Letters – #180


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

Little Dog lives!

Dear Gazette Readers: For those of you concerned about the welfare of Little Dog Casey (Smoke Signals, “Little Dog,” MG #176), rest assured, your concerns are unwarranted and needless. Having just spent several days with M. John and Little Dog, it is easy to see the Karmic Dog Gods were smiling on Casey when she landed in the laps of John and Gay Fayhee, literally and figuratively speaking of course. A couple trips a day to the friendly confines of the Silver City dog park, where she has already made several friends, more toys than one dog could possibly need or chew up and a comfortable dog bed at night! Inside, I might add. Having been a surrogate “uncle” to Cali for nearly a dozen years, I know what Fayhee dog love is all about and having just witnessed dog love part II, Little Dog has a wonderful home for the rest of her doggie years. If all dogs go to heaven, Casey is already there.
Fayhee does need to be concerned about one thing though — if he is not careful, Little Dog Casey is going to think her first name is Sweetie!

M. Fox,
Frisco, CO

Spreading our legs, er, wings

Hi, Fayhee: The recent issue of MG seemed like you are reaching out to other mountain places more. The piece on Bear Valley (“Terror and Wonder at the Mountain Roundup,” by Vince Welch, MG #177) struck me. We drove up that BV highway over and over seeking our caretaker winter paradise in our old Landrover 88. Her name was Galushka. She deserves to be remembered. I would buy her back for 5X.
Yes, reach out to these other island mountain worlds from which we look to the plush and verdant mountain lives on the Great Divide.

Sorry. The magazine means a lot. We still carry around these boxes of the primal Gazette magazine, never wishing to throw them out in spite of each year’s recurring, attempted self-stripping to the bone, to somehow become as light as we once were.

Love yuh. Don’t drink too much. Live On.

Dave

To go or not to go

John: Your piece on Bull Sluice rapids (Smoke Signals, “Deliverance,” MG #177) raises one of the essential ethical conundrums eventually faced by many non-solitary adventurers, particularly in the mountains — the question of whether to proceed in the face of exceptional hazard or to turn back/go the long way/portage around. A split group must address a variety of ethical dilemmas and psychological negotiations on the spot, often with rapids roaring/blizzards blowing in their ears and elevated adrenal production in their blood. The story is also a reminder that we never really leave behind the social politics of the playground, with its herding behavior, unspoken codes and uncompromising dichotomies. The field of avalanche safety and winter backcountry travel in particular is rife with case studies in these group dynamics.
Adventure Orgy Guy was right on script when he expressed disappointment in your choice to demur at the last minute. However, he overplayed his hand when he tried to pin the blame on you for his own decision to continue. In some such situations, the go/no-go question has implications for the entire group, as when it changes the route, or when each alternative entails risks of its own. But in this case, with portage as an option, Adventure Orgy Guy’s choice to run the rapid anyway does not give him the right to place the burden of his choice on you, and in particular does not absolve him of essentially ordering an employee to go in your place. As with those formative confrontations on the playgrounds, we indeed find ourselves replaying the dramas in our heads again and again, long after the fateful day.

On the other hand, a more generous interpretation of his comment would be merely as a wistful expression of regret for an opportunity missed.

It strikes me that this question of field ethics would be a fine feature idea for a future MG issue.

Malcolm McMichael,
Carbondale CO

Granite, schmanite

Dear John: Having read George Sibley’s article in MG #177 (“Sera and the Wildernext”), I have one small correction. Judging by his description of a magnificent marble entrance to a bridge in Lower Manhattan, one can deduce that this is the Manhattan Bridge, which connects downtown Brooklyn to Chinatown in Manhattan. This is the only East River Bridge with any monumental ornamentation. The columns, beaux arts reliefs and friezes are not of marble, as Mr. Sibley states, but granite, a much more durable material.
The frieze above the massive entryway to the bridge was sculpted by Charles Cary Rumsey. It depicts, oddly enough, a buffalo hunt by four Indians on horseback.

The urban wilderness has had for me, as well as Sibley’s daughter, a haunting draw for the unexpected and profound.

Well done.

Allan Cox,
Silver City NM

Editor’s note: Mr. Cox was a monument restorer for the Department of Parks, City of New York, from 1970 to 1996, and retired as the chief monuments restorer.

Dear Mom

John, You deliver again with the “Scar Tissue” story.  (Smoke Signals, MG #179.) My mom is visiting, and you’ve elevated my appreciation for the time with her. Your stories frequently hit home, I’d put you up there with the best writers to have graced this crazy globe. Thank you.

BS (serious)

Off the map

John: I too spend hours looking over atlases (Smoke Signals, “Injun Joe,” MG #178). I look at them both when traveling to new places, or occasionally even when going somewhere I have been dozens of times; actually, I think I might spend more time looking at them when I am going somewhere that I have already been to dozens of times. Atlases and maps are some of my most prized possessions; this may be partially due to the time I’ve spent backpacking and on paddling trips when maps are one of the few things along for the ride, but it is mainly because they, often more than photos, are tied in with memories — and anticipated further travel, of course. I have never tried using a GPS system, nor do I have any interest in them; maps are amazing things and it makes me sad to see someone looking to yet another display screen for direction.
The atlas is like a table of contents for trips. The atlas highlights an area and then I look over topographic maps for specific places to go. I am not much into following trails, though on family trips we usually do; I suppose I get my share of trails then. I enjoy seeing what is on the map on my own. For me, I like to look over the atlases and maps and tie my memories to them; a map of a region I have explored on foot or by kayak or canoe come alive when I glance at it. A map is like a beautiful work of art for me, I would rather have a map of one of my favorite regions hanging on my wall than nearly anything else.

I have an old atlas with random points of interest listed, but it does not say what the points-of-interest actually are or even assign names to them. Many of the highlighted points-of-interest are not located on roads; they are out in the middle of heavily forested areas or marshes. I have to wonder if some of these places are the sites of plane crashes, buried treasure, UFO landings or Bigfoot sightings. I recognized one of the places, marked along a creek several miles from the nearest trail,  as the location of a turn-of-the-century logging camp where smallpox had hit and every logger died. The place is now the site of the mass grave where the loggers were buried. Most of their family members, if they had any, were probably still living across the Atlantic when the men died. It was strange the first time, every time I guess, to see the small dot marked “POI” on that spot; the only reason I knew what the dot marked was that I knew the history of the area — it made me wonder what the other dots could be. The atlas presented many puzzles. I wondered if whoever compiled the atlas had wandered into small cafes and asked where interesting things had happened but had lost their notes before everything was marked.

Old mines and ghost towns in the mountains have always struck me as being of the sort of wilderness George Sibley wrote about in the April issue. The mines a century later do not seem quite so imposing; they are an altered landscape that sometimes make me think of post-apocalyptic movies when I stumble across them; finding places like that is something that topographic maps have helped with before too. There were many times when I picked a route and found an old cabin or two, or old mining works, and suddenly I was not just a lone man wandering through the wilderness, but a lone man wandering through an abandoned world too harsh for others to live in and could expect to encounter armed bands of cannibals at any time.

The mines and ghost towns are the rural Western equivalent of abandoned warehouses and factories in the long-inhabited cities and regions of the country. In the Twin Cities, where my brother roams, there is a strong vein of explorers that goes out to the abandoned buildings and especially the caves along the banks of the Mississippi. Many of the caves were used during Prohibition as speakeasies and distribution points along the river, and now abandoned warehouses holding large amounts of explosives back up to caves there also. This sort of new explorer is the subject of the documentary film “Urban Explorers,” which I recommend to anyone interested in the abandoned and decaying sections of cities. Some of these abandoned places are amazing to see, and I have to admit that they are quieter than some of the designated wilderness areas I have been to.

I cannot imagine this new sort of exploration becoming a huge new trend with special clothing and gear lines, mainly because the majority of the areas that are being explored are privately held and kids could end their adventures in jail (of course that happens when the kids head out to parties or the bars, so maybe it is not a very strong argument), but with scarcity of resources and a growing outspoken segment of society deciding to stay in their own backyards, there could be more kids taking to the abandoned factories and sewer systems in the coming years — where else can you go to be wild in a city surrounded by cities?

Bottoms up,

Joseph Van Nurden,
Gunnison, CO

Digit Stories

Editor’s note: In Mountain Gazette #173, I put out, via a Smoke Signals column titled, “Digits,” a call for stories that were, in some way, finger related. To say that I was inundated by a tsunami of verbiage is an accurate observation. When I put out that call for digit-based mountain stories, or mountain-based digit stories, I was expecting a half-dozen or so, 100-word-ish glib recollections about blisters being born while chopping firewood. What I got instead was several dozen submissions totaling tens of thousands of words. I was flummoxed, so say nothing of organizationally challenged. I’ve spent the past several months trying to figure out how to best package and present even a small percentage of that sierra’s worth of syllables. I’ve considered dedicating an entire issue to the Digit package. I’ve considered just punting the whole notion and sending the sagas off to MG’s online editor, in hopes that he can find a way to post them en masse. I’ve considered pretending that I never put out a request for Digit stories in the first place, or pretending that no one responded. In the end, I’ve decided to start moving them into issues of the Gazette as room allows, thus spreading them out, much like the fingers on a person’s hands when he holds them up and shouts, “No mas!”

The Finger on the Barn

It was there when I moved here. Down by the Roaring Fork River, just past Woody Creek. The Woody Creek. Gonzo Country, or so I hoped. It was painted on the roof of a barn, plainly visible from the highway — a rigid 20-foot middle finger aimed at everyone who passed by. I figured it was targeted at tourists, and maybe for newcomers like me. Later I heard that it was directed at an ex-wife.

After the state expanded the highway, the barn was harder to see, obscured below a four-lane concrete butte, beyond the wide shoulder and over the jersey barriers that keep us all safely moving in the proper direction. I could only see the roof when traveling in the right-hand, down-valley lane, and only then from the passenger seat. I believe the property had changed hands at least once. The paint had faded and was repainted at least once. I heard that the barn was torn down recently, something about the unsafe condition of the barn, or maybe it failed the standards for the highest and best use of valuable real estate.

Perhaps it was a practical joke milked well beyond its twinkle. Maybe it was a grudge borne out long past the initial insult. Could be that it was an effort to buy some local bona fides for the cost of a coat of paint. Now it is just another a roadside attraction succumbed along the mag-chloride autobahn. Res ipsa loquitur.
— Malcolm McMichael

My Left Little Finger

I had been cut many times before, with no lasting ill effects other than scars. But this time I would regret my casual attitude to what was happening to me. It’s not that the injury was my fault, exactly. I haven’t heard of another like it, before or since. There was no anticipating it, or trying to avoid it.

I had been an avid rock climber for some dozen years or more, and had hit a plateau at about 5.10d Sport, 5.11 Top-rope, 5.9 Trad. Don’t know what any of that means? Every popular pursuit has its own lingo, to make non-participants feel excluded, and climbers are a particularly excluding bunch. Such stats are based, in this country, on a standard called the Yosemite Decimal System, but, despite its name, that standard is not itself based on decimal numbers, since it includes letters, and it maintains that 5.10 is higher than 5.9.

Whatever. I can say that mine was not a very impressive plateau. Much better than what a novice could do, certainly, but barely a warmup for a serious climber. I knew there would be few promising avenues for improvement as my 40s wore on. I could think of only three. I could drop some of my 200 pounds; even at 6′ 3″, that is a lot of weight for a climber. I could improve my flexibility, perhaps my weakest climbing trait. I could also train more seriously, instead of showing up at the crag or the gym once or twice per week and hitting it like a weekend warrior, my feet scrabbling like the Flintstones under their car and my hands over-gripping like John Lithgow watching a gremlin on the wing.

While waiting for motivation to develop along any or all of those three avenues, I was always on the lookout for an advantage of some sort, a mental or physical trick that would allow me to climb a harder route without actually being a better climber. A bigger chalk bag. Better shoes. Different shoes for different climbs. Different food before the climb. Various resting techniques. You get the idea. My favorite such technique, and one that I invented independently (of the other million climbers who also figured it out) is what I call “slothing”.

Our hands are complicated, with any number of tendons connecting bones in the fingers to bundles of muscle down in the forearm. Climb near your ability limits, and those muscles soon tire, those fingers soon release. But, this same complexity can offer opportunities to grip using different sets of forearm muscles, thereby providing some relief to the most-used muscle sets. The most-popular such technique, called “crimping,” is central to the rest of this tale, and is described later.

Another such technique is slothing, in which, rather than gripping a climbing hold (let’s say in the shape of a doorknob) with your fingers, pretend you don’t have any fingers. Wrap your palm, or even just its medial side (the part you used as a kid to deliver a karate chop) over or behind the hold, extending from the side as if you were wrapping it around the back of someone’s neck as they faced you with bowed head. (If you have ever watched a tree sloth climb at the zoo, you’ll understand where the name comes from.) Some good friction results from the large surface area wrapped over the hold. More importantly, the muscle set that holds the palm in this position is different enough from the muscle set that causes finger gripping to allow a rest for those poor fingers.

So there I was, in a bouldering gym down in Austin, slothing my way up what was for me a pretty tough climb. This particular gym had been designed with a high, very steep, but nevertheless very safe bouldering wall. In climbing terms, “very steep” means well beyond vertical, that is, overhanging, like climbing the underside of a ladder. The inspiration at this gym was to have a padded slope running parallel to the wall some six or eight feet below it. Normally, a boulderer, not being protected by any rope, could safely climb only some dozen or so feet off the ground, depending on the quality of the landing site, but in this gym, the boulderer could keep climbing, and a fall from high up would only mean a pleasant slide down the pads to the ground.

Alas, I must admit, I was not on that inspired high wall when the accident happened. I was in some nondescript corner of the gym, maybe two feet off the ground, wrapping my left hand slothfully around a sharp hold. A very sharp hold. Then I fell off. I probably cursed, then shrugged, then headed to the drinking fountain. But, I noticed that I could no longer curl my left little finger into a fist with the others. There was no pain; the finger simply would not respond to mental commands. And it stayed that way, sticking out constantly like a 17-year-old’s erection.

I did visit the emergency room in Austin. They were mystified, but I waited a few days for my return to Colorado to decide what to do. Taped to my ring finger, the pinkie caused little trouble, and untaped I could actually still type with it. This was my little finger — on my non-dominant hand, at that — so how bad could the outcome be? Little fingers are barely strong enough for a good nose-picking, to say nothing of an ass-scratching, and climbers are seldom called upon to use them much. It didn’t seem necessary to find a doctor who understood climbing and climbers.

Back in Colorado, my primary care physician was of course clueless, but the hand surgeon to whom I was assigned did his best to explain what had happened. Each of the fingers has three bones, and generally speaking one tendon is attached to each of these bones, and each of these three tendons is connected to a different set of muscles in the forearm. Pull only on the tendon that is connected to the bone out in the fingertip and the entire finger will curl in towards the palm. Pull only on the tendon that is connected to the lowest bone, near the palm, and the entire finger will fold down while staying straight. (This was apparently what I was doing when typing with my hurt little finger; that lowest tendon had not been affected by the accident.)

Then the surgeon’s explanation entered familiar territory. Pull only on the tendon that is connected to the middle bone, and the finger will fold about in half, with the outermost two bones staying straight as they fold down. Now, this I understood, as I did it nearly every time I went climbing, knowing it as the crimping technique. It is probably easiest to see with the index finger. Count the knuckles on the back of that finger — one, two, three — then bend the finger only at the middle knuckle. Probably, you can pull half that finger down to about a 90-percent angle, while the other fingers remain motionless. (Hands vary, and it may be harder to do this with the other fingers.)

In serious rock climbing, the tendons going out to the fingertip bones usually do most of the work, but climbers have learned to use this crimping technique to rest those fingertip tendons and the muscles that contract them. To get a feel for this crimping technique, put the finger pads (the spot where fingerprints are taken) onto something like a climbing hold, for example the top of your head. Make all the fingers of that hand be bent only at their middle knuckles, roughly 90 degrees. The outermost knuckles, out by the fingertips, should be straight or maybe even a little hyperextended, that is, bent slightly in the opposite direction to which they usually bend. Exert a little pressure downwards with the arm while holding the pressure with the fingers.

In this crimping configuration, the tendons going to the middle bones do most of the work, giving a rest to the fingertip tendons. By raising the middle knuckles a bit higher than the fingertips, it may even be possible to wrap the thumb over the top of one or more of the fingertips, further strengthening the grip. While a powerful and popular technique, crimping can, if overused, damage the outermost finger joints, which may be too delicate for this kind of reverse stress.

The hand surgeon went on to explain that not all little fingers actually have three tendons. Sometimes, they only have two — one going to the fingertip and one going to the lowest bone, leaving out the middle tendon. In my case, he pointed out, after feeling my hands, I had been born with three tendons in my right little finger, but only two in my left, not an uncommon thing, strange as it sounds. And, in my left little finger, the tendon going out to the fingertip had broken, leaving intact only the one going to the lowest bone. I could swing my whole pinkie down to type, but couldn’t curl it into my fist, because the single tendon it had ever had for curling down was broken. I had apparently never been able to crimp with that finger, not realizing it because the three middle fingers are the important ones for crimping.

Feeling around my poor little finger, the surgeon announced that he could palpate (why don’t doctors just say “feel”?) the broken tendon half an inch or so below the fingertip. It must have broken away at the fingertip, he said, which is where they always break. Of course, he often encountered hands and tendons cut through by table saws and the like, but that was not the case with me. And, he said, by way of giving me good news, since the tendon had not pulled down too far, he should be able to reattach it.

There were a few questions left unanswered by this analysis. Why had the tendon broken away from the fingertip? Why had it not pulled away farther than half an inch? Why had it not hurt at all? In fact, the surgeon seemed very surprised to hear that it had not hurt, since tendons that tear away from the bone generally hurt like hell.

But I didn’t pay any more attention to these nagging issues than he did. As I said, I had been cut many times before, 10 or 12 times in fact, and had always come out OK. I was saved from a short, frail life by open-heart surgery at age five (atrial-septal defect), from a life without climbing by shoulder surgery in my 30s (distal clavicle resection), from a life without running by surgery on a broken leg (spiral tib-fib, from which I still sport a dozen pieces of internal hardware) and from a life without snow shoveling by back surgery (discectomy with laminectomy). This was only my left little finger. Did I really need to be saved from a life without drying out my left ear?

Such thoughts went through my mind as I waited to be wheeled into the operating theater. I had been told that I would be conscious throughout the surgery, and I liked that idea. If the surgeon had to make a decision of some sort — stitches or staples? — I would be there to put in my two cents’ worth, giving me the perception, however flimsy, that I was in control of the outcome. This turned out to be a flimsy perception indeed.

For anaesthesia, I was given a Bier Block, which sounds out loud much funnier than it reads. In this technique, pioneered a century ago by German surgeon August Bier, a tourniquet keeps a local anaesthetic down in the limb being cut while the patient is conscious. Simple, works great, but only good for surgery that lasts 45 minutes or less. The surgeon thought that would probably be plenty of time, having felt how close the tendon was to my fingertip. But he was wrong.

While it was certainly not an epic surgery, it did take longer than what can safely be performed with a Bier Block. I don’t know this firsthand, though. I was told afterwards. Despite entering the surgery fully conscious, I have no memory of entering the surgery at all. How this can be is fascinating, if a bit disturbing

Afterwards, it was explained to me that, at the start of a Bier Block surgery, the anesthesiologist prepares for the possibility that the surgery might take too long. They do this by giving the patient, in advance, the equivalent of a date-rape drug. But, this drug will only become fully effective if they want it to, which they control by giving the patient more of the drug, or another drug, at a later point in time. The upshot is that the patient sits there consciously through the surgery with the Bier Block, but if the operation runs too long, the anesthesiologist twirls a dial on the IV machine and thereby not only puts the patient out for the remainder of the surgery, but also erases the patient’s memory back to the time that the surgery prep began.

Memory is an odd thing, and consciousness is another odd thing, and they are related in odd ways. For example, I have often had the experience of waking up a couple minutes before my alarm goes off (even if the alarm is set at an unusual time) and hearing or even seeing the alarm go off a minute or two later. I used to think that my awesome body clock just knew to wake me up at the right time. Taking into account the fact that one can have a memory of having been conscious, or not, depending on something that happens later, another possibility presents itself. Perhaps a person often lies there in the morning in a state somewhere between sleeping and waking, such that anything that might happen to make him or her fully conscious (such as a loud alarm going off) would cause their memory of the last several minutes to be locked in and available to them in their fully conscious state. According to this explanation, it wouldn’t much matter when the alarm went off, and your awesome body clock would having nothing to do with it. If you were in this nearly waking state, and the alarm went off, you would conclude you had been awake for some minutes, but if the alarm did not go off, you would never have a memory of having been awake during that time — and therefore, you would later conclude you had not been awake. Just as I would have concluded about the Bier Block part of my surgery, had I not been told otherwise.

I was not told whether I was conscious when the surgeon changed the plan

The plan had been to reconnect the tendon to the tip of the little finger, whose end the surgeon believed to be only a short distance below that tip. But this turned out to be impossible. The tendon had not in fact broken away from the tip, but had broken a few inches below. The surgeon had been able to feel the tendon up close to the fingertip, because the upper couple inches of the tendon were still attached there!

In fact, the tendon had broken because of my slothing technique. I had wrapped my left hand in an ungainly fashion around a particularly sharp hold, with the result that the tendon had been pinched between that hold and the bone in the knuckle at the base of my left little finger, and had broken at that spot. It had not hurt because, well, tendons do not have pain sensors along most of their length. (In my admittedly non-expert opinion, this absence of pain, reported during our initial consultation, should have been a clue to the surgeon that his hypothesis about where the tendon was broken might be wrong, and he should have called for imaging before planning the surgery.)

So, the tendon was broken a few inches down, near the base of the finger, and actually more shredded than broken cleanly. The surgeon made an incision near that spot, trying to match the scar that would develop to one of the creases in my palm — a neat trick, that, I have to hand it to him for that one — and was able to observe the top of the tendon hanging from the fingertip. The lower part, unfortunately, was not to be seen. When a tendon is broken or cut, there is little to keep the muscle from contracting to its fullest, pulling the tendon along with it.

The surgeon made another incision down near the base of the palm, where these finger tendons pass through a sort of bottleneck. No tendon end there either — and this scar would not be hidden so well as the upper scar. Finally, an incision several inches down my forearm turned up the end of the tendon — and this scar would look like the result of a suicide attempt were it not for the accompanying suture marks.

Never mind that, but it turned out that the tendon end was shredded so badly, and pulled down so far, the surgeon despaired of reattaching it. The plan would have to be changed.

One possibility would have been to take a piece of tendon from elsewhere, the back of one of the legs say, and use that to replace the shredded tendon in the hand. I was told later that the result of that procedure would probably not have been satisfactory. Nevertheless, I would certainly have chosen it if I had been given the option, which I wasn’t, at least so far as I remember, which I don’t because my memory was effectively erased.

The new plan actually chosen by the surgeon still sounds crazy to me, to be honest, but it does have a good track record. Needing a tendon for my little finger, the surgeon decided to reroute a tendon from the finger next door! Yes, the tendon that used to connect to the middle of my ring finger on that hand now connects to the tip of my little finger. To pull my left little finger into my fist, I have to think about pulling my ring finger down using the crimping technique described earlier. No kidding. Sometimes, with a table-saw accident, they will actually reroute that or another middle-bone tendon to the thumb, so that, to grasp anything, you have to think about pulling a certain finger down with the crimping technique.

How does this work out in practice? In my case, so-so.

My left little finger is certainly less flexible than it was, and has a reduced range of motion. I cannot pick up a handful of M&Ms without losing some out the bottom. But, some of that is the nearly unavoidable result of the buildup of scar tissue inside the hand, and some more is no doubt due to weak efforts at rehabilitation on my part.

A worse problem is that the coordination of the little finger with the rest of the hand is out of whack. I am not a musician — luckily — but I used to enjoy plunking on a piano, and now my left little finger often curls down at the wrong time. I might never play a Scott Joplin rag well again. On the other hand, typing, which requires no fine control of volume or timing in which multiple tendons might become involved, still poses no problem.

What about climbing? Sometimes, I find the left little fingertip rubbing against the wall when the finger should be laying flat against it. At such times, the ring finger is on a hold that the little finger does not reach, and when the brain says to pull on that rerouted tendon, thinking it is still connected to the middle bone of the ring finger, whoops, there goes the little finger being pulled down toward the palm. There is however some consolation for this problem. That left little finger is now quite strong at pure gripping, being connected to muscles that used to control a much bigger, stronger finger.

But hold on just a minute, you say. If the little finger is stronger than it was, but one of my tendons was broken and never repaired, having been left to waste away down in my forearm, shouldn’t something be weaker? Yes, there’s the rub. My left ring finger, which used to be a dependably strong crimper, now cannot crimp at all. It no longer has a tendon pulling on its middle bone. Not only can it no longer crimp, it is generally weaker, having one fewer tendon than it should, as well as less flexible, being itself full of scar tissue. Not to point the finger of blame, but the surgeon robbed from Peter to pay Paul, or in my case, robbed from Ringer to pay Pinkie. (Truth be told, the surgeon did an admirable job of executing the surgery — he just picked the wrong of two options for a climber — and he does deserve a pat on the back for his skill.)

Ironically, if I were an elite climber, this might be less of a problem. I say this because one of the world’s top climbers, Colorado’s own Tommy Caldwell, actually lacks a fingertip or two since a table-saw accident some years back. How he continues to climb at his level is a Djangoesque wonder that I can only rationalize by imagining that the holds he uses on his sick climbs are so small they only accommodate one or two fingers anyway, and he still has a couple good fingers left on that hand.

In my case, I need as many fingers as I can marshal, and as many tendons, and now I’m down one (actually two, since I started life with only two tendons in my left little finger rather than three). But I have accepted the hand I have been dealt.

In fact, this setback has given me some motivation to pursue the improvement avenues that I had neglected for so long. I have lost a dozen pounds in the last year. I recently invested in a home-training wall. As for flexibility — OK, I won’t lie, I still haven’t done anything about that. Maybe after my next accident.
— Richard Allen Berg

My Left Middle Finger

My left hand middle finger saved my life. If not for that finger, I would have walked to my death.

One look out my window that morning should have told me not to bother. After a late start to the winter, the night before had seen a foot of snow dumped on Woodland Park. What had previously been chilly sunshine was now pristine white. And I was going to climb something.

I’d been in town for a couple of weeks. Every snow squall until now had abated in a couple of hours, and pretty much thawed by afternoon. I thought today would be the same. So I set off for the mountain.

This mighty, groundbreaking trek I was to attempt? Pikes Peak, one of the most-visited mountains in America. Every year, half a million folk make it to the summit. Half a million! That’s more people than live in Denver. There’s even a road, a railway and a cafe at the top, for goodness sake. So, pretty straightforward, right?

I can count a fair few things I did wrong that day, but chief among them is going alone on terrain I didn’t know. This wouldn’t normally be such an issue — of the 500,000 that reach the summit, 15,000 do so by foot on the trail I was using. By averages, I should have been accompanied by at least another 40 folk. If I had a mishap, someone would be within shouting distance. In fact, the place was deserted. I had the entire mountain to myself all day.

No help, no backup, no footprints to mark the trail. I lost and re-found the trail several times in the woods, but above the treeline, in what was now three feet of snow, I lost it for good. Most days, I would have turned back, but the saddle loomed enticingly a hundred yards up the slope, and the low clouds that I had climbed through for several hours cleared to reveal the piercing blue sky that only mountains can offer. I was sure I would see the summit from the saddle and make the traverse in little more than an hour. “Sod it, let’s keep going.”

As I rounded the saddle, the clouds and snow returned in force. It was a whiteout. It’s at this stage my middle finger enters the story. Sheltering behind a rock as I waited for the whiteout to clear, I stocked up on food and water, and to do so took my left hand out my glove. By the time I had the glove back on, my hand was numb. And not like when you plunge your hand into cold water. It might be a bit chilly, but you can still feel the hand is there. No, this was like the tissue was dead. Severe frostbite, in other words.

If I found the summit lodge, this would offer shelter much quicker than returning the way I had come. The only thing was whether I’d find it. A closer, uncertain goal versus a longer, certain one. I figured the trail would follow the gradient of the saddle, gradually traversing upward along the ridge. I couldn’t miss it. In any case, I was still hungry for the peak. I set off in search, smacking my hands together to bring back circulation.

The blizzard was still relentless. I came across what looked like the road to the summit, but the snow made it impossible to tell. By this point, I had trouble opening my mouth as the icicles from my moustache met those on my beard. Slowly but surely, I felt my hand again. For all but one fingertip, that is. It was at this moment that I realized what state I was in. This one digit showed me what was happening to my whole body. I could barely lift my feet. I was exhausted and frozen. And it hit me: “I have get down. Now.”

I turned and headed off the saddle the way I had come. Or so I thought. After some yards down the slope, I hit sheer cliff. I scrambled back and made my way round, before descending again. More cliff, which shouldn’t have been there.

I was lost.

I’m from Scotland. Well over 30 people die on the mountains there every year, in much the same whiteout conditions as I was in. That’s more than Mt Kilimanjaro. The biggest mountains in Scotland are around 4,500 feet. At 14,000 feet in Colorado, the altitude becomes a factor, and it gets even harder to fight your way back up a sheer slope through knee-deep snow.

Eventually, I found a route off the saddle, though where it would lead me, I couldn’t be sure. I prayed that what little sense of direction I still had would lead me the right way — if not, I could be walking for days into wilderness. My phone was long dead.

Though I’d left the snowstorm above me, the light was fast disappearing as I made my way below the treeline again. I followed streams downward — the lower I was, the more likely I’d hit a road. Incredibly, well after dark, I stumbled into the same campground I had started from that morning. Some miles down the deserted road, my white-crusted figure was hit by car headlights. My friend pulled up, having come to look for me before he called Mountain Rescue.

I turned out to be wrong about the frostbite. No part of me fell off, or even stayed a funny color. If not for that middle finger, though, I would have died on the mountain. I’ve since looked at maps and photos of the area. It seems I had indeed come across the road to the top, buried under the snow, but despite being on the saddle, I was still well over two miles from summit.

I would never have made it.
— Rob Sproul-Cran

How not to cross a mountain stream

I’ve mashed three of my fingers in the mountains. My two pinkies move off at unnatural angles, and the top half of the ring finger on my right hand hangs down at about 10 degrees, incapable of straightening to match its middle finger mate. Boutonniere Deformity is the medical term for that funky digit’s appearance. All three were mashed in my somewhat restless pursuit of a life in the Colorado mountains, one designed to spend as much of my free time in the out-of-doors as possible. Two of my three unusually shaped digits were permanently altered above timberline. Two were the result of lapses in concentration, tipping over on easy ground and breaking falls and fingers on both occasions. The third started differently, and arrived at its unusually angular position at a slightly lower altitude, and in a dissimilar manner to its siblings.

The tale of my funky pinky begins on a June day in 2007, near about where the end of spring greets the beginning of summer. I have spent a lot of time on the high ridges of Park and Summit counties. On several occasions, over my wanderings in these high places, I have had the pleasure to overlook the north face of Mount Democrat while that great face was covered in snow. There was never an occasion as I studied that steep and lovely rock-strewn expanse that I did not wish to ascend the mountain and make a ski descent. Wheeler Basin and its surrounding heights had provided me views of the various aspects of Democrat’s north face. On the day before this incident unfolded, I had mounted a short reconnaissance up the trail from Montgomery Reservoir to confirm a line that fell sweetly from a small col on the east summit ridge, very near the mountain’s true summit. There was the small matter of a very narrow passage fairly low down on the face, and from the basin I couldn’t determine the quality of the snow or the feasibility of ski descent through the passage, but the uppers were clearly magnificent. I would resolve that narrow couloir from a vantage point directly above it on skis on descent.

The next day dawned cold and clear, with my beloved Amy and I getting on the trail beginning our climb at a decidedly casual 8 a.m. Delight filled me as I crossed yesterday’s melt water turned to ice by an overnight freeze just beginning to thaw. A freeze at around 12,000 feet was the best of news, ensuring the maximum margin of safety on a slope that could reasonably be expected to avalanche if conditions were wrong. The tourist route to Democrat’s summit is mainly a casual highway, and by 10:30 a.m., we were enjoying the bluebird views from the summit. From there, like a clairvoyant, I was trying to divine the perfect moment that the snow would turn to corn on the longest elevation zone of the face. About one-half hour later, I had either decided the moment was ideal, or had become sick of waiting in the hope of intuiting the inscrutable.

It had been a good year for snow, or the north face would not have been in condition from top to bottom so late in the season. In addition, the ridge between the summit of the mountain and the col I had scouted as my entry to the face was completely snow covered. On the summit, I clicked into my skis, bade my companion adieu to begin her down-climb, and began my descent.

The turn through the col and onto the face was a defining moment for the quality of the descent. East and north aspects are different worlds in the high mountains. If the snow wasn’t pretty firm at the start, by the time I got halfway down the face, it would likely as not turn to deep mush, and dangerous deep mush at that. Luck and fate would have it that, on this day, I had hit the sweet spot. The cold snap that prompted my little adventure had left a thin veneer of breakable ice crystals atop the snow’s surface that had just begun to soften. It was crème brûlée with a delicate caramelized surface.

Lower down, the crème brûlée turned to creamed corn. For at least 1,000 vertical feet, the feeling under foot was sublime. The sustained steep nature of the skiing made what would otherwise be somewhat slow snow continuously exciting. As I descended lower onto the face, the dark couloir came closer and the essential unanswered question of the descent would brook no further delay.

It was, unfortunately, unskiable. The narrows showed evidence of free-running water, washout down to bedrock and conditions too severe to be either descended by skis or on foot. Lugging along a rope on this lovely day would have added unnecessary weight to a heavy-enough pack, so rappelling the narrows was not an option. My only reasonable choice was to cross the mixed talus and scree field to the east, not my favorite mountain terrain, rendered even more distasteful in ski boots. After a short but miserable traverse, I had linked up to an adjacent tongue of snow sticking up from the maw of Platte Gulch.

Once past the scree, it was an uneventfully slow, slushy and low-angled conclusion after the steep face relented and yielded to the gentleness of the valley. Finally, warm temperatures and the loss of altitude conspired, in the way of the warm season’s agents, to turn snow to brown meadows, with the raging Wheeler Creek armored with willows at its center. Crossing the creek was an essential component of my descent, as my reconnaissance from the day before had revealed this as the most efficient escape from the snow-covered meadow on a warm early afternoon.

I attach my skis to my pack A-frame style, boots clicked into bindings and on this day I carried hiking shoes in my pack. My ski boots were filthy from the walk along the creek scouting a reasonably safe crossing, and negotiating the creek with boots attached would be slightly more unstable and dangerous. I put on my shoes, deciding to toss my boots across, intending to follow with my skis attached to my pack.  I would then attach my boots to the skis on the far side of the creek and slog on out.

The first boot sailed long, into tangled willows on the opposite side. Realizing what a pain in the ass it would be to retrieve boot one, I concluded to toss the second boot to a small but lovely flat spot, free of willows, just short of where boot one had landed, and just long of the creek. It was an admittedly tough shot. Taking careful aim, I loosed boot two, an underhanded toss that traced the same delicate end-over-end spin of a horseshoe as it heads for the stake.

A ski boot, unlike a horseshoe, has a foam interior, and that foam protrudes above the hard plastic outer shell at the back of the boot. The English I had put on the toss of boot two allowed it to land (with superb aim I might mention) about two feet past the roiling Wheeler Creek. Unfortunately, it hit foam side down, contacting the ground at the perfect angle to ensure that it bounced and reversed course — directly back at me and into the creek. I never before considered that ski boots float, nor did I have time to consider it as the boot took off downstream at the pace one would expect of flotsam on a runoff-swollen creek.

I never again expect to cross a raging waterway at the velocity at which I bounded across Wheeler Creek in pursuit of my boot. Hugging the narrow islands of ground that had not succumbed to willow colonization, I despaired. I would eventually be closed out, as my beloved (and only) right boot hurtled its way to Montgomery Reservoir. At the nadir of my despair came salvation. My boot had been carried into an eddy, where it gently whirled. Victory! Within striking distance of my errant footwear, the mystery that is moving water merrily spun the boot into the eddy line that segregates the whirling eddy from the main current.

My lunge wasn’t exactly panic. It was the sort of carefully reasoned reaction one would take to reflexively avert impending disaster. It was a lunge, however, and, as it developed, not carefully enough orchestrated. As my arm shot out desperately for the boot, before downstream momentum could overcome it, my right pinky jammed into the boot, and although I made the grab, the damage was done.

Ski boot safely moored, I stuck the finger straight into the creek, and later I harvested some snow to pack around the poor fellow. The first knuckle was swollen large, and the limited range of motion confirmed for me that the finger was injured rather than simply hurt. Boots (two) now cleaned and clicked into skis on pack, and pack shouldered, I walked down to Monty Res to find Amy, she having long-since retraced the ascent route and driven the car around to collect me. Some whining no doubt ensued; me decrying my fate at having such a marvelous ski descent end so ignominiously.

My injured finger healed, after a fashion. It occasionally plagued me throughout the climbing season (it’s a special move freeing an oversized pinkie knuckle from a hand jam). It wasn’t all better, but rather much better, as the aspens graced us with their annual golden display. Again, Mount Democrat lured me to its flanks, this time to climb its south ridge from Mosquito Gulch and over Mount Buckskin.

My pinky was not on my mind as I viewed Buckskin Ridge — its long and graceful line leading from the summit of Mount Buckskin, down into a saddle and then along a lightly crenellated section that gradually swept upward to meet Mount Democrat’s summit. It is a singular feature of our planet, and forms a portion of the generally arbitrary boundary defined by cartographers as the dividing line between Park and Lake counties. Not technically demanding as a mainly second- and third-class endeavor, the more closely one hugs the crest of the ridge, the more interesting the climbing becomes. The technical difficulties ease significantly as one moves ever closer to the summit of Democrat.

I have mentioned that my hands bear testimony to a certain carelessness, perhaps a proxy for clumsiness, when moving over easy ground high in the mountains. I had cleared the crenellated section of the ridge under high clouds late in the afternoon, enjoying the views while still in motion, generally a poor practice. This day on Buckskin Ridge would be another stark lesson in paying attention at all times, not only when a lapse in concentration could lead to a gravity-fueled trip through the air terminating with an abrupt re-encounter with Mother Earth. Down I went, and out shot my right hand. The nearly healed pinky finger of that trusty appendage took much of the energy generated by my fall. The tendon that had nearly healed after the sacrifice made to rescue my ski boot was now completely and irrevocably ruptured. Mount Democrat had finished the job.

Were I to be transported back to that place and time, I would likely change my behavior. I would look down, be certain of my footing and return my tenth digit to the shape and function with which it was initially endowed. That little finger is nearly fully functional. It leans in to greet its neighbor at about a five degree angle at the top joint, the knuckle permanently twice its original size, and its curl into a fist is less natural than its geometry prior to the spring and summer season of 2007. It has traveled with me since to many wild places. We will visit many more, bearing angular testimony to those days of joy and clumsiness and solitude, my oblation to the insatiable quest for ever-greater mountain passages.
— Peter Lubin

Thumbing Home

Thirty-seven years ago, I arrived in Silverton on my thumb (and, yes, the inimitable long-time friend of Mountain Gazette and nationally acclaimed avalanche expert Don Bachman was my buddy). I have been gone, except for visits, for several decades as I raised a family and made a living. Five years ago, I bought a house here and now stay in Silverton year round. Have just about earned a reputation as a local, although many are skeptical, but may warm up in another five or 10 years.

Hitching outside of Ann Arbor a year before making it to Silverton, I was heading off the road at dusk to sleep under a highway overpass when a VW bug pulled over. The woman driving actually got out of the car and ran back down the highway to get us. I believe that her date was either threatening or really creepy. She unloaded her date and took us to her home to spend the night, share food and showers, and otherwise provide welcome hospitality to weary hitchhikers.

That evening, her housemate was showing pictures of a house he bought in an obscure Colorado mountain town for $2,000. We struck up a correspondence and, newly divorced, a year later I rented the circa-1900 “shotgun” house for $20 a month. The next several years of splendid beauty, and exhilarating activities, replaced my hitchhiking sojourns and tied my heartstrings to the mountains.

Now, my thumb is used less for hitching, is a bit wrinkled, features several sun spots, aches occasionally from arthritis, has improved cuticle care but can still clutch ski poles, a shovel and a kick sled. I am fond of and dependent on my other digits, but give my thumb credit for getting me to the Rocky Mountains.
— Alicia Sharp

Thumb Done Wrong

Skiing has been a passion of mine since late grade school. My career in fabrication and mechanics has had the occasional satisfying moments. I had become frustrated in my current position and wanted to advance to the next department. Second shift in that department was my only option, and seemingly, a right of passage by those already working there. I accepted the second shift and the rewarding challenges of that new work cell.

Once I had settled into the new routine at work, we were being blessed with some large and frequent snowstorms. I realized that a few turns should be possible before punching in at work. Loveland Ski Area had that great four-hour ski pass, good for any window of time during the day. I was eager to take this opportunity for a quick adventure.

It was a powder day, low visibility (low wind!) and the middle of the week — what more could I ask for? Snow was dumping from the sky so heavily that the turns and mistakes from the previous run were no longer evident. Riding up the lift with my chin firmly tucked behind my raised collar, I noticed a potentially nice line curving around one of the many sculpted alpine bonsai trees. I turned around on the chair to memorize the route to get to that point. Off the lift, I cleared the goggles and headed toward that blissful scene. I settled into a rhythm of turns, with the tree coming into view just ahead. I paced my next few turns to make sure that final turn of grace through that cache of powder would be timed perfectly. Yes! Made the turn, tree passing to my left.

What I couldn’t see from my lift perch was the drop-off immediately past the tree. I tried to come to a neutral stance to jump down, but it was too late. I fell hard on my left side, creating a deep snow pit. Pulled myself up and out of that mess (making sure I was alone in my embarrassment), brushed the snow out of previously warm spots and recovered my poles. Goggles were caked with snow and worthless for the rest of the run.

My left shoulder was aching and the left thumb was absolutely screaming in pain. The right hand carried both poles down the rest of the run, tucked firmly under the arm. These were no longer turns of grace, but turns to get my sorry ass off the hill.

I knew that thumb needed some immediate attention before I could drive to Arvada and my obligatory second shift. The clinic had a welcome ice pack and suggested further treatment once in town. First aid treatment didn’t include dispensing of the much-needed ibuprofen; the café did. Once at work, I headed to the on-shift first-aid employee. He provided me with another ice pack, additional ibuprofen for later and a congratulatory “good job!” I was more worried about my work performance that evening in a new department than the nagging injury

Assembly of components and gripping a welding gun for the minimum expectation of nine hours a day had begun to take a toll on my hands. This injury wasn’t a welcome addition to ever-increasing joint stiffness. Many years after that injury, the left thumb and shoulder still perform the many tasks I ask of them. There is the occasional ache and even an unwelcome “ouch” moment associated with those movements. A friendly massage of my hands is always welcome.

I’ve skied Loveland many times since that snowy, overcast day. Riding the same lift, I’ve wondered how I could’ve missed the obvious drop-off to the access road.
— Gary Rossmiller

???

It was because of a trip to the mountains that my wife, Emily, and I finally tied the knot. It was because of that same trip to the mountains that our son was born. Finally, it was because of that trip to the mountains that we were willing to essentially give away our house and jobs so we could get back to the mountains. The ring that I have been wearing on my finger for a little over three years is a constant reminder of that trip and what led up to it.

My hometown had a population of 107. My parents lucked into finding a cheap, run-down resort that had been operating as a hippie commune in the Chippewa National Forest; it was small and run, for the most part, by my parents, brother and I. My parents had taken motorcycle trips across the country before settling down and that urge to travel never left them … so we traveled every chance we got. My family happened to be one of those ubiquitous Midwestern families that show up in Colorado for a week at a time to visit the ski resorts or the trails. We were, however, a family that never repeated trips; we were always visiting different areas in different seasons, so I was at least able to picture the different areas of Colorado, as varied as it is, despite having limited time and a great distance to travel to these places from home. When added together, the time that I had spent in the mountains was already impressive by the average Midwest-to-Mountain-Family-Tourist-Unit standards when my parents decided to take an off-season/late-fall/winter sabbatical to Estes Park.

The township and county I had grown up in was very poor economically and it was a big deal to many kids my age if they were able to get as far away from home as Duluth; my parents, while relatively poor also, were the type of poor people that used their meager resources to travel. This is the sort of distinction that accounts for the very divergent images conjured in educated minds when the word “hobo” appears in print versus the word “homeless,” and this distinction also means a lot more fun and adventure … the positive kind of adventure, not the kind you have when ill-prepared and things are going wrong … although there was that kind of adventure, too … but things are better for the hobo. There was a very peculiar way of thinking among the stationary families. I guess they would be the homeless in my metaphor … hmmm … too harsh — the ones that complained loudly and often about the rut they were in but never really did anything about it. Some acquaintances of mine were somehow unable to understand that the same money they spent in the bars and on cable television could get them someplace new and exciting, if they just held on to it a bit longer— in other words, money was not the real obstacle. When we moved to Estes Park, I was surrounded by kids whose parents had crossed the devil-take-the-hindmost line in thinking as well, but they had stayed. The kids did not come from wealthy families with summer homes on cliffs and three-mile-long paved driveways leading up to them; they were families that had decided they had to live in a small mountain town at any cost, and … BAM! … they had done it. They were much closer in the way they lived to the way I had come to view the way small towns should function. The people that lived there were not the types to seriously make remarks like, “Oh, I could never afford to live there,” before hopping in a shiny new car.

My brother and I were enrolled in Estes Park High School, and we both felt at home immediately. Estes Park may get gazillions of visitors when the roads are open in Rocky Mountain National Park, but life there is a lot different in the winter, when the tourists leave and the elk come down to seize the town. “Whose streets?” ****elk bugling**** “Whose streets?” ****elk bugling**** The elk know where the power lies when they take their turn to block traffic, litter on the sidewalks and stick the local police with herding responsibilities.

It was amazing being able to experience Estes Park strictly as a little mountain town — an actual town as opposed to an amusement park for tourists. Sure, it was a place with some major criminal minds at work, for instance it was a town where all of the copies of “On The Road,” “The Dharma Bums” and The Monkey Wrench Gang” had disappeared from the shelves at the library. Really, though, those books going missing was probably the biggest rip in the social fabric of the town that I experienced. When I walked around town during those six months, I saw it for the simple beauty, as a place where real people lived, some of the nicest I had ever met, and the laid-back attitudes of even the most high-strung people I met made life there even better. I saw it as the kind of place that I could spend the rest of my life in, and that meant a lot to me, because I was always very restless; it was not just a crowded destination that I would be dragged away from kicking and screaming by the howling demands of beating the interest on student loans and paying the bills. The immense herds of elk that set up camp alongside the houses during winter were one of the only-in-the-mountains-type of things that I got to experience that year, but also the acceptance of it was a heart-warming little quirk: “I’ll be there at 7 … if the elk let me past.”

Mountain life changed something in me forever. That late fall and winter were like crossing a burning bridge; all of the earlier trips had meant a lot to me, but actually being a part of a small mountain community would come back to me constantly — while driving, hiking, in the bedroom … whatever, it was a part of me now. It knew it was possible to live in the mountains. I just had to find a way.

In the years that followed, and as I worked through college and the immense debt that resulted, the dream of moving to Colorado never died … but I also now had a bride-to-be to convince that moving well over a thousand miles away from anyone she knew was a good idea. I mixed in Colorado trips with Boundary Waters trips, but the times when both of our potential vacation times coincided — winter — we went to warm places, as my wife formerly preferred to hibernate during the winter.

Emily and I had been together for five years and had broken several wedding dates. Life was too hectic. We were stuck. We were in the Twin Cities still, though we had been talking about moving for years, along with getting married. Life in the big city, even though the Twin Cities Metro area is not that big, was too much for me to handle, and, once I was out of college, and my friends started settling down, I was pulled toward the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and all that the North Woods had to offer. My wife very rarely had two days off in a row, and my spontaneous nature meant that I was traveling alone. I had been leaving every weekend to go out camping, hiking and paddling in the North Woods — to keep my sanity, really.

Life in Minnesota was not right for us, but we did not realize what was wrong at the moment. Emily loved being surrounded by lakes, trees, moose, wolves and bear, but, in the end, it did not inspire her the way that the mountains in Colorado do.

Some of my acquaintances that have been to an AA meeting or 10 often say that problems cannot be solved by a change of geography, but I have never been able to follow that logic, because, every time I get away to the wilderness, my problems are solved, as if by magic … temporarily anyway. Maybe some types of problems, modes of thinking, habits and on and on, will follow you wherever you go, and the teenage logic that “well, there isn’t anything else to do around here” sticks with some people who have a hard time finding inspiration, but it seems to follow that, if you live someplace that excites you, you will be able to easily rise above whatever self-loathing mire you get stuck in.

We took a break from each other. I quit my job and moved North to tramp around the forests I had grown up in. My experiences that summer led to me to start writing and formed the skeleton of my first book, “Heading North — A Novel.” As I tramped around for six months, Colorado was on my mind, and, when my wife and I started talking again, I mentioned that I was planning a trip to the mountains.

Anyway, when Emily and I got back together and finally went out to the mountains, loaded up with sleeping bags and provisions in my little Ranger pick-up truck, things fell into place quickly. As we drove along the Big Thompson River she turned to me and with a twinkle in her eyes like I had never seen before and asked, “So when are we moving here?” I showed her around Estes Park, then we hiked up to Gem Lake, which had essentially been in my backyard when I had lived in town. Though it is a short, easy hike, we did not encounter too many people. Once we got to the lake. we surprisingly had the place to ourselves for at least 45 minutes. Amazing. We continued through to Grand Lake and the White River National Forest to Glenwood Springs, then to the Hunter-Frying Pan and Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness areas.

Emily was enthralled. The bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, moose, bear and the mountains won her over completely. Okay, so the bear and moose not as much, because of our lives in Minnesota, but they definitely contributed to the overall feeling of the trip. I proposed again during the trip, and we vowed that we would finally follow through and get married as soon as possible.

We did some quick planning once we got back to Minnesota and, as quickly as we could coordinate everyone in our immediate families getting a few days off, we flew to California. It was only weeks after we had returned from Colorado, but the weather forecasts for the Rockies looked ominous, and not everyone in our wedding party had much leeway with their jobs if flights were cancelled. We were married near Monterrey and honeymooned along Big Sur.

We had a surprise not long after returning from our honeymoon. Around nine months after our trip to Colorado, we were to have a new expedition member, our son. Our actual move to Colorado came at the end of a month-long, 6,000-mile road trip that found us starting a descent south around Pompey’s Pillar to the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and found us as far south as Perdido Key, Florida. While en route to our southern destination, we stopped long enough to scour the Western Slope for employment opportunities. We were contacted while on the beach that we were needed back in Gunnison, and so we began the trip back West; the wonder of modern cellular telephones finally clenched onto my skull, and I have since taken the step in selling out to “convenience” by getting a cell phone. I flew back to the Twin Cities, rented a monster truck and car trailer, drove up to the North Woods to collect our belongings, including furniture, kayaks, dinghy, canoe, bikes and everything else that we did not have time to find new homes for  — had to beat the storms — and began my harrowing 50 mph journey back through weigh stations, snowstorms and meowing cats with my trucker rig.

Now our son is two and a half years old and enjoys every minute of tramping through the mountains around our Gunnison home. We could not see living any other way. The people we have met here are the nicest we have found anywhere, despite what is said about “Minnesota Nice,” and the two huge mule deer bucks that stopped for a visit earlier this afternoon at our living room window were nice to see as well.
— Joseph Van Nurden

Little Black Dress

Fresh out of the gate for the season, and I was on the soft end of the rope on an exposed and thin ’10C face. Even on TR, for the first route of any season, I would really rather be on something I can lead. Warm up, please. A familiar 5.9 would be nice. Give me some dynamic moves I can use to muscle my way to the next hold. Finesse is not one of my strengths.

Below me, Geoff Childs  — who had gunned up the rope and set up the anchor —  hollered out necessary beta and encouragement. The air had the sharp chill of early season. The rock was not any warmer. The sky was all gray and gloom, and there may have been a little residual snow packed down at the belay station. Climbing is fun, but I was feeling surprisingly grumpy and gripped. It was silly.

I was also experiencing a touch of performance anxiety: Childs was one of the first to establish routes on this local crag. I had a copy of his book, “Stone Palaces,” had read it and dreamt of living the fairytale. From pages yellowed and fragranced by the incessant tick-tock from countless clocks, I enjoyed his piquant and plucky essays from the early days of Mountain Gazette. Childs really is a very good writer. Childs is kind of a hero of mine.

Here is some irony for you. The route we were on? “Fractured Fairytales.” Of, course.

So this is what Childs called out to me to help get my head around the thin nubbins generously referred to as holds, to ignore the possibility of a wide and painful swing, and to haul my still winter-weighted arse up to the anchor. Childs said, not really hollering now, “You are wearing a little black dress and holding a martini. Because your dress is very tight and you don’t want to spill your very dry drink, you must take very small and delicate steps. It will also help if you extend your little finger when you move to the next hold, like you are holding a martini. Grip the hold lightly with your little finger extended … and don’t spill your drink.”

Good god, I thought, I haven’t worn a little black dress in years. I have a sensationally smoky one (is there any other kind?) that remains in my closet. She is shunned by whatever else is draped on the hangers at either side. Jealousy. I had a small collection of others, but passed them along as the years progressed. I can still recall slowly pulling this last remaining dress over my head while wearing little to nothing underneath. I would work it carefully down by body; it wouldn’t fall along my curves on its own. Also, the too-high heels to complete the affect.

It feels like a lifetime ago. Because it was.

I now have little use for little black dresses. I wear ski boots and rock shoes, but no too-high heels. Maybe I could still pull it off, wearing the little black dress that remains in my closet, but I wouldn’t want to. It would pull even tighter across here and there. Most certainly it would not be age appropriate. But for some reason I will not part with her, she falls so lovely and lonely from a pink silk hanger in my closet.

I have paused about halfway up “Fractured Fairytale” to slowly and carefully pull on my little black dress. I take a small and delicate step up and slightly to the right, lowering my heel and smearing so I am able to gingerly grip the next hold, my little finger properly extended. I blush a little when I think of Childs below me, adroitly meting out and taking in the rope. I am confident he won’t gaze up my dress, both because he is a gentleman and because he is happily married to a bright and beautiful woman. But still.

A few more moves and I have finessed my way to the anchor. Finessed. A smile has found its way to my lips and a few clouds part, allowing a glimpse of some much needed sunglow. Climbing is fun. I clip into the chains, break down the anchor and, feeling lazy, ask Childs to lower me. The taste of gin is on my tongue and my skin relishes the familiar cling of the dress. Slowly untying from the rope, my little finger curiously extends.

I haven’t spilled a drop.
— Tricia M. Cook

How to screw up an entire weekend

I remember when Mike lost his. When it finally happens to you, it’s not like you would imagine it. The timing isn’t perfect, the pain isn’t as bad as you’d think and as always it isn’t like it happens in the movies. You know, the blood, the waving it around like you’re some sort of tough guy. Mostly you’re desperately trying not to succumb to shock. I also remember how, as a teenager, my Dad mentioned that he was surprised I hadn’t broken a bone or done something stupid to my body yet. But, as I was saying, I remember when Mike was supposed to come visit me in New Hampshire and never showed up. What’s even weirder is that the two of us have missing body parts and have been best friends since we were kids.

I got a really messy phone call from him on Monday. Long after he was supposed to show up on Friday. It was something all gargled like, “I had an accident. Hurt my foot. That’s why I didn’t come.”

“What? What are you talking about?” He just hung up on me. A week later, after the heavy-duty drugs wore off, he called back to explain how he went up to the barn to get some money from the Bank of Jim. Instead of dolling out the cash right then and there, his Dad made him help for a minute. It only took a second for the hydraulics on the hedgehog to give out, crushing Mike’s foot. The giant brush cutter also took with it some toes that decided to stay in the sock when he went took his shoe off.

I always smile when the story of Mike, Dad’s bankroll, the hedgehog, and the missing toes comes up. That was until it was my turn. It was the last year I bought a pass to the ski area. The last year I could take waiting in lines, having people with no skill cut across double blacks instead of turning, and mostly the stupid conversations you had to have with total strangers on the lift. Like the jackass who started out with the normal junk questions. “Yes I live here.” Which leads to what do you do here? “I’m a carpenter.”

“That’s great,” the doofiss remarked. “As long as you keep all your fingers.” Then he laughed, as if it was funny.

“Too late.” I said, drowning him out by turning up my favorite album, “Born Again,” on the iPod. I’m pretty happy with the fact that people don’t point out that I’m missing a finger. I like that no one asks me what happened when they see my hands. I actually don’t like to talk about that day or anything that has to do with the fact that it’s gone. Mostly, it’s because of embarrassment; there is nothing honorable about crushing your hand and losing a finger. Sometimes, I do imagine people asking about it, and I come up with things like I was born that way, I got it stuck in a lawn mower or a horse bit it off. Unfortunately, it happened 20-some years after I started my career as a manual laborer.

It was one of those amazing late-September/early-October weekends that was on tap. Dry, sunny and warm … a last hurrah before the snow starts flying and everything changes. I actually can’t remember the date or the month. I’m by far not interested in commemorating the anniversary or anything. I had the three-day weekend all planned out. It would start with a relaxed road bike ride from Breck to Vail Pass and back. Then Saturday was going to be a six-hour epic mountain bike ride. Followed on Sunday by a short little mountain bike ride. All surrounded by a little firewood action in order to stock up and keep warm that winter. This big weekend all became a far-fetched fantasy on that stellar Thursday afternoon.

My hand was squarely somewhere it shouldn’t have been, under a log that was part of a log-shell home. The sky was in perfect condition and the temperature was nothing to complain about. I took one look at my messed-up hand and new it wasn’t good. At the truck, I yanked the first aid kit and swapped out the bloody rags I first stopped the bleeding with. I took a second look and knew for sure it was done. There was no choice but to go to the hospital; this wasn’t something I could tape back together and walk off in a week. The bizarre thing was all I could think about was how my epic weekend was all but done. The snow was going to fly, and I was going to miss out on some prime grade-A mountain biking.

The hospital was a nightmare. I paced around this room they put me in wondering why a guy with a mostly detached finger wasn’t being attended to. After an hour went by, some assistant of an assistant came to look. I explained that, if she didn’t have a bandage to rewrap me, there would be blood all over. Let’s just say she ran out of the room in a hurry to get help. Finally, they had some clown of a hand specialist show up to take care of me. He somehow was convinced that he could put it all back together and I’d live happily ever after. I’d only seen the mess twice at this point and I knew there was no gluing it back together. Getting irate at this point, as well as disagreeing on the future of my finger, someone felt it was a good idea to dope me up before I backhanded one of these so-called medical professionals. Dope me up they did; then it was lights out.

The weekend was ruined as I sat inside staring at the perfect weather outside. I wanted to circumnavigate Guyot, ride the Colorado Trail for miles and hang out on the bike sucking up that last bit of summer. Within a week, I was on the road bike, but that wasn’t any fun. My buddies were telling me all kinds of tall tales about their epic fall rides while I pedaled in circles on the bike path. Feeling every bump along the way, riding one-handed at times and hoping not to catch too much speed on a downhill because I had only one good hand to brake with.

It took a couple months and many lame road bike rides, but I healed. Now I have to deal with my hand getting colder than it used too; my stub seems to attract cold. I was once able to brag about not having to wear gloves that much. Now I need gloves on the cold days so my hand doesn’t go numb. My buddies harass me, because I like these mountain bike shifters that are considered a failed design and are hard to get because no one makes them or sells them any more. The common mountain bike shifters are known as “index shifting.” The idea of index shifting while missing parts of your index finger is a little harder than you’d think. I’ve never tried to explain that to them.

Mike and I sat back and laughed about what was worse. Walking around with a dumb hand for a couple months or hopping around on crutches for a couple months. He complained that he had to regain his balance and countered that I can’t pick up anything normally with my index finger and thumb. Maybe toes and fingers are expendable, we both thought after a few beers. If they were, wouldn’t they grow back though? I just didn’t know it could take 20 years of farm labor, playing with power tools and man-handling heavy objects for it too happen. All it took was that one moment when I was day dreaming about that perfect bike ride the upcoming ski season. After it was all said and done, I wondered why? Why couldn’t it have happened on a Monday?
— Jason Komph

Letters – #179

Envelope: Diane

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

Less dog dookie in Paris
Dear Editor: I enjoyed your Feb./March issue while in Frisco and wanted to comment on the story by Michael Brady (Dateline: Europe, “The Merde in France: Dog Dung Decline,” MG #176). Please pass along my applause to him.

On my first visit to Paris ten years ago, I was stunned and appalled at the amount of dog dung all over the city, no matter the elegant address. How could a community applaud its history and yet show so little pride in its appearance? Arrogance?

I was pleased to see the city was cleaning up upon my last visit two years ago. Thank goodness I could walk with my eyes up, not constantly peering down to the sidewalk placing my steps carefully as in the past.

Thank you. The cover on this issue was a delight for our family as we had just traveled through the snowy woods via dog sleds!

Carol Freas,
Long Beach Island, NJ

Heads up!
Hi John: Reading the item on U.S. 550 in the April Cartographic (“Getting a Move On,” MG #177), I thought of another hazard unique to that road: the occasional 60-foot ponderosa sliding down the mountain and plopping on the highway in front of cars, forcing choices where the alternatives might be pretty grim.

We were coming back to Durango from Ouray last Mother’s Day and climbing Coal Bank Pass when a tree just dropped in front of us about 100 yards ahead. If we would have been closer when it fell, we might have swerved to avoid it, dropping into Lime Creek hundreds of feet below on the opposite side from where it fell.

Mick Souder,
Durango, CO

Almost Full Circle
John: Re: Your call for stories about how we came to be living in the West (“Stories of Us,” Smoke Signals, MG #169): It was 2003, the year after I’d graduated from a state college in northern Utah.  From the halls of education, I went to building tract houses with my brother, a contractor, to save enough money to buy a cheap car, then attempt to break free from my native Utah to Bellingham, Washington, where a friend lived. I purchased the car, fled to the Northwest, but a sort-of fate — or just bad luck, or just some unresolved psychological tick — flung me back home.

Back home literally. I was at my parents’ house, avoiding calling my brother to ask for my job back, working a temporary gig where I manufactured synthetic diamonds for oil drilling. In this period of desperation, I managed to send out a couple of “job” applications. Employment wasn’t really the goal: the goal was to find some means to plant myself in the deep soil of the world-out-there after four years squandered in books and libraries and classrooms.

And a proper de-education required the margins, forgotten places, the little and pathetic towns, the expanses of mountains and deserts that radiated outward in every direction from my center place near Salt Lake City. So applications for jobs and internships went out to state parks, national parks, the Student Conservation Corp., High Country News, anything that would lead me into the land where the civilized elements would be eclipsed by nature — big land, desert canyons, mountain forests, spring flowers, summer heat, winter snowfall, birdsong.

Bush and his administration of fools and the press idiots bellowed their bullhorns for war with Iraq. My home near Provo, Utah, was paved over, housed over, strip-malled to death; from behind this madness, I could hardly enjoy the Wasatch Mountains jutting abruptly and high from the earth. To be sure, there was nature, big nature, written in the mountain skyline that I had absorbed into my psyche since I was born. But, for me, the elements of civilization overcrowded the natural like a billboard blocking a vital road exit. And somehow I couldn’t disentangle the buzz of traffic, the edifices of religion punctuating the temples of consumerism (this is Utah, remember) and the ubiquitous post-9/11 flags all around me from the mounting stench of war. War against Afghanistan. War against Iraq. War against Terror. War for Greed. The Oil Wars.

A call came from Blanding, Utah, a place I’d never been before. The manager of the state park museum there said that no one else had applied for an opening, making me the perfect candidate. And as soon as I found out that I didn’t make the cut as an intern with High Country News, I packed my bag and headed to the canyonlands of southeastern Utah. Little did I know that it would turn out to be the perfect proving ground for de-education, for a period of deep immersion within place. A place to seek out elemental and empirical truth in red sandstone, white clouds and blue sky (and green mountains), rather than the lying flag-wavers who were boosting the Iraq war.

I spent weekends in the canyons that fissured through Cedar Mesa, the larger chasms cutting through the Elk Ridge uplands and Comb Ridge’s absurd bedrock spine snaking through the San Juan desert. During the weeks, I catalogued artifacts — pottery, rock flakes and tools, bone needles, wooden digging sticks and staffs, basketry, bird-feathered blankets and the like — in the museum’s database. Then back into the canyons, where I aimlessly wandered through the landscape.

I came more and more to see that desert wilderness as a Puebloan landscape of homes and agricultural fields that dated back to over a thousand years. I had gone to the desert to escape civilization but had found civilization somehow embedded in the desert. But it was an older civilization. And a civilization that I cannot resist feeling — despite the army of red flags that signal the fetishizing and exoticizing of native cultures — is a much wiser one than our own. If for no other reason than that these people seemed to live close to the land and derive the elements of their homes, their tools and their food from the land around them. Even if their corn and beans came from somewhere deep in Mexico, they held a knowledge of how to grow those crops in what most people today see as an austere and threatening landscape. They learned to blend the hydrology of the desert — canyons and washes and rills — with their non-irrigated agricultural landscape. They lived without gas stations and Wal-Marts and other portals of commerce through which the global economy funnels our tangible goods of consumption — while at the same time masterfully concealing the social and environmental costs of those products. I came to admire this indigenous civilization that, sure, was connected to the extra-regional, but was ultimately grounded in the local.

After all, isn’t this global flow of goods (particularly energy resources) at the root of the absurd wars that we find ourselves in this modern and enlightened day?

As with the only other time that I landed the perfect job in the perfect place, it came to the abrupt end that any seasonally hired employee knows. And so I took my newfound tool bag of archaeological knowledge to a cultural resource management (CRM) company in Moab, Utah. I feared that my nine-month-long desert gestation period, facilitated by temporary employment in Blanding, was to be disrupted by the marathoners, mountain bikers, trad climbers, Jeep ralliers and other assorted eco-extremists who congregate in Moab. More, though, I was afraid of taking a job with a company that did most of its work for oil and gas corporations building a sprawling network of roads and wells throughout northeastern Utah’s Uinta Basin. As Bush and his cadre of idiots were executing war abroad, they were waging a domestic war on our public lands written in the form of rapid oil and gas leasing.

The dilemma of CRM work, which protected a few archaeological sites at the expense of an entire landscape, ate away at my ideals like the flash floods that rip away at the root system of a cottonwood tree teetering on the edge of an arroyo. I helped to survey and “clear” land for oil and gas development. So I quit.

For one week, I worked for a hoods-in-the-woods outfit. The kids were from New York, New Jersey, somewhere in California — wherever. Their skin was dark from the sun even though it was February and their hair was matted and sandy. They ate mushy ashcakes, having, as the name denotes, the texture and taste of wood charcoal. Some of the kids’ sooty faces were streaked with tears. Whether forced or by choice, they sat huddled in the big desert like a little clan, each of them to either confront or hide from their problems.What makes these people any different from other people out there (the money addicts, the war mongers, the political criminals), I wondered at the same moment that I knew I would not come back to this job once going home at the end of the week.

And so it was back to archaeology. Which tells me that maybe it was more the asshole boss that I worked for rather than my eviscerated ideals that led me to quit my earlier job. After all, I found myself in a different place with a different company doing the same work. At this point, my now six-year girlfriend and mother of our son (shall I say partner?) and I had been together for a couple of months, and we both took jobs with a small CRM company in Montrose, Colorado.

We backpacked and snowshoed in the San Juan Mountains, watched movies during the winter in Ouray and worked on archaeological surveys and excavations. They continually revealed the wisdom of living fully from one’s locale and the absurdity of our own lifestyles. Energy extraction drove archaeology. Our work took us to northeastern Colorado, near Craig, where a natural gas pipeline was tapping into the Piceance Basin, then being routed north into Wyoming, before funneling natural gas into eastern markets as far as Greeley, Colorado. Rumors circulated that the pipeline would eventually stretch across Kansas and link with Midwestern and Eastern markets. For over a month, we excavated a “basin house,” dating back several thousand years, and which was buried within a trench where a four-foot diameter natural gas pipeline was to be interred.

Sometimes we return to places like blood cells circulating through a body; other times, places become closed pathways barring us from returning no matter how hard we try to get back. I have never returned to Sequoia National Park and the Sierra Nevada, where I worked for six months when I was 21, even though pangs of nostalgia torment me year after year as plan after plan dies without a reunion with that place. But I was fortunate to get a chance to return to southeastern Utah — and damned lucky to work on an archaeological survey of Comb Ridge. It was another temporary job, another brief window into Nirvana. I spent day after day walking the desert, finding and recording archaeological sites, and no threat of development following my wake. It was, largely, archaeology for the sake of archaeology, and the project was lead by a local archaeologist who is incredibly wise.

Out of school for several years at this point, and having walked my share of deserts and mountains, I was nonetheless foolish enough to believe that I was properly de-educated and now ready to return to graduate school. I couldn’t decide on a handful of schools and disparate programs, and so I followed my girlfriend to Albuquerque, where she would seek to win a Master’s degree while I would dip my toes into the academic waters.

I vacillated between graduate coursework in archaeology and environmental history.  I strolled through the Sandia Mountains, the Pecos Wilderness, the Jemez Mountains, but mostly it was books and research papers. Except during the summers, when I worked on archaeology projects — projects associated with cattle grazing impacts on Forest Service land, projects at national monuments, where the mountains meet the plains, projects to recover archaeological information before roads and suburbs and strip malls expanded west of Albuquerque in Bernalillo. It was the same pattern: Each archaeological project revealed a people who lived close to the land and locale, and each project was tied to our own society’s attempt to squeeze from the land quick profits, whether through overgrazing, development or tourism. Not land as place, but land as resource and means to profit.

I now live outside of a very small town on Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. I am burdened by an unfinished Master’s thesis focusing on energy extraction, environmental change and local resistance within New Mexico’s San Juan Basin. My girlfriend (partner?) and I have a son who just turned one.  Juniper trees spread out as far as I can see, with ponderosa crowns jutting into the skyline on knolls or within well-watered drainages. I feel very far from what I sought when leaving my hometown more than seven years ago. I long to awaken in sight of the Wasatch Mountains’ ridgeline cutting though the sky, a pattern that I’ve committed to deep memory once again, despite the ugly development that fills the broad valleys below. I am looking for escape from the suffocatingly conservative rural politics of Arizona. I long to circle my way back home, and, yet, I also feel as though I have found exactly what I set out for some seven years ago — being swallowed whole by big nature — which still seems like the only worthwhile pursuit out there.

Andy Wakefield

Here we are
Hey man! We chose the mountains by default, though people find that hard to believe.

My partner and I got used to having all kinds of open space around us after years of living in a rented four-plex in south Boulder County. We called the place Frank’s Windy Acres and it was in the ranch country, just east of Bear and South Boulder peaks. Sure, it had a junk Cadillac, but the views were great!

Eventually, we wanted a place of our own, and gave Wheatridge and Golden a chance, but concluded neighborhoods, in the suburban sense of the word, felt constrictive. Our counseling business was in Lakewood and we searched in the hills within a halfway-reasonable driving distance. Nine months of searching (and looking at a lot of funky places in our price range), coupled with a measure of fate and a motivated seller, found us right next door to the new and yet-to-be-opened, Staunton State Park. We call our place the Treehouse. I’d rather be here, pulling thistle and toadflax, raising the skirts on our pine trees and stacking firewood than pushing a lawnmower in the ’burbs any day.

Kevin Bedard,
Pine, CO

Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

Mountain Scrapbook #179

MG accepts submissions for our monthly Mountain Scrapbook department. All mountain-related photos are welcome, the funnier, the better. Send submissions to keith@mountaingazette.com.

Each month, we pick a winning photo, and the winner receives a year subscription to the Mountain Gazette, along with a Gazette bumpersticker.

Letters – #178

Goddamned Things
Greetings John. First of all, thanks for bringing your “Bottoms Up” book signing and reading to Crested Butte last summer. It was a pleasure to witness you in person and, believe it or not, it gave me a better appreciation for who you are, what you are like and that you are better in person than my imagination could muster from reading your articles and letters in MG.

That said, I just finished “Eating Wolf,” by Tricia Cook in MG #176, and I have to say I found it a bit contradictory that she twice described her “unbelievably amazing day” as being “Goddamned.”

I am an avid backcountry skier and live in God’s backyard up in Crested Butte, CO. I get out regularly to ski up the valley floors to the aspens and into the pines and ultimately into the high alpine above timberline. These places are my sanctuary. I don’t need to attend a church or claim one religion as my answer and savior to all my problems. I just need days in the backcountry to remind me how insignificant so many of the “God Damned” things are.

Even without a religion or some book’s definition of God, I get the feeling that on occasions certain things are “God Damned” out in the backcountry, but often they are “God Blessed.”

When knucklehead friends call and convince me to meet them at the trailhead and the digital thermometer on the dashboard says 42 degrees below zero … that’s Goddamned cold!

Occasionally, the skin track will be warmed by the sun enough to melt the snow just enough to free up some moisture that lingers on your skins long enough for you to reach the next shady spot where the cold snow instantly seizes to the skins like a warm tongue on a frozen chairlift. That’s a Goddamned bummer. But it shouldn’t be about “Goddamned Glop Stopper.” God didn’t leave the Glop Stopper at home … I did.

Then there’s the nuking ridge line when it is blowing so hard it takes you four tries to get your jacket on and your skins get wrapped around your face and shoulder when you rip them off your skis … that’s Goddamned windy.

I ski with a guy we called the Pit Bull because he is so darn tough. He’s smaller and shorter than all of us, but he had the fattest skis and heaviest set-up of everyone, but he’d charge ahead nonetheless, click clack, click clack. Those Goddamned sounds resonating from the Goddamned heavy-assed AT bindings he’d be stomping up the mountain on. There are lighter, more quiet bindings that are not Goddamned. The Pit Bull has evolved to a higher binding … he’s now the Tasmanian Devil.

Lastly, there are days that register as “the best day of our life.” One of my friends continues to acknowledge each new “best day of his life.” I keep wondering how we can keep raising the bar on bluebird powder days with stable mid-packs and bottomless powder and grippy skin tracks in great temperatures with just enough air movement to keep the sunglasses from fogging. I’ve been a party to multiple “best days of his life” and I don’t recall ever acknowledging them as “Goddamned great.” We reserve those days for labels like, “Freaking God Blessed Great” or “Bloody God Blessed Awesome.” That’s because those days are truly blessed and all the Goddamned things seem to disappear. There’s nothing damned about them.

May we all have many more “God Blessed best days of our lives.”

One thought for the road. Never attempt to pour ashes from an urn from the window of an airborne Cessna. I got a pretty good taste of my mother’s ashes that way. The cloud of ash filled the cabin and nearly blinded the pilot who made us stop the ash distribution because he couldn’t see and was freaked that he might crash the plane. That would have been a Goddamned shame. Once safely on the ground, we thought about our mother and how Goddamned funny she must have thought that scene was.

When in Doubt … Go Higher … words to live by.

Cheers from Crested Butte,

Allen Hadley

Leg Up, Franzy!
Mr. Fayhee: I picked up last month’s MG just as I got news my best canine friend, Franzy, had bone cancer. It couldn’t have been more appropriate that #176 was the annual dog issue. Just as my entire being became focused on all things related to helping my furry buddy, I was happy to see MG was right there in the orbit with me. He’s getting a second chance at life, now as a “tripawd” dog, and is constantly reminding me what resilient and strong creatures dogs are (I’d be crying like a baby for weeks, he was running after one week). Cheers to all of our furry friends who join us in the adventures of life. Thanks for an enjoyable issue.

Megan Ruehmann, New Mexico

Little Dog #1
Hello, Mr. Fayhee: You don’t know me from Adam, but my boyfriend, Brian York, said I needed to write to you concerning “Little Dog” Casey (“Little Dog,” Smoke Signals, MG #176). I’m not a writer, my grammar is poor and I don’t know where or when to start or end a paragraph, so please put up with me and struggle through this note. If you’ve already returned Casey to the rescue, go ahead and delete the message. Life’s short. Don’t waste it on the frivolous.

I’ve attached a picture of Hanxious. You see, I too had THE perfect dog. It wasn’t Hanxious though. It was Baily, the German Shepherd BEFORE Hanxious. I found Baron (that was Hanxious’ name when I adopted him) on a German Shepherd rescue page — even the rescue wouldn’t take him in because of his health problems at age two, but they were willing to post his picture for the family. I knew if he ended up in a shelter, they would euthanize him immediately, so I met him and, long story short, brought him back to Summit County with me in December 2004. Hank was my “Casey.”

I too just couldn’t find that bond. He wasn’t Baily (who had died in Oct 2004). Had I done him a disservice? Did I bring him home not ready emotionally? I really did have the perfect dog in Baily. I knew from the start he couldn’t keep the name Baron. It didn’t fit. PLUS, as an added bonus to his health issues, I found out he was socially retarded. This isn’t a joke. He would run toward dogs barking and making a ruckus. Ninety-five pounds, big ass, but friendly, g. sheps CANNOT do this as others who didn’t know him interpreted it as “oh shit … ” as the fight-or-flight response was kicking in. Yelling “Hank” made him seem less scary than yelling “Baron.” Even with training, this was a habit we couldn’t break … nor could we break the neurotic chasing his tail … nor the masturbating after dropping and chasing his tail. Lovely.

For months, and I mean MONTHS, I tried to bond. I kept asking myself or telling myself, “We met for a reason. Our paths crossed for a reason. You’re supposed to be my dog. Can you please show me why?” In October 2005, 10 months after Hanxious (Baron) came into my life, I found out why Hanxious (who no longer responded to the name Baron) was in my life.

I had been very busy at work and had neglected my duties as an owner. Hanxious needed to go for a good hike and so did I. We hadn’t had a good walk in three days. So, we got up early in the gray light on a quiet October morning on Buffalo Mountain. It was a cool morning. No snow on the ground yet. Dry trails. Empty trailhead, as it was very early and that fabulous “between the seasons,” when there are very little, if no, tourists around. A benefit of the dog training was that Hank didn’t need a leash, he stayed within eyesight, and never chased wildlife. Off we went on our hike. Very beautiful. Very quiet. We were both enjoying the peace of a day off in the forest. Then I heard the “SNAP.” I just then realized how QUIET the forest was. No squirrels. No birds. No people. Nothing. Hank heard the SNAP of the tree branch also. He did a 180, dropped his tail, ears up and listening with solid stance and an intense look up the trail behind me. Hank really WAS a German shepherd, not just some genetic and social misfit in a black and tan coat. I had never seen this in him. My gut told me, “this is bad. I’m in the grey light of morning. It’s fall. There are mountain lions on this trail. You’ve seen the paw prints, you dumbass (me, not Hank), and there is NO ONE on this trail other than you.”

So of course, I tell myself, “must have been a squirrel.” And continue walking, less than 50 feet down the trail, another SNAP. Hank again turns, displays his “game on/bring it” stance, and it’s not a play stance. He looks at me, he looks up the trail, he looks at me, yet, barely moving any muscles. The “SNAP” we heard is at the same distance behind us, following us. I know it’s not a squirrel. I know I now have to start thinking survival. I look for something to make me look bigger. With a glance behind me, I see nothing, but Hank isn’t moving. He’s holding his ground. I find a good, four-foot tree limb. I pick it up and think, “God help us. I just killed myself and my dog by making a stupid decision this morning. Walking in the grey light … ” Hank sees me pick up the stick and he thinks, “ooooo! … fetch!” and starts jumping around. I give him the stick and he starts swinging it and jumping with it (he’s now taller than I am) and running around me with it … and scared off whatever it was that took off into the forest behind us. Aha! We’ve found it!  The bond! Hank is here to protect me when it’s needed. Other than that, he’s just going to be a goofy, socially retarded, masturbating-is-better-than-Prozac kind of dog. He knew his job, he had never had the chance to show me though.

As the years passed, I did have to travel quite often with my dog, and he did his job. No one messed with me or my truck. If I had to stop at a rest stop (you know, those along the road with the blue signs on the highway with the signs that say “no dogs allowed”), he’d walk right into the women’s restroom with me. Not a single highway patrolman writing his reports at those rest stops at 2 a.m. saw him. Amazing! A 95-pound invisible German shepherd. However, he WAS visible to truckers and other over-the-road travelers, and without a word or a bark or a growl, he could make them step off the sidewalk as we approached. He wouldn’t have hurt a fly intentionally (he wasn’t really well coordinated), but he knew when to “look” like he meant business.

So, if you’ve made it to the end of this rambling, kudos. I don’t know what has happened with you and Casey. I think she is bonding with you. She’s a “BIG” dog. She’s had a lot happen to her before you met her. She hasn’t had the chance to truly bond. She’s had approximately a year of living on her own (think of it in human years, could you imagine a kid trying to adjust after seven years of being shuffled around?). Give her a chance to drop her guard and feel safe in your home. Did you ever think she’s looking at you oddly or not responding to the name, “Casey,” because it’s NOT her name? Give her the name YOU like and that YOU see in her. Hanxious (Hank) wasn’t Baron in my home. We adapted to him.

Jokingly, when we knew he was getting anxious (thus Hanxious), I say, “chase your tail!” cuz I knew he was going to do it soon. Then I’d give the command “masturbate.” Friends would laugh and ask how we taught him that. I’d tell ’em we adjusted his commands. It’s a skill he came with.

Give Casey time and see what skills she has brought to the table. Your paths crossed for a reason. Hang in there.

Thank you for your time,

Denise Fair

PS: Of course, when I told my dad that trail story (a former K9 cop in the Bay area), he just said Hank didn’t scare the mountain lion off … the mountain lion took one look at Hank and thought, “I wonder if stupid is contagious?” and ran away.

PPS:  After years of daily medicines, lots of love, thousands of miles in the car and on trails, Hank’s genetics allowed one disease that he just couldn’t beat and the meds made him sicker. Brian and I said goodbye to Hank in October 2010. A very sad day because, although he was never Baily, he was the BEST dog I could have had.

Little Dog #2
Fayhee: Take the dog back and get a big dog for your small mind.

Thank God you never had a gay child.

Charley Wrather

Little Dog #3
Hey: I truly hated my “new” dog for about a year after I adopted her. Now, six years later, can’t imagine life without her. She’s part of me. Actually had an ex-boyfriend say he never felt like he had all of me until we had the dog with us as well. Another simply said he was jealous of her and didn’t like her. Obviously, that one didn’t last long

Sometimes, it really just takes time, just like any other relationship that means anything.

Hope whatever you decided, it works out for everyone.

Shawna Bethell, Durango

Little Dog #4
Dear John: In reference to “Little Dog” in the most recent Mountain Gazette, I think you made the right decision. That was you, your mutt, and your wife in the Silver City dog park the day I met you not long ago. There is no accounting for the bond between the man and his dog, and like you I’ve loved a dog or two dearly. Of the two dogs going down my life’s path, I’ve often yelled at Merlin, “Get your scrungy arse off my pillow!” But usually to little effect … I seldom reproach the other dog, Noche, but when death overtakes either of them, I will weep buckets of tears.

Don Sterling, From Gunnison and friend of George Sibley and the gang

Little Dog #5
Hi John. I recently sent the Feb./March 2011 Mountain Gazette to my 70-something-old aunt who lives in lower Manhattan. Roz lost “her” dog (Girlbaby) about two years ago and I thought your words were ones she would relate to. She has read “Little Dog” on several occasions and after each reading comes away with something different!

Now living with two cats in a small studio, she is still coming to terms with her loss but that a “new” dog is in the future for her. Just when and where this will happen, nobody knows and that’s OK.

Thanks,

Paul Seelig

PS: She thinks it would be good for both you and Casey, if you decided to keep her, to have another dog around.

Little Dog #6
John: Your insight in the article — that we may only have one canine total-bonding-experience in our lives, if we are lucky — resonates with me. We had one over here with a rescue hound dubbed Shoshone. But maybe you’ll be fortunate to experience it a second time.

Anyway, it takes some courage to try.

R. Udall

Little Dog #7
John, Your readers want feedback about your dog.

Below is feedback from the animal world.

Fayhee Sucks!

Charles Kerr

Mountain Scrapbook – #178

MG accepts submissions for our monthly Mountain Scrapbook department. All mountain-related photos are welcome, the funnier, the better. Send submissions to keith@mountaingazette.com.

Each month, we pick a winning photo, and the winner receives a year subscription to the Mountain Gazette, along with a Gazette bumpersticker.

Letters – #177

Envelope: By M. Ward.

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

Bad trip
Hi John, Read “Bad Trip” (Smoke Signals, MG #175) with a sense of déjà vu.

After finishing training in family practice in the early ’70s, my then-wife and I were invited to look at small town practice in western Kansas, Oberlin to be precise. Like you, I figured not too far from Colorado, so we would give it a look.

So, on a cold November Friday, we headed east and lost sight of the mountains in the rear view mirror at Limon. There are two colors out there that time of year, grey and brown, which reflected our mood as we pulled into town. Oh yeah, the wind.

We were met by the “doctor search committee,” and I immediately sensed desperation on their part. The group of about five or six included the bank president, a Kiwanis leader, hospital administrator, board members and a very bedraggled looking physician who had lost his only partner six months ago to a Colorado mountain community. The town doc tried to put the best spin on the situation, but it was pretty clear from the onset that this place was meant for a physician committed to his patients but not much else, including family, recreation or sleep.

The next day was the town tour, which included prosperous farms, the grain elevator, Main Street and the hospital. Nice enough people, but we felt the pressure growing as the day progressed.

Scheduled that evening was the dinner in our honor. Held at the VFW Hall, my wife and I were a bit shocked to walk in to a room with about 30 citizens of Oberlin and environs. Unlike you, unfortunately, I had to face this whole ordeal sober. (I think Oberlin is dry). The search committee director gave a nice positive overview of a medical practice in western Kansas and abruptly asked for a decision yes or no will I come to Oberlin. I have no recollection of how we declined their kind offer, but I have ended up working in the mountains for next 35 years.

By the way, with age, I have learned to appreciate the wide open spaces and haunting beauty of the high plains and the kind, resilient people that live there.

Always look forward to the Mountain Gazette.

Best,

Jim Oberheide

Say what?
I’m hear [sic] at a bar. There is beer, and right now I’m too lazy to read, so thanks for these great photos … but if you ever have a little extra white space, maybe a crossword? And if you do, [sic] do a crossword, how about one that’s all about beer?!

Respectfully inebriated,

Reader Number 082568 aka, Tee from Denver

Hitchhike Hard with a Vengeance
Dear Mountain Gazette: I just finished reading “In Remembrance of ‘Boy’,” by Rosco Betunada (December 2010 issue). I have been hitchhiking around the United States for most of 14 years and it is amazing who picks you up.

Once I was hitchhiking in Idaho and this guy picked me up.  He told me that his friend was hitching north of Twin Falls. This old pickup pulled over and he got inside and looked at the driver. The driver looked at him, smiled and said, “Yup, I am who you think I am.” It was Bruce Willis.

One time I was hitching in western Nebraska and these three guys picked me up. I got in the back seat of the car and we were going down the road when the guy sitting next to me looked at me and asked, “Aren’t you from Ames, Iowa?”

“How did you know that?!” I replied totally surprised.

“I picked you up a few years ago and you gave me a copy of your book.”

That guy later told me that he got a ride from Missouri to Iowa in the late 1970s with a guy named William Least Heat-Moon. Least Heat-Moon later wrote the best-seller, “Blue Highways” (first published in 1982).

If you are interested in my hitchhiking travels, you can read my book “High Plains Drifter: A Hitchhiking Journey Across America.” It was published in 2008.

My home base is between the Missouri River and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Sincerely,

Tim Shey, Bozeman, Montana

A Matter of Pride
Dear Editor: In MG #173, I find two new names on your masthead as senior correspondents — Richard Barnum-Reece’s and mine. On the behalf of now-dead Richard, I’d like you to know that he would be really pleased by this designation, as he and I always pictured your magazine as the ultimate in alpine truth-telling. This is the only publication we ever found that consistently understood what we thought it was all about.

He and I were introduced to MG when we first saw Dick Dorworth’s ’70s article “Night Driving.” We held (still do) his writing and accomplishments in the same esteem as that of Edward Abbey, Yvon Choinard and other big mountaineering names of the time. Thirty-five years later, that same sense is still true for me. That you would name a dead guy “(RIP)” as a senior correspondent (maybe a first in magazine journalism) validates MG’s courage, sense of humor and sense of what’s right.

For my own part, this mention is going on my resume with a great deal of pride. To be listed on your masthead with Dorworth and the others there is a major milestone.  Thanks.

Dave Baldridge, Albuquerque, NM

Perfect
To Human Companion Bob Welsh in Mountain Dog photo, MG #176: While a picture is worth a thousand words, the picture may not portray reality, but allow me to go off on my impressions of you and the picture you appear in on page 23. The photographer is identified as a woman. If she doesn’t love you, you are still lucky enough to have a woman who is gracious enough to at least put up with you AND your dog. Your dog loves you, is at ease and looks forward to working with you and is gracious enough to put up with you when your attention is diverted. The photo was taken at an out building. Its windows haven’t seen glass for a long time. These features, along with your clothes and complexion, mean that you work some land that comes with a personal history. The beautiful brace of birds came from that land, your land, from walking distance. You didn’t drive for hours on a Saturday morning to get in line at public land to chase birds that were stocked the day before.

Bob, if only so much as a word of this is true, your hat may as well be a crown. You are young and strong and king of your world. That’s what I see in that photo.

Charles Green, Boise

High Praise Indeed
Hey M. John: I just picked up the latest issue, #176, of the Gazette: “4th Annual Mountain Dog Photo Contest.” Actually, as always I picked up two copies. One to leave in the shitter at work in an attempt to spread some appropriate perspective to my co-workers during their otherwise busy days, and one for home, which, incidentally, often finds its way to my shitter as well. Mind you, this business about the Gazette finding its way to the shitters that populate my life is not meant as an insult. Quite the contrary. Only the best of the best makes the cut. In my world, there’s no greater status reading material can attain than to cross the carpet/linoleum boundary and find a home atop “the oval office.”

Bathroom talk aside, when I got around to cracking open this latest issue, I couldn’t help but notice the issue month read “February/March.” In a panic, I rushed to the computer (don’t worry … I washed my hands), to check and see if the Gazette is going to an every-other-month publication schedule. I just don’t think I (or my relaxing co-workers, for that matter), could go a full two months between each issue.

So, what’s the scoop? Have I just somehow missed that the Gazette combines a couple months as in years past or is this a new development in the publication schedule?

Thanks for any clarification and thanks again for the fantastic mag.

Mike Gerhardt, Boise

Editor’s note: We now publish 10 times a year, with double-month issues appearing February/March and August/September. This gives our staff time to hit the road for a spell without falling even further behind than we already are and always will be.

Little Dog #1
Dear M.J. Fayhee: I’m sure my email is one of the dozens you have now received regarding your heart-wrenching article in the latest Mountain Gazette (“Little Dog,” Smoke Signals, MG #176). You may have already relinquished Casey by now, but I’m writing to contribute my unsolicited two cents worth.

I too had a “soul mate,” my little Ute, a red Aussie mix, only 35 pounds. He died in my arms at age 2 1/2. There have been two dogs since: Harvard, who eventually stayed with the ex-husband, and my current dog of 10-plus years, Willow. There will never be another Ute, no matter how short our time together was. And while I have loved both Harvard and Willow with all my might, the relationship is not the same.

I’ve also had some experience in the Land of Enchantment, which is not very enchanting for many of our canine friends. Notoriously the opposite. I lived for a short time in the village of Corrales, and heard various stories of how folks came by their pets.  One fellow that I dated briefly got his dogs on one of the local pueblo lands where he was doing work. He coaxed the smaller, more feral one, out from under her bush and was successful at grabbing her after various attempts over a period of time. She domesticated somewhat, but once chased my neighbor’s cherished little brown hen and yanked out several tail feathers. Running down birds was probably a staple of hers out there on the res. Another woman had rescued her dog when she spotted it trapped in an irrigation ditch (luckily dry at the time) with the chain around its neck. No collar, mind you, just the chain. No one ever claimed him, so she kept him.

The fact that your Casey has still managed to maintain her sweet disposition after her eight months of wide-ranging experiences speaks volumes to her inner nature. She has not tried to viciously attack your cat, plays with other dogs and is up for new adventure.  Can you teach her to stay closer on your forays to the woods, your deal-maker? That could take time.

I got my Willow when she was “3-5 months old.” Again, it was questionable. I adopted her from the Clear Creek Animal Shelter in Dumont, though she has a chip in her head from Denver Dumb Friends. My guess is that her original litter went to Denver and she was adopted out from there. For whatever reason, that lasted only a few months, and she ended up in Dumont. She has always gotten along well with other dogs, and even had a little cellmate at the overcrowded Dumont Shelter. Perhaps her other little incarcerated comrades had been more of a staple in her life than people had.

I adopted her on Halloween, 2000. She was my reaction to cancer — not mine, my friend Karel’s. Karel had died just two weeks before on October 19th. I had just moved back to Summit County after a six-year hiatus and was living in Wildernest. I wanted a dog to hike with me, though I had just bought a townhouse with almost white carpet. Not the most practical decision I have ever made. Karel had been 49 when she died. My mind set was, “Life is short. If you want a dog, get a dog.” So I did.

Unfortunately, Willow and I did not immediately bond, even though I was rather devoted to her. Had to be, actually.  If she needed to go out, so did I. But there was something rather distant and standoffish about her. She didn’t need my constant attention, didn’t beg to be petted, didn’t really crave it. She tolerated it, but didn’t seek me out. I imagined that I had adopted a dog with attachment disorder like those sad eastern European orphans that can’t stand to be touched. She has always cowered from an outstretched hand, and still ducks her head when you want to stroke it. She especially hates the big gloved hands of winter, and it has been with constant vigilance that she does not bite those fingers. One very short-lived boyfriend once reprimanded her and she immediately squatted and peed on his polished wood floor.

Regardless, we became good roommates and pals, though she slept alone on the landing where it was tiled and cool, and I snuggled under my down comforter alone. We explored the trails of Summit County, played in Lake Dillon, but still, there was this gap. She would have gone along with anyone who had a dog, often did. Almost jumped into strangers’ cars. Anyone else with a dog was a good as me. Then, the following summer, June I remember, she suddenly seemed to look at me, really look, and I became hers. I have no idea what triggered it. It had been almost eight months since we met, and by my best guess, she was almost a year old. A gestation period, perhaps? I had outlasted the other humans in her life twice over by then.

She’s still my dog and the devotion goes both ways. We now have a man in our lives, have had for eight years. She’s always liked Alan. He ignored her growling when he first folded himself into my little Mazda, and fed her cheese from our trail lunch. He gives her confidence, and they’ve hiked many miles together without me.

I think Cali has spoken, you just haven’t quite gotten it. Your instincts led you to this New Mexico orphan. She’s not a Colorado dog — she won’t have Mayflower Gulch in her backyard. She’s in YOUR backyard, and feels safe there. So … I hope you will give Casey a chance. It sounds like she has so many good attributes that can be worked with. You’re right that she needs time to become her own dog. Then she’ll have the ability to become your dog. She’ll give you her undying loyalty, when you give her yours.

Best of luck with your decision.

Lynn Fox

Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

Letters – #176

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

Ponying up!

Mr. Fayhee, After making a decision this morning to either continue to be a freeloader and make a 20-mile round trip each month to pick up a free copy of your rag, or renew a subscription to a Denver newspaper that only comes once a week and gives less and less, I decided to subscribe to your magazine.

I’ve read it now for a couple of years after discovering it in a box at a Hotchkiss, CO-area store. I will sit down and devour it like an ice-cold brew on a hot summer day. I perhaps do not fit your demographic, but the magazine does speak to me.

Thanks for an entertaining diversion to the normal humdrum pace of life.

My best,
Jim Sheetz,
Eckert, CO

No extended middle finger
Hi, John: I have to tell you that your “Digits” Smoke Signals in November 2010, was so intercoursing hilarious I was laughing out loud so hard with tears running down my face that I was expecting the neighbors to complain.

I’m sure I’m only one of thousands that look forward to your monthly column.

I won’t be sending in anything for the digits articles, but I do have two digit instances, same person, that I will never forget.

Biking Government Trail with a friend a few years back, the friend fell in some non-major gnarly area and just happened to hit a rock at the correct angle to slice his finger off. It was still hanging by a thread of skin with the bone exposed on its own. A sight that sent the most hardened emergency room staff to the toilet to puke. They managed to sew it back on and save it. I was the mortified one, when we were dashing back to the car to get him to the hospital, there are some difficult switchbacks by the Aspen end of the trail and he, with finger hanging off by the thread, had to wait for me at the car for like five minutes to get down those switchbacks.

That same friend must be digitally accident prone as there was a group of us skiing down Face of Bell in some enormous bottomless powder day when he fell on some bottomed out log on Hanging Tree (I think you know all these places), dislocated his finger and toughed out the rest of the day skiing. Group dynamics and he wasn’t going to give in.  After skiing, he went to the doctor, who talked him into an operation, rehab and physical therapy for it.  You can imagine the banter from the group at him about that.

Since then, when the subject is brought up, the gondola is a hard room for him to work.

Thanks again for the laughs.

Best regards,
Sheilah Bryan,
Aspen, CO

Compare and contrast
John: Earlier this fall, I walked down the drive along the ditch to fetch my mail. In my mailbox was Mountain Gazette along with Outside Magazine. (Outside seems to randomly show up every few months and perhaps the publisher is trying to build subscriptions with random deliveries.)

Both magazines happened to write about personal lists. At the same time that Outside had compiled a lifetime “Bucket” list for its readers, MG had some very personal letters from its readers listing what they had done in their own lives that they considered noteworthy. It was some sort of serendipity to be able to compare an artificial list prepared by editors with input from sponsors, advertisers and media consultants, with actual lists of actual activities prepared by the actual people who related their own personal experiences.

Some of the Outside suggestions were pedestrian: “Learn another constellation besides the Big Dipper,” which cannot ever compare with an actual personal experience that I read in Mountain Gazette. “Connected with lost ancestors in Italy to find the best hugs on the planet … and awesome homemade pasta, of course.” Reading the personal lists in MG was moving, especially when I took the time to think beyond the written words to the emotion and passion contained in some of the experiences. Which gets to my final point — no one else can write your list.

Best Regards,
Tom Noll,
SW Idaho

Cartographic eye-opener
John: Call me crazy, but Tara Flanagan’s article, “Too Close Encounters” in MG #173, was an eye-opener. First, it reminded me of my interest in the supernatural. I’ve always been a BELIEVER, with a small b, in cryptozoological and ET stuff. While I don’t receive Contemporary Occult Devotee magazine, I am casually fascinated by the spectrum, and think of myself as an armchair Sasquatch expert. Maybe it’s because s/he’s part of the mystique of a land I’ve admired since childhood or perhaps, as Tara said, people need something to believe in, and I dropped religion a long time ago. I mean, at least the Patterson film exists for some feasible evidence (a man in an ape suit can’t move like that!). Where’s Jesus making fishes multiply on film?! In any event, regardless of the cause, my interest in Sasquatch even over-rode the social phobia I struggled with till my 20s.

Second year of undergrad, I had a public speaking class, which you can only imagine did to the bowels of a social phobe. But for one stretch, I rode the fine line of anxiety/excitement when I learned of the requirement for a persuasive speech. I would persuade my classmates Bigfoot existed! While my talk generated many skeptical inquiries by classroom Matlocks, most of which I thought I fielded well, nobody was satisfied with my answers about why a Bigfoot was never caught or found in cadaverous form. Typical answers from Bigfoot scholars like, “well, look at how vast the terrain is of the areas they are seen!” and “perhaps it is because they are emotionally intelligent and bury their dead” all of a sudden were lame answers to me too as I watched none of it convince my classmates one iota.

With the amount of sightings versus amount of evidence, save footprints (only some seeming believable), my classmate’s persistent skepticism on that one question left me at a loss for any other answer than to say I had none, thereby admitting defeat, which is kinda what happened anyhow. It meant that it was all just a matter of faith (haha) that I believed, like a right-wing Bible thumper saying “because it’s in the Bible” and no other argument in my support.

Enter Tara’s article and my wish for time travel. While it likely would have opened a completely different can of worms that my prefrontal cortex was just not prepared to manage anxiety-wise back then, I am investing at least two grains of salt into the theory that Sasquatches are of other dimensions. This comes as a result of uncanny timing wherein I was recently made to invest three grains of salt into the idea that other dimensions exist. This happened when I visited a psychic, and, being a rather pragmatic sort, was very careful to not release any personal information and thus assay her capabilities. During said session, psychic consistently informed me of things, to a “T”, without knowing anything more than my name and that I wanted to know about my career and love life. She described my ex-girlfriend in finest detail and even that I saw her the previous night to clear fouled air. Then, in a grand finale, upon the terminal card reading, the last card, placed in the center of the 15 laid out, was of a girl kissing a boy’s forehead. With chills, I explained that was a dream I had a couple weeks earlier in which I forgave my ex-lover. She said “It wasn’t a dream, it was just another dimension.” And I felt it!

With that, I wonder whether Bigfoot is elusive for reasons of dimension. For all the time I’ve spent in Washington, Oregon and Wyoming, I guess I should have spent less time seeking tracks, more on finding portals. Tell me if you have any leads, and if I find the portal, can I have the honors of penning the first MG article from another dimension?

Tony Smith,
Massachusetts

MG readership demographics
Fayhee, You’ve went and done it now. You’ve finally got a publisher for your rag that seems to better understand the freaks, geeks and weirdos who are actually reading the MG. Issue 173 is like free climbing 5.12, skiing the Sand Chutes off the Burn, having post-drinking, wee-hour sex in a rich neighbor’s hot tub (while they’re at home), driving 140 past a diner full of cops, finding a $100 dollar bill in a pair of new-to-you thrift store pants — in other words, epic!

I say this after picking up a copy and just thumbing thru it — I’ve not even read the damn thing, but I can already tell this issue is going to be good.

The sexy, thick, black and white cover makes me think of art ’zines. The wonderfully content-rich interior beckons me to waste an afternoon reading the oh-so-many words that thankfully now have graphics and photos to pull the reader along with the story. Wow, I never thought it would’ve happened. I’ll admit I’ve been worried about the MG — there have been times in the past when an issue looked more like a buddy who had taken to late-night powder skiing thru bar bathrooms: all skinny and covered in blemishes.

Looking at this issue, I see everything you told us in your column from #172 is true. It’s nice to know Ullr has folks looking out for his human scribes documenting the weird and wonderful in his realm.
Your timing for this seems absolutely perfect, at least according to one of my favorite dead writers: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” — HST

I suppose I should end this with a high, smoky toast to all those now going pro. You know who you are.

Peace,
Dave Shinn

Getting Nowhere Fast
John: Mark Ollinger is on to a truth (“Zen and the Art of Cross-Country Ski Waxing,” MG #174): cross-country ski waxing echoes the dilemmas that underlie Robert Pirsig’s philosophical bike ballad of the ‘70s. It’s all yin or yang. Grip or glide in cross-country. Delve into the technology or just enjoy the sport. Carry that yin-yang pair to its extreme and on one hand you have tribology, the scientific study of the interface between surfaces moving relative to each other, as skis on snow. You can do that full-time without ever going out on snow. On the other hand, the sport can be enjoyed with a minimum of just about everything, as put forth in “The Cross-Country Ski, Cook, Look, and Pleasure Book: And Welcome to the Alice in Snowpeople Land,” a 1974 paperback by Hal Painter still stocked by Amazon.com. You can follow any of Painter’s recipes and enjoy sometimes getting nowhere on cross-country skis.

Robert Stahl

A Matter of Pride
Dear Editor: In MG #173, I find two new names on your masthead as senior correspondents — Richard Barnum-Reece’s and mine. On the now-dead behalf of Richard, I’d like you to know that he would be really pleased by this designation, as he and I always pictured your magazine as the ultimate in alpine truth-telling. This is the only publication we ever found that consistently understood what we thought it was all about.
He and I were introduced to MG when we first saw Dick Dorworth’s ‘70s article “Night Driving.” We held (still do) his writing and accomplishments in the same esteem as that of Edward Abbey, Yvon Choinard and other big mountaineering names of the time. Thirty-five years later, that same sense is still true for me. That you would name a dead guy “(RIP)” as a senior correspondent (maybe a first in magazine journalism) validates MG’s courage, sense of humor and sense of what’s right.

For my own part, this mention is going on my resume with a great deal of pride. To be listed on your masthead with Dorworth and the others there is a major milestone. Thanks.

Dave Baldridge,
Albuquerque, NM


Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

Letters #175

Duking your way to Mountain Country

M. John: Mountain Gazette is a fantastic publication and I always enjoy your column.
I am responding to your call for stories. “How I Came to be Living in Mountain Country and Things Not To Do.” (Smoke Signals, “Stories of Us,” MG  #169).

Here goes: Back in ’03, I was a commercial real estate broker in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Despite the economic aftermath of 9/11 and the dot.com bubble burst, I was having my best year. I was a garbage man of sorts. As the youngest broker (31) in the office, I took the deals the older guys wouldn’t touch. At that time, I capitalized on a lot of well-designed, yet hardly used, failed dot.com spaces. Basically, I sub-letted the funky, hardly used office space that a bunch of arrogant techno nerds left behind after their venture capital seed money well ran dry. I put in long hours and worked hard. I made some decent money, however I hated my life. I was blessed with a good job, a loving family, a cool loft apartment and a beautiful girlfriend (now my wife). I didn’t like my job, the corporate world and the endless schmoozing that accompanies the life of a salesman. I knew something was missing. I always had a desire to head west and live up in the mountains. My four years of college in Vermont was a tease.

My girlfriend worked for an advertising agency, and each year they held a huge Halloween party in their hip warehouse office space. That year, my girl went as ’80s Madonna and I went as a ’70s Elvis. Just before the party, we gobbled a certain type of outlawed toadstool. Her creative advertising co-workers had the space amazingly decorated for the party and the costumes were the best I have ever seen. Despite all of this, the party was tremendously lame. At one point, I was tipping back a cold Iron City beer with my cousin, Blake, when I spotted one of my girl’s coworkers getting a little over friendly with her. Now, I’m not a the jealous type, but this hand job was standing behind her with his arms wrapped around her and I thought I saw him kiss her on the cheek. She looked over at me and appeared unamused and slightly paranoid at what I would do. My conversation with Blake came to an abrupt halt and he must have spotted the daggers coming out of my eyes because he put his hand on my chest and said “C’mon, not in here. This is where she works.” I turned away and then looked back to see him planting another kiss on her cheek just as she was pulling herself away in disgust. I walked up to the guy and scooped him up off the ground by his collar. I growled: “Listen, motherfucker, you’re totally fuckin’ out of line!”

A man standing near me dressed as an airline pilot yelled to me “Take it easy, Mick, take it easy.” It was my girl’s boss. I put the hand job down and turned and fixated on the glowing red light of the exit sign. At least 150 at the party were staring at me and this weird scene. I felt as though the walls were closing in. I could hear my white rental leather boots clack on the hardwood floor as I race-walked to the exit door. The hand job was in hot pursuit behind me screaming at the top of his lungs “WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM!” I made it to the door and just as I had one foot out toward freedom, he grabbed my oversized white polyester ’70s collar and forcefully spun me around, ripping the collar completely off of the shirt. The moment I felt the initial tug, my fists instinctively clenched. It had been nine years since I fought in the Vermont Golden Gloves light-heavyweight State Championship, but that night proved I apparently still knew how to hurl a right hook. It helped that the hand job walked toward me as he angrily spun me around toward him. My fist caught him square on his angrily approaching chin, sending his feet airborne and completely laying him out. I stormed home and was unquestionably the most pissed-off tripping Elvis on the planet at that moment. My girl came to back to our apartment and hugged me. “He deserved it … he’s an asshole,” she said. “Let’s move to Colorado,” I replied.

Three months later, we were living in Avon in a cool apartment building called The Seasons. Our next-door neighbor was acclaimed Warren Miller ski star Chris Anthony. On New Year’s Day, I proposed to my girl at the top of the mountain at Beaver Creek. The Vail Valley is beautiful, but we didn’t dig the strip mall feel and Interstate 70 running right through everything. We needed an area with more character, so after six months, we moved to Summit County. Summit’s old buildings, great pubs (Cala Inn, Moose Jaw, The Historic Brown Hotel), Lake Dillon, four killer mountains (Keystone, A-Basin, Copper, & Breck) and abundant characters made us feel we were home. If there is anything better than tailgating at A-Basin’s “Beach” after a day of skiing, then please tell me.

We are back in the Steel City now. My girl is now my wife and we have a precious four-year-old daughter. Our hearts are still in the mountains and, one day, we will return.

Things not to do? At the age of 12, I went through a phase where I pissed outdoors on various stuff. One day I had the misfortune of “shakin’ the dew off my lilly” onto an electric fence. I’d advise not trying it. Felt like someone jamming a handful of sewing needles into your dickhole. Not fun …

Cheers, my High Country friends,

The Surly Mick

— — —/— — —/• — — •/• • •

Hi Editor: I picked up the fall 2010 Mountain Gazette somewhere in Boulder last month & finally got around to reading it. Good writing throughout! Keep up the good work.

However, you might try to keep the proofreader more sober during working hours. In my cursory read, and as a former Boy Scout, I think first word at top of page 5 should be “- -/..-/-/.-/-/../…”  not “–/.-/-/.-/–/../…”

Also, the dog photo contest announcement on page 7 should be for Feb 2011.

Stan Suski,

Santa Cruz, CA

A well-hyphened column

Dear Mr. Fayhee: Thank you for the well-told and entertaining story recounted in the recent Smoke Signals article in Mountain Gazette #174.  Your past works, including those reviewed on the mjohnfayhee.com website, show promising use of hyphenation.  The hyphen-laden piece in MG #174 definitively establishes you as a master of hyphenated usages and qualifies you for honorary membership in the American Hyphen Society.  Ill-informed persons have claimed that the American Hyphen Society is something of my own devising, however, that is not a fact-based assertion.  Although perhaps not  well-known, the American Hyphen Society is a community-based, not-for-profit, grass-roots consciousness-raising/education-research alliance that seeks to promote hyphen-oriented terminology for verb conservation, and further, to effectuate across-the-board self-empowerment of wide-ranging culture-, nationality-, ethnicity-, creed-, and gender-oriented identity groups by excising all multiculturally-less-than-sensitive terminology from the English language, and replacing it with counter-hegemonic, cruelty-, gender-, bias-, and, if necessary, content-free forms of self-expression. The society’s motto is “It became necessary to destroy the language in order to save it.”   Its headquarters are, more-or-less expectedly, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and the society is an non-discriminating, equal-opportunity organization.  Thank you for your efforts in advancing hyphenation.  Your much-anticipated future contributions will certainly advance the mission of the society.

Greenlee Garrett,

Idaho

Thumbs down on new format

Hi John, I just wanted to send you a quick note telling you that I’m not a fan of the new format. I often pick up the MG to read Smoke Signals and check out the photos, so I wouldn’t call myself an avid reader. Nevertheless, I have picked up every issue for the past couple years. Anyway, I just wanted to put in my two cents and tell you that I preferred the gloss pages and smaller size; it was just more comfortable to read. Love your column!

Best,

Benjamin Gordon

Denver, CO

More irreverence!

MJ: Back to the future. As a long-time reader, subscriber and collector (back to #8) of Mountain Gazette, the look, feel and content of #173 takes me back to the classic Gazette. From cover to the content, you are taking the magazine where it needs to go.  It contains a nice mix of established and developing authors, and a breadth of articles.

One suggestion, work on fine-tuning the content with an eye toward adding the irreverence that made the Gazette an icon in the past.

Nice job.

Bob Kohut

We are family

Hello John, I am really excited about the future of MG after reading your “Upwards” column this evening. It will be great to hold the larger format once again and experience some of the sections that have drifted from MG’s pages. We have become regular readers of your sister publication, Elevation Outdoors, and its track record of design, content and innovation lays out a great path for MG’s future.

All the best,

Rudy Lukez,

Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Well, you found us

Editor’s Note: Though this letter came to us out of the blue and seemingly not in reference to anything specifically published in MG, we thought we’d run it anyhow, as we like the sentiments expressed.

We tried so hard. We left our collective “real lives” behind us. Abandoned all need for properly manicured lawns, pristine streets and city-approved signage. We loaded up our packs with everything we would need: love, tolerance, respect … And we traveled. We crossed red muddy rivers, climbed great peaks and traversed seemingly endless plains. We tried out many different spots that at first looked nice, but later turned out to be nothing but the empty shell of capitalism gone amok. We tried all the Aspens, Tellurides and Vails that we could find. Invariably, we left them. Too clean, too expensive, too conservative, too much, much too much too much

We bypassed the covenants of CB South, skipped over the pretension of so many other mountain towns, until we carried our loads of love and happiness over the last pass, on the last dead-end road, to the last great Colorado ski town. A place where we discovered that, if we just accepted one another, we could find the comfort and contentment that had so long been absent. We had found it.

Unfortunately, you found it too. You also came, with your packs full of money, shiny leased cars, expensive furniture and disdain. Disdain for the common workers, who, you say, “can just live in Gunny.” Disdain for alternative views and tax income, “instead … (the) top priority … (has been) dispensaries.” Disdain for REAL LIFE. You must have seen our unkempt yards on a satellite feed, watching from some dark office somewhere. You must have taken notice of our used cars for sale and yards-sale signs taped to, GASP, stop signs. Surely you must have at least been aware of the prevailing culture when you moved here. We were. That’s why we are here.

Now, there blows an ill wind from the mountain tops. Mountains long ago sub-divided and sold to the highest bidder. Anger, avarice, vitriol, disrespect, all rushing down like an avalanche, crushing the spirit and life of our little ski town.

Who is left to run the beacons and shovels? Who will be willing to help dig and fight and scratch for the life we all journeyed so long and hard to find? Who will fight for just one more weird, wild, unkempt, yard-sale sign posting, used-car-selling breath?

We will. Camp Space Camp is even now rallying their forces. The Red Lady is spreading the love. Vinotokians are girding their armor. Ski bums are no doubt sharpening their skis. The RMBLers, the HCCAers, the FOSers, the FOLSers, the miners, the Red Ladies, all those people that live to love this place. Together, we will stand for all that is left!

Perhaps, if you are not finding the investment returns you were looking for, you should just cut your losses and try somewhere else. Move to a place where they will be happy to tell you how to maintain your lawn or where you can store your own belongings, on your own property. Find a place where all the citizens are so rich that they never need to hold a yard sale, or sell a car.

For-sale signs, garage sales, overgrown yards … these are pieces of real life. These are the hallmarks of a vibrant, healthy, caring community. Sometimes yard work can fall to the wayside when most waking hours are spent just trying to survive, and free time is better spent helping and enjoying the people and surroundings we’ve been fortunate enough to find. These are the things you see when people come together to help each other live better. This is the natural beauty that forms as a consequence of community. A patina, if you will. The fact that this patina, this community, this way of life exists is what makes us unique. Yes, these things do make us unique, different and charming.

So, thank you for joining us in our little version of utopia. Thank you for investing in jobs, construction and the local service market. We hope you will stay and live a long and happy life. Just, PLEASE, stop attempting to replace a real, good, positive community with another sad capitalist money-making machine. Please stop telling us that our way of life isn’t good enough, clean enough or marketable enough. We’ve worked so hard to make this place, this town, this LIFE, the way we need.  Relax, enjoy it while you’re here. We are a community, not an investment opportunity.

Respectfully,

J.J. Reimer

Camp Space Camp

Compare and contrast

John: Earlier this fall, I walked down the drive along the ditch to fetch my mail. In my mailbox was Mountain Gazette along with Outside Magazine. (Outside seems to randomly show up every few months and perhaps the publisher is trying to build subscriptions with random deliveries.)

Both magazines happened to write about personal lists. At the same time that Outside had compiled a lifetime “Bucket” list for its readers, MG had some very personal letters from its readers listing what they had done in their own lives that they considered noteworthy. It was some sort of serendipity to be able to compare an artificial list prepared by editors with input from sponsors, advertisers and media consultants, with actual lists of actual activities prepared by the actual people who related their own personal experiences.

Some of the Outside suggestions were pedestrian: “Learn another constellation besides the Big Dipper,” which cannot ever compare with an actual personal experience that I read in Mountain Gazette. “Connected with lost ancestors in Italy to find the best hugs on the planet … and awesome homemade pasta, of course.” Reading the personal lists in MG was moving, especially when I took the time to think beyond the written words to the emotion and passion contained in some of the experiences. Which gets to my final point — no one else can write your list.

Best Regards,

Tom Noll,

SW Idaho

PS: From another place and time, I remember the 1970s Mountain Gazette. Some months ago, I stepped back into that time when I saw Mountain Gazette in a Boise taqueria — thank you.

Cartographic eye-opener

John: Call me crazy, but Tara Flanagan’s article, “Too Close Encounters” in MG #173 was an eye-opener. First, it reminded me of my interest in the supernatural. I’ve always been a BELIEVER, with a small b, in cryptozoological and ET stuff. While I don’t receive Contemporary Occult Devotee magazine, I am casually fascinated by the spectrum, and think of myself as an armchair Sasquatch expert. Maybe it’s because s/he’s part of the mystique of a land I’ve admired since childhood or perhaps, as Tara said, people need something to believe in, and I dropped religion a long time ago. I mean, at least the Patterson film exists for some feasible evidence (a man in an ape suit, can’t move like that!), where’s Jesus making fishes multiply on film?! In any event, regardless of the cause, my interest in Sasquatch even over-rode the social phobia I struggled with till my 20s.

Second year of undergrad, I had a public speaking class, which you can only imagine did to the bowels of a social phobe. But for one stretch, I rode the fine line of anxiety/excitement when I learned of the requirement for a persuasive speech. I would persuade my classmates Bigfoot existed! While my talk generated many skeptical inquiries by classroom Matlocks, most of which I thought I fielded well, nobody was satisfied with my answers about why a Bigfoot was never caught or found in cadaverous form. Typical answers from Bigfoot scholars like, “well, look at how vast the terrain is of the areas they are seen!” and “perhaps it is because they are emotionally intelligent and bury their dead” all of a sudden were lame answers to me too as I watched none of it convince my classmates one iota.

With the amount of sightings versus amount of evidence, save footprints (only some seeming believable), my classmate’s persistent skepticism on that one question left me at a loss for any other answer than to say I had none, thereby admitting defeat, which is kinda what happened anyhow. It meant that it was all just a matter of faith (haha) that I believed, like a right-wing Bible thumper saying “because it’s in the Bible” and no other argument in my support.

Enter Tara’s article and my wish for time travel. While it likely would have opened a completely different can of worms that my prefrontal cortex was just not prepared to manage anxiety-wise back then, I am investing at least two grains of salt into the theory that Sasquatches are of other dimensions. This comes as a result of uncanny timing wherein I was recently made to invest three grains of salt into the idea that other dimensions exist. This happened when I visited a psychic, and, being a rather pragmatic sort, was very careful to not release any personal information and thus assay her capabilities. During said session, psychic consistently informed me of things, to a “T”, without knowing anything more than my name and that I wanted to know about my career and love life. She described my ex-girlfriend in finest detail and even that I saw her the previous night to clear fouled air. Then, in a grand finale, upon the terminal card reading, the last card, placed in the center of the 15 laid out, was of a girl kissing a boy’s forehead. With chills, I explained that was a dream I had a couple weeks earlier in which I forgave my ex-lover. She said “It wasn’t a dream, it was just another dimension.” And I felt it!

With that, I wonder whether Bigfoot is elusive for reasons of dimension. For all the time I’ve spent in Washington, Oregon and Wyoming, I guess I should have spent less time seeking tracks, more on finding portals. Tell me if you have any leads, and if I find the portal, can I have the honors of penning the first MG article from another dimension?

Tony Smith,

Massachusetts

MG readership demographics 101

Fayhee, You’ve went and done it now. You’ve finally got a publisher for your rag that seems to better understand the freaks, geeks and weirdoes who are actually reading the MG. Issue 173 is like free climbing 5.12, skiing the Sand Chutes off the Burn, having post-drinking, wee-hour sex in a rich neighbor’s hot tub (while they’re at home), driving 140 past a diner full of cops, finding a $100 dollar bill in a pair of new-to-you thrift store pants — in other words, epic!

I say this after picking up a copy and just thumbing thru it — I’ve not even read the damn thing, but I can already tell this issue is going to be good.

The sexy, thick, black and white cover makes me think of art ’zines. The wonderfully content-rich interior beckons me to waste an afternoon reading the oh-so-many words that thankfully now have graphics and photos to pull the reader along with the story. Wow, I never thought it would’ve happened. I’ll admit I’ve been worried about the MG — there have been times in the past when an issue looked more like a buddy who had taken to late-night powder skiing thru bar bathrooms: all skinny and covered in blemishes.

Looking at this issue, I see everything you told us in your column from #172 is true. It’s nice to know Ullr has folks looking out for his human scribes documenting the weird and wonderful in his realm.

Your timing for this seems absolutely perfect, at least according to one of my favorite dead writers: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” — HST

I suppose I should end this with a high, smoky toast to all those now going pro. You know who you are.

Peace,

Dave Shinn