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.

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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.  

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Bad Trip

Author’s note: I spent literally months and months working on a fairly-heavy (at least by my humble heaviness standards) New-Year’s-based Smoke Signals about the fact that the municipal government of the town in which I live last year passed an ordinance that effectively puts the kibosh on panhandling within the city limits, and how that sort of shit is emblematic of the gentrification vs. funkiness argument taking place in many New West towns these days blah blah blah. But, alas, I never really got to the point of answering the questions I really couldn’t figure out how to even ask properly. So I decided to scrap that Smoke Signals and opted instead to retreat to more conceptually familiar territory. Yes, I decided to write about LSD.

“You ever dropped acid?” asked Winona, a young, pretty and sweet bartender, who is gracious enough that she at least pretends to be amused (or at least not offended) when grey-beards such as myself flirt with her. “Uh, heh heh, why do you ask?” I responded furtively.

“One of my mountain-biking buddies got some,” she said. “I’ve never tried it. I’m thinking about giving it a go. I just figured, out of all the older people I know who might be able to give me some observations about what it’s like to trip, you are the best choice.”

Fortunately, Winona had to tend to other patrons right then, because I needed a few moments to mentally process the apparent reality that I have reached a point in my life where twenty-somethings are hitting me up for advice regarding the use of illegal psychotropic drugs. Part of me wanted to feel as though I had been complimented, that I had become the kind of person who could be trusted to lay sage words of wisdom on a lady with so few years that cynicism had not yet even begun the inevitable process of rotting her psyche. Another part of me, however, was borderline mortified that It Had Come To This. Had Winona asked for my guidance regarding the long-term nurturing of the creative process or how to balance youthful free-spiritedness with the sad reality of having to make money, or, hell even if she’d asked how I felt about the town’s new panhandling ordinance, I would have puffed my chest out a just a little bit and thought, “Growing old sucks, but, having a nice young lady seeking out your hard-earned views about life’s Really Big Issues is pretty cool.” But, no, here was a bartender barely out of diapers asking me whether she should drop acid. Great.

There was a time in my life when, if a cute lady had asked me such a thing, I would have effusively said, “Damned right! Go for it! And I’ll be happy to join you!” But it has been literally almost 30 years since I last interfaced with LSD. A veritable lifetime ago. And here I am, grandfather aged, sitting on a barstool, wondering if my venerability, if nothing else, oughtn’t compel me to at least pretend to recommend to Winona that she should seek natural highs, like riding her mountain bike, and forego ingesting recreational chemicals. But, you know, I didn’t want to risk getting struck by lightning.

“Well?” Winona asked, innocent eyes wide.

What I should have said was, “Do you want to risk turning out like me?” What I did instead was tell Winona about the very last time I ingested acid, in hopes that she could draw her own conclusions.

It was the summer of 1983. The previous winter, I had moved to Denver from Silver City with $43 to my name. A childhood chum had offered me a free place to stay till I got set up. I was certain I would find a newspaper job fairly easily. But times were tough in the early-’80s in Denver. Though I did land a few freelance-writing assignments, I hobbled through my first half-year in the Mile High City in a perpetual state of fiscal distress.

One day, my potential economic salvation magically appeared in the Denver Post classifieds: a daily paper in a place called Russell, Kansas, was looking for an editor. Kansas, I reckoned, actually bordered Colorado, so how bad could it be? I placed a call to the Russell Daily Udder (I don’t remember its true name). The publisher was excited to hear from me. A little too excited, I thought. He wanted me to come to Russell ASAP. “Uh,” I told him, “I don’t exactly have the means to get there.” “So, you need a little gas money?” he asked. “Uh, I don’t exactly have a car. I’d be coming by bus.” The fact that I was broke, carless and desperate enough to seek employment in the heart of the Great Plains apparently did not dissuade the Daily Udder’s publisher. Matter of fact, after outlining the salary and benefits package and telling me that I could use the company car as though it were my own and that there was even a small company-owned apartment I could live in rent free, he went ahead and offered me the position, sight unseen. The word “indentured” sprung to mind. Desperate though I was, I told him I thought it might be a good idea for us to meet face-to-face before making any life-altering decisions. He wired me enough money for a round-trip bus ticket and, the very next night, I found myself aboard a Greyhound headed toward Russell, Kansas, the hometown of none other than Senator Bob Dole, the Republican who ran for president against Bill Clinton in 1996.

I did a fair amount of long-distance bus traveling in those pre-cheap-airfare days. Thus I could tell within nanoseconds of stepping aboard a Greyhound or a Trailways what kind of transitory mobile potpourri sociology I was about to become immersed in for the next however many hundred miles. It could go in any direction, from the craziest-assed Bible-thumpers imaginable sitting there handling snakes and speaking in tongues, to recently released prisoners looking to put as much quick distance between them and their parole officers as possible. This go round, it was — yey! — an entire tribe of freaks, Rainbow Family hippies, dirtbag climber/hiker-types and Deadheads. It was an instant party that involved enough liquor to float a bus, an astounding quantity of weed and hash and, yes, enough Red Dragon to almost make me forget that I was at that very moment on my way to a job interview out in the middle of an endless cornfield.

I was scheduled to arrive in Russell at 4:30 a.m. The publisher of the Daily Udder had made a reservation for me at a motel right across from the bus station. He would pick me up at noon. I was the only person to egress the Greyhound in Russell. For some damned bonehead reason, I had carried not my usual backpack, but, rather, an old leather suitcase my mom had scored at a yard sale. As I made my way off the bus, the suitcase got ahead of me, and I fell over it, performing a well-executed somersault down the bus steps and landing right on my ass in the street. I stood up quickly, acting as though nothing had happened, and started to make my way to the motel. But out of the darkness came a voice. “John?” that voice asked. Surely an auditory hallucination, I thought. I ignored it and proceeded upon my merry way. “Is that John from Denver?” It was once again the hallucinogenic voice from the darkness asking me if I was, of all people, goddamned John Denver. Then: “JOHN!!! IS THAT JOHN FAYHEE?” This time, I turned around and there stood, in the flesh, the publisher of the Daily Udder, who, it turned out, simply could not abide the thought of his next editor arriving in Russell, Kansas, at 4:30 a.m. without someone there to meet him. Which is extremely thoughtful and all, but, well, I was at that moment tripping my brains out, something, I wondered, if maybe I ought to tell him up front, just in case my behavior was not up to its normal polished snuff.

The publisher, barely able to contain his enthusiasm, decided this would be a perfect time to take me on a detailed driving tour of Russell. Over the course of the next (I kid you not) 90 minutes, he showed me every square inch of the newspaper office, including the broom closets, which I must say, were among the best broom closets I had ever seen. Very clean and orderly. Knowing that I played tennis, he showed me Russell’s two unsurfaced asphalt courts with droopy chain-link nets. He showed me his house. He showed me every school in the county. He showed me every church in the county. Then, saving the best for last, he showed me Bob Dole’s boyhood home, Bob Dole’s high school home, Bob Dole’s mother’s home and every street corner where Bob Dole ever scratched his nuts. And the whole time I’m sitting there politely nodding my head and saying “Wow!!!” over and over again, but inside I am screaming “AAAAHHHHH!!!!” at a million decibels, hoping against hope that a killer asteroid will right then fall out of the sky and obliterate the entirety of Russell, Kansas, so I don’t have to endure a single nuther nanosecond of this endless tour of Bob Dole’s hometown.

Finally 42 years later, the publisher of the Daily Udder thank-godfully dropped me off at the motel, saying, “Get some sleep … we’ve got a big day” … and I find myself, instead of crashing, pacing the room frenetically, wondering if there’s not maybe another Greyhound bus going through sometime very very soon that can take me anywhere but Russell, Kansas. Shortly before noon, I venture forth into the harsh midsummer sunlight, still tripping intensely, to wait for the publisher of the Daily Udder to pick me up for our “big day.” As I’m standing there in the motel parking lot, I see a long line of massive cottonwoods, all leaning about 30 degrees toward the east. And I’m wondering what might cause an entire row of giant cottonwoods to all be leaning like that. Then I notice the wind hitting me, and I notice that I too am now leaning over at about 30 degrees toward the east, same as the cottonwoods. I felt roots growing down from my feet and extending deep into the Kansas topsoil. When the publisher arrived, I was hopping from foot to foot, trying to keep those roots from taking hold.

The publisher of the Daily Udder takes me a Kiwanis Club meeting at, of all places, the local high school cafeteria, where our midday repast consists of high school cafeteria food — clean down to the grisly Salisbury steak and instant mashed potatoes and brown gravy and crunchy canned peas and carrots being splatted onto plastic trays by corpulent desultory women who look like they have not left their stations there in the cafeteria for decades, like, if you removed their ladles from their hands, their arms would reflexively, robotically continue the food-serving/splatting motion until they eventually expired.

Now, I had no more idea at that time what a Kiwanis Club is than I do now. All I know is that the guest speaker was a local high school junior who had placed 727th in a recent Kansas 4H oratory competition, and his subject was something like new and improved ways to slop hogs. Just as I was becoming truly captivated by the fact that all of the little peas and carrots on my tray were now performing very impressive military marching maneuvers, I heard my name spoken. The publisher had just introduced me as “the next editor of the Daily Udder.” I was asked to stand and say a few words. Would these people understand how easy it is to get caught up in a bit of innocent acid-dropping on a Greyhound bus? Would they understand marching peas and carrots? Would they understand my killer asteroid fantasy? I doubted it very much. What I did not doubt was my need to get the hell out of Russell, muy pronto, lest I find myself listening to hog-slopping oratory for the next five years.

The publisher dangled the keys to the company car in front of my nose and said that he hoped I would drive it back to Denver to retrieve all my belongings so I could return and begin my new life in Russell as soon as possible. The escape options at that point were as limitless as one tank of gas could carry me. Those keys were so shiny and seductive there in the harsh midsummer Kansas sun, I felt like Gollum staring at the One Ring there at the edge of the volcano. At what point would the publisher of the Daily Udder call the cops and report his company car missing? A week? Two?

In the end, I begged off, saying I would need some time to think his generous (which it was) offer over. But I could tell by the look on the publisher’s face that he knew I wouldn’t be coming back. It seemed like he had been down that road before. Maybe not specifically with tripping hippies, but with others who took one look at his little town, a town he obviously loved and was very proud of, and said thanks but no thanks. He dropped me off at the bus station, and the next morning, I was back in Denver, broke as ever, wondering if I had learned any sort of salient lesson. On the one hand, I could easily have looked at my journey to Russell as an example of a desperate man doing nothing more than trying to survive, something that has defined our species forever and ever (at least the grown-up members of our species). Or I could have looked at my journey as a repudiation of that mind-set, as a sign from the heavens that I needed to set my sights higher than simple survival, that I needed to be looking not east toward the Great Plains, but west toward the Rockies, where, two months later, I found myself living.

I did not venture to Russell again for two decades. While driving to Virginia in 2004, the Russell exit sign off I-70 beckoned, and I decided to eyeball what might have been. Though clearly suffering from economic malaise, it seemed like a nice enough little town.

I do not know whether the fact that I was tripping on that first visit a lifetime ago made me miss the real Russell, or whether it made me see the town as I maybe would not have otherwise, from a perspective where my dire fiscal situation was not necessarily ignored, but was not the driving force in my decision-making process. Did the Red Dragon enhance my view, jade my view or skew my view? Did it encourage me to look at Russell through the equally unfair and inaccurate lenses of a telescope, a microscope or a kaleidoscope? Either way, that marked the last time I ever dropped acid. I made no resolution; I just never felt like taking that trip again.

After relating that story to Winona, I could not tell whether I had talked her into trying acid with her mountain-biking buddy or out of it. She was smiling as she left to deal with other thirsty customers. It could go one way or the other. I crossed my fingers.

To read the entire unabridged versions of various “Smoke Signals,” as well as a whole lot of other inane bullshit, go to mjohnfayhee.com.