A Delicate Part

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” he says, “tell me about it.”

“I’m crotched-out after 15 miles.”

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

“Not a chance.”

“The saddle, Man,” he says.

“Whew,” I say.

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

“Then I’m not a wuss?”

“Nope, the saddle is worn out.”

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

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

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

So when was your last physical?

Mine is Thursday.

Logging Hours in Shallow Water

It is October, and we have just recovered the body of a young man, drowned in now-placid water. The falls are not terribly deep, but today, they prove deep enough.

“Hey,” the tan and balding lieutenant says to me, “thanks for your help today.”

“No worries,” I respond. “Any time. I’m not a diver, but I’d be glad to help whenever you’ll let me.”

He nods. “We always need shore help. Talk to your lieutenant.”

Training and dive log: 11 hours

***

It is December, only two months later, and I am back out on the water. This time, a large lake in the rural community just west of my home. The team gathers there every December, diving the cold muddy waters. They dive off the dock, into the murk, and pull all the detritus that has fallen since the last December: ranger gear, radios, boat batteries, fishing poles, cell phones, tackle boxes and frequently, six packs of beer, still secured in their plastic rings.

I sit on a wooden bench that is softened by a small thin pad that doubles as a flotation device. The boat rocks gently, and I snap photographs of the divers. The sun reflects from the water, warming my face, but it is not enough. The breeze is brisk, biting, and I’m glad for the heavy Kevlar vest that I wear. The ceramic and steel plate nestles against my heart, trapping body heat.

The divers slowly make their way back to shore, and the small motor on board sputters to life, so as to follow. It is time for the real reason, real purpose of the day: the team holiday party and gift exchange. Families have arrived on shore, waiting, gifts in their arms, warm dishes for the potluck. I have no one, save a dog, waiting at home.

I made a cheesecake, traditional New York style. It is heavy, silky, beautiful and topped with dark, rich, juicy Morello cherries. I live in a small one-bedroom granny flat with a temperamental stove, given to fits of hot and cold. I alternately worry that the cake will collapse, undercooked, or shrink, overcooked. Or, worse, both … It turns out perfect and luscious.

Carefully, I place the cheesecake on the buffet table, among the gingerbread cookies, the fruit ambrosia and other offerings. I make my way to an open seat at one of the tables; I am still so new that I am learning names, attaching to the right faces, right rank.

No sooner do I sit down than do two deputies, special enforcement detail, our SWAT team, pick up the cheesecake and two forks. They walk away with the entire cake, and devour it, just the two of them. To add insult to injury, the heavier of the two, flat-top and mustache, wipes his finger across the now empty cake form, licking it clean.

The lake is now as clean as the cake form. Trash has been appropriately disposed of. Batteries and waterlogged radios lay on the deck, draining, while lake staff inventory them, checking serial numbers against their clipboard, so the appropriate insurance forms may be submitted. The oxygen tanks are back in stow on the dive van, waiting refill, and neoprene suits hang over truck beds and tailgates, dripping dry. People laugh, eat, back slap, enjoy. I am part of this team, and it feels good.

Training and dive log: 8 hours

***

My quadriceps and hamstrings scream, cramping. My breath comes in quiet rags, panting hard, as I stretch my arms and hands high above my head.

“You can do this,” the handsome blond dive instructor calls to me, encouraging. “You can do this, come on, only a bit more.”

I roll my eyes at him, but keep treading. This is the most difficult part of the endurance test, and my hands, arms must not touch the water. Lungs and legs only, and long, interminable, hour-long minutes. I keep treading.

The final decision had been made a few weeks before: for liability reasons, all members of the dive team must be appropriately certified by a nationally recognized and accredited dive school. After proficiency certification in open water, then dive rescue, evidence recovery, underwater investigation, more. Further, all members must be sworn; I’ve already completed the academy, been issued badge and weapon. All that remains is this unending tread.

“Time!” the dive instructor calls, clicking the stopwatch, arms raised in the air. Victory! I swim to the edge of the pool, throw the weight belt up to him, and pull myself onto the concrete, exhausted.

Victory.

Training and dive log: 4 hours

***

The Pacific surges and sways, and even through the thickness of my hood, I can hear the low swish of kelp. We are approximately 18 feet below the surface; the dive master is off to my right, pointing. Fish dart here and there, but here a small orange Garibaldi makes his stand, protecting his territory. I can hear him, barking, a popping sound, as he scolds us. The dive instructor extends his right leg, fin out, at the Garibaldi, and he clamps on the tip, shaking like a dog. I laugh, and accidentally suck in water. Choking, sputtering, I clear my regulator, and the dive master laughs at me.

We practice clearing regulators, clearing masks. He motions for me to drop my mouthpiece, and we practice rescue breathing, sharing the one source of oxygen. He nods; I’ve passed the skills. Time to move on, and he motions with a crook of his finger.

I learn to navigate underwater, using a compass. I learn how to take my vest on and off. I learn not to panic, when my oxygen tank is secretly shut off.

And, I learn to keep an eye out for falling rocks. This has never been mentioned anywhere in my texts, or the PADI videos. No one, not even the dive instructor, tells me that rocks may fall from the sea above.

That is a lesson I learn, instead, from a small, silky sea lion. He darts to and fro, slipping in and out of the kelp, out of my line of sight, disappearing into the dark jade of the Pacific. Quick and fast, he speeds past, scooping the rock from the sandy floor, racing back to the ocean’s surface, and drops his rock again. A game, and an amusing one, as long as one doesn’t get hit on the head.

Training and dive log: 11 hours

***

We are in the pool, the whole team. The instructor has spent two days in a classroom with us, slide projector showing proper procedure, underwater diagramming, ghostly white bodies floating in the deep. My book is filled with scribbled notes, highlighter ink, pages dog-eared to important sections. There are other specialists from other agencies that have joined us. None of us have a big enough team, enough people to support the course on its own, so together we come to learn, train, dive.

Into the water; I must perform all of the same skills I completed in the ocean: in and out of the buoyancy vest, shared regulators, navigation, emergency clearing of masks and breathing apparati. Then it is the obstacle course.

The pool is filled with suspended tires, tennis court nets, a weighted body. Debris intended to trap, snare, kill a recovery diver — meant to kill me, if I am not careful.

“You will do the entire course, timed,” the instructor bellows. “If you pass, you will then repeat the course. You will be dark. And it will be timed.”

The first time, we will be allowed to see what we are doing. The second time, we must do it blind, face masks blocked, to simulate many of the conditions we will work in.

I am paired with the blond man, the dive master. I am young, and have no expendable income; dive lessons are expensive. But I have horses, and he wanted to learn, so we have traded dive lessons, hour for hour, with horse lessons. Win-win, and we develop an easy friendship. I am glad to be diving with him today.

We complete the assigned tasks, quickly, quietly, competently. When the course is completed for the second time, we break the surface and offers a “high five.”

“You’re a recovery diver,” he says.

Training and dive log: 13 hours

***

We are required to make monthly team trainings and dives, but that is not enough to remain proficient. Personal dives, if accompanied by a team member, are counted toward training, experience, hours.

It is easier and more efficient to swim, underwater, than to fight the tide at the surface. We are at 60 feet; the light filters from the surface, but the darkness looms closer. Small white objects float, iridescent, glowing dully, and move with the surge. I look questioningly to the dive master; he pulls his slate, and with a pencil, writes “squid, spawn.”

We are at the lip of the undersea canyon, and it is dark, so very dark. I shake my head at the dive master; our team has a 100-foot hard deck, and I’m not experienced enough to go beyond that.

Suddenly, my mask skews, and my hood contracts. Turning around, I see the dive master grinning, and with one hand, I feel for, and find, a large starfish. The dive master has put it on my head, and it has locked on, tight, pulling neoprene and hair.

I carefully work the starfish free, and right my mask and hood. The dive master is doing something, I cannot see what, as he lays on the floor, swaying with the unseen waves. He turns his face to me, and offers a hand — lying, flat, round, is a small piece of sandstone, and he has engraved “Diver Kim” into its surface.

“Diver Kim.”

Training and dive log: 7 hours

***

The deputy stands on the edge of the rock outcropping, peering into the pond. “I’da know,” he says, shrugging, “s’posed to be in there.”

The man that’s supposed to be in there, is not supposed to be in there. A migrant worker, here illegally, is from a nearby camp, high in the hills. This pond serves as a place to get water, bathe, socialize. Beer cans litter the shore, some aged and faded, some new, and probably the cause for our call today.

A single pair of denim jeans lay on the shore, dark, with a hand-tooled leather belt. The man’s name has been stamped into the belt. It serves as his only identification.

“You goin’ in ta get him”” the deputy asks.

I grin, as I pull my uniform shirt taut against my belly. I am five months pregnant, and do not fit in my wetsuit. “Not today,” I say. “Bit of a buoyancy problem.”

“Anyone else comin’?” he asks, looking around.

“On their way,” I say. The dive van is slow and clunky to begin with. Add in the rugged road leading into this location, and it will be longer still. No matter, as other dive team members begin to trickle in.

One man ambles up the path, heading to me, to the deputy, offering hellos. He’s been with the team for a very long time, incredibly experienced, unflappable, quiet. He has earned the nickname “Body Magnet,” as he seems to have the most finds. He is halfway into his wetsuit, a Farmer John only. No need for more than that. A quick assessment, briefing, and he is snugging his face mask into place.

Wading into the water, he settles onto the battered Boogie board, snorkel tucked into the band of his mask. Gliding softly across the surface, he makes his rounds, slow and methodical. It is not long before he stops, paddles back, body tense, and his hand dips into the water.

He is found.

All the steps are taken, process and procedure followed, and soon, the man’s body lies on the shore. Flat on his back, clad in leopard-print briefs and gray athletic socks, his lips are blue, and rigor has begun in his arms. He has thick, black, luxuriant hair, and a full mustache. I take his picture, and I wonder about him. All that I know is engraved on the back of his belt. Who is, or rather, who was he? Did he have a family? How many times did he cross the border, seeking work, better pay, a better life? All he wanted was a bit of relaxation, a cerveza with friends, and a dip in the pond. All for naught.

The dive van has not arrived, and therefore, there is nothing to place his body in. I reach into my backpack, and find my emergency shelter. Heavy orange plastic, and I slice the sides open, flat, like a sheet, and we slide him, carefully inside. He is not overweight or large, but the dead always seem to weigh more.

The van arrives, and soon after so does the medical examiner. He will be taken away, recorded, a statistic in a file somewhere, but our work here is done.

Training and dive log: 5 hours

***

The weather is cool, and the skies dark. Grey. Threatening rain.

I am off the shores of La Jolla, dipping in and out of the cove. To my south, sea lions frolic in the Children’s Pool. To my north, Great Whites pup in the artificially warmed waters off San Onofre’s nuclear plant. I have no agenda, no schedule today. Just be in the water.

I am approximately 15 feet from the surface when I notice it. I’ve never seen it before. Rain. Rain as it falls on the ocean’s surface, plinking, causing small circles to appear. I lay on my back, suspended in the surf, watching the rain spot the glass above me.

It is beautiful.

Training and dive log: 4 hours

***

The family stands on the shore. This lake is large, enormous, and serves as an Olympic training site. The young couple, however, only came for a bit of relaxation. Time alone, together, so romantic …

Until the oar slipped its lock, and floated away.

The young man, handsome, strong, jumped into the water after it. His impact caused the boat to slide away, and the oar even further. He could not swim, and his girlfriend, his love, watched in horror as he bobbed under, and again, and then one last final time.

The dogs are scenting the water, trying to triangulate for the divers. The media has started to arrive, setting up their cameras on the shore, on the docks. I try to avoid them, and am directed to keep the family safe from the news crew.

I sit with the young man’s mother. She has flown here, and waits in suspended animation.

“Is he cold?” she asks, hands clasped in her lap.

“No, ma’am, he’s not cold,” I say.

“It’s just so dark down there,” she murmurs.

“We’re doing everything we can to find him,” I assure her. And we are, and we do, for the next three days. We suspended operations after a diver, tired, at depth, embolizes. His partner saves him, brings him to the surface. They are transported to the emergency room, placed in a chamber.

I am part of the crew that attends to him, to them both, and my focus is on them.

But the young man’s mother still waits, silent, watching, as the helicopter flies away with my team, and patrol cars stream from the parking lot.

“Will you come back?” she asks.

“I’m sorry,” I apologize. We are out of resources. The risk has become greater than the reward. I explain that we will continue to search the shores, that he should eventually come to the surface on his own.

“Oh,” her voice is small. “When he comes up on his own …” and she trails off.

“Yes?” I ask.

“When he comes up on his own,” she tries again, “you can do CPR, then, right?”

This poor woman. This poor boy. My heart rends for her, and her arms lift to me. I stand on the shore, and embrace her.

Training and dive log: 12 hours, and the night is not over yet.

***

The Sheriff stands at the podium, while the emcee reads the proclamation.

“Without the assistance…” and our names are read. The diver who embolized will survive, although due to increasing pressure from his wife, he will resign from the team. It is too dangerous, and she is afraid. The diver who pulled him from the depths, the same diver who pulled the migrant from the pond, stands on the stage, as a medal is placed on his chest. I stand with the rest of my crew, as our names are called. We are awarded our own recognition, letters of commendation, a shake with the Sheriff, photographs taken.

***

The helicopter, an MD-Bell 500, painted deep blue, black, and white, hovers over the reeds. The rotor wash beats heavy and hard, bending the tall grasses, and sending hard ripples across the lake.

The boy’s body has indeed, finally, come to the surface. It has taken longer than anyone would have imagined. The heavy deputy steps from the bird, foot on the skid; he is the same deputy who walked away with a cheesecake some years before, and now pulls the body to shore.

A mother can now say good-bye.

Training and dive log: 2 hours

***

A mother says hello, smiles, and waves at her baby, blinking widely at the heavily chlorinated pool water.

My own children, now almost eleven, almost nine, splash and play. The girl likes to pretend she’s a mermaid, a dolphin. Right now, she’s lunging at her brother, jaws wide open, pretending to be a Great White.

Two years ago, they were dragged to swim lessons. The boy was hesitant, afraid, but his Papa insisted. The girl could not bear it, and cried much of the lessons, until the frustrated coaches sent her to sit on the sidelines. The Papa complained about the cost and wasted time; I held my breath. I’d already voiced my objections to the whole thing, to begin with, but some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

Last year, we made our way to the local pool and water park. Joining as annual members, we could come, escape the heat, play, explore. Slowly, Monday by Monday, the summer slipped away, tans darkened, and the children became more confident.

We joined again this year. Two Mondays ago, the Girl placed her face in the water. “I’m weady,” she proclaimed, and slipped under the surface.

And she did what none have done on any of our missions: she came to the surface. Triumphant, grinning, spluttering, “I did it! I did it!”

The yellow-covered dive books, mission logs have accumulated over the years. Entries. Dives. Notes. Pictures. Bodies. Missions. In the ocean, in any of the multiple lakes, ponds, creeks, falls.

Last November, facing the increasing pressures of growing children, shrinking time, a need to earn enough to support us all, and so much more, I sat, tears in my eyes, and typed my letter of resignation. I filed away the yellow-covered logs and placed the pictures into my desk. The letters of commendation, medal of meritorious service hang on the wall, in the dark of my rarely used home office. Two weeks ago, my badge was returned from the jeweler, newly emblazed with silver, engraved “honorably retired.”

And like so many days in the past, I am back in the pool, treading water, kicking, breathing, diving to the bottom.

The Girl waves from the shallow end, jumping, and holding air in over-inflated cheeks. The Boy swims to me. Body long, lean, brown from the sun, cheeks red from the excitement, swims to me.

“Mama, Mama!” he calls. “Wait for me!”

And I tread, waiting.

These are not hours I can log; there is no mission book, no training that must be learned. Instead, as I tread in these shallow waters, gazing at my two children as they splash and play, I realize, this may be my most important assignment ever.

Quonset Physics

I have long been skeptical of the current “alternative” building fads: mud walls, dirt-bag walls, straw walls, tire walls, compacted trash walls, ad infinitum. My standard rap, which falls on deaf ears because it is free advice, goes something like this: You are using techniques appropriate for a third-world village in an American (suburban) context. Walls constitute only 15 percent of the cost of most houses, and such alternatives do not save money, trees or concrete. Rather, the extra-thick walls add up to significant extra square footage, which results in bigger foundations and bigger roofs. And what do all these PC ramblers have for roof structure? Big, thick old-growth timbers and wood planks! For such reasons, I hope the now-fashionable eco-castles don’t become an enduring prototype.

I pray as fervently as the next hippy builder for the end of “balloon framing,” which is what modern wood framing was first called, because it looked so light and insubstantial that it might float away. It’s a ridiculous waste of trees, but persists because it’s a standard that can be estimated with accuracy and erected with moderately skilled labor. I have spent decades slicing wood — it’s the only construction trade for which I can claim master or journeyman status. But wood is subject to the ravages of fire, water, sun, mold and termites, and this old wood butcher thinks more and more about steel. I know I’m not alone — there’s a whole new generation of designers who scour the country for steel artifacts and industrial detritus that can be adapted to residential construction: shipping containers, grain silos, giant culverts. I myself had always wanted to erect a classic American form, the “Quonset” hut. Back in 1941 the U.S. Navy decided it needed a lightweight building that could be shipped anywhere. The now-familiar half pipes were first manufactured in Quonset Point, RI and have since, like the Airstream camper, become part of the vernacular. After World War II, they were mostly sold to farmers, as attested to by construction manuals that still advise you can “use your hay wagon” as a scaffold.

You’ve seen the commercials on TV — get a big steel barn and say goodbye to mini-storage rent! I thought about how sorry I was to see the old Quonset torn down in Telluride, after humbly hosting decades of basketball games, roller skaters and KOTO Halloween parties. But nostalgia aside, I began to see a nifty alternative to the suburban garage. What could be more ideal for an unheated outbuilding than a single skin that serves as structure, sheathing, waterproof membrane and finished, maintenance-free surface, topped off with an aluminum-alloy finish that will probably take centuries to rust out? Little did I know that this project would become a Christo-like exercise in process art, an absurdly simple plan requiring a gymnastic and sometimes frustrating execution.

So how do you buy one? I began by perusing the scores of websites selling steel buildings, many with testimonials like “Uh, me and Bill, we put up this thing in three days.” What I still didn’t know was that everyone’s selling the exact same steel arches, which are made in a handful of factories in the U.S. and Canada. But when I began calling the actual purveyors, you could see smoke coming out of the phone as I was hustled by a homogenous array of ex-carneys, ex-Amway sellers and ex-used-car dealers. Most employ a variation of the same pitch: “You want a 30-foot-by-40 foot-building? So happens I got this building that this guy in Florida didn’t pick up — we got it sitting on the dock here, and I’d love to get rid of it. I’d let you have it for say, $12,500, but you gotta buy it today.”

It took me weeks to sort through the hype and begin to understand the basics of steel arch buildings. The next hurdle was simpler but more mysterious. I had decided to erect my first Quonset in Taos, New Mexico, a town that in modern times has enforced a ruthless architectural conformity. Every last KFC is nothing more than a rectilinear, flat-roofed waferboard box sporting brown stucco and a few decorative timbers. However I could find no local code or covenant that forbade prefab or steel buildings, so I applied for a building permit and crossed my fingers, remembering how, many years ago in the Aspen valley, a snooty architectural control board had denied my request to erect a geodesic dome.

While salesmen continued to call me on an almost daily basis, I developed my shopping list: From the manufacturer, I would buy the steel arches, the steel base plates that attach the arches to the foundation, and a couple of curved, fiberglass skylights. I would construct my own end walls out of wood, with standard entry doors and sliding windows, and the splurge de resistance: two gorgeous, 8-ft.-by-8-ft. aluminum framed glass garage doors, aka service station or firehouse doors. This heavily glazed garage door wall would face southeast and gulp morning sun into the building.

After the slab was poured, we had to drill holes along the two long edges for expanding anchor bolts that would attach the steel base plates. This was a piece of cake with a big honkin’ rental store drill. The building parts came on a flatbed truck, all nestled together like long, steel Pringles. Next would be the fun, dramatic part: Like on the advertisements, we would construct each complete arch on the ground, and then raise it in place with a couple of ropes. We would use a two-level section of staging for the high work. Each arch is two feet wide and has six pieces that bolt together. In no time at all, a building would appear.

We set to work on the first arch, which was unexpectedly heavy when completed. Four of us strained and struggled to lift it up alongside the staging, at one point dropping it and denting a panel. This was my second glitch: when buying the arches, I had discovered that, for a relatively modest cost, I could upgrade to a heavier gauge of steel. Taos gets heavy snowfall, thus I reasoned this is no place to skimp. But the result was that it would take a crane to lift these monsters, and even then you would need a stout custom carriage to keep the arches from deforming under their own weight.

Our solution was to put up one panel at a time. It takes two people to work on each panel, especially up in the air. We used hand ratchet wrenches and cordless drivers. One person has to hold the nut on the inside to keep it from spinning, while the other person drives the bolt tight from the outside (sometimes hanging from a rope). The weather tightness of each arch depends on simple mechanical flashing: the bottom of each segment rests on TOP of the next segment down. We learned the hard way that you have to concentrate to remember this, or it takes tedious unbolting and rebolting if you get a panel flashed wrong. This process took, not “a weekend,” but a whole damned week. Not insignificant were the stoppages due to summer squalls blowing through, when nobody wanted to cling to a giant lightning rod.

Finally the big half pipe was done. It felt impressively solid when we walked on top. The immense, unobstructed and airy interior space became apparent. One surprise: with all that smooth concrete and steel, the acoustics inside are truly awful. They sell insulation kits for these babies — basically you just clip plastic-faced fiberglass bats to the arches. But then aesthetically you would be inside of a big, white bag instead of that clean, geometrically precise steel vault.

One day as we neared completion, an immediate neighbor walked over to tell me I had constructed an abomination that flouted local codes. This same neighbor’s own garage is a box troweled with tan stucco, and he was convinced I had brought his property values down. He seemed to back off a little when I responded that, yes, I had read the county codes calling for the preservation of rural character, and I could think of nothing with more rural character than a Quonset hut — in remote parts of New Mexico, I have come to regard distinctive Q-huts as mile markers. (And to tell the truth, I think outbuildings should be exempt from the style police and it should be okay for a garage to look like a garage.)

The first clue that I was part of a Quonset revival movement came when, on impulse, I sent a photo, with Taos peaks in the background, to my sales rep at SteelMaster Corporation. She informed me that she entered it in their new photo contest. Looking at rival pics on the contest web page, I was amazed by the creativity, intricacy, ingenuity and craftsmanship among the finalists. Ultimately, I finished 5th among Internet voters for cutest new Quonset in the land, and was awarded a nifty SteelMaster coffee cup and some pens that look like bolts with nuts. They are my most cherished professional awards.

The Top Five List

The other day, I met with an old friend at Boulder’s Dushanbe Teahouse. Swathed in delightful floral designs and wood carvings from Tajikistan, and sporting the requisite koi pond in the center with statuary of nymph-like humans, the landmark vibrates with the air that makes Boulder what Boulder is. That’s a good thing, mostly. If you can’t handle self-parody, then I don’t know what to tell you.

Along with Boulder’s acceptance of almost any topic that borders on the unfathomable, the high ceilings make for enough lunchtime din to allow you to talk about nearly anything without the people around you getting too much of your conversation. You could say something patently obscene like, “The Cummins 6.7L Turbo Diesel, with 800 lb-ft at 1600 rpm, arouses me greatly” and the folks at the next table would likely mistake “Cummins” for “hummus.” And chances are they wouldn’t hear the rest of the sentence until “arouses me greatly,” which would make sense given the high quality of hummus in the restaurant. You could talk about plans to spring someone from prison or to set up a meth lab in a church basement, and it’s just the kind of place where no one’s going to hear enough of what you’re saying to connect the dots.

Ours was one of those sweeping discussions that brought together our past six months of activities with any observed shifts in our worldviews. That’s the way conversation goes, right? You’ve got this back-and-forth thing that covers what you’ve experienced and how you feel about it. You ask questions. Neanderthals did it with monosyllabic grunts, the same way Packers fans go about communicating (I can say this because I am one, except I have to add that Packers fans really don’t want to know what you’re thinking, unless it’s about Jay Cutler being the world’s foremost douche bag).

I digress. My friend elaborated on a recent meditation retreat to the mountains of California, the overriding topic being The Shift due in December 2012 and already manifesting itself in the so-called Ninth Wave. We’ve heard about the Mayan calendar ad nauseam, but still, everybody seems to really want to know, whether they openly admit it or not, if the world is going to blow up on that particular winter solstice. And I get that. From a practical standpoint, it’s good to know if you should hang on to that nest egg or bankroll your final moments of depravity.

I noticed that the couple next to us glanced in our direction as my friend spilled out two or three hot-button words, but at first I took that as coincidence. No one in Boulder should have any reaction whatsoever to terms like “resonance” or “quantum shift in consciousness.” For the record, we were talking about how a lot of People in The Know are saying that the shift will be primarily one of vibration and enabling some people to exist in multiple dimensions. This means dumping the baggage that’s keeping us in the same karmic lot as Komodo dragons and resonating at a perilously low level of, say, 20. What we’re girding for is enlightenment and a hell of a lot more vibration points, and to get there you’ve got to transcend things like apathy and anger, even acceptance and reason, and get your quantum self buzzing like a city block full of adult toy stores. Like so many dogmas addressing End Times, you’re either on the bus here or you’re fucked.

The aforementioned happens to be a dogma that resonates with me, and if nothing else, it provided a thin segue to my end of the conversation that day. I have since learned to spoon feed people what I have to say about these things, kind of like when you start babies on whole food. Small bits of new but relatively bland things that can be digested, lest the recipient puke them back at you. You don’t jump into talk about zero-point energy, wormholes and anti-gravitational UFO propulsion systems any more than you’d serve scotch and pork chops to a three-month-old.

Loosened by a glass or two of pinot-something, I disclosed that I’d been studying exopolitics — the social, political and economic ramifications of ET contact. I said that a lot of people look at contact as this thing that kinda-sorta might happen in the future, perhaps in the form of the rabbit pulled out of the hat in December 2012.

“But I got news for you,” I told my friend as I let a garden-variety UFO chat slip into Outer Rear End World. “They’ve been here a long time. Some of them look just like you and me — except they usually have fewer teeth.”

She glanced around the room, then back at me. “You need to protect yourself,” she said. “Surround yourself in light, now.”

Evidently we were receiving bad vibes from the immediate vicinity.

I like to look at conversations in terms of the Top Five Weirdest Things being discussed at any given time. I’m certain that in my Saturday-morning exopolitics group, we’ve hit the planetary Top Five several times. It’s not at all weird for the group, which wants to see UFO disclosure and, urgently, development of the technology that frees us from the craziness surrounding nuclear and fossil fuels. But for most people it’s the scotch-and-pork-chops thing. Weird is relative.

Between the alien teeth and my apparent need for protection, we’d easily hit the Top Five list for the restaurant that day, and probably for the past six months. We had succeeded in violating Boulder’s standards for Conversations That Freak People Out. The table next to us had gone quiet, amid some visible under-the-table kicking. I looked at them as kindly as I could; they sent receding glances, kind of like the gorillas you see on documentaries. The encounter lasted about two seconds, but like a car crash, it seemed like three hours.

I felt like I’d just ripped off all my clothes at a clothing-optional beach where everybody else chooses to keep theirs on. Some things can’t be reeled back, and I’m quite certain that the people who sat next to us at the teahouse now have scars on their brains. But hey — it wasn’t like we implanted devices in them or anything.

“The weather’s been nice,” I said to my friend. We asked for the bill.

A Primer

“In the beginning, years ago, I think I said too much. I spoke with an encyclopedic knowledge of the names of plants or the names of birds passing through in season. Gradually I came to say less. After a while the only words I spoke, beyond answering a question…were to elucidate single objects.”
Barry Lopez, “Children in the Woods”

At this point in my life, 400 days from turning 40, I’m not a big believer in religion or any unseen world. Except when I’m hanging out with my daughter, a three-year-old ball of golden-haired fire. Sometimes, she ALMOST makes me want to believe in some sort of Supreme Being — but not for the reasons you might think. Not because she’s a little angel. Not because I think all babies are miracles. Nothing like that. She makes me want to believe in a bearded man in heaven because such faith would allow me to say “BECAUSE GOD MADE IT THAT WAY” whenever the questioning gets too tough for me to answer

It’s the quintessential “why-is-the-sky-blue?” sort of thing. The mind of a child trying to make sense of the world around her, accompanied by the half-baked, half-assed, half-educated brain of a parent trying to explain things without resorting to fairy tales (yet maintaining some semblance of magic), and doing his or her best to impart some scientific truthiness so the little girl with the wondering eyes can learn a thing or two.

Example: It’s spring and the trees are budding, and any kid who’s not glued to the teevee knows that this is special and worth noticing, worth checking out. She asks about the furry catkins on the aspen alongside the trail. She knows it’s an aspen because the bark is white, easy enough, but she’s never seen a catkin, so I pluck one and show it to her. Soft, fuzzy, obviously like a caterpillar, which she points out to me. I explain that this will become seeds for the trees, and that the wind will blow the seeds away, and some of them will sprout and make new trees. Easy enough … there’s tomato starters in the kitchen window, so she knows the sprouting seeds drill. But WHY are there seeds? Well, so there can be baby trees. WHY are there baby trees? So they can grow into big trees. WHY? So they can make more baby trees. Pause and ponder. WHY are there trees? Because the trees give us shade, and oxygen to breathe (grossly human-centered answer, I know, I know). WHY? Because they use the sunlight to make food, then breathe out oxygen for us. WHY? Because they evolved that way? Pause and ponder. WHY? Because billions of years ago, in some primordial swamp, a zap of lightning (or sunlight, or hot water, depending on which version I’m spinning) turned some molecules into some building blocks of life, and they randomly figured out that the sun was a good way to make food.

And on and on, backwards through time … the formation of the planets, supernovas, eventually to the Big Bang. And when you go back that far, you basically end up with one of two ultimate answers:

1) “Because a former Universe quit expanding and began contracting until that entire Universe was just a tiny little dot, then it exploded and made a new one.”

This is good, and some astronomers think this is how things may have unfolded this time around, but has one problem — it turns the discussion into a circular story with no prospect of an end, or a beginning, and offers no final answer to the question, inviting another round of WHY. Which is okay, for a while, but 45 minutes later, I’ve come dangerously close to resorting to:

2) “BECAUSE GOD MADE IT THAT WAY.”

Neatly wrapped, all-encompassing answer that requires no further discussion and could halt the inquisition issuing forth from the kid strapped to my back … but alas, as in life — unable to bite the mythical bait — so in daddyhood: I just can’t bring myself to utter those utterly final words. The final word, so to speak. So when the chatterbox just won’t stop, I simply tell her I DON’T KNOW.

Which is fine. She’ll figure out soon enough that mommy and daddy are plodding blindly through life, as clueless as anyone with regards to where the WHY chain begins or ends. Fine, that is, unless you’re fond of the Good Book. The one that begins at the BEGINNING of it all and ends with the END. According to that one, Jesus himself says that I’m headed for the fire due to the fact that I’m keeping a little child from the Lord, one of just a handful of utterly unforgivable sins.

Don’t get me wrong, for while I may actively prevent my daughter from indulging in things like crazy colored sugar cereals, Mcmeat products or Sunday School, I’m more than willing to allow for a book or two of Bible stories on her shelf, right alongside pint-sized tomes about Greek goddesses, Nordic heroes, Tibetan monks, ballerina princesses, baby animals and a swell little biography of Georgia O’Keefe. Like it or not, Biblical tales are part of our collective consciousness, part of our culture, and many of them are good stories: a tribe of wanderers trying to figure out how to function in a rough-and-tumble desert chock full of lions, serpents, flash floods and drought … not so different than New Mexico really. Heck, they even ride camels and camp in tents, both of which my daughter has done, so she can relate.

Good stuff, at least at the kiddo level. Useful parables about building your house on a rock instead of the sand, or how humble folks with good intentions can conquer seemingly insurmountable adversity. And there’s no genocide in the children’s stories. No smiting. No massacres. No hellfire or eternal damnation. Best of all, at least in our books, NO GODDAMN DEVIL.

The Devil came into my life via a kid in the trailer court I grew up in. A poor kid with a permanent flaking skin condition and a single drunk mom who drove smack dab over my puppy while driving us to school one morning. The kind of kid who gets sent to the store to fetch mom another pack of Salems. He told me about the Devil, probably on the same day he showed me the porno mag he found in his ma’s bedroom, or the long day he held me hostage with a can of bug spray, and it freaked me out. This was more than just a bump in the night. Suddenly there was evil in my world, an actual EVIL BEING who was bent on harming me, who was always trying to trick me into doing things that would send me to HELL (such as gazing at my first porno mag).

Which is why I bite my (forked) tongue and don’t resort to “BECAUSE GOD MADE IT THAT WAY” when the questions get tough — because the notion of god leads one to religion, and religion, at least in this one nation under god, invariably, if temporarily, leads you to the Bible and the folks who thump it, who can’t wait to tell you all about the devil so they can scare you into joining their club. And I don’t want my daughter to have to wrestle with that sort of thing. Not yet. That can happen later, when she goes to college (on a full scholarship), smokes pot for the first (and only) time and wrestles with the problem of evil in Philosophy 101. She already knows the world can be a bad place. All kids knows this, no matter how loved or how stable a home life they might have. Diaper rash burns. Bigger kids take your toys. Daddy gets grumpy. Mama’s boobs aren’t forever. Ants bite. Bees sting. You don’t always get ice cream. All life is suffering, and the dark is scary enough as it is without worrying about whether THE DEVIL might be hiding in it.

So fiddlesticks on the devil, and more importantly, on the hysterical fear of him. A fear that ripped human culture from the womb of the earth and plopped it into the hands of a jealous and angry god. A fear that leveled the sacred groves of Europe. A fear that led to the wholesale slaughter of midwives, herbalists and storytellers who dared stray from accepted religious dogma. A fear that spread across continents and oceans like a disease, seeking out and destroying any perceived threat to the spiritual status quo found in rat- and cathedral-infested Rome, London or Madrid.

Questioning the status quo is a good thing, and as long as my daughter is going through this stage of incessant, root-level questioning of everything around her, I’m going to answer to the best of my ability. I know she’s soaking it up because out of the blue she’ll blurt out things like (while eating green beans) “I’m a T-Rex, and I’m eating stegosaurus legs”, or (while getting slathered in sunscreen) “the sun is a star, and stars are big balls of fire,” or (while hiking) “those trees died and they’re turning back into soil.” From the mouths of babes: biology, astronomy, paleontology, the knowledge that dispels irrational fear of the dark, the mysterious, the unknown.

This is all well and good, but at the same time, I gotta make sure that my personal aversion to Judeo-Christian-Islamic triumvirate doesn’t cause me to turn my daughter’s world into a dreary “just the facts” sort of place, shorn of mystery and enchantment. Our fear of the Devil and his brother Jehovah may have caused us to deny our Earth Momma, but our soulless scientific rationalism has taken that denial and ran with it — strapped it to the top of a Hummer and hit the gas, crammed it into an oil tanker and headed straight for a hidden reef — filling a gaping spiritual void by plundering any vestige of goodness left untrammeled by the Good News and transforming it into cold, hard, rational profits: herbs into energy drinks, old growth into plywood, genetic code into an industrial plaything. I don’t want my daughter to have to wrestle with all that either. Not yet. That can happen later, when she goes to college, smokes pot (for just the second and only other time) and decides that her economics class is a load of horseshit that just doesn’t jibe with the “Leaves of Grass” she’s reading in poetry class.

Which brings me back to catkins, and questions, and attempted answers. Edward Abbey once wrote: “The Earth needs no defense, only more defenders.” I would also suggest, with all due respect for the Lorax (who speaks for the trees) and well-intended parents everywhere, that the Earth needs no spokespeople, only more people willing to listen to what it’s saying. Answer questions? Yes, of course, always. Point out the vultures circling overhead? Sure, and you can even mention the fact that they eat dead things if you want. But watch out for: “This furry catkin … pregnant with possibility, an unbroken chain of evolving life force, a goddamn scientific miracle right in the palm of your hand sweetheart, just let me count the ways.”

No. No, no, no. JUST SHUT UP Daddy, and listen. Let the planet speak for itself; try to see the world through the eyes of a child, like the child you THINK you’re teaching. She’s already paying more attention that you are. Leave the mental geology book on the shelf and allow the “single objects” to gradually reveal themselves and their connection to every other single object, the whole infinitely bigger than the sum of its parts (and each part infinite in its own right).

This might entail a trip to the wilderness to witness firsthand the roar and spray of a hidden waterfall, or trout jumping in a shimmering mountain lake (we’re hoping for our first backpacking trip this summer), but it could just as easily mean watching the magpie strut along the cinderblock wall, or flipping over rocks together in the back yard to see what kind of creepy crawlies exist, well, right in your own back yard. It’s a lot more fun than a trip to church, a lot more interesting than a list of facts, and easy as mud pie: just step outside, hand in hand with your little girl or boy, and see what happens.

Bright Enough for Ya?

Come in outta the sunlight, will ya? There’s cold beer an’ whatever else might strike your fancy over there in the shadows, but step over here first. On the subject of light, you got to take a look at some of this cool shit I’m finding. Your eyes’ll adjust.

You ever wonder just how much electricity you could make with the sunlight in your backyard? On your roof? On the patches of abandoned farmland and tailings piles on the edge of town? On the never-developed pieces of meadow, hillside, plain, brushland — the over-grazed and still-recovering rangelands and watersheds that make up the “mixed-use” designated public lands managed by the erstwhile minions of the BLM, NFS, FWS, alphabet soup? I can tell you soon enough.

With viral YouTube videos of the Gulf oil well spill still making the rounds, King Coal in a full duck-and-cover fetal “Clean Coal” subsidy-begging crouch, and the still-leaking nuclear power plant in Japan as incentives to finally, “Just fucking DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING!” to promote renewable energy production, we of the interior hinterlands have been asked by the Bureau of Land Management to weigh in on how they should allow/regulate/promote solar power projects.

It may not be too late to have your say, and in the process of finding out what you think about the BLM’s proposal you just might discover whether your favorite stretch of country (or backyard) is a candidate for helping save our sweet selves from continued domination by the globalized hydrocarbon cabal. Interested? Read on …

  • Currently, most utility-scale solar plants create steam to drive turbines that produce electricity, in a process known as Concentrating Solar. Information courtesy the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
  • Find out where the sun delivers the most kilowatt hours for the buck at the Solar Energy Environmental Mapper from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE). Topo, relief and terrain maps, aerial photos; with overlays showing solar potential, agency boundaries, proposed solar development alternatives, streams and rivers, roadless area, protected resources, wilderness study areas, and more.
  • Take a look at BLM’s Solar Energy Zones in Interactive Panoramas. 360 degree images, with links to descriptions, then grab a cold one and walk a few of them for yourself.

Click on map for hi-res version.

(Courtesy: Solar Energy Development Program Information Center)

 

 

Promise of Spring

A title is a promise, or so I hear in writing circles. If that’s so, then this one, I’m telling you, has been broken for a long time. I’ve waited for warm dirt since last November when the first wet snow fell, and I’ve waited in earnest — and in vain — since the beginning of March. No dice.

Let me be clear: Spring in the Northwest is excruciating. Not crisp or cool or refreshing. Not even gloomy or depressing. Excruciating. The weeks between the last snow and the first flower stretch out endless as a Kansas interstate, interminable as a dentist appointment where the guy leaves you in a room with your jaw wedged open and then just forgets about you. Only worse. Because, in this case, there’s always a tease. You look out the window after a long spell of gray, maybe six weeks of drizzle, and you see the sun. The sun! You step outside — bundled in a wool coat and hat — and the wind blows fierce but you don’t care. You turn your face upwards only to see clouds rush in — from where? — to obscure the light.

John Denver had a song called “Late Winter, Early Spring (When Everyone Goes to Mexico).” Sometimes I remember the slow plucking dullness of that tune and think that’s how this feels, except that it’s mid-spring now not early spring, and anyway what was the name of that album? “Rocky Mountain High.” Colorado. 300+ days of sun a year. OK, OK, I admit it. My problem may stem from the fact that I grew up in Southern California, where we started swim practice outdoors the first week in February. The tradeoffs you get for living in the North Cascades rather than Greater LA are worth it, I know: clean air and solitude, green trees, waterfalls, and in summer, the high country. And it’s Lent anyway, I tell my formerly Catholic self, time to wait it out, cultivate patience.

Instead, I decide in late March to move to Arizona.

Seriously. I decided just that, emphatically, last week, when family obligations landed Laurie and me in Phoenix next to a swimming pool. Never mind that the hotel was surrounded by a Cracker Barrel, a riverbed littered with shopping carts and a thousand car dealerships. It was warm. Maybe there was no warm dirt, but there was plenty of warm cement, and that seemed good enough. I didn’t decide to move to Phoenix — I’m not yet that far gone — but Flagstaff, for sure, high dry and sunny. I was sure about it.

Until today.

There’s always a today, every single year. But I forget until it’s here: full sun, green grass, tiny shoots of tiger lilies, lupine, columbine, glacier lilies, water leaf, balsamroot.  None of it flowering. Not yet. But the promise is enough. And, yes, the dirt is warm, sun-soaked and smelling strong. I walked the gravel road this afternoon, skipping across potholes, in shirtsleeves, and, back home, I lay in the dirt and the fir needle duff among saw chips like confetti from a winter limbing project and brown maple leaves, dry as crepe paper, twitching in the breeze, and I stared straight into the sun.

 

Spring

1 May
Winter lasts so long up here, I sometimes forget there are other seasons. Down-valley spring beauties have already phased to glacier lilies, which are moving on to countless pots-of-gold arrowleaf balsamroot. Up here, the chilly loam is still holding its breath, mere clutches of courageous ’beauties are popping up in the slowly expanding tree wells. Ravens, beaks filled with the undercoat I have been brushing from my two big dogs, steal off to line their nests.
My wee abode sits at a lowly 2,300 feet of elevation, only about 500 feet higher than fourteen miles down-valley, where it is much more arid (and where it is already spring, as I have said). It is the proximity to the eastern toes of the North Cascades that dumps more winter here, in the land beyond Lost. And rain once it warms. But I am a rainforest girl at heart and diehard fan of winter, so this all sits well with me.

Up the Rendezvous Canyon, in the lingering snow bands behind Jason’s yurt, you can still see a few uphill Zs and downhill Ss from his late-season tours. From the Rendezvous toward Gunn Ranch, I take my first trail run of the season. Late April and enough of the way trail has melted out for a starter slog. I will turn around once the dirt and dead bunch grass ends and the snow begins in earnest. Each year around this time, I catch eyefuls of mountain bluebirds migrating through. They are an unlikely electric and blue my heart beat-beats when I spy them with eyes wide. Up and over the knoll and there they are! Tucked in the same bare and gnarled branches as they were the year before and the year before and the year before, and before that, too … nervously they scatter, and resettle not too far away.

A lifetime ago, my father gave me a Japanese print of an ethereal bluebird perched on a wintry branch. He also had this funny little thing he would say to me: “May the bluebird of happiness fly up your nose.” I think it was a play on an old Jimmy Dicks country song. My father was a West Point graduate and an officer in the Green Beret, who had a goofy sense of humor and a broken yet gentle soul. My dear old dad didn’t make it past 70 and after he passed, for me bluebirds came to signify him. When I spy them in the greening hills, all brilliant blue and other-worldly, I know my father is nearby, flying free and beautiful and it is magic.

On Being Pro-Life
Let me make this perfectly clear: I believe in a woman’s Right to Choose, so this is not about that. This is about biodiversity. This is about wolves. This is about being pissed the hell off.

A federal budget bill rider authored by Senators Tester, D-Montana, and Simpson, R-Idaho, has severely compromised the Endangered Species Act, endangering the health of ecosystems, and endangering wolf populations.
In a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity, “[The rider] removes wolves in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Utah from the federal endangered species list and sets the stage for near-term delisting in Wyoming. The rider bans citizens from challenging the wolf delisting decision while preserving anti-wolf litigation brought by the state of Wyoming and others.”

There are solid reasons why a bunch of government dough and effort were spent to restore Northern Rockies wolves: Restoring healthy populations of wolves here has resulted in healthier ungulate herds by keeping their populations viable. Riparian areas, and thus fish spawning grounds, are becoming healthier too, as deciduous tree growth is returning, having been over-browsed. We are quite simply peril-yzing an entire ecosystem.

I don’t get this deep-seated fear and loathing of large predators. Why must we always sit at the tippy-top the food chain, dizzily attempting to control all things wild? Why must we artificially increase elk herd populations, by example, to the detriment of the herd’s and surrounding ecosystem’s health? It is merely for the so-called sport of an easier hunt (subsistence hunting aside), and the ability to run domestic herds unfenced and on public lands without incident?
I am pro-life! I am against the abortion of biodiversity!

Taking a Breath
I am still lighting fires in the woodstove. Although sometimes just one in the morning and maybe another around suppertime is enough.

Watching the Cat

I am watching the cat
the cat stretched out long
right up close to the woodstove
Satisfied just to be warm

Some Good Sites

Conservation NW
The Center for Biological Diversity
Renacuajo Productions
The Daily Coyote

Spider Man, Part 2

Read Spider Man, Part 1 here. • My amigo Norb and I were ass deep in China’s remote Tiger’s Leaping Gorge in 1987. We were on assignment for Backpacker magazine to journalistically witness the first commercial rafting descent of the Class-5/Class-6/waterfalls-of-certain-death/no-rescue-possible Yangtze River through the gorge, an event that did not actually take place because, once the rafters saw what they would be up against, they pussied out and trucked their rafts downriver to calmer waters. Norb and I therefore had to scramble mightily to salvage a story we had traveled halfway around the world to cover. Not only that, but, this was the autumn of the famed Tibetan uprising, which caused many parts of China that bordered Tibet to be closed down to foreign visitation. Ergo, we had to sneak the 90 kilometers from Lijiang into Tiger’s Leaping Gorge under cover of darkness via a variety of improvised (read: bribed) means — including riding for a while on the back of a two-stroke Chinese tractor — after receiving threats from the local constabulary that, if we were caught entering the area, we would be arrested, interrogated/thrashed with canes, sentenced to hard labor and deported to someplace truly awful. Despite the overt pussiness of the rafters, we continued through the Gorge in hopes that we could still salvage the assignment situation by putting together a yarn about our hike, even if we had to fabricate stuff to make the tale saleable. At one point, Norb, the expedition photographer, decided to ascend a small side canyon so he could get a good downward angle that took in both yours truly in the foreground and the depths of the 11,000-foot-deep canyon in the background. Good plan that, on the surface, was only slightly complicated by the fact that, a couple days prior, we had the good fortune of trading almost all of our food supply, several pieces of backpacking gear and a handful of nearly worthless Chinese Monopoly money for a half-ounce of opiated Kashgari hash, which was, shall we say, stunningly efficacious, at the same time that we had not exactly been judicious in our imbibing habits. Yes, we were two mighty stoned units as Norb made his way through the thickly brushed side canyon in praiseworthy search of photographic excellence. He was concentrating so hard not getting caught up in the various species of thorny shrubbery that adorned the side canyon that he did not see the spiders until it was too late. I actually saw them before he did. I did not yell. I could not yell. It was like one of those bad drams where you freeze up right when shit’s hitting the fan big time. I told myself later that I did not yell because I thought Norb must have already noticed the fact that, scant feet above him, the side canyon traveled through a genuine house of eight-legged horrors. I do not know how many spiders there were, but there were literally hundreds and hundreds of them, all staking out territory in massive webs that covered every bush, tree, twig and blade of grass over the entire hillside. And these were not any ordinary spiders. First, they were all long and spindly, with legs several inches long. And they were psychedelically colored — like the unnatural yellows, greens and reds that are used on laundry detergent boxes. As soon as Norb nicked the first web, every psychedelic spider on that hillside went into protect-our-turf mode and they descended upon Norb’s suddenly shrieking (and did I mention, extremely stoned?) self like the orcs coming down those columns in the caverns where Gandalf lost his battle against the Balrog. Norb’s resultant body language, which was enhanced by boisterous invectives followed by large exclamation points, hovered somewhere between what you would expect of a human body if it were being electrocuted or set on fire. This situation was further enhanced because, at that time, Norb sported a fairly impressive ’fro, which, given the number of days we had been out, was fairly matted. So many spiders became entangled in Norb’s tresses — many of which got smooshed by Norb’s frantic flailings — that he might as well have been wearing arachnid mousse. Within seconds, Norb was covered in spiders, many of which had made their way under his shirt and shorts. And there was only one thing for me to do, besides, of course, run screaming in the exact opposite direction: I had to assist my chum. Despite the fervent protestations of every strand of DNA coursing through my corpus delecti, I scampered up that side canyon and intercepted Norb, who was descending in an imprudent manner. At first, I tried brushing the spiders off my writhing muchacho. But there were too many, and they were holding onto Norb like bullriders at a rodeo. So I had to start picking them off with my fingers, one by one, and throwing them as far as I could. More often than not, I would go through the tossing motion, only to see that the spider was still in my hand, like one of those boogers that molecularly adheres to your nose-picking finger no matter how hard you try to flick it out the car window. Even as the spider-removal process was underway, we were gradually, inch by spidery inch, making our way down the side canyon back to the trail. It took us a solid hour to rid Norb of those spiders. It was like going through detox, except that these spiders were real. By the time the removal process was mostly physically completed (the psychic scars did not go away quite to easily; for days afterward, Norb would imagine spiders in his pants or in his sleeping bag), we were twitching and screaming and hyperventilating right there in the middle of what in those parts passes for a fairly busy thoroughfare. Just as we were starting to calm down ever so slightly, we looked over and an entire family of Chinese peasants straight out of a National Geographic spread was standing there, jaws agape, eyes wide open, huddling very close together. This was a time and place when and where Westerners were rare. Had we been standing decorously while nattily attired, we would have been viewed with extreme suspicion, maybe even contempt. But here we were, yelling, screaming, gesticulating and twitching like we had both just been Taser’d. I tried to reach deep down into my decorum recesses and mouth a calm-ish greeting that came out in bad-Chinese falsetto. The entire family screamed and fled, their hands raised high. When our pulse rates finally reached non-lethal levels, and we were just getting to the point where we could chuckle a bit about the experience, Norb looked up Nightmare Gully and realized that, halfway up, on the ground, lay his camera bag, covered in spiders. He seriously considered leaving it right there, but, being a professional, he bit his lower lip and made his way back up into the land of spindly legs to retrieve his cherished photographic equipment. I stayed on the trail this time, guarding the hash. • This time, Norb and I were down in the Dominican Republic, working on magazine stories for Backpacker and Adventure Travel. We had already visited Isla Cabritos National Park — at 130 feet below sea level, the lowest and hottest part of the Caribbean — and ascended Pico Duarte — at 10,164 feet, the highest and coldest point in the Caribbean. We were planning to paddle our inflatable one-person Sevylor kayaks down the Rio Yuna, which, as far as we could tell, had not been descended in full since Columbus times. In between our various Dominican forays, we would hang out Santo Domingo, the capital, for a few days to rest up, re-supply and recreate. One of the places we would visit was called Maison de Mama, an outside restaurant/bar favored by Santo Domingo’s sizeable ex-pat community. One of the regulars was a giant American who boasted a hideous scar that had devoured most of one calf, which, judging from the other calf, had been the size of a watermelon before whatever unfortunate event transpired. Norb and I would sip lukewarm Presidente beers and speculate about the nature of the injury. My best guess was a shark attack. Norb’s best guess was that he had been in motorcycle mishap and had got his lower leg caught in the chain at like 100 mph. Finally we decided to just ask him, in the most delicate way we could. “Dude, what the fuck happened to your leg?” Norb queried. The entire outside seating area, consisting of six or seven four-top tables that were fully occupied, went suddenly silent. Faces turned ashen as people started examining their cuticles in earnest detail. “I got bit by a brown recluse,” the man said, dejectedly. Turns out that, at first, the man had no idea what was wrong with his calf. He only knew that it was extremely painful and that sizeable acreage of erstwhile living tissue was starting to turn black, smell horrible and, well, fall off. Even though he had lived in the DR for many years, like many expats we met, he did not hold Dominicans in high esteem. Thus, he opted to fly back to his native Wisconsin to seek First-World medical care. The doctors in the decidedly non-tropical Badger State were nonplussed, and stayed that way for weeks, as this man’s calf was disintegrating. They thought it might maybe be some sort of flesh-eating virus, so they treated the injury as such. And so it went. For months and months. I don’t remember how the light eventually went on, but it was determined that he had been the victim of a negative brown recluse interaction — something that, had he sought medical treatment in the DR, would likely have been diagnosed and treated properly from the get-go, because, we then learned, that particular variety of poisonous spider dwelled in abundance throughout Hispaniola, and many people suffer from its bite. “It’s especially bad down in the river lowlands and along the swampy coastline,” we were told. “Where did you say you were going paddling?” We said were going paddling in the river lowlands and along the swampy coastline. Shit. The last time Norb and I looked at each other that way was over in Hong Kong, when we were hiking the famed MacLehose Trail and we learned, at the trailhead, of all places, that the entire area through which we were going to traverse was thick with some of the most poisonous species of snakes in the world, including, but not limited to, an especially aggressive variety of King Cobra, a reality that makes you wonder, as you’re lying there in your tent regretting mightily drinking those last seven beers, if you can hold your piss until morning, ’cause getting out of the tent in the middle of the night in a woods filled with aggressive King Cobras is totally out of the question. Our first night on the Rio Yuna, we ended up camping in the middle of a diminutive riverside mud pit. We had been looking for a more desirable place to bunk down for several hours, but, given the steepness of the bluffs and the thickness of the tropical vegetation, there were simply no other options. The mud pit/campsite was so small that we only had room to pitch one tent. As darkness rapidly descended — as it does in the lower latitudes — we leaned our packs against a tree and entered the tent. I awoke first and, before donning my glasses — a physiological requirement if I stand any chance whatsoever of making visual sense out of the world — I went over to the packs to pull out the cook kit and food bags. When my hand was scant inches from the pack, I saw something large move, but, give my unfortunate spectaclelessness, I could not make out what it was. At first, I thought it was a monkey laying claim to my Lowe Expedition. I dashed back to the tent to retrieve my eyewear, telling Norb excitedly that a simian of some sort was perched atop our gear. Norb then reminded me that there are no monkeys in the wilds of the DR. I put my glasses on a returned to the packs, and only then did I realize that what was perched atop my pack was not a monkey, nor even a mammal, nor even a warm-blooded creature, but, rather, the single largest spider ever to tromp the earth. And it was brown. And territorial in the extreme. Whenever I inched toward my pack, it inched toward me, snarling. When we were having the brown recluse conversation back in Santo Domingo, Norb and I took it upon ourselves right then and there to become the world’s foremost brown recluse experts. We asked everyone we could find what brown recluses looked like, and, par for our course, everyone we asked had a completely different story. Sometimes brown. But not necessarily. As the name indicates, reclusive and shy. No! Their nomenclature notwithstanding, aggressive. Large. Small. Diurnal. Nocturnal. Spindly. Stout. The only characteristic that everyone seemed to agree on was that brown recluses have a violin-shaped marking on their back, though some said it was only the female that sported such cultured decoration, while others said it was only the male, while others said the violin was only visible at certain ages/times/conditions. Exasperatedly, Norb and I decided that, anything we ran into with more legs than a snake was to be considered a brown recluse until proven otherwise. In the early morning dim light, which was made even dimmer by the verdancy of the jungle, we could not tell if the mammoth creature staking a claim atop my pack had a visible violin on its back. “You’ve got better eyes then I do, you get closer and look,” I said to Norb. “It’s your pack,” he responded. “Yeah, but we need to move my pack to get to your pack.” In the end, I knew it was my task to deal with the spider. I picked up a long stick and tried to brush it aside. It knocked the stick away. I poked at it. It grabbed the end of the stick and poked back. Finally, I raised the stick with the full intent of dispatching the creature, but every time I struck, it dodged my blow, seemingly sneering at me the entire time. It finally dawned on me to crush it with the bottom of my Teva. I stomped down, and the next thing I knew, I had been tossed back onto the ground three feet away. We were fast running out of ideas. Then, of all fortuitous things, a ray of sunshine broke through the canopy and struck the spider like a magnifying glass. The spider raised its legs across its face, shrieked, jumped off my pack and dashed into the jungle. Whew, we said simultaneously, just as that one ray of light disappeared. I reached over and grabbed my pack, exposing Norb’s bright red Mountainsmith. At that moment, a second giant simian spider jumped out and staked out its turf atop Norb’s pack. As I prepared breakfast, Norb sharpened a stick and, before long, he returned with a skewered spider impaled on the point. His victory was mitigated somewhat by the fact that the top of his pack, right where the second spider had made its last stand, was a large hole, made by the sharpened stick Norb has used to dispatch his eight-legged foe. • It had been a hot, 10-hour, 4,500-vertical-foot descent into Mexico’s Copper Canyon. While my wife, Gay, and photographer Mark Fox chilled on the side of the Urique River, I decided to slide into the tent for some late-afternoon shut-eye. When I arose, I was groggy and, instead of joining Gay and Mark down by the cooling water, I sat in the sand and leaned back against a rock. What happened next was exacerbated by the fact that, at dawn, up on the rim, I had moved a rock to create a hole for my morning deposit, and from under that rock emerged a tarantula that seemed mighty displeased at having been disturbed. OK, I’ve seen plenty of tarantulas and, once I got over the initial reaction of having an arachnid the size of my hand appearing from the bowels of the earth while I’m looking for a comfortable place to make dookie, all was well. After all, everyone knows tarantulas are mellow creatures. Harmless. But there I am, leaning against that rock down at the very bottom of one of North America’s deepest abysses, trying to wake up. I saw it out of my peripheral vision, and, at first, it flat out did not compute. Then it landed on the right side of my neck, just above the jugular. A monster-sized tarantula. Mellow creatures or not, having one jump out of the blue onto one’s neck is an adrenaline-producing experience, let me tell you. I jumped up, swatting the spider, but I did not see what had become of it. From what Gay and Mark told me later, I was rather excited. Matter of fact, the two of them, unaware that there was a giant tarantula on my neck, looked up to see me a couple dozen yards away break dancing, using expletives and asking over and over in an agitated tone of voice, “Where is it? Where is it?” Gay thought I was having a stroke or a heart attack. They both ran over, half expecting to perform CPR. By the time they arrived, I had located the spider, which was by then lounging on the side of my tent. When I related the story, the urge to laugh was assuredly mitigated by the fact that there is not a single human being who has ever lived who does not shit his or her pants at the thought of having a tarantula jump upon one’s neck. I feel fairly safe in saying that I am not the only one who would panic. After a few minutes, the tarantula continued upon its merry way. “On second thought, I think I’ll put my tent up tonight,” said Mark, who, up until that point, had planned to sleep out under the stars. • And, speaking of tarantulas … My buddy Fosco Spinedi, a Swiss-Italian I have known since high school, joined me for three weeks while I made my way from Utah to Mexico along the Arizona Trail. His first day out, just south of Flagstaff, we found ourselves in the middle of the autumn tarantula migration, which, while certainly lesser known than the migration of the African wildebeest, is still a sight to behold. Since this migration, which consisted of literally thousands of tarantulas, was southward bound, taking obvious advantage of the Arizona Trail’s tread, we were able to witness it up close and personal. Fosco, being a life-long resident of the civilized Alps, was somewhat taken aback at the notion of sharing the trail with several thousand humongous spiders. But he calmed down a bit once he realized that, since there were so many, and they we so tightly packed, we could stand atop their backs and get transported along our merry way like Egyptian royalty being borne by bearers down the trail, to life’s next great adventure, life’s next great tale.

Five Things to Love About Backpacking in the Gila

When my pack-toting Colorado buddies heard that I was moving back down to Gila Country after 24 years in the Centennial State, they all scrunched up their faces and wondered aloud what manner of madness had possessed me this particular go-round. For, you see, the main publicity in recent years that has made its way out of the Gila National Forest into the Outside World has centered around things that are not exactly perceived as positive: the battle over cattle and the concomitant war over wolves. Not exactly enticing from a marketing perspective. And, before that, 15 or so years ago, there was the wonderful news from Gila Country about homemade bombs being placed on trails by Forest-Service-hating ranchers looking to explode the legs off unaware backcountry rangers. That really made everyone in Colorado want to come down here for a little walk in the woods. My reaction to the articulated incredulity of my Colorado backcountry chums was to simply nod my head and agree that, yes, things might be a tad too dangerous and acrimonious down in Gila Country and, therefore, everyone should stay away, just to be on the safe side. When you’re a backcountry loner like I am, bad publicity is the best publicity. And, since we have just come off a wildfire season so world-class severe that I’m certain anyone even considering coming down to these parts for a look-see has opted instead to visit Scotland, I feel pretty safe in herein listing five things I love about backpacking in the Gila, a place, I should note, where there are at least six species of rattlesnake, most of which are very aggressive, often exceed 45 feet in length and regularly kill and eat young children and family pets, at least those few children and family pets that have not already been dispatched by the mountain lions, scorpions and herds of meth dealers. In no particular order: • Despite the fact that there are certainly more people visiting the Gila’s backcountry than there were when I lived here 35 years ago, the wilderness hereabouts is still by-and-large unpeopled. You break your ankle on a trail in Colorado and all you have to do is make yourself comfortable and wait for the next senior-citizens’ hiking club or Brownie troop to amble by, which they will in less than 15 minutes, guaranteed. You break your ankle in the backcountry around here, and, well, think in terms of that scene in “Jeremiah Johnson” where Robert Redford finds the frozen guy with the Hawkin rifle. There are certainly many people who would view the inherent loneliness of the Gila as a bad thing. I am not one of them. • Now that I think about it, there has been some other publicity about the Gila Wilderness, stuff besides acrimony about wolves. Backpacker Magazine, for whom I worked as a contributing editor for more than a decade, once did a piece on the darkest places in the country. At the top of that list was the Gila. Of course, given the perpetual state of fear that pretty much defines the U.S. these days, that story did not necessarily translate into increased visitation, which is weird, because the Gila’s lack of ambient light does translate into the very best night-sky viewing imaginable. I have seen the night sky here so clear and star-filled that even the major constellations were unidentifiable, lost as they were in a dense celestial setting the spanned clear to the center of the galaxy. • In Gila Country, the concept of building a campfire is not only still permissible, but is actually de rigueur while backpacking. In most of the West, campfire-making has been relegated to the status of Mortal Sin among the truly holy backcountry users. This is because of the influx and influence of an entity called Leave No Trace. Now, I have nothing per se against LNT, except that they frame their credo in an ethical context — meaning that, if you don’t buy into their scripture, you are unethical. That scripture actually states, with regards to fire, something fairly benign, like “Be judicious in the use of fire.” But the anointed proselytizers of LNT have bastardized that ambiguous benignity to the degree that, if you so much as light a match in the wilderness, you’re a sinner destined, ironically enough, to backpackers’ hell. Here, people just build campfire and sit around them and chat the night away, the same way humankind has been doing since our species started walking upright. • Since I’m already treading on the cusp of backcountry political incorrectness, I might as well wholeheartedly take the leap to the dark side. One of the best things about traveling in the Gila is that people who go there still pretty much consider tobacco products to be essential gear. I smoke cigars while camping, and, in the more genteel parts of the West, you pull out a stogie or, heaven forbid, hand-roll a cigarette, while you’re camping (especially if you’re doing so while sitting next to a fire), and the full force of PC self-righteousness will descend upon you right then and there like a rat pack of vengeful angels, like out of the crescendo scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In the Gila, people just light up during trail breaks and the only thing anyone else says is, “You got any extra cigars?” • Most people who venture forth into the Gila backcountry do not spend much time eyeballing the latest glossy magazines for fashion and equipment tips. Go hiking around Missoula or Boulder and you will actually be scrutinized by other trail users vis-à-vis your attire and gear. If you are not wearing the latest Patagonia color-coordinated ensemble complemented by your brand-new state-of-the-art GoLite backpack, then you are considered irreparably gauche. Here, people still use their 20-year-old Kelty external-frame packs. People venture forth into the Gila wearing $2 cut-off shorts procured at a thrift store nine years ago. It speaks well of a place that it does not inspire people to think they have to own the latest and greatest gear and clothing just to go for a hike or to go fishing. Whatever you do, don’t let any of this make its way to the Outside World. Some things are best kept secret.

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