Die, Bambi, Die

The loss of innocence If you’ve raised a young child, then you know that cuteness comes with the territory.  Indeed, parenthood is nothing if not an endless parade of cuteness — not just the child and his or her succession of outfits, facial expressions and silly “hurry-up grab the camera” inducing moments either, but every single accoutrement as well, from fuzzy feet pajamas and bunny rabbit toothbrushes to sequined hiking boots and little rocking chairs with butterflies painted on them. The list goes on and on due to the fact that Mommies and Daddies worthy of the title naturally want to surround their kids with an aura of love, innocence and safety, and cuteness is the easiest way to create just such a vibe — after all, other than hugs and kisses, nothing says “everything is going to be alright forever and ever” like, say, princesses on the curtains and unicorns on the pillowcases.

This is all well and good, except for one thing: things aren’t going to be alright forever and ever, and no amount of puppies or singing frogs (or dollars or real estate holdings) can change that fact. We can think all the positive thoughts we want, eat all the organic food we can afford, manifest goodness in every possible way and focus on the glass half full until the sacred cows come home, but none of these acts is going to do away with the cold hard fact that some portion of our existence is suffering, and that this suffering (pain, disease, loneliness) only ends when we die, an inevitable event so potentially horrible (car crash, tumor, snake bite) that we suffer even more just thinking about it, and do everything in our power (sex, drugs, rock and roll) to ward off the inevitable, or at least to keep our mind on other things.

Twenty years ago or thereabouts, my tie-dyed and slightly smelly bebackpacked self was traipsing through the City of Angels when I came upon a school playground full of kids. They were doing kid stuff. Sliding. Swinging. Sandbox. Terrorizing each other. I watched from afar as a girl, about eight years old, was brought to tears by the incessant teasing, dare I say bullying, of her classmates. Right then and there, I decided life was just too hard to bear and that I was never going to bring a child into such a world, and, at least partially due to feelings associated with this event (but mostly due to an extended period of self-absorbed navel gazing), I waited an extra long time to do so.

Of course, I believed in a lot of things at age 19 or 20 that seem laughable now — conspiracy theories, changing the world by getting stoned, forsaking underwear — and fortunately that solemn vow gave way to marriage vows and a subsequent little blonde bundle of joy that changed my life forever and for the better. But I still remember that moment on the playground, and want to do whatever I can to shield my daughter from ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that might cause her to experience pain and suffering.

At its core, that’s what all the cuteness is about: creating an island of innocence in the midst of a dangerous world so that our kids can avoid having to experience, or even become aware of, the darker side of existence. Daddy might be reading Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” before bed and watching “Apocalypse Now”  for the 78th time when nobody’s around, but he wants his daughter to live in a Never Never Land, where the horrors depicted in such stories never rear their ugly heads. All parents hope against hope that the smell of puppies might overpower the stench of burnt flesh in warzones. That picture books of baby dolphins will blot out starvation and disease. That frilly ballerina outfits and little pink cowgirl boots will prevent our children, for just a little while longer, from having to learn about racism, child molesters, serial killers, ecological collapse, extinction, genocide.

According to the Legend of Wikipedia, the Buddha was the son of a king, and his father, in an effort to keep him happy, hid him away in the palace and surrounded him with everything he could ever need or desire, while at the same time shielding him from religious teachings as well as the realities of human suffering. Like all kids everywhere, the little Buddha surely had moments of sadness and confusion: nasty tropical bug bites, skinned knees and the occasional wormy mango. Painful moments, but not existentially so — just a quick glimpse of the little facts of life, a momentary tearful breakdown, and, we can assume, eventual consoling in the loving arms of Dad or nursemaid (Mom had died in childbirth). Of course, the illusion couldn’t last, and one day the Buddha caught a glimpse of an old man and was informed by a servant that all people grew old, including himself. He started sneaking out of the palace and saw what it was all about: sickness, death, decay. He was changed forever, for he now knew that all the palatial beauty and wealth (read: cuteness) was a fraud,and spent the rest of his life trying to find some sort of solution to the whole mess. Young Mr. Buddha had an epiphany that shattered his childish view of the world and set off a chain of events — assuming there is a kernal of truth to the story — that affects humans thousands of years later.

Similar myths and legends are part of the foundation of civilization, and represent any number of awakenings we wish humanity had never had to experience, often involving a golden age now lost forever (or at least until some great battle occurs, or some great redeemer shows up to make it right again, or a devil’s bargain is struck). Pandora opening the box full of evil. Balder the Good killed by a dart of mistletoe. Naïve Persephone snatched away from flowery fields and raped by Hades in the underworld. Luke Skywalker glimpsing the charred remains of his protective Aunt and Uncle on Tatooine. And, of course, Adam and Eve lounging around the Garden until they glimpsed the BIG PICTURE and were cast out, suddenly ashamed of their nakedness and forced to toil for their survival.

Our house is hardly a garden of eden (daddy sometimes comes home grumpy after wrestling ADHD kids all day), or a land of perpetual spring blossoms (he cuts some mega burrito farts too), but we do our best to weed out what darkness we can. We peruse library books before bringing them home, and have chosen not to have any television channels in our house, opting for DVDs and the internet — two mediums which (for now) allow us to filter out violence, disturbing images and the barrage of gotta-own-this-right-now toy commercials or gotta-gobble-this-garbage-down-for-breakfast kiddie food ads. Despite these precautions, reality lurks around every corner, and darkness recentlydescended upon our house via a kind gesture by a family member and two seemingly safe vehicles of cuteness: Disney cartoons and the Hallmark Channel.

It all started with a visit to my hometown in Colorado, where one of my mountain-man cousins showered us with some elk and deer meat, all wrapped up in butcher paper and labeled: ground meat, round steak, chuck steak. Our daughter witnessed the conversation and the packing of the meat on ice for the car ride home, but said nothing. A few days later, we were back at home for a lazy Daddy Day Care day — sardines for lunch, for me and the four-year-old, followed by a couple rounds of Snow White whilst I mopped, napped and, uh, blogged. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, one of the hallmarks of Snow White is the fact that it pretty much set the standard for animal cuteness: birds, mice, deer, squirrels and more — all helping around the house whilst partaking in singalongs and just being unbearably adorable. Elsie loved it, especially the singing, and before my extended moment of lapsed parenting was over, she had watched it an undisclosed (to Mom) number of times … enough to be able to name all seven Dwarves and sing most of the “Silly Song.” Most importantly, she saw animals being exceptionally cute over and over again.

The final catalyst for the big, unwanted epiphany was nothing less than that innocence destroyer known as “Little House on the Prairie” —not the old teevee show, but a relatively new four-hour Hallmark Channel (I think) miniseries faithfully based upon the first book of the same name by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in which the family leaves overcrowded, hunted-out Wisconsin for a new start in Kansas, where they squat on Indian land and  await the inevitable march of cavalry and government agents who will clear out the Osage Injuns, survey the land and most certainly honor the family’s illegal homestead claim to the 160 acres (spoiler alert: they don’t, and the family is forced to move on). The movie was actually pretty good, and dealt with some complex issues in a very nuanced and balanced way. That’s what Mom and Dad (called “Ma” and “Pa” for the next couple weeks) saw; our daughter zeroed in on a series of adventures and misadventures involving two little girls and a menagerie of non-singing animals of all kinds: dogs, horses, cows, wolves, bears, mountain lions and deer. One harrowing scene involved a pack of wolves trying to run down Pa and Laura as they galloped towards home. Being the good environmentalists that we are, my wife and I did our best to explain that all creatures have to eat, that the wolves were just hungry, that wolves used to sometimes eat people but don’t do so anymore, and that there aren’t many wolves left and we have to protect them.

There were Indians in the movie as well, dressed in the finery of the times (1850 or thereabouts) and looking quite fierce with their war paint, animal hides and weapons. At one point, when the heathen tribes were starting to raise hell about the squatters encroaching on their no-doubt treaty-given lands and had begun to menace the settlers with threats of violence, our daughter asked us why the Indian had a gun. Hoping to steer away from the ugly truth — that the Indian was thinking about shooting the whole family, little girls and all — we told her that the fellow needed the gun for hunting animals like deer and elk. She asked what hunting was and we told her: hunting is when people take the lives of animals so they can eat.

She was quiet for a moment. Five, ten seconds. Then she burst into tears. A waterfall of tears and howls. “BUT I DON’T WANT THE DEER TO DIE! I DON’T WANT THE ANIMALS TO DIE!”

Mommy and Daddy momentarily stunned. Pause the video. Gather up some kind of caring response, an answer to this dilemma. Daddy blurts out: “Honey, all animals need to eat, and some of them, like wolves, eat other animals.You eat animals too … hot dogs, hamburger, turkey. We even have some deer meat in the freezer.”

Wrong answer. Totally, completely, utterly wrong answer. She begins howling: “BUT I DON’T WANT THE DEER TO DIE! I WANT TO PROTECT THE DEER! BRING THE DEER BACK TO LIFE!” Inconsolable. Howling. Shaking with anger, sadness, despair. “TAKE THE DEER OUT OF THE FREEZER! I WANT TO PROTECT THE DEER. I WANT TO BRING THE DEER BACK TO LIFE!”

Despite the fact that she had watched us pack up the meat when my cousin gave it to us a few days earlier, I realize she just might be picturing an actual unbutchered deer in our freezer, frozen stiff, hooves pushing up against the bags of frozen corn and blueberries, antlers stuck in the ice tray, just waiting for one of us to open the door, take him out and shoo him out into the driveway so he can thaw out and run back into the woods.

I also realize that this is no mere tantrum. This is not about missing a nap, or not getting a toy at the toystore, or feeling a little bit sicky or cranky, or bonking her head on the door jamb, this is her very first true glimpse of the nature of reality: LIFE FEEDS ON LIFE. Cute little animals die and we store them in our freezer and cook them and eat them. The first step towards the inevitable YOU ARE UTTERLY ALONE IN AN UNCARING UNIVERSE AND WILL EVENTUALLY DIE.

The sobbing and pleas for animal mercy lasted about 15 minutes. She eventually calmed down enough for us to wash her face with a cool washcloth and carry her into her bedroom, where the conversation continued. We sat down on her bed and tried one more time to gently explain that some of her favorite foods are made of animals, and that’s why we say a blessing each night to thank the earth and the animals for giving us food to eat. She wanted nothing to do with any of it. No more chicken legs. No more chicken soup. No hot dogs. No meatballs. Nothing made from animals ever again. We told her she didn’t have to eat animals if she didn’t want to, then we read her a couple of stories and she crashed out, utterly exhausted from the whole ordeal.

I was a vegetarian for most of the 1990s and a bit beyond, not for my health either but for reasons similar to those that had brought my daughter to tears: the sheer amount of industrial-scale murder and suffering  required to allow for civilization-scale carnivorism seemed unnecessary, especially since there were other options. Before that, I had been the sensitive kid who watched in horror as just about every other kid I knew gleefully threw rocks at birds or put firecrackers in toads’ mouths, and when I shot my first bird (a robin) with my new BB gun and saw the death stare in its tiny wounded eyes, I (temporarily) gave the gun back to my mom, crying as I told her I didn’t want it anymore. Eventually I became a teenager, and got a real gun, and like normal redneck offspring, I was soon blasting away at small wildlife for no good reason, but something about it never felt quite right. Suddenly, everything had come full circle, and it seemed to me as if our daughter had grasped some bigger picture about the world, had felt, if just for a few moments, the pain and suffering of all animals everywhere, and her little-girl vow not to eat them anymore seemed profound. I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe she was onto something, that adulthood had made me callous, had killed the compassion I once automatically felt for other living creatures. Maybe I should be heeding her advice. Maybe our household should jettison the meat and go vegetarian once again.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that my rekindled feelings of guilt and compassion had little to do with the suffering of animals and everything to do with the fact that my daughter had been forced to wrestle with an undeniable aspect of reality that made her sad, which in turn made me sad and desperate to do something to “fix” a problem as old as the hills, or, more precisely, as old as the ancestors of the bacteria living under rocks in those hills. Despite all the very legitimate reasons for giving up meat, I was unlikely to ever do so again — indeed, I’d subsist solely on baby bunny stew and kitten burritos for the rest of my life if it meant that my Little Angel wouldn’t have to wrestle with those existential moments of awareness that pull the happy rug right out from under her growing feet. I simply wanted to take her pain away, wanted to turn back the clock an hour or two to that time when she didn’t know that it was kill or be killed, wanted to fly away to that Great Toystore In The Sky where the lion snuggles with the lamb, swords become ploughshares and everything is as cute and cuddly as it can possibly be.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the passionate animal lover moved on, and within a few days she was once again enjoying chicken legs and roasting (all natural) skewered hot dogs over the last summer campfire, seemingly oblivious to just what she was chomping on. Like her Dad and his regret over the cold blooded BB-gun bird slaughter, she had gotten over her initial compassion and sadness and decided it wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Just to make sure, I cautiously mentioned the animal origins of the food she was enjoying and she said she was okay with it, so I reminded her that it’s important for us to thank the Animals for letting us eat them and left it at that.

But as usual, Ma and Pa can’t leave it at that, not easily anyway, for here was yet another glimpse of the future: death of innocence by a thousand little cuts, and an ever-growing, ever-widening expressway straight to the hellishly long list of painful awarenesses and trials by errors our precious daughter will have to undergo before long: that glimspe of her first homeless person; the death of a friend or relative or pet; the pain of her first broken heart. Nothing we can do about any of it of course, for as the Buddha says, “shit happens,” and anybody lucky enough to grow into adulthood, including our daughter, will figure this out for themselves, but for now at least, we’ll try to cushion the fall by surrounding her with as much furry fuzzy cuteness as possible.






Starting Over

Pat mountain biking in Brexico before his move to HawaiiTwo weeks ago, my friend Pat flew to Hawaii on a one-way ticket. He had lived in Brexico for 25 consecutive years, but recently decided to move somewhere warmer and lower. In the weeks leading up to his departure, he liquidated everything he owned, right down to his coffee table and shelves, then left town for good on his 55th birthday.

Such a decision sounds typical, and maybe it is. A lot of mountain men and women have charted similar routes. If not to Hawaii, then Arizona. Or Florida. One can only take so much wind across the cheeks on 10-below mornings up here.

But until Pat departed, I’d never watched a friend endure the emotions of leaving somewhere you’ve lived for so long — and making that move totally alone. It broke my heart, partly because I could tell it broke Pat’s heart to leave, but also because I realized I might follow him someday.

As his departure date approached, we went on sentimental mountain bike rides, met for beers on random nights, talked about what might await him in paradise. Pat, a gray-haired waiter who lived alone and was known as “The Legend,” or simply “Ledge,” because of his ability to mash up 12,000-foot mountains even into his 50s, tried to conceal his emotional cauldron. That lasted right up to the end, when it released like an avalanche and he told us all he loved us, tears streaming down his face.

He didn’t have much of a plan once he landed in Honolulu. He’d booked a room in Waikiki for a week and toyed with the idea of working on an organic farm, but ultimately ended up being disgusted by the city and hopped a plane to Maui. He was there, in Lahaina, when we finally spoke on the phone, 10 days into his new existence. He sounded quiet and subdued at first.

I asked him if he was doing all right.

“As you can imagine, it’s really difficult, man. You try to be strong and deal, just knowing it’s going to be hard and a change, but it’s pretty much like someone grabbed you by your ankles and shook you upside down for a while. Next thing you know, you wake up and you’re thousands of miles away from friends you’ve had for 25 years, knowing you can’t just give ’em a call and hook up for a ride or a ski.”

For the record, this is how Pat describes his decision to leave Brexico. “Six or seven years ago, I started entertaining the thought, knowing that I was getting older and that the mountains wouldn’t really be ideal for me to be old, because I don’t really like being cold all the time. And that air, too — the altitude is pretty tough. You don’t even think about it when you’re younger, but after 20 years you do. The decision was kind of gradual, and that’s what makes it harder than anything. It’s not like I didn’t like it there; I did. I just knew I was going to have to make a break sooner than later, and it’s hard when you get older to do stuff like that.”

Pat moved to Hawaii after over 20 years in Colorado

Pat had rented a room in a house with three other people. He was looking for work at restaurants like the Lahaina Prime Rib and Seafood Company. “I still kind of feel like a mountain guy, but at the same time, I’m in a beach town,” he said. “I have my yogurt and bananas and berries with a bowl of cereal, try to pass out some résumés and take care of some business, and I really look forward to going down to the beach and just sitting, listening to the surf.”

At age 32, I can’t really grasp the concept of starting over halfway through one’s life. Instead of looking forward to the first powder day, Pat is waiting for the whales to arrive. And the tourists. He’s hoping to meet a friend or two. “There’s random moments where you’re just going, ‘What have I done?'” he said. “But I know exactly what I’ve done and it’s pretty exciting. There are just so many unknowns.”

At that, we said goodbye and went about our evenings 3,500 miles apart. I was a little worried about Pat, until he e-mailed a few days later to make sure I wasn’t worried about him. “Went to Hana yesterday, very cool, you should google the ‘road to Hana’ and check it out. Jungles, waterfall, black sand beaches, a most awesome trip,” he wrote. “Wanted to spend some time there, but trying to watch my pennies. So far, have been in the ocean and gone barefoot every day. Let it snow!”

It Must Be the Water

There must be something in the drinking water here in Oregon, and specifically in Portland, my hometown. The unfiltered H2o from Bull Run Watershed 26 miles east of Mt. Hood is some of the best, sweet-tasting in the country in terms of raw quality of surface water. That’s rainwater, mis amigos, 130 inches of unadulterated northwest nectar. No second-hand French-sounding liquid in the form of snowmelt or glacial runoff. We not only drink the stuff, we bath in it, swim in it and flush it. Religious folks like it for ceremonial use. Because we have so much water that is so good, we can afford to sanctimoniously spout off about conservation and green-this and green-that. God bless us. This quiet moral superiority irritates the thirsty Californians to no end. (I know. Although born in Oregon, I grew up in the Bay Area). Even though we don’t drink from the Columbia, our neighbors to the south have been eyeing the Great River for decades, harping that we have more than we need and grimacing that we “waste” more than we use. Just look at where the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean. Enough to make you cry.

Of course, we Oregonians are no better. While the Californians covet our agua, some of us harbor wet dreams about taking out four dams on the Lower Snake between Lewiston, Idaho, and the confluence with the Columbia. These dams — Ice Harbor, Lower Monument, Little Goose, Lower Granite — are multi-use dams providing navigation, hydropower, irrigation and recreation. At 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean, Lewiston is the farthest inland seaport on the West Coast, not exactly your typical beach town. The urge to spread our green vibes into the arid landscape beyond The Dalles is, ironically, a historically Western impulse. Our shade of green, however, freaks out more than a few of our Idaho cousins.

It is my contention that the purity of our drinking water accounts for Portland  residents’ abundance of imagination, quirky, half-bubble-off intelligence, genetic contrariness, book-reading habits, absence from church and active sex life since the winters seem to last for eternity. Why else would such polite drivers patch a “Keep Portland Weird” bumper sticker on the cars?  But I digress. What I fear is that the water we Oregonian (and Washingtonians) imbibe has led us to overstep, to engage in peculiar behavior (even by Oregon standards) beyond the pale: we are pulling down dams left and right. OK. Not Glen Canyon-size dams, but dams nonetheless. Some claim it’s simply Left-Coast liberal progressive politics run amok. Need I point out that all these people, many since childhood, drink the water here?

In a recent New York Times article, Matthew Preusch claimed that, during the 1950s and 1960s, somewhere in the U.S. a dam went up every six minutes. EVERY SIX MINUTES? It’s an exciting, sexy factoid, hard to fathom, that makes your heart race or your blood pressure soar. According to American Rivers, a non-profit conservancy, about 40 dams a year around the country are removed. That’s one every nine days, or for you mathematicians, one every 216 minutes. Not so sexy. At this moment there is something like 75,000 aging dams of varying sizes whose value is being questioned. Someone else can do the calculations.

So I wonder, of those 40 dams a year, how many go kerplunk in the Northwest? Anyone who follows the dam down-sizing movement knows that the Elwha Dam on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula has seen its last days. (Read Ana Maria Spagna’s blog “When the Walls Come Tumbling Down”) The estimated destruction date is set for sometime in 2012. Although this is reason for celebration, there is a dearth of scientific study on the results of dam removal. How many fish return and how long it takes them to get home remains an unknown.

In the last five years, Oregon is averaging about one downed dam a year, with more, if you pardon the pun, under the horizon.

In southern Oregon, four dams on the Rogue River came tumbling down piece by piece  in recent years: Elk Creek and Gold Hill Division Dams in 2008; Savage Rapids Dam in 2009; and Gold Ray Dam in 2010. Again, swim home little fishes.

Here’s an historical example of more peculiar behavior in Oregon. In 1902, the Golden Drift Mining Company constructed the Ament Dam upriver from Grants Pass. Built primarily to provide water for their mining operation, the owners failed to keep their promises to provide irrigation and electrical power to the residents. The dam was also a “massive fish killer.” People were furious. Local lore suggests that vigilantes dynamited part of the dam in 1912. Ed Abbey wasn’t even born yet, so we can de-canonize him and let him rest in peace. The owners rebuilt, but the dam was removed once and for all in 1921, the same year the Savage Rapids Dam was completed in roughly the same vicinity as the Ament Dam. Funny thing: the Savage Rapid Dam was soon to be considered a “massive fish killer.”  Go figure.

Equally astounding is what has happened among the contending interest groups over water issues on the Klamath River. (The 260-mile Klamath rises in the southeast portion of Oregon and flows roughly 260 miles southwest through California, cuts through the Cascade Range before debouching into the Pacific Ocean). Farmers, fishermen, Indian tribes, government agencies and environmental organizations, after two years of closed-door negotiations, have arrived at (key word: conditional) agreement on water use. If all parties sign the agreement, removal of four dams (Iron Gate, Copco # 1 and #2 and John C. Boyle) would begin in 2020.

Closer to my home in Portland, the Sandy River flowed freely for the first time since 1912 when the Marmot Dam was decommissioned and removal was completed in October 2007. In 2008 PGE (Pacific Gas Electric) removed the Little Sandy Dam on the river of the same name. Hooray!

What irks me about these dam removals, I must confess, is my voyeuristic impulse. I have missed the action, the grinding sound of water winning, moving rock and cement debris downstream. This unseemly compulsion is probably the result of laziness as well as my years of working as a guide in Grand Canyon, where I often had the opportunity to stand beside certain rapids at certain water levels and hear the river rumbling and growling as boulders and rocks are dragged downstream. It’s an eerie, unfamiliar sound, guttural and from the bowels of the river bed, an invisible landslide under water that tends to untether one’s imagination just as the idea of a hidden river beneath or adjacent to the one in front of your eyes (hydrologists call it hyporheic flow) makes mischief with our creative faculties.

All, however, is not lost. On the morning of October 26, 2011, de-construction workers are going to blast out the remaining 25-foot plug at the 90-foot base of the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River near Hood River in the Columbia Gorge, an hour or more drive from my home. I suspect the decision is not activist or drinking-water induced, but really a cost-saving measure for the company involved. No matter. It is a potent symbolic gesture. It will not be high drama, a ka-boom moment. The dam will not fall, but the 92-acre reservoir behind it will drain like a badly leaking faucet carrying a silt load of major proportions. How the river will run afterwards is anyone’s guess. Fish and boaters are happy. Actual demolition of the dam will begin next April or May. My plan is make my way to the White Salmon and bear witness to the spectacle. Maybe there is a party somewhere afterwards.

You would think, for all my river romanticism palaver, that I am anti-dam. I’m not. During three decades of running rivers and beyond, I have often gazed begrudgingly at the beauty of the monoliths and admired the ingenuity of the engineers and honest labor of the construction workers, all the while knowing that some of these dams were slowly doing greater or lesser harm to the environment. I have failed to come up with an adequate explanation for these contending impulses.

After visiting Grand Canyon in the 1930s, English travel writer J.B. Priestly wrote (in “Midnight in the Desert”) that he did not miss the scenic wonder too badly, that “it was enough to know that it was there.” In 2011, it is enough for me to know that a few more dams are not there. I don’t suppose the people who stand to lose by these dams coming down feel that way, just as the fishermen on the Rogue at the turn of the 19th century and the Indian tribes along the Klamath for hundreds of years were not too pleased when they lost their homes, livelihood or way of life.

In the West it’s the water, always the water.

Close to the Source

Fall is for firewood. I know we should start earlier, and usually we do, but inevitably the task slops over into these weeks when the sky turns a rich deep blue and salmon spackle the green river red. We fell snags in the yard, or buck blowdowns, or if all else fails, buy a permit and head for the local log yard, buggy and too public, where last year I smashed the hell out of my index finger. I took this as an omen: better to work at home.

So I do. This afternoon I’ll finish. I’ll split the last of the bigger rounds with the hydraulic splitter we borrowed from a neighbor, then collect the heavy bark and pitchy no-good slabs into a pile for another neighbor, a more regularly social neighbor, to use for campfire wood. I’ll split another tree’s worth of rounds in halves by hand so they’re easier to rick up for next year. Or the year after. There’s an art to it, I suppose. There’s also room for mishaps.

Once, a long time ago, I was fined for cutting firewood illegally. That didn’t happen again. Once, also a long time ago, I had to ask for help with a chainsaw, a shameless girlie request. That didn’t happen again either. I bloodied my fingers learning to break the compression, but learn I did. A few years later, in Flagstaff, I watched a writer neighbor split wood Hollywood-style, lifting the log on the axe and banging it back down, over and over, and I presumed since he was inept at firewood splitting, he’d never make it as a writer. Boy, was I wrong.

In Flagstaff, we burned juniper and aspen, and sometimes pine, even though we were told not to since it left creosote in the pipe. Now we burn Doug fir, mostly, though one year, because we lived in a tiny shack that could heat over-warm in seconds, we burned cottonwood. The shack never got too hot, but the ash pan filled as fast as we could empty it. We dumped the ashes on the snow, and come spring, the cat rolled in the pile every chance she got, unless she could find a used tobacco plug. That cat loved soot.

Once we had a tarp. Two winters of that was more than plenty. We hung the tarp from a rope between two trees and talked ourselves into believing the snow would slide, but it rarely did. We poked at the saggy weight from underneath with a pole or climbed up gingerly and shovel-scooted it down. The tarp was a good one, a gift from my uncle in St. Louis who has never needed a woodshed in his life but owns a fabric company and understands tarps, god bless him. That tarp never tore.

We start burning in October and go right on through April. The fire goes out at night, and in the morning we start it anew, barefoot on the floor, while coffee water boils. Eventually, by mid-morning, the cabin is eighty degrees upstairs — heat rises — and sixty downstairs. Perfect for Laurie and me. She puts on shorts to visit me upstairs at my desk. I wear a sweatshirt for lunch downstairs.

The truth is I like heat. I crave it. I have socks with holes from when I risk setting them too close to the source. That’s how desperate I am. When I’m at a house with central heat, I lose my center; I don’t know where to go to get warm, so I bundle up and turn surly. When the heat is turned up, I open windows because it feels stuffy. I don’t know how to behave — like driving too slow in traffic, like speaking too slowly on the phone. Out of step.

So I don’t mind getting wood, even in the fall, especially in the fall. There’s an old saying about how firewood gets you get warm twice: cutting the wood, then burning it; actually it’s more like four times, bucking, splitting, stacking, then burning. There’s anticipation to it, hope even. Squirrels are pelting scraps of metal roofing the yard with cones, bears are scrounging for the last shriveled berries and the first shriveled fish. Life is about to slow down, move inside, and we’d better be prepared.

Ski Fences

About twenty years ago, I wanted to build a fence made out of skis and bicycle wheels along my small Telluride back yard. Permission was denied by the town Historic and Architectural Preservation Commission. They said it wasn’t historical. But I’ve always liked ski fences, which seem kindred with fences made from surfboards, bowling balls, toothbrushes, bikes and bras. In ski country, they seem as natural and authentic as license plate houses. You get that great picket effect, and they’re bound to last decades longer than any wooden planks, without the aid of paint or oil. I’ve long seen many examples in Colorado, but I see that recently ski fences have also become a craze in Russia.

If you live in a ski town, you can amass old skis with a perusal of ski swaps, free boxes and dumpsters. Most prized are skis without bindings because the bindings are a pain in the ass to remove. If you want a tall fence, with the advent of short skis, the old 200s will be harder to find. For colors, I prefer just going with the random cacophony of industrial day-glo, which gives you a kind of happy camo look, but you can also look for matches or color groupings.

Unless you’re an experienced metal worker, it’s best to avoid designs that require cutting the skis — metal ski edges are very hard and difficult to cut through with home tools. To erect the pickets, you just drill holes through the ski bottoms to accept screws or bolts. Many artisans are also making everything from ski benches and ski Adirondacks to ski coat racks.

Questioning answers, strengthening humbleness and other gifts of the desert stream

As we prepare to leave for our first-ever float of the Grand Canyon, I find myself reflecting on my relationship with rivers. For one who grew up next to Oregon’s iconic Rogue River, worked alongside the Snake in Jackson, and who now lives on the shores of the mighty Colorado, I have little river experience. One Westwater trip and a rush along the Price River at flood-stage, two long flat-water floats on the Green, and three Daily runs on the Colorado (two of which were on an air mattress) are the sum total of my notable river outings. Sad, I know.

Though the rivers most talked about have always been out my backdoor, it has never been with them that I’ve built relationships. Chalk it up to a lack of gear or gear-laden loved ones. Instead, it’s been the ephemeral, fickle and fiendishly flashing waterways that have held my heart in their changeable currents. The adrenaline-laced beauty of these streams lies not in their rapids but in their rapidly changing demeanor. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing, and I lay my heart at their feet, even as the hidden predator’s fangs are revealed in flash flood debris 10 feet above my head.

Though I want to build big-river relationships — and what better chance than on the Grand? — it is thus far the inglorious stream that has been my companion. And I do not regret it.

One such creek near Moab only flows with snowmelt and strategically placed monsoon showers. Forget calendar dates and the whims of groundhogs; the canyon is my almanac. Spring is officially here when I’m able to float supine in a deep pothole, circling with the gentle current, watching the canyon walls spin above my head. Summer arrives when desiccated algae replaces the meandering stream. A new configuration of sand and driftwood against canyon walls announces monsoon season. This is where I come to set my internal clock and place question marks where I have always assumed there to be periods.

Then there is a bit of Eden west of here — a clear, spring-fed creek overhung with box elders and ponderosa — constrained to a 1,000-foot-deep defile, surrounded by harshest, driest desert. Every small bank and bench is colonized by poison ivy. Heaven and hell coexist in a space as narrow as 15 feet. There is no better — or worse — place to be, depending on the time of year and the placement of your feet or tent.

This spring, we attempted an 80-mile float on a small desert stream that we found to be aptly named. Unfortunately, it disregarded the notice that all rivers in Utah were flooding at the time. Instead of a float, it was a push-pull-tugging at about 60 cfs. The trip was a sun-scorched, wind-and-sand-chafed, rain-soaked, oh-my-God-our-dog-is-foaming-at-the-mouth misery. We performed 10-hour marches each day through ankle-deep water and knee-deep quicksand, towing our gear the entire way. There was no idyllic floating or exploration of tantalizing side canyons. There was nothing more than the monotonous and enduring rhythm of right-splash!-left-splash! on down the stream.

A powerful monsoon pushed these same river flows to an incomprehensible 35,000 cfs a few years ago. As the water level dropped during our trip — despite the intermittent showers we endured — we stared wistfully at enormous cottonwood trunks still balanced on rock ledges 20 feet above the canyon floor, gently placed there by the once-upon-a-time wall of water.

The day we exited the canyon, the river came up to a runable level … and stayed there for three months.

I have never admired a canyon so much.

And I can’t wait to return, to do it all over again, to be reminded of how much is beyond my control and my knowing, to let the gods once again giggle at my ignorance.

But these are all flirtatious trifles compared to my true love, my heart-home, a river that I have slept near countless nights, one whose flows recently jumped from one cfs to 1,000 in 15 minutes. Sometimes in looking at all the leaps and valleys of the blue line on the river data graph during monsoon season, I wonder if a map of my heartbeats would chart a similar course. Perhaps silt from this stream flows through my veins.

While this is a river I’ve gone to for solace, healing, hope and a sense of home, it does not offer comfort in a traditional sense. I’ve found the upper section dry when I’ve been in need of water. I’ve been stranded on the opposite bank from camp when a flash flood pushed through on a clear and starry night. I camped for a week with unrelenting 90-degree temperatures in the canyon only to have a wall-to-wall, 100-year flood follow my exit out of the drainage. I’ve sunk to mid-thigh in quicksand, and I’ve had that same sand ruin two water filters. And I’ve loved every minute because they’ve all acted as counterpoint to other, more sublime moments: early-morning tea under Orion’s watchful eye, the salmon-colored glow of sunrise bleeding down sandstone walls, canyon wren song in the air and turkey feathers on the ground, drinking centuries-old water seeping from the canyon wall amongst ferns and box elders and wild mint. My love affair with this place includes the catastrophes and the kindnesses in equal measure.

As we prepare for 18 days on the Grand, I wonder what kind of relationship I will develop with the canyon. It is a river with so many admirers and managers. Where will my hopes, intentions and affections fit in? I know there will be plenty of chances on this trip for the gods to find amusement in my foibles, but beyond the 22 seconds I will spend in the likes of Lava or Crystal, I am most anticipating the moments that often go untold — whether it be communion with constellations or quicksand — when life’s great questions emerge from encounters with the unexpected.


 Living Beyond Lost: Boomerang

Late August 1999, and the trail is crisscrossed with windfall. Above treeline, it is covered in deep snow. My pack is heavy in preparation for the fire lookout being locked and shuttered, in case Wolfgang and I need to camp out after we top out.

I frequently throw off my pack, slinging it over or shoving it under the otherwise impassable toppled trees and limbs — gargantuan, rainforest limbs having been amputated by harsh winter weather — now resting horizontally, almost strategically, across the heavily wooded trail. There is much of this heaving and ho-ing. It takes an hour for each of the four miles along with the 4,500 feet of elevation gain.

In the headlamp’s narrow beam, we literally claw our way up the last icy chute. Up high, on the tippy-top, the lookout is neither shuttered, nor occupied. Wolfy and I doggedly (which is easy for him) climb the three flights of steep and rickety stairs and I un-batten the hatches. No padlock on the door and we are in!

Making hot water for tea. Eating crackers and cheese. Wolfy crunching his crunchy dog granola.

Living Beyond Lost: Boomerang


Time to crawl into the sleeping bag I have rolled out onto the small bed. How many others have flopped onto this lovely, tattered mattress? Dreamed? Made love? Laid awake and watched the stars? A storm rolls in and out. Another storm rolls in and not out. The wind kicks up its heals. The lookout sways back and forth, back and forth, pacing along with the gusts. Big, dark, rainforest clouds weep big, heavy tears, ratatatat against the lookout’s shingles and glass.


Daybreak and it is still socked in. A good day to read, take a nap, write a little. I make an entry in the lookout’s logbook and date it 26 August 1999, because it is. My entry includes a poem, a few sentences about the continuing storm and of my dog and gratitude.

Wolfy and I saw our logs another night while tucked into this lofty loft, and awake to a sky as blue as we have ever seen. I haven’t crossed paths with another humanbean since before pulling off at the trailhead’s modest pull-off two days ago.

On our way back down, three-quarters of the way down, we meet a trail crew working their way up with saw, pulaski and shovel. The crew leader considers me hearty and I am offered a job on the spot with the USFS working trails. I never follow up on this, but maybe should have.

After my pack is back in the Jeep and Wolfy hops in, I turn the key. Space and Time roughly take a hold of us and hurl us back into the continuum.

Someday I will return. I promise.


Late August 2011, and the trail is sparsely crisscrossed with windfall. Above treeline, scattered patches of snow cling to short stretches of the trail and slopes. The remaining snow isn’t very deep. My pack is heavy in preparation for the fire lookout being locked and shuttered, in case Arrow and I need to camp out after we top out.

There is no need to throw off my pack and sling it over or shove it under otherwise impassable trees and limbs — I am able to circumnavigate off-trail a few switchbacks, avoiding the few clusters of windfall. Yet, it takes a considerable amount of time for each of the four miles along with the 4,500 feet of elevation gain.

Up high, on the tippy-top, the lookout is neither shuttered, nor occupied. I doggedly climb the three flights of steep and rickety stairs and I un-batten the hatches. No padlock on the door and I am in with plenty of daylight remaining! It takes several attempts over the course of a couple of hours to coax Arrow up the steep and rickety stairs. Once I have him on lead, he sheepishly makes the climb and enters the lookout. Trust. A sheep in wolf’s clothing.

Living Beyond Lost: Boomerang


Time to crawl into the sleeping bag I have rolled out onto the small bed. How many others have flopped onto this lovely, tattered mattress? Dreamed? Made love? Laid awake and watched the stars like I am about to do? After the sun sets gorgeous on Grandpa Koma Kulshan, there is no moon, only countless, countless stars in an octopus ink sky.


Daybreak and the sky is as blue as we have ever seen. A good day to take a hike and write a little. I make an entry in the lookout’s logbook and date it 27 August 2011, because it is. My entry includes a poem, a few sentences about the sunset, the stars, the sunrise, and of my dog and gratitude.

I haven’t crossed paths with another humanbean since before pulling off at the trailhead’s modest pull-off.

In the early hours, I can see where a good-sized black bear had padded tracks into the snow surrounding the lookout, before the snow froze solid in the starlight. He had walked from the ridgeline toward the base of the lookout, and stopped. Then, instead of retracing his original paw-falls, he V’d back into the trees nearby. From the lookout above, the pattern made by the tracks he left behind looked just like a boomerang.

And I had kept my promise.

Living Beyond Lost: Boomerang


Before Winter

Tamarack torches fool my eyes into seeing
Saffron on jade.
The sun, circumspect, moves behind
a five month fortress of grey
Sterling on slate.

Rifle shot smacks his deadly lips.
More terrifying than thunder.

Midnight soot on my elbow
nose tip
I smell of burning trees,

The Four-Point

It is more terrifying than thunder.


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A Sailboat, Puppy and Hip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Jeweled Jars of Memory

Our garden is laden with countless squash, cucumbers and tomatoes on the vine. The desert’s trees are heavy with fruit. This is the season for setting food aside, preserving summer’s abundance to alleviate winter’s want. So far, we have pickles, jams and canned apricots, peaches and nectarines. The jeweled jars glitter like treasure under our bed — the only available storage space in our 26-foot trailer home — and this food-based fortune grows on a weekly basis. What we may lack in material goods, we make up for in the joys of working directly with sustenance.

Twenty-six quart-sized Mason jars hold the season’s offering of sun-soaked apricots. I picked this fruit at Capitol Reef National Park, home to some of Utah’s most stunning landscapes, as well as the Mormon settlement of Fruita, a place emptied of its residents but still resplendent with their colorful, fruit-bound legacy. The Park Service now tends to trees that once ensured life and livelihood for generations of the community’s residents.

My jars of apricots hold memories within their matrices of syrup and fruit. A dear friend and I went to the park to harvest amidst the monsoon season’s fickle moods. When we arrived in the orchard, so did the deluge. In no time, the Fremont River swelled, the towering cliffs erupted into a chorus of torrential waterfalls, and the orchard flooded in a bubbling murmur of red muck. As we picked fruit, we waded through shin-deep mud, enjoying the best of childhood in the process: climbing trees, stuffing our faces with candy-like fruit, and covering ourselves in sloppy, red earth. We returned home wearing a sticky, earthen residue of summer and joy. This is all packed into my jars. To finally eat the fruit will be to relive the memory. I am mindful that I am storing stories under my bed, my dreams perhaps permeated by their sweetness.

The apricots carry another story as well: the history of Fruita. The canyon’s residents anchored their world to the junction of Sulphur Creek and the Fremont River with orchards, the thousands of trees helping to make meaning of a life rife with floods and scarcity. So accustomed to barter and simplicity was this small community that the Great Depression’s lack of cash flow had no effect on it; Fruita’s isolation rendered orchards its treasury and fruit its currency. As the country struggled, this settlement soldiered forward as it always had — with a pocket full of faith and a pantry full of fruit.

And then came the designation of the landscape as a national monument. With it arrived tourists, paved roads and the outside entering in — the death knell for a town clinging to a past that modernity had made obsolete. In preserving a landscape, the government had inadvertently evicted those populating the terrain with story. The Park Service bought out the orchards and forcibly evicted those living in the path of the new highway. Many residents recognized there was no other option but to leave; their remoteness had rendered them an anachronism that would crumble amidst the flood of progress. They accepted government money and moved on. Most of the buildings were quickly razed to make room for park infrastructure. A raging Fremont could have wrought no greater destruction in this small town. And, thus, a rooted narrative was silenced to make room for a newer one of snapshots, scenery and short stays. But, as with my apricots, this preserved place is rife with memories.

Today, 2,600 fruit trees live on to tell a quiet tale of communion with place, of inhabited space being all the richer for its ever-evolving story. And my apricots connect me — if briefly, tenuously, with just a taste — to this narrative. These jeweled jars hold tales of a time when money was less meaningful than the vagaries of frost and flood, and fruit could build or break one’s world.


Incongruities of Place

Here I am, entering another small town after yet another week spent haunting a wild river and its scenic wilderness environs, this time with a now (mostly) wilderness-and-scenery sated group of fellow travelers. I just passed a sign that proudly proclaims this town (which shall remain mostly un-pilloried in this missive), with its 133-year history and ubiquitous Main Street lined with decaying buildings and dusty pickup trucks, to be THE WILDERNESS GATEWAY. No shit, here I look up through the bug-spattered window of my own dusty, dented and otherwise well-used truck, and see that this very town will be the site, this very weekend, of the IDAHO LIBERTY SUMMIT.

Now, my trusty Wiktionary traces liberty thusly: “Middle English liberte < Old French liberte < Latin libertas (“freedom”) < liber (“free”); see liberal.),” so imagine my chagrin upon realizing that I have foolishly made other plans, which in this case involves sitting my sweet ass down, driving another 800 miles and earning enough of the empire’s (rumored to be utterly worthless and filthy) lucre to finance my next exploration of wild and scenic backcountry.

I’ll miss the opportunity to be lectured about secretive “biggovernment” plots, by presenters specializing in “Righteous Indignation,” and the “UN Agenda 21, Wildlands and China in Boise.” (By the way, not staying for the speeches, I have no idea what the hell these titles mean. All hyperlinks in this paragraph are my doing, are offered in a spirit of fair play and/or fun, and were not approved by Summiteers, presenters or any biggovernmental handlers.) I’ll miss listening to a contributor to “Justice My Ass!” (please don’t ask), and I’ll not find out how wolves are eating all the elk before hunters can get a shot at them. (“Just who,” you may ask, “will get shot?” I dunno, but wolves, elk and enviro-friendly intermittently feral writer-types might want keep their heads down until the smoke clears.) Once again, I’ll be leaving town before the big event, living my mostly unfettered life in a swath of North America that seems irresistibly drawn to flaming causes that define the larger society as an enemy to be defeated on a battlefield strewn with slogans, strange bedfellows and the decaying hulks of formerly thriving communities gutted, abandoned or bypassed by the movers and shakers of corporatized American politics.


I saw the SILENT MAJORITY SPEAKS sign as I approached town. Saw the VOTE CORRUPTION OUT sign as I drove through a week ago, towing my 50-something-year-old raft trailer loaded with well-used gear, on the way to store it at the edge of town while I joined another trip. I should’ve known the haranguers were about to arrive, and made appropriate plans. It’s always this way, though. I missed the National Tequila Party Movement’s “kickoff rally” in Tucson, back in the spring when its website was injudiciously graced with a banner ad for a brand of tequila made in Mexico, thereby likely alienating a sizable chunk of the (now formerly Republican) founder’s donor base. I was on my way to the mountains and canyons of Colorado and Utah at the time.

I checked recently, and this movement still seems to be having trouble defining its goals, except for being some form of right-of-center leaning get-out-the-vote response to the spate of “Tea Partier” rhetoric that makes being brown in Arizona analogous to being black in Mississippi and points south, east (and too far west and north) a few decades back. Maybe it’s something about the name; though the founder tells a reporter that “It’s just a drink,” the group’s slogan is “your shot for change.” All this leads me by circuitous neural pathways back to catchphrases defining towns, events, people and their political movements. I’m a self-described well-groomed mountain man, with a history of spouting small-l liberal-leaning rhetoric spiced by anarchic actions never to be revealed in prosecutable detail, though mostly I stay under cover as a gray-bearded, amiable outdoorsy sort who never sits with his back to the crowd while in a dimly-lit bar that uses the words “Rod,” “Gun,” “Whitewater” and “Saloon” on a sign advertising its wares in a small Idaho town which, like The Wilderness Gateway loosely described above, will remain un-named in this piece.

I retrieve my river gear from the storage unit at the edge of town, am informed that all but one week of my storage fee will be returned since I didn’t use it (which makes me feel all warm toward ruggedly individualistic, libertarian-rhetoric spouting denizens of small Idaho towns). I decide to drive to the aforementioned Saloon to sip one more beer in front of the “SAVE AN ELK, SHOOT A WOLF” bumpersticker that graces the back-bar below lined-up bottles of cheap beer and rotgut tequila, and then to quietly slip through the “red state” bastions of Idaho and Utah on my way back to the left-leaning, downturn-shocked, teeming population center of my home range. Somewhere in the night, while sipping my last river beer, I’ll check in on the civilized world’s progress in my absence by the light of my failing laptop, and will see “natural” disasters, wars, riots, famine and angst. Studiously ignoring the attendant throng of pundits spouting rhetorical cure-alls from their respective political camps, with the last of my battery’s charge, I’ll also read that ’twas ever thus, courtesy MJF’s “Conservative.” Enjoy.