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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have never admired a canyon so much.

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

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

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

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

Boomerang

 Living Beyond Lost: Boomerang

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

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

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

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

Living Beyond Lost: Boomerang

Exhausted.

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

Sleep.

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

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

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

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

Someday I will return. I promise.

********

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

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

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

Living Beyond Lost: Boomerang

Tired.

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

Sleep.

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

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

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

And I had kept my promise.

Living Beyond Lost: Boomerang

Intermission

Before Winter

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

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

Midnight soot on my elbow
nose tip
cheekbone
hands.
I smell of burning trees,
fallen,
cured.

The Four-Point
fallen,
cured.

It is more terrifying than thunder.

 

A Good Thing to Do:

Help my friend, Ryan — Renacuajo Productions (http://www.renacuajoproductions.com/)

Learn about Yasuni Man. Keep visiting Ryan’s Renacuajo Productions site for updates and when we can again offer help. Spread the word.

A Sailboat, Puppy and Hip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nope.

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

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

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

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

Jeweled Jars of Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Incongruities of Place

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Wolf Interrupted


Lookout Pack Pups. Photo: Conservation Northwest

My, What Big Teeth You Have

“Can anyone tell me what’s good about wolves?” asked nine-year-old Irene Popp of Kamiah, Idaho, during a public meeting in Salmon. The 27 July meeting preceded the Idaho Fish and Game Commission vote the next day which set the hunting and trapping — leg hold and neck snare (read, strangulation) — season for the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf.

I wasn’t at the meeting and I don’t live in Idaho. From my wee abode in the shadow of Last Chance, I listened to this story on NPR by Jessica Robertson, NW News Network. Maybe little Irene had been reading wolf-vilifying fairytales such as “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Three Little Pigs”? How could one so young form such a definite and angry sentiment against wolves? I went so far as to locate little Irene’s telephone number through her father’s listing. Mike Popp, Irene’s daddy, was also mentioned in the story and the two were listed as a father and daughter anti-wolf team. I simply wanted to call up little Irene and ask her why she felt so strongly against wolves. No harm intended.

While searching for Mike Popp’s number, I discovered that papa Popp owns an outfitting and guide business and is licensed for bobcat, deer, bear, cougar and, last but not least, wolf hunting. OK, so I no longer needed to ask little Irene why she felt so negatively toward wolves. I had my answer. I could only imagine what she’d been hearing around the dinner table. I did not pick up the telephone.

“Open ’em year round. Hunt ’em, trap ’em, run ’em over. Don’t make a collared wolf illegal to shoot. Shoot ’em!” Mike Popp exclaimed during the meeting in Salmon. Papa Popp was also there with a group called the Committee for a Safe and Wolf-Free Idaho. Scary stuff.

I typically find myself rooting for underdogs such as the Big Bad Wolf, who was cooked up in a pot in the conclusion of “Three Little Pigs.” I feel pity for the Big Grey Wolf, who was strung up by his tale and later paraded off to the zoo in “Peter and the Wolf.” I am horrified when the hunter cuts open the belly of the wolf to release Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmamma, filling the gaping cavity with stones so he will drown. (After all, maybe granny and Lil’ Red had it coming?) I even want Wile E. Coyote to catch that damn, smug roadrunner, to stop falling from cliffs, being crushed by various heavy objects.

Little Irene Popp, wolves help keep our forest’s creeks and rivers healthy by bringing ungulate populations in check. In this same circle of life, wolves help keep healthy the deer populations your father hunts and guides other folks to hunt. Wolves help keep your daddy in business and food on your table. Wolves play harmony in the music of the wild, and pepper the forests with magic and mystery. We would be less in the absence of wolves.

We Had Wolves

During the summer of 2008, the Lookout Pack in the Methow Valley, a mountain and river valley in north-central Washington I call home, was confirmed by WDFW as being the first wolf pack in Washington State since the 1930s. Some of us in the valley cheered! Some set traps, picked up guns, laced meet with arsenic and got busy. Shoot, shovel, shut up!

By 2010, the radio-collared alpha female was missing and presumed dead, nay poached.

Once numbering upwards of 10 or 11 individuals, the pack has now been diminished to two males, likely the old alpha and one of his sons. However, there has not been much proof of their continued existence over the past couple of months.

Thankfully, the ranching family who “got busy” is pretty dang stupid, and while you can’t shoot stupid, you can convict. Three area residents were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of killing several endangered Washington gray wolves: One family member tried sending a pelt to Canada and was caught when a shipping agent alerted authorities to a box leaking blood. Another emailed a relative in Alaska asking for help in trapping wolves, later emailing that he and others were hunting wolves near his property. In January 2009, he again sent an email claiming he and others shot two wolves in a group of nine, and one wolf in a group of three.

The ranch had not experienced any loss of livestock due to wolf predation and is being investigated on other charges of illegal hunting, e.g. deer out of season, hunting cougar with dogs, baiting beer.

So when Idaho Dave responded to my May blog post offering, “If you’d like, Idaho would be happy to share a few extras [wolves] with your area,” I only wish we could oblige…

Lookout Pack, 1 Year Pup. Photo: Conservation Northwest

Over the Mountain and Through the Woods

A bit farther south in the Cascade Range, another wolf pack has been found in the middle of a USFS allotment. The Smackout pack, as it is being referred, is small with an alpha female and male, and three pups. The alpha female weighs in at a whopping 65 pounds (who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?) and has DNA ties to the once thriving Lookout pack. Hope springs eternal.

Recommended Reading

• “Three Among the Wolves: A Couple and Their Dog Live a Year with Wolves in the Wild.” Helen Thayer, Copyright 2004, published by Sasquatch Books

• “Never Cry Wolf: Amazing True Story of Life Among Arctic Wolves.” Farley Mowat, Copyright 1963, published by Little, Brown and Company

• And this Guest Column Piece written for the Omak-Okanogan County (WA) Chronicle by Conservation Northwest’s Outreach Associate, Jay Kehne. Used here with Jay’s permission:

Many people in the Okanogan are talking about wolves since they returned to our county a couple years ago. If you believe everything that is being said about wolves at public meetings, coffee shops and on the internet, you may not be getting the whole story. You may have been fed a line.

Such is the case of the recent resolution by the Okanogan County Commissioners asking the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) to remove protections for the wolf. Its allegations are mostly unfounded, it will not succeed, and it will be remembered largely as a waste of energy and time. I predict that the WDFW will send Okanogan County a letter explaining the well-established biological and legal basis for protecting wolves as an endangered species in Washington. Then we will be right back where we started, needing to separate facts from myths about wolves so we can move forward and learn how to live with them. Take into consideration that the results of a recent poll show a whopping 70% of Washington residents support wolf recovery in our state.

As a friend, acquaintance and neighbor to many people in Okanogan County, I want to share information about wolves and help stop the unproductive and unfounded fear-based rumors, untruths and wild stories that are going around. Hear me out; I’d like to take them on one by one:

Wolves will infect us all with Echinococcus tape worm!  This tape worm is found in canines around the world, including dogs, coyotes, wolves and fox. The eggs of the tapeworm can spread to wild and domestic ungulates, like deer and sheep when infected canid feces are ingested. Ungulates also can give the tapeworm to canines when an infected ungulate is eaten. But people will not get tapeworms from eating infected deer, elk, or sheep. The Tapeworm can only be transmitted to humans that ingest infected canid feces. The risk of infection to humans remains infinitesimally small and certainly won’t change significantly because a few wolves are spread out over millions of acres of woods.

Gray wolves are not native to Washington! It is scientifically documented that wolves first migrated into Washington from the southern Great Plains about 10,000 years ago, and wolves were routinely observed and trapped by pioneers. With territories of over 350 square miles, and excellent dispersal capability, wolves have been wandering back and forth across the Canadian border for eons. Gray wolves living in Canada and Washington, were and are, all the same species. When wolves disappeared from Washington in the 1930s due to trapping, poisoning and hunting, the same gray wolf species still existed in Canada. And now these wolves have wandered back into Okanogan County. Same wolves, same species. In fact, recent research involving DNA from hundreds of wolves from Canada, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming found there is no genetic difference between them.

Supposedly there are sworn affidavits that people saw wolves being released in Okanogan County! I’m sure somebody saw something, but to believe these were wolves you’d have to ignore a whole lot of things. Even highly trained biologists and trappers need more than a quick sighting to verify a wolf. To verify a wolf you need pictures, photos of tracks, or DNA evidence to be sure what you “saw” wasn’t a wolf-dog hybrid, coyote, or some other big dog. People dump unwanted pets every week in our area. Think about it, who would have the skills, motives or funds to track wolves (most likely in Canada) trap them, dart them, transport them unnoticed across the border, and release them in our county? Not to mention the alleged sighting took place in 2005 and the signed affidavit didn’t appear until 2011?

We will have monster 200 lb wolves!  The Idaho Department of Fish and Game would beg to differ. Of the 188 wolves taken in the 2009 Idaho wolf hunt, the record weight was 127 lbs and the average was 95 lbs. The myth of monster wolves comes from “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs” children’s stories, not from reality. And the pictures of giant wolves you see on the internet … well, even Photoshop or a wide-angle camera lens can make the fish I catch look big!

But what about all the livestock loss because of wolves! Fortunately, there is good data on livestock predation. With 1,500 wolves in the Rockies and 3,000 in Minnesota, only 1% of cattle losses were due to predators. Of that 1% percent, coyotes accounted for 53%, domestic dogs 10% and wolves 4% of all predator losses. Neighbors’ dogs kill three times as much livestock as wolves! After the poaching of the Lookout Pack in the Methow, we only have two confirmed adult wolves in Okanogan County and a few scattered sightings of lone wolves. Even if Okanogan County’s wolf population grows to what experts expect (about 4-6 packs or 40-60 wolves), livestock losses will be extremely low. Let’s get proactive now so we can have plans in place to avoid wolf and livestock conflicts and funds to fully compensate ranchers if conflicts do occur.

Wolves will multiply to unmanageable numbers and overrun the county! Predator populations are self-regulating. Their numbers don’t grow beyond the natural prey base or the territorial space they need to occupy. Okanogan County only has enough physical space (territory) for a limited number of wolves, and they will kill other wolves and predators to defend their territory.

But what about us — wolves are known to attack and kill humans! This is where the facts can really help set aside irrational and unfounded fears. There is only one confirmed human life lost due to wolves in all of North America. For perspective, compare that to 34 fatal dog attacks in the USA in 2010 alone, and that 1,000 people are treated every day in the States for bites, maulings and attacks by dogs. Fear of wolves is not something to lose sleep over.

Wolves will decimate elk and deer herds! To really look at all the facts, research, and hunting statistics with an unbiased view, would take another whole article, which I would be glad to write. To get you thinking, 23 of Idaho’s 29 game management zones have elk numbers within or above management targets. With 150,000 elk, Montana is 14% over the state management objective, and Wyoming with 120,000 elk is 50% above objective. As an avid elk & deer hunter, I realize wolves change herd behavior. In order to remain successful, hunters will have to adapt, which in turn will make them better hunters.

To learn more about wolves, rancher compensation, wolf ungulate interactions and the basis for wolf recovery in Washington State go to: http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/gray_wolf/mgmt_plan.html and take a look at the Washington Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. You will be surprised in its thoroughness, fairness and balanced approach to the return of wolves in our state.

Jay Kehne is an avid hunter, backpacker, skier, wildlife advocate, and livestock owner, who makes his home with his family along the Okanogan River. He has degrees in Wildlife Biology and Soil Science from WSU. 

Some Good Sites

Joshua Tree’s Uprising Adventure Guides

Renacuajo Productions

Conservation NW

The Center for Biological Diversity

 

How To Dump in the Woods, and How Not To

It was the night before my five-day backpacking trip with five tough teenagers from East Palo Alto when someone asked about toilet paper, and we discovered we hadn’t been issued any. This was most of the kids’ first time in any sort of backcountry outside the Bay Area, and each seemed to have a different solution to the problem.

“I’m just gonna hold it for five days,” Eric said. The kids all seemed to know another guy who had gone on a similar backpacking trip, and legendarily “held it” until he got back to a proper commode with some soft, fluffy white tissue paper.

“I bet that thing came out with a fist on the end of it,” I said. “You guys will just have to use rocks and sticks.” This suggestion was met with denial, disbelief and shock. Two minutes before, I was Friendly White Hippie Dude. Now the kids were looking at me like I was a creepy guy with a strange fetish they wished they didn’t know about.

That first shit in the woods is a pure rite of passage for any mountain person. Sure, you can be a casual day-hiker for years and avoid it, and maybe even last through a few overnight trips. But sooner or later, you’ll need to confront your ancestral self and drop one amongst the evergreens, without your favorite magazine, scented candle or plush bathroom rug under your toes.

Nowadays, we bury it under the ground when hiking in the backcountry. On raft trips, it goes in the groover, an ammo can fitted with a toilet seat. On the side of El Capitan, it goes in bags and gets stuffed in a PVC pipe with two screw caps — the “poop tube” — and hauled up the wall with the rest of the supplies. On some glaciers in Denali National Park, you go in a bear canister-esque Clean Mountain Can (try not to pee in it) that you carry out with you. On some boats and float houses, it’s heated in an incinerating toilet until it turns into ash (about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit), and then it’s dumped in the ocean. On Mount Shasta, the Forest Service issues poop bags complete with paper targets for aiming, and after the magic happens, you pick up the target, roll it up and bag it, and carry it down the mountain. In the Grand Canyon, mules carry it out after a couple of dudes in HazMat suits shovel it out of the pit toilets at Indian Gardens.

In the 1979 “Book of Strange Facts and Useless Information,” author Scot Morris writes: “Australian aborigines, who usually go naked and are unconcerned if a stranger sees them defecating, are deeply ashamed to be seen eating.” Our society is far from comfortable with it, requiring complete privacy, flushing the evidence out of sight as soon as possible, and covering our tracks with fans, sprays and matches. Some teenage boys maintain that women don’t do it at all. Parents of newborn babies will change an average of 2,800 “dirty diapers” in the baby’s first year, but we panic at the thought of having to squat in the forest. And we can’t imagine wiping our ass with anything other than toilet paper.

But it’s not so bad. A breeze blowing through the Ponderosa pines, maybe the noise of a creek trickling by at the speed of nature, and no constipated ad salesman grunting one out in the next stall, farts echoing off the inside of the toilet, squealing like angry ducks. We can take our time. Get away from the trail as far as you need to feel comfortable — at least two feet. Dig a hole at least six inches deep (this can sometimes be aided considerably if you can find a large rock embedded in soil, and you can pry it out, leaving a large hole). Pull your pants down to your ankles, line yourself up over the hole, squat, hug your knees and relax. Poop like the perfectly normal human you were 300 years ago, before we got all soft and had to drink bottled water and have someone else kill our food.

Some folks pack a roll of Charmin Ultra Soft, but I can’t bear to pack it out once it’s used. Some of us choose to use rocks, sticks or leaves, which have the advantages of a) leaving nothing to pack out and b) an unlimited supply of wiping material. The two criteria to keep in mind when hunting for potential rocks and sticks are a) smoothness and b) ability to fit the rock or stick between your butt cheeks. The best, of course, is a summer snowbank in the mountains, which provide infinite refreshing snowballs. When you’re finished, bury your rocks and sticks in the hole, and off you go down the trail.

You miss the comforts of civilized shitting when you’re in the backcountry, but also the discomforts. No filthy toilet seats, no public restroom doors that don’t lock, no senators from Idaho propositioning you with foot Morse code from the next stall, and no lines. Few things can go wrong in the woods, usually.

But things can, in fact, go horribly wrong. On Mount Rainier once, as the story goes as told to me by a friend who heard the story from a guide who at that time worked for Rainier Mountaineering Inc., a client left his team and guides to go take a dump. On Rainier, of course, climbers are required to “blue bag” it and pack it out with them (or toss it in one of the receptacles on the mountain, which are removed by helicopter once a year). Most folks unclip the leg loops of their harness, pull their pants down, plop one in the snow and pick it up with the blue bag, as you would do with your dog’s poop in a municipal park.

After a few minutes, the Rainier climber returned to the group, frantically repeating to the guide, “I can’t find my shit!” In the ensuing search, the poop was located in the man’s climbing helmet, still clipped to the back of his harness while he enjoyed one of the most scenic restroom views of his life, near Rainier’s summit crater. I was not told the rest of the story, but suffice it to say the guides didn’t let the man continue without wearing his helmet, and everyone else in the group retold the story to as many appropriate audiences as they could for the rest of their lives.

We can remove many of the historical discomforts of human life through science — air conditioning, pharmaceuticals, better/lighter/warmer/cooler outdoor gear and apparel — but when it comes down to taking a dump in the woods, we are back as our ancestors were. Except sometimes we have to put it in a blue bag and carry it around with us for a day or two.

When the Walls Come Tumbling Down

The day of the last tours, ever, of the Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula, Laurie and I went hiking on the nearby Dungeness Spit. The weather played predictable: grey but not wet, a swath of sameness, a timid surf, a long flat horizon. Lot of driftwood.

Where my mountain prejudice came from I don’t know. When I was a kid I did a science project, and I remember the thrill I felt in cutting out the blue/white photos of the Himalayas, the Andes, and I remember the guilt, too, that the scenery seduced me so much more than the science. I had no patience for geologic time, the crash of tectonic plates, the slow boring building up and eroding down, the foreign-sounding words: igneous, metamorphic, schist. But those photos of distant snowy domes — those and others over my long adolescence in suburban LA — left me so breathless that, as soon as I could, I moved to the mountains and stayed. When, a couple of years ago, a friend took a job on the coast, I felt pity for him. He’d traded glaciers-up-close for Costco and radio reception. This seemed to me a kind of weakness or defeat.

On the Dungeness Spit, we met with friends we hadn’t seen in 17 years. We saw a newt and met a ranger named Knut. The kids practiced native skills and took the orange peels and created teeth from the white backside. An eagle sat not 100 feet away atop a weathered stump. All those long years of house building or career building or family building come easing back together like the tides, like these gentle lapping waves. Not the crashers I knew as a kid.

The idea of a dam coming down sounds momentous, but it shouldn’t be. Make no mistake: I’m a big fan of hydropower, but the Elwha is antiquated and inarguably stupid: providing precious little electricity, while decimating an entire run of salmon. The only reason to hang onto that dam is stubbornness, loyalty to an idea — that all dams are good — at any cost. (Much like sticking it out in foreign wars rather than admit that they were misguided to start with and ineffectual to boot. But I digress.) Taking down the Elwha should be no bigger deal, I thought, than yanking a garden crop (my peppers, say, this lousy summer) that’s withering. No more notable than taking out the trash. With explosives, sure, but still. Brush off your hands and move on.

On the Dungeness Spit, a head popped up just beyond the swells, the size and shape of a footing we once used for a woodshed, blocky and pyramid-like. Black. A sea lion, our friends said. How did they know? A harbor seal is a smaller round-headed creature. Later, for over an hour, we watched three cormorants ride a piece of bark parallel to the beach until, as we watched, a long smooth hump appeared. The hump grew large then rose, entirely and vertically, out of the water. Huge. It turned and collapsed and came up again. A grey whale. Breaching. Not 100 yards away.

I couldn’t help it: I was breathless. I had to admit, I’d been wrong about the coast and that my prejudice had nothing to do with nature or wildness — plenty of that on the Spit — or even my own nature. Just cliché snobbery, resistance to change and an eagerness, even, to ignore the obvious truth. Admitting my wrongness, it turned out, was less a chore or a relief than a celebration.

Maybe, I’m thinking, that’s what it’ll feel like in September when I return to the peninsula to watch the walls come tumbling down.

A Tale of Two Freebox Towns

Our corner of the world was parched. The normally reliable monsoon was late. Carson National Forest was flat out closed to all activities due to stage-3 fire restrictions. Just upwind, the largest wildfire in state history was burning uncontrollably in the Jemez Mountains — 300-foot flames were dangerously close to the nation’s largest nuclear laboratory and its 30,000 barrels of “low and medium level” nuclear waste — and we were wondering about what may or may not be floating around in the thick gray smoke we were inhaling. Plus, the weekend happened to be my 39th birthday, my daughter’s 4th and America’s 235th, reasons enough for an impromptu trip. We packed up the family wagon and headed for Colorado in search of cooler weather, fresher air and a taste of the good life in the town of Telluride.

My family and I reside in Taos, New Mexico, right at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost spur of the Rocky Mountains proper. There’s a ski area and lots of tourists. Telluride is nestled at the head of a glacial valley in the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado, a few miles up valley from where the Rockies give way to the mesas and canyons of the Colorado Plateau. It also has a ski area and tourists. Both towns have municipal bus systems named after historic regional train lines — the Chile Line and the Galloping Goose. Both have a rich and iconic history emblematic of the great and ever-unfolding tale of the American West, as revealed by their architecture and stellar local museums. Both are epic locales where one can spend a few years working menial jobs and indulging in all the rafting, climbing, skiing, mountain biking and backpacking you might care to partake in. Finally, both towns have a FREEBOX.

In case you haven’t had the pleasure of digging through one, a Freebox is just that: a box full of donated items free for the taking, primarily clothing but other things as well, running the gamut from books and kitchenware to couches and sporting goods. America’s first official Freebox opened for non-business in Berkeley, California in 1969, at the very height of flower power, and the fact that both Taos and Telluride have one epitomizes the way each has been influenced by the hopes of that time: sharing, recycling, generosity and a host of similar hippy-dippy ideals.

Common ground to be sure, but the Freeboxes themselves are very different, and each Freebox is a symbolic microcosm of the town itself — perfect reflections of the unique towns in which they exist.

SPATIAL CONSIDERATIONS

Due to geographical restraints — mountains, mine tailings and designated open space — Telluride is hemmed in on all sides. There is no room for sprawl, so the buildings are tall and packed fairly tightly together in an orderly way, and the streets themselves are smoothly paved and platted out on the classic American grid system. Land is always at a premium — an empty lot might sell for a couple million bucks — so the tiny million-dollar homes are in tiptop shape and all the yards are well tended.

The Freebox reflects this reality perfectly: it sits right downtown, was handcrafted with care, and takes up little space. It’s within walking distance of everywhere else in town, which allows for a spur-of-the-moment perusal, and the organization and lack of clutter makes for easy browsing. If you’re looking for books, check the bookshelf. If you want men’s clothes, look in the men’s box. If you want shoes, then browse the shoe rack. Everything is in its proper place, and dedicated volunteers run it well.

Taos has plenty of room to grow, and was busily doing so right up until the current recession took hold, spreading rapidly outward and across the rolling sagebrush llano. The historic downtown area is fairly dense, but plenty of empty lots are available, and beyond the edge of town, there are acres upon acres of jackrabbit habitat just begging to be bulldozed into another “green” subdivision or slumlord trailer park. The streets are full of potholes and vaguely follow the contours of high ground and rivers; there is certainly no grid or naming pattern to speak of.

So it goes with the Freebox: out in the warehouse district far from downtown, disorganized, and fairly large. In all actuality, there is no “box,” for, like some of the local digs, the Taos Freebox is more akin to an old shack on the back of a dirt lot, and both the shack and the lot are littered with piles of clothes, appliances and furniture sprawling willy-nilly onto the sidewalk and parking area.

SETTING

Telluride has an abundance of postcard scenery. Nab a 20-dollar spot in the town campground. After setting up shop, grab a coffee at a local beanery, sit on the patio and take in the view: waterfalls, aspen groves, cliffs and towering jagged mountains on three sides, all close enough to touch it seems. Indeed, order a burrito to go and start hiking up one of the many well-marked and well-maintained trails at the edge of town. By the time you reach some stellar alpine tundra, that burrito will still be warm. Notice the families riding bicycles down Main Street, and even young kids riding all by themselves. There will also be purebred dogs — poodles and Labs (the official ski-town dog) — being walked by beautiful folks who spend a lot of time outdoors.

When you’re done with your coffee or your hike, stroll around the corner to the Freebox (right across from a real estate office) for some easy pickings: a brand-new pair of Carhartts, leather jackets, barely used hiking boots, brand-name dresses and sweaters, silk shirts. Like the scenery, the Freebox treasures are pretty and easy to see. Just drop by, skim the brand name cream right off the top and go on your merry way. And don’t worry about the weather, because everything is covered by an awning providing shade from the mountain sun and shelter from the rain and snow.

Taos has better coffee, if you can find it hidden in the jumbled mess of stucco and fast food outlets after scrounging for free camping out on BLM land, but the view from the patio is quite different: cement trucks grinding gears, battered low riders blasting hip hop and some burned-over hills in the distance. The burritos are better too, so be sure to get one, but don’t bother trying to hike from town: by the time you scramble up the rutted-out, unmarked (signs instantly knocked down or shotgunned into unreadability) ATV-mangled foothills trails to the first scenic ridgeline, your water bottles will be empty and you’ll have to turn around. You won’t see any kids cruising town on bikes due to the fact that some drunk driver (perhaps even a drunk cement truck driver) would run them down in broad daylight, and the only purebred dogs you’ll see will be pit bulls being walked by scary looking dudes with tattoos on their shaved heads.

Hitch a ride to the Freebox (next to the battered women’s shelter) and see what you find. It ain’t pretty: razor wire, chain-link fencing and garbage, plus entire families huddled in rusted cars and peering through cracked windshields, ready and waiting for that mythical pickup truck load of castoffs to arrive. Go through the gate and start exploring. If you want books, then start digging. If you want women’s clothes, then start digging. If you want shoes, then start digging. Expect to get sweaty and sunburned, and if a summer monsoon rain rolls in, then grab what you want and get out — soon the whole thing will be a giant mildewy mound of soggy polyester and forlorn broken toys.

CHILDREN

From a parent’s perspective, Telluride is like Disneyland: safe, clean and full of fun things for the family to do. For starters, there’s the aforementioned bicycling and hiking right from town, including a lush river trail perfect for strollers and chock full of wildflowers and birds. There’s also the free gondola that offers huge and easy views of this corner of the world, including a glimpse of Utah’s La Sal Mountains far to the west, and when we’re in town, our daughter asks (and gets) to ride it multiple times each day. The town park is well maintained and full of families swimming in the pool, tubing in the river, climbing upon an expansive wooden castle or fishing in the kiddy pond. Many of the adults are responsibly and legally drinking alcohol right in the park while playing riotous games of kickball, a fact that seems to cause no problems. Even the public library is an experience, and the children’s library is flat-out dreamy: a two-story clubhouse, rows of working computers with plenty of interactive reading games, a huge selection of books right at kiddo eye level, dozens of children’s magazines and an engaging story time every other day.

Telluride’s Freebox is as child friendly as the town. There’s a “children’s” section chock full of pint-sized Chacos, frilly French (as in made in France) dresses, designer sweaters and overalls, North Face kids’ gear and plenty of great story books — including, miraculously, two wildlife pop-up books that some parent had painstakingly patched up with scotch tape. There’s even a beautiful mosaic on the wall next to the Freebox, created by local students and funded by local businesses, which lends the place an aura of community and respectability.

Taos isn’t quite so family friendly. As I mentioned, bicycling can be deadly. Beer cans and liquor bottles litter every roadside, and there’s not a single stretch of public trail anywhere in town. There is a town park and it’s got some stately shady cottonwoods in it, but there’s gang graffiti scratched or “tagged” on every flat surface, and the stinky pit toilets are a bit too close to the playground, if you know what I’m saying. Plus, the town maintenance crews don’t seem to make the park a priority: some thoughtful soul spray-painted “EAT PUSSY” and “JESUS FUCKS” on a very visible wall right next to the kids’ baseball fields not long ago, and it took the town months to cover it up. And don’t even try to crack open a can of beer in the park — it’s illegal, and for good reason, since alcohol consumption at a little league game would likely lead to a stabbing or shooting. The public library? Well, let’s just say that the children’s library is tiny, the reading games nonexistent, the staff desultory and the weekly story hour boring due to the fact that some well-meaning but stuffy volunteer reads in the most monotone voice imaginable.

Likewise, the Taos Freebox is about as kid friendly as a dogfight. There are plenty of kid items to be sure, but they’re almost always broken or missing important pieces, and few needy mothers have the time or energy to dig through the clothing, especially when a town ordinance requires that kids be left in the car — seems a two-year-old darted out into the road last year and was promptly crushed and dragged (hit and run) beneath a muscle car driven by a coked up construction worker — hence the no-kids rule, as well as the impromptu shrine set up in the parking area. That heartbreaking shrine symbolizes our completely dysfunctional local society: a little girl gets run down by a drugged up high school dropout while a poverty-stricken single mother tries to score some free clothing for her family.

No kids on bikes because it’s too dangerous. Gangs, drugs and drunk driving galore. Failing public schools. Grinding poverty. Corrupt local governance that brushes problems under the rug. High cost of living yet poor public services … Taos is a horrible place to raise children, and as much as we love it here, the facts of life in this town often lead to thoughts about packing up and fleeing to some sort of magical land where the streets are safe and a kid can still be a kid. Indeed, every time we visit Telluride (or Colorado in general), usually during the peak of summer wildflowers and tundra greenery, we decide that’s exactly what we’re going to do. We look into art galleries for my wife, teaching positions for myself, schooling for our daughter, and by the time we’re packing up to head back to Taos, it’s with every intention of returning to the Centennial State, this time for good.

But it never happens. We get back home, settle into our lives, and gradually remember what brought us here in the first place: elbow room, four easy seasons, conversation about things other than skiing and a unique mix of cultures and people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds. Unlike Telluride, where the early hippies won their culture war and pushed out the locals (only to be pushed out themselves a couple decades later), Taos hippies who stuck it out in the face of violent hostility were forced to become part of the existing community. The freaks didn’t stand a chance of winning in Taos, but they never left either, and their tenacity and ideals shape the place to this day. Artists visit the destitute trailer parks so immigrant children can work on a painting project. Rock climbers take at-risk youth out to the local crags. Organic farmers invite school kids out to the land to learn where their food comes from. Midwives keep the birthing process affordable and real. Nothing comes easy in Taos, but folks here rise to the occasion and do their humble bit to make the place just a little bit better, a little bit brighter.

Telluride is idyllic, but, like the local Indians, who were shipped off to Utah, the working class and social problems have been pushed down to Norwood, or all the way to Montrose. If you can afford to raise a family in Telluride, then you don’t have much to worry about, for like the town itself, you’re clean, white and at least moderately well off — certainly able to occasionally pass on some material wealth to the Freebox. Taos is dark, dirty and all mixed up, and most of its citizens struggle to make ends meet, but, like its Freebox, it offers plenty of hidden gems that reveal themselves to those willing to stick it out long enough to see beyond the proverbial dirty laundry. Hidden meadows along unnamed creeks. Cowboys that still herd cows. Chats at the trailhead with John Nichols. That first invitation to a feast on the Pueblo. A handmade fiesta dress as a gift for your daughter. Misfits living in yurts, teepees, school buses and caves — things you’d be hard pressed to find in a high-fallutin’ Colorado ski town.

All this, plus the sunsets. No matter where in Colorado we’re departing from, by the time we make the final turn east towards the Sangre De Cristo Range, the mountains are turning their namesake color, the sagebrush is glowing buttery gold, and I’ll be damned if there isn’t ALWAYS a rainbow or flashy lightning storm hovering right above our adopted home town. At that moment, life in the Land of Enchantment seems downright glorious, and my wife and I know we picked the right place to put down some roots.

All Fracked Up

My summer has been more fracked up than yours.

Oh, yes, it has.

And of course I mean that in the “hydrofracking for natural gas” usage and not in nudge-nudge “Battlestar Galactica” way. The highlight has been my summer roadtrip, taken annually when my young son gets out of school and usually reserved for family visits and backyard camping. Once again, the pilgrimage proved that, like all long-distance driving efforts, John Steinbeck was speaking Truth when he noted that “… we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

Even so, this particular drive took over early, in part because it involved a calculus of loading my seven-year-old into the trusty Honda Element and sweeping down from my coastal perch in Maine. The idea was to pause briefly near Boston, then head inland to quick-visit family across Upstate New York, Eastern Ohio and Deep West Virginia. The Normandy invasion was relatively off-the-cuff compared to the moving parts for this jaunt.

And, in part, the trip took over because it moved the most important environmental issue of our day out of the intellect and into the gut. This despite the fact that I knew a bunch about hydrofracking going into the trip — I watched the “Gasland” movie twice, once for the education and once to savor the horrible shocks of recognition as the film played out of much of my personal landscape.

There he was in my old Western Colorado stomping grounds, lighting folk’s tapwater on fire. There he was in upstate New York near where my sister lives, visiting with families worried about toxins in their water. On and on it went — but my real focus came later when The New York Times ran a long series of investigative stories that casually noted radioactive wastewater had been dumped into the Finger Lake next to family property.

What the frack? Radioactive water?

OK, stepping back a bit, here’s the skinny on this thing: The fracking frackers pump a mix of water, sand and chemicals into these shale formations typically more than a mile underground. That mix is under pressure, and smashes up the shale, freeing the natural gas trapped there. That gas is pumped back up to the surface, as is that aforementioned fracking liquid — except now it’s like fancy vodka: infused.

But instead of lemon or cherry or bacon, this stuff comes up infused not only with the chemical additives but now with heavy metals and even radioactive material as well. The industry says this stuff is relatively harmless and that lighting tapwater on fire is little more than a parlor trick. Still, it does focus one, doesn’t it?

It’s not all that new. Actually, some sort of fracking has been going on for years. But new technology and the energy costs associated with our nation-building activities in the Middle East have accelerated the pace: A state with a few hundred wells five years ago might have thousands today.

Here’s how it became such a huge deal. First, there’s something like 100 years worth of energy in the various shale formations, and fracking is being conducted on some level in more than half the states. But the big areas are the Rocky Mountain West, Texas and the Appalachian Basin. The Marcellus Shale is named after Marcellus, New York, which is about eight miles from my sister’s home, and extends roughly from there through West Virginia to the south, and from eastern Ohio to parts of Maryland.

Such water-related activities in the United States are largely regulated by The Energy Policy Act of 2005. Remember how pissed off your environmental zealot buddies were when Vice President Cheney developed all those regulations behind closed doors with the oil companies? Well, it turns out they exempted hydrofracking from federal standards in something called (and I’m not making this up) the Halliburton Loophole. As for what’s in those millions and millions of gallons being pumped into the ground … well, those are “trade secrets” and the companies don’t even have to disclose their secret sauce.

It’s all very depressing. Wasn’t natural gas supposed to be part of the clean-energy solution? It’s the kind of disappointment usually reserved for finding out that Diet Coke also helps make you fat. (You read about that, right? You have to keep up.)

Among those thinking the fracked natural gas environmental halo is well tarnished is a team of researchers from Cornell University, including Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology. In one of the first peer-reviewed papers on the subject, he paints a sad picture.

“The take-home message of our study is that if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil,” Howarth said. “We are not advocating for more coal or oil, but rather to move to a truly green, renewable future as quickly as possible. We need to look at the true environmental consequences of shale gas.”

Worse than (gulp!) coal?

It gets worse, no matter what those shrink-wrapped natural-gas-fueled METRO buses would have us believe.

It turns out that many federal energy regulations are based on end-use measurements. Thus, “clean burning natural gas” might be less polluting than oil in your home furnace, but not necessarily when you look at the entire carbon footprint from ground-to-stove. In July, the Environmental Protection Agency is getting serious about air pollution limits in fracking areas. That’s because the process releases a lot of ozone — parts of the Rocky Mountain West this summer have more ozone problems than Los Angeles.

But don’t worry. The EPA is on the case and expects to have a very important study ready in 2014! Meanwhile, more than 50 local jurisdictions have moved to regulate the practice on their own, a move that would worry drillers more if they were not confident that state and federal laws will erase those regulations.

Want just a tiny a bit more?

My friend Stuart Smith, an attorney turned environmental blogger who knows way more about radiation than nearly anyone alive (and doesn’t get his cell phone near his skull, by the way), writes that “… currently there is no way to effectively remove radioactive contaminants like radium from fracking wastewater, so in time those toxins will make their way into drinking water supplies. Here’s to a radioactive twist in every tall cool glass.”

That’s where my summer road trip comes in.

For a few summer days, at backyard parties and family-friendly roadside attractions and fueling stops and restaurants, I asked and asked about fracking. I’m blessed with a reporter’s habit of engaging innocent bystanders in my story and an aging white guy’s absolute lack of menace. So people tend to chat with me. And, of course, this is America, so you can demographic most of us by the matrix of clothing and/or bumperstickers. It’s not scientific, but as accurate as we’ll get sans massive grant funding.

“Hey, I’ve noticed all these fracking signs … ” I’d say by introduction.

And there were sometimes dozen or even hundreds of anti-fracking signs, including many of those annoying campaign-style signs that sprout in the medians around Election Day. They had the usual 1,233 puns off the word “frack” that you’d expect, but they were not supported by my series of conversations.

Granted, some people did not know what the frack I was talking about, but those who did seemed alarmingly dismissive of the environmental impacts.

But they sure were impressed with the jobs.

Near my brother’s home in Eastern Ohio we drove past some gleaming construction — a new steel mill creating the pipes that will be needed in the fracking fields. He tells me it’s 2,000 new jobs.

What? Thousands of jobs at a new steel mill? In the U.S. of A.?

During a passing conversation, I asked a local about water contamination. He told me “Wal-Mart’s got plenty of water, we need jobs.”

Days later, my son and I are enjoying the hot tub at McCoy’s Best Western Resort north of Charleston, West Virginia. I ask one of our fellow guests, a young guy, what brings him to this wild, wonderful land. He’s a bit evasive, frankly, and I realized that he was one of the guys from a room two doors down from ours. The one with the muddy work boots outside the door.

I’d walked by that room and noted that it had the usual two beds, but also a roll-away. He notes that he and his buddies are down from Detroit, their boss sending them out for 12-6 work — that’s jargon for six days a week, 12 hours a day. I asked where they worked, and they told me the name of the town. That’s always a clue.

Later, they told my brother-in-law the name of the actual plant. It’s a natural gas pumping operation. Workers are often cautioned not to say where they’re working — one complaint is that the companies save the really good jobs for out-of-area workers who hog the local resort hot tubs.

It’s here that you realize how very, very tepid the usual East Coast media arguments can sound. If you’re concerned that political correctness has become a plague upon the land, then you can rest assured that some hardy souls have built up surprising immunity. This is the land of tree-hugging faggots, sand-niggers and where Saddam Hussein was most likely involved in the 9-11 attacks … and don’t you think it’s interesting that we elect somebody with a Muslim daddy right after that? If your daddy was a Baptist, you’d naturally side a bit with the Baptists, right?

What? You think this shit just happens?

So, you’re going to argue about possible pollution a mile underground to people who watch the tops of mountains being ripped off and who have already seen their streams and towns sacrificed to the Cheap Energy Gods? Around here, they know that about half the nation’s electricity comes from burning coal, and they know precious few of the treehuggers are from around these parts, except for a few of them who are going through their college phase.

Those signs that adorn all those lawns to the north are not seen in this part of West Virginia, fading slowly away like some flower with a limited growing range.

My kid sister, who has worked in a law office for years, announces she’s leaving to join a guy who secures permissions for the new gas pipelines. Good money and her boy graduates high school this year; a baseball scholarship seems likely, but he’ll need money for college anyway. Her husband, the world’s most robust heart-transplant survivor, notes that there’s enough natural gas in these mountains for 100 years, and combined with the coal, can finally make us not dependent on the Middle East.

It’s a good point, and as somebody who has worked in politics on and off for a decade, I’m thinking that, in some areas, great talking points like that are worth big money.

Spend some time driving through these mountains, singing John Denver songs with your kid, and you see that, across much of what many elites dismiss as fly-over America, natural gas is literally reshaping the economy, landscape and political divisions. On the long march home, I recall a tempest when a New York Times columnist dared suggest that the real reason fracking was Big News is that the extraction process finally threatened civilization. So long at it was Out West or Texas, it was background noise. But now it was an East Coast issue. Hey, we make our pizza with that water. What the frack?

My guess is that the natural gas revolution is going to reshape political landscape in ways that make strip mining and the Tea Party movement seem tame. The voters I talked to, from GOP-voting blue-collar workers to the progressive politically active gay couple who run a local B&B, are united: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.

And soon enough, all those pressure cooker issues are sure to shape politics,

Back at another sister’s place in the Finger Lakes, and a bit weary of the discussion, I decided to get at least some balance. The best bed-and-breakfast in the area is owned by a gay couple (OK, cliché perhaps, but it also reminds me of “Northern Exposure,” so it’s even more cool) with fairly lefty political views.

“We have to do it right,” they say, nearly together and finishing each other’s thoughts the way long-term couples can sometimes. “But we have to have the drilling, we need the jobs and the energy independence.”

At this point, I’m starting to write stuff like that down. Somebody is buying talking points somewhere.

See, here’s the thing: Fracking is not like other standard environmental issues because people actually give a damn. Global Warming might be a “bigger” issue, but that check comes due in decades — it’s an environmental issue the way Social Security going broke 20 years from now is an economic issue. Important, sure, but what’s up with that NFL lockout?

And it will become increasingly difficult to figure it’s just somewhere else. In Maine, less than 1% of our electricity is generated from coal, while 44.3% of our electricity is generated by burning natural gas, according to the Institute for Energy Research. So, as one green group notes on it’s website, “… we can feel happy that we are not directly responsible for the removal of mountaintops in Appalachia, but we are complicit in fracking, every time we turn on the lights or read a blog like this one on our computer.”

The sleeping bags and road snacks are finally cleared from the car, and if I can find the source of that vague dairy-product smell, then we’ll be finally home. My favorite totem from the trip has gone missing, a cardboard sign of the style favored by the roadside homeless that said: Don’t Frack With Us!

But no worries. I’m sure there will be more popping up really soon.