hurt dance. At the top, he had already de-skinned and was giving us the “Let’s go, Ladies” look. “Jesus, Jer, can’t a guy stop and take leak or eat a sandwich anymore?” I muttered (or something to that effect). I offered him part of my sandwich, thinking it might slow him down. “Sure,” he said through a shit-eating grin. “And some water, a transceiver, shovel and gloves, too, if you’ve got some. Cuz all of my stuff is down there.” We could just barely see his characteristically huge pack, about 2,000 vert below us, sitting on the hood of his truck.

We’ve all done it. You’re driving along, making anticipatory small talk about how great the powder/whitewater/single-track is going to be. Most likely, you’re past any town and definitely out of cell range. Wham! Your blood runs cold and a sickeningly vivid image pops into your head: your skins/paddle/front wheel sitting on your garage floor. The one key, essential thing that you need. Right now, right here, today. You spaced it, and you are screwed. Eeediot! You laid out everything you needed and you know exactly what you need because you carefully thought it out and you’re not exactly a rookie at this. Been to a couple rodeos. Guides have looked at your rig at the put-in and marveled as they made mental notes to bring what that guy has next time. Laid out on the floor like your collared dress shirt and clean underwear on school picture day and you neglected to bring THE most important thing!

Of course there is a consequence. Usually painful, expensive and/or time consuming. If you can, you simply drag out the too-thin plastic and buy your way out. “You know, I never did like that (fill in the blank). This new one is lighter and a much cooler color,” you will cheerfully rationalize. Everyone knows the best way to ride the Slickrock Trail is in flip-flops, not those fancy $200 clip-in bike shoes. If you can’t buy, borrow or otherwise purloin the missing item, you might just get the “See ya” from your buddies and the results of your brain fart will teach you never ever to do that again. Maybe. Maybe not.

Hopefully, it is just a low-impact, ha-ha lesson that will kick start the day’s banter. Forgot a corkscrew, or can opener, or maybe all of the silverware for a multi-day, 18-person filled-permit raft trip that includes a lot of soup on the menu. Now that’s funny. But not as funny as driving behind the guy, loaded for Baja with all of his toys and worldly outdoor possessions racked up and tied on top. And there it is, his coffee mug. You have to wonder why he left it up there. Obviously he did not have enough coffee that morning. Maybe he was checking the straps one more time. Maybe he spaced that, too. Empathy takes over and you tap the horn and flash the lights. Or do you wait for the S-turns coming up to test your theory and watch the material carnage unfold?

Forgetfulness may go way beyond personal suffering, developing into loathing and spite from your peers. Just try breezing through your shopping list and subsequently forgetting the coffee on your next hut trip. Or my personal favorite: ice. I was heading to a White Rim trip with a truckload of Colorado beer, not the unmarked 3.2 schwag you’re forced to drink if you buy it in the Moab City Market (ummm … but that’s another story). I had the sacred duty of bringing beer, and lots of it in many varieties. And the key to a refreshing beer in the stinkin’ hot desert is cold, cold, almost gloves-cold beer. The secret to cold beer is of course, ice. Not just ice, but big, 10-pound blocks of ice, which last longer and are available at the aforementioned mega-market. After a grueling day of sun, saddle sores and teeth grit, nothing says “I forgot” quite like a shook-up, tepid, 16-ounce PBR, nosirree. Note: Do not try to MacGyver your way out by digging a hole in the sand, which we all know is cooler than the ambient temperature, burying the canisters of beer, waiting, and then digging them up. The result would simply be a big swallow of slightly-cooler-than-tepid, sandy, cheap beer.

Just ran into my friend Bill Kees (not his real name), who confirmed a story I’ve heard multiple times around the Dutch oven, waiting forever for dinner. He went on a raft trip a few years back and forgot his — yup — he did not pack his raft. Getting a late start on his way to the San Juan, he pulled into Hovenweep to sleep a little and get a crack-of-dawn start to the put-in. He crawled into the back of his van, which seemed a little more spacious and comfy than usual. At first light, his eyes popped open and he sat bolt upright shouting out loud, “My boat is in the f—ing closet!”  Pulling himself to the driver’s seat, he pounded back home, hoping to sneak in under the radar, grab it and make it back in time to launch. His wife Susan was already up, shaking her head and laughing.

My friend Marie, who was born in Switzerland and spends half of every winter there, has a great story. It was a big powder day and she was in line, exactly on time with her husband Tom. In Verbier, you ride a series of funiculars, trams and gondolas, all linked together with fine Swiss efficiency. You get off one lift, walk up some stairs, get on the next until you are at the top. Everybody was pumped to be on top of the Mont Fort on that rare clear day. Avalanche danger looked moderate and everything was untracked as far as the eye could see. Marie zipped her jacket, put on her goggles, threw down her boards and was ready to click in and go. One small problem. She looked down. On her feet were her nice, comfy warm boots. Not ski boots — hiking boots. Marie just laughed and her friends laughed too — then they skied away.

Let us not blur the distinction between losing something and forgetting something. Obviously, there are many parallels. The remorse, the pondering, the “What-should-I-do-now-that-this-situation-exists?” scenarios formulating in your head. My wife Melissa and I were heading to a rendezvous birthday party out by Capital Reef for a little slickrock mountain biking. We had already ridden a day in Moab, so we knew that we brought all of the requisite equipment. We drove for a few hours, drove around for another hour or so looking for the obscure, killer campsite that we were all meeting at. Upon arrival, the site was fully decked out with balloons, food, cold beverages and a Tiki-torch-emblazoned obstacle course. We partook in the feast and pulled our mounts off the roof rack to check out the course. “Hand me my front wheel, can you?” I asked Melissa, as I held the fork up out of the sand. Big, long pause. A lot of scurrying around in the back of the truck. “Hey, ummm … you did pack the front wheels, didn’t you?” To which I did not reply, “No, I thought YOU packed them,” because I was sure that I put them in the back of the truck. Turns out that, when we left Moab, they went shooting out of the back of the topper. We found them at the bottom of a small hill at the Poison Spider trailhead, at the end of mysteriously zig-zaggy tracks nestled in the cactus and pricker bushes.

Spacing out does not necessarily involve material possessions. I skied into my cabin last winter for the afternoon, to get some fresh air, get the dog out and check up on things. Turned into a longer-than-expected tour, and, when we got back to the truck, we were beat. As I was driving the 45 minutes or so back home, I rummaged the floor searching for chips, old lunches and half-empty Pepsis. Found some pretzels and ate a couple and then turned around to give my dog Racer a couple. No dog. Not squished way down where I couldn’t see him. Not hidden under a bunch of jackets or truck cab flotsam — just not there. Yikes. It’s getting dark, so I pull an unsafe U-ey and head back to the parking lot, visions of him maybe on his way back to the cabin, maybe a crazed snowmobiler hitting him. I pull up, and there, at the point last seen, are those eerie glowing canine eyes. Sitting there, a little tail wag and slight cock to his head, he didn’t say a word. Didn’t have to. Hopped in the truck, looked at me and his eyes said it all — “Human, you so suck!” Maybe dogs have the whole thing figured out. They just go with what they have,
nothing more. Paws, fur, tongue and teeth. All set. Forgot the water? No biggie, I’ll just drink this puddle. No food? Nothing better than finding and eating dead things. You got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose. Maybe us humans just have too much stuff.

Mark Plantz lives and plays in Telluride with his wife Melissa and their two boys. He drives to town occasionally with his Rocket Box wide open.

Editor’s note: This may be the first time ever I have tacked an editor’s note onto the end of someone else’s tale. But this one I could not resist. We have all had equipment-remembering lapses. Like the time I realized halfway through the first day of a 10-day backpacking trip through Copper Canyon, in which I was guiding 17 constantly hungry teenagers, that I had somehow forgotten the lunches. Everyone was real happy. Or the worst one that ever happened in the entire history of gear forgetfulness: There was that awful YouTube footage a couple years back of the professional parachute photographer who realized after filming his cohorts during the freefall segment of the descent that he had left behind, of all things, his parachute! Splat! Anyhow, I’d like to see some such stories from our readers. Send them off to mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

Rabbits and Red Butte

Surviving the high desert nights of eastern Oregon for the Northern Paiute (Wada-Tika) people required that each member of the tribe own a rabbit blanket to keep them warm. Each blanket required a hundred or more rabbit pelts…

…Jack rabbit were plentiful in the old days…today it is difficult to make these blankets, due to the scarcity of jack rabbits in Harney County.  In the last 50 years the rabbit population has dwindled so much that it is difficult to get even 10 to 20 hides in the winter, when the fur is thick (and thus preferred).  Rabbit bounties in the 1950’s and other means of eradication have left few rabbits…”

— Minerva T. Soucie  (Burns Paiute),

“The Art of Ceremony: Regalia of Native Oregon”

“Dr. Bryce,” Newton said, “…To tell you the truth, it dismays us greatly to see what you are about to do with such a beautiful,
fertile world.  We destroyed ours a long time ago, but we had so much less to begin with that you have here.”  His voice now seemed agitated, his manner more intense.  “Do you realize that you will not only wreck your civilization, such as it is, and kill most of your people; but that you will also poison the fish in your rivers, the squirrels in your trees, the flocks of birds, the soil, the water..”

— Walter Tevis, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” c. 1963

The little birds in the front yard are pale gray. When they arc through the evening, sunset turns their belly feathers to petals of flame. I’ve just read Thomas Newton’s prediction to Dr. Bryce. It had seemed important to look up from the book and see what was around me — the Engelmann Spruce, the apple tree, sunflowers on their way to autumn light. But, it is the underbelly feathers of the little birds that bring Thomas Newton’s words alive.

I remember the salmon feast at Warm Springs a few days earlier. The Warm Springs people invited friends and strangers to help them celebrate the opening of their museum exhibit, The Art of Ceremony: Regalia of Native Oregon. I arrived just in time for the Round Dance.

“Everybody dance,” the leader cried out. The drums began. Slow. Steady. The Warm Springs people and their guests linked hands. We stepped side-ways, going slowly and steadily in the direction of the sun. Fancy Dancers spun in smaller circles in our big circle. The drums began to slow. The Warm Springs woman who had led off the dance moved back the other direction, stopping to greet each of us with a handshake and a smile.

It had been twenty-three years since I had danced the Round Dance. The last time had been at a Havasupai gathering near Red Butte in Arizona. We had come together to pray for a little meadow a few miles from where we danced. Energy Fuels Nuclear, a Denver mining company, was planning to drill a breccia pipe uranium mine into the meadow. The Havasupai knew that the meadow was the belly of The Mother — the beautiful and fertile Mother.

The Havasupai and the rest of us did much more than dance. We demonstrated at the Grand Canyon, got arrested, filed legal appeals to the Forest Service Environmental Impact Statement. In the long run, there were three more prayer gatherings. In the long run, the price of uranium dropped and the minesite was abandoned. The fence still stands. Energy Fuels Nuclear no longer exists. And, because of the 1872 Mining Law, the belly of the Mother is not safe. The mining companies and their petitions to extract uranium are back.

The Warm Springs Round Dance ended. We went into the regalia exhibit. I came to the Wada-Tika rabbit fur robe. A white card read: Please don’t touch.

I’ll never hold the robe. I may never go back to Red Butte. And still, I contain the stories of birds with radiant belly feathers; of the roaring sage fire that lay at the circle of the Red Butte dancers; of the smiling Warm Springs woman who reached out to take my hand. I will hold the stories lightly and pass them on. That will not be enough. The times Walter Tevis envisioned are here.

Long-time MG contributor Mary Sojourner is the author of, among many other books, “She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction” and “Going Through Ghosts.” She recently moved back to Flagstaff, after stints in the Mojave and the Pacific Northwest.

Going Big: My Court Date with Hunter S. Thompson

I only met Hunter S. Thompson once when either of us was sober. I was waiting to stand trial for crimes against the State of Colorado, County of Pitkin and City of Aspen. Don’t worry though (not that you are worrying) — the crimes were not actually mine. They were those of my compadre-de-los-moñtanas, a friend we’ll just call “Bob.”

I had memorized his identity details, and tried to look three inches taller in order to attend a court date on his behalf. He had used all of his allowable absences from the Colorado Rocky Mountain School for skiing, a few fall climbing road trips and the obligatory late returns from all-night parties at Penny Hot Springs. I was an underage dishwasher at the Merry Go Round restaurant at Aspen Highlands, less than a year out of high school. George only let me work part time — so the only real question (and it was serious) was if I would miss out on some ski days while serving another man’s time in the Pitkin County Jail. (The charges seemed to carry a possibility of three days in the can.)

We did not feel that the situation merited the involvement of any faculty, staff or other authorities. Why trouble them with the inconvenience and paperwork of kicking Bob out of school? And if they did boot him, then what? He would have to move in to our unfurnished, dirt-carpeted, basement potato-bin-slash-apartment in Carbondale. We already shared every inch of the floor with the sleeping bags of everyone who shared our mountain-loving lifestyle and a lot of skis.

So, I cleaned up as best I could and drove the treacherous old road to Aspen to stand in for Bob’s trial and sentencing. I guess such things can seem complicated from the outside. Down inside that great machinery of youth, however, morality is just that. This was a simple choice because it was a moral one. We were too young to cloud those waters with questions of personal convenience and comfort.

We had been climbing, skiing and working ranches together for a few years already. Bob had saved my ass from the very real perils of the old-school sharp end any number of times. I could face a bit of jail time in his name so he didn’t get kicked out of high school. It was not nearly as dangerous as so many of the worst troubles we had been in together. It certainly did not seem like the big deal my (attorney) wife made it out to be 25 years later when I accidentally mentioned this incident in passing.

This was Aspen, after all. The food and bedding in the Pitkin County Jail was legendary. It was sure to be an improvement from the aforementioned grungy Carbondale apartment. We even already shared home with a brain-twisted homosexual drifter, artist and obvious future serial killer (whom we recruited to pay a majority of the rent). Could a jail in downtown Aspen be worse?

I was to stand Bob’s trial and sentencing date for a clearly unfounded traffic accident rap. It would have been nothing, another slip-and-slide smash-up on a patch of black ice in the high mountains, but the incident had involved the daughter and the wife of the Snowmass police chief, and Bob already had a few prior point subtractions. I fully expected to serve three days in the basement jail in Aspen while pretending to be my almost-entirely-innocent friend. It was a tense hearing for me, but, after some lecturing, the judge let both Bob and I go free with fines and warnings.

There was one other outsider in the courtroom. A guy hunched up in the corner behind me as I waited my turn to face the bar. I was too nervous to look back much, but clearly this was also a person experienced in the lost art of projecting invisibility from the back of the class. When I was released, I turned to leave the Pitkin County Court, wanting to explode with nervous delinquent larceny. I saw that the guy in the corner was none other than Hunter S. Thompson. He seemed to be observing court — as a reporter or writer might — just hanging around waiting for a good story. He stared shamelessly and then from his troll-like bundling, a writing implement stabbed up and kind of saluted me.

I would have killed for the chance to talk to the skulking bald giant and share my story. By that time in my life, I had moved past Faulkner and Hemingway and Steinbeck and Camus and plowed through Thompson’s renegade words like a herd of buffalo through a snow bank. I revered his writing style, and I had some serious questions for him (of a literary nature, of course).

Here was the Master, the one person who would understand and possibly respect my story, if told properly. Yet, the circumstance required me to walk past, silently. Of all people, on all days, of all stories, I could not share this one with Hunter S. Thompson! I savored the irony while I carefully stepped out into the heart-warming embrace of the biggest whiteout snowstorm of that historical powder season. I had not before then, and have not since, felt as perfectly free as I did when I disappeared into the storm from the view of the Pitkin County Courthouse behind me.

Now look, I hate to be one of those annoying guys who writes all about “Me” and my special connection to the mountains. These things always get old very early in the paragraphs. Ninety-percent of these stories end up in the compost pile of mountain writers who only want to broadcast their “localism” to the world, without a hint of unique voice. So I apologize for taking your time.

Let’s just leave it at this: When I was 17 or 18 years old, in 1984, I made turns at Aspen Highlands every day the lifts ran. I almost missed a few days, due to the wild and dangerous roads, a spot of illness, one or two bad parties and, in one case, I almost missed a ski day because I was tempted to wait for a chance to talk with Hunter S. Thompson outside the Pitkin County Jail, which I had just escaped from while pretending to be someone else.

The thing is, the guy didn’t look like he skied much, and the sky was dropping clean white powder by the truckload at noon. I stood grinning madly, right in the middle of the main street through Aspen, for a several long beautiful minutes. I could feel Bob’s court order and suspended jail sentence icing up in one pocket and my Highlands ski pass burning a hole the other. All I could do was laugh openly at myself and speak the mountain lover’s mantra into the teeth of the storm: “’Cause if you’re gonna go … ”

Andy Dannerbeck is a 45-year-old ex-cowboy, ex-Republican, ex-Democrat, ex-boatman, ex-climber, ex-business owner, ex-husband, ex-student, ex-rigger, ex-poet, ex-guide and exile in general. A husband, a father and a child of the mountains, who is most recently found scribbling gibberish such as this in the whiskey-soaked shadows of the No Name Saloon, Park City, Utah.

The Leisure Sports Roadshow

My life goal was to become proficient at as many leisure sports as possible and I pursued that goal with passion. After a rendezvous in a dusty truck stop, I tossed my pack into a trailer that was loaded with a week’s worth of climbing and living gear. It was pulled by a van loaded with weeks of sand-coated climbers and seasonal misfits. We began roaming the foothills and peaks of the Dragoon Mountains of southern Arizona, including the intriguing and endless granite spires of Cochise Stronghold. The cluster of rocks, some hundreds of feet tall, literally jut out of the desert floor like a giant fort and was where Apache Chief Cochise launched his last stand against American forces in 1861.

Photo: John Cameron

We spent our time playful but also observant of the significance of the area that we were part of. Each nook and cranny revealed a crack, a line to climb, tunnels to explore, new routes, spires to mount and pictographs etched and painted by any of many unknown predecessors. In the evenings after climbing, we would fall asleep where we were among the rocks or return to our camp in the grassy fields that out-lie the Stronghold. There we continued to play. We swung on ropes and webbing and in hammocks and port-a-ledges suspended in the trees yet not far from the ground. Being suspended just felt right. The sunsets were as warm as a Jacuzzi, but cooler than the hot desert days. The brilliance of the evening light was the sun’s way of apologizing for the midday rays being so torturous.

In the fields, we dressed up and danced, played music and games. We found new skills and leisure activities to master. We spent every day exploring and experimenting and returned to camp to do the same. “Yeah but can you juggle these?” was the challenge. Or: “Try this, that was cool.” And so on. Days went uncounted and the weeks nearly did too. At one point, our obscurity began to improve and our amusement became a spectacle. One of us had just mastered juggling rocks while hoola-hooping on a slackline, but it nearly went unnoticed because Eric was busy juggling flaming sticks dipped in white gas.

At other times, stillness was what amazed us. In the mornings, we would drink tea in the immense fields and there was an evening that we watched the sun slide into the ground from atop Sheepshead Mountain after climbing the route “Peacemaker.” It was as if we were the only ones who could see the sunset that day. I wrote my favorite Haiku in the summit registry and we hiked off in the dark.

Aspen leaf
Falling down
Showing side to side

Somewhere on Interstate 10 while heading West toward Tucson in the expanse of desert, we crested the only rise hiding our view for the last 30 miles. What we saw on the endless road through the endless desert was that it was now choked with an almost endless line of cars that were not moving. People were milling around in the heat outside of their vehicles, straining to see what was causing the road to be completely closed in our west-bound direction. We got out of our van to catch up with the gossip that was moving up and down the line or cars. Word quickly came back that a construction spill littered the road and it might be 45 minutes to an hour before it could be moved.

Photo: John Cameron

With that, the trailer door was yanked open and the cooler and camp stove were brought out (for grilled cheeses) along with the hoola-hoops, guitars, poi, juggling sticks, wiffle balls, frisbees and hacky sacks. We were masters of recreation and an unforeseen opportunity to practice our leisure sports was as good as any.

A truck was turned around so the slackline could be set up between the bumpers. In our crusty trail-weathered duds, we carried on among the cars, the families and other motorists along the interstate. They got out, looked on with smiles and were soon catching frisbees and footballs as well. We inadvertently held the first and probably only Leisure Sports Roadshow.

Timeliness breeds nostalgia and as quickly as it began, the gear was put away and cars in the distance began to move again. We climbed into our respective vehicles and rolled on with everybody else without knowing what there was to find next.

John Cameron writes from wild spaces and high places around the Four Corners. He hangs his hammock in aspen groves and calls it home but his bag is never unpacked. This is his first piece for the Mountain Gazette.

Cussin’ Crack

Most people who drive out to the west end of Boulder Canyon to Castle Rock aren’t going there to climb Cussin’ Crack. Most people would rather have fun. If they do climb it, most aren’t going to tell you they enjoyed it. They will use words like “awkward,” “slippery” and “old school,” maybe even “sandbagged” at 5.7. I am certain that I am the only person to ever fall in love on the route. And fall out of love.

Cussin’ Crack was put up in the early 1950s, and to get up the second pitch, the actual crack where the cussing will take place, you need to know how to set a solid knee bar across the dihedral, and arguably a No. 4 Camalot. In the ’50s, they didn’t have cams, but knew how to set knee bars. Now, we have cams, but no knowledge of knee bars.

That summer, I was a new trad leader, but went after climbs that were 40 years old or older, for a reason that I can’t remember now. Stephanie was a friend of a friend, five years younger than me and six years younger than my wife. She had brown eyes, long dark hair that she wore in a long braid that hung out of her climbing helmet and in front of one shoulder. She smiled all the time and was obsessed with experiencing it all. She got excited about road trips and talked about all the time she’d spent in Ecuador and South Africa. She was years from settling down.

Steph climbed, and my wife did not. Emily had paralyzing acrophobia, and we were not doing well. All I wanted to do was climb, and she wanted a house, a garden and a dog soon, and kids soon after. By early summer, our marriage was a dead oak tree that we were working up the courage to cut down.

Emily withdrew, staying in to study every weekend, and I fled to the rock, dragging anyone up multi-pitch routes. I didn’t really care if you even knew how to belay; I’d teach you at the base of the climb. Steph and I climbed together a few times, and although I thought she was the most beautiful woman who had ever tied a figure eight, I didn’t think my wife would notice, what with my desperation to climb with anyone willing.

Steph and I kept it appropriate. Maybe I wondered what it would be like to put my arms around her precipitously curving hips, but the closest I ever got was unclipping cams from her harness while she flaked the rope at the belay. I was married. Maybe not for much longer, but married nonetheless.

At the end of the first pitch, you clip a worthless buttonhead and pull over a mantle that is within reach if you’re 5’9” or taller. I pulled through it, sure that Steph, at 5’5”, wouldn’t make it. I built a belay, considered our bail options and started taking in rope as Steph followed. At the mantle, she paused, unable to reach the ledge. When she bit her lip and clawed over on nothing but friction, I was in awe of this woman who climbed. For a half-second, I imagined what it would be like to have a girlfriend who enjoyed climbing, especially one with long dark hair and brown eyes … she said something to me as she made the last moves to the belay, and I hoped my face didn’t reveal anything.

At the base of the Cussin’ Crack itself, first ascensionist Harold Walton would probably tell you to set that knee bar, do a thumb-down palm smear with your right hand, walk your knee bar up a few inches, and repeat. Had my climb with Steph been some sort of date, and were I the type of man who could impress my attractive female climbing partner with my skill, poise and dry armpits, that’s exactly what I would have done. Instead, I flailed, trying to face climb the right side of the much-maligned V-slot. I was sure Steph stood below me, slowly paying out rope and cringing, waiting for me to peel. I wondered what would happen to my ankles when I decked. My palms
became slick, and that house, garden, dog and kids, and settling for something imperfect for the rest of my life didn’t seem that bad.

But I didn’t peel. Fear kept me stuck to that polished granite inside the V-slot, and I slapped my way up and out, coloring the air around me with the proper epithets.

At the last belay, I sat exhausted on a rock bench, took in rope and watched the pines on the canyon’s south wall calmly rock in the breeze. Steph pulled over the last move to the ledge and gave me a look of relief, and I looked directly into her eyes and knew I was in trouble. Here was a woman who loved what I loved, and I was not in love with my wife any more.

Steph clipped into the anchor and sat next to me. I tried to not wish she was sitting closer and tried to not wish she was holding my hand. I busied myself piling the rope at my feet instead of putting my arm around her.

Steph went to Mexico for the summer. I came back from a trip to the Tetons and Emily was sleeping on the couch. We filed no-contest divorce papers, and I did my first free solo the morning after. Steph and I wrote letters and e-mails, never quite saying what we were thinking about each other. I stayed away from my tiny post-split studio apartment by attacking as many new routes as possible, with a sad and angry ferocity that I haven’t since matched. Steph returned just as winter hit Denver, and I eventually got to put my arms around those hips of hers. I feel a lot less tension when I unclip cams from her harness now.

Denver resident Brendan Leonard is the Gazette’s Media Editor.

Dam Boulders

With a smooth stroke, David Benson cast a fly onto the Teton River. Water gently rippled past his old float boat with playful swirls, shimmering almost gleefully in the much-welcomed morning sun. Benson, a 21-year-old local from Teton City, ID, was out beating the crowds on a beautiful Saturday morning on June 5, 1976. The sun was warm, the fish were biting and there was no place in the world Benson would rather be.

Little more than a mile upstream, the newly opened Teton River dam was pushing 90 percent capacity as a result of warm spring weather and increased mountain runoff. At 11:55 a.m., the right embankment of the dam leaned inward and disintegrated. Within a matter of seconds, 80 billion gallons of water tore through the dam, unleashing a furious, roiling fresh water tsunami upon the Teton River. Witnesses claim that the water seemed to ominously hang in mid-air for a second before it came crashing down. Of 14 people who would lose their lives, David Benson would be the first.

Thirty-four years later, I’m driving with a friend out to the old dam site, working off beta from a local gear shop that decent undeveloped bouldering may be found. After a bit of un-marked dirt-road route finding, we park our truck and descend into the canyon. It looks like Soviet strip-mine gone bad: random jagged pipes protrude out of the ground, huge pieces of scrap metal balance unnaturally on top of old trees and worn-out concrete structures. The river slowly snakes through a canyon lined with grotesque erosion-scarred walls hundreds of feet high. And sure enough, there are boulders.

Small leaks at the base of the dam were noticed three days before the breech, but weren’t considered serious until just a few hours before the dam collapsed. As dam operators began to realize the potential threat, bulldozers and crews were called in to plug the leaks. However, crews were only able to work for one hour before the “leaks” literally swallowed two dozers (the operators had to be yanked out of the abyss by ropes tied around their waists). Finally, at 11 a.m., local law enforcement was notified about the dam’s imminent failure … a window of just 55 minutes before the tsunami would hit.

As 80 billion gallons of water thundered out of the reservoir, the downstream Idaho communities of Wilford and Sugar City were literally wiped from the map. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed and over 13,000 cattle were killed. As the water approached the larger community of Rexburg, it swung by a large lumberyard, snapping lumber from its moorings and rupturing a gas line — producing a burning logjam of timber barreling toward the city. The carnage was finally stopped over 100 miles downstream, when the American Falls Dam held the surge.

Today, the boulders of Teton Dam are improbably distributed around the valley floor, sometimes with entire trees perched on top. While by no means world-class, the Teton Dam Boulders offer a plethora of uncrowded bouldering options with good landings and easy access (that is, if you live in rural eastern Idaho). Bouldering venues, by their very nature, offer fascinating geology lessons. In this case and many others, we are reminded that our fun and games are simply byproduct from the powerful, destructive and irrepressible forces of nature.

A poem that appeared in the Rexburg Standard Journal the summer of 1976

Author: anonymous.

Bill to Uncle Sam

It was the fifth of June,
an early summer Upper Valley day.
I was workin’ in the garden
and the kids were in the yard to play.
At 12 o’clock we all went in
and cleaned our shoes off by the door,
So as not to track the mud in
on the shiny kitchen floor.
Then the guy on the radio said,
“Believe me if you can,
Because there’s 80 billion gallons
headed for us from the Teton Dam!”

My hubby said, “We’ll probably
get a little water in the basement, dear.
But just in case it’s worse than that
let’s take the kids and get on out of here.”
I told him, “Bring some diapers
and a baby bottle if you will.”
And we loaded up the family car
and headed for the college hill.
We found out downtown Rexburg
was a crazy, panicked traffic jam.
’Cause there was 80 billion gallons
headed for us from the Teton Dam.
When we heard the water covered up
the steeple of the Wilford church,
We knew the folks in Sugar
would need to find a higher perch.
Then by three o’clock, the valley
was covered by a raging lake,
And all the cows in Hibbard
went surfin’ on a twelve-foot wake.
And huge logs from the sawmill
tore through buildings like a battering ram.
The day that 80 billion gallons
were flushed out of the Teton Dam.

Well, our photos and pianos
are soaking in the smelly mud.
Our basement’s full of water
and our garden’s covered up with crud.
If we can find our houses
we clean them out for what they’re worth.
They’ll be scraping up the muddy mess
for years from here to Firth.
If I sound a little bitter,
it’s for certain you can say I am.
Because right now the Upper Valley
isn’t worth a Teton Dam.

Chris Dickey lives in Jackson, WY, where mountains are plentiful and assessable bouldering is not. When he’s not hanging out in old wrecked dam drainages, he can be found working as an outdoor PR consultant at Purple Orange LLC.