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

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Sunset A high percentage of those reading these words are still of an age where you correctly observe about yourself that you are indeed “bulletproof.” You can fall off a cliff and your only concern will be if the one-hitter in your shirt pocket managed to survive the impact. A high percentage of those reading these words are of an age where, despite the fact that numerous parts of your body are trying to subtly inform you that you are becoming less bulletproof, you can still limp you way through a rugged outdoors life in blissful physiological denial. A high percentage of those reading these words are on an age where the message is coming through loud and clear: You are not as young as you once were, but, still, you’re not as old as you’re going to get and, therefore, while you may no longer be bulletproof, you can still pretend that the fall off the cliff didn’t cause any lasting damage that you’re willing to admit in public. Then there is that percentage of the people reading these words — likely while donning glasses with very thick lenses — who have arrived at what many could argue is a liberating point in life: When you throw in the towel and admit, to others and even to yourself, that you no longer have a bulletproof corpuscle in your entire body. You can injure yourself in a way that lasts for the rest of your goddamned life carrying a load of laundry down to the basement. This, as those of you who are at that point in life know, sucks. If you don’t believe me, read this story by my buddy Alan Stark — a long-time Mountain Gazette contributor — which appeared recently in the New York Times. This is a point in life where your adventures are no longer traditionally defined, where you think less about the vistas you will see once you drag your tired ass up the mountain or about the exhilaration you will feel once you make it through Nutripper Rapids mostly in one piece. You get to the point where you wonder, even as you are driving to the trailhead or put-in, whether you will even make it to the summit or to the take-out, whether some piece-of-shit part of your aching body will give up the ship and cause you to limp in shame back to the car. This is one of the main reasons why senior hiking and skiing clubs exist — so those of us who fall into this age/physiological-train-wreck demographic do not embarrass ourselves in front of those still young enough to be bulletproof, or young enough that they think they are or can still fake that they are. When you get to that can’t-even-fake-bulletproof age, you learn a harsh lesson: That one of the biggest adventures you will face for the rest of your days is the trip to the doctor for your annual physical. There’s always this pregnant moment when your doctor is slowly shuffling the results of the multi-page blood test, when you’re trying to read his facial expression the same way someone on trial tries to read the expressions of the jurors when they file back into the courtroom. And, of course, the doctor does not immediately blurt out that your have terminal brain cancer and that you will likely not live long enough to egress his office. No, there is an order to things, as he prods and pokes and asks you to cough and then finally puts on the latex gloves and tells you to assume what surely must be the most undignified position known to humankind. And the entire time, he’s asking seemingly vapid questions about how well you’re sleeping and how your balance is, and the whole while you’re wanting to grab him by his stethoscope and yell: “Just go ahead and tell me what horrible malady is wreaking havoc inside me?” We finally get to that point. He’s eyeballing the results of the blood test, and I’m trying to read the two-point type on the document upside-down, while trying to pretend that I’m not trying to read the two-point type on the document upside-down. He goes through all the arcane shit that’s NOT wrong with me — hmmm nanoserabellum (or some such) is well within normal parameters — which, thankfully, outweighs the shit that is wrong. Until, finally, he clears his throat (they always clear their throat when they’re getting ready to tell you, sorry, we’re going to have to amputate your testicles right here and now) and says, in something of a positive letdown, if there can be such a thing, that my vitamin D levels are way down. This, he says, might have some effect on the low energy levels I told him about right before the latex gloves came out. And here comes the sun. Apparently, the entire world is suffering from what is now being described as an epidemic of low vitamin D. I mean, I always thought an epidemic was when something palpable affected a sizeable population, like a virus or some kind of nasty bacteria with a 14-syllable name. But, no, here we have an epidemic defined by a decided lack of something. Turns out there are an estimated billion people in the world suffering from a vitamin D deficiency. My doctor told me that fully a half of all his patients are likewise afflicted. I talked a couple non-traditional health-care professionals I know, and they said the same exact thing. My doctor said the cure is simple enough: Eat 5,000 mg of vitamin D a day. But, what, I asked, is the root cause? After all, everything from yogurt to Lucky Charms these days boasts colorfully upon its label how fortified with vitamins and minerals the food item is, to the point that one wonders if there’s enough room for all the vitamins and minerals advertised on the package and the food item that’s supposedly also in that box. Well, my doctor said, he’s read numerous studies that indicate many manufacturers simply overstate, misrepresent or blatantly lie about the vitamin content of their products. Apparently, parents thinking their kids are ingesting 400 tons of vitamin D every time they down a glass of bovine juice are often being deceived. But there seems to be a more insidious culprit at play: a lack of exposure to sunlight. If memory serves, D is the only vitamin the body is able to manufacture on its own. By way of some form of inexplicable magic, exposure to sunlight upon the naked skin causes the vitamin D glands to start purring along. Thing is, we’ve all been programmed over the course of the past few decades to believe that the slightest exposure to sunlight causes instantaneous skin cancer. So, we cover up and slather on sunscreen by the bucketful. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many of us live in cold climates, places where, for half the year,  we do not expose our skin because of concerns about frostbite, rather than skin cancer. It’s like we can’t win for losing. “Would you rather risk skin cancer or eat some vitamin D supplements?” my doctor asked, smugly and rhetorically. Here’s the thing, though: I am a sun person who dwells in a sun state. I mean, my ass is flat-out photovoltaic. Even in the dead of winter, rare is the day when I do not spend several hours outdoors. And it has to be mighty chilly indeed for me to totally cover every square inch of exposed skin. Still, sun worship notwithstanding, my vitamin D levels are low. As if all of that wasn’t enough to cause me to ponder mortality in a context that includes the undeniable realization that we were never meant as a species to live as long as I already have lived, there was more sun-related enlightenment to come. I have been an enthusiastic table tennis player for many years. We have a group, mostly old farts, who get together to smack balls twice a week. Unfortunately, the facility that the county government graciously provides to us is extremely dimly lit. I have long suffered from poor night vision, and I’m definitely one of the players most negatively impacted by the lack-of-luminosity in our low-rent ping-pong emporium. One of the other players, who likewise does not see in dim light as well as he once did, told me about a supplement that supposedly helps restore night vision. As soon as I got home, I researched it and learned that, indeed, there are numerous herbal concoctions that advertise themselves as being beneficial for senior citizens who have trouble honing in on orange three-star 40mm Nittaku balls coming their way at 50 mph. Upon further reading I learned something else: Poor night vision among Americans is also reaching epidemic proportions. The reason (or at least one of the reasons): We have become addicted to sunglasses. Same drill as the vitamin D deficiency epidemic. We have been, I don’t want to use the word “brainwashed,” so let’s just say sufficiently convinced by eyewear manufacturers that, if you so much as venture forth into the great outdoors to pick up your newspaper off the ground at dawn, your corneas and pupils will instantly start frying like a pan full of sausage. And I have been a lockstep adherent to that perspective my entire life. If I’m outside anytime besides dead of deep dark night, I’m wearing my prescription Oakley blades. The piece of gear I fear losing more than any other — to the point that I rarely travel without backup — is my sunglasses. When my dog was a puppy and she chewed a pair of sunglasses up, I seriously considered selling her to a pet laboratory. And here I learn that my sunglass mania has likely resulted in a degree of night blindness that is impacting my ability to hit a cross-table topspin forehand slam. Damn! Even understanding that there are circumstances where you can’t function without adequate, and generally stunningly expensive UVA/UVB sunglasses — like skiing in the High Country on a sunny day — this information caused a certain amount of teeth-gnashing and mental cud-chewing. The various websites I perused in my quest to help restore some semblance of ability to see in dim light outlined some exercises and strategies, not the least of which being to spend time outside sans sunglasses. There was even a suggestion that you stare at the sun with your eyes closed for several 10-second periods per day. Great. There’s hope. Still, my mind wandered from vitamin D and poor night vision to other aspects of our health and well-being, or lack thereof. There are those who believe that we have become so focused on cleanliness and sanitization that we have negatively impacted our ability to fight infection. I have heard the same thing about our fear of tainted water, that, by consuming sterile H20, we have made it so, when we do ingest water-borne maladies, we are less able to wage war against them. In all four examples — vitamin D, night vision, cleanliness mania and fear of water — it seems an argument can be made that we have come under the sway of companies that are fiscally well served if consumer society fears the thing their products supposedly protect us from. Our (some would say justified) fear of skin cancer has made it so we buy sunscreen. Our fear of the effects of UV rays on our eyes makes it so we invest in pricy eyewear. How many products are marketed to us to kill household germs? There are many bottled-water companies telling us that what flows from our taps is lethal. We have many companies telling us that, if we drink so much as a mouthful of untreated water from a pristine mountain stream, we will soon find ourselves writhing in agony on the side of the trail as our intestines are being devoured by some horrible microscopic creature. The argumentative problem here, of  course, is that there’s enough veracity to those concerns to make them real. Or at least real enough. People do get glaucoma. People do get skin cancer. People so shit their brains out because of giardia. These concerns are not made up. But neither are they ubiquitous or automatic. We can sit in the sun. We can eat food that has touched a kitchen counter that has not been sanitized in the past five minutes. We can drink water out of a mountain stream. Of course, we may die in so doing. But we may also die in not so doing. Now, excuse me, but it’s a nice day here in Gila Country. I’m going to sit shirtless and sunglass-less out in the sun. Maybe even smoke a cigar. Maybe even pick up a handful of deer-dung besmirched dirt off the ground and stuff it into my mouth. And I’ll wash it down with water from a mud puddle. I’m feeling bulletproof today.  

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Misdirection Illustration by Chad Bassett Off to the north of a trail I have hiked, biked, skied and snowshoed more times than I can remember lies the approach to a side/tributary gulch (I’ll call it Pilgrim Gulch), which is, if not exactly hidden, is at least not blatantly obvious. From below, the mouth of Pilgrim Gulch looks to be nothing more than a depression in a ridge finger descending from a massive headwall and lying perhaps 500 vertical feet above the main valley. Pilgrim Gulch is accessible from the trail — actually a rugged four-wheel-drive road that is one of the most popular backcountry destinations in the very busy Colorado mountain county I called home for almost two decades — only by crossing a willow-choked creek bottom, followed by an aerobically captivating bushwhack to the ridge finger. For many years, I had looked up toward that ridge and its tempting depression, but had never gone through the tedious process of actually visiting it. Then, one day, I found myself interviewing for a news story a local Forest Service employee who was talking about a recently filed application for a mining permit clear on the other side of the lofty mountain range in which this part of the story takes place. Knowing that the proposed mine site was essentially inaccessible except via self-propelled means along a sketchy section of single-track, I asked the Forest Service employee, “How would the applicants access their claim?” He then made mention of a gulch I had never heard of. I pulled out my maps and — lo and behold! — as far as I could tell, the Forest Service employee was talking about that depression in the ridge finger I had been eyeballing for all those years. He was talking about Pilgrim Gulch. I did not dally. Very next day, I hiked up the popular, rugged four-wheel-drive road to a point where it looked like the willow traverse would be easiest, or at least less skin-ripping. Then, while making certain no prying eyes witnessed my impending bushwhack, I began the trudge toward what ended up being one of the most astounding places I had ever visited in a county that boasts beaucoup astounding places. Though the mouth of the gulch, like I wrote earlier, was modest, it soon opened up to a broad expanse that included glacial tarns galore, expansive vistas, astounding rock formations, nearby mountain summits and thick wildflowers. It was like I had stumbled upon a mini-Shangri La that, stunningly no one seemed to know about. Pilgrim Gulch became one of my regular hiking destinations, and never once did I ever tell anyone about it. Never once did I ever consider the notion of telling anyone about it. Let the huddled masses continue on their merry way up the rugged four-wheel-drive road in the main valley below. Let them be blissful in their ignorance. Let them eat cake. Then, one day, I slogged up the steep incline to what I until that point considered my personal kingdom of alpine bliss. And what did I then see? I saw a series of diminutive rock cairns erected through a place where Pilgrim Gulch tightened up a bit as it followed a crystal-clear rivulet. My heart sank, for I knew what was next coming. It seemed like a form of corruption, not solely because other boot prints now existed in soil where I had seen literally none before, but because whoever it was who had traversed these parts since my last visit had felt compelled, even entitled, to leave behind near-permanent evidence of their passing. Fuck! But I did nothing, save sulk. During subsequent visits, the cairns became more numerous, larger and more elaborate. And the tundra through which those cairns were constructed started showing signs of wear and tear. Though I never saw another person in Pilgrim Gulch, it was obvious more and more people now knew about it. Then, one day, I saw some orange peels, eggshells and a candy bar wrapper next to one of the glacial tarns. And I lashed out: I destroyed every single one of those goddamned cairns. I mean to say, I obliterated the motherfuckers. This was no subtle carnage. I made no effort to aesthetically replace the rocks used to construct those cairns to their natural environment. As I kicked those cairns, I cursed the people who had built them. With regards to Pilgrim Gulch, I was likely too late. I ought to have disassembled the very first cairns I saw. I vowed then and there to never again make such a mistake. And thus began what to this day remains a love/hate relationship with cairns and all they represent, both literally and figuratively. Admittedly, what they literally represent is likely nothing more than some well-meaning person or persons who simply have a different opinion than do I regarding the placement of route markers upon heretofore-virginal landscapes. That person, or those people, likely feel it is better on all levels for folks out and about in the boonies to be both well oriented and following the same line of travel. But what they figuratively represent is the concept of order and management and linear thought — all concepts that, while perhaps valuable down in civilized realms, have little if any value in the heart of wild country — and, worst of all, the concept of encouraging and directing people to backcountry locales that, wherever period of time ago, were relatively unpeopled and untrammeled. The building of cairns in places lacking system trails is akin to guidebooks and magazine destination stories that reveal “secret places.” (One of these days, I swear I’m going to write a guidebook and/or a series of magazine destination articles specifically designed to get people lost. It would be the best favor I could ever lay on those people, though it might take them a few years to realize the good turn I have done them.) Before proceeding any further, let me be upfront and clear: Many have been the times in my long and extensive hiking/backpacking career when I have been mighty thankful for the existence of cairns. For instance, I was once on the Continental Divide Trail between Kite Lake and Stony Pass experiencing weather as bad as weather can be at 12,000 feet elevation in mid-August. It was blizzarding and blowing a gale, and there was not enough visibility to even measure. The only thing that kept my disoriented, teeth-chattering self on target was a series of six-foot-tall cairns delineating the venerable San Juan Stockway, which was contiguous with the CDT at that point. I likely would have been in trouble had those cairns not been there, as there was no shelter from the storm that I could see, or, in this case, not see. This is far from the only example of cairns saving my personal day. But — and this is a noteworthy “but” in this context — those cairns (I’ll call then the “good cairns”) have all been official, U.S. Grade-A trail markers, markers placed alongside existing system trails, trails that actually appear on maps, trails designed, as much as anything (in my mind at least) to keep the huddled masses on track and off whatever untrammeled (and, thus, more uninteresting) terrain that might lie nearby. The “good cairns,” in my considerable backcountry experience, are constructed by Forest Service and Park Service trail crews, who, presumably, know what they’re doing vis-à-vis trail location and construction. They were not constructed by Joe Blow the Ragman hiker who took it upon himself to expose a particular primitive route by building a series of “bad cairns” just because he felt like so doing. In this regard, the “bad cairns” are nothing more than litter and ought to be treated as such. I have long been perplexed, as well as red-faced angered, by the numbers of times I have ventured forth into the great outback untrailed unknown, only to find that someone has erected series of bad cairns to either direct those who follow (like, who’s to say that the cairn-builder actually knows where he or she is going?) or as a sign that Kilroy was here. These bad cairns were not constructed by Forest Service or Park Service employees; they were, rather constructed by people like me (but not like me), people who obviously were originally attracted to places sans official routes, people inclined to explore the hinterlands rather than simply following established systems of trails. What would possess people inclined to visit the untrailed unknown to then mark the way, to mark their passing, like dogs pissing on fence posts? What is this goddamned inexplicable attraction to orientation? Understand, please, that I am not herein castigating those who build bad cairns simply because they have visited a place I have also visited. Sure, I wish I were the only person to have ever interfaced with the myriad off-the-map destinations that over the years I have been blessed enough to interface with. But there is obviously more to it than that. Given my bushwhacking nature, I am happy that most backcountry enthusiasts most of the time access the forests, mountains and deserts via established, official, marked trails, many of which are delineated by cairns. I, too, generally access the backcountry via official trails, though, often, for reasons that have to do with both inclination and the influence of some sort of inexplicable metaphysical/gravitational/inertial force, it is not unusual to look down and notice that my boots have detoured their way into unmarked, un-delineated, sign-free, trail-free, cairn-free realms. One of the least-publicized and least-appreciated negative environmental impacts associated with the outdoor-recreation industry is the impact that simple, seemingly benign trails have upon the natural world. I once proposed a story on this subject to Backpacker magazine back when I was a contributing editor at that publication. The editor reacted in such a way that he obviously thought I had lost my goddamned mind. “Yeah, right, let’s make our readers start feeling guilty about the very trails upon which they hike into the woods. Our advertisers will love that.” I guess his response was understandable, if not somewhat lacking in the kind vein-opening honesty that I feel makes for good journalism, even if that honesty sometimes amounts to shooting oneself in the foot, or, worse, if it amounts to taking a long and hard look in the mirror. Still, based upon several peer-reviewed research projects I am familiar with, there is no denying that the existence of trails and trail construction results in many of the same kinds of negative impacts associated with roads and road construction. The clearing of trees to accommodate a trail causes more sunlight to hit the ground, resulting in the establishment of microclimates. New trails instantly up the erosion ante, especially if they are open to mountain bikes. Trails, not surprisingly, cause more people and, worse (from the perspective of the environment) dogs to venture forth into the backcountry. Species that do not take well to the presence of man (and dog(s)) start moving away from the trail, replaced by species that tolerate human activity. The habitat fragmentation that defines human kind continues unabated. There are certainly those who argue, and argue well, that, if you are going to have human visitation in the backcountry, it is better to concentrate that visitation on established trails, rather than having a whole bunch of stoned reprobates like me traveling in willy-nilly fashion hither and yon. There are also those who argue, and argue well, that the most significant impact a backcountry locale feels is when the first human passes through, and that every subsequent human visitation is incrementally relatively less impactful. (Taken out of context, this would be a salient argument against bushwhacking.) And, thus, if there is going to be human visitation in a given area, it is best for all concerned if those humans pass along the exact same route. (Taken out of context, this would be a salient argument in favor of cairn building.) That’s a great point and all, except that it does not entertain the impacts of aggregate visitation, which is often exacerbated by the existence of a trail, and which often in turn causes the existence of a trail. This is where we get back to the bad cairns. There are of course many ways that backcountry trails are born and raised. Many have historic roots — they were old pack train or livestock routes. Many were constructed specifically for recreational use. And many sprang into being via “unofficial” means. This latter category, often referred to as “social trails,” begin, for example, when someone — a hunter, maybe, or a bushwhacker, or a rancher on horseback looking for strays — comes across, as a random example, the biggest juniper tree anyone has ever seen. He takes a few of his friends out to see it. Those friends take a few of their friends, some of whom might be inclined to place a few humble rock cairns to help those who follow, and, before you know it, there’s what looks for all the world like a real trail to that tree, a trail that some people who have no idea it leads to a giant juniper tree start following just to see where it goes. Those people might start adding a few stones to the cairns lining the route. The Forest Service will sometimes institutionalize such trails, granting them “official, status” — meaning they get marked on maps, get trail signs, get regular maintenance and maybe even get a whole slew of cairns. Other social trails are established or even built in extra-legal fashion by mountain bikers or hikers. I recently heard of a lady who has been working tirelessly for years to build a new trail to the summit on one of our local mountains. (I would love to meet this lady, to give her a piece of my mind.) The national forest trail system I visit most often (because it is closest to my house) was started by a man who thought it was OK to go out onto public land, ax, adze and chainsaw in hand, and start blazing away, like Daniel Boone heading toward Cumberland Gap. Sometimes the Forest Service will come in and obliterate such ex officio trails. Sometimes — as is the case with the trail system I visit most often — the Forest Service throws in the land-management towel and institutionalizes those trails, and, in so doing, brings them up to construction standards. And, once those trails are institutionalized, they are publicized and, as a result, more and more people start using them, and more and more negative environmental impact results. Trees alongside the trails start to die. Birds move into less desirable areas to nest. Water hole accessibility is compromised. There is more to it than that, though. There is a certain difficult-to-quantify concern with the psychological repercussions of having more and more marked trails running through our mountains, forests and deserts, even if those markings take the form of modest sets of bad cairns along little-visited social trails. I believe it’s important for those of us inclined to tromp through the backcountry to get disoriented as often as possible, to have no idea where the fuck we’re going, to run the risk of getting lost and by so doing maybe finding something valuable that likely does not exist along a marked route. Most times, we find nothing, save experience and time alone with the trees and cactuses and birds and bears. And that’s fine. But sometimes we stumble upon something wonderful — a small natural bridge made out of Gila conglomerate, a new way to descend into a slot canyon, a cliff dwelling, a giant juniper. And whatever those wonderful somethings may be, they are made even more wonderful by the fact that we found them on our own. We did not follow a trail, and we did not torpedo the sense of wonder the next person who finds them experiences because we decided to build a line of cairns in our wake. The words “explore” and “adventure” are so over-used and misused in these days of ziplines, eco-tours and travel insurance that most folks, even those inclined to venture forth into the backcountry, have forgotten their true meaning. Whatever tattered remnants of their true meaning might still exist do not include guidebooks and destination stories and existing trails and even seemingly innocuous little systems of cairns constructed by people, even well-meaning people. This much I truly know and understand. These days, when I pass “good cairns,” I will often add a rock to them, if for no other reason than we have arrived at a time when cairns are being treated by passersby as art forms as much as directional devices. Whenever I pass “bad cairns,” I obliterate the motherfuckers, and I encourage you to do the same. I figure it’s my civic duty to help keep the backcountry as wild as possible. One of the best ways to do that is to play a small role in making sure that my fellow backcountry travelers have every opportunity to get disoriented, befuddled, discombobulated, bumfuzzled, bruised, battered and as scared as I have many times myself been while trekking through realms that lack trails and signs and cairns. And, in so doing, I hope those people, like I have, will find bear cubs frolicking in fields of wildflowers and pottery shards left by the Ancient Ones and entire fields of undisturbed crystals glimmering in the dappled sunlight.

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Ode to the World's Best Traveled Man

Bruce Hayward Editor’s note: Dr. Bruce Hayward (1928-2011) was a long-time professor of biology at Western New Mexico University (my alma mater) in Silver City (my current home town). He was known in professional circles as one of the world’s foremost chiropterologists. As such, he was often referred to as “Batman.” Dr. Hayward was not only renowned, but very, very cool. He was a professor who got invited to student parties. More importantly, he was an educator who inspired those he taught, to the degree that many of his students opted to major in the sciences solely because of Bruce’s influence. At his outdoor memorial service last fall, on prominent display was the last in a long line of Bruce’s passports. As I as thumbing through it with a combination of awe and jealousy, Mark Erickson, a close friend of Bruce’s, said words to the effect of, “If you think the passport is impressive, you should see his journals.” Ends up that, as Mark indicated, Bruce had spent a lifetime not only visiting an estimated 150 countries (!!!) in all, but recording his journeys. By the time he passed away, those meticulously crafted journals filled seven giant file-cabinet-sized boxes! And that was just the first batch. Few professional writers produce that quantity of verbiage. Those journals would take first form by way of notes handwritten by Bruce while he was in the field. Upon returning home, he would transcribe his notes into typewritten form. Then he would bind the typewritten pages and add photos and memorabilia. The notes covered everything from scientific observations to observations about a given country’s culture. On the way home from Bruce’s memorial service, my creative juices started percolating. I borrowed a copy of Bruce’s last passport, which was set to expire this year, and my wife scanned in several of the more captivating pages. Then my friend Cat Stailey, a biology student at WNMU, spent many hours reading journals from trips that corresponded to the various stamps in Bruce’s final passport. Though it is an understatement to say the following package represents only the tip of the iceberg, we feel it satisfactorily represents the travels and the mindset of the world’s best-traveled man, a term I believe needs a bit of elucidation. Sure, there are people who have visited more countries than Bruce did, at least partially because there are lots of folks who collect passport stamps the same way peak-baggers collect mountain summits. But, Bruce’s journals show that traveling for him was more than just an effort visit as many countries as possible. Travel for Dr. Bruce Hayward was about making deep connections with people and places. He was not just well traveled, he was WELL traveled. A big thanks to Cat Stailey, for taking the time to put all this together. — MJF  Pitcairn Island, October 2006 “As usual, I look out my window upon getting up. I see a big olive-green chunk of rock 1100’ high, 1.75 square miles in size looming out of the choppy sea… This is an impressive, formidable island; landing will not be easy. Today will be an interesting set of events. I’m looking forward to going ashore on Pitcairn, it should be exciting.” “Pitcairn, population 51 people, has a police presence (from New Zealand). This surprises me. There’s a stern police sergeant, a more mellow constable. He’s bummed out at the moment — no beer (and none till 5 Dec).” Armenia, May 2005 “This area is the heart of the integration of Neanderthals (who never got to Africa) and Cro-Magnons who came north from Africa. The hypotheses of why Cro-Magnons replaced Neanderthals are many and fascinating.” “So few people realize that the works of Nature far surpass the works of Man. The ugly monastery is supposed to be pretty; I don’t think so. The stream in the canyon, the birds in the rushes — that is the scenery worth seeing.” Trinidad, March 2006 Caroni Swamp: “Clouds threaten behind us. Mangrove branches arch overhead forming a tunnel. Aerial roots dangle overhead like Christmas tinsel. Out of the swamp, we enter an open lake. Now I see the herons and scarlet ibises flying over in flocks of 2’s and 6’s. I glance left. Wow! An island of red and white spots. This is the famous roosting area, an island of mangroves.” Asa Wright Refuge: “Honey-creepers come within a foot of me — boy! Such intense colors! Shiny cowbirds are the antithesis of the other birds, solid black with a hint of iridescence. A golden-winged woodpecker spends all day digging a new hole on the underside of a dead branch in the distance.” “Once we leave the refuge, large homes blot the landscape, clearing the forest and planting ornamental shrubs. Having seen the Rainforest at Asa Wright, I feel sad to see what civilization has done to this place.” Georgia, June 2005 “The homonid fossils found here are older than any site in Africa. These people made stone tools for 2 million years!” “A plaster statue of Stalin stands majestically against a far wall, almost lost in the dim light. It hasn’t been maintained. Yet it seems to shed ‘a light’ or presence of its own, being separated from all this trash around it. It must have been elegant once.” Pakistan, August 2006 “I’m standing on a pass 15,520’ in elevation, higher than any mountain in the Continental U.S. by a thousand feet. The Himalayas are immense in every respect.” “The road to Eagle Nest is probably the worst road I’ve ever been on. I think of all my friends and relatives who would freak out on this road. It’s not for flatlanders!” “The valleys and white Himalayan Peaks surround me; it’s like being in a theater with wide screen projection. I feel almost like that. The river is a tiny line below us. Farther along, the curves, potholes, rough surface never seem to end. On and on!” “In Gilgit the number of armed guys wandering around with assault rifles is a bit puzzling. I am told that these guys keep the Shiites and Sunnis from molesting each other. Aha! We’ve gotten to the edge of the nasty region of Pakistan!” “I wake 18 August 2006 at 0645 in Gilgit, Pakistan, a very far corner of the world. I often ponder this wonder — where I am, why I am here. Isn’t this a privilege? It beats being in Silver City this morning. There’s time for veranda sitting.” Ethiopia, Jan./Feb. 2005 “Lalibela, Ethiopia has the longest archaeological record in the world. Some say it is the cradle of humanity. The australopithecine fossil, Lucy (50 bone fragments and teeth), which I saw in Addis yesterday, comes from here. It dates to 4.5 million years ago. ‘She’ was half man, half ape, 3.5 feet tall, weighing only 7lbs., possibly the earliest man-like character.” “St. Mary’s Church, in Axum, is supposed to contain the Ark of the Covenant. No one, let alone us, gets to see it. A guard watches the entrance 24/7/365. Does he get to see it? I doubt it. I wonder if it’s really there. Possibly this is a game. At any rate, I’m not impressed, except by the lovely Spring flowers that grow around us (bougainvillea, jacaranda, and some orange ones).” “A pair of kids have found a neat way to get tourists to stop for their pictures. They walk along the road on stilts. Tourists cannot resist the ‘cute index’. Well, the kids get their money, store it in their mouths since they don’t have any pockets. Original!” “[Name redacted] sure is a bizarre fruitcake or possibly a full-blooded idiot. The things she talks about and asks questions about are amazing. She begins a bizarre conversation with our guide, Girma. ‘Girma, these people don’t seem to be circumcised. Why?’ Poor Girma! From here she asks about castration, its uses, traditions, biological efficacy. Strange! Whatever brought this up? Is she truly a dirty old lady, going around looking at penises?” Canada, Alberta, September 2010 “A lady stops by my table to tell me how dapper I am (my Providenya cap and beard); she has been watching me all during her meal. People often tell me that I look very Muslim; I’ve not been called dapper before. Well, that’s an interesting way to start the day.” “We’re standing at the shallow end of Lake Louise. Overrated. Suddenly, a short-tailed weasel, rich brown with a white belly runs over the rocks in front of us. I’m stunned! One seldom sees these animals in the wild. While we’re exclaiming and rejoicing, it comes back, closer this time. It explores under rocks no more than 6’ away… ignores us completely. This is the highlight of the trip.” Bhutan, Oct./Nov. 2004 Paro Valley: “The afternoon will be devoted to hiking to the Tigers’ Nest (Taktshang Goemba), a small monastery on a thin ledge about a thousand feet above our valley. Legend has that it was established by Guru Rinpoche, a re-incarnate Buddha, the guy who started Buddhism in this country in the 8th century. This story says that he rode a winged tigress which landed on this very narrow cliff. He declared it sacred and a monastery was built here (using the same winged tigress? Construction must have been very difficult).” “Thimpu is the only capitol city in the world without a stoplight. However, there is  a main intersection where a serious lady cop stands under an umbrella and waves cars through in several directions. Her white-gloved hands move rhythmically, almost as if in a dance.” Australia, Feb. 2007 Thursday Island: “In most places in the world you don’t drink the water. In Australia, you don’t eat the food.” Burma (Myanmar), Jan. 2010 Inle Lake: “What I am seeing is a large floating bog; called a floating garden by the locals. It’s a small village of sorts with houses on stilts. Steps lead up to the second floors where people live. They raise crops out here. The streets are waterways.” “The #1 reason for this trip is about to happen — an annular eclipse of the Sun. Locals drift in to watch the gringo watch the eclipse; a better show for them than the eclipse perhaps. They borrow the eclipse glasses, are very impressed by what they see. Little kids freak out.” “Bagan is the city of temples and stupas! A large lighted stupa provides an exotic introduction to this city. Ox carts block the streets at times; horse and buggies whip around; ghost like, bicycle riders w/o lights appear and disappear.” China, April 1999  “I sat in a park today; watched people and wrote notes. The Chinese watched me as well, and are fascinated by my cursive handwriting. In no time, there are 6 people standing around me watching me write notes.”


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Colorado Songs

M John Fayhee: Smoke SignalsAuthor’s note: Though this represents a stylistic change of pace for Smoke Signals (I thought I’d give my liver a break for a month), a book project I have been working on for several years has given me the opportunity to research songs about/from Colorado, most of which have the word “Colorado” in their title and/or their lyrics. I have herein opted to share the fruits of that research. There is no doubt that there will be many reactionary exclamations along the lines of, “Fayhee’s a frickin’ moron! How could he not include [such and such a song] or at least something by [fill in the blank].” Well, I am all ears. Please send suggestions (as well as any corrections to this list) to I would also be interested to hear songs from other parts of the Rockies, especially those that contain state names within their titles or lyrics. • John Denver, who was born Henry John Deutschendorf, penned the lyrics of “Rocky Mountain High” (Mike Taylor composed the music) after watching the Perseid meteor shower with friends near Williams Lake, outside Aspen. It was recorded in August 1972 and released the following year. Because he lived most of his adult life in Colorado, a large percentage of John Denver’s discography hailed from the Centennial State. Many of his tunes make reference to his adopted home state, but, if you’re going to seek out a Denver song not named “Rocky Mountain High” that is about Colorado, your best bet is “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado.” • Bob Dylan, another singer who, like John Denver changed his name (from Robert Allen Zimmerman), at one time maintained a second home in Telluride (maybe he still does). In “Man of Constant Sorrows” he sings: “I’m going back to Colorado/The place that I started from/If I’d known how bad you’d treat me honey/I would never have come.” And, in “Wanted Man,” he sings: “I might be in Colorado or Georgia by the sea/Working for some man who may not know at all who I might be.” (Note: Contrary to some published reports, Dylan’s “Romance in Durango” is not about the southwestern Colorado town that is home to Fort Lewis College, but, rather, the nice big city that is in Mexico.) • While still with The Flying Burrito Brothers, Rick Roberts wrote, “Colorado,” which was included on that group’s self-titled 1971 album. “Colorado” was covered by Linda Ronstadt on her 1973 album, “Don’t Cry Now.” Roberts went on to help found Firefall. Several versions of “Colorado,” as performed by both The Flying Burrito Brothers and Ronstadt, can be found on YouTube. • Stephen Stills’ “Colorado” is an example (of many) of a great mountain-based song with lyrics that you wonder how much pot these folkies were actually smoking back in the earliest days of the Rocky-Mountain-High era. To wit: “I am a man/I live alone/Don’t much bother me/It won’t be long/Come a woman who wants to be near/Me and my mountains, we’ll be right here/Colorado.” At least the tune’s catchy! • James McMurtry, the son of Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry (of “Lonesome Dove” fame) sang in “No More Buffalo” (“Live in Aught-Three”): “We headed south across those Colorado plains/just as empty as the day/we looked around at all we saw/remembered all we hoped to see/looking out through the bugs on the windshield/somebody said to me/no more buffalo, blue skies, or open road/no more rodeo/no more noise/take this Cadillac/park it out in back/mama’s calling/put away the toys.” This one also boasts a catchy tune. • Merle Haggard recorded two Colorado-based songs, “Colorado” and “Lucky Old Colorado.” • Townes Van Zandt’s “Colorado Girl,” from his “Rear View Mirror” album, is one of the most fetching songs about the state. Steve Earl does a wonderful cover of “Colorado Girl” on his “Townes” album, which is a tribute to the late Van Zandt. • If you are inclined to travel to the deep, dark, musical past — a past that was hilariously skewered by the 2003 movie “A Mighty Wind” — you might like the Kingston Trio’s folk classic, “The Colorado Trail,” which was written by Carl Sandburg and Lee Hayes. The fact that this song came out a solid decade before the Colorado Trail was even conceived, much less constructed, is perplexing. But any song that contains the near-Wordsworthian words, “Weep, all ye little rains/Wail, winds, wail/All along, along, along/The Colorado Trail,” is worth a listen, if for no other reason than to thank the gods that the early-1960s folk music scene was short lived. This toe-tapper can be found on “Melanie’s Melodies of the Rockies: Soothing Songs of the Old West for Home and Fireside” album. One listen to this dog and you won’t be able to resist lacing on your boots and running as fast as you can 500 miles from Denver to Durango on the Colorado Trail. It should be noted, as you’re scrambling to download “The Colorado Trail,” that no other album that has ever been produced contains the word “Colorado” in as many song titles as does “Melanie’s Melodies of the Rockies.” It should also be noted that, sadly, this is not THE Melanie (Safka), of “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain”) fame. • Even though it may be considered a mildly good-natured anti-Colorado song, National Lampoon’s “Colorado,” sung by, of all people, Chevy Chase, is actually a surprisingly melodic satire of “Rocky Mountain High.” “Colorado” is found on the 1973 “Lemmings” album. • Folk singer Chuck Pyle is often referred to as the official singer/songwriter of the High Country. His 2007 album, “Higher Ground: Songs of Colorado,” contains one song named “Colorado” and another named “Moonlight on the Colorado.” But it’s his “Little Town Tour,” which begins, “Bayfield, Cascade, Manitou, Palisade … ” that is most interesting in that it includes the names of almost every single mountain town in the state. • While, admittedly, its Colorado connection is somewhat oblique, Tom Waits’ “Nighthawk Postcards (From Easy Street),” which appeared on his seminal 1975 live album “Nighthawks at the Diner,” contains the lines, “Maybe you’re standing on the corner of 17th and Wazee streets, yeah, out in front of the Terminal Bar, there’s a Thunderbird moving in a muscatel sky.” Those words were penned long before LoDo  — which Waits would hate — spontaneously combusted. The Terminal Bar is long gone, but the building, which now houses Jax Fish House, remains. • One of the great musical shames of the past decade is that Denver-based DeVotchKa is not a household name from Maine to Australia. That changed a bit with the release of the Academy-Award-nominated film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” which was completely scored with DeVotchKa songs. It did not appear in the film, but “Commerce City Sister,” with its line, “You know I ain’t never going back to Commerce City,” expresses the sentiment of many people who have actually visited Commerce City, an industrial Denver suburb. Hopefully, “Little Miss Sunshine” will serve as a gateway drug for many future DeVotchKa fans. This is truly a wonderful musical ensemble. • No Colorado-based song list would be complete without mention of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, which spent a lot of time in the state. One of its long-time members, Jimmy Ibbotson, still lives in Woody Creek, where he performs often. One of the Dirt Band’s best-known songs that contains the state’s name is “Colorado Christmas,” which was actually written by the late, great Steve Goodman, who served as a mentor for folk/rock legend John Prine. (Goodman and Prine co-owned a bar in Chicago named Somebody Else’s Troubles, after one of Goodman’s best-known tunes.) • You’ll be forgiven if the words “Ozark Mountain Daredevils” have not entered your thought processes for many years. In the mid-1970s, this band from Springfield, Missouri, was one of the hottest acts in the country, and their “Colorado Song” (by Steve Cash and John Dillon) was released on their first album, “The Ozark Mountain Daredevils.” This song is highly recommended, despite its second-to-the-last verse, which consists entirely of “aaaahhhhh” being repeated over and over, and the last verse, which consists of “lalalalala” being repeated over and over. At least those lyrics are easy to remember. • So, OK, it’s technically a song about leaving Colorado, but that can easily be overlooked, due to the fact that Emmylou Harris’ “Boulder to Birmingham” is flat-out one of the best songs ever penned. It has been covered by many artists, including Joan Baez, Dolly Parton and the Starland Vocal Band (yes, they of “Afternoon Delight” fame). The lines “I was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire/And I stood on the mountain in the night and I watched it burn/ I watched it burn/I watched it burn” are made lovely by Harris’ voice. • Folk diva Judy Collins was actually born in Seattle, but she grew up in Denver, where she attended East High School. Many of her songs contain references to Colorado. Few songs about the state are more accurately evocative than Collins’ “The Blizzard (The Colorado Song),” which contains lines that show the singer was intimate with the realities of life at altitude: “One night on the mountain, I was headed for Estes/When the roads turned to ice and it started to snow/Put on the chains in a whirl of white powder/Halfway up to Berthoud near a diner I know.” You never heard the Ozark Mountain Daredevils singing about chaining up in the middle of a blizzard. They would have just lit a joint and waited for the blizzard to pass. • So far, these Colorado songs have been a bit on the heavy, philosophical side. Fun needs to be part of the equation, and that’s where Bowling For Soup’s “Surf Colorado” comes in. With lines like, “She’s traded rattlesnakes for bunny runs in Colorado Springs,” it’s easy to overlook the fact that this song is essentially a rant by a Texan who’s angry that his paramour left the Lone Star State to move to Colorado without him. Also, the fact that the album upon which “Surf Colorado” appears is titled “Drunk Enough to Dance” ought to gain it some style points in the hedonistic High-Country resort towns. • There’s no denying that, when John Denver released “Rocky Mountain High” in 1973, it marked the first time that many Americans gave the Mountain Time Zone the mental time of day. Many people even believe that “Rocky Mountain High” was in and of itself responsible for drawing nationwide attention to Colorado, the same way Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” drew attention to Utah’s Slickrock Country. But Denver was not the only person singing about the Rockies in 1973. While it does not mention Colorado specifically (and, hey, if the official state song, “Where the Columbines Grow,” doesn’t even mention Colorado, then all bets are off), Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” was in the top 20 at the very same time as “Rocky Mountain High.” Walsh was living outside Nederland in Boulder County when he recorded “Rocky Mountain Way.” The fact that it makes no sense at all does not diminish its place in musical history. • In the mid-1970s, Dan Fogelberg wintered outside Nederland, Colorado, otherwise known as Ned (its residents are known as “NedHeads”). A decade later, with his popularity definitely on the downslide, Fogelberg released “High Country Snows.” The title song will never become a mosh pit favorite, unless there’s irony at play, but it still does justice to life at altitude, as does “Nether Lands” — which is close enough to “Nederland” that we’ll call it good. • The Grateful Dead performed at least two songs that contained references to Colorado, “Me and My Uncle” (“Me and my uncle went ridin’ down/South Colorado, West Texas bound”) was actually written by John Phillips, of Mamas and Papas fame (Judy Collins and Neil Young were anecdotally connected to the song by way of extreme drunkenness in a hotel room in 1963). And “I Know You Rider” (“I’d shine my light through a Colorado rain … ”) is considered “traditional.” • Even though none of his songs contain the word “Colorado,” Elton John did record his 1974 album “Caribou” at the famed Caribou Ranch outside Nederland. The best-known song from that album was “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” but one of the lesser-known tunes was “Cold Highway,” which contains the lyrics, “Where the corners turn blind like the graveyard ground/Oh your black icy snare once cut down my friend/In the deepest dark winter when the world seemed to end.” Before it burned down in 1985, Caribou Studios housed record efforts by dozens of world-class acts such as America, Badfinger, the Beach Boys, Chicago, Phil Collins, Rick Derringer, Earth, Wind & Fire, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joel, Carole King, John Lennon, Jerry Lee Lewis, Tom Petty, Rod Stewart, U2, War and Frank Zappa. Rumor has it that, in addition to its isolation, the main attraction to the Caribou Ranch was its altitude, which apparently allowed singers to hit, appropriately enough, high notes that they could only dream of at sea level. •  Any song containing the lyrics, “I didn’t kill that man, I called it self-defense/Now I watch the world go by through a twelve-foot barbed-wire fence” deserves to be listed, especially if it’s titled “Colorado.” That would be performed by 19 Wheels (from the album “Six Ways from Sunday.”) **Visit Smoke Signals for more content from M John Fayhee

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Win Some, Lose Some

In 1972, there were no mountain bikes, snowboards and damned few snowmobiles. There were no AWD SUVs. (Getting around was a lot harder.) There were no GPSs, only tattered maps and dinged-up compasses. (It was a lot easier to get lost.) There was no yuppie 911. (You were pretty much on your own.) There were no X-Games, only the Olympics. There were no real-time blogs from Everest, only handwritten postcards with exotic stamps that usually arrived at their destination long after the sender returned home. There was no Eisenhower Tunnel, only Loveland Pass. (Boy, was that ever dangerous!) There was no Eagles Nest Wilderness, only the Gore Range. M. John Fayhee is the editor of the Mountain Gazette. He lives in Silver City NM. His blog, War Paint, can be found at A comparison of Edward Abbey and Hunter S. Thompson by Fayhee

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The Peaks of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech

Author’s note: For the past couple years, I’ve been toiling away feverishly on a book titled, “A Colorado Mountain Companion,” scheduled to be released this spring by Pruett Publishing in Boulder. One of the chapters examines Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, which is appropriate for the book, because it mentioned the Colorado Rockies specifically. With a respectful nod toward the recently past  Martin Luther King Day, I decided to revamp the chapter a bit and post it herein. On August 28, 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King delivered what has come to be known as his “I Have A Dream” speech (1), justifiably considered one of the greatest examples of oration in American history. The speech was delivered to an estimated 250,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., during the March on Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest gatherings during the entire Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King went vertical as the speech reached its glorious crescendo: “So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that—Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and mole hill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring!” The rank of the mountains referenced directly or indirectly in Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech are:

  1. Mount Whitney, California: 14,495 feet
  2. Mount Elbert, Colorado: 14,433 feet
  3. Mount Washington, New Hampshire: 6,288 feet
  4. Mount Marcy, New York: 5,344 feet
  5. Mount Davis, Pennsylvania: 3,213 feet
  6. Lookout Mountain, Tennessee: 2,146 feet
  7. Stone Mountain, Georgia: 1,680 feet
  8. Woodall Mountain, Mississippi: 806 feet

(1) Segments of the “I Have A Dream” speech, part of which was prepared and part of which was extemporaneous, were given a test drive by Dr. King in June 1963, when he delivered a speech incorporating some of the same sections in Detroit, where he marched on Woodward Avenue with Walter Reuther and the Reverend C.L. Franklin. He had reportedly rehearsed other segments of the speech previously. The “I Have A Dream” speech was embroiled in controversy on two occasions. First, there were allegations that King had plagiarized at least 20 percent of the speech—most of the last two minutes—from a speech delivered at the 1952 Republican National Convention by the Reverend Archibald Cary, Jr. Second, because King had distributed copies of his speech prior to its delivery at the Lincoln Memorial, its copyright status was in dispute for 36 years! In 1999, the civil case, Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr., Inc. versus CBS, Inc., was settled out of court with the understanding that the King estate owned the copyright for the speech. Sources: The idea for this section, as well as much of the information, came from The details of the speech came from Wikipedia.

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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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Dog Names

One of my favorite aspects of sifting through the tsunami of submissions we receive every year for Mountain Gazette’s Mountain Dog Photo Contest is eyeballing the various dog names, which, needless to say, cover a wide gamut. There are always what I would call “normal— dog names — Sage, Spade, Blue, Ella, Nico, Seamus, Malibu. Always lots of names that end in a phonetic long “e” — Ozzy, Sophie, Kiki, Cali, Bertie. And there are usually lots of names that are mountain-specific — Tundra, Talus, Chinook, Summit. And non-dog animal names — Bear, Hawk, Lobo. And names associated with specific mountains and mountain ranges — Sawatch, Elbert, Denali, Shavano. Often, there are town names — Frisco, Dillon, Juneau. There are names from literature and popular culture — Gandalf, Frodo, Yoda, Stella, Homer, Zool. The most captivating (some would say strange) dog names I have ever come across, however, did not make their way into my life by way of our Dog Photo Contest. There’s one dog that visits our local dog park on occasion named, of all unappealing things, “Pot Roast.” This dog is a bulldog whose main attribute seems to be an ability to slobber so profusely that you have to wonder where all that liquid comes from. Pot Roast jumped up on me one time, and, in the point-five seconds it took me to move away from Pot Roast, his slobber had saturated the front side of one pants leg so profusely it soaked clear through — and here I’m talking about from upper-thigh to ankle — to my leg and, even in the bright New Mexico sun, that leg did not dry for two solid hours, most of which I sat in a local watering hole having people ask me if I had just pissed my pants. The whole time, I could not let go of the feeling that what had drenched my pants was not dog slobber, which is bad enough, but, rather, given the dog’s name, greasy gravy. I finally had to leave the bar to go home and change pants and bath my sticky leg. You can file this one under “Only in New Mexico.” I was walking up Sixth Street from the Silver City Food Co-op one hot summer day, and, from the inside of one of those kinds of cars that are literally held together by predicable, though ambiguous, hyper-liberal bumperstickers proclaiming that Peace is the Way and asking What Would Gandhi Do?, I hear a wild vocal ruckus. There was an aging hippie lady inside that car yelling at the top of her lungs in a way highly unbecoming of an aging hippie lady whose car is adorned with bumperstickers about Gandhi. What she was actually yelling made me ponder hiding behind a light pole, for I did not know the potential ramifications. She was yelling, “BAD KARMA!!! BAD BAD BAD KARMA!!!” Now, in a place as populated with wizards, witches and god-knows-what as is Gila Country, you can understand my immediate concern. I at first thought she was wishing bad karma upon me personally as I passed. I mean, in my grocery bags were indeed some items that, I guess, were one inclined t look at them thus, could be considered karmically less than pure. Even though it was grass-fed, free-range and hormone free, yes, there was some breakfast sausage. And, shit, I did have some tortilla chips, but, hey, they were completely free of GMO ingredients. Then, I thought that maybe the lady was doing nothing more than recognizing that some bad karma was right then visiting her for reasons I could not possibly — and had no desire to — fathom. Maybe she had recently purchased some non-free-range sausage. Maybe she had just eaten a whole handful of chicharrones purchased at a convenience store. Maybe her loud vocalizations were nothing more than paying some sort of penance-via-recognition-of-sins. When I finally mustered the courage the continue walking on by, I noticed that, cowering in the back seat of the car was a guilty-looking dog that had, more than likely, just chewed up a shoe or something. Turns out, the dog was named Karma. Now, who would name their dog such a thing, I don’t know. But there it was. Back when Mountain Gazette’s office was still in Frisco, Colorado, our then-sales manager hooked up with a lady who brought to the relationship a dog named Groovy. Groovy was a big Weimaraner whose eyes did not always point in the same direction. He was also an escape artist non-pareil. One day, my buddy Mark Fox was asked to watch Groovy while the sales manager left the office for a while. Mark’s focus must have wandered, and, next thing he knew, Groovy was gone. Mark dashed out onto Main Street, where, even in a part of the country inclined to cut people their eccentricity-based slack, I’m sure he drew perplexed attention as he ran down the sidewalk shouting at the top of his lungs “Groovy! Groovy!” My dog is named Casey. Occasionally, I am asked if it’s “K.C.” or “Kasey.” But, when she screws up, “Bad, Casey” is a lot better than “Bad, Karma,” and, when she runs off, at least I don’t have to run around yelling “Here, Pot Roast” or “Groovy!” Life in New Mexico is weird enough without having a weirdly named dog.

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Why then do we do it?

A few summers back, while walking along a section of the Colorado Trail near Denver, I had the opportunity to watch not one, not two, not three but — count ’em — four mountain bikers go posteriors-over-tea-kettles, all at the exact same spot, one right after the other. By the time the last rider tried, and failed miserably, to negotiate this particularly gnarly hunk o’ rock that was sitting smack-dab in the middle of the tread, there was a pile of writhing fat-tire aficionados pretty much stacked up at my feet. Can’t buy entertainment that good. As there were no injuries more serious than the kind of minor bruises, abrasions and contusions that mountain bikers seem to go out of their way to acquire and wear as badges of honor, I just stood there and watched as these gentlemen picked themselves up and dusted themselves off. (It was interesting to note that all four checked their bikes for damage before they checked themselves out. Good priorities.) Ended up it was a guided trip. The first man to crash was the guide, and the last three to crash were guests from somewhere back East. All four seemed happy as pigs in slop, despite, or perhaps because of, their mishaps. “Man, I crash at the same spot every single time I go through here,” the guide effused, shaking his head and smiling. As far as I could tell, this man physically consisted of but two substances: bone and muscle, with some extra muscle on top of his extra muscle. His calves were the size of watermelons, his quads the size of Jeeps and his biceps the size of refrigerators. As we chatted there on the trail, I tried sans success to suck my early-season paunch in. The man asked where I was hiking to, and when I told him Durango, his jaw dropped. When I further mentioned that I planned to be on the trail for six weeks, he just shook his head. “Man, I tried backpacking for the first time a couple weekends ago, and I could not believe how hard it was. It kicked my ass so bad, I don’t think I’ll ever carry a pack again.” Ended up that the trip he was describing was only 20 miles long. Yet, he went on and on about how sore his hips were, about how his back ached for days afterward, about how his shoulders felt like they’d been thrashed by a lead pipe. “The really hard thing was that, after carrying that damned pack all day, even though I was too tired and sore to move, I had to set up camp, cook, eat nasty dehydrated food, do dishes, bathe in a freezing stream and sleep on the ground. You backpackers are the toughest people I know.” Now, if this diatribe, this verbal ode to the difficulty of backpacking, had streamed from the mouth of some pudgy schlub from Cleveland, I would, of course, have taken it with a grain of salt. But the fact that the words were being uttered by a man who looked like he could bench press me while simultaneously riding his mountain bike up the side of 2,000-foot cliff face caused me, as I made my way up the trail, to scratch my noggin over the entire nature of backpacking. This was not the first time I have given thought to backpacking in the context of “why, then, if it is so damned hard, do so many of us continue to do it?” The mountain biker I passed on the Colorado Trail is not the first person who I have heard talking about the sometimes horrible difficulty of backpacking. My wife, as but one random example, has mentioned on more than one occasion as she’s following me along yet another seemingly endless wilderness trail how demanding she considers the entire process of schlepping a pack up and down mountains all day. She considers it worth the effort, though, because she likes camping in the deepest backcountry. My spousal unit deals with the discomfort of carrying a pack through the woods because getting to remote locales is worth the physical effort. To visit beauteous country is the most obvious answer to the question of why backpackers backpack. There are other fairly stock answers: We do it to get as far away from civilization as possible in a few days, to purge the foul stench of urban living from our bodies and souls, to re-connect with nature, to try to rid ourselves of our beer guts, etc. But, for those of us who can lay claim to the dubious label of “backpacking devotees/aficionados/bums/junkies,” there’s even more to the equation. Backpacking — especially of the long-distance, long-duration variety — is an activity that requires Zen-like, mind-over-matter-type discipline, the ability and desire to put one foot after another for mile after mile, day after day, no matter the conditions, the circumstances or how you feel. If you get up in the morning and it’s freezing, snowing and blowing and you’re running low on food and it’s 34 miles to the next supply drop, there’s no hitting the snooze button and going back to sleep. There’s no deciding to stay home today instead of hitting the trail, because the trail is home. No matter how poorly you slept, how many blisters you boast, how inflamed the tendons in your knees are, no matter that your hemorrhoids are acting up and that the only thing you’ve eaten for the last two days is plain instant rice, you’ve got to hoist that horrible thing known as your pack and make you way up the trail. Then, 15 or 20 miles later, you’ve got to find a tent site in the rain, wash up in a frigid river, change into your least-disgusting clothing, eat yet another tantalizing bowl of plain instant rice, wash your dishes in the dark while the mosquitoes have their way with your hide and crawl into a wet tent that smells like 400 YMCA locker rooms condensed into one small nylon abode. As I made my way along the trail after talking to that mountain biker, I realized why idiots like me backpack despite the hardships presented by backpacking: We do it BECAUSE of those hardships, because of the feeling we get from overcoming pain and discomfort, dealing with unfathomable filth and eating food your dog wouldn’t even look at. Things that are hard are things that we ought to seek out with a vengeance — especially if the reward is finding yourself atop a distant mountain that can only be reached by carrying a heavy pack and walking along a long, hard trail. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to ride my mountain bike. There’s this one damned stretch of trail near where I live that, try though I might, I have never been able to negotiate without mishap. By god, this is the year!

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