Lost GPS Drivers: Alarmed and dangerous

GPS route-finding has been enthusiastically accepted by drivers who don’t want the drudgery of piloting their vehicles or the tedium of orientation and navigation. Begging the question of why they don’t just take mass transit, most of us have heard really great stories that involve use of a GPS route finder, flat unbelievable cluelessness and acutely stressful motoring experiences. One blogger suggests that, since GPS is most prevalent in high-end cars, a good Google search is “Mercedes” plus “River” plus “Crash.”

I chose to try “GPS” plus “Idiots” and immediately struck gold — there are friggin’ doctoral papers and commissioned studies on the subject, and I soon learned that the Brits had long coined the more genteel term “satnav mishaps.” It turns out that the Euros, with their ancient, narrow streets and lanes, have been longest-vexed by satellite-misled drivers. Lorries are crashing into fences, sideswiping ancient stone walls, mowing down trees and sinking into muddy farm roads. Signs at the edge of besieged feudal villages plead “No Satnav.” English railroads cite a surge in damage by GPS-led trucks striking low or narrow bridges, and insurance companies in the UK say hundreds of thousands of crashes have been caused by “over reliance” on GPS.

A 2006 study suggested that watching a route guidance display is more “disruptive” than trying to read a paper map at the wheel. Other studies have found that drivers straining to hear and understand robo-spoken audio commands are equally distracted. As a result, many of the planet’s 800 million vehicles are driven into buildings, into rivers, along train tracks, into oncoming cars, forging against one-way traffic and making illegal turns. That’s before they get lost:

• July 2008: A Syrian lorry driver leaving Turkey went 1,600 miles in the wrong direction, arriving at the Gibraltar Point Natural Nature Reserve in England instead of his intended destination, the Rock of  Gibraltar.

• A German motorist, when ordered to “turn right now” by his audio satnav, executed an immediate right turn into a building site, up a flight of stairs and into a portaloo.

• January 2008: “The Shropshire village of Donnington has suffered repeated invasions by 70-ton tanks and other armoured vehicles.” (A nearby military barracks has the same name.)

• June 2008 headline: “U.S. Tourist Stoned by Palestinian Mob After GPS Gives Incorrect Directions.”

• May 2006 headline: “Couple Arrested For Asking For Directions” (You  can’t win!)

It’s a complete reversal of the old saw, “you can’t get there from here.” Now we each follow our own personal Star of Bethlehem and, yes, theoretically there is an ideal route from anywhere to anywhere. Part of the problem is summed up by another old saw, “garbage in, garbage out.” The GPS routes are devised by companies like Tele Atlas and Navteq using intelligence that can quickly become outdated: businesses move, new roads are built, old ones closed for repairs, and frequently, with no dialogue between global user and local inhabitant, the data is deficient or just plain wrong.

In my own neck of the woods, the southeast Utah desert, our satnav mishaps tend to have their own unique character and usually involve caravans of rental SUVs full of vacationing tenderfoot flatlanders being swallowed up somewhere in the Grand Staircase.

ABC 4 News: A group of 20, including 10 children, left Bryce Canyon for Kanab at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night in four shiny Renegades. They decided there is a short cut: “We have, like four GPS systems, and they all told us the same thing, that we were closer going ahead than backtracking.” After three hours and 75 miles on a remote and rugged dirt road, they cliffed out. Kane County Sheriffs said the group called 911, lucky to get a cell signal, “panicking to the point that they were really lost and no one was going to find them.”

Then there was the Pennsylvania couple stranded on Smoky Mountain Road for four days, and the family from Belgium on Four Mile Bench that was reduced to licking condensation off their mini-van’s windshield.

It takes me a while to wrap my head around the notion that visitors to the Utah outback would assume that each little dirt two-track is on some kind of systematic grid and eventually goes where they want to go, and their rented Cherokee will, like in the commercials, just sail over the peaks and canyons. But this obviously isn’t just a wilderness thing, case in point being the time I tried to drive the coastline of Los Angeles — an oriented person just knows that sometimes you really can’t get there from here. In surveys drivers say GPS makes them feel “more in control,” but they really want to just check out, and when they get the directions, most admit they are still confused. There has been much speculation as to why so many people seem geo-impaired.

Bats, cows, mole rats and all sorts of critters can sense the earth’s magnetic field, but apparently not Homo He Wrecked Us. Some psychologists believe that in fact many humans are extra-spatially twisted with an affliction they have named “Transient Directional Disorientation,” not a phrase easy to yell out at an intersection.

Senior correspondent Jon Kovash lives in Moab, where he plays saxophone in a band called Phil Dirt.

On Naked Pirates and a Snake Tattoo

If sailor tales to sailor tunes,
Storm and adventure, heat and cold,
If schooners, islands, and maroons,
And buccaneers, and buried gold,
And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wiser youngsters of today:
—So be it, and fall on! If not,
If studious youth no longer crave,
His ancient appetites forgot,
Kingston, or Ballantyne the brave,
Or Cooper of the wood and wave:
So be it, also! And may I
And all my pirates share the grave
Where these and their creations lie!
– (Robert Louis Stevenson, “Treasure Island,” 1883)

The land was dry, and so was I.

Did you ever come to a place where your throat matches the landscape, both being drier than an old whor– (whoops … almost made anatomical reference here to a lady of the night, but won’t) — let’s make that “drier than an old dog’s fart?”

I had wandered out of the desert just before nightfall, lured to an Interstate by a lighted billboard promising food and beer (for this, I ask forgiveness from the ghost and disciples of Cactus Ed). I took the highway exit and arrived at a river that, like me, begins its life story within a few miles of the high mountainous spine of this long-abused land once known as Turtle Island.  My old friend the river now sported a Disneyficated dream of a pirate cove/beach bar resort, where I wandered with my old dog on raked beaches of trucked-in sand, while ogling the cove’s only current (except for aforementioned travel-worn dog and ogler) visitors, a tethered float plane and miniature version of the vessel that might have carried any of Stevenson’s pirates to a watery grave, but didn’t. Seemingly, the developers had gotten the promotional cart ass-backwards (as me long-gone daddy might have said), and lit the billboard before the official grand opening ceremonies, thereby drawing unsuspecting travelers such as myself to disenchantment. A scattering of tracks from the parking lot, across the beaches and back told the tale.

The outdoor bar was there; the barstools and tables could have been full of the laughing, partying, big-spending resort patrons that fill any self-important PowerPoint prospectus presented to new-money venture/hedge/slush funders of such freebooter market enterprises, but they weren’t. Newly finished wood glowed darkly in the crepuscular air. The only sign of human habitation was, quite literally, a sign. A garishly painted bas-relief wooden sign, as I would’ve called it in my artiste days of carving and painting signs as a means of earning money for beans, beer and artiste supplies. But where was I? Ah yes — this sign depicted a bathtub with a seemingly quite naked pirate in it. He just wasn’t my cup of tea, though the comely wench depicted in the act of approaching said pirate was, shall we say, of some passing interest to my desert-dried eyes.

The overall effect of the deserted cove of the Naked Pirate was depressing, which is how, less than an hour later, I came to be perched on a barstool in a dilapidated riverfront bar on the other side of that very same river, nursing a Corona with lime while ogling an off-duty bartender’s snake tattoo, as it slithered down her scantily clad torso, only to get lost in the ever amazing crepuscular cove that forms just at the top of the bottom half of a string bikini, where a comely wench’s abdominal zone becomes, well, something else entirely.

Just then, a clutch of graying developer-types wandered in, faking friendly banter while power-slamming shots of something and slapping each other’s shoulders. The unintended effect of which was to emphasize the heaving paunchy evidence of better days gone by that hung like spare tires around their waists, barely covered by the pastel polo shirts that provided a uniform for their club. They slammed the now-empty shot-glasses on the bar, and one ordered another round. A gaggle of women, sagging in all the right places to denote spousal fealty in their ample two-piece bathing suits, moved around the bar pointing at almost life-size pictures of bikini-clad women and bare-chested men. I was coming to understand that some of these pictures were of the very developer- and wifely-types that suddenly surrounded my barstool. They seemed not to notice me though, so I continued my observations unmolested.

* * *

Now, before I get any deeper here, I will emphasize that nobody’s body parts touched yours truly in the making of this tale, though a wifely type did nod in my direction, and the comely off-duty bartender did stand within a few inches while slinging her arm over the shoulder of a graying developer-type birthday boy (thus providing a tantalizing vista of the snake’s tail hung over her shoulder, and the body going down, down), while she told the on-duty bartender (who was definitely not wearing a string bikini, being more of a “somebody’s mother someday” type of young woman) to pour her a shot of whatever Birthday Boy (who would later slam a “Muff Dive” [I swear, this is the name of an actual drink]) and his friends were drinking. By the label, it was tequila, a dangerous drink to be sure, and I pretended to concentrate on my Corona. The off-duty bartender with the snake tattoo saw through me though, and smiled. Then she sashayed toward the bar’s darkened riverside patio, there to engage in animated conversation with a swarthy young guy who probably was not the social equal of the developer and wifely types proceeding to get shit-faced all around me. Most likely the guy was, like me, a seasonally employed, part-time romantic type.

By now, this may seem a celebratory tale of an oasis of licentious behavior and unquenchable lust in the desert night, an honest-to-gawd American answer to tales of 1001 Arabian nubile nymphs in a harem fit for an oilygarchy sheikh’s night out. It isn’t, or won’t be by the time you read this, because at my elbow as I scribble away another perfectly good beer buzz while camped along a far-upstream stretch of that same anonymous river a few months later, I’m eying a brochure in which the dilapidated establishment that housed the tableau described above is replaced by a multi-story veritable fucking (here I quote), “Spa & Resort!” Gone is the sun-blasted face of the old bar, the creaking door, the slanting floor, the bar where I sat ogling the snake tattoo while idly wondering just where fangs and tongue had been etched by the inspired tattoo artiste. Gone are the darkened patio over the river, the romantic words between swarthy young seasonal worker-types and comely off-duty bartenders, gone even are the aging developers and their fading spouses, holding up pictures of themselves in smaller bikinis in more comely days, taken down from the ceiling of the now-vanished bar as ’80s pop-rock tunes played on the jukebox that stood against the wall that night. The brochure shows instead an “artist’s rendering” of a multi-story hotel and micro-brewery, waterfront teeming with speed-boats and jet-skis, an honest-to-gawdawful American dream of orderly decadence that one-ups the Naked Pirate resort cove for committing blasphemy on the dam-tamed river that was once too thick to drink, too thin to plow — and wild enough to sculpt canyons that defy description. This tale is, instead, a commiseration on some current misfortunes, and a hope that one day my old friend will regain its former glorious role in the art of carving a continent. Time and a river flowing, as one book named it long ago.

Peering closely at the grainy print of the digitally rendered future spa & resort, I spy the artist’s fantasy of just who will be lounging in the outdoor pools and hot tubs. There are requisite pectorally perfect pale young men accompanied by bikini-clad nymphs posing under palm trees. In the light of my headlamp, with my nose pressed close to the page, I examine the lower bellies of each of the digital dream girls on the cover of the brochure. Satisfied, I consider the fact that not one of the young ladies has any sort of a crepuscular cove at the top of the bottom half of her string bikini, much less the tell-tale ghost of a snake tattoo.

* * *

For the purposes of this story, remember that a “Muff Dive” consists of a shot-glass of tequila sunk to the bottom of a pint glass full of whipped cream. The main purpose of this drink seems to be as entertainment for an assembled clutch of developer-types and spousal units as the unlucky aging Birthday Boy meets the eyes of his loving wife, his teeth gripping the edge of the shot-glass, whipped cream dripping from chin to his once-fashionable alligator-logo polo shirt. “Oh my God,” he says weakly, “that was my fifth shot.” She laughs at him.

I finished the Corona, paid my tab, and left the bar by way of the darkened patio. The off-duty bartender with the snake tattoo and her swarthy cohort never looked up from their now-whispered tete-a-tete. I drove far, far up a dark and dry arroyo — out of sight of river, naked pirates, comely wenches and the dreams of spa & resort-tamed developer-types. Sometimes, in the desert of our ever-more Disneyficated New West, a little dryness is about the only oasis my old dog and I can stomach for more than one round.

Senor correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” His last story for MG was “Ballad of Francois, Le Conducteur d’Autobus,” which appeared in #175. Frank splits his time between the Four Corners and the Border Country, which means, of course, that, most times, he’s hard to find.

Eating Wolf

I have stopped at the top long enough to rip the skins from my skis, taking breaths more slowly now than the ones I stopped counting on the way up. The even, heavy cadence of my breathing as I lay down a fresh up-track is addictive. The exhale louder, more pronounced, than the inhale. The short, quiet space in between each breath. The solid and unexpectedly slow and deep pound, pound of my heart. Opium.
Shush, click.
Shush, click.
Shush, click.

From pull-off to top. Ski sliding against the micro-topography of snow. Shush. Heel striking down, binding against binding. Click. And then the other ski, shush, and then the other heel, click. Shush, click, back and forth, one and then the other,
all
the
way
up.

From the top, I lock my heels, turn my toes to the tall trees below. If I am lucky, I will float. The snow is better here. Soon the trees will disappear and all that remains will be the narrow spaces in between. And the cold air I am breathing. My exhale louder, more pronounced than my inhale. The short, quiet space in between each breath. My heart now in my ears.

Some of my turns are snaked and some are kicked, as I work my way down through the maze of in-between …

I pop out on the north side, on another mountain, laying fresh tracks with my Wolfdog. Snow makes him high and it is absolutely everywhere. The peaks go on up into Canada from here, and then they keep going on up from there. It is enough to make me dizzy and so we keep on going higher. The Wolfdog is grinning big, his pink tongue extended out long, like his long, long legs. He is running beyond fast, all four paws airborne at once. He is flying.

My heart is pounding and it grows wings and flies right on out of my chest. There is no other way to put this: I am so goddamn, unbelievably happy. And the mountains are so goddamn, unbelievably beautiful. I holler a WAHOO!  And I know, just know, that this is one of the best times of my life, and I do not ever want it to stop.

But it does stop, much later on. This time will roll into the next, and there will be other amazing times, but not one as goddamn, unbelievably beautiful as this one, when I am so unspeakably happy and my heart and my Wolfdog are both flying through the snow straight out ahead of me. Free.

And I was right as rain about all of that …

I snake out one last turn onto an east slope, and a lot of time has passed. Skins are back on my skis and I carry my Wolfdog in an old and battered Nalgene tucked in my pack. We both drank water from that beat-up bottle and it seemed like a good place to keep his ashes.

The puppy keeps right up with me, following close behind in the up-track, without stepping on the backs of my skis. He is a similar mix as my Wolfdog was, but I don’t see my Wolfdog when I look at him, and for this I am grateful. We top out at the frozen lake and find the perfect spot for a handful of my best friend’s ashes. Here, there are three ponderosa pines, a view of the lake and craggy ridgeline.

I pull off my pack and pull out the Nalgene. My heart is breaking, just as it does every day now. I unscrew the lid and pour some of my Wolfdog’s ashes into my naked, outstretched hand. The sun is low, the air still. Gently I shake the ashes from my hand and they land gracefully near the three ponderosas. The puppy, I call him Arrow, bounds over, taking a big bite of snow, and of Wolfie’s ashes.

I am kneeling in the snow, feeling a little stunned. Through my tears, I smile at Arrow, touching my tongue to the palm of my hand where some of Wolfie’s ashes remain.

It is time to ski down, before we lose any more daylight. My long-legged puppy stays just ahead of me and off to the side, keeping his amber eyes on my turns, brilliantly steering clear of my skis, yipping at me to go faster, faster, faster PLEASE! He is a good dog. He has a tough act to follow.

It will not stop hurting, but I will become accustomed to the hurt, the sharp intake of breath, the breath held until I absolutely have to let it go and take another one. Down at the bottom, I squeeze my hands into fists and press them against my chest and then against my eyes. I do not want this good pain to go away. Ever. I will hold onto it as if my life depends on it. I think my life does depend on it. And if I am lucky, I will float …

Tricia M. Cook writes from a wee hamlet snuggled into the eastern toes of the North Cascade Mountains. There, she is accompanied by her two big dogs and two small cats, and various forest creatures.

The Merde in France: Dog Dung Decline

One hazard of travel in France is underfoot in villages, towns and cities: la merde, literally “the merde,” dog dung, infamously an aspect of life in the country. So much is this so that in English, the word merde, from the French and meaning dung, usually connotes an unlucky event in France. That’s both wrong and right.

It’s wrong because merde is an English word of long standing, having been first used in 1477 by poet and alchemist Thomas Norton in his treatise “Ordinall of Alchemy.” Through the centuries, alchemists apparently found that they couldn’t make gold from pooch poop, so merde fell into disuse in alchemy and now is mostly a literary word in English. It’s right because merde survived in French in colloquial mentions of excrement: “Shit happens,” in the 1994 movie Forrest Gump, became la merde passe in French translation.

In everyday usage today, la merde principally means dog dung. That prominence comes from prevalence, as statistics imply. The numbers mound peaks in Paris, where 200,000 dogs leave some 16 tons of dung on the city’s streets every day, a hazard that each year causes serious injuries to some 650 pedestrians who slip on dog droppings.

Luckily, the nuisance is subsiding, thanks in part to political response to public disgust. The first major assault came in the mid-1980s, understandably in Paris, which had the biggest problem. Mayor Jacques Chirac launched a fleet of poop patrol motorbikes supplied by JCDecaux, the French outdoor advertising giant also known for public bike schemes and street toilets. Each motorbike was equipped with a purpose-built vacuum device called a caninette that sucked up a dropping and disinfected the underlying surface in one operation. Fleet operation was a success. JCDecaux went on to implement similar fleets in other cities. Jacques Chirac went on to become President of France (1995-2007). And the word caninette became an entry in “Petit Robert,” the definitive desk dictionary of the French language.

Across the country, cities, towns and villages implemented various precautions, including dog toilets and restricted dog access to parks, with varying degrees of success. The trend now is toward high-tech, led by the city of Toulouse, one of the hubs of the European aerospace industry and home of Airbus, the European competitor to Boeing. In the Toulouse system now being implemented, wardens equipped with GPS-enabled Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) roam the streets and parks. Upon spotting a nuisance — a dog dropping, a dead animal, graffiti, an illegally parked car, whatever — the warden uses the PDA to take a geo-tagged photo that is transmitted to the appropriate public department so cleanup may be initiated.

Despite the efficiency of the new public services, everyone admits that true progress depends on dog owners changing their habits. So municipalities throughout the country have mounted anti-poop information campaigns and now offer dog dropping pick-up kits given away free to users from dispensers having easily-understood pictorial instructions and dedicated trash cans close at hand. Two popular brands are the Pince à crotte® (“turd tongs”), a kit of biodegradable cardboard tongs and a suitably tough paper bag for disposing of the picked-up droppings and soiled tongs, and the Toutounet (“doggie-neat”), a plastic bag large enough to insert a hand to grasp the droppings and then turn inside-out and tie to seal for disposal.

Progress is noticeable across France. The merde is on the wane. But the vulgar taint of the word remains. So it’s not part of polite conversation or of legislation dealing with it: in December 1998, when the nuisance of dog dung on the sidewalks and streets of the country was debated in the French Senate, the senators spoke of déjections canines. That term of two words is almost understandable in English, as dejection is the medical term for a BM. That la merde has gone mainstream in a politically correct cloak may be a signal of its further demise.

M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo and takes his vacations in France. By education, he’s a natural scientist. His Dateline: Europe column appears monthly in the Gazette.

Comic solution

Ville de Cabestany artwork    Civic administrators know that the merde can be defeated only if the public’s pooch poop practices change. So they publish pamphlets and placards calling for greater propriety, often in Bande dessinée (“comic strips”), a literature form so popular in France that it’s considered to be the ninth art. An example is the placard published by the town of Cabestany, a suburb of the city of Perpignan, reading in translation:

A simple gesture to preserve our sidewalks and green spaces
1 Put your hand in a plastic bag and turn it inside out.
2. Pick up the dog dropping,
3. and then toss it in the nearest trashcan. Easy!

The joy of sliding: Why our feet make skiing feel so sexy

It’s long been a cliché among skiers that a good day on the slopes, especially a good powder day, is as good as sex. Maybe skiers who think so are simply better at skiing than they are at sex. Or perhaps the sport is flush with shameless pervs. (It is frickin’ freezing out there and streaking the spring splash is considered normal.)

Skiing’s sexy mojo might just be a marketing ploy combined with a sharky singles scene and Hollywood hype, but a close look at the neurological relationship of the feet and the brain suggests that skiing and sex may be more intimately related than we might suspect.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Natural History of the Senses,” Diane Ackerman, found scientific evidence that stroking, sliding and caressing motions are therapeutic. “The touching can’t be light, or it will tickle…, nor rough, or it will agitate …, but firm and steady, as if one were smoothing a crease from heavy fabric.” Great advice for the execution of the ideal ski turn: not too light; not too rough.

Firm and steady. Keep it smooth and it feels good.

Applied to skiing, the most important touch points are obviously our feet. Feet are already sexy, of course. No fetish is more famous than the foot fetish. A Google of “Feet & Sex” returns 1,480,000 listings. Says one on-line advisor, “If you keep your feet in good shape and looking nice, it makes for much more erotic sex.” This alone may be the reason women care what color ski boots are. And why you should demand that your girlfriend’s ski boots are warm. Dr. Louann Brizedine, author of “The Female Brain,” claims “women need to have their feet warm before they feel like having sex.”

The obvious issues of appearances and comfort aside, it turns out there probably is a visceral, sexy connection between our heels, arches, toes and skiing.

The soles of the feet host two types of nerves with a flair for sexuality. Meissner’s corpuscles are hyper-sensitive, especially to perpendicular pressure. They respond to gentle sensations — caresses, kisses and tickles. Sharp sensations, like a pebble stuck inside a shoe, or a poke, also send them into a tizzy.

Interestingly, Meissner’s are found in a select few sexy places in the body: the lips, clitoris, penis, nipples and the feet. When you slide and your feet feel undulating pressure passing under them, the Meissner’s get busy. “The slightest distortion of a Meissner’s corpuscle will create sexual sensation,” writes Kristin O’Hara in “Sex As Nature Intended It.” Even inside a tight, hard-shelled boot, the soles of our feet become amplifiers of pushing, twisting, bouncing sensations, sensations that get fed to the brain via very sexy channels.

There just happens to be oodles of Meissners in the toes (which help monitor forward lean), and at the back of the foot (where subtle heel pressure allows the finish of a carved turn).

Pacinian corpuscles, according to the reference “Anatomy, Descriptive & Surgical,” are “found chiefly on the nerves of the fingers and toes…and in the genital organs.” “The Science of Orgasm” identifies the Pacinian as “specialized to respond to pressure and vibration,” and the “densest nerve supply in the body” occurs in the clitoris. Men have them too, in the glans, where O’Hara assures us they are “densely packed nerves excited by pressure.”

Every skier knows that, despite those clunky, heavy boots, there’s a whole lot of vibrating going on — not just those Julie Andrews the-hills-are-alive psychic vibes, but literally the vibration of the skis. Skis thrum powerfully as they turn. Amidst this constant vibrating, the Pacinian corpuscles wiggle their sexy messages to the brain, and what is the brain to do except enjoy the ride?

Luckily for skiers, it doesn’t take much to get a touch receptor’s attention. Ackerman explains that, “Any first time touch, or change in touch (from gentle to stinging, say) sends the brain into a flurry of activity.” The nerves wake up. “A little pressure produces a flurry of excitement, then fades, and a stronger pressure extends the burst of activity.” She explains that the excitement of touch is all about change — as in novelty, variety and intensity.

Like sex, the joy of skiing resonates with touch’s craving for nuanced, diverse experience. The texture and consistency of snow changes, often. Dozens of companies afford us thousands of novel combinations of equipment. Edges tune to various degrees of sharpness and bevel. A range of base structures combined with a rainbow of waxes respond to arrays of snow temperatures. Varying intensity is as easy as skiing steeper or flatter or bumpier runs. Ski fast. Ski slowly. Like the snowflakes we ski on, no two skiing experiences are ever exactly the same.

This is a good thing for touch receptors. Our sense of touch knows exactly how to challenge and reward valuable activities — like sex and skiing. As a touch sport that demands so much from the feet, there’s almost no denying that (provided your boots fit and they are warm) skiing is inherently sexy. Dr. Daniel Amen may not have had skiing in mind when he wrote, “What a lot of people don’t know is that the foot area in the brain — the area of the brain that feels your feet — is right next door to the area of the brain that feels your genitals,” in his book, “Sex on the Brain: 12 Lessons to Enhance Your Love Life.”

Or maybe he did.

There’s more. Our footy fetish with skiing may be a nod to our evolutionary success. Ackerman reminds us that the sense of touch evolved before all other senses. The earliest blind organisms literally felt their way to survival. Whether found in our genitalia or our feet, the Meissners and the Pacinian are nerves retained from primordial sliding in epochs when slithering and sliding meant the success of species.

Experimental neurologist Saul Schanberg, interviewed by Ackerman, asserts that, from the standpoint of sexuality within species, “Those animals who did more touching instinctively produced more offspring which survived, and their genes were passed on and the tendency to touch became even stronger.” He says, “Touch is not only basic to our species, but the key to it.”

In other words, sliding has been the key to sentience for more than 600 million years. The fittest were those that were best at it, and liked it, and kept doing it.

So maybe when skis start to slide and slither under us, something elemental happens, too. Maybe skiing stimulates nerve receptors that evolved partly to detect and encourage the firm, steady, smooth, not-too-light, not-to-rough flurries and bursts of sex — the touches that send our brains into a tizzy.

And maybe after a great day of skiing — with all the nerve receptors in your feet suggesting to your brain how great all that sliding was — there’s a chance you might find yourself thinking, “Wow, skiing is as good as sex.” Notice as you slip your boots off the therapeutic glow arising from your feet. Notice the distinct feeling that your entire species is destined for success.

Sources Consulted:
“The Female Brain.” Dr. Louann Brezedine. Broadway Books, 2007.
“Sex as Nature Intended It.” Kristin O’Hara and Jeffrey O’Hara. Turning Point Publications, 2002 http://www.sexasnatureintendedit.com/10F/Foreskin_Function.html.
“Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical.” Henry Grey, Thomas Pickering Pick, William Williams Keen. Bounty Books, 1977. p. 75-76.
“The Science of Orgasm.” Barry Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer, Carlos Beyer-Flores, Beverly Whipple. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. p. 231.
“Sex on the Brain: 12 Lessons to Enhance Your Love Life.” Dr Daniel G Amen. Three Rivers Press, 2006
http://www.oprah.com/xm/moz/200701/moz_20070124.jhtml.

Wayne Sheldrake is the author of “Instant Karma: The Heart and Soul of a Ski Bum.” He lives in Del Norte, Colo.

Movie Review: ‘127 Hours’

Aron Ralston? He had to have been an idiot getting stuck in that canyon the way he did. That’s all I could figure at the time. Even if you kick it hard as a test, you don’t put your weight on some chintzy chockstone. Clan of half-naked desert spawn who call this region of southeast Utah home pretty much concluded he must have been some big-dick mountain climber hung with ropes and jangling gear that would never allow him to grasp the heart of this country the way we do. Too much shit to carry. Too much reliance on things that have been machined. We know what we are, trust me, spacemen with our packs and our silent little alcohol stoves made out of Coke cans stuffed with fiberglass insulation. We know how to strip down, but not without comforts, our jammies and chocolates. We go light, but not too light. I figure that’s the best we can do, and, from there on, it’s gravy. A group of us has been soloing and tag-teaming out here for a couple decades, first-class nimrods apprehending this landscape. That’s why this guy rankled us. This was our territory. What was he thinking, leading the bone-headed adventure crowd our direction? Of course he was an idiot, had to be.

I have started this review on the inside of a candy box torn open in a theater, stadium seats and a booming sound system, pen scratching in the dark on waxy-thin cardboard. It’s the movie — “127 Hours” — about Aron Ralston chocked by a boulder in a slot canyon, spending a little more than five days trapped before getting up the mad nerve to cut off his own arm and escape. Right away, I recognize nicks, notches and routes in the landscape. They had filmed high in the drainage of Horseshoe Canyon, a place I’ve been walking all my adult years. It’s studded by red buttes, articulated by countless shadowy drainages, and marched across by eerie rock art of ancient hunters and gatherers. They got the right place. This is where Aron did his brutal Houdini act, leaving his arm behind (later removed by the Park Service*). This also happens to be the very landscape I consider one of my homes. Last year, I worked from multiple points around the globe, and after each trip I came back to Horseshoe Canyon, its circular horizon distantly rimmed by the bat-winged La Sal Mountains, blue dome of Abajos, Henrys and the long, elegant rise of the San Rafael Swell, not to mention proud Book Cliffs and Roans closing the circuit to the north. Here I have chased my two little boys into slots, and sunk into my wife’s arms on sensual, bulbous rims, Navajo sandstone being the most carnal piece of geography on the planet. I come back to this region because it is familiar and grounding for an over-traveled soul.

Those I know who walk hard out here happen to love movies. After just about every wilderness trip, we would come back and pile into the Moab theater for some dazzling CGI flick. Even with such an honored pastime, I couldn’t get any of them to see this dramatization.

Dirk Vaughan, who from the beginning contended that the man’s mistake was not taking desert canyons seriously, blew out one of his usual tirades: “The dude’s a tech-head, solo climbs Fourteeners in winter, carries extreme clothes and extreme gear for extreme conditions. He gets out here in Canyonlands in shirtsleeve weather and a Kelsey guidebook to point the way and he let his guard down.

I heard him say it himself ‘I was on a vacation.’ Well, guess what, Canyonlands can kill you just as quick as a Fourteener in winter. Especially in shirtsleeves when you’re on vacation.”

His brother Devin just shrugged. Sure he’d watch, but he did not want to spend the $7 or spring for the drive.

The list of excuses goes on from person to person. I’m not giving my money to an idiot. I refuse to glorify stupidity.

But you see, I sort of had to watch it. They paid me. I don’t think I would have seen it otherwise, just a shrug. The money I got was not to actually see the movie, but to help with it. They wanted spots with a so-called expert explaining why this landscape exists in the first place. I liked the sound of that. Did I need the money? Sure. But I would have done it for free. I’m a whore when it comes to broadcasting what an awesome and twisted planet we live on, especially in a place where I have a decent grasp on local geomorphology. It was a hired production crew, desert-treading camera-folk, the kind of people I’d happily clamber around with any day. Camped in the upper arms of Horseshoe, we trundled our way across red-sand slopes and magnificent vistas, Island in the Sky brimming to the east as we hiked down toward Aron’s canyon. An excuse to wander about and get paid, I loved this job.

The slot where poor Aron had to butcher his way to survival opens like most of them do: suddenly. A cap-layer undercuts and the drainage falls into erotic bends of Navajo. Just about every slot canyon in this country has some sort of gatekeeper wedged into its entrance, a blown-out car or memorable constellations of chockstones. This one has an S-log jammed into place. Down from the S-log and along the first straightaway are knobby boulders like asteroids fallen in the path, sheaves of flash-flood debris pushed up around them. As we crawled and climbed under and over them, the crew with the cameras wanted to hear about flash floods, sandstone and erosion. Hands waving, I told them how this place came to be: boom, boom, boom.

When we reached the spot where Aron did the deed, we dispersed. Seems nobody even thought to film here. I stuck around for a while. I put my hands on the smooth, bluish rock that had lodged against his arm. It had a little bit of carbonate mixed with local sandstone making it harder than the surrounding substrate. About the size of an old television, it had been dumped in here by flash floods from about 40 feet up. I recognized it as the kind of chockstone I would have put my weight on, testing it first with a kick as Aron did, then a light hop down, giving it a second of full body weight before landing and moving ahead. I would not have expected the boulder to pivot and drop like wedge on top of me.

With fingertips, I traced chip-marks Aron had made with his dull knife blade where he tried to whittle the sandstone around the boulder, only to discover it caused the immovable object to settle more firmly. In the movie, the brave actor spends most of the film’s 94 minutes lodged against this very rock, or one just like it, moving through physical and psychological montages that always bring him back to here. To accomplish this claustrophobic task, film crews worked both in the canyon itself and on a Salt Lake City stage set they built from laser-mapped topography. There are times, sitting with a candy box unfolded on my lap, that I cannot tell canyon from stage set. Close-ups and bedding planes in Navajo sandstone are carefully filmed in situ, the real thing. After so many shittier and shittier movies made in the Southwest, finally, thank you. Even the sound of fingertips idly brushed along a rock wall sound perfect.

Oh, there is some crap in the movie, no doubt. Jumping into a luminous pool of blue water with two hot party chicks? Give me a break. The only women I’ve ever seen at this end of Horseshoe may be beautiful, but they are damn crusty by the time I get to them. Second of all, that kind of blue water you only find at the mouth of the Little Colorado or down Havasu, but not in Utahan hinterlands. Any standing water in one of these canyons would be red like blood and tomato soup, and shadowless, so that if you actually cannonballed into it, you would impale your rectum on the pike of an unseen boulder.

That’s pretty much it for gripes. The rest of the movie is startlingly close to home. There’s not a drumroll for the boulder when it falls; it just happens, like it does when a boulder actually falls. The actor himself displays the confusion, fear and self-ridicule I might expect from the situation. Having drunk my own urine in the past, I found the portrayal of Aron’s experience distastefully similar to my own.

I remember sitting on that boulder of his, looking up at the crack of the sky. It is right where the canyon deepens into dungeon-like shade. You can reach your arm in and feel the coolness pooling down there. Aron stopped by that same day, curious about what the film crew was up to. He sat on the very boulder he had hugged for those desperate days, comfortable on its lumpy top as he talked about his experience, waving his left hand around as his prosthetic claw on the right waved with it. When I asked about the effect of light while he was down here, he commented on how strangely beautiful it had been, unceremoniously describing light pouring down the walls to the bottom where it landed for only 15 minutes a day. He did not talk about discordant terror or the futility that must have seemed crushing. On day three of being trapped, he was still taking scenic pictures; it was that striking down here.

A man with a spiel, no doubt, Aron showed unexpected vulnerability. I was surprised by his candor and attentiveness. He asked many questions about the boulder itself, about its mineral  composition, and queried me repeatedly through the day as to the nature of hydraulics and erosion. His were more or less the same questions I once asked of this place, the ones I continue to ask, watching the sun rise through the La Sals day after day, drinking rain and snowmelt off the rock. Of all the moments and seasons I have witnessed in this country, I was glad this particular episode happened to Aron and not me. It many ways, he was a better man for it than I.

I judge the same from the movie — no tricks or agonizingly false dramatizations, just a man on a mission through a canyon, stupid like I’ve been so many times, not telling anyone where I was going, but in ways better prepared than me. He had a date with a boulder and was fortunate enough to cut his way out from behind it and live to tell the tale. I sit through the entire movie captivated, and eventually stop writing on the candy box, just watching the experience, a new story from an old and familiar landscape.

Craig Childs lives off-grid in the West Elk Mountains of Colorado. He has written several books, the most recent, “Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession.”

* The first and most-definitive story about the Park Service’s expedition to retrieve Aron Ralson’s hand was penned by Vince Welch in Mountain Gazette #124.

The Grief Counselor: A Search Concludes in the Gila

For Christmas, I got him this little wooden cross that dangles from his dog collar, only half-jokingly to signify his calling.  I threaten to get him a little black robe with a white collar, but he — with his classic border collie coat — already wears those. I, once his equal partner in search and rescue, am more and more often relegated to being his manager and chauffeur.

The wilderness search is over, the missing hunter found, the Office of the Medical Examiner on the way with a white body bag. As we arrive back at Incident Base, most of us studiously avoid the little knot of people standing slightly to the side, these being relatives of the subject.

They are deep in grief,  silenced by the depth of their loss. All around us, clamor prevails — four-wheeler and ground-pounder search teams returning, radio coms continuing hot and heavy, doors and tailgates slamming on State Police, Forest Service and Border Patrol trucks.

He makes a beeline for the relatives, still wearing his bright orange Search K9 vest. At an almost-but-not-quite hesitant walk, he approaches, drops a stick at their feet.

His eyes seek theirs — seemingly expressing their pain: the senseless Big Question of why it had to happen this way. His body language empathetic, his eyes now implore theirs to set the tragedy aside for a minute,  just for a bit, really, to throw the stick just this once, please. He crouches, belly on the ground, somber as a pallbearer.

He bounds after the stick,  returns it at a gallop, drops it on their feet. He lies down again, imploring.

They end up throwing the stick a dozen times. Then they are talking to each other for the first time since showing up here, six miles up this little wilderness dirt road. When I call him, he doesn’t come right away, but stays with them a little longer, licks a hand, gets a hug.

Their immersion in this somber game validates my dog’s conviction, deeply embedded in his K9 worldview,  that all transactions around this particular stick are very important.  This, he is teaching me, is the unfinished business of search and rescue.

Dave Baldridge’s last piece for the Gazette was “A Rescuer Reflects on Angels and Idiots,” which appeared in #174. Baldridge lives in Albuquerque.

One More Reason Why SUV’s are Evil

For some reason, when I heard the car door shut, I knew I was screwed. It was 4 a.m., January. I was perched high on the lip of Muley Point, Utah, and the wind was howling. Somewhere in the dark, far below this wind-riven promontory, the San Juan River flowed with ice. I was naked and my car doors were locked tight.

It began with the search for a new car, an SUV. After 20 years of tired, worn-out Subarus, I needed a real four-wheel-drive; something that would get me where I needed to go; and something I could sleep in. With a new job and the regular paycheck that came with it, I went looking for an SUV — not too big, but not too small either.

The car salesman winced when I asked if they came without running boards. “How’s your little lady gonna git in?” he inquired with a wolfish grin. “Well,” I drawled back, not to be outdone, “I don’t know any ladies that can’t pull themselves into a car. Most of ’em drive trucks.” He looked puzzled when I insisted on laying the back seats down and became visibly rattled when I crawled in to lie down. I lay there for several minutes, silently staring at the ceiling, just to fuck with him. He emitted an audible sigh of relief when I finally announced that I’d take it.

That was early fall and I finally got a break in January. It was time to try out my sparkly new SUV with some quality car camping. The best place I knew of for that was Muley Point, high on the southwest rim of Cedar Mesa in the southern part of the Beehive State.

I left Colorado in a blizzard that didn’t let up until Paradox Valley. Upon arriving in the late afternoon, I got out to traverse the rim and sat to watch the play of light across Monument Valley, 50 miles to the south. What a relief to be away from work and family holiday duties! After the final glow faded from Navajo Mountain and the San Juan River canyon was shrouded in darkness, I turned to dinner and the set-up of my new home. As I went through the ritual of spreading my pad and sleeping bag, it dawned on me that I could sit back there and eat! Damn! … no wind and sheltered from the rapidly plunging temperatures. Congratulating myself, I celebrated with another beer and finally, after reading by headlamp through several hours of early-winter darkness, it was time to sleep.

While the car rocked in wind that originated somewhere in Nevada, I slept — and what a cozy, comfortable sleep it was. Until 3:30, when I had to pee. I lay there for what seemed like hours, trying to will it away, but it was inevitable.

I sat up wrapped in my bag. OK — real quick — no screwing around. I threw off the sleeping bag, rolled toward the door, pulled the handle, kicked it open into a bitter wind and stumbled out. In hindsight, I should have paid closer attention to that clicking noise as I got out. But it was a new car and I had yet to appreciate its “features.” As I hurriedly pushed into the wind, trying to gauge which direction to pee, the door blew shut and my learning curve for these “features” steepened. I had rolled over the lock button on the keys and was now, quite literally, out in the cold. 4 a.m. — dark, windy and a temperature far south of 32°.

It was time to think and act quickly.

The frigid wind on my bare ass was disconcerting, as I hastily surveyed my surroundings, quite aware that I could die, or at least become really uncomfortable. The ground all around me was smooth, but I remembered a campfire ring along the rim — surely there were some big rocks, but I couldn’t be certain. I shuffled carefully towards the darkened rim, fearful of sharp rocks and cactus in the night.

There it was — a circle of boulders, each as big as my head, and heavy. I lugged one back to the car where I began to assess the price of SUV windows. Damn! They were all big and, no doubt, expensive. I settled on the back door window, the one that had blown shut. It was, in a certain sense, revenge. It was a difficult (and long) 15 seconds. Shiny new car — great big rock — it just wasn’t right.

But desperate times call for drastic measures.

Determined, I reared back with both hands wrapped firmly around the boulder and hit the window. The rock recoiled violently against my bare, cold chest. Shit! I pulled myself up off the ground as I cursed into the dark. Adrenaline surged as I gripped the rock and again struck the window, more forceful this time. It bounced back again, but this time I was braced. Now I was freezing and pissed. “Fucking windows are rubber!” I screeched into the wind.

Finally, after several more attempts, I wound up and slammed the window, catching it with a sharp edge of the boulder. The window exploded into a million tiny fragments. My arms followed the rock through the jagged hole — hands clamped tightly around it in anticipation of another rebound.

Well, I thought, that was cool. I threw the rock over behind me, reached through the hole to open the door, and realized my hand was wet and sticky. I was bleeding profusely, as a shard had left a long, streak-like slash on my left hand. “A mere flesh wound,” I muttered, smiling at both my wit and success. I recovered the offending key chain, unlocked all the doors and dressed, all while wrapping my hand in an old T-shirt. It was good to realize that I could multi-task when absolutely necessary.

I threw all the front-seat detritus in back with the glass shards, jumped in and pressed on with a cold ride down the seemingly endless switchbacks to the desert floor.

I entered the town of Bluff in growing light. My hand throbbed. Bad news, but I expected as much. No clinic, no doctor — the folks in Recapture Lodge pointed east — go to Montezuma Creek. I snagged a complimentary cup of coffee to ward off dehydration and to make up for the blood loss, rewrapped my hand with fresh paper towels, and headed toward the rising sun.

Upon arriving in Montezuma Creek, a dusty oil town bordering the Navajo Reservation, I pulled in front of the clearly marked clinic, which was just opening for the day. After the basic clinic formalities, a very polite Navajo doctor ushered me into a sterile room and quietly sewed me up. I tried in vain to explain what had happened. He smiled politely and sent me on my way. This trip was over — almost.

The drive home was uneventful, if you can call Lizard Head Pass in a raging blizzard with one window missing uneventful.

The final “bright spot” of the trip didn’t come until a week later, as I sat at my desk on a Monday morning recounting the bizarre sequence of events to the anthropologist from the adjacent office.

“Fillmore, you’re an idiot,” he said, shaking his head. It was time to set the hook … and finish the story.

“Well,” I challenged, “I bet you’ve never been healed by a Navajo medicine man.” His eyes narrowed as I held up my bandaged hand. He peered at it closely, intensely interested as I slowly unwound the bandage. He placed his reading glasses on the end of his nose, and squinted as he bent even closer. I had him.

He snorted. “Those are stitches,” he exclaimed with scorn. “Where did you find this medicine man?”

“The Montezuma Creek Tribal Clinic,” I answered, grinning triumphantly. That single moment damn near made the whole thing worth it.

The deep scars of this experience remain — I don’t mean the physical kind, although there are those. I’m talking mental scars. To this day, even several years later, I feel an involuntary twitch and a cold shiver when I push the “lock” button on the key chain of my well-used and no-longer-so-shiny SUV. I have, however, learned all about those “features.”

Robert Fillmore is a professor of geology at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo.