The Conflicted Angler

I could stand here and fish until dark, I think. Or load a backpack and walk upstream, and keep fishing until I am an old man.

Thoughts like these come to mind easily in late June up on the Idaho panhandle, when swallows are feeding on mayflies and you are standing on the north bank of the Lochsa River, where it pours out of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. You watch the sparkling water heading for the Pacific Ocean and imagine what swims behind the boulders, in the shade of those 500-year-old cedars.

You stand and stare at the wide river splashing over rocks and consider, for the first time in a decade, buying a fishing license. You remember catching fish.

The trout of my Eastern childhood, small native brookies and even smaller hatchery browns, wouldn’t look like much on a stringer today. But back then they were huge — potent gifts from the universe, the nearest things I knew to divinity.

I fished every day of my tenth summer. Dragging baited hooks through water was all that mattered. I fished the little trout streams of my home town with the stoned concentration of a slot gambler. Every cast was a fresh bet.

I wanted one fish, then another. I wanted the biggest fish. It was in there somewhere, under the water’s blank sheen. Never once did I question this insatiable desire. It was just what I did. Looking back though, a few motives stand out.

There was the boyish romance associated with “living off the land” (a good impulse, by the way). Carrying home three or four pan-sized trout on a forked willow branch, I became Jim Bridger for an afternoon, and what ten-year-old doesn’t like that?

Another good reason to fish was to immerse myself in the semi-wild world beyond the edge of my little town. If the fish weren’t biting, there was always something — prickly thickets full of blackberries, chrome green dragonflies mating, a box turtle laying eggs — to capture my attention.

And there was freedom — total, delicious freedom. Walking up a river, any river, I escaped the grid of expectations that was family life. No one knew exactly where I was or what I was doing (a condition I still enjoy).

My fishing was also driven, I suspect, by the troubling hungers every pubescent boy knows and suffers and celebrates; I probably killed trout for emotional release. The act of killing can be pleasurable (think of the house cat with its mouse), relaxing and even cathartic.

Of course fishing also expressed my species’ evolutionary heritage. Just like the dogs and cats and bears of the world, we humans have evolved as efficient, sometimes gleeful predators.

But our talents for abstract reasoning and conceptual thought complicate this arrangement, and make us unique in the animal kingdom. The suffering of other critters bothers us. We have invented ethics.

This problematic empathy wasn’t so pressing in 1966 as it is today. But even then I knew, dimly, that to capture and kill a fish is to deprive it of an essential right. The act tears at the fabric of something delicate and priceless, and should not be taken lightly.

The trout of my boyhood, darting for cover under the banks of Mad River and Fish Creek could not be improved upon. Their mottled olive skin and cobalt-ringed dots were treasure, coins of delight. I could haul in a writhing fish and briefly feel a magical connection to its nearby but utterly foreign world.

In that same shining moment, however, I also felt something break. The fish was burning alive in the summer air, and I knew it. The colors faded quickly. The body stiffened. A thin slime of guilt clung to my hands. Still I dragged the creek with my treble hook, wanting more. More.

Today I cannot ignore the knowledge that the hooked fish burns alive because of human desire, and for human pleasure.

I have no quarrel with the killing and eating of animals, if it’s done with respect, compassion and skill. I’m an enthusiastic carnivore. But I don’t have much heart for the killing myself. Not these days.

Still, the predator gene lives on. Watching the river slide by as evening falls, I find myself wanting to fish. But don’t suggest catch-and-release. The traumatizing and sometimes killing of fish merely for amusement seems like pure, cruel self-indulgence.

Catch-kill-and-eat seems far worthier. But neither sort of fishing feels right for me these days. For now, standing on the banks of the Lochsa, I know I’ve had enough.

Michael Wolcott once spent a week electro-shocking trout in the upper drainages of the Snake River, a job that posed difficult ethical questions but offered excellent menu options. He writes from the Colorado Plateau and the northern Rockies.

A Hiker’s Guide to the Desert

Wherever you are right now, drive 14 miles. Depending on the direction you’re coming from, you’ll either turn right or left at the fourth unmarked dirt road. Follow this road until it forks. Turn and drive toward the sun — east or west, depending on the time of day.

After a sufficient amount of time, pull over and park your vehicle under the big juniper tree — the one with the illegal fire ring, shotgun shells and beer cans under it. Be careful so that the glass shards don’t puncture your Go-Lite neoprene shoes. After parking, fiddling with your gear and checking the nifty compass on your key ring that doubles as a faux carabineer (strong enough to hold the weight of, well, your keys), it’s time to hit the trail. Drop into the first wash on your right and follow the coyote tracks. After two hours of brisk power hiking — or 30 minutes meandering — you will come to a large, red rock that is distinguishable from the other large, red rocks by its largeness and redness. Admire it and continue on.

Soon, you will cross an extraneous road. And another one. And then another goddamn road. Curse it, piss on it … and then get used to it. There are many more. Next, when the wind shifts direction, so should you. (And remember, keep drinking water! This is the desert, after all, and there are many more roads to piss on.) Next, ascend — all the way to the top! — the sand-slide that forces you to take three steps back for every half-step forward.

However, if you hit the pristine, untrammeled, untouched area, you’ve gone too far. Stop and go forward in time.

Finally, after hours, days — and sometimes years — of this, after cursing the author, after asking repeatedly, “Are we there yet?”, you take off your Oakleys, open your eyes and realize, holy crap!, you’ve always been there. The whole time you’ve been waiting to get to the money spot that’s worthy of bragging rights and interminable slideshows, you’ve been surrounded by expanses of redrock, fine coral sands, pungent sage, inviting potholes, forgotten drainages full of remnants of the past, canyon wren song and the dizzying swoops of swallows. The first Indian paintbrush of the year is blazing at your feet, and the most beautiful cloudscape that no atlas can map is above your head.

In your search for that one brushstroke of Eden, you missed the whole damned canvas full of paradise.

Now that you’ve reached your destination, don’t retrace your steps to the car — in fact, think about abandoning that hulk of metal — but instead find a way to make a loop or a zigzag or a geometric shape we don’t yet have a name for. Thank the author for your enlightenment. Send money. Repeat as necessary.

Regular contributor Jen Jackson’s last piece for the Gazette was “Hope is the Things with Feathers,” which appeared in #172. She lives in Moab.

Letter from Hyder

I am stopped waiting for the highway crew to clean up a terrible accident on Highway 37A in northern British Columbia. The accident involved a car trying to avoid a mama bear and cub and consequently hitting another car in the process. As I pass the accident scene, there is a highway worker that looks more like a wild animal than a human being. He waves our car ahead, and our destination of Hyder, Alaska, is less than an hour away.

Hyder is not your quintessential tourist destination. There are 90 or so permanent residents, one hotel, two campgrounds, one restaurant, a general store and a gun store. By road, Hyder is a dead end, only accessed by BC Highways. There is a small dock that accesses the rest of rural Alaska.

Hyder Dock. Photo by Jake Frank

We set up camp at the only campground that, due to the large grizzly bear population, allows tenting. Conveniently, the campground is right behind the only open restaurant and bar. The mountains engulf Hyder and our campground. We look straight up at 5,000-foot mountains. The general store owner drives by and notices our starry-eyed glares toward the top of the mountains. He tells us, some winters, there is over a hundred feet of snowfall.

We are now at the Sealaska Inn eating and drinking. After a while, we try the local shot famously known as the Hyderizer. This is not only a shot, but a challenge. The rules are: you can’t smell it or taste it; there are no chasers other than water; if you don’t finish it or if you spit it/throw it up, you have to buy a round for the whole bar and clean up the mess you made. Luckily, Frisco, Colorado’s Moose Jaw gave me training for these types of situations. My shot — which ended up being a double dose of Everclear — is successful, with a not-surprising firey tingle in the esophagus.

Shortly after, a local in the bar offers me some smoked salmon from a small Tupperware container. I tell him it’s the best fish I have ever had out of plastic Tupperware and maybe ever. As we continue to speak, the wild animal from the highway crew walks in and sits next to me. It turns out he is a very nice man and the sit-in mayor for the town of Stewart BC, right across the border from Hyder. Then again, I have always preferred people more like Wolverine from the “X-Men” than your typical Boulder Hipster.

Photo by Jake Frank

As the night turns into the early morning, the bartender and I speak about Hyder. She informs me that, during the summer months, bikers like to come into town and follow no laws or ethical principals. This is the reason there is a double-barrel shotgun behind the bar. With no police in town, there are only citizens and guns to keep the peace. Before I head for my tent out back, the bartender makes sure I have bear spray. I respond with an affirmative shrug. “Good,” she says, “because, not too long ago, a friend of mine passed out behind the building and was eaten alive by a grizzly.”


“Yes,” she says with sadness in her voice indicating sincerity.

The next few days, we hike and explore the Coastal Mountains. Salmon Glacier might be the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. We skinny dip in glacial lakes, marvel at the enormous size of the grizzly bears and bald eagles and soak in the rawness that only wild Alaska can still offer.

Looking back at my visit to Hyder, the highway worker/mayor is a metaphor for the Last Frontier. Rural Alaska has a stereotypical gruff exterior, but once unraveled, the magic of such a magnificent place is revealed.

Salmon Glacier. Photo by Jake Frank

Pete Richmond lives in Frisco, Colo. This is his first story for the Gazette.

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.

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.

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,

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.