Three Trees

Author’s note: It is important to note here at the beginning that I am in no way, shape or form a dendrologist. Not even an amateur dendrologist. I know nothing about trees or how they work. Add this to the long list of things I know nothing about.

First Tree

A few miles up the East Tennessee Pass Road, which branches off U.S. Highway 24 as it snakes its way from Leadville toward Minturn, I parked my old LandCruiser (RIP), pulled out a camp chair and strolled into the woods to sit, smoke and ponder the cosmos, or at least my plebeian part of the cosmos. Though I am too often guilty of journeying internally rather than externally when I venture into the woods, this go-round, the bird-tweeting spring weather coaxed my attention outward.

Five strides before my contentedly reposing self were two lodgepole pines, each about 18 inches in diameter, each about 50 feet tall, that I would describe as otherwise nondescript, for no reason except there were many more lodgepoles of similar size close at hand. The bases of these two trees were close enough as they emerged from the soil that I wondered whether they were not in fact one tree that had split shortly post-germination. At a minimum, they must be siblings, birthed by cones dropped by a parent pine.

I have no idea how old these two lodgepoles were. Fifty years? Sixty? No matter their age, they had spent their entire lives side by side. Out of spatial necessity, the branches of both extended in every direction except directly toward each other. Proximity notwithstanding, they had each carved out their own light-seeking space.

About two-thirds of the way up, though, each trunk — until that vertical point, arrow straight — changed direction: At a very clear and simultaneous point in time, these two otherwise nondescript lodgepole pines interrupted their linear journey upward and started to move toward one another. It was not as though they were a certain distance apart at birth and, from that moment on, they grew inevitably and incrementally closer. No, each tree decided to adjust its respective course. There was no visual evidence of a lightning strike affecting their growth. There was no sign of disease. There did not seem to be an incursion from another tree. This seemed to be a mutual decision, one certainly not made in haste, one that would take many years to realize, one that would be mighty tough to undo. They clearly wanted to make contact and worked to achieve that desire.

And here’s the thing: Though I cannot so much as venture a wild guess how it came to pass that those two trees decided to one day in the far future (at least in terms of human perception of time and the movement of time) touch, and, though I cannot venture a guess as to, once that decision was made, how those two trees went about physically manifesting their course correction, and though I cannot venture a guess how long it had been between when that decision was made and when I found myself accidentally sitting beneath those branches, I do know this: Literally seconds before my arrival, those two otherwise nondescript lodgepole pines made contact for the very first time in their already long lives, lives that, god willing, will continue for many more decades. I mean: Literally, right then, right fucking then, the outermost atoms of the outermost parts of the bark of those two trees were tenuously exchanging their first electrons. Though their auras had almost certainly previously begun the process of overlapping and intertwining, they right fucking then began the process of actually conjoining.

I wondered what those first fleeting brushes were like. Did they blush? Was there relief? Was there joy? Was there disappointment?

Whatever there was — and I am sure there was plenty of whatever there was — I suddenly realized I was a voyeur, an uninvited guest. While it’s my guess that I was the last thing on the minds of those two trees at that moment, coming in apparent premeditated contact at long last, there was nonetheless a bit of understandable social awkwardness, like, after all these years, we can’t believe, at this much-anticipated instant, there’s a cigar-chomping reprobate unabashedly witnessing our first tentative touch.

Before sheepishly departing, I went over to those trees and laid upon them my own tentative touch. They felt very happy. They also felt happy when I left.

Some day, I will go visit them again, to see how things are working out.

Some day.

Second Tree

Off to the side of a contiguous section of the Colorado and Continental Divide trails between Tennessee Pass and Turquoise Lake lies a blue spruce stump, and, scant feet from that stump, lie the recently chain-sawed remains of the tree that resided upon that stump. Now, I need to clarify the words, “off to the side.” In actuality, while the stump and the lifeless corpse of the tree that until recently resided upon that stump were in fact “off to the side” of the trail, the roots of that once-live tree grew in obviously fashion under the trail. Meaning, of course, that the trail was built atop the root system of this blue spruce.

I have worked on several volunteer trail crews, including ones organized by the Colorado Trail Foundation and the Continental Divide Trail Alliance (RIP). One of the great sad truths that is rarely articulated on trail crews is that a new section of trail spells doom for all trees that lie close to its tread. There are numerous reasons for this death sentence in the name of mountain recreation. When new sections of trail are built, vegetation is removed, which, in turn, causes changes in local microclimate, especially of the additional-sunlight-based variety. Even the best-built trails are conduits for erosion, which exposes roots. Thousands of passing hikers, bikers and horse-riders effect soil compression, which in turn affects the vascular capabilities of trees whose roots are unfortunate enough to pass beneath the newly laid tread.

The worst culprit, however, is simple trail engineering: Though specifications vary from agency to agency, from trail group to trail group, from forest to forest, they all have in common minimum height and width dimensions for trails. A standard is three feet wide — meaning 18 inches in either direction from the trail centerline — and six feet high. Cleared. Mowed. Chain-sawed. So that horses and mountain bikers and pack-laden hikers can more comfortably pass by. Tough noogies for the trees.

While the blue spruce stump showed signs of some internal malady, it appeared to be a relatively healthy specimen. It did not appear to present any imminent danger of rotting and falling atop some hapless hiker from Ohio. Almost assuredly, it was snuffed out, as so many trees are, in the name of fun and frolic.

Though I had planned a multi-hour jaunt, I opted to waylay my forward momentum for a few minutes. I sat upon the ground next to that stump and began the tedious process of counting its rings, which was a lot harder that it might seem at first blush because the stump was not symmetric. I was not sure from which of its irregular protrusions to begin counting. And my eyes are not what they once were. Despite a few false starts, I stuck with it. And, finally, after following rings from one protrusion to the center, then another protrusion to the center, I came up with: 180. That tree was 180 years old when it was killed by someone wielding a chainsaw so that yours truly and my backcountry ilk can pass unimpeded.

This tree germinated in the early 1830s. It took root when the Indian Removal Act was passed by Congress. This tree faced its first High Country winter in a forest we cannot now envision the year Chicago was founded. It was a sapling when Andrew Jackson won reelection. It grew toward the deep-blue Rocky Mountain sky when the Whig Party was given its name by Senator Henry Clay. It was an adolescent when Colorado was admitted to the Union in 1876 as the nation’s 38th state. It survived nearby Leadville’s rise to mining-era prominence because of its remote location and the lucky fact that blue spruce does not make for good firewood.

Through the thick and thin of historic and climatic vicissitudes, it survived, only to be felled in the name of the rosy-cheeked New West and its concomitant recreation-based economy/mindset. It was not sacrificed; it like uncountable trees before it that lived on what are now ski runs and groomed cross-country ski trails and sumptuous backcountry huts and big-box retail complexes and cookie-cutter subdivisions in Mountain Country, were murdered by people who extol viewsheds and the outdoor lifestyle and, yes, the very existence of the forests.

A few minutes after parting ways with the stump, I passed a woman backpacker headed the opposite direction. If I am able to do one thing in this world, it is instantly differentiate a long-distance backpacker from his or her weekend or even weeklong counterparts. Given the time of year (early autumn), I suspected this woman was a rarity: a Colorado Trail hiker going from Durango to Denver (most CT hikers go the other direction). Meaning: She was a day-and-a-half out from a rest day at Copper Mountain. I know that feeling. I understand how you’re so tired and hungry and filthy that all you can focus on is a bed, a bath, a beer and a plateful of greasy burritos.

It had been years since I last embarked upon a long-distance backpacking trip. Thus, there was no way this lady’s trail eyes could recognize that my now-flabby self has also hiked the CT, that I was a trail-tromping brother-in-arms. She had no interest in trailside chitchat with someone she rightfully perceived as a mere day-hiker. She wanted to know how far it was to Tennessee Pass. Nothing more. After I told her, I added that, around the next bend, she was going to pass a blue spruce stump right next to the trail.

“I counted the rings,” I said, as she moved briskly on. “There were 180 … that tree was alive when Jackson was president … ”

She did not appear to hear me. I have no way of knowing if she so much as glanced down at that stump as she passed upon a well-groomed trail on her way to the bright lights of the Mile High City.

Third Tree

About halfway up the Sallie Barber Trail (actually the remains of an old narrow-gauge railroad bed that once serviced the area’s insatiable lust for precious metals) outside Breckenridge lies a fairly obscure side trail, which eventually terminates at some an old mine site in such a state of decay that it can best be described as imminent compost. Such sites have always given me hope that, if the once-smoke-billowing heavy-industry remains of Colorado’s long-gone mining heritage can eventually reach a point of near-absolute decomposition, then, maybe, one day in the not-so-distant future (with luck, within my lifetime), the physical residue of the downhill-ski and real-estate-development industries that now scar and pollute the High Country will also rot away so finally and so absolutely that what little evidence of their existence might yet remain — maybe a single, fallen lift tower — will evoke nothing more from passersby than quizzical philosophical ruminations about ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

My acquaintance with this fairly obscure side trail consisted of two interrelated layers. First, I have always been inclined to venture away from the most-used paths, an attitude that has often put me at odds with those of my compadres who have been successfully indoctrinated by Leave No Trace. Second, I need to stress the words I just wrote: “most-used.” The three years I lived in Breckenridge — which, I should point out, were very enjoyable (I mean, how cool is it to call Breckenridge, Colorado, home?) — coincidentally occurred at a time of ridiculous, exponential, cancerous growth in Summit County, the nation’s largest ski county. At that time, the monstrous housing developments that now line French Gulch almost all the way to the Sallie Barber Trailhead were beginning to be built — a socio-economic reality that eventually caused my wife and I to bail on Breck and to move to the other side of the county, an act that, in hindsight, amounted to nothing more than postponing the inevitable.

When we moved to Breck, it was rare for me to encounter anyone on the Sallie Barber Trail as my late dog Cali and I busted trail through often-untrammeled waist-deep powder. In a few short years, it got to the point where it was rare to not encounter other skiers, snowshoers, bikers, hikers or four-wheelers upon that trail. Please understand: I am not misanthropic; I am not a hermit. I am a gregarious human being by nature who is of the opinion that the average person one meets on a trail back in the woods is decent, someone who is doing nothing more than what I myself am doing: enjoying the great outdoors. And, though there were of course occasional dour douchebag get-outta-my-way-type mountain bikers or skate-skiers who were “in training” or “working out” in such a way that it was obvious they actually thought their efforts were somehow important and beneficial to the greater world, almost everyone I ever crossed paths with on the Sallie Barber Trail was the kind of person I wish everyone in the world was.

But, fuck! There were just so many of them! Sometimes it gets where you can almost hear your inner being crying out for some goddamned backcountry solitude, which has become so rare in the Colorado High Country any more that it ought to be listed as an endangered species.

So, anyway, there’s this fairly obscure side trail, which I would never detour onto until I eyeballed the Sallie Barber Trail up and down to make certain no one saw my escape from the main route. And, for an entire summer and early fall, I explored the places where this side trail took me: mountain meadows, thick virgin spruce forests, flower-laden rivulets and magical hidden gardens where elves and faeries dwelled just out of eyesight.

And then the snow started to accumulate, which, when you’re prone to slinking about in places you would just as soon others not know about, presents something of a tactical conundrum because, unlike summer and early fall, where there’s snow, there’s tracks that you leave behind for all to see. When some otherwise oblivious soul is elbowing his or her way through the huddled masses on the main trail and notices snowshoe or ski tracks heading into the woods, an irresistible gravitational force often exerts an influence that, even though I wish it did not exist, I at least comprehend. You, as track-maker, know that you have just opened up a visitation-based Pandora’s Box. You know, if you leave tracks behind you in the snow, that you have let the cat out of the bag, that the next person is going to think there must be something cool up this fairly obscure side trail.

Sigh.

Your only hope is that the next big storm will obliterate any evidence of your passing.

That was a monster winter, the type of winter I fear now will only exist in memory. Thus, my last tracks up the obscure side trail were long buried. Less than 100 yards up, though, something else was buried: A pine sapling, maybe two or three inches in diameter and maybe 15 feet tall, lay completely across the trail. A baby. It had not successfully supported the recent manna from heaven; the accumulated weight of successive storms had pushed it over to the point that its chest was now brushing the snowpack. It was surely doomed, nevermore to regain its composure, with no hope of ever soaring toward the sky.

The important thing was: While bent, it was not broken.

This doomed little tree was part of a litter; there were perhaps a half-dozen other trees of similar size and girth close by. The litter was obviously too dense for long-term survival. There would have to be casualties along the line so that one, maybe two, members of the litter would survive to adulthood. And this doomed little tree was doubtless the first in a line of attrition that would eventually include the majority of its brothers and sisters.

Yet, it was not giving up without a fight. Despite its diminutive stature, it held strong against the weight of the snow that was slowly crushing it. A few little branches grew upward from the now-horizontal trunk. But, eventually, the weight would be too much. The writing was on the wall.

I do not know why I decided to try to save that little tree. For the rest of the winter, and into the spring, and even into the summer, I gradually propped that little tree to an upright position utilizing a series of longer and longer branches I found on the nearby ground. I would wedge one end of the branch into the ground, while pressing the other end into the rib cage of the little pine tree. I made sure to not act too abruptly, for fear of cracking its spine. Whenever I lodged a new branch, raising its height a bit more, I told it, OK, this might hurt a bit, but it’ll be worth it in the long run. By the time the flowers started blooming along the Sallie Barber Trail, that little pine was hardly distinguishable from its brethren. It had a few scars on its side from where I lodged its successive crutches, but those wounds seemed superficial. They looked like they would heal just fine. The little tree would never grow as straight as its littermates, but, a year after I first encountered its prostrate frame lying helplessly across the trail, the little pine could fully support its frame! There were no assurances, of course, but there was at least hope, which is all any living creature can ask for in this crazy, wild and unpredictable world.

Every time I passed that tree, I talked to it, the same way I would talk to a child who was recovering from a bad injury. I have no idea if trees feel pain. I have no idea if trees feel gratitude. For all I know, it had resigned itself to its fate before I ever passed it lying on its side in the snow. For all I know, it volunteered to be the first to go so that its littermates might stand a better chance of living in a densely packed forest. For all I know, it was already infected by a terminal illness and I was just prolonging its agony. For all I know, I fucked up the local arboreal gene pool for the next century. For all I know, I was personally responsible for the pine beetle epidemic and the bursting of the housing bubble.

Twelve years later, after having moved far away from the Colorado High Country, my wife and I were visiting our old haunts and strolling up the Sallie Barber Trail. We had a firm purpose: In my possession were the ashes of my late dog Cali. This is the very trail upon which we first came together as dog and human. My dog. Her human. This is the trail where she learned how to move through deep snow. This is the trail where she learned that, just because you can descend a steep embankment covered with four feet of powder doesn’t mean you can climb you way back up. This is the trail where she learned that, no matter what, I would always — always — climb down to help her, but only after she had exhausted all other options. And this is also where she stood watching and wondering while I worked for the better part of a year to nurse a little fallen pine back to life.

After we spread Cali’s ashes, my wife and I took a detour upon that obscure side trail. I had an old friend I wanted to visit. It actually took me several tries to locate the trail, for it had become overgrown, much to my surprise and relief. At the spot where that little tree stood with its litter now stood a half-dozen pines making their way to adulthood. I could not which was the little pine I had helped. I searched hard for residual scar tissue, a sign that I had once wedged branches under the little pine to force it upright, but there was none to be found. I searched in vain for evidence of demise, a stump or a corpse, but, again, could find nothing. I was hoping for a hug and maybe a reminisce. There was neither. How was it possible that I could not pick out that tree? Shit, who knows if that little pine was even among the grove I now faced? Perceptions can change in a decade-plus.

So, being unable to definitely say howdy to the little pine specifically, I instead said howdy, and maybe simultaneously good-bye, to a forest through which I used to often travel a long lifetime time ago, a forest that is slowly fading from memory — it from mine, mine from it — even as other forests, and other trees, far farther south, become more indelibly etched into my heart and soul. I wish I could say that the forest in which that little pine once dwelled, and perhaps dwells still, cared one way or another. I’ll never know. Because, like I said earlier, I know nothing about trees.

This marks long-time editor M. John Fayhee’s final transcriptural foray into the now-figurative pages of the Mountain Gazette. From now on, my meandering musings can be found at mjohnfayhee.com.

Ruined

Machu Picchu

First view of Machu Picchu before sunrise from Intipunku. By Colegota

Author’s note: Several years ago, I was given an assignment by a glossy outdoor magazine to pen a story about hiking Peru’s famed Inca Trail. After I completed the hike, but before the article appeared in print, there was an editorial coup d’état at the magazine and my Inca Trail piece was a casualty. I have long wanted to nudge the story into print and decided — what the hell? — now’s as good a time as any. Please note that, even though this installation of Smoke Signals is longer than usual, this is still a truncated version of what turned out to be a very long example of Fayhee bullshit.    

For my entire adult life, I had fantasized about this, the moment I was about to embark upon the train ride that would take me to and deposit me at Kilometer 88, a skanky trackside cluster of shacks so dismal it deserves a pedestrian name like K-88, which marks the beginning of the 55-mile Inca Trail. I had wanted to hike the Inca Trail for so long that I can’t remember when or why that particular dream began. Its lack of palpable paternity aside, the dream consisted of many rational components: Trekking along an arduous route through the heart of the Andes. World-class mountain scenery combined with the colorful Quechua Indian culture, which is descended directly from the Incas. A cobbled pathway that pre-dates the “discovery” of the “New” World. And, most importantly, Machu Picchu, the famed “lost” (and found) city of the Incas uncovered (if not discovered — a little etymological two-step, there) by the American archeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911.

For many years, political circumstances (read: the Sendero Luminoso unpleasantness, which often specifically targeted tourists) convinced my wife Gay and me to give Peru a wide berth (call me a pussy). Things have changed enough in the past few years (though they are slowly changing back, from what I hear) that we finally decided to pack our packs and make the long-anticipated journey to the heart of Inca-land.

The train from Cuzco to Kilometer 88 huffs and puffs its way up several switchbacks as it climbs up the mountainside out of Cuzco, a city of 300,000 that is located at almost 12,000 feet. After it crests out, we begin our descent into the Sacred Valley of the Rio Urubamba, which we will follow all the way to the trailhead.

It’s wonderful, though stark, countryside, more arid than alpine, despite the elevation and despite the fact that we are only 16 degrees south of the Equator and less than 100 miles west of the Amazon Basin. The kilometer signs slowly tick by as we make our way through small towns I’ve been reading about for decades: Izcuchaca, Zurite, Ollantaytambo, the lyrical Inca names flowing into the each other like the swift water of the river we are following. (Translated, those lovely names probably mean things like “Snarling, Rabid Dog-ville” and “Place Where All the Seething Displaced Senderos Now Reside.”)

Halfway between Cuzco and Kilometer 88, the snow-covered peaks of the high Andes begin to appear in the distance. It is both sobering and frightening to realize the mountains we are now eyeballing are almost 9,000 feet higher than the loftiest peaks of Colorado.

We stop briefly at Kilometer 82, an alternative starting point for the Inca Trail. A few members on the teeming backpacker masses with whom we are sharing the train shoulder their packs and get off. Fifteen minutes later, we’re there: Kilometer 88, one of the most-famous trailheads on the planet. Much to our delight, “only” about 200 other hikers disembark. The rest of the pack-toting hordes stay on the train, which goes all the way to the town of Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. (I should note here that you are only allowed to hike the Inca Trail in one direction — toward Machu Picchu.) Gay and I dilly-dally on the side of the tracks, re-organizing our packs and preparing for a hike that, though famous and well-trod, is, by all accounts, pretty damned difficult.

When we’ve got our ducks in a huddle, we walk down toward the trailhead. Much to our dismay, we see before us a line of hikers 50 yards long. Since the Inca Trail is part of the massive Machu Picchu Cultural Park, there is paperwork to be filled out and money to be handed over. It takes more than an hour to buy our entry permits and fill out the requisite forms, which are stamped and handed back to us by a couple of no-nonsense-looking (and well-armed) gendarmes whose demeanor can best be described as desultory, like, shit, I joined the Peruvian Army to see the world, and here I am issuing hiking permits to gringos and Eurotrash.

The trail starts out at 7,500 feet, following the Rio Urubamba through a wonderfully shady eucalyptus grove. It’s very easy going at first, and we are both beaming. After all these years of planning and, more importantly, dreaming, I am finally beating feet upon the Inca Trail.

Our orientational arsenal consists of one pleasantly outdated guidebook, “The Inca Trail,” by Richard Danbury, and one non-topographic map that looks more like a placemat you’d find at Denny’s than it does a useful trail tool. It’s the best we could find in Cuzco, though, as there don’t appear to be any “real” maps of this area.

It becomes obvious from the get-go that we will need neither a map nor a guidebook to stay on the trail. This is tread that has been used as a fundamental transportation artery for so many millennia by so many uncountable gabillions of people that you could near-bouts navigate it drunk with your eyes closed in the dark. At this point, the trail is actually just that: a trail — good ol’ dirt and rock — rather than the Inca-crafted stonework “highway” we will walk upon for the last two-thirds of the hike.

It is almost 1 p.m. before we leave the river bottom and begin our first ascent, into the valley of the Rio Cusichaca. Though it is hot, I press Gay — who only enjoys hiking if she can do so at a pace that borders on — how to say this tactfully? — deliberate — to push on without a break. As much as I am trying to deal non-negatively with the numbers of people on the trail, truth be known, I am worried about getting a campsite. That’s another little gem that our guidebook has laid on us: In a land with this much severely vertical terrain, level turf is a rarity. There are only a handful of decent camping areas on the entire trail, and many of them are taken early in the day by employees of the tour companies.

The overwhelming majority of the people who hike the Inca Trail sign on with these companies, which employ local Quechuas to do the dirty work, such as carrying everyone’s packs, running ahead to lay claim to entire valleys and having tea and crumpets prepared when the customers arrive.

It’s not like we did not have the opportunity to sign on with a guided tour company. You can’t swing a dead cat in downtown Cuzco without hitting someone who’s trying mightily to sell you an all-inclusive, deluxe, guided, provisioned, portered journey along the Inca Trail. And the cost is certainly not prohibitive, anywhere from $50 per person per day to $200, depending on quality of food, gear and guides.

Much to the chagrin of my wife, I have never liked the idea of being guided along a trail, especially one as obvious as this, and I certainly can’t abide the notion of having someone else carrying my pack. It’s cheating, and my purist glands can’t handle it. Many people argue that, by hiring guides and porters, you are mitigating your visitation impact by putting money directly into the local economy. That’s a perfectly valid perception, but just one that I personally prefer not to buy into for selfish reasons that might karmically catch up with me at some point, like when my aching right Achilles tendon finally gives out for good.

Temptation along the Inca Trail does not just take the form of the pre-paid, pre-arranged guided tour companies. For the first day and a half, we pass dozens of freelance porters, locals who sit alongside the trail, offering to carry the packs of any gringos whose tongues are clearly dragging in the dust. Since these sturdy men only charge a few bucks a day, it’s not long before Gay is seriously considering making the freelance porter leap, with or without spousal approval. I am married to a woman who loves hiking and camping about as much as a person can. But she viscerally hates carrying a full pack, and she can’t, for the life of her, understand why she married a fool so stupid/egotistical/stupid that he won’t consider even for a moment giving in to good sense when opportunity knocks as loudly and as inexpensively as it does with these trailside freelance porters, all of whom smirk as we approach.

Just before the village of Huayllabamba, we pass the first decent-looking campsite, right on the banks of the Cusichaca. Good thing it’s too early to even contemplate parking it for the night, as it has been completely commandeered by a tour company that, judging from the scale of the operation, seems to have the entire population of Germany as its clientele. Rows and rows of identical tents are set up side-by-side, making it look like a massive 19th-century cavalry encampment. Though we have been assured that these companies have no legal right to dibbs entire camping areas, the fact that they get there first and take up every available inch of level land means they, de facto, do dibbs these areas. My concern for finding a satisfactory place to pitch my tent this evening grows.

Within the modest city limits of Huayllabamba, we pass two more guided-tour-dominated camping areas, each with surly looking Quechua men scowling at any passersby who so much as cast a fleeting glance at “their” heavily tented domains. Several customers are in the camps, sitting in cushy lawn chairs and sipping refreshing beverages. They cast furtive glances at those of us humping our way up the steep hill under the burden of full packs. But they don’t glance long, before returning to their conversations about, I’m sure, this season’s most intriguing interior tent decorating schemes.

Real backpackers carry their own stuff, I tell Gay, and they are the only ones who have any right to say they’ve “hiked” the Inca Trail. Gay glances over at the reposed, comfortable beverage-sippers and sighs.

We are now following the lovely little Rio Llulluchapampa through a tight canyon. The hiking wheat is beginning to get separated from the hiking chaff, as one-by-one, our trail brethren begin to get hit head-on by the double whammy of altitude combined with the severity of the terrain. Gay and I find ourselves passing just about every person we saw in line back at the trailhead, and we don’t even feel as though we’re pushing it too hard. Guess that’s one of the advantages of living for multiple decades at altitude.

We cross the Rio Llulluchapampa on a small footbridge at about 3 p.m. Just past the bridge is a wide-open field with numerous tent-sized flat spots. This close to the Equator, it’s dark by 6, so we run over and lay claim to what ends up being a wonderful and fairly private site. Over the course of the next few hours, a fair number of other hikers straggle in, and we lose any sense of privacy, but we’re still off pretty much by ourselves in a place that boasts the two most important components of camping: astounding vistas and a secluded spot for the wife to piss.

For most of the day, mist has been mixing with fog and clouds off in the distance. Just before dark, all visible atmospheric gas dissipates and we are facing one of the most awesome sights I have ever witnessed. On the other side of the Llulluchapampa Valley, the mountains are eye-popping: Several thousand feet straight up and covered with luxuriant, cliff-hanging vegetation. If that one wall of mountains was the only scenery we saw on the entire trip, we would have reported back to our chums in the Mountain Time Zone that we had witnessed one of the most astounding mountain vistas on the planet. But, as the puffy white clouds parted in the distance, we came to realize that most of what we were seeing were not puffy white clouds at all, but, rather, the snow-covered summits of the Salcantay Range — the highest mountains in the area, which make Elbert and Massive look like gentle hills.

Most people take four days and three nights to hike the Inca Trail, though it can certainly be done in three days, and, more importantly, it can be done in five. Or six. No matter how many days you take to hike from Kilometer 88 to Machu Picchu, there is one day that stands by its high lonesome self on a pedestal built atop a base of reverence, awe and dread. That day is called, well, “The Second Day.”

The crux of The Second Day is a pass called Abra Huarmiwañusca, which translates to “Dead Woman’s Pass.” There are three passes on the Inca Trail, each lower than the prior. Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point on the trail, is a respectable 13,776 feet — higher than I’ve ever carried a full pack in my life. The statistics alone certainly had Gay’s undivided attention. More than that, though, she found the nomenclature captivating.

“Bet the woman who the pass was named after had a husband who wouldn’t hire a porter to carry his poor wife’s pack,” the love of my life stated as we shouldered our loads and hit the trail.

Since the exact nanosecond we got out of the tent, the freelance porters started arriving, assuming that a long night of sleeping on the ground would convince a fair number of gringos to utilize their services. And those porters were right, as many of the people we crossed paths with the first day hit the trail pack-less. All seemed a bit embarrassed when that point was raised by my hyper-sensitive self.

The trail immediately shot skyward through one of the most intense sections of cloud forest in the area. Cloud forest — bosque nublado in Spanish — is one of those biomes that many people lump under the generic heading of “jungle.” It is hyper-dense forest, usually at 6,000 feet or higher, that collects most of its moisture from the air, rather than from the soil. Cloud forest is always thick with bromeliads and vines, and it’s always cool and shady. The cloud forest through which the Inca Trail passes is heavily laden with many species of orchids, making the walk a favorite among flower-o-philes.

It is also home to numerous exotic species of animals, including the Andean (speckled) bear, the puma, the colpeo fox and the pygmy deer. And, for those who pay attention to this sort of minutiae, there are supposed to be a couple species of venomous snakes hereabouts. Though, truth be known, Godzilla could be standing in a patch of cloud forest three inches from your face and you wouldn’t see him; the vegetation is that thick and impenetrable.

Soon we pass out of the bosque nublado and into the sun-scorched open. Far ahead, we could make out Dead Woman’s Pass, still three hours away. It is was hot and dry, and scores of red-faced backpackers looked like they could, and probably would, pass out at any moment as they made their lead-footed way upward. The freelance porters who had stationed themselves along this section of trail had more business acumen than an entire university full of MBA candidates. Their services at this point were so much in demand that they could pretty much name their price. In addition to negotiating pecuniary remuneration, they were also demanding food, gear and, for all I knew, blow jobs. Weary backpackers were having arguments over who was going to hire which porter.

I felt good, at least partially because, unlike most of my fellow hikers, the altitude was not affecting my long-time mountain-dwelling self. And I’m a good uphill hiker. So I was able muster a modicum of physical dignity when I reached the summit, where the teeming masses were all lying flat on their backs, near death, tongues lolling out of their mouths. My trail brethren could not have been more sprawled out had they been dropped en masse from an airplane. While I stood on the pass, saying things like, “I can’t believe we’re here already,” I got a sobering visit from the little devil that often pops up on my shoulder and whispers unsweet somethings into my ear.

“Your time is coming, asshole,” he said. Then the little devil grabbed my head and faced it downhill. I hate long steep downs, and they hate me. And we were about to embark upon the first of three nasty, quad-killing Inca Trail descents.

Unbelievably beautiful though it was on the pass, it was also very windy. Gay and I dropped down a few hundred feet on the other side, and ate lunch behind some huge boulders with a jovial group from England, who, despite the fact that we were only two days out, were already fantasizing out loud about food. “Hey, mate,” one of the Brits said to me, after learning my nationality, “you don’t happen to have any American cheeseburgers with you, do you?”

“No,” I replied, “but I did bring some freeze-dried steak-and-kidney pie and a few pints of Bass.”

“Ah, steak-and-kidney pie … I’d kill for steak-and-kidney pie,” he replied. (Author’s note: Even though I was born in the U.K., and even though most of my family continues to reside there, I disavow any cultural connection to a food item known as “steak-and-kidney pie.”)

Everyone was in good spirits, despite the fact that many people on the Inca Trail were obviously having trouble with the physical part of the hike. Gay and I both noticed that there were good vibes all along the trail, the lack of solitude notwithstanding. Part of that could have been because most of our fellow hikers were from Europe, where crowds in the backcountry are the norm. There was more to it, though: We had all come halfway across the world to experience this experience, and that gave us some significant common ground with each other, a feeling of on-trail camaraderie that you don’t often find along the human-dense footpaths of, say, Rocky Mountain National Park or the Presidential Range, where every other hiker is viewed by most people as a solitude-killing interloper.

The toe-scrunching 2,000-foot, two-mile descent into the Rio Pacamayo Valley took only an hour, but it provided a sign of things to come. By now, more and more of the “trail” consisted of perfectly placed, almost cobblestone-like rocks and steps, all laid together with expert precision by the Incas millennia ago. Though the engineering was worthy of all of the intellectual appreciation I could muster, it was not the sort of perambulation venue that my corpus delecti liked. The stone steps determined the length of my stride, and my footfalls were not exactly softened by the granite. Toward the bottom of the valley, I began to wonder if I would be the only Inca Trail hiker in history to hire a freelance porter to carry his pack on the downhills.

The scenery was astounding enough that, every once in a while, I forgot about the fact that my knees and feet were starting to send more and more red alert-type messages to my cerebral cortex. This was bonafide Andean alpine country, with lush meadows, waterfalls and towering rock faces that framed the entire valley.

Grim reality, Inca Trail-style, reared its head at the bottom, though. Every square millimeter of ground that was even remotely level was taken over by the guided tour companies, the employees of which were scurrying around like butlers on speed preparing lunch for their non-pack-carrying customers, all of whom were probably so damned parched that, if they didn’t get a spot of tea within two minutes of their arrival, they’d lie down and die. The guides were running down to the river to fetch water, setting up tables and chairs and hunkering over propane stoves cooking all manner of chow that smelled far better than, as a random example, our energy bars. We stopped only long enough to fill our water bottles, before heading up to the Second Pass, two miles and 1,000 vertical feet away.

It felt wonderful to be hiking uphill again.

For the first time since we arrived in the Andes, serious, rather than decorative, clouds moved in. The wind kicked up and, with the sun blocked, it was chilly going up the Second Pass, located at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet. Halfway up the pass lie the ruins of Runquraqay, where there are numerous potential campsites. We were early enough that no tour groups were on the scene, but it was cold enough that we opted to move on, but not until we checked the ruins out. Though by Inca Trail standards, it’s fairly small taters, we spent 45 minutes marveling at the intricate engineering, running our fingers along the seamless, mortarless stonework.

Then we hump it up to the crest of the Second Pass, where there are a couple of alpine lakes and several primo campsites. Again, the misty-chilled weather chases us down, into the valley of Sayac Marca, the most amazing set of ruins between Kilometer 88 and Machu Picchu.

On the way down, we noticed something startling: We are completely alone. The crowds have finally thinned out. Me and the missus have dusted the masses. We be bad.

Once again, the descent took place primarily on bone-jarring stone steps built by Inca craftsmen well before Christopher Columbus set sail, and, by the time we reached the trail intersection for Sayac Marca — which, like Machu Picchu, was “discovered” by Hiram Bingham — our thighs hurt so badly, we were ready to camp right there in the middle of the trail. We pay a short visit to the ruins before walking stiff-legged off to Chaquicocha, a campsite visible from Sayac Marca a half-mile away. Once more, we find a great place to pitch our Clip-3, with views that are ball grabbing in every direction. To the southwest, we can see Sayac Marca, with sheer mountain walls behind the ruins and the glaciated giants of the Andes behind that. To the north and east are waterfalls, and in every direction are cloud-forest-covered cliffs.

Chaquicocha itself has a small building that boasts flush toilets and running water, with a nice pipe spring outside. Like most of the campsites along the Inca Trail, there’s a little more trash than one would ordinarily find in American national parks, but, all told, we’ve been pretty impressed by the cleanliness of the trail, despite its high amount of use.

We get to the 11,742-foot Third Pass just as the sun is rising above the Urubamba Valley, many thousand feet below us and just as the porters working for a guided tour company are in the process of disassembling their massive, Raj-esque camps and packing up. From the looks of things, there were a lot of people here last night, but they have already departed. The porters go about their work with precision and speed borne of uncountable such camp-breakings.

These porters are almost otherworldly with regards to their on-trail abilities. They remind me very much of Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, a tribe with which I’ve spent a lot of trail time. For the entire hike, we’ve been passed by long lines of porters carrying 50-kilogram loads on rudimentary wooden packframes. They literally run up and down the trails wearing nothing more than flip-flops or ratty old running shoes. Their legs look more like gnarly tree trunks than human appendages. I do notice that there don’t seem to be many old porters, though. It doesn’t matter who you are, you carry enough weight enough times at a fast rate up and down a rock trail, and your knees are going to eventually give out. (Just ask long-time hutmasters in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, most of whom have nicknames like “Gimpy” and “Shuffles.”)

All for a couple bucks a day. And my guess is workman’s comp is not real big here.

Just before we begin the last — and by far the longest (5,000-plus vertical feet) — descent of the hike, I find myself standing next to a group of Dutch people who are part of a guided tour. They are having some pertinent skinny laid on them by their Peruvian guide, who’s orienting them to the surrounding territory. If there is one reason I would choose to hire a guide, it would be this: The constant barrage of information and interpretation along the trail. Several times, we’ve overheard lectures about the flora and fauna and the local history, and we have been envious.

Just below the Third Pass are the intricate, stone-step-thick ruins of Phuyupatamarca, through which the trail passes. This is a good warm-up for what we now face: Something like 3,000 steps from the Third Pass to the Trekker’s Hotel, where we plan to camp on our last night on the Inca Trail. The trail here passes through cloud forest as lovely as anything we have seen so far. Orchids in full bloom line the way, and several species of hallucinogenic hummingbirds flit around, sucking nectar from brightly colored bromeliads. I absolutely cannot believe I don’t have any pot or acid with me.

Yet, I can scarcely concentrate on the surrounding beauty, and the excitement of being spitting distance from Machu Picchu has dissipated into a torrent of pain covering every corpuscle from my quads to my tootsies. Gay, likewise, is one hurting unit. As a matter of fact, everyone on the trail by this point is wincing with every step. It has been more than a day since our last piece of dirt tread; everything since the Second Pass has been rock solid. And the sheer verticality of the descent is brutal. No switchbacks. Straight down, step after step after step. It’s like the stairway to Cirith Ungol that Gollum leads Frodo and Sam on. And here’s the main thing: These Incas must have been some short-legged people, because these steps are less than one-hiking-boot’s-worth deep and about four inches high. So, a man of regular gringo height has to choose between taking baby steps hour after hour or taking the steps two or three at a time, risking an ass-over-teakettle kinda slip that likely wouldn’t reach its logical conclusion for several captivating minutes.

By the time we reach the Trekker’s Hotel, our quads and calves are so shot, we are having trouble even lifting our feet. The descent into the Trekker’s Hotel ruined me, even more than my many descents into Mexico’s Copper Canyon and the Grand Canyon. I would kill for just one fucking switchback.

The hotel complex is a borderline civilized amenity. There’s a restaurant that serves decent food and more importantly, beer. Lots and lots of beer. There are indoor restrooms, some dingy dorm rooms, pay showers and several dozen terraced campsites. The one we picked out necessitated a stroll through a campsite already dibbsed by a tour company. It had the benefit of being close to the restaurant, should thirst require multiple journeys to and from camp (which ended up being the case). The resident guide scowled and said we couldn’t camp there. I scowled back and invited the diminutive lad to try and stop me. I thought his goddamned head was going to explode from anger, but he said nothing. Later, I bought him a beer and, from that moment on, I was his best friend. He even courteously pointed out to me the place located, sad to report, behind a rock scant feet from the front of our tent, where all the guides like to squat (despite the proximate indoor plumbing) when they pass through. And I thought it was my funky hiking socks that were befouling the air. Man, was I ever relieved to learn it was piles of nearby guide caca instead!

Gay and I did muster the energy to stiff-leggedly stroll down to the nearby ruins of Wiñay Wayna, which were only partially excavated and which looked like a giant, terraced baseball stadium. Despite our leg pain, we were overcome, for about the 200th time since we left Kilometer 88, with the unrivalled, multi-tiered grandeur of this place. I mean, these Incas could build some shit. How on earth could folks as dialed-in as the Incas seemed to be lose a home game to a couple hundred conquistadores? And, more importantly, how can we import some of this construction consciousness into the States, where a high percentage of new construction looks like it was built with the specific intent of turning into compost within about 15 minutes of the last nail being driven in? Planned obsolescence did not seem to be part of the Incas’ building code.

Huarmihuañusca
Huarmihuañusca, also known as “Dead Woman’s Pass”. By Colegota

Soon after hitting the hay, my stomach knotted up at the thought that we were now only a few hiking hours away from a place I had waited my adult whole life to visit. Shortly after that thought dissipated, I realized that it wasn’t the notion of finally visiting Machu Picchu that caused my stomach to knot up. I was getting sick. Fast. My belches tasted very much like the fake bacon bits that 1) had been “aging” in my food bag since the previous summer (or maybe it was the summer before that) and 2) I had sprinkled liberally upon my delectable freeze-dried dinner.

There’s a locked gate just past the Trekker’s Hotel, which the local constabulary doesn’t open till 5 a.m. It’s every Inca Trail hiker’s plan to arrive at Intipuncu, a small ruin with a perfect view of Machu Picchu, at dawn. It was still dark when we arrived at the gate, which was good, as I found myself having to run off the trail several times to befoul the turf. In my condition, I hiked slowly — too slowly to make it to Intipuncu by dawn, which we likely wouldn’t have done anyhow, given the fact that our legs couldn’t have been any stiffer had we strapped two-by-fours to them.

Then, there it was, two miles away, just like we had seen in hundreds of photos over the years: Machu Picchu, the only abandoned city in the Western Hemisphere that can rival Guatemala’s Tikal, which Gay and I have visited twice. The large tribe of Inca Trail hikers gathered at Intipuncu all agreed: Seems a lot smaller than we expected! Indeed, Machu Picchu looked tiny, even inconsequential from this distance. Just as we were prepared for the kind of let-down that often arrives at the seminal moment of any dream trip, the overcast sky opened up and a large stream of sunlight hit the ruins directly, and the entirety of South America’s most-famous archeological site glowed orange and yellow, like it was spiritually radioactive. The tribe gasped as one. It was like, “OK, we’ll all just shut the fuck up right now and feel humbled.”

It took 45 minutes to reach the outskirts of metro Machu Picchu. It got larger and more grandiose and more powerful-feeling with each step. We arrived at 8 a.m., by which time I was feeling very, very poorly. Unlike most of our trail brethren, who only planned to stay half a day at the ruins before returning to their long, windy journeys to wherever, we had planned to spend three or four days exploring Machu Picchu. There’s only one hotel at the ruins, which costs about a million dollars a night. So, we hopped one of the frequent buses for the 30-minute ride down (way, way down) to the aforementioned hamlet of Aguas Calientes. We got a nice room for about $5 a night and I basically slept the rest of the day away. By evening, the rotten fake bacon bits had enthusiastically egressed my premises (much to the chagrin of the local plumbing, which was up to general Latin American standards), and I was feeling fit.

We spent the next three days, 12 hours a day, savoring every molecule, every nook and cranny, every nuance of Machu Picchu, flat-out one of the world’s best backpacking destinations. Just about all of our fellow trail hikers had moved on, but, every day, a new batch of hikers came in, dirty, limping and with the kind of gleam in their eyes that only comes from taking the hard way to a cool place. There was definitely a hierarchy within those indescribable ruins: There were those who had walked there and those who did not. That’s exactly the way it should be.

To read the full version of this piece, go to mjohnfayhee.com  

Poker Face

Though variations on this conversational/argumentative/conceptual subject had been percolating and ping-ponging between my ears pretty much ever since I first landed less-than-gracefully as a Western tenderfoot/greenhorn/newbie/moron/dumbfuck in Gila Country in the summer 1976, the whole notion attained something at least resembling cogitative coalescence one winter afternoon as I sat (not for the first time) quaffing a few brews in Sluice Box Saloon. Several stools to my starboard were three corpulent bubbas, all of whom were attired in the height of retro flatland ski fashion, and all of whom hailed from a state that decorum mandates I not herein name. They were a jovial enough lot, though their jocularity was often punctuated by boisterously stated examples of extreme political incorrectness that, were one inclined toward stereotyping, one would consider pretty much cliché for the state I shall not herein name.

Fortunately, the local resident sitting closest to these three bubbas was not yours truly; rather, it was Big Del, who ordinarily avoids conversations with tourists as aggressively as he avoids alimony payments. This go-round, though, he was apparently enticed into friendly banter with the bubbas via a tried-and-true method: he was offered unfettered access to the bubbas’ pitchers of beer, which were being re-filled in a manner that could best be described as “frequent.”

This was a time in the M. John autobiographical train wreck when my normal tendency to socially interact with folks at the bar, even bubbas from the aforementioned state I shall not herein name, was mitigated by a ruminative mindset based upon the fact that, after 24 years, I had decided my time in the High Country was fast drawing to an end. I was torn about that decision clear down to my marrow, and my life at that point consisted of one period of second-guessing a move not yet made followed by another period of second-guessing my second-guessing, until, finally, the sum totality of my mental processes became nothing more and nothing less than a flushing-toilet-like downward spiral dominated by future perfect verb tenses. (It is often not so easy being me.) As I sat there at the Sluice Box that winter day, my life at altitude played between my ears like one of those old scratchy black-and-white movies from the ’30s, wherein the actors’ voices all seem about two seconds out of sync with the sound. And, out of that not-pleasant, but not-totally-unpleasant meditative state comes bellowing from the barrel-sized voice box of Big Del, “What the FUCK does that have to do with anything?” You could hold a gun to my head and I would not be able to tell you what prompted Big Del’s verbal outburst — he and the bubbas might have been talking about yet another impending ski-area expansion or they might have been talking about the last time the Sluice Box’s unsavory men’s room was hosed out — but I can say sans compunction that, when such outbursts occur in the vicinity of Big Del, you’d best be ready to duck. But these three bubbas hailed from a place where educational standards are not high. They did not back down.

“Hay-ull,” drawled the Alpha Bubba, “we been skiin’ up here for near-bouts 30 years.”

“Well, asshole,” Big Del responded, “I’ve been livin’ up here for near-bouts 30 years!”

“Yeah, but there are, uh, three of us, which means we got a total of, uh … ” (and here the Alpha Bubba removed one of his rear-entry ski boots so he could utilize his toes throughout what ended up being a long and apparently mentally challenging ciphering process) “ … let’s see … 30 times 30, no … 30 plus 30 times two … no … 30 plus 30 is 60 plus another 30 is …  90! The three of us have been comin’ up here skiin’ a total of 90 years!” beamed the bubba, apparently mighty proud of his advanced mathematical skills.

And so this chronological dick-swinging contest proceeded apace for another five minutes, till Pattycakes, a bartender who weighs about 95 pounds soaking drunk, looked up from her cribbage game and yelled “that’s goddamned enough!” and all three bubbas and Big Del post haste changed both the subject of their inebriated discourse and their tones-of-voice.

But I, sitting there innocent and alone, could not change the subject, at least not within my cranium, for that subject, as I mentioned several hundred words ago, had been with me for decades. And that subject, germane to my impending exodus from the High Country, is/was/always shall be this: In a part of the world defined by residential impermanence, how does one temporally measure one’s connection to place?

For many years, I covered for local papers various High Country municipalities. It was not uncommon for people addressing town council meetings to begin their presentations with a recitation of their relationship with the area. “We first began visiting before the local ski area even opened. We would drive up almost every weekend for years so the kids could ski. We eventually bought a condo, which we sold to buy a town home, which we have owned for 14 years. Now we spend six months a year here and hope to one day live here full time.” You can imagine how many variations on this theme there are. I swear, it sometimes sounds like Klingons reciting their various martial accomplishments when trying to impress the family of the mate they are wooing.

I have long thought that it would make life in the Mountain Time Zone easier if there could be established a rating system, a way for people who have been “coming here to ski for 30 years” could lean upon an equation that established plus-or-minus common denominators with, say, people who were born here, but left for seven years, then came back two autumns ago, and people who were born in Iowa but who have been living here for 35 years, and people who live down in the city, but who come up every weekend to play.

And then, just as that thought began to grow both branches and roots, I looked up above the Sluice’s back bar where, for more years than even local old-timers can remember, is hung a faithful copy of one of the single best pieces of art ever produced by the hands of man: The well-worn and well-known painting of the dogs playing poker (based upon a series of 16 paintings by C.M. Cooper commissioned in 1903 by Brown & Bigelow to help sell cigars). And my question was answered before it was even fully posed. Though I have never been a very good poker player (I’ve always preferred blackjack, because, when one wins, one does not draw down the bank account of one’s chums, but, rather, the evil house), for many years I participated in regular games — sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly, sometimes weekly AND monthly. Ergo: I have at least a rudimentary understanding of the hierarchy of poker hands, which, I reasoned sitting there in the Sluice in a pondiferous frame-of-mind, could, by way of a translation process that admittedly would likely not stand up to scrutiny by a professor of logic (unless, of course, that professor was a poker player), be applied to the sociology of the transient West. So, even while Big Del and the corpulent bubbas from the state that I shall not herein name began to ramp their contretemps back up, I pulled out a pen and reached for a stack of proletariat stationary: cocktail napkins.

Before I proceed, it’s important to stress that there’s no way to compare poker hands to cultural dynamics without relying a bit too much upon aesthetics-based subjectivity, a subjectivity that, for example, rates a troop of dirtbag snowboarders living in the back of a camper well above a troop of well-coifed Boulder-based developers. This is not to say that decks of cards do not contain within their various suits and ranks the seeds of subjectivity. Verily, until the late-1700s, aces — the people’s card, as it were — were the lowest of the low, a reality that has partially survived the past 300-plus years by way of hands — such as straights — wherein an ace can still be used as either the highest or the lowest card. Until the earliest days of the French Revolution, the king was of course the highest card and it was near-bouts treasonous to suggest otherwise. As guillotines were dealing very effectively with royal pretensions, the people’s card displaced monarchal precedence.

Moreover, the subjectivity of the deck continues with the assumption that higher numbers are somehow superior to lower numbers. Certainly, there are instances when and where such is the case. Having nine beers, for instance, is generally better than having two beers — unless, of course, you’re trying to talk your way out of a DUI. But, with cards, we’re not talking about anything save numbers printed upon heavy paper. There’s no inherent reason why 10s should automatically be “better” than 9s. Still, the deck we now play poker with is what it is; its subjective components are now neatly corralled into a stack of 52 cards that have a potential of 7,462 combinations, and the ranking of hands is based not upon aesthetics or personal political or numeric prejudices, but, rather, by the mathematical probability (or, more accurately, lack thereof) of a given hand occurring.

Thus, the following rankings do not correspond seamlessly to real-life poker algorhythms. Still, if the transitioning of part-random, part-manipulated card combinations to real life was good enough for Dmitri Mendeleev, who was inspired in ways my non-scientific mind can not fathom by the hierarchy of poker hands when he invented the Periodic Table of the Elements in 1869, then it’s good enough for me as I’m trying to fit the round pegs of mountain-town sociology into the square holes of common denominators. And, as usual, if you have any Mountain-Town poker hands you’d like to add to the list, please fire them off to mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

• Royal Flush: Technically, this is just the highest form of a straight flush, a 10, jack, queen, king and ace of the same suit. (Here we should note that suits, despite the opinions of many players, are not hierarchal. Exact hands of different suits — say, a 7-high straight spade flush and a 7-high straight clubs flush — are tied and thus split the pot.) The Mountain Country sociological equivalent of this hand is someone who lives in a cliff dwelling, a pueblo, hogan or tipi who still speaks Ute or Navajo as his or her first language.

• Regular straight flush: Someone who still maintains enough Native blood coursing through his or her veins that they retain legal enrollment upon tribal rosters. The mathematical chances of being dealt (as opposed to drawing into) a straight flush, of which there are 40 possible permutations, is 0.0015%.

• Four of a kind: Born in a mountain town, went to high school in a mountain town, moved back to the mountain town directly after college, kids enrolled in local schools, serves on numerous town boards because it’s the right thing to do rather than because of self interest. Chances of being dealt four of a kind: 0.024%

• Full house: Same as above, the only difference being that you were not born in a mountain town, so you make up for that inexplicable cosmic oversight by diligently volunteering for trail projects and town clean-ups and such. Came to a town with enough money saved that you could get your toe in the real estate industry before prices sky-rocketed. Chances of being dealt a full house: 0.14%.

• Flush: Grew up in a city within drivable distance of a mountain town. Family drove up to ski or hike almost every weekend. Always knew you were going to forego any semblance of a real life by moving to a mountain town minutes after graduating high school. Worked for years doing menial jobs and lived for years in a rented room the size of a closet. Now work for the town government in a quasi-respectable gig. Met your wife, a long-time local schoolteacher, on a chairlift. Have health insurance. Chances of being dealt a flush: 0.20%.

• Straight: Moved to a mountain town with the idea of staying a season or two before moving back down to the flatlands, but ended up never leaving. Bought a condo, and rent rooms out to help pay for the mortgage. Still work at the ski area or in the restaurant industry in order to procure a season pass. Probably will end up one day moving back down to a city that’s close enough to the mountains you can still drive up to rub elbows with those who were once your neighbors and co-workers. Do not have health insurance. Chances of being dealt a straight: 0.39%

• Three of a kind: Moved to a mountain town for no other reason than being offered a job, but realized after living in that town that you liked it enough to maybe stay, maybe forever. Chances of being dealt three of a kind: 2.1%

• Two pair, high cards: Moved to a mountain town for no other reason than being offered a job and, though you’re making the most of it, will leave as soon as you’re offered a better job somewhere else. Chances of being dealt two pair: 4.75%.

• Two pair, middling cards: Workers who come to a mountain town for one season and leave after one season, but who for the rest of their lives regret leaving.

• Two pair, low cards: Visitors who live close enough to a mountain town that they visit often, and who dream about being able to move to the mountain town, but can never pull it off.

• One pair, but high cards: Second homeowners who do not act like they are official residents of the mountain town in which their second home is located and who, despite their second-homeownership relationship with the town, volunteer for trail projects and town clean-up days. Chances of being dealt one pair: 42.25%.

• One pair, but middling cards: Tourists who have traveled long distance for years to visit a mountain town and who love the mountain town and who are always in a good mood and tip wait-people well.

• One pair, low cards: Workers who come to a mountain town for one season and leave after one season, and never regret leaving.

• High card, face-card level: Second homeowners who act like they own the mountain town the minute they arrive, ones who immediately start attending town council meetings and castigating the locals for being rubes.

• High card, middling: New resident to a mountain town who immediately wants to turn the town into the place he or she just left.

• Seven high (the worst hand possible in poker): Carpetbagger developers who drive up to the mountains from the safety of their gated flatland McMansions to build ugly condo and retail complexes that they push through local town boards by utilizing hordes of lawyer whores who, while touting the supposed economic and aesthetic benefits of their proposed projects, tacitly hold the threat of legal action over the head of the community they’re invading should their development not be approved.

• Lowball. Long-time locals who have forgotten that they too once rented rooms the size of closets just so they could ski every day.

• Joker: People who think, just because they’ve lived in the Mountain Time Zone for more than 36 years, they are wise enough to reduce the sociology of the turf they inhabit to a series of poker hands, when, in actuality, that sociology has more in common with the Periodic Tables of the Elements.

Mountain Gazette editor M. John Fayhee’s latest two books, “Smoke Signals: Wayward Journeys Through the Old Heart of the New West” and “The Colorado Mountain Companion: A Potpourri of Useful Miscellany from the Highest Parts of the Highest State,” can be purchased at your local bookstore or ordered directly from mjohnfayhee.com. 

The Fire Rings of Halfmoon Creek

A few miles outside Leadville, Colorado, lies Halfmoon Creek Road, which, due to a perfect storm of geophysical circumstances that have graciously lent themselves to the modern Rocky Mountain recreational experience, is one of the most car-camping-dense places in Colorado. Such would likely not be the case were it not for the fact that its first five miles, though unpaved, are suitable for passenger car passage. Or, more likely, it’s the flip side of the chicken-and-egg coin: Were it not for the fact that the Halfmoon Creek Road accesses an outdoor enthusiast’s wet dream, in all likelihood, the road would not be maintained as well as it is.

At the point where Halfmoon Creek Road becomes passable for only high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles lies one of the most iconic single trailheads in the Western United States. Head south from the parking lot, which has had to be expanded twice in the past couple decades to accommodate the tsunami of visitation, and you find yourself on the main trail to the summit of Mount Elbert, which, at 14,440 feet, is not only the highest peak in Colorado, but the highest in the entire Rocky Mountain chain.

Head north, and you find yourself on Mount Massive, at 14,421 feet, the second-highest mountain in Colorado and, therefore, the second-highest in the Rockies. It also boasts more territory above 14,000 feet than any other mountain in the Lower 48.

As if all that is not enough, the trail that provides access to the summits of both Elbert and Massive is a contiguous section of the Colorado and Continental Divide trails — a section utilized by both the Leadville 100 foot and mountain bike races.

Combine those summits and those world-famous trails with easy access from the heat of the Front Range with the fact the Halfmoon Creek Road, which hovers around 10,500 feet, passes by literally dozens and dozens of perfect campsites — including three official Forest Service campgrounds — and you’ve got a magnet for the huddled masses. On any given summer weekend, you will have trouble finding a place to pitch even a small backpacking tent up Halfmoon Creek Road. Along the road and beside the creek, there will be entire RV villages occupied by four-wheeler devotees, camper-trailer compounds sporting entire tribes of trout-hunters, clusters of tents the size of houses into which are crammed with the vocal spawn of fading lowland farm towns and, of course, entire refugee camps worth of state-of-the-art tents occupied by every variation imaginable on the Fourteener-bagging theme. There are scads of body Nazis, dirtbags, retirees and oxygen-gasping families-of-four on vacation from Ohio.

Given the car-camping intensity of Halfmoon Creek Road, which, I should add, has the added benefit of being flat-out beautiful despite its Europe-esque population density during the non-snowy months, it should come as no surprise that it also is home to more fire rings than can be counted. It seems that every spot level enough to hold rock in place has a fire ring. Larger sites usually seemingly inexplicably have multiple rings. Some of the sites have literally dozens. The area from which the accompanying photos were taken sports literally 30 or more.

Even acknowledging that some are old and disintegrated, while others are built in inappropriate places, it is still a bonafide head-scratcher why these areas have so many fire rings. Perhaps this is at least partially a reaction to the ever-increasing social isolation of Americans; rather than everyone, even perfect strangers (or perhaps especially perfect strangers) gathering at one central fire ring, individuals or groups obviously prefer to huddle around flames with familiar company. Or, more likely, they are shunning the great communal unknown.

I believe there is more to it than that, though. It seems to me that different people prefer different kinds of fire rings. And, why not? We each have our own architectural preferences. Each fire ring is an expression of its builder’s aesthetic taste(s), combined with his or her engineering capabilities, combined with the availability of at-hand construction materials: rocks.

With that understanding, my wife, Gay, took the time to photograph most of the fire rings in the aforementioned place that has spread around it more than 30 fire rings. We have interpreted the nature and/or aesthetic leanings of the builders.

Thanks to my drinking buddies Allan Cox and Shawn Gordy for adding their observations. And feel free to add you own interpretations of these photos or of fire ring photos you have taken yourself. mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com is the address.

M. John Fayhee’s monthly blog, “War Paint,” can be found at mountaingazette.com. His website, mjohnfayhee.com, is now up and running and contains much in the way of Mountain Gazette-related material.   

Wild West

Smoke Signals by M John Fayhee

You certainly don’t have to be a news junkie to know things in Border Country have been a bit dicey of late. I mean, even dicier than usual. A recent Yahoo News entry, headlined, “Government border town crackdowns on the rise,” caught my eye. It leads with a couple tales about a recent municipal election in Sunland Park, New Mexico, the only American town that lies south of the Rio Grande. The story details allegations of extortion and financial kickbacks among town officials, and, more colorfully, that a mayoral candidate tried to force his opponent out of the race with a secretly recorded video of the other man getting a topless lap dance.

In addition, the Yahoo News story continued, former Mayor Martin Resendiz dropped a bid for Congress after admitting in a deposition that he signed nine government contracts while drunk.

By the sixth paragraph, the story detours 70 miles west, to Columbus, N.M. (more on fair Columbus in a moment), where authorities a year ago arrested the mayor, police chief, a town trustee and 11 other people who have since pleaded guilty to charges they helped run guns across the border to Mexican drug cartels.

I cannot say why those of us who choose to hang our sombreros near the southern border find ourselves more than anything almost indifferently shaking our heads, shrugging our shoulders and maybe even grinning a bit when we read such things. Sane people would justifiably pack up the Outback and head post paste to more socially normal environs (read: toward the great white north). But then you get into that seven-month winter thing so many of us down here try so mightily to avoid.

Still, even the most avid Border Country/Southwest/desert-o-philes wince a bit when we read stories like the above-referenced Yahoo News piece. We might try to limply rationalize the situation by saying things like, “Were it not for the crazy-assed ‘War on Drugs,’ things wouldn’t be quite so bad.” Or we might say, “Look, the border situation is not nearly as nuts as it’s made out to be by non-border-dwelling politicians trying to pander to the lowest common electoral denominator.” We might point out that, come what may, we at least have superlative green chile and incomparable year-round hiking and backpacking opportunities. Or we might observe that, insane though the border situation might be, at least we rarely lack for colorful media fodder.

Whatever your sociopolitical inclinations, whatever your proposed solution(s), there’s no denying, when one approaches the frontera these days, whether for business, recreation or to commit major felonies, one had best cinch one’s saddle on tight and, at all times, be ready to duck.

The closest legal border crossing to where these words are being penned is just south of the aforementioned Columbus, N.M., at Palomas, Chihuahua. About 80 driving miles from my front door. Columbus is the place where, in 1916, revolutionary forces under the command of Pancho Villa crossed into U.S. Territory (this being a mere four years after the Land of Enchantment became our 47th state) and launched an attack that resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians and eight soldiers attached to the 13th Calvary Regiment. That attack predictably spurred a response by the U.S. military that can charitably be called “not entirely successful.”

Today, Columbus is one strange village, boasting a demographic mishmash that includes alternative-housing/architecture devotees (read: people inclined to construct abodes out of materials that, in more-civilized realms, would cause shock and dismay on the part of building inspectors), Border Patrol agents, drug-and-gun-runners, tough-as-nails ranchers, retirees, eccentrics, loners, survivalists, religious zealots and, if the rumors are true, numerous higher-ups from the Mexican drug cartels who have moved north of the border to escape the violence they themselves have caused in Old Mexico. There are a couple interesting restaurants, a few art galleries, a museum or two, Pancho Villa State Park and a cantina — along with beaucoup foliage boasting skin-penetrating spines, a healthy selection of rattlesnakes, oppressive heat and all the blowing dust you could ever want in a town.

It was at the bar one day that I got a representative taste of the way things are in borderland limbo.

I used to work for one of the area daily papers. There was a 70-something man from Evergreen, Colorado, who was about to embark upon a four-year effort to hike the entire Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. The plan was for him to hike one state section per summer (New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho/Montana). The man was an avid Rotarian, and he planned on interacting all the way to the Canadian border with Rotary Clubs located near the CDNST route. (I believe he was trying to raise money for some good cause.) Since, stunningly enough, there was actually a Rotary Club in Palomas, the man opted to symbolically kick his 3,100-mile journey off with a gala at the famous Pink Store (a popular cantina/restaurant a few blocks south of the Mexican border crossing), even though the official CDNST southern terminus lies several dentition-jolting hours away near Big Hatchet Peak, over in the Bootheel.

I ventured down to Columbus to hook up with the man and his somewhat substantial entourage/support team, with the idea of penning a piece for the paper, which is not too big a stretch, as the CDNST passes very near Silver City. (Verily, I hike upon it several times a week.)

Though certainly in fine fitness fettle, the man from Evergreen, being a septuagenarian and all, rationally had hired a Sherpa in his mid-20s from Nepal  to join him on his journey — for on-trail company, in case of emergencies and, I would assume, to help carry supplies. (I do not recollect how the man from Evergreen made the acquaintance of the young man from Nepal.) Rather than risk problems getting the Sherpa back into the U.S., the man from Evergreen left him in my highly responsible company at Pancho Villa State Park, where the entourage planned to camp, while he and his fellow Rotarians sacrificed virgins over in Palomas, or whatever it is Rotarians do when they gather in lawless border towns.

This Sherpa kid was cool. He had summited Everest twice. His wife had also summited Everest, and, matter of fact, the Sherpa had actually proposed on the very top of the planet’s highest mountain.

It was not long before we decided to make our way over to Columbus’ sole watering hole. Even though it was only 4 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, the bar was full.

I had over the years made the acquaintance of several Everest summiteers, but I had never tipped brews with one. I was looking forward to hearing some death-zone tales. Sadly, the ambiance was not what you would call conducive to storytelling, even barroom storytelling. The reason was that the town’s police chief was standing in the middle of the bar in full uniform. It was not his official presence, however, that drew the undivided attention of those there gathered. Rather, it was the fact the police chief was about as drunk as a person can be.

In addition, and very captivatingly, he was also boisterous, obnoxious and, to add a little icing to an already very surreal cake, waving his sidearm around in a manner I believe most firearms experts would have deemed “unsafe.”

The police chief’s assistant was also in there, and, though his visage bespoke minor concern with the way things were progressing on the potential negative incident front, it was obvious he felt compelled to serve as a wobbly wingman for his superior. Before long, both of them were waving their sidearms with one hand while holding shots of tequila in the other hand. Many toasts were given, and, in partial defense of the two inebriated law-enforcement personnel, only one of them — the chief — accidentally discharged his weapon, and, since the only thing that got shot was a ceiling fan, which, for all I know, deserved it, I guess I can’t very well conscionably make any disparaging statements about local weapons protocols.

Still, the young Sherpa, who seemed somewhat taken aback by all this, and I decided that — who knows? — after another few shots of tequila, the police officer’s aim might take a turn for the worse, so we aimed ourselves at the door.

“Wait a minute,” the police chief slurred when he saw us leaving. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Uh … ”

“You’re not going anywhere … at least not until …” (and here I must digress by pointing out that by now he was pretty much waving the recently discharged sidearm so close to my nose that I ended up inhaling gunpowder residue) “ … you drink another shot with me … ” (and here I feel a need to digress yet again by stressing that 1) I had not yet done a shot of tequila with the police chief whose gun barrel was pretty much defining my immediate viewshed, 2) I dislike tequila so much that I never, ever drink that shit unless 3) I feel compelled to do so by someone waving a revolver under my nose) “ … and I give you your get-out-of-jail-free card.”

The bartender, an obviously once-comely lass, who looked 50 but was probably more like 40, sported one of those looks not uncommon to practitioners of her chosen vocation. Like, “You know, I should have taken that cosmetology school scholarship offer when I was 18 …  ” But she also seemed bemused by the proceedings. Without hesitation, she handed me a shot of tequila, most of which was thankfully sloshed onto the floor when I traded saludos with the police chief and his underling. I choked the remainder down, thanked all involved and, once again, pointed my feet toward an exit that seemed to be getting farther away by the minute.

“Wait!” the police chief shouted. “Don’t you want your get-out-of-jail-free card?”

“Well, of course I do!” I responded. “How could I let concerns regarding my immediate mortality allow such a patently absurd thing to slip my mind?”

I stood patiently as the police chief, who could barely maintain his balance, rummaged through the many pockets adorning his ill-fitting uniform. He was without a doubt earnestly searching for something palpable; this was not some sort of law-enforcement comedy routine, at least not one that was intentional. Finally, exasperatedly, he looked at me and said, “Hold this,” and handed me his gun, which, I stress yet again, had recently been, albeit accidentally, discharged in a public place populated by several dozen potential victims/witnesses, in an area literally crawling with people sporting various types of badges within radio-able distance.

So, along about now, here’s what’s going on in my head: Even in a hamlet as off the grid of normality as Columbus, someone with a modicum of civic sanity had to have noticed that an otherwise innocent ceiling fan had been mortally wounded in the town’s one watering hole. That someone very well might have made an effort to contact officialdom, which, of course, would have been the police chief and the one other cop in town who was on duty, both of whom were drunk as fucking shit in the bar and one of whom was responsible for killing the ceiling fan. When neither the police chief nor his personal Barney Fife could be reached, there would likely be further concern — this being a part of the world where police officers often suffer violent ends — and, then, the effort to contact some form of non-drunk, on-duty law enforcement would be expanded to include the Luna County Sheriff’s Department and local federal agencies, like Border Patrol, DEA, INS, ICE, FBI, ATF and the various and sundry other law-enforcement sub-species that patrol the borderlands in ant-like profusion.

I’m standing there wondering what would be the chances of one or more of those people busting through the front door of the bar, weapons drawn, and noticing in the darkened interior, a ratty-looking dirtbag, holding a service revolver in front of the town’s police chief, who right then is searching diligently through his pockets in such a way that, to an outsider whose pupils had not yet adjusted to the dimly lit interior, might seem as though he’s being robbed?

Finally, the inebriated police chief managed to find a business card bearing his name, his title and the calming words, “Columbus Police Department.” He held the card upside-down two inches in front of my eyes and said, if I were to find myself in any sort of legal trouble, all I had to do was pull that card out, and all would be forgiven. “It don’t matter where you are or what you do,” he stressed. I thanked him profusely for his generosity, took the card and once more began my long trek toward the exit, thinking, “Bueno … now I can commit armed robbery in Duluth and, should I get caught, all I would have to do is pull out a business card handed to me by the shit-faced police chief in Columbus, New Mexico, and I’d be released from custody, no questions asked.”

“Wait a minute,” the shit-faced police chief called out.

“I forgot to write ‘get out of jail free’ on the card.”

So, once more, I was asked to hold his sidearm — upon which now resided both my fingerprints and my DNA — while he searched from collar to shoe laces for any manner of writing implement. He finally located a broken pencil stuffed in one of his pants cuffs, took the card back from me, placed it on the bar and scrawled words that for all the world seemed to be: “smsdkwersuwgd,” his penmanship not being up to Japanese calligraphy master snuff.

The Sherpa and I finally emerged blissfully unscathed into the harsh light of the Chihuahua Desert. We stopped by the liquor store and purchased a couple six-packs and returned to Pancho Villa State Park to watch the sun set and to await the return of the Rotarian septuagenarian, who, for all I knew, had been kidnapped in Palomas by his fellow Rotarians, who were right then penning their ransom note.

At the edge of the park, there’s a teensy little hill, which we ascended with our beer. We sat on the rocky ground side by side. From our humble perch, the Sherpa looked around, at the proximate Tres Hermanas Mountains, north to the rugged Florida Mountains, west to the Sierra San Luis, south into the heart of Mexico. All around was the most desolate part of America’s most-desolate desert.

“I somehow thought America would be … different,” the Sherpa sighed.

“This is not America,” I responded. “This is something else entirely.”

“Why do you live here?” he asked.

“I don’t know … I just love it down here,” I said, shrugging my shoulders the way dwellers of the Border Country often do. I don’t think he understood. Right then, I believe he was thinking about how, in a few months, he would be hiking through the Colorado Rockies, where the days of drunken police chiefs waving weapons in bars have long since passed.

Read more of Fayhee’s ramblings on his Smoke Signals blog

The nine lives of El Caballo Blanco

By now, few are the people who pay attention to matters outdoor related who have not heard that El Caballo Blanco, Micah True, met his maker in the Gila Wilderness — a mere 40-or-so miles north of where these words are being typed — in March.

According to preliminary autopsy reports, True’s captivating life likely expired because of a heart issue.

True gained justifiable international notoriety via Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book, “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.” The book was based primarily on True and a footrace he organized from the remote town of Urique to the equally remote town of Batopilas among the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyon Country.

I red-faced admit I have never read McDougall’s book, at least partially because of the melodramatic title (“Hidden Tribe”? … give me a break) and at least partially because of my ambivalent response to the last book I read that centered on a part of the world where I have spent so much time, “God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre,” by Englishman Richard Grant.

Anyhow, it was heartening to see Micah receive the credit he so richly deserved because, unlike most organized competitive events, the Urique-to-Batopilas race existed primarily to helped raise resources for and awareness of the Tarahumara and their various modern-era lifestyle challenges.

It will come as no surprise that, given our mutual Copper Canyon connections, Micah and I knew each other. We first met at Margarita’s Casa de Huespedes in Creel. The first edition of my Copper Canyon book had just come out and I was down there guiding backpacking trips into the heart of the barrancas. Micah at that time was a Copper Canyon neophyte and was greatly interested in hearing whatever skinny I could lay on him about various backcountry routes. I remember two things mainly from that conversation: he said he was a runner, and he said he drove an old truck.

Thing is, I did not recollect that meeting at Margarita’s until the second time Micah and I crossed paths. “When in Doubt, Go Higher: The Mountain Gazette Anthology” had just been published and I was dashing to some coffee shop on Pearl Street in Boulder for a live radio interview. I parked behind a battered pick-up sporting, of all curious things in the well-coiffed epicenter of cultured Colorado, a Batopilas bumpersticker. As I was being interviewed by one of the most distractingly beautiful radio personalities who has ever drawn breath (and who also happened to be wearing a ridiculously short mini-skirt) (and who happened to also be sitting directly across from me on a couch conducive to a reclining posture), I noticed a gangly hombre sitting nearby, observing the proceedings. Though he looked familiar, I assumed he was, like me, merely captivated by the comeliness of the radio lady.

After the interview, the gangly man came over and said words to the effect of, “You probably don’t remember me, but you had a significant effect on my life.” Now, when you’ve been John Fayhee as long as I have been John Fayhee, your natural reaction to words like that is to duck and run, assuming, of course, that, somewhere in the middle of those significant effects lie a pregnant sister and a stint in a local rehab unit. But, no, in this rare case, it was a positive effect. Micah reminded me of the time we met in Creel. By that time, he was well on his way to becoming not Micah True, but, rather, El Caballo Blanco. He had by then met his first Tarahumara Indians at the Leadville 100, and that interface changed the trajectory of his life forever. He was then living in Batopilas six months of the year in a house he built and was in the process of organizing the race that was immortalized in “Born to Run.” We chatted for maybe 30 minutes before I had to dash off for another promotional interview.

The third time we met was in Batopilas. I had just returned from an extremely arduous 10-day cross-canyon backpacking trip — the type of on-foot journey where you arrive at your destination with your clothes in tatters and campfire smoke absorbed into your eyelashes. I was beat, and my three compadres and I had to arrange for transport out to civilization the next morning, so Micah and I did not have much time to catch up. In that short time, though, he told me a bone-chilling story.

Though there is now a dirt road connecting Urique to Batopilas, back then, there was only one road into Batopilas and one road out, and that one road is an engineering marvel of ass-puckering proportions. From the lip of Batopilas Canyon to the Rio Batopilas, it drops 6,000 feet and includes more than 40 hairpin switchbacks and more than 200 curves.

Littered in the various arroyos the road crosses are the remains of many vehicles that did not make it. Their brakes might have overheated. The driver might have been drunk. A tie-rod might have broke. Whatever the cause, when you’re descending into Batopilas Canyon on that road, you see a lot of wreckage that lends a high degree of motivation to your driving efforts, for those off-road vehicular corpses are always trashed, burned and in a such a state of destruction that you know beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt the people who were in those vehicles did not walk away.

Turns out that Micah’s old truck was among that wreckage. Yes, he had lost control and down he went. But he managed to walk away from certain doom. I do not remember all the details, as, like I said, I was beat to shit and had duties to perform, so I could not delve deeper. I have driven that road into Batopilas Canyon many times, and, always, I tried to determine which of the wrecked vehicles was Micah’s. Though I never picked his old truck out, the fact that he survived the unsurvivable raised my respect level for this man I did not know well to new heights.

Over the years, I received dozens of emails from Micah. He tried and tried to get me journalistically interested in his Urique-to-Batopilas race. He never did. Truth be told, by that time, I was very burned out on Copper Canyon. And, not being a runner myself, I told him I was simply not the right person. I am glad that, in the end, McDougall, a runner and a running writer, took the task.

My wife and I were recently in buttfuck Cameroon and I had a chance to check emails in a sweltering internet café populated by a colorful demographic array of tribespeople. There was an email from my friend Marc Weinberger, who did not know I was in Africa. “Are you going to write anything about Micah True?” he asked my perplexed self. “Uh, why would I do that?” I responded.

I did not then know Micah was missing. His body had not yet been found.

I am not exactly certain upon which trail Micah died. I have a good guess and could learn that info with a quick phone call. Perhaps I will soon do just that and go out and retrace his last steps. But I already know what I will find: I will find a desire to say the inevitable superficial: “Well, at least he died doing what he loved in a beautiful place.”

He had discovered his place in life, and he had discovered his people. He lived through a harrowing crash in Batopilas Canyon. He became famous for an honest effort to help the Tarahumara Indians, a tribe I have spent much time with. He died while running at age 58, two years older than I am now, in one of the most spiritually powerful places on Earth, the Gila Wilderness.

The man lived well, was reborn not once but twice, and died well.

That all of us could make such claims.

 

Rivers of Cameroon

Editor’s note: My wife, Gay, and I just returned from a trip to Cameroon, during which we visited three different rivers. Herein, we share some of the photographs, along with appropriate annotation, from those tropical watercourses.

— MJF

The Chari

1] We visited Kalamaloué National Park, in the far north of Cameroon, specifically in hopes of viewing elephants. We first spotted these two juvenile males on the other side of the Chari, which is in Chad. The elephants made their way across the Chari right to where we were standing with our guide, our driver and a park ranger. Once the ranger realized the elephants were coming in our direction, he ordered us to beeline post haste to the vehicle, which, with the elephants a few meters away, upped the adventure quotient by refusing to start.

2] People crossed the river between Cameroon and Chad all day long with absolute impunity.

3] The Chadian capital of N’Djamena as seen from the Cameroonian side. The main visible edifice in the presidential palace.

The Lobé

1] Barely visible, off toward center/left, is a small monkey that was coaxed out of hiding in the impenetrable foliage by our guide, who apparently spoke fluent simian-ese. The chances of Gay and I seeing that monkey on our own were nil.

2] My kingdom for a basketball court. We visited a pygmy village on the side of the Lobé, where we met with this dude, the local chief, whose spear, lore had it, had once dispatched a full-grown elephant. The chief reluctantly let me hold his spear, but once I started taking aim at a nearby tree, he asked for it back.

3] The word “pygmy” is, by all accounts, a pejorative. I was unsuccessful in my attempts to learn a different name by which these vertically challenged people could be less insultingly addressed, but failed. “We just call them ‘pygmies’,” said our guide.

4] Lobé Falls, about 20 meters high, is supposedly one of the few cascades in the world that empties directly into the ocean. When we arrived, we witnessed a local lad come within a whisker of drowning. We did not see how he arrived at the lamentable circumstance of being swept out to sea right before our very eyes, but it was only via the gallant efforts of several locals that the boy was saved by the skin of his teeth.

5] For a man who is repulsed by the idea of eating food with his hands, this was a tough feed — locally caught shrimp (heads still attached) and the ever-present French fries and fried plantains served up in a small restaurant near Lobé Falls.

6] Gay and the guide effortlessly paddling a hand-made wooden boat that can hold 10 people in a squeeze and, judging from the effort it took to haul it onto shore, probably weighed several hundred pounds.

7] It took some coaxing, but the guide eventually gave in and let me try my hand at paddling the boat. Though I have considerable experience paddling canoes on flatwater, my attempts to keep this vessel pointed in a straight line were not wholly successful. The guide was still laughing about my poor paddling several hours later over beers.

8] Canoe carved out of a single tree trunk.

The Ebogo

1] A short hike through the jungle from the Ebogo was this massive, 1,175-year-old tree. We never did get a grip on the name of the species, as the guide did not know the English name. We were constantly frustrated by our inability to understand French.

2] At 800 kilometers in length, the Ebogo is Cameroon’s second-longest river. At the time of our visit, it was less than a meter in depth. The rains were late. The flood-stage line, which was clearly visible in the proximate jungle, was about six meters high.

3] Modern African architecture (how to say this tactfully?) leaves a lot to be desired. These were the nicest new buildings we saw during our visit. They are tourist cabins that had never been opened because of some sort of bureaucratic snafu.

Crash Landing

Smoke Signals by M John Fayhee“With your feet on the air
And your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head’ll collapse
If there’s nothing in it
And then you’ll ask yourselfWhere is my mind?
— The Pixies, “Where Is My Mind?” 

There’s a stunningly fine line between a “misunderstanding” and an “incident.” And the best time to try to suss out the relative lexical semantics associated with those two words is definitely NOT while you’re on a 747 that has yet to reach cruising altitude and is headed at 600 miles per hour out over the Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately, I was right then in no condition to be pondering the subtle nuances of etymology. One second, there was relative calm. The next second, every head on the plane was turning fast toward the distant recesses of the coach section, as five flight attendants made their post haste way to seat 58C. Guess who was sitting in seat 58C?

Admittedly, I was not exactly in a jovial mood to begin with, though it was not my dour disposition that caused the flight crew to descend upon me. It was the action of a well-dressed middle-aged Oriental gentleman in seat 57A. Almost as soon as my posterior was planted, I had started to doze off (read: pass out with my tongue lolling out of my head) but, before achieving total blissful insentience, I was jerked back into consciousness by an agitated, albeit understated, conversation by my seatmates, a young married couple. “I thought this was a non-smoking flight,” said the women to her husband. “It is. Maybe we should call the stewardess,” the husband responded to his spouse. With great effort, I cracked one eye open and saw the aforementioned gentleman in seat 57A smoking a cigarette. It was here that my foul mood asserted itself. “Dude, there’s no smoking allowed,” I snarled. His reaction, while holding his cigarette in between his index and middle fingers, was to draw deeply, turn around, look straight at me, and blow two full lungs of smoke directly into my face. It was total instinct when my hand shot out to grab the cigarette from the man’s mouth. It was surely the result of fatigue associated with an arduous six-week trip that reached something of a climatic anti-climax with an ill-advised all-nighter that ended a mere hour before take-off that caused my aim to be askew. Basically, I overshot my target. Not by much, mind you, but enough that, in something of a physical manifestation of a Freudian slip, instead of snatching a smoldering cancer stick with my digits, two knuckles made solid contact with the schmuck’s lips.

The Oriental gentleman did not react calmly. Verily, he went ballistic, screaming maniacally in Chinese, blood seeping from his mouth, trying to climb over the back of his seat to have at me.

It was borderline anarchy. And, when it seemed things couldn’t get any more chaotic, all of a sudden, smoke started filling the cabin. Turns out the irate Oriental gentleman’s cigarette, which had been lost in the shuffle, had starting burning a hole in seat 57A.

My photographer buddy Norb and I had been sent by Backpacker magazine to the most remote corner of China’s Yunnan Province, to cover the first commercial rafting descent of the class-39 Yangtze River through 17-mile-long, 11,000-foot-deep Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We had no intention whatsoever to so much as stick a toe into the Yangtze through Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We, rather, planned to hike above the river, where we could more easily witness the inevitable carnage.

About two seconds before we were scheduled to leave for the People’s Republic, those malcontents in Tibet who have lived for 50 years under Beijing’s unconscionable repression decided now would be a good a time to revolt. Why they couldn’t have waited another month, who can say? But, as a result of their actions, all of Tibet, and those parts of China proper that bordered Tibet, were pretty much closed to foreign visitation while the People’s Liberation Army went about liberating a whole bunch of Tibetans of their mortality. Well, guess where Tiger’s Leaping Gorge is? Not to worry, we were told by the proprietors of Sobek, the company that was charging customers something like $20,000 apiece to risk life and limb in Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. They would simply add our names to their special-exception permit list, and all would be well.

So, we arrived in Hong Kong, where we had a two-day layover before our flight to  Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, with a sense of ease that ought to have, right off the bat, worried us.

The plan was to hook up with the Sobek people Dali, a lovely little mountain town eight hours by bus from Kunming. Sobek co-founders Richard Bangs and John Yost had some bad news for us: They had forgotten to include our names on the permit — meaning, because Tiger’s Leaping Gorge was, as I indicated earlier, closed to all non-special-permitted foreign visitation, we would be legally prohibited from venturing there to cover the impending rafting catastrophe. The liaison to the Chinese Sports Ministry said, maybe, we would be able to get some sort of special dispensation if we took a hand-written note from him to the Public Security Bureau — the dreaded PSB — in Lijiang, the next sizeable town up the road. While understanding that the scribble he had jotted down might very well have been an admonition to the Lijiang cops to shoot us on sight, we boarded yet another bus for half a day to Lijiang, where the local gendarmerie handed us a typed note in English stating, unambiguously, if we tried to go to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge, we would be arrested, jailed and “eventually” deported.

Were it not for hefty quantities of fortifying beverages, that typed note would likely have signaled an ignominious defeat. But Norb and I have always been far too stupid to face failure without doing something asinine to make that failure even more undignified. We opted after numerous adult beverages to defy the PSB. Somehow, some way, we were going to make it the last 60 miles to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We had two days before Sobek was scheduled to run the Yangtze.

We hatched a scheme that was deceptively moronic. We figured, after our conversation with the PSB, they would surely be on the lookout for us, which would be pretty easy, since there was only one road from Lijiang to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. Ergo: It would not take much in the way of law-enforcement acumen to catch us in the act. So we opted, rather than walk through the middle of town early in the a.m., to sneak through the back streets to hook up with the road we needed to be on. Thing is, this was long enough ago that round eyes were decidedly unusual in small-town China. For the most part, as we slinked our way along muddy alleys as wide as my desk, people eyeballed us warily and silently from the shadows. Then, we passed in front of a goddamned elementary school, which literally disgorged before our very eyes. Every one of the 6,000 students had evidently, the very day before, learned two, and two only, words of English: “Hello” and “Good-bye.” Not that it mattered to Norb and I at that moment, but these 6,000 screaming schoolchildren displayed no discernible pattern whatsoever in the use of their limited English vocabulary. A third yelled “hello” at the top of their little lungs the entire time we passed by, while a third yelled “good-bye,” while the remaining third used both terms randomly, like they were trying to work out the lyrics to the old Beatles song. In short, our attempts at subterfuge were counterproductive.

Then, though, a miracle happened: Through no fault of our own, our dumbass selves were suddenly on the road to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. Then, another miracle happened: We managed to hitch a ride in the back of a dump truck all the way to the village of Dachu — walking distance from our destination. Next morning, we hired a rickety boat to take us across the frighteningly roiling Yangtze to the downriver gateway to Tigers Leaping Gorge!

An hour later, up walks from the opposite direction, of all perplexing and disheartening things, the entire Sobek crew.

“Uh, aren’t you folks supposed to be rafting this section?” we asked.

“We decided it was too dangerous,” was the almost-indifferent response. With that, they were off. Off too was the story we had traveled 12 time zones to cover. For the next four days, we did not know what would befall us when we emerged on the upper end of Tiger’s Leaping Gorge, whether there would be a troop of PSB agents standing there ready to arrest us. And we did not know what would become of our story once the editors at Backpacker learned that the Sobek people had sanely pussied out at the very last possible minute. Those were not things we could control, so we pressed on, took pictures and, on those few instances when they did not sprint away from us screaming, chatted with locals. Lack of Sobek carnage notwithstanding, it was an astounding hike through one of the deepest canyons on the planet.

Two miles from civilization, we walked right through the middle of (and I am not making this up) a Chinese prison chain gang, dressed in ripped-up striped suits, breaking rocks with sledgehammers, just like in the movies. This was not a happy-looking lot, and the thought that, maybe in a few hours, we would be joining them in their labors almost made us piss our pants. But, when we arrived in the first town large enough to have bus service, not a single person paid the slightest attention to our presence.

We were free.

And that was it. We returned to Hong Kong for one last night before this demanding adventure was over and done with. What could possibly go wrong?

Funny you should ask …

We arrived in Hong Kong during the earliest hours of October 19, 1987, otherwise known in fiscal circles as “Black Monday,” the worst single day in the history of stock exchanges. By lunch time, Hong Kong, a place that survives off the electronic shuffling of dollars, pounds sterling, francs and yen the way most societies survive off food, water, shelter and oxygen, was in utter turmoil, and, by the time the closing bell rung, the entire colony was shaken to its core, because, in one short business day, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the third-largest in the world in terms of actual capitalization, had lost almost 50 percent of its value. By the next day, when the shockwaves of Black Monday rippled their way to New York, the Dow Jones would suffer its biggest one-day loss ever.

Even as people were running down Salisbury and Nathan roads, bumping into buildings and wailing in abject despair, Norb and I, being insulated from the vagaries of the stock market via our perpetual destitution, opted to deal with this international crisis-in-the-making by venturing forth into the Kowloon evening. Our destination was Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, an Aussie-owned bar so popular with ex-pats and tourists that, if you did not arrive on the scene by happy hour, your chances of getting a seat were nil, and if you did not have a seat, there was nothing to do save stand there in the middle of walkways the wait staff traversed in their noble quest to slake thirsts.

We thought we were ahead of the crowd curve, but, given the fact that half the inhabitants of Hong Kong were at that very moment liquidly lamenting their newfound residency in the poor house, Norb and I arrived at Ned Kelly’s too late to get seats. The only spot I could find to even stand was next to a 10-top horseshoe-shaped booth — at that moment completely filled with a group of very loud, young and drunk Aussies. The 10-top was the closest table to the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. Every time a waitperson passed through those doors, I had to suck in my stomach and hold my breath, lest I get knocked over. At one point, my attention wandered ever so slightly, just as a waitress from, of all places, Evergreen, Colorado, exploded through those swinging doors holding high above her head a well-laden tray. I leaned back as far as I could, as fast as I could, and, as she passed, my center of gravity was no longer centered and, as a result, the smallest part of my ass made the slightest contact with the edge of that 10-top table and, as it did so, I could hear behind me 10 tall glasses of beer topple over in unison, like bowling pins.

The rowdy Aussies saw what had happened and were good-natured about it. Still, they were all soaked from the waist down, so they left to change into duds a bit drier. Bad as I felt, when the Aussies left, Norb and I found ourselves with ample seating. Shortly after we took advantage of the situation, a young Canadian, who was living and working in Hong Kong, asked if he could join us. He said he was meeting someone, an Englishman, who arrived in short order. The two men chatted conspiratorially and, under the table, a wad of folded bills was passed from the Canuck, who received in turn a small foil-wrapped packet from the Limey. Almost immediately, the Canuck asked if Norb and I would be interested in joining him back at his flat. “I’ve got something here that you might enjoy,” he said, without indicating exactly what that “something” might be. We said sure, and, minutes later, we were in a 40th-story abode about the size of my car, which the Canadian shared with one of his countrymen and two locals.

The Canadian had purchased from the Englishman back at Ned Kelly’s several grams of opiated Kashgari hash, which was debilitatingly potent. After one hit, Norb and I found ourselves fused to the couch, completely unable to so much as twitch, for the rest of the night.

It would have been one thing if that were essentially this end of the story. But, well — shit! — the entire time we were parked comatose upon the Canadian’s couch, one of his roommates, a young yuppie-type of Chinese heritage, had been … trying … to … commit suicide. He had lost his entire family’s multi-generation wealth during the Black Monday meltdown and wasn’t handling the situation in any way that, say, Thoreau would have sanctioned.

He had arrived shortly post-smoke, and, after exchanging pleasantries with the Canadian, he calmly placed his hat, briefcase and umbrella aside, screeched at the top of his lungs and dashed full speed to the closest window, which he impacted with the top of his noggin. The window, fortunately, was closed tight. Before anyone could react, or, in the case of Norb and I, not react, he had the window open and one leg was dangling 40 stories above the street. This man was not bullshitting; he was going out that window. In one of the more heroic acts I have ever witnessed, the Canadian, who was surely as stoned as were Norb and I, was up and pulling his disconsolate roommate back into the land of the living. This suicidal savior dance proceeded apace every 15 minutes until the figurative roosters began waking a Hong Kong that, in economic terms, was in utter ruins, and thus pretty much remained until China reclaimed its territory a decade later.

There came a point when Norb and I had to move. With Herculean effort, we wobbled back to our hovel, retrieved our filthy piles of gear, hailed a taxi and made it to the airport by the skin of our teeth. We parted ways, Norb headed for Sea-Tac by way of Tokyo, me headed toward Stapleton by way of San Francisco.

And so I found myself in seat number 58C, with a gaggle of flight attendants huddled around me. The irate Chinese guy had been moved up toward the front of the plane and the smoking seat had been doused with hot coffee.

One of the flight attendants leaned over my seat and asked: “You think we can make it all the way to San Francisco without further incident,” she drawled.

“I thought of it more as a simple misunderstanding,” I responded.

With that, I crashed hard, and, when I awoke, we were on final approach to economic chaos that had no bearing whatsoever on my humble little life.

Arrested Development

The unassailable, DNA-level disdain that I harbor toward law-enforcement certainly has roots that grow back to my criminal childhood, a time during which I did not look at police officers so much as enforcers of laws (most of which I happened to disagree with), but, rather, as fun mitigators, the pendejos who came a-runnin’ after I had just participated in, say, a spate of recreational windshield-smashing. There was, not surprisingly, enough resultant heavy head-butting that lifelong stereotypes were indelibly seared into my psyche.

But understanding the roots of my personal contempt for law enforcement does nothing to mitigate the reality of the situation: in my little world, all cops are guilty until proven innocent, and very few are ever proven innocent. Sure, there have been a couple times in my life when I have become chummy with a badge-wearer. While living in Colorado, I came to really like Bob Broadis, Tina White, Jim Walsh, Gary Robinson and Tom Wickman, all decent people who were more interested in making sure that everyone got home in one piece than they were in making arrests. Those, however, have been rarities in a life defined by the perception that I cannot remember a single interface with law enforcement that was made any better by the presence of law enforcement. Most have been made worse.

You would think, as I approach my sixth decade, that this seemingly immature example of personal overt anti-authoritarianism — which includes not just cops, but pretty much all uniformed people (even Burger King employees and marching band members are somewhat suspect) — would soften, if not dissipate entirely. Quite the opposite, however. In these increasingly dark days of the war on drugs and MADD-based DUI-enforcement madness and DARE-based “1984”ishness and the lengthening arm of Homeland (in)Security, I find my anti-law-enforcement bile rising both more frequently and more intensely than ever. The difference that increasing age has brought is that I no longer have the energy to confront the Badges as vehemently as I used to. Twice in my life I have been handcuffed and hauled off because of my stubborn refusal to essentially kiss the ass of the cop I was dealing with, which points to yet another issue I have with the thin blue line: They often spend more time forcing people to submit to the power and glory of law enforcement than they do actually enforcing laws.

Admittedly, there are plenty of folks who would argue that, given today’s worldwide terror-based circumstances, cops ought to be cut more slack than ever. There are those who observe the death knell of the Fourth Amendment by pointing to lower violent crime rates (or so those who aggregate crime statistics would have us believe). What I see is more cops on the highways and byways, more enforcement staff in national forests and parks, more military-like posturing by those whose job it supposedly is to do nothing more, nothing less than “serve and protect” — more roadblocks, more muscle flexing, more preening. It’s like law enforcement has become yet another inane Xtreme sport, with sleek body armor, blade sunglasses, tattoos and tricked-out SUVs.

Where I live, with the ongoing, over-militarized war against illegal immigration, life can sometimes be trying for people like me who would be happy as a pig in slop if I never ever again rubbed elbows with a person wearing a stinking badge. If you take a drive anywhere near here — on your way to go hiking in the Chiricahuas, near the Continental Divide Trail route at the base of Big Hatchet Peak, even on the remote roads of the Gila National Forest —  you run the risk of being stopped for no other reason than you are where you are. Your very presence is considered a suspicious activity. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Show us your papers. What I hate more than ANYTHING about our immediate law-enforcement reality down here in Border Country is that most of the clamor for increased vigilance comes from slack-jawed lawmakers who dwell in places far away from the implementation of the increasingly draconian law-enforcement policies they legislatively demand. To the senators from Kentucky and Utah who don’t seem to mind the fact that, for millions and millions of us in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas who have to deal with the ramifications of their politically motivated fear of poor brown people, let me say: Well, first, let me say: Screw you! Second, let me say that this is not Honduras. I’ve traveled in Honduras. I’ve dealt with that Third-World authoritarian “show-me-your-papers” nonsense, and I do not expect, as an American, to have to deal with such nonsense as I go about my day-to-day business.

And it’s certainly not just me. Many and varied are the tales we all have heard from our various cohorts who recount having been pulled on their way back from a day on the slopes or the crags because a taillight is out, and, next thing anyone knows, there are three cop cars and a drug-sniffing dog on the scene and all manner of non-taillight-being-out action is transpiring. I have heard about people politely refusing to consent to a vehicle search and having that refusal used as probable cause to search the vehicle. I have heard about law-abiding citizens consenting to requests to have their vehicle searched, only to find themselves two hours later stranded on the side of the highway with their car seats resting upside-down on the shoulder and their luggage strewn about.

Like I said, though, my fist-shaking days are likely behind me — days when I would respond to questions posed at illegal roadblocks by refusing to hand over my papers and telling the officers they have no legal right to stop me — so I now resort to more subtle (some would say masturbatory) means of making my point, though, truth be told, the cops I’m making those points to are probably too dim realize they’ve just been fracked with. I suspect most people, understanding that there’s no way they can go toe-to-toe with the long arm of the law without being dragged off to jail and consequently losing their job and custody of their kids, choose to bite their lip and answer the questions and voluntarily allow their vehicles to be searched by the American version of the Hitler Youth and maybe even say thank-you after they have been stopped by a pimply faced piece of crap who would look right at home goose-stepping in front of the Reichstag.

All that considered, I faithfully convey my last few encounters with law enforcement. All immature and flaccid, yes. But recreational nonetheless. I recommend you look at these as tips and add your own personal spin when next you’re stopped for no probable cause whatsoever on a lonely desert or mountain highway by someone who’s not intellectually qualified to work at a car wash much less carry a badge and a gun. Consider this to be a primer.

• B. Frank and I were making our way toward Big Bend National Park last October and, 70 miles east of El Paso on Interstate 10, there’s a permanent Border Patrol checkpoint through which all traffic must pass. When our turn came, we were asked by a young black Border Patrol Cub Scout if we were American citizens. Thing is, this young man spoke so fast, his words were barely comprehensible. Barely. I knew what he had asked us, but, just for the pure fun of it, I told him that, since he was talking so rapidly, I did not understand the question. Would he mind repeating it a bit more slowly. The young man seemed genuinely shocked. He literally took a step back and had to regain his composure. He re-posed the question almost like he was talking to a developmentally disabled kindergartner. “Are … you … American … citizens?”

This example of toying with a uniformed child did nothing whatsoever to stem the erosion of the Fourth Amendment. But it sure did make me feel good. When you get to be my age, you find satisfaction in small acts of random recalcitrance.

• On that same trip, B. and I were driving north toward Marfa from Presidio. I was paying less attention than I should have been to my rate of speed and was justifiably pulled by a zygote employed by the Texas State Highway Patrol.

As soon as the Highway Patrol zygote approached the passenger-side, where B. was innocently sitting, I had license, registration and proof of insurance, all current and ready for inspection. This seemed to confuse the zygote. Stinking Badges prefer to control every aspect of their interactions with the huddled masses. It’s funny to see the look on their faces when they don’t. He was prepared to make his customary first contact, which undoubtedly consisted partly of asking for my papers, and, before he could do so, he had my papers in hand. He then asked me to turn my stereo down, which I had just cranked up as he approached the car. I turned it down about one thousandth of a knob turn. He asked me to roll down the back window, which I did about two-tenths of an inch. The flustered zygote then took my papers back with him to his Xtreme police-mobile and returned shortly thereafter and informed me that he was going to let me off with just a warning, a statement that’s supposed to elicit a thankful response. I grunted. Truthfully, I’m at a point in life where I did not care if he threw the book at me, and he seemed to know that. Then he asked me if B. was a friend of mine, and, to this day, I am miffed at the opportunity for further cop mind-games that was presented on a silver platter at that moment. Basically, I was caught off guard. I answered in the affirmative (B. later told me that they are legally prohibited from asking for ID from passengers at a traffic stop without probable cause or exigent circumstances; I did not know that), but regretted mightily that I did not put my hand on B.’s leg and say, no, he was my lover. Ugly as B. is, those would have been some tough words to spit out straight faced, but I’m sure the reaction from the zygote would have made the effort worthwhile.

The zygote then asked me to sign the warning, which contained about 600 words of two-point print. “What am I signing here?” I asked the zygote. “The warning,” he responded. “But what’s all this fine print say?” It was clear he did not know. “How fast was I going, anyway?” I asked. “75,” he responded, with a look on his face like, “Damn, I was supposed to have mentioned that somewhere along the line. “What’s the speed limit? I asked. “70.” “OK.” With that, I drove off. No thanks, no promises to drive more slowly, no faux-friendly banter. He was still standing there on the side of the highway looking confounded as we accelerated to 73.

• A few minutes later, we approached the permanent Border Patrol station south of Marfa, which looked for all the world like something straight out of Nicaragua during the heyday of the Sandinistas. Mine was the only vehicle in the queue, which was manned by two agents. “Where you going?” the one with the most zits asked. “So, what’s Marfa like?” I responded. Law-enforcement people really hate it when you answer one of their questions with a question. That this interrogative response to an interrogative was also deflective in nature apparently did not sink into the cranial mainframe of the agent with the most zits. “Well, there’s not much there, just a couple gas stations and a few restaurants,” he responded. “Well, we’ll check it out,” I said. “Have a nice day.” We drove off, and I’ll bet it was at least a half hour before the agents realized that they did not control that conversation at all, except, of course, for the fact that they were manning a legal roadblock and could have shot me in the head and probably won an award for so doing.

I get it that Border Patrol agents and cops are not necessarily looking for answers to their questions; they are, rather, looking for body-language cues. Still, it feels good to drive away thinking that, even in a small way, you just got over on a child soldier. You just hope they don’t retaliate on the next guy.

• It had been a miserable visit to Las Cruces, the closest city to where I live. I had driven down on a summer day to do some unavoidable and long-overdue urban errands, and everything had gone badly. I couldn’t find most of the places I was looking for, the ones I did find were closed or didn’t have what I needed and I ended up eating an awful lunch in an awful truck stop. It was also about 120 degrees. There is a permanent Border Patrol checkpoint between Las Cruces and Deming, and one of the main reasons I avoid driving to Cruces is my visceral hatred of that checkpoint, even though, almost every single time, I have just been waved through with nary a syllable exchanged.

This time, I was stopped, and the midget agent asked if I was an American Citizen. Would have been easy enough to simply answer the question and drive off. But my mood was foul. “Yes. Are you?” I responded. I thought the midget’s head was going to explode. “What … what …do … you … mean … by … that?” he stammered. “Well, I’ve done quite a bit of traveling in Central America, and you look Honduran to me.” Indeed, he did look as though he came from Mayan ancestry. As his face got redder and redder, I added a bit of fuel to the fire: “Well, I figure I have as much right to ask you that question as you do to ask me.” The overall negative vibe must have been strong, because, right then, a supervisor came dashing out of the little tollbooth-looking station. He and the red-faced midget Mayan exchanged a few words, and the supervisor came over to me and said, “Sir, you have yourself a nice day.” As I drove away, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that supervisor waving a finger about three inches under the nose of the Mayan.

Probably, the supervisor was saying to the Mayan, “Look, shit for brains, next time someone does anything except answer your question, Taser him right in the eyeball.”

But maybe I’m getting soft, because I’d like to think he was saying, “Hey, these people have every right as Americans, as humans, to be miffed about having to stop at a roadblock and answer questions. They have every right to be in a bad mood. So, unless you suspect them of criminal behavior, no matter what they say, you respectfully bid them a good day and return your attention to finding the real bad guys.”

Here’s the thing about all four of the encounters I have herein related: The people I am essentially bragging about messing with were all friendly and professional. So, what does this say about me?

It says: I don’t care if the hungry, undocumented hordes break upon our borders like a ravenous tsunami of humanity; I do not care if every man, woman and child in the nation becomes a crack addict working full time for the Zetas, if the alternative is my country turning into the police state it is clearly already turning into. Friendliness and professionalism on the part of the Stinking Badges amounts to nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig.

Colorado Songs

M John Fayhee: Smoke SignalsAuthor’s note: Though this represents a stylistic change of pace for Smoke Signals (I thought I’d give my liver a break for a month), a book project I have been working on for several years has given me the opportunity to research songs about/from Colorado, most of which have the word “Colorado” in their title and/or their lyrics. I have herein opted to share the fruits of that research. There is no doubt that there will be many reactionary exclamations along the lines of, “Fayhee’s a frickin’ moron! How could he not include [such and such a song] or at least something by [fill in the blank].” Well, I am all ears. Please send suggestions (as well as any corrections to this list) to mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com. I would also be interested to hear songs from other parts of the Rockies, especially those that contain state names within their titles or lyrics.

• John Denver, who was born Henry John Deutschendorf, penned the lyrics of “Rocky Mountain High” (Mike Taylor composed the music) after watching the Perseid meteor shower with friends near Williams Lake, outside Aspen. It was recorded in August 1972 and released the following year. Because he lived most of his adult life in Colorado, a large percentage of John Denver’s discography hailed from the Centennial State. Many of his tunes make reference to his adopted home state, but, if you’re going to seek out a Denver song not named “Rocky Mountain High” that is about Colorado, your best bet is “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado.”

• Bob Dylan, another singer who, like John Denver changed his name (from Robert Allen Zimmerman), at one time maintained a second home in Telluride (maybe he still does). In “Man of Constant Sorrows” he sings: “I’m going back to Colorado/The place that I started from/If I’d known how bad you’d treat me honey/I would never have come.” And, in “Wanted Man,” he sings: “I might be in Colorado or Georgia by the sea/Working for some man who may not know at all who I might be.” (Note: Contrary to some published reports, Dylan’s “Romance in Durango” is not about the southwestern Colorado town that is home to Fort Lewis College, but, rather, the nice big city that is in Mexico.)

• While still with The Flying Burrito Brothers, Rick Roberts wrote, “Colorado,” which was included on that group’s self-titled 1971 album. “Colorado” was covered by Linda Ronstadt on her 1973 album, “Don’t Cry Now.” Roberts went on to help found Firefall. Several versions of “Colorado,” as performed by both The Flying Burrito Brothers and Ronstadt, can be found on YouTube.

• Stephen Stills’ “Colorado” is an example (of many) of a great mountain-based song with lyrics that you wonder how much pot these folkies were actually smoking back in the earliest days of the Rocky-Mountain-High era. To wit: “I am a man/I live alone/Don’t much bother me/It won’t be long/Come a woman who wants to be near/Me and my mountains, we’ll be right here/Colorado.” At least the tune’s catchy!

• James McMurtry, the son of Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry (of “Lonesome Dove” fame) sang in “No More Buffalo” (“Live in Aught-Three”): “We headed south across those Colorado plains/just as empty as the day/we looked around at all we saw/remembered all we hoped to see/looking out through the bugs on the windshield/somebody said to me/no more buffalo, blue skies, or open road/no more rodeo/no more noise/take this Cadillac/park it out in back/mama’s calling/put away the toys.” This one also boasts a catchy tune.

• Merle Haggard recorded two Colorado-based songs, “Colorado” and “Lucky Old Colorado.”

• Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” from his “Rear View Mirror” album, is one of the most fetching songs about the state. Steve Earl does a wonderful cover of “Colorado Girl” on his “Townes” album, which is a tribute to the late Van Zandt.

• If you are inclined to travel to the deep, dark, musical past — a past that was hilariously skewered by the 2003 movie “A Mighty Wind” — you might like the Kingston Trio’s folk classic, “The Colorado Trail,” which was written by Carl Sandburg and Lee Hayes. The fact that this song came out a solid decade before the Colorado Trail was even conceived, much less constructed, is perplexing. But any song that contains the near-Wordsworthian words, “Weep, all ye little rains/Wail, winds, wail/All along, along, along/The Colorado Trail,” is worth a listen, if for no other reason than to thank the gods that the early-1960s folk music scene was short lived. This toe-tapper can be found on “Melanie’s Melodies of the Rockies: Soothing Songs of the Old West for Home and Fireside” album. One listen to this dog and you won’t be able to resist lacing on your boots and running as fast as you can 500 miles from Denver to Durango on the Colorado Trail. It should be noted, as you’re scrambling to download “The Colorado Trail,” that no other album that has ever been produced contains the word “Colorado” in as many song titles as does “Melanie’s Melodies of the Rockies.” It should also be noted that, sadly, this is not THE Melanie (Safka), of “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain”) fame.

• Even though it may be considered a mildly good-natured anti-Colorado song, National Lampoon’s “Colorado,” sung by, of all people, Chevy Chase, is actually a surprisingly melodic satire of “Rocky Mountain High.” “Colorado” is found on the 1973 “Lemmings” album.

• Folk singer Chuck Pyle is often referred to as the official singer/songwriter of the High Country. His 2007 album, “Higher Ground: Songs of Colorado,” contains one song named “Colorado” and another named “Moonlight on the Colorado.” But it’s his “Little Town Tour,” which begins, “Bayfield, Cascade, Manitou, Palisade … ” that is most interesting in that it includes the names of almost every single mountain town in the state.

• While, admittedly, its Colorado connection is somewhat oblique, Tom Waits’ “Nighthawk Postcards (From Easy Street),” which appeared on his seminal 1975 live album “Nighthawks at the Diner,” contains the lines, “Maybe you’re standing on the corner of 17th and Wazee streets, yeah, out in front of the Terminal Bar, there’s a Thunderbird moving in a muscatel sky.” Those words were penned long before LoDo  — which Waits would hate — spontaneously combusted. The Terminal Bar is long gone, but the building, which now houses Jax Fish House, remains.

• One of the great musical shames of the past decade is that Denver-based DeVotchKa is not a household name from Maine to Australia. That changed a bit with the release of the Academy-Award-nominated film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” which was completely scored with DeVotchKa songs. It did not appear in the film, but “Commerce City Sister,” with its line, “You know I ain’t never going back to Commerce City,” expresses the sentiment of many people who have actually visited Commerce City, an industrial Denver suburb. Hopefully, “Little Miss Sunshine” will serve as a gateway drug for many future DeVotchKa fans. This is truly a wonderful musical ensemble.

• No Colorado-based song list would be complete without mention of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which spent a lot of time in the state. One of its long-time members, Jimmy Ibbotson, still lives in Woody Creek, where he performs often. One of the Dirt Band’s best-known songs that contains the state’s name is “Colorado Christmas,” which was actually written by the late, great Steve Goodman, who served as a mentor for folk/rock legend John Prine. (Goodman and Prine co-owned a bar in Chicago named Somebody Else’s Troubles, after one of Goodman’s best-known tunes.)

• You’ll be forgiven if the words “Ozark Mountain Daredevils” have not entered your thought processes for many years. In the mid-1970s, this band from Springfield, Missouri, was one of the hottest acts in the country, and their “Colorado Song” (by Steve Cash and John Dillon) was released on their first album, “The Ozark Mountain Daredevils.” This song is highly recommended, despite its second-to-the-last verse, which consists entirely of “aaaahhhhh” being repeated over and over, and the last verse, which consists of “lalalalala” being repeated over and over. At least those lyrics are easy to remember.

• So, OK, it’s technically a song about leaving Colorado, but that can easily be overlooked, due to the fact that Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham” is flat-out one of the best songs ever penned. It has been covered by many artists, including Joan Baez, Dolly Parton and the Starland Vocal Band (yes, they of “Afternoon Delight” fame). The lines “I was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire/And I stood on the mountain in the night and I watched it burn/ I watched it burn/I watched it burn” are made lovely by Harris’ voice.

• Folk diva Judy Collins was actually born in Seattle, but she grew up in Denver, where she attended East High School. Many of her songs contain references to Colorado. Few songs about the state are more accurately evocative than Collins’ “The Blizzard (The Colorado Song),” which contains lines that show the singer was intimate with the realities of life at altitude: “One night on the mountain, I was headed for Estes/When the roads turned to ice and it started to snow/Put on the chains in a whirl of white powder/Halfway up to Berthoud near a diner I know.” You never heard the Ozark Mountain Daredevils singing about chaining up in the middle of a blizzard. They would have just lit a joint and waited for the blizzard to pass.

• So far, these Colorado songs have been a bit on the heavy, philosophical side. Fun needs to be part of the equation, and that’s where Bowling For Soup’s “Surf Colorado” comes in. With lines like, “She’s traded rattlesnakes for bunny runs in Colorado Springs,” it’s easy to overlook the fact that this song is essentially a rant by a Texan who’s angry that his paramour left the Lone Star State to move to Colorado without him. Also, the fact that the album upon which “Surf Colorado” appears is titled “Drunk Enough to Dance” ought to gain it some style points in the hedonistic High-Country resort towns.

• There’s no denying that, when John Denver released “Rocky Mountain High” in 1973, it marked the first time that many Americans gave the Mountain Time Zone the mental time of day. Many people even believe that “Rocky Mountain High” was in and of itself responsible for drawing nationwide attention to Colorado, the same way Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” drew attention to Utah’s Slickrock Country. But Denver was not the only person singing about the Rockies in 1973. While it does not mention Colorado specifically (and, hey, if the official state song, “Where the Columbines Grow,” doesn’t even mention Colorado, then all bets are off), Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” was in the top 20 at the very same time as “Rocky Mountain High.” Walsh was living outside Nederland in Boulder County when he recorded “Rocky Mountain Way.” The fact that it makes no sense at all does not diminish its place in musical history.

• In the mid-1970s, Dan Fogelberg wintered outside Nederland, Colorado, otherwise known as Ned (its residents are known as “NedHeads”). A decade later, with his popularity definitely on the downslide, Fogelberg released “High Country Snows.” The title song will never become a mosh pit favorite, unless there’s irony at play, but it still does justice to life at altitude, as does “Nether Lands” — which is close enough to “Nederland” that we’ll call it good.

• The Grateful Dead performed at least two songs that contained references to Colorado, “Me and My Uncle” (“Me and my uncle went ridin’ down/South Colorado, West Texas bound”) was actually written by John Phillips, of Mamas and Papas fame (Judy Collins and Neil Young were anecdotally connected to the song by way of extreme drunkenness in a hotel room in 1963). And “I Know You Rider” (“I’d shine my light through a Colorado rain … ”) is considered “traditional.”

• Even though none of his songs contain the word “Colorado,” Elton John did record his 1974 album “Caribou” at the famed Caribou Ranch outside Nederland. The best-known song from that album was “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” but one of the lesser-known tunes was “Cold Highway,” which contains the lyrics, “Where the corners turn blind like the graveyard ground/Oh your black icy snare once cut down my friend/In the deepest dark winter when the world seemed to end.” Before it burned down in 1985, Caribou Studios housed record efforts by dozens of world-class acts such as America, Badfinger, the Beach Boys, Chicago, Phil Collins, Rick Derringer, Earth, Wind & Fire, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joel, Carole King, John Lennon, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Petty, Rod Stewart, U2, War and Frank Zappa. Rumor has it that, in addition to its isolation, the main attraction to the Caribou Ranch was its altitude, which apparently allowed singers to hit, appropriately enough, high notes that they could only dream of at sea level.

•  Any song containing the lyrics, “I didn’t kill that man, I called it self-defense/Now I watch the world go by through a twelve-foot barbed-wire fence” deserves to be listed, especially if it’s titled “Colorado.” That would be performed by 19 Wheels (from the album “Six Ways from Sunday.”)

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