On Traveling Local — Etiquette for the Dirtbag Diplomat

Look at the face. Make eye contact. Smile. Nod.

These four simple acts may garner a return smile, invaluable advice, a conversation or at least a wider piece of sidewalk or trail from which to observe the habits of the local fauna. While wandering the urbanized wilderness of our too-often-fearful empire, extensive personal research of the above techniques of diplomatic behavior has led to free meals, drinks, lodging and more than my fair share of opportunities to participate in activities best described as “of dubious legality.” (Except, of course, from members of a techno-benumbed control group of cell-phone tapping, ear-budded zombies. These are best avoided like a leprotic orgy-crasher on a Roman holiday.) Oh, and the life stories. There is something irresistible about a friendly stranger when life’s good or bad days breach walls of discretion and inhibition, which can sometimes lead to sticky situations. Artful dodging skills are best learned early, lest the peripatetic dirtbag become a sedentary bit player in someone else’s tragicomedy.

The Artful Dodger, by “Kyd” 1890

(The Artful Dodger, by “Kyd” 1890)

A minor, usually pleasant side effect of “traveling local” is being mistaken for an actual local by other (usually better-dressed) fellow travelers. Often, good-sounding information just gleaned from an actual local can be re-packaged on the spot to improve your questioner’s day, and in some few instances may change his or her life. Sort of like backcountry guiding, without the tips or glory. In recent years, as my travels take me mostly to locales visited at least once before, being misrecognized as a seldom-seen local has wrapped me in a diplomatic pouch of graybeard immunity from suspicion. Even the occasional enforcement type smiles at me when I least expect it, and except for a scattering of embittered aging males who assume I’m disappointed with life too, most tragedians seem to lean on other, younger, broader shoulders.

There is another complication though, that budding travelers a la “local” should expect. Among the chaff of smiles, nods and pleasantries are a few unforgettable kernels. A face, a voice, a story that will come back on you during long night drives between the leaving and getting there. You’ll wonder how a life has gone, whether the tragedy or comedy you unobtrusively slipped away from at intermission ever had a happy ending. Short of seeking out the players later (seldom a good survival tactic for one’s own emotional equilibrium), the odds of closure are slim, unless your unforgettable kernel was a storyteller, able to evoke just how it felt.

While slipping through the stage-sets of my earlier lives, these days I’m hunting stories. In bars and cafes, in the yellowed pages of old newspapers or books, in magazines with dead addresses peeling from the covers, in names overheard from casual passersby and in current publications that are worth reading. Occasionally, a story connects to a remembered face, or tells of a universe where a traveler’s life has paralleled some parts of my own. Now it’s time to note that the tribe has lost another of our storytellers, and learning of this has me remembering an extensive life list of long-gone faces and landscapes, and the winding down of seasonal jobs and well-spent lives.

Some reading reminds me that all the kernels have not been lived yet though, that ever more people are now playing out their own dreamed lives on mountains and in canyons some of us thought, for a while, to have made our own. Peripatetic young dirtbag diplomats are even now massing along the ragged edges (the wildernext) of the empire’s sprawling urban/suburban/New Urban chancres, and some younger fellow travelers are telling stories by turns lyrical, outrageous and all points in between, on pages my own stories are sometimes privileged to precede or follow, and in the conversations and returned smiles that sometimes reward practitioners of the ancient diplomatic arts.

This spring, when a seasonal job or school year ends and the faraway beckons, go traveling local, and then let your story run free as Toby T. Tyler and his namesake.

No Rowdy

Sometime in mid-December, when Brexico’s lack of snow showed signs of transitioning from Early Season Nuisance to Legitimate Problem In Need Of A Solution, I found myself at an old friend’s birthday party. Other old friends were there, too, and soon after flipping the tabs on our first beers, we began to commiserate about the dire conditions on the hill.

The 10-day forecast looked like a sunshine festival. The long-term forecast was even grimmer, with phrases like “extended high pressure” and “does not look good” staining the same sorry paragraph. It didn’t take long before someone brought up interior British Columbia, and once that happened, we stopped talking about other things for the rest of the night.

I was waiting to hear about a potential trip to the South Pole, so I couldn’t commit right away. But within a few days, the South Pole trip fell through, and I suddenly had the month of January to fill.

I sold the idea to my wife as “the last big dudes trip before we have kids,” and two weeks later, three friends and I pulled into a snowy motel parking lot in Golden, B.C. The sign on the poolroom wall read: “No Rowdy.” We had come to the right place.

Concealing our Rowdy in backpacks and pockets, we spent the next two days at Kicking Horse Resort, 15 minutes up the road from Golden. I’ve never seen so much steep terrain accessed from two chairlifts. We skied 2,000-foot fall-line runs with hairy entries and shin-deep snow the entire way down. We ate yam fries and drank Kokanee pitchers. It was like we’d landed on a sandy atoll with nothing but supermodels and margaritas for life. Except, we were mobile.

From Golden, we purred up and over Rogers Pass into Revelstoke. “Revy,” if you’re cool, is kind of a big deal in badass snow land. I don’t say that to make light. I say that because the resort has more than 5,000 vertical feet of intense terrain, and about 50 ways to scare yourself per acre. We got busy as best we could, which means as much as our quaking knees would allow. Steep tree lines and seriously legit fish and chips at a pub called the Last Drop (where they serve two big pieces of halibut for under $20) left us struggling to put down any respectable number of pints.

We cut a left turn to Whistler in pursuit of a phantom storm, then spent the next day’s drive back to the Interior searching for Sasquatch.

“Squatchy!” Bock kept yelling out the window. It was cold and wet and unusually dark, with droopy trees that looked like the ones in the rodent bog from “The Princess Bride.” If Squatchy was going to be hanging out near any road on the continent, we felt strongly that he would show up here.

Alas, he did not. We hit Revy again the next morning then spent eight marvelous hours on Rogers Pass the following day with ski mountaineer Greg Hill. I had a hard time getting over the powder, and at one point Greg’s friend Joey Vosburgh confirmed my suspicions. “Even when it’s bad up here, it’s usually still really good,” Joey said, surrounded by a bleached landscape of pillows and pyramids.

We drove south out of Revy to the hippieville of Nelson, catching the ferry at night while swigging cans in the back seat. Part of the untethered beauty of a road trip is you never feel like you’re on someone else’s schedule, free instead to follow your inner Rowdy. Before long you feel like destiny is in play yet again, and everything feels right. Holding back is like treason.

We met Rainbow at Open Mic Night in Nelson, where the powder lasts for many days after a storm. He was a cool cat — I wish we had a Rainbow in my town. I wish we had a lot of the Interior in my town, come to think of it. But because most of the fun is getting there, I’m glad we don’t.

Family Yurt Trip

Despite our love for the Rocky Mountains, neither my wife nor I are big fans of winter. We like it up to a point, somewhere around the 5th of January, but after that we start the countdown to the spring thaw and all the good things that arrive with it: gardening, hiking, easy camping and warmth.

Which is fine, or would be, if winter actually ended in January, but the Rockies aren’t known for short and easy winters, and even here in sunny Taos, New Mexico, not far from where the Southern Rockies disappear for good beneath the high desert sagebrush of the Galisteo Basin, the snowy season sticks around in one form or another at least until the official first day of spring, and much longer in the High Country. This means that we are forced, with increasing reluctance as the years go by, to partake in a bit of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, lest we spend the entire season overindulging in breakfast burritos and books and find ourselves flabby come hiking-boot time.

So, when some friends with a child the same age as ours suggested we spend a long weekend together in a yurt in the South San Juan Mountains, we were game: winter camping without the agonies of winter camping sounded like a blast, and the experience would provide the impetus necessary for us to rise from our asses and engage King Winter on some very agreeable terms. We met up for a potluck dinner, pored over maps and reserved the yurt for two nights. That was around Thanksgiving, and we planned the trip for mid-March, assuming that the odds of sunny weather would be fairly good by then and that the snow pack would be plenty deep and well settled. I also assumed — no, knew deep within my heart — that I would have plenty of time, nearly four months in fact, to spend weekends on skis and snowshoes so that I’d be ready for the big yurt adventure and all that it entailed, namely: dragging a sled laden with gear, supplies and my daughter through the frozen tundra, or at least up a snowbound Forest Service road.

Two weeks later, I dusted off my skinny skis and hit the hills for the first time, hell bent on whipping my rapidly atrophying March-to-November loving body into shape. I stuffed my backpack with 40 pounds of rocks and water jugs designed to mimic the weight of my daughter, strapped it onto my winter-stiff back and powered my way around the outer loop of the local X-country trail, sweating and glad to be alive amongst the Ponderosa pines and fully intending on doing it again in a few days. Christmas came and went, and the New Year, and January, and February, and suddenly the much-anticipated trip was upon us, and while the withering La Niña drought had actually allowed me to ride my mountain bike a few times, I had completely blown off my well-intended winter exercise regimen and was feeling pretty lazy.

Nevertheless, the day arrived, and the deposit was nonrefundable, so we carefully gathered our gear, double, triple, quadruple checked the weather, and caravanned the 90 miles to the trailhead, where we unloaded the car and attempted, for the very first time, to properly secure our child and gear onto the sled. It took nearly an hour to get everything packed and stacked correctly, and when we were finally ready, the wind was blowing kinda chilly and, despite their numerous layers of clothes and snowsuits, the girls — not quite four years old — were already a little cold. I snickered inwardly at my fellow dad’s silly sled, a lame metal saucer that was sure to slide uncontrollably in unexpected directions, then balanced my daughter into my own sleek sled in a cute little chair lashed behind a large backpack full of foodstuffs and camping gear. I hitched a towrope to some mysterious and never-before-utilized nylon loops on the backpack I was wearing and set off up the mountain.

Twenty feet later, the sled tipped over and my daughter tumbled helplessly sideways into the snow. I was proud of this sled — a purple plastic Walmart wonder I had bolted firmly atop my old Simms “Search” snowboard with our best wedding present of all (a industrial-grade cordless drill) — and was slightly dismayed at how quickly it had tipped. I righted my daughter, shifted her position ever so slightly, and blasted ahead, only to immediately feel some resistance from the rope, which turned out to be the sled tipped over and my daughter lying in the snow once more. Three times turned out not to be the charm, so as the rest of the gang watched impatiently, including my buddy with his stable, well balanced and seemingly dependable saucer in tow, I strapped my backpack (lower center of gravity) to the sled, dusted the snow off my daughter and placed her securely in her rickshaw-style carrier on my back, and away we went, across the glimmering white meadow and up the switchbacks of the trail.

On paper — which is to say on a map viewed while drinking beer around a kitchen table in a warm house — the trek to the yurt had looked relatively easy. It was less than five miles in, a distance all of us had snowshoed many times before, occasionally in blizzard or other questionable/psychedelic conditions, and we had chosen the yurt with the least elevation gain, this being a family-style trip and all. Perhaps it was the sedentary winter, or the combination of kid on my back/sled behind me, or just the fact that I’m getting older and slower, but, for whatever reason, the initial climb out of the meadow was grueling beyond all expectation, and by the time I caught up with the rest of the crew, I was huffing and puffing.

Fortunately, that first mile was the hardest part, and the remaining miles appeared to involve minimal contour lines on the map. The “trail” was actually a Forest Service road made even wider than normal by the passage of snowmobiles (some of them effortlessly towing huge U-haul sized sleds probably chock full of steaks and coolers of beer) headed into the hills for some redneck revelry. You would think this might make for easy sailing, this wide and well-packed road, but it didn’t. To be sure, it was easier than breaking trail in fresh powder, especially considering the load I was dragging along, but instead of smoothing the road out, a winter’s worth of snow machines had created endless ripples and icy ruts that kept flipping my pathetic sled on its side.

We trudged ahead, pausing every few minutes for me to flip the sled back to its proper position, and always thinking we were farther along than we were, ready for the next bend to bring us to a landmark or junction that actually turned out to be around another half dozen or so bends. We stopped for a lunch break and to give the kids a chance to pee. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t. They are girls — no easy access — which meant peeling off the snowsuits and layers of long underwear, pushing them as far down their legs as possible, then holding the little ladies upright/leaning them back just enough to avoid tinkling on the important bundle of clothes around their ankles, but not enough to dip their pink behinds in the snow — the whole process made even more challenging and insufferable (for the little girls) by the wind that was blowing off the ridge and whooshing through the woods and between their exposed legs.

We had planned on a leisurely lunch break, but, despite the fact that the adults were hot and sweaty, as soon as we stopped moving, we caught a chill, and this was doubly so for the kids, neither of whom had moved very much at all since we’d started the trek, and both of whom had just been forced to bare their asses to the malicious pinch of Jack Frost. So we aborted the planned luncheon, saddled up and made for the yurt.

The worst of the contour lines were indeed behind us, and the last couple of miles appeared to be mere gentle undulations as we made our way around the side of a hill, but since we were now somewhere north of 10,000 feet above sea level, every step I took required more effort than I had expected, and the slightest of climbs — especially the long and gradual pulls that made up this section of the trail — taxed my body and sapped my energy. Despite the rosy weather forecast, it was now overcast, and the kid on my back began to whine with understandable and righteous indignation about the cold, particularly in the limbs and digits that dangled almost motionless from the backpack in which she sat, making them easy targets for frostbite or at least some serious discomfort.

We paused to assess the situation: kids cold but not quite crying; sky gray and wind blowing but not snowing; closer to the yurt than the vehicles. WHEN IN DOUBT, GO HIGHER. That motto has always made sense to me, and it’s provided me with some of the most memorable experiences of my life, not to mention getting me out of many potential backcountry binds as “higher” usually amounts to a view big enough to figure out exactly where you are and how to get to where you need to be.

But does it apply when there are helpless children involved? On one hand, our concern seemed silly: there’s plenty of daylight left, we’re only a few miles from the cars, it ain’t snowing, and we’re trekking on a ROAD. Indeed, just a few years ago, I would have been embarrassed to be seen wasting my time on this kind of logged-over, snowmobile-laden, civilized sort of trail — a place for tourists from St. Louis rather than Rocky Mountain locals with ample adventures under our belts — and I certainly wouldn’t have questioned my ability to finish the journey. But on the other hand, there was a lot at stake: two little girls with little bodies that could get dangerously cold in short order, and who were still too small and clumsy to navigate the trail on foot and create some body warmth of their own. Of course, barring some complete and unknowable disaster, nobody was going to die, and, in a pinch, there would probably be more snowmobiles passing by before nightfall, but did it make sense to keep going?

We decided that it did, at least this time around, so we mushed along, sure that we were almost there. And we were, more or less. One last punishingly long incline, one final blue diamond nailed to a spruce tree, and we left the road and carefully made our way down a steep stretch of actual narrow snowshoe/ski trail and there it was: The Yurt, sitting stolid and quiet, radiating the promise of shelter and burden-free loafing.

We unpacked and settled in, then completed the handful of chores necessary for our comfort: fetch the (already-split) firewood and chop a bit of kindling; start a fire in the stove and haul in some buckets of snow to melt for drinking water; hang up the clothes to dry; uncork a bottle of wine. Meanwhile, the girls, suddenly freed from the clutches of their rickshaws, forgot all about their cold toes and began bouncing around like rubber balls and exploring every conceivable nook and cranny in the surprisingly small but sufficiently comfortable yurt. Especially exciting were the bunk beds, something neither girl had seen before, which meant that each wooden ladder had to be climbed over and over again, and each bed carefully jumped upon, all to the tune of creaking cast iron stove doors, a crackling fire and the joyous sound of non-stop giggles.

If the jaunt to the yurt had been a woeful tale of physical exertion and the perils of prolonged (almost) middle-aged inactivity followed by a sudden burst of athleticism, then the next 40 or so hours were pleasantly relaxing, or at least decidedly lacking in effort beyond trips to the outhouse or the woodpile. The dads did manage a mellow snowshoe down the hill to check out the creek and some remnant groves of old-growth spruce, and the moms each went on a short solo ski and did some yoga, but for the most part, we all just sat on the porch in the mountain sunshine and swapped stories, or lounged around the yurt and played cards, sifted through the newspaper stack in the wood box for an unsolved crossword puzzle, or made up silly songs to sing to our girls.

As with the tame trail that had brought us here — a trail I would have avoided at all costs at one point in my life — a day-and-a-half of sitting around doing nothing would have seemed horrible to me just a few years ago. In 2006, I’d have been chomping at the bit to get out and explore the area, and would have probably spent an entire day making my way up to the ridgeline for some hard-earned views of the San Juan Mountains, or, had I been forced to stay in the yurt, would have brooded grumpily over the fact that I was cooped up rather than churning out endorphins as I trekked through the woods and figured out the lay of the land.

But this wasn’t 2006, it was 2011, and that five-year span had brought massive transformation to nearly every aspect of my life. Part-time work and plenty of highway and trail mileage, for both my wife and myself, had been utterly derailed by the trinity of marriage, an unexpected honeymoon-prompted pregnancy and a bouncing baby girl, plus the sudden need to work full time, while simultaneously jumping through the hoops necessary to earn a teaching license and the real-world job that such professional licensure implies. Without warning, and long before I could wrap my head around the implications of it all, a life of abundant spare time and completely acceptable procrastination gave way to full-time employment and a busy routine that demand I pencil in rest and recreation, and even plain old exercise, in small, precious doses whenever I could.

It’s a life I’ve always dreaded — a life I didn’t think I wanted and feared I wouldn’t be good at, but, surprise surprise, now that I’m completely mired in the responsibilities and limitations of fatherhood, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Perhaps if I was a younger parent, I might feel resentment over the lost youth and lack of partying and adventure, or, like the twenty-something-year-old parents of so many of my students, would simply put my kid on the back burner while I continued to do what I wanted. Fortunately, I was fated to live out some serious slacker years before I was thrust into the dual role of provider and dad, which means that I was able to work out a few of my issues and visit some interesting places along the way, and now, most of the time anyway, I’m old enough to be aware of what really matters — my family — but still young enough, for a little while longer, to be able to strap a 40-pound child to my back and drag a sled laden with princess underwear, coloring books and other vital supplies over the river and through the woods for a little family adventure.

Looking back on that second day, our only full day at the yurt, I guess it wasn’t all just lounging around. We did manage to do a little sledding, the one thing my Rube Goldberg snowboard contraption excelled at, and we followed a few game trails through the woods, had some snowball fights and made a family of snowpeople: snowman, snowmom and a snowy little girl — the whole lot of them peering longingly at the mountains but plenty happy with the sunny glade that they would call home for the rest of their short lives.

That night, as we hunkered down in the yurt and feasted on s’mores by the light of the Coleman lanterns, the moon rose full and bright as can be from behind the crest of the Brazos Mountains. Our girls, wired on chocolate and marshmallows, ran to the window in the door and began to howl like the wild little wolves that they are. A few minutes later, a fox trotted across the moonlit meadow just outside the yurt, pausing long enough for the girls to step quietly out onto the porch in their pajamas to say hello.

Occupy Main Street

A while back, as the Occupy Wall Street movement was winding down, I had to go downlake to use the telephone. We still don’t have phones in our little mountain town — at least most of us don’t, due to geography and technology and politics — though they are inching closer, and some neighbors have figured out how to make Skype work despite slow satellite upload speeds, and the days of taking expensive two-night trips (because of the winter boat schedule) just to talk on the phone will soon be over, and I’ll be none the sadder. But those days aren’t over yet, so I had to go to town.

I checked into a spare clean motel on the main street, a mile or so from the fancy lakeside resorts, a place that offers a lower rate for locals and has a microwave and a fridge in the room, an old-style TV and a functioning land line. Usually in winter, the motel is packed with contractors, but this time the place was empty, only one car besides mine in the lot. I tried a few calls without luck. One interviewee hung up on me straight away. Then I sat on the bed to watch protestors pack up their tents in distant cities, and I felt sorry for them and sorry for myself and sorry for the whole damned complicated mess we’re in.

Then I told myself: get out.

The hairdresser, a woman in her sixties, squeezed me in for a trim. A year ago, she sold her salon to her niece, a former rodeo queen in her early twenties who’s been cutting my hair since she was a teenager. Now she’s a business owner. The rodeo queen’s husband bought the Radio Shack downtown where I stopped to buy a camera since we lost ours while pressing cider last fall. The pharmacist refilled my prescription before I reached the window. The hardware store clerk showed me a coupon for batteries — no limit — and even I don’t know her name and she does not know mine, she recognized me and figured, rightly, that we in the uplake town can always use batteries. At the natural food store, I ran into the guy who raises our grass-fed beef, a guy who ditched the big city to return home and help his dad run his orchard. We met several years ago at a workshop where he read Rumi and wept. Since then, he’s started a CSA and a fruit stand, and he’s married and had a daughter, now a toddler, who drags him from the store and back out into the sun.

A profile in The New Yorker of an Occupy Wall Street participant floored me. The guy was a kind of everyman who had seeped into solitariness. Sometimes I fear this could happen to any of us; it could easily happen to me. Our town is so small, my desk space even smaller. The guy in the article hopped a bus from Seattle to New York to find connection and purpose in the protests. But maybe we don’t have to go so far. Once I wrote a book about community, the close-knit kind. Maybe just as crucial are larger circles, the people you know but whose names you don’t know, the ones you never see outside of the work place. The point is obvious, I suppose, but also dire. The hairdresser said they’d had few appointments the week before Thanksgiving. Unheard of. The motel desk clerk was awaiting a tourist busload with uncharacteristic eagerness. The cameras at Walmart — yes, I stopped to check — were thirty bucks cheaper than downtown. Walmarts all over America had opened at 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving night, and there’d been a fight and an arrest in the bigger town just forty miles away. The stakes seem so high, and the changes inevitable, but I want to believe we are the bosses of it, at least a little of it.

So I spent a few hundred dollars in town — batteries and bike tubes, asthma drugs and avocados, some gadgets at the kitchen store. Afterwards I walked across the street to order tacos — topped with fresh cilantro — from the trailer next to the car wash, and I sat alone and content on a plastic chair watching workday traffic pass on the main street, eating with greasy fingers, thinking: this is not so complicated.

River Medicine for Winter Doldrums

Recalling what we Oregonians giddily refers to as “The Flood of 1996,” I had to go for a look.The sun is out, the temperature a balmy 51 degrees, and brief bouts of birdsong percolate through the neighborhood, but don’t be fooled. It is February, the least-pronounceable and most-dreary-weather month in Oregon (not counting January, March and April). A week ago, cargo ships of rain unloaded into the creeks of the Coastal and Cascade ranges that feed the Willamette River, which runs through the heart of Portland. The river, three blocks west of my backyard porch, rose at an alarming rate. Another incoming storm, this time a “Pineapple Express” (because of its warm abundance of precipitation from the south), was forecast to reach the Oregon coast within a day or two. It seemed likely that there was a river catastrophe at my doorstep.

Recalling what we Oregonians giddily refers to as “The Flood of 1996,” I had to go for a look.

Indeed, the rising (low-40 degrees and brown) water had erased the familiar margins and markers of the river while picking up and forming small islands of shore debris. Anxiety ran high among houseboat owners anchored to wharfs and docks along the river. The Willamette had flooded the shoreline park along with some of its picnic tables and benches. A damp earthy smell permeated the air. The river made strange, barely audible noises — gallumps, swooshes, hisses.

The Willamette does not carry the romance of the Colorado or my personal history as a boatman, and yet, I lingered, mesmerized by the raw fluid expression of what has often been called “nature’s wrath.” In the 21st century, we are arguably “safer” then ever before. Perhaps this knowledge, along with 24-7 media exposure, accounts for our fascination with tsunamis, earthquakes, eruptions and rivers in flood. Today, the river’s indifference to man-made structures and its own riverbanks serve as a timely reminder that our outdoor-vacation-adventure-river trip-nature-as-benign-fun-loving-reliable-amigo remains potentially hostile.

Contrary to popular belief, however, it is not The Rain (which can range from eight inches annually in the desert plateau region to 200 inches at the higher elevations of the Coast Range) or its progeny, The Flood, that troubles we webfoots on the west side of the Cascades and astraddle the 46h Parallel, though newcomers would beg to differ. One only has to understand that Oregonians will pay for a beachfront house or hotel in February in order to “storm watch.” This recreation activity revolves around staring out a picture window as the foul weather from the Gulf of Alaska assaults the Pacific Ocean. Some of us venture out along the broad beaches in high winds and horizontal rain that would make anyone from warmer climes gasp.

When it snows at the beach, we are delighted.

The kind of weather that really haunts us and contributes mightily to our winter doldrums (even more than watching the Republican debates) is the interminable gloomy cold muck gravy grayness of our winter skies. Dull and soundless, it is the shark-fin in the sea of our collective unconscious. A string of dismal days can weigh heavily on even the sturdiest of us. It drives our above-average in-door habits of library use, book-buying, caffeine-swilling and bar-hopping. Fitness clubs show increased attendance in December, peaking in January, flattening in February and, by May, when the sun finally appears, look like abandoned airplane hangers.

Our dismal, northwestern grays fall into four general categories: achromatic, off-gray, cool and warm, each with five shades I won’t list. (To the color taxonomy I have, after many winters, added my own “gray” descriptives: rubber raft, pewter, dirty dishwater, paste, fireplace ash and sidewalk cement.)

With the possibility of depression lingering right around the corner, you’d think Oregonians would be sprinting to church of their choice for relief. Oregon, according to Wikipedia, ranks #1 in the U.S. with the highest percentage of religiously unaffiliated adults, roughly 25% of the population. A full 40% (including those belonging to a faith) rarely or never attend services.

In the 1980s, a relatively new, but less lethal, clinical diagnosis of the impact of the lack of sunshine on our moods appeared on the scene: seasonal affective disorder (S.A.D.), formerly known as the blues and decades earlier, melancholia. Hence, bookings to Hawaii and Mexico increase as well as the sale of “light therapy” kits with catchy names like Winter Blues Combat Kit, Sunsation Combo, Feel Bright Light and the Rise and Shine Sunbox in Oregon.

To counter the overcast abyss, we Oregonians seek mental and physical relief wherever we can find it, indoors or out, cheap or expensive, idiosyncratic or run-of-the-mill strange.

My own first line of defense against the blues (er … the grays?) is physical movement. I resist the urge to call it “exercise,” which implies a daily routine and unseemly discipline. But I do manage to walk or bike along the Willamette River regularly and when the river is agreeable in winter, paddle my inflatable kayak. Throw in a few trips to Mt. Hood and Mt. Bachelor to cross-country ski, and the beast of blah is held in check.

In between these modest outdoor efforts and dreams of running rivers in summertime, I also find fleeting sanctuary from the winter doldrums in the salubrious-sounding names of Oregon’s rivers. The bible of Oregon geographic names is a deliciously fat tome by Lewis A. and Lewis L. McArthur named, of course, “Oregon Geographic Names.” It is the perfect companion for a wet, gray afternoon of browsing names, their source, history and of course, pronunciation.

Many of our present-day river names in Oregon have evolved from the corruption of the language of Native American by French trappers and later, early settlers. Time seems to have worn away the original native pronunciations, but not the essence of the sound. A kind of ongoing, unequal cultural tug of war: “you say tomato (toe-may-toe); I say tomato (tah-ma-toe)”

River medicine for winter doldrumsThe sound of the names of the larger, better known, Anglo-named Rivers — the Columbia, Snake, John Day, Mackenzie — enter and leave my ear without much auditory excitement. More history than poetry coursing over their streambeds.

The poetical sound of river names can be found in Southern Oregon’s one-syllable, guttural Rogue River whose evocative name (from the early French trappers who thought the local Indians scoundrels) indicates a river bathed in myth and misbehavior. Then there are the Pudding and the Row (rhymes with cow, not slow) rivers, playful-sounding names that suggest bit of whimsy but whose origins were rooted in far more harsh realties: the latter was named after a fatal fight between brothers-in-law and the former received its appellation during a dire weather situation and a sever lack of food.

The mellifluous-sounding river names that catch and delight my ear and sooth my winter doldrums are exactly those slippery, rolling, feel-good-coming-and-going-on-the- lips mispronunciations of native-named rivers: Alsea, Calapooia, Mollala, Deschutes, Suislaw and Santiam. Then there are the honey-and-tart bite of the Millicoma and Nestucca, and the reverse, the Clackamas. The Metolius dances a jig off your tongue; the Umpqua carries a deep back of the throat drum-beat-uhhmm sound, emerging with a round, wind-blown release of breath. The pleasant-sounding Owyhee (Ah-wha-he) River in the far southeastern corner of Oregon was at one time called the “Sandwich Island” River after two Hawaiians who were killed by Snake Indians in 1819. Somehow Owyhee (the name used for Hawaii at the time) overtook “Sandwich Island” in the stumble towards appellation immortality.

When the couch is beckoning more than my stroll along the Willamette and my winter-weary soul hungers for richer sustenance, I turn to my ragged shoebox of river poems that I have collected over the years. If names are the echoing ponds of sound on a bleak winter’s day, then poems are the rushing creeks, rivers and freshets of words and their sounds strung together by poets. Sound, image and rhyme to counter the shapelessness of an overcast sky whose color is weighed down with negative emotional connotations.

After years of avoidance and indifference, poets have, once again, become my fellow voyagers, deep swimmers to the parts of the river of my soul I cannot reach alone, surfers and skiers on the wave of my imagination, climbers stretching for the handhold just beyond reach, chairlift operators that make sure I get on (and off) the chairlift of everyday ordinary life and remain aware of the “extra” buried beneath habit, routine and convention.

River medicine for winter doldrumsI have borrowed a term from the science of (river) hydrology to describe the nature of poets’ work: hyporheic (hi-pour-he-ik). The hyporheic zone is defined as “the percolating flow of water through the sand, gravel, sediments and other permeable soils under and beside the open stream or river bed.”

Poets, then, are minders and guides of our underground rivers.

To anyone who wants to hide or run very fast in the other direction at the mention of POETRY, I don’t blame you. Who does not recall high school English classes where a handful of teachers braved the inmates who sat in the prison of their mother tongue smirking and giggling? So much of it appeared (and appears) impenetrable, and frankly, boring, to everyday readers. Never mind the embarrassment of not “getting what a poem means.”  (To this day I have kept poems that I still cannot understand what the poet is saying.) Combine ambivalent social attitudes and 24-7 entertainment venues with our short attention spans, and reading a poem today becomes, well, torturous, a serious “enhanced interrogation.”

Alas (how can you not like that word?), all is not lost.

Before you step in the deep end of the poetry pool, I suggest a couple of viable alternatives. For those of a more gregarious social nature, go to one of those “occupational” poetry fests where poems are read aloud. You’ll encounter plenty of ballads, light verse and rhyming couplets. There is a fisherman’s poetry festival in Astoria, Oregon, and a cowboy read somewhere in northern Nevada. Rumors of a boatmen poetry rendezvous in Flagstaff, Arizona, and mountain poetry readings (Telluride?) persist. At any of these events, there is bound to be beer-drinking and kindred outdoor spirits who know how to have a good time.

Think of it as a crowded eddy, where you can get your poetic bearings before rowing, if you choose, on to deeper, faster rivers with unfamiliar currents.

For those solipsistic, screen-hugging individuals who eschew crowds and noisy bars, the Internet offers easy, but solitary, relief. Try the webpage “River Quotes,” a treasure trove of verse.

Perhaps, however, you are ready to go it alone. I suggest the following: find one poem (maybe ask your smart-ass English-major friend or worse, a closet poet, for suggestions). Sit down, take a long breath, read slowly, pause at commas or line breaks, let the sounds and images arrive, let whatever sense or meaning, if there is any to be had since some poems travel light, come as it may. (Yes, stop snickering or trying too hard!) Read your poem again, at your leisure, maybe out loud. Hang with it for a time. If your poem has not grabbed you, set it aside, but within reach. Go in search of a rhyme that is more fun to the tongue: a childhood ditty or a campfire ballad a la Robert Service.

A good example of playful nonsense verse is “Jabberwocky,” by Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Twas bryllyg, and ye slithy toves/Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:/All mimsy were ye borogoves/And ye mome raths outgrabe/Beware the Jabberwock, my son!/The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!/Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun/The frumious Bandersnatch!

If you are brave and dare to tread where only fools rush in, memorize your poem and perhaps one evening at your local bar, recite.

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

Never mind.

As far as my own favorite poets, I would test your patience if I listed their poems and the history of how and why I thought them worthy enough to warrant a place in my cardboard box. In no particular order of favorites, I offer a taste, or better yet, an earful. Here are a handful of names, slices of poems about rivers, or poems that use the rivers as image or metaphor to get you through a gray day in your part of the west.

Where better place to start than with William Stafford (1914-1993), Oregon poet who wrote a poem “Ask Me.” Here is a snippet: Some time when the river is ice ask me/mistakes I have made. Ask me whether/what I have done is my life/ …. I will listen to what you say/ You and I can turn and look/at the silent river and wait. We know/the current is there. Hidden; and there/ are comings and goings from miles away/that hold the stillness exactly before us/ What the river says, that is what I say.

And these few lines from “Being a Person”: Be a person here, Stand by the river, invoke/the owls. Invoke winter, then spring/Let any season that wants to come here make its own/call. After the sounds, wait….How you stand here is important. How you/listen for the next things to happen/. How you breathe.

Kim Stafford (1949- ), his son, wrote “Cascade Rapids with Fisherman.” It begins: A man stands by the river/All-that-was flows away/ A woman stands by the river/All that-will-be is coming….

When a boatmen/friend of mine recently ran life’s last rapid, another boatman sent me this poem by Billy Collins (American 1941- ), former U.S. Poet Laureate, titled “The Dead”: The dead are always looking down on us, they say/while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,/they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven/as they row themselves slowly through eternity./They watch the top of our heads moving below on earth,/and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,/drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,/they think we are looking back at them,/which makes them lift their oars and fall silent/and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

The image of my friend peering through the glass-bottom dory with his wicked smile seemed to match his “bad boy” character and my mood. Better than going to church.

E.A. Robinson (1869-1935) stated his preference for rivers plainly: I like rivers/Better than oceans for we see both sides/An ocean is forever asking questions/And writing them down along the shore.

“The River Voyageurs” by Wendell Berry (1934- ) hearkens to the early French-Canadian voyageurs who toiled, rather than played, on the rivers of North America. They are modern-day boatmen’s ancestors. No matter how many times I read Robert Frost’s (1874-1963) “West-Running Brook,” I seem to discover something new, or that I missed before. Maya Angelou (1928- ) used some river imagery in the inauguration poem she wrote for my favorite scoundrel, Bill Clinton. R.L Stevenson (1850-1894) wrote a fun light piece “Where Go the Boats.”

For anyone, especially river and mountain folk, who seek to pacify the winter blahs or cabin fever, give these bards a hearing, perhaps in small doses, one poem at a time: Walt Whitman, Mary Oliver, Theodore Roethke, Langston Hughes, Blake, W.B. Yeats, Louise Brogan, W.H. Auden, Emily Dickenson, David Wagoner, Richard Allen, Elizabeth Bishop, Robinson Jeffers, Gary Snyder and Michael Anania.

Or try a small collection of river-related poems called “Gathered Waters” (Backeddy Books, Cambridge, Idaho), selected by Cort Conley, veteran river guide and author. Come river season, it will fit nicely in your ammo can or the vest pocket of your lifejacket.

The forecast for Oregon promises more rain and more gloomy gray days. I’ll continue to gawk at rising rivers and take refuge in river poetry. I might also check out a Feel Bright Light or a Sunsation Combo, if only for the sound of their silly names.

Desert Rat Dumpster Diving

With the car packed for a traditional desert outing — two cameras, two dogs, two .22s and two beers apiece — we left in search of sunset. We found it on the distant Book Cliffs, recently snowcapped, glowing with the low burn of a winter day’s final embers. Though lapine prey remained elusive — and, thus, the guns made no appearance — the sunset was striking enough to abate our bunny bloodlust.

As we watched the shadows race across the flats around us, soon lifting the curtain of light on the cliffs to showcase dusk and her dance into dark, we noticed a jumble of junk in the foreground. Abandoned buildings and the stormy detritus of human-habitation-gone-missing occupied the cracked and barren earth near the railroad tracks. Places like this, where desert meets the outward fringe of its denizens, are always the most compelling, suggesting stories of inventive collaboration. With trepidation — not wanting to surprise anyone with guns more at-the-ready than ours — we approached the scatter of trash.

First, we poked around the coupled singlewides, two riveted together to form a DIY double. The outdoor couch had eroded to nothing but wooden slats and springs. Bike frames rusted, plastic toys cracked and clothing disintegrated as if before our eyes. Though we grew more daring with the lack of shots or shouts fired our way, our courage dissipated at the entrance to the trailers. The sense of vita interruptus, of the inhabitants having been snatched away in the midst of ironing and cooking and changing the baby, was too potent. This disheveled inner sanctum was not ours to invade.

Curiosity then led us to a plywood crate standing on its side. One wall had fallen off to expose scores of used printers and scanners, their squat grey bodies and electric-cord tails giving them the look of nesting mice. Nearby, the undercarriage of half a charred caboose met our gaze. Despite our desire to associate the freight with the railcar, the two seemed unconnected. What we had was a story made only of nouns, like a three-dimensional Mad-Lib scattered across the desert. We needed more verbs. We needed a voice.

And then the real mystery appeared. Beyond the burned-out caboose stood Scraphenge.

Included: a maze of stacked computers in which our dog became lost, innumerable televisions and toaster ovens, Matchbox cars and Mason jars, ornate boxes for jewelry and burly boxes for tools, Cuisinarts and car parts, pots for plants and pans for cooking, laundry detergent and dirty laundry, fluorescent lights and floorboards, Discmen and Visqueen, doorknobs and corncobs, a sewing machine, two bags of topsoil and a surprisingly well preserved recliner. We sorted through the bounty, shouting with delight while uncovering new and surprising treasure, sharing theories on the pile’s origin story. For us desert rats, this was our sunken merchant ship, our Eldorado. Though not abounding in traditional riches, it was rife with mystery — an even more intoxicating currency.

Our incomplete inventory — and our enthusiasm — waned as night enveloped the scene. Soon, we were forced to turn our attention to Jupiter and Venus queuing up behind the smiling crescent moon. On the dark walk back to the car, as the dogs wove our paths together while sleuthing their own scented unknowns, we vowed to return, to continue to tally that which has been forgotten, to enliven lost objects with a contemplative gaze.

We will return to reinvent histories, like rearward-gazing gods, one artifact at a time.

Each item — now on its journey to desert decomposition — was once a part of a story. But we must make it up. We will never know who wore the size-10 high heels or baked in the bread pan. We will never know what was stitched together on the sewing machine or rent apart by the hatchet. We will never know what dreams were dreamed on the pillowcase or plans unfurled on the office desk. The lives that once animated these items are now detached from them, much as souls eventually leave bodies. And seeing these objects isolated from possession and purpose is a reminder that they do no constitute the weft and warp of our lives. They merely play bit parts in the ever-unraveling, day-to-day screenplay.

But beyond the brief bliss we found in it, this inert detritus of a life no longer has a supporting role. It occupies the desert floor under the indifferent gaze of celestial bodies, now a backdrop to the action. Our worlds will rush on around this forgotten waypoint of taciturn tales, the true substance of our lives standing apart from it all, enduring tides of wealth and want. Persisting. Prevailing. Allowing us to take joy — no matter our means — in the simplicity of sunset. Camaraderie. Playful dogs and cold beers. Trash. And the mystery of the voiceless unknown.

A Bad Backcountry Day

COMMENTARY: Writing about backcountry experiences flips the Liar Switch in my brain. The Liar Switch allows me to write stuff that might give you the impression I know what I’m doing in the backcountry, or make you chuckle, or at least slow you down enough to actually read what I’ve written.

I have to work hard to write the absolute truth. This piece on a bad day of backcountry skiing was written without the benefit of the Liar Switch.


By the way, the Liar Switch is in the same general area of the brain as the Fool Button. But there is a real difference between the Liar Switch and the Fool Button. I know when I’ve flipped the Liar Switch — not so much when I push the Fool Button.

I lined up my left boot in the binding, bent over and locked down. Next, I lined up my right boot in the binding, bent over, lost my balance as the ski slid away and fell sideways cursing into crusty snow.

This wasn’t an unusual way for me to start a day of backcountry skiing. I seem to have a proclivity for falling over while putting on skis, or forgetting to unclip my shoes after a long road bike ride and ending up lying on the ground still attached to my bike. But my favorite stunt is watching my coffee mug tumble down the windshield of my truck as I back out of the garage in the morning.

This was just the beginning of a bad day. It started with new skis. (That’s sort of a lie already and I have just started writing this piece — I don’t own many pieces of new gear.) The new skis are used 190 cm Fischers, with a waxable base, steel edges and slight sidecut. My old backcountry skis are waxless 210s that are great for climbing but useless for skiing downhill.

I haven’t waxed for the backcountry for years, so I didn’t know what I was doing with the wax, and worse yet, I forgot my skins that I also haven’t had to use for years.

The route is up the road to Left Hand Reservoir and starts south of the winter gate on the Brainard Lake Road. The route is uphill for about a mile. The wax job was imperfect. So I found myself puffing uphill doing herring bones on the steeps and pitching over right or left into the crusty snow. So I maybe fell over 300 times.

“What did you say?”
“Fracking, frunking flatlander wax job!”
“Forgot ’em.”
“Dumb Bear. You got water? Food? Extra clothing…”
“Shut up.”

COMMENTARY: So now it’s time to check and see if the Liar Switch is still in the “off” position. Well, actually no, it isn’t in the “off” position. I probably only fell over ten or eleven times. I need to also note that I had a quick conversation with an unknown person. That’s obviously made-up. None of my friends would ask if I had the ten essentials, or even know what they are. And if anyone falls more than twice in backcountry, he just gets left behind as hopeless … sort of sporting natural selection.

So the gang was waiting up where the trail cuts over to the lake on Little Raven. Water and snacks had been consumed. I went to pull off my pack, shifted my weight a tad too much, and tumbled over into the crusty snow, coming half out of the pack straps and flailing.

Okay, I have to admit that at that point I was a tad bit spooked. I’ve had unnumbered wonderful days on snow where I was skiing as if I had been born to it, the weather was good and the gear suited to the terrain and conditions.

Not on this day.

Once sorted out and hydrated, I followed the gang on the narrow, downhill trail to the lake. Within minutes, they were out of sight. Fine with me, lots of testosterone/estrogen poisoning symptoms evident.

Cruising a narrow tree-lined winter trail is sort of the vision I have of what Heaven may be like, supposing, of course, that (1) there is a Heaven, (2) I believe in a Heaven and, (3) I would want to go to Heaven when none of my friends were there.

There is a magic to the sound of skis whisping across the snow, the muffled punctuation of the pole planting, the low hum of your body fluidly kicking and gliding, the vision of snow dusting the trees and Mount Audubon peaking above the tree tops.

It was during this sort of reverie that I did the first face-plant.

As face-plants go, it was not anything spectacular or even unusual. I was simply cruising along, one with the snow, and then I buried my head in it. While the trail was hard-pack, the sides of the trail held a good two feet of powder.

So here was the drill. First, I sputtered and said bad words. Second, I paused and figured out how I was going to get up on my skis. Third, I began the laborious process of moving my skis around to a place where I could clamber back up on them. Fourth, with the help a tree limb, I pulled myself back up on my skis. Fifth, I gathered up my gear, said some positive things to myself, and skied off.

Little Raven Trail is about a mile-and-a-half long. I fell four more times before I reached the intersection with CMC South Ski Trail.

COMMENTARY: It appears that, since the last commentary, there has been some truthfulness. However, the testosterone/estrogen crack was gratuitous. The rift on Heaven was just an excuse to use on old joke (3). And the thing about saying something positive to myself is an outright lie.

The gang waited for me at the intersection, having finished their lunch. The better-bred of the group expressed some concern about my situation and suggested any number of solutions, from a new wax job to taking the easy way back on the Brainard Lake Road.

I gobbled some food, got some water and we were off down the CMC South Trail. There is no doubt that I was absolutely psyched out. I couldn’t get the skis to do anything and was regularly bashing into the ice or flailing in the powder.

There are a number of informal backcountry rules. (1) You get killed in the backcountry by a string of small mistakes, not one grand faux pas. (2) You can psych yourself positively or negatively; a good deal of your individual success in backcountry activities depends on your mindset. (3) If you are having a really bad day in the backcountry, sit down and wait it out, or walk out and come back another day.

Clearly, I was in no danger of getting killed, but I could look at a string of small mistakes that had made me miserable. I was using new equipment on moderately rough terrain, I’d forgotten my skins and I hadn’t waxed properly.

You can do just about anything in the backcountry if you are in somewhat good condition, if you are well trained, if you have decent equipment and particularly if you have your head screwed on correctly. I clearly did not have my head screwed on carefully that day.

With my ex-hiking partner (an entirely different story) breaking trail, I split off from the CMC South and headed north to the Brainard Lake Trail. Did you ever do Bierstadt through the dreaded willows where every other step sank down six inches in cold water? My ex-hiking partner might weigh 130 pounds wet. I weigh 215 dry. Where he could cruise over the snow, I started breaking through the crust. When I wasn’t breaking through the crust, I was getting tangled in the willows. At one point my skis were so tangled in the willows that I had to take them off. And when I stepped out of the binding and put my boot down. Yup, you guessed it, I post-holed and kept post-holing for about forty feet until I got in some crusty stuff that would support my weight if I crawled.

I had to laugh at what this all looked like. It is ignoble to have to crawl across snow dragging your skis as you look for a stable place where you can get back into your bindings.

We reached the Brainard Lake Road, which was windblown and hardpack. I’d had enough. I took off my skis and walked back to the winter gate.

This bad day was a kind of first for me. Over the years, I’ve seen a number of people having backcountry bad days and I felt sorry for them. I have had some days that were bad enough to lie about, but I’ve never had a day where I came out of the backcountry looking like the retreat from Moscow.

The lesson is simple: If you are having a bad day in the backcountry, bail and come back another day. Don’t make things worse by staying out there. Or you too, may end up crawling across windpack dragging your skis behind you.

COMMENTARY: Nailed it. There’s not one lie in the last set of paragraphs. Well, maybe the part about post-holing, but then, maybe that’s true too, or at least truthy.

Live Free! Love Music!

Suggests Don Ashford of KTRT 97.5 The Root, Winthrop, WA

Tsunami is serenaded in the Koma Kulshan Cabin
Tsunami is serenaded in the Koma Kulshan Cabin

My Lonely Violin

About nine years ago, I traded my god-awful television set — I had eschewed goggling the goggle box for years, and a big oak table for a graceful violin. I do not have a background in music, save for a school year of cello when I was in third grade. (And I seriously doubt I have retained much of that.) But I adore Celtic and bluegrass fiddle and viola, and the telly and table were no longer doing me any favors — as well as being cumbersome to cart around during my nomadic period. I thought the trade would be a good one. And it was. Sort of. A violin is lightweight and easy to haul about.

I took one lesson.

I never followed up that first lesson with a second, and once the violin needed tuning, I tucked her away in a hard, dark case, leaning the case against one wall or another to collect dust. I silenced her. It was a cruel thing to do.

The learning curve for a violin is a steep one, so I started to dream of playing mandolin. But that never happened either. Now I dream of ukuleles. Yep, I think a ukulele would suit me well. I listened to Jake Shimabukuro play ukulele on NPR. He is a ukulele virtuoso, mastering everything from Classical to Queen. His playing is gorgeous. Inspirational. And yes, intimidating.

I aspire to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” You know, Tiny Tim?

I very much want to find a loving home for my elegant and lonely violin; she deserves a better life than I can offer her. And then I will welcome a lighthearted and goofy ukulele (apologies, Jake) into my life. I’m not saying it is going to be cake, learning to play, but I do feel a kindred spirit with the uke.

Cody Beebe and the Crooks, Old Schoolhouse Brewery in Winthrop, WA
Cody Beebe and the Crooks, Old Schoolhouse Brewery in Winthrop, WA

The Hills Are Alive

Even way out here, at the local brewpub in a small turista town 25 miles down-valley from my wee abode, my wee abode that sits at the end of a spur road a stone’s throw from wilderness (if you have a good arm), and one ridgeline over from a scenic mountain highway that is closed from around Thanksgiving until maybe sometime in May — but I digress — we get us some really good music. Our river and mountain valley is home to some amazing musicians, and Stephanie at the brewpub wrangles up some mighty fine musicians and bands. Come for the beer! Stay for the music! Pick up a Mountain Gazette! Trust me, the service really has improved!

Musicians travel here from faraway places like Seattle, Olympia, Portland and beyond. They travel here from both sides of the majestic slopes and from across state lines. They walk down the road from their cozy cabins and they play. And for the night, while they are playing, I fall in love with each and every one of them.

And then I make the long trek back up-valley, wink at my violin, and dream of ukuleles.

Winter Closure
Winter Closure

Taking a Breath

This poem saw print in the Mountain Gazette quite some time ago, I’m pretty sure. A former boyfriend was my muse for this piece, written well after I couldn’t find love and we had gone our separate ways. There will always be a warm place in my heart for a man who can play…


He looks a little old
but he plays real young,
sitting there by the woodstove,
thick fingers dancing across thin strings,
toes a’ tap.
His sound is warm when I come in
kicking snow packed in worn lugs,
pulling pieces of ice from hair hanging down,
Playing the Blues
(always the blues)
he carves a long easy look my way,
glacier-gray eyes crevassed at the edges,
like his smile,
like the rest of him.
I don’t remember where he plays tonight,
but he is here,
Walking across the room,
I lift the back of his shirt just a little
putting chilled hands onto the heat of him,
against the small of his back,
and wonder what will happen next.

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Writing the Forbidden

I am a spy from the ephemeral and ravaged border.
I stepped out of a mirage on the horizon between 29 Palms and Cadiz. The dust on my hair and shoulders caught first light. This corolla was not visible to me. Because I was alone, it was visible to no one.
You moved toward me from the base of a mountain, a mountain that extends a thousand feet or more down into the radiant playa. You were a shadow, the absence of your light not visible to you.
We met, a fusion of the invisible. The shock wave rippled out. Out and further out. There was damage and dislocation. Beyond our ken.
When the air stilled, there was nothing left but fused sand, brilliant as the shards of beer bottles the local kids smash in furious celebration.

No one is free of the forbidden. We are forbidden to speak of it. No one will ever grow old in America. No one will ever carve an arc that leaves the mind in a wheelchair. No one will stop pretending the Western Lands are a frontier for our experiments, for our ceaseless insistence on Fun. No one will double over in the pain and horror of seeing clearly.

The Western Lands welcome you. Look. Out Here you can see for miles. You can begin again. And again. We modern humans are eternal. We will not die. Nothing has been lost.

We do not speak of it. In the huge silence, death moves toward us. We are too busy to notice. We are too busy to know that in our busy-ness, we race to meet the end of everything. We carry what we do not notice with us — toward extinction.

The bulldozer crawls across the high desert sand. The horned toad is slower. Metal and flesh. Months later, we unlock the door of our new “Dream Home” and walk across the bones and carapaces of those we have refused to know.

Welcome to the forbidden.

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 peakbagger.com. The details of the speech came from Wikipedia.

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