Walking With Willy

I’m in my full fleece that makes me look like a walking fuzzball, backcountry mittens with the strings for my wrists so I don’t loose them and a sheepskin hat that gives me that raffish Elmer Fudd look. Willy is in his black winter coat with the white chest and his harness and leash.

He’s a six-month-old Portuguese Snow Dog and clearly the best thing that has happened to us all year. Like his Dad, he is totally disciplined, not at all hardheaded, plays well with others and doesn’t bite very much.

On the way uphill, he bounded through the snow kicking up crystals that sparkled in my headlamp. To the right are four evergreens covered in white lights. We go over and just look at them. Willy wants to keep going, but the trees remind me of Christmas seasons past, some spent with you, and I smile at the memories.

We head downhill in the open space between houses and toward the frozen lake. I’m glad that, as cold as it is, there is no wind tonight. If we are lucky, we might hear Coyote before we finish our walk. She and her clan live up a gully in the foothills.

We are now walking between the foothills and the lake and heading north. There is no moon yet as I look out over the ice and catch the reflections of Christmas lights. I want to stop and take it all in but Willy isn’t contemplative; he wants us to keep moving. Ahead of us is The Pitch that my ex-running partner claims gets steeper every year. It’s a dog-leg trail up to the mesa and the trail north that leaves just about everyone breathing harder at the top. He could be right about the steepness — but maybe not — none of us are willing to admit that we are slowing down a bit.

The Pitch doesn’t bother Willy, but I’m puffing a bit when we reach the top. There are a few houses to our right, but for the next mile, it is just open space and a snow-packed trail. Willy settles in beside me as my breathing returns to normal.

For a while, the only sound is the crunch of my boots on the snowpack. But then I hear a chopper and see the pilot has left on her landing lights. I’m guessing that someone is getting a holiday sightseeing tour of a lifetime. As the chopper gets within a half mile, it occurs to me to flash my headlamp. I’m a tiny speck of light in a field of darkness below them. Several seconds after I stop flashing my light, the pilot flips off her landing lights and then turns them on again. I laugh out loud at being recognized on the ground. Willy is now looking up at me as if he thinks I’ve lost it. This will not be the last time in this lifetime that I’ll get a quizzical look from Willy.

We keep walking north. I shut off my headlamp again and there are maybe a million stars overhead. Willy indulges me as I stop and just stare into the night sky. Off to the east, the sky begins to glow. When we turn around in a few minutes, we’ll get to see moonrise.

Our walk tonight is on my house route. I couldn’t even begin to estimate the number of times I’ve run this trail along the foothills in all seasons and sorts of weather. In the summer, the highpoint is seeing a field of blue larkspurs that last for several weeks and in the winter the highpoint is hearing Coyote talk to her clan.

We turn at about a mile and half from The Creak House and see the tip of the moon ease over the horizon. Willy and I watch as a soft white light appears on the foothills and slowly slides downhill to light our way home. I can see perfectly now and switch off my headlamp to walk home in moonlight.

Several hundred yards from the top, of the pitch I hear a “yip” and know that a coyote chorus is about to begin. We stop and listen. And then the coyote clan is all yipping and there is dog laughter and joy and Coyote wants us to know that for this moment in time all is right along the foothills.

We reach the top of The Pitch and look out over the lake and north Boulder. Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe I’ve been this lucky, that I have love in my life, and live in a place like this. I’m not religious in the traditional sense but I can’t help but occasionally whisper, “Thank you,” to whoever might hear.

Cowsmic Justice

Cowsmic JusticeI’m running through a high pasture north of Nederland and east of the Indian Peaks. There are thirty or forty brown cows up here for the summer. If I were of an agricultural bent, I could name this type of cow, but to be truthful, one cow is pretty much the same as another; they are simply ambulatory meat delivery systems to me. These aren’t exactly “show-quality” cows or even “companion-quality” cows. You know what I mean, like those insufferable light brown bovines in Switzerland with absolutely clean coats and brass bells hanging from their necks. These are just a bunch of scruffy, raggedy-looking cows.

This brute with a line of drool hanging out of his mouth is standing next to the trail. He stares directly at me and asks: “What you looking at?”

“Who’s asking?” I counter.

“Fred Praeger.”

“That’s your name?”

“Yeah, what of it?” asked the cow.

“That can’t be your name. Fred Praeger was a self-proclaimed genius book publisher. Besides that, how did you learn to talk?”

“It is possible that you are simply imagining that I am talking,” suggested the cow.

It is at moments like this when I carefully review my mental and chemical state. There are a good number of benefits to trail running. In my case, sanity is one of those benefits. Should I not run for a week, I tend to get grouchy. A clear indication that I need to go for a trail run is when Blue Eyes moves my moccasins up close to the front door so that she doesn’t have to look around when she wants to toss them out into the front yard.

I’ve been running for an hour or so. I had a full charge of oatmeal with maple syrup and fruit for breakfast. I’m well-hydrated and most of my parts are painless. So I pass the mental checklist.

The chemical checklist is a tad bit more vague. Endorphins from running can do some fairly strange things to my chemical makeup. They tend to make me smile and act unreasonably cheerful. However, they don’t usually tend to allow me to hear a cow talking.

Full disclosure requires an admission of youthful experimentation with known controlled substances. There is the possibility that this talking cow is due to some level of flashback. And then again, this is a mountain cow, he could actually be talking to me. Stranger things have happened up here.

Not one to ignore the possibility of a new experience, I stop running and talk to the brute,

“I can’t believe you are the same Fred Praeger. He would have at least come back as a bull.”

“How about Ambrose Bierce?”

“No way, he had to come back as an eagle. You are just a steer.”

“Great, you don’t even know me and you’re making fun of my sexual orientation,” he says and starts to walk away.

“Wait, wait, wait,” I say, “So who are you really? And how did you end up as a steer?”

“Okay, so my real name is unimportant. I’m here because I invented the Master of Business Administration degree.”

“Wow, tell me more.”

“It’s not a pretty story.”

“So how did you come up with the idea?”

“There were these moderately smart kids at the university, not smart enough to be engineers or dentists, even though they thought they knew everything. We needed to do something with them to increase our enrollments in the business school.”

“Yeah, that sort of makes sense.”

“We knew that we had to put their arrogance to work, so we started telling them that they could become masters of the universe if they would apply a few simple principles to their work.”

“Yeah, let me guess what the principles were?”

“OK, give it a try.”

“You taught them that optimizing profit at any cost was their sole reason for existence.”

“Right, you are almost smart enough to have an MBA,” said the steer.

“You taught them that that lowering the quality of a product, demanding greater productivity from the workers and thinking only of short-term gain were all roads to success.”

“You got it,” said the steer.

“And you taught them to treat all their colleagues with sarcastic contempt, as if their ideas were useless.”

“You could have been a dentist.”

“Wow, that’s amazing. And for developing the MBA, God turned you into steer?

“Yup, she did.”

“What about all these other cows? They are just cows, aren’t they?”

“Nope,” he said looking around. “They were all professionals at one time or another.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Nope. See the cow over there with the really short legs?”

“Yeah, he’s a weird-looking cow.”

“That’s Steven Nordski from Seattle. He was the engineer for Boeing who invented the middle seat.”

“Wow, and who was that cow over there who looks like he has lost most of his hair?”

“Oh that’s Sam. God gave him a permanent lice infection.”

“What did he do?”

“I think he was the insurance executive who came up with preexisting conditions, but he might have been in charge of policy cancellations,” said the steer.

“What about the cow with particularly big ears and eyes?”

“That’s Darryl, who came up with playing three-minute ads in movie theaters. I could go on and on.”

“Please do.”

“Okay, the cow over there with the really big tongue, he got here for his work on industrial tomatoes. The cow who looks like a pig and has really ratty looking ears used to be a Senator.”

“You’d better explain,” I say.

“Earmarks,” said the cow.

“And the cow who is sitting down and doing nothing?” I asked, “Let me guess.”

“Go for it.”

“Okay, I’d bet he had something to do with starting public employee unions.”

“Good” said the cow. “Take another guess. How about the cow who is moving his hooves all over his own body?”

“Easy,” I said, “he obviously invented TSA screeners.”

“And the cow who is on fire? What did he do?” the steer asked.

“Piece of cake, he invented suicide bombers.”

“More?” asked the steer.

“Yeah, who is cow up to his neck in a huge puddle of his own shit?”

“He was a partner at Goldman Sachs,” said the steer. “Any other questions?”

“No, I get the picture. What profession is most represented in this herd?”

“I was mistaken,” said the steer, “You’re not smart enough to be a dentist. Any fool would know that most of these cows were lawyers.”

“Oh, yeah, right. How could I forget that? What about women? This herd is all steers from what I can see.”

“God doesn’t turn professional women into cows,” said the steer.

“But there are a good number of professional women doing dumb stuff.”

“Professional courtesy,” said the steer, who then ambled off.

Senior correspondent Alan Stark is a principal of Boulder Bookworks. His blog, “Mountain Passages,” can be viewed on mountaingazette.com.

A Christmas Letter for You

It’s snowing here in the foothills, there is a fire going and the pup is either asleep or eating my running shoes. I’ve thought about going out and shoveling, but the storm has another eight hours to go and the Boulder Snow Police never really get to my neighborhood.

I’m staring at two things: the calendar that says Christmas is two weeks away and a blank page on my laptop that is the beginning of the annual Christmas letter.

This Christmas letter thing of mine started some years ago with my Dad, who upon seeing a mimeographed Christmas letter, pronounced it, “an insincere chain letter from a gasbag.” That the letter was from my grandmother, his mother-in-law, had no bearing on his opinion. That he hated Christmas letters was vast encouragement to me.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a number of Christmas letters on some sort of colored paper with badly reproduced snapshots of some fairly dreadful-looking people. Something like:

Dear Alan (often misspelled or shortened to Al, a name I haven’t answered to since puberty): Well it’s been another happy (add smiley face icon) and productive year for the Smith family here in Colorado Springs. Dad, who as you know, has held a very (hush-hush) position in the Defense Department has had to work such long hours that he rented a studio apartment near the Federal Center and sometimes comes home for weekends. He started a workout program and found a tailor. Did I mention that he bought a Porsche that he pronounces POORCHA? In Colorado Springs, we still call them pourshas. But he’s great when we get to see him.

The kids are terrific. Jimmy, who was always fun, is up for probation next summer after that dreadful trial where they blamed him for burning down an entire strip mall when all he did was sort of drive his pickup through the stores like he saw folks do in some movie or video game.

Jenny, who was always the tease, has just completed her GED and is going to Pikes Peak Community College in the spring. Her daughter, our first grandchild Meghan, was born a year ago halfway through Jennny’s junior year. Jenny plans on majoring in counseling.

Jamie, the brain, is halfway through his community service for setting off an explosion in the back yard. It’s clear to his Dad and me that the fifty-pound bag of fertilizer was for making rocket fuel for his experimental rockets, however the ATF made a case for possible bomb manufacture.

And me, well I’ve been great with my church work where I counsel unwed mothers to keep the child like my Jenny did. I still love to crochet toilet paper covers for all the crafts fairs and if I do say so myself, I bake a mean rum cake. And I remain ever thankful for a variety of Mother’s Little Helpers, some with batteries.

All of us want to wish you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from the happiest  (obligatory second smiley face icon) family in Colorado Springs.

Whew. Those are hard letters to read without tumbling out of your chair laughing.

And over the years, I’ve written a number of Christmas letters, some happy, some sad, and some that are both. So here is my Christmas letter of wishes for you. And if you are of other religions than today’s Christianity, as practiced by some social and political pond scum who make me ashamed to call myself a Christian, believe me when I say that these wishes are for you too.

I wish for you:

• A place of your own, with food and beer in the fridge and books lining the walls with an old chair for reading with a table beside it for your beer and notebook and with a couch and wool blanket for naps.

• Waking up in the morning and feeling like a young animal during your first stretch. And if you creak a tad bit as you walk to the john for a pee, it’s okay, we all do.

• A job where you can make a difference if only to smile at that person on the gurney and squeeze their hand to let them know you think they’ll be okay.

• A living parent or mentor or great boss who is still watching you for signs of improvement.

• A mountain bar where everyone knows your name.

• A warm hand (not your own) moving across your body on a winter’s night.

• Powder to your knees in the out of bounds, where only the stout hearted go (with beacons please).

• Good reads from writers whose words come from the heart and not the head. May I recommend almost anything from Jim Harrison or Stanley Crawford.

• A truck that starts every morning year round.

• A dog who loves you in spite of yourself.

Merry Christmas unknown friend, and if you are really lucky, I wish you this blue-eyed (brown-eyed is just as good) person to spend the rest of your life with. And if you haven’t found this person yet, my Christmas gift to you is the wish that you find this person soon.

Five Ages

There is a significant birthday in my near future, and I’m a tad bummed by the number. But the minute I write the number is the minute you categorize me. That’s the problem; I don’t want to be categorized by my age.

So now your bullshit detector is flashing red like a bike commuter at 6 p.m. in December going north on Folsom.

“No way I judge people by their chronological age. It’s all about what they can put-up, not some number.”

Sure.

So let’s say that my next birthday will make me seventy years old. This same dude, who doesn’t know me, is going to think, “Good God, he is 70 years old … almost dead. Hell, I know folks who died climbing before they were thirty-five … half his age.”

Yeah, but let’s say at 70 a person can still jog five miles in the mountains, ski the backcountry all day and handle a raft in class 3 water. Maybe this person lives with a great companion, and supports his various bad habits with odd jobs. But you’ve got 70 in your brain and your brain is telling you that 70 is really old.

Fine. Now let’s say the big number I’m looking at is 30 years old. That I’m suffering all this angst because I can no longer claim that I am in my extreme late 20s, that I’m 30 and than implies adulthood.

Given that the median demographic of Mountain Gazette has Boomer written all over it, the age 30 causes a good deal of condescension. So if the huge number I’m facing is 30, here is what I’d expect to hear: “As slightly aged adolescent, you have no idea of what life is like. You really haven’t dealt with that much death, divorce, defeat, dependency or duplicity. While you may think living out of the back of your truck, climbing all week, and working only when you absolutely have to is a viable way of life, you ain’t Fred Becky.”

“Yeah, but at 30 I can see things very clearly as good, bad, right and wrong. I don’t spend much time with ambiguities and I don’t get caught up in any details that could slow me down. I can drink all night and climb all day and then do it all again the next day. Life is good.”

Okay so, I’m not thirty … I couldn’t even spell ambiguity in my 30s, much less give much of a crap what it meant.

But let’s talk about 60. If you are on the leading edge of the boomers, 60 has passed you by. What used to be a six-pack above your belt is now unnumbered six packs hanging over you belt and as you ladies in large shirts snicker at this description of your mates, please note that a good rack is now also somewhat closer to your belt.

You’d think that 60 might just be on the other side of the hill — and we aren’t talking the backside of the hill with the bowls and chutes, we’re talking the frontside with groomers and two-hour lunches at the bar followed by a nap in the Suburban.

But you would be wrong about 60. It looks to me like a time when there is real freedom to explore. The job is over or nobody listens to you anymore, the kids are gone, the living parents are in assisted care and if you are careful, there is some extra money to do some of the stuff you have always dreamed of. So the 60s can be very cool.

Suppose I said that I faced the dreaded BIG FOUR OH. Yeah, now there is true angst for you. Forty has got to be the toughest birthday. There is simply no getting around the fact that you’re Forty Fricking Years Old! That when you were a kid and your Dad turned 40, you thought he was really an old fart and that your Mom at 40 looked grandmotherly and you were only seven or eight at the time and didn’t need another grandmother.

This is when the recurring knee twitch turns into ongoing pain; the idea of writing a book or cruising downwind to Maui on a 36-footer are just as far away as when you first thought of them and you wake up in the middle of the night not looking for a roll in the hay but for the ibuprofen and a pee.

But you would miss the point about being forty. This is when people actually listen to you when you speak; this is when you can actually make some decent money because people believe you. But most important is that it’s in the 40s when you begin to figure out what love means — that maybe this person you picked is wrong and you have got to move on; or maybe, just maybe this blue-eyed person is the one you will travel through time with, and you just learned that after 15 years of being together.

Okay, so what about 50? You’re thinking stuff like the, “The boss is 50 and he’s a jerk.” 50 means you can’t do anything anymore just tell people how to do things. 50 is the Highway Patrol guy who never made corporal and busted you for a DUI when you were mostly sober. 50 is the barkeep who 86ed you for rude language. 50 is the banker who looked at your loan application and broke out laughing.

Yeah, but 50 is the best. You actually know what you are doing and do it well. Your parts may be a tad twitchy, but you can still crew Leadville from Winfield back over Hope Pass and on to Twin Lakes. At the top of a chute, you may pause, but drop in, keep your wits about you and scoot out at the bottom yelling at the top of your lungs. And this person who was looking real good 15 or 20 years ago, well it is amazing how good they look to you now. There is a wrinkle and softness to their smile and a look that says laughter and passion and warmth on a long winter night.

So, are you going to stop making judgments about people based on age?

Probably not, but there is a good chance that you might also think about what they can put up before you make a judgment.

And how old am I? I’m somewhere between 30 and 70. It depends on what I have put up in the last day.

A Sailboat, Puppy and Hip

Most of us get to choose our lives. Some of us have been lucky enough to have had some wonderful choices. Some of us have had Sophie’s choices. But good or bad, sometimes what we choose all comes together at the same time.

It was late February with enough snow on the ground to last until next February. This fool calls me up and says, “I’m signing up for a week-long sailing course in July in the San Juan Islands; wanna take it with me?”

In the High Country, in February, anything about sailboats sounds good. So I signed up for the course and plunked down some money.

About that same time, Blue Eyes had an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon about her right hip. She used to be able to rip down anything on the mountain, but not any more. It was clear to both of us that she needed a new hip. The hip guy had on really nice custom shoes that probably cost more than my skis. He told her she wasn’t ready for a hip replacement and to come back in May for another exam. I figured that he was putting her off until he needed a new pair of custom shoes.

The following week, the breeder we had contacted in January said she would probably have puppies available in July.

You can see the perfect storm of choices coming, can’t you?

We talked about a weeklong sailing course, the arrival of a new pup and a hip operation all happening in a two-week period. Could we do it? Sure. Did I mention that I actually have a job and real work that needs to get done? Not that the work is of major importance to anyone but me, but the folks who pay me tend toward the grumpy side when the work doesn’t get done.

Yup, in May, the surgeon scheduled Blue Eyes for a new hip in late July and there it was. We couldn’t bail on the hip operation. But I could have bailed on the sailing course, and we could have postponed getting a pup until the next litter.

Nope.

The sailing course was terrific. Seven days of sailing a 45-foot Jeanneau with an instructor who quickly figured out our skill levels and taught everything from basic engine maintenance, to navigation, to the man-overboard-drill, to landing a 45-foot boat without damaging anything.

Willy the pup arrived when I was gone. He’s a curly black Portuguese Water Dog with a patch of white on his front. I got back, hugged Blue Eyes, played with my new pup, and, two days later, took my best friend to get a new pair of shoes for the surgeon.

It’s mid-August and the storm has subsided. I am scheming to buy a sailboat or at least rent a bare boat out of St. Somewhere next winter. There is this pup, which wants to crawl up in my lap and maybe help me type this piece on the laptop. Lacking that, he’s happy to gnaw on my running shoes. And Blue Eyes is walking without a limp for the first time in a year.

Have I learned anything for all this? Yup — the work was still there when I finally got back to the office. The grumpiness went away in a couple days. Oh, and when I finally have to get a new left knee, there will be no new pup in the same month.

Wussing to Ward

“Extreme” is an overused word in mountain sports; usually it means doing something really stupid for sponsorship money if you survive — or it is yet again another dummy in a body bag — if you don’t. The word has been abused. “Extreme” has a different meaning in Boulder; it means someone will always be around to take you to the end of your endurance, or abilities, or both, and then push you for more.

“So, if we are going to park near the Greenbriar Inn, why don’t we just go get a beer?”

“Get your bike out of the truck,” she says.

“Hey, one or two beers couldn’t hurt.”

Betsy looks at me exasperated, as only an old friend can look exasperated because she may have had this conversation with me twenty times before.

“First,” she says, “it’s eight o’clock in the morning. Second, we are climbing to Ward today. Third, beer and climbing will make you toss your breakfast.”

“Oh,” I say, “and you forgot to add, ‘You wuss.’”

“You wuss,” she says and goes about getting ready for the ride.

The ride to Ward is one of those Boulder benchmarks like doing a sub-50 Bolder Boulder, or putting-up all 54 14ers, or driving a car that cost more than your education.

It’s 17 miles of moderate uphill from the Greenbriar to the Utica Street Store in Ward with an altitude gain of about 4,000 feet and this memorable mile-and-quarter climb at the end that will make you spit up pieces of lung.

The road to Jamestown is classically foothills beautiful with the Left Hand Creek cascading along the side the road. The bike lane gets a little thin in spots, but most of the folks, including the militias who shoot-up one of the side canyons and off-road-vehicle (ORV) folks who tear-up the backcountry, usually give us a wide berth.

In front of me, a wanker with a trailered ORV comes as close as he can to the bike lane and honks. I see the riders jump. But he’ll park his rig somewhere up the road, unload his ORV, and tear up a side canyon. Someone will take the time to stop and pee on his door handles.

After six-and-a-half miles, we turn left toward Ward. I’m hot, pulse is 130, cadence is 70, and I’m cranking the higher end of my climbing gears. I’m saving that big humping gear in the cassette for the climb into Ward.

Betsy is watching. I’ve never done Ward before. It is the thought of climbing to Ward that is actually harder than the climb. But then we are only half into this thing and I’m feeling good, as if breathing from almost every orifice of my body is an okay thing to do.

After a settlement called Rowena, the climbing moderates somewhat and I make adjustments with my cadence and gears. But I can feel the altitude gain in the limited amount of oxygen I’m able to suck in and with the dryness in my mouth, throat and chest.

We stop for water and energy bars. While the ride has been moderate, I can’t begin to describe how good it feels to get off the bike for a moment and just stand still munching something gooey and drinking water. For a moment, there is no neutering saddle, no burning thighs, and my breathing is almost normal. We have five miles yet to climb to Ward.

The route is still moderate as we pass Lick Skillet Road and then after a while I can see the fateful right turn uphill for the approach to Ward.

Betsy drops back alongside me,

“You can do this,” she says.

“We could also turn around right now and be drinking beer at the Greenbriar in an hour.”

“Just remember —

… pace yourself,

… keep your cadence up,

… try to stay out of debt,

… go slow,

… don’t watch anyone else,

… do your own ride.

… and I almost forgot — you wuss.”

We begin the climb. Right from the start, the road slithers right and left and gets steep and stays steep. Now, I really do feel like I’m breathing from every orifice of my body. The road is now crawling straight with a turn ahead to the left.

“Slow down! Slow down!” Betsy yells at me and then drops in front of me and slows.

It’s true, the pitch has spooked me and I’ve started hammering the pedals to make the bike go faster and maybe end the pain sooner. I slow down and my pulse drops to something almost manageable. But there remained a sort of an inexplicable stink in the air in my lungs.

Huge amounts of air with little oxygen are sucked into my lungs and expelled immediately for another huge huffing suck of air. I try to slow my breathing and my speed without wobbling into traffic or the weeds.

I’m in the biggest gear on the cassette and I’m slowly spinning my way up the road. My breath is still coming in huge draughts of thin air. My chest hurts, my back is suggesting collapse and my thighs are burning.

I see the town pump on the right, and I know the store is not all that much farther.

“You’re almost there! Keep going. Keep going,” Betsy yells and pulls me up the road.

And then it is over. I have two wobbly legs holding me up. I’m stretched along the top tube with my arms dangling off the handlebars and my head down. I don’t think I’ll ever breathe normally again.

There are some pats on the back from an old friend. I’m smiling.

“Now there’s something — like the last pitch on Wetterhorn — that I don’t ever have to do again,” I say.

“How about we climb a little more and then go to Raymond?” Betsy suggests. “It’s only 10 or 12 more miles, mostly downhill.”

“How about no?”

“Wuss.”

A Delicate Part

Some fool talked me into a 340-mile road-bike ride in Utah, so I’ve been spending a good deal of time training over the last couple of weeks.

As a result of this training, there is a small part of my body, dare I mention it, that is near and dear to me, and now so sore that I walk funny. This is not something I wish to discuss with a doctor. He or she would laugh at me.

Every woman reading this is rolling her eyes back in her head and saying sarcastic things like, “And what part could that be?” and laughing raucously. “Does its little part hurt from too much riding?” More raucous laughter.

The technical term is “crotched-out,” and I was getting uncomfortable after only 15 miles when everything should have been working about perfectly. At 30 miles, I was standing up on my pedals to get some relief.

We all have self-images, and it is disconcerting to have a serious dose of reality muck with the self-image. It’s a personal thing too, that may just be a Y chromosome thing, but when parts don’t work right, the first thought is that we … in this case I … have turned into a wuss, that I’m finally falling apart and that it is time for the six pack and lounger in the teevee room watching some butt-ugly dropout trying to sing to three morons sitting in judgment.

I did Rabbit Mountain from Boulder yesterday. I stopped at the bike shop on the way back because I was in pain.

When I go into a bike shop, there are all these dudes with no body fat and carbon-fiber bikes that are worth more than my old 4Runner. Admittedly, like a dyslexic in a bookstore, I’m intimidated by the whole scene. That I have twice the BMI of anyone in the store doesn’t help.

“Um, er, I got a problem with my seat, I mean my saddle.” I say to the clerk.

“Yeah,” he says, “tell me about it.”

“I’m crotched-out after 15 miles.”

“Let’s look at it,” he says diagnostically.

“Not a chance.”

“The saddle, Man,” he says.

“Whew,” I say.

We walked outside and the clerk looked at my bike. He is kind enough not to mention that the bike was hi-tech at the turn of the century. After a quick look at the saddle, he says, “Worn out. You’ve put a lot of miles on the this saddle, it’s just worn out.”

“Then I’m not a wuss?”

“Nope, the saddle is worn out.”

We spent 10 minutes reviewing the various saddles that he had for sale. The saddle with all titanium components was out of the running; it cost more than I paid for the bike used. We settled on a saddle that had a tad bit of padding on it.

The clerk spent another couple of minutes mounting the new saddle and I rode off on a new saddle with a credit card receipt that Blue Eyes will certainly bring up for discussion at our monthly financial meeting. I will indignantly deny that I spent more than $100 for a bicycle seat. She will point at the credit card bill and call bullshit.

We need to remember that gear, like our bodies, wears out. That’s because, when we are screwing up, there is the possibility that it may actually be the equipment and not us. And that every once in a while we need some advice from a bike store clerk or a ski tech or maybe even a doc.

So when was your last physical?

Mine is Thursday.

The Five Stages of a Nap

So you are lying on the couch in the living room with a book and maybe an empty beer can or two — maybe even three. Who’s counting? The book is about a 190-foot, wooden, steam sailer called the Bear and Coast Guard operations in the Alaskan waters in the late-1800s. And while you are amazed that anyone would volunteer to rescue whalers, you read on about endless storms and ice, and gathering a reindeer herd and moving it north cross country to Point Barrow, and all of a sudden you are surprised to hear this:

“SNORT!”

There is giggling in the room and that person with blues eyes that sparkle and laugh when she is happy (which is most of time) is pointing at you.

“Sweetie, you were snoring.”

“Nope, I was reading about Lt. D.H. Jarvis saving ice-bound whalers.”

This is called Denial.

So you go back to your book and maybe visit the fridge to acquire another Pale Ale from Upslope Brewery (highly recommended).

Lt. Jarvis is now in some hovel with 14 Eskimos waiting out a storm. He’s absolutely driven to get the reindeer to Point Barrow, but the wind is gusting at 50 knots and the temperature is 20 below and even the Eskimos are saying “screw it” when anyone mentions going out.

You think of bone-chilling cold, snow coming at you sideways, wind blasting right off the Bering Sea and Eskimo roommates that have had a bath maybe once in the last year. You reach for your beer and take a pull, maybe two, and go back to the book. And maybe your eyes close for just a moment to imagine the spot that Lt. Jarvis is in.

“SNORT”.

“Sweetie, you are annoying the dog with your snoring. You should go take a nap.”

“Dammit, I am not snoring. I am reading.”

“The dog thinks you were snoring. I heard you snoring, and you woke yourself up with your snoring.”

“Okay! So my best friend accuses me of snoring. My dog is upset with my snoring. Will everyone just fricking leave me alone? Huh?”

This is called Anger.

“Sweetie, there are four beer cans lined-up along the bottom of the couch.”

“So?”

“It’s 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and you have done two-thirds of a six pack. Your consumption is bordering on slacker-dude.”

“I deny that.”

“Okay, so everyone in the whole mountain world lies on the couch on a Saturday afternoon, reads a book, drinks four beers, falls asleep and snores, annoying both his best friend and the dog?”

“No, not true, some people have to work on the weekend. Ski Patrol is out on the weekend. Cops are visiting donut shops on the weekend. Hell, librarians sometimes have to work on the weekend if the city has enough money to keep the library open.”

“You know what? You’re a lout.”

“I deny that.”

“I’m going to movie without you.”

“You’re not mad at me are you?”

“No, just disappointed to be living with a lout.”

“Huh, so what movie are you going to?”

“A sci-fi thriller called, ‘Amazons Kicking Lout Ass’.”

“Can I go?”

“No.”

This is called Bargaining

You didn’t really want to get off the couch and go to an afternoon movie. Blue Eyes knew that. She pulled on her down parka, patted the dog, grabbed the keys and took the truck to the movies without you.

So you go back to the book. But after a while, if you have to read about one more Eskimo village that, in desperation, has to eat their sled dogs, and you think you might just have to toss the book across the room and go watch a basketball game.

So the basketball game is a good idea. It’s your old school, the one it took you seven years to get through, playing against archrivals and they are winning. But then those dirtbags from North Carolina pull even and then surge ahead. Your team folds like a cheap card table. The criminals from North Carolina pour on the points. You wish the coach of your team would just toss a towel onto the floor to end the pain. The score gets more and more lopsided. The play-by-play guys are making fun of your school. All the undergraduates have left the stadium.

This is called Depression

You turn off the tube in disgust and move back toward the book and the couch. But first you grab a blanket off the bed. You pick up the book and assume your position again on the couch, this time under a blanket. After two more Arctic snowstorms, your eyes begin to droop, you yawn several times and the book starts to waver back and forth. You close your eyes, lower the book to your chest and just drift off into this wonderful thing called a nap. Your body relaxes, you seem to be floating and, if you have any thoughts at all, they are of the warm fuzzy sort … a pup licking your face, a perfect steak frites with béarnaise sauce, or sailing downwind, with a following sea from St. Somewhere. And then there is simply nothingness as you wake slowly, look around your house and realize that this is really a comfortable place and all things considered, you have a best friend and a dog and a job — so life is good and best of all — there are still two beers in the Fridge.

This is called Acceptance.

Alan Stark’s last story for the Gazette was “God’s Own Dog,” which appeared in #174. He lives in
Boulder and is co-owner of Boulder Bookworks.

God’s Dog Christmas

This is Coyote’s sixth Christmas. She lives in the foothills outside of Boulder, off the Wonderland Trail and just up a drainage fi lled with brambles, clearly in the “leash only” area of the greenbelt.

She shares a den with an older male who has maybe one more litter in him and maybe two winters left, but not three. Last winter’s litter is gone to the four winds. Three females and one male made it. Two males died early. She is sad about that, but they aren’t the fi rst pups she’s lost to dogs and cougars and bad luck. The old male is asleep beside her in the den. She cares a great deal for him and shudders at the thought of living with a younger male when he is gone.

“The young ones aren’t worth a shit. Dudes … ,” she thinks.

He stirs and returns to his low snore that shecan’t hear anymore. She looks at him and sees a handsome mate if you don’t take into account a mangled ear, a couple of ragged battle scars and a broken tooth or two. He’s not the love of her life. That one disappeared years ago. This Old One is the one she has gone through time with and can’t imagine life without.

She paws him.

“Huh, what?” he mumbles.

“Evening hunt,” she says. “Snow is coming. We need to eat.”

“Hmmm, sure.” He stirs but crashes back out.

She knows that he will sleep until dark and then maybe go downhill for dinner. He’s field smart — he can provide for a litter and her in a couple hours of hunting a day. And he’s inventive with a squirrel or a fat house cat or Mexican leftovers from the dumpster, depending on his mood and the abundant opportunities. It doesn’t matter if he misses a meal and, even if he has to sit-out a snowstorm, his pot is substantial enough to sustain him.

She licks his head just above his closed eyes and crawls out of the den.

She quickly looks in all directions and sniffs the wind. There is no obvious threat and the wind smells like snow. December isn’t a big snow month in the foothills unless it is a BIG snow month. She knows that the first thing that has to happen is serious cold and a storm that is substantial enough to make it over the mountains. Most storms come from the northeast, but there is the occasional Decemberstorm that makes it over the Divide from the Gulf of Alaska and just locks up Boulder for a couple days. It smells like that storm is coming.

She’s big for a female, almost as big as her mate and as strong as he is now. She is in her prime with a full coat of browns, blondes, greys and blacks that almost shimmers as she canters downhill. She stops near the top of the Old Kiln Trail and takes a healthy dump on the gravel.

“Let the runners know that they don’t own this trail,” she thinks. “Body-Nazi dipshits.”

She stops for a while and looks down into the valley fi lled with thousands of houses, some decorated with colored lights.

“Pretty,” she thinks. “At least for the Holidays they get their heads out of their asses long enough to appreciate family and friends and the season.” She heads downhill and north to The Terrace, a locals’ restaurant among the warehouses filled with forgotten stuff, small businesses going nowhere and studios for half-good artists on the far edge of town.

“Hey, illegal,” she yells.

“Hey, scavenger,” he answers.

She smiles as much as she can she smile for her friend, who sits in the cold on a milk crate outside the restaurant, smoking.

“Feliz Navidad, Mexican,” she says.

“Merry Christmas, Coyote,” he responds.

“How do you know I’m a Christian?” she asks.

“Shouldn’t you be wishing me ‘Happy Holidays’ so as not to offend me if I am not a Christian.?

“Bullshit, Coyote,” he says. “Christmas isn’t just about religion. It’s about a time for family and friends. It’s for all of us even if we are Arabs or Jews or lawyers.”

“What do you have against Arabs and Jews that makes you want to compare them to lawyers?” she asks.

“Coyote, my country is being ripped apart by criminals — innocents, women and children are gunned down in the streets by coke-crazed narcos. The same thing is happening to Arabs and Jews, their lives are run by thugs, miscreants and power whores. No one in the middle is standing up and saying, ‘Basta! We want to raise our children and build our businesses in peace.’”

“So what are you doing about the mess in Mexico?”

The Mexican stares at his cigarette and carefully answers. “I am supporting my family in Oaxaca. My son will go to college, as will my daughter, God willing. Maybe she will make a difference. I am doing the best I can.”

“It’s okay, Mexican, I understand.”

“And you, Coyote, what have you done for the world today?”

“Nothing, Mexican,” she answers. “I slept next to my best friend and I took a crap on a running trail, but my day is young, and maybe I can do some good.”

“Make sure you do, Coyote. What is it you wish to dine on this evening?”

The Mexican returned with a tub of table scraps that the Coyote gobbled.

“Good,” she said and belched. “Will you make sure that the Old One gets the same if he comes around?”

“Por supuesto,” he said.

“Mexican, I wish you were with your family tonight.”

“I wish I were with my family tonight.”

“Soon, Mexican.”

“Yes, soon, Coyote.”

“Feliz Navidad, Señor.”

“Merry Christmas, Amiga.” The Mexican returned to his kitchen and the Coyote began her patrol of the warehouses. Like any survivor, she maintains a routine, but never takes exactly the same route for fear of ambush. She is still looking for food, something to take back to the den, a mouse or a slow rat, a bag of chips, but a Shih Tzu would be perfect.

She sees a flare of sparks in the cold night air and calls on the Artist.

“Coyote, I see you sitting out there. Please come closer.”

“Artist, are there any big dogs around?” she asks.

“No, only Sam the Wolfhound/Sheepdog, who likes you.”

“Because he wants to make a litter with me.” “It could be a worse mix.”

“Tell him to cool it. The Old One would rip his dick off.”

“He knows that.”

Coyote comes closer to the metal sculpture and the arcing sparks.

“Artist, it is good. It is cold, but it stirs something in me as if it were alive inside its skin of steel.”

“Thanks, Coyote. I could make a living if art critics could see the same thing.”

The Artist turns off her grinder and sits on in a rusty folding chair. She throws an old sleeping bag over her and reaches down to take a pull off a bottle. “Coyote, how is the Old One? I don’t see him so much anymore.”

“He’s good. He has slowed down after the last litter, but will be down tonight. There is snow coming, and he hates to hole-up for a couple days on an empty belly.”

“And what will you do when he is gone?” the Artist asks.

“Artist, I have learned from you … life goes on.”

“You know I still miss him?”

“Por supuesto.”

“He would work until three in the morning to get a sculpture right. And then he would fall asleep beside me smelling of oil and steel and sweat. And, in the morning, he would want to fool around as soon as he woke up.”

“And you would say?”

“Tonight, Sweetie.”

“And he would say?”

“Sure, Babe,” and get up and go to work.

“And, as Christmas approaches, where do you think he is?” asked the Coyote.“Someplace better.”

“How so?”

“It’s a place where Art is as important as bucks and that the will to create something from your imagination is valued in the same way that we value the will to gain power is today.”

“And anything else?”

“Yeah,” the Artist said. “I hope he gets laid all the time until I get there.”

“And then, when you get there?”

“He’ll say, ‘I missed you more than you can know.’”

“And you’ll say?

“Ditto. Is once a week enough?”

“And he’ll say, ‘Sure Babe’ and go to work.”

The Coyote walks over to the sleeping bag and puts her chin on the Artist’s leg. Sam wakes and ambles out to the two females and sits opposite the Coyote.

He looks up at the first snowflakes coming down, then he looks at the Artist and the comely Coyote. She snorts and he sighs and lies down beside the Artist.

“Merry Christmas, Artist. May someone buy your art.”

“Merry Christmas, Coyote. May the Old One live for five more winters. And may you die together in a warm den.”

Coyote turns south, working the neighborhoods and heads to Boulder Creek. She has a full belly and has visited friends. There’s one more friend to check on before the storm hits and maybe there will be a shot at a Shih Tzu out for an evening pee.

The neighborhoods of north Boulder are lit with holiday lights and shine a warm yellow from their windows on the lawns. Easy to traverse unseen. There isn’t a black bear, fox, coyote or mountain lion who doesn’t know how to do it.

Downtown Boulder is a bit more of a problem. A coyote could get run over by a cop chasing a drunk driver if she doesn’t watch out. She sneaks carefully down the alley north of Pearl Street and turns south on 15th, crosses Canyon Boulevard and carefully walks in front of Liquor Mart.

“Hey, drunks!” she calls out.

“Hey, dog,” a drunk answers.

“Merry Christmas.” “You too, dog.”

She works her way to Boulder Creek Trail and then up to the 6th Street Bridge next to the Justice Center. She stops and sniffs the air for her friend.

“Sarge,” she calls out.

“Over here,” he says from under the bridge.

He’s 30, or maybe he’s 60. Hard to tell. His face is sunburned, and he walks with a limp. He has laid out his mat and sleeping bag carefully so that he can hardly be seen from the cement trail. His gear is around him neatly, as if he could fi nd anything he needed in a second and could be gone in a minute or two with all his belongings in his backpack.

She hunkers down next to him so that she too will be hard to see.

“So, how are you doing, Sarge? You got enough to eat and drink?”

“Yeah … did some work for a guy today. Fed me and gave me some cash. I bought enough food for two or three days and a half rack of beer. I’m good.”

“So, you know a bad storm is coming?”

“Yes, it feels like snow,” he says and takes a sip of his beer.

“You know you could die out here?”

“Yup, but could have died in a lot worse places.”

“And you aren’t going to the shelter?”

“Nope.”

“Why?”

“Can’t walk the three miles up there. Knee went out after I finished work.” “Jesus, this isn’t any good,” Coyote says.

“I know.”

“The Mexican at The Terrace wanted to make sure I did something good tonight.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Merry Christmas, Sarge. You are going to have a two-dog night and see tomorrow,” she says as she moves up close to him to keep him warm. “The Old One will come looking for me if he doesn’t find me at home. He always does.” “God’s dog?” “Yeah, that’s what they call us, so long as we don’t eat their pets.”

Long-time contributor Alan Stark owns and operates Boulder Bookworks. His last story for the Gazette was “Naked Streets,” which appeared in #173.

Naked Streets

So I’m headed down 28th Street in Boulder to Mickey D’s for another heart-stopping sausage-and-egg muffin. Let me explain that 28th Street ranks with the butt-ugliest streets in any town in North America from Toronto to Juarez, including Detroit.

The stoplight is flashing red, obviously malfunctioning. I cautiously pull into the left-hand turn lane and stop and flip on my turn signal. I carefully look in all directions. The first three cars in the oncoming lane move across the intersection very slowly and the cars behind them all stop. A guy in an Audi waves me across the intersection.

I clench my teeth and creep across, knowing that some buffed-out, over-caffeinated, entitled software engineer at some start-up doomed to failure is going to charge across the intersection and T-bone my old 4Runner. And then yell at me for going too slowly and getting in his way.

But nothing happens. I cruise across the intersection and on to maybe my 10,321st sausage-and-egg muffin.

You need to know that Boulder is a fairly good place to live, but that there about 21,487 really important people that live here who drive as if the rest of us don’t matter. They are usually driving high-end Eurotrash cars or, if their last start-up flamed-out, Subies. In their minds, there are simply no rules that apply to them. When they don’t have their hands in their pants, because no sane person would sleep with them, they are driving while texting, talking on the cell or doing their eye makeup in the mirror (this is not just an indictment of men; there are woman assholes in Boulder, too, maybe more).

So this moderate, mindful reaction to a traffic light malfunction must have been an anomaly. When I finish my breakfast-in-a-wrapper, there will 297 cars backed-up at the same intersection with two of Boulder’s Finest with donut crumbs on their chests and one Deputy Sheriff trying to straighten out the mess.

Nope. Not true. When I reach the intersection again, the red lights are still flashing in all directions and traffic is moving slowly but efficiently.

This got me to thinking. If drivers in Boulder can manage a busy, malfunctioning intersection, why couldn’t more laid-back folks do the same thing in mountain towns where summer and winter traffic can sometimes just stop dead for minutes at a time due to a red light when no one is moving across the intersection on the green light?

A little research found that this concept is called Naked Streets, something the Euros have been doing for years, and it seems to work. And not only does traffic move more efficiently, but there are fewer fender-benders at these intersections. “Reports often cite the town of Drachten, Holland, as an example. Accidents at one major intersection fell from 36 in four years to two in two years after the traffic lights were removed.” This from a New York Times article of 9.2.09.

So, how about a little traffic experimentation in mountain towns? It might just make us a little more civilized and free to manage our own traffic instead of mindlessly reacting to traffic lights. That we would no longer be supporting the international traffic light cartel, the thousands of government employees that maintain the lights and the criminals who manufacture those traffic violation cameras is a good thing. That our Finest would have more time for donuts is a better thing.

Alan Stark, who used to be MG’s assistant editor, owns and operates Boulder Bookworks. boulderbookworks.com.