Going for Uniformity

In the rural Western United States, the concept of individuality — especially of the supposed “rugged” variety — is stressed so much that it is intertwined not only into regional myths and stereotypes, but it is how those of us who live here are flat-out defined by the rest of the country. And it is often how we define ourselves. That notion is so off-base that it’s almost laughable. No matter what demographic group, what region, what political affiliation you want to look at, the members of that group will be so homogenous in everything from attire to choice of vehicle to food and beverage preferences that, were it not for obvious differences in physical appearance, age and gender, you’d think the entire West was populated by less than a half-dozen varieties of clones. Even in New Mexico, which I consider to be the most individualistic state in the country, it’s like every resident from Taos to Silver City was set upon terra firma by some sort of cosmic central casting agency. Rainbow-Family hippies, premeditatedly flighty artists, surly cowboys, Harley devotees, in-your-face gay people, angry vatos. As for the rest of the West, all you have to do is cast a critical eye upon a person for less than point-two nanoseconds, and you can size them up on every level from party membership to recreational preferences without even engaging your brain. You can tell from miles away if a person is a hook-and-bullet Libertarian disguised as a Republican or a granola-crunching Greenie disguised as a Democrat. For the most part, the recreation-economy-based part of the West could pass as relatively affluent versions of the People’s Republic of China. In the resort/real estate communities, 80 percent of the residents drive the same basic three types of cars (Subarus, Jeeps, Toyotas), they all wear Patagonia garments everywhere they go, they all participate in the same handful of recreational activities and they all consider themselves environmentalists, even developers and ranchers. Go to Craig or Meeker, Colorado, and, well, same concept, different template. Folks in those towns might as well have been cut from a people mold. Monster pick-up trucks. Huntin’ and fishin’. Damned environmentalists. Let’s have a steak. Now, I’m not saying that the uniformity of the sub-sections and sub-demographics of the West is bad or anything (after all, I have owned two Jeeps, my wife drives a Subaru, I wear Patagonia garments, participate in all the standard resort community recreational pursuits and consider myself an environmentalist), it’s just that I consider it amusing in the social context of Western individualistic stereotypes. I consider it especially amusing in the context of sub-cultures — not just resort-town-dwelling people, for instance, but resort-town-dwelling, say, bicyclists. Actually, bicycling is a really good example of this uniformity-in-contradiction-to-regional-stereotype phenomenon. In no sport is the notion of fitting in by looking like you fit in more palpable. I am personally far less of a cyclist than most of my Mountain-Time-Zone-dwelling brethren and sistren, though I do ride my mountain bike on occasion. It’s just that, because I am mainly a backpacker (which had its own set of uniform standards, which I’ll get into here in a minute), so, while I certainly fit every appropriate backpacking stereotype to a tee, I am a little fringe-ish when it comes to bicycling, simply because I can not afford the necessary accouterments to fit into multiple recreational castes. Even though I own real mountain bike, it’s literally 20 years old (hard-tail, steel, no grip-shifts) and, thus, sticks out when I have the gall to enter the Temple of Biking. And, even though I own bike shoes, gloves, a helmet and the requisite dorky-looking bike shorts, I ride with a T-shirt and, if there’s a chill to the air, a flannel shirt. I park my butt in my horribly uncomfortable bike seat sans a single psychedelic bike garment, and, when combined with the venerability of my ride, I pedal clearly outside the clique. And this fact is often commented upon, either tacitly or directly, by other cyclists who I rub elbows with, either on the road or in bars. It’s funny to watch two cyclists who clearly have been baptized into the Order of the Pedal crossing paths. They look at things like clothing and kind of bike, and, if everything is up to snuff, then, based upon appearances alone, they will condescend to acknowledge each other’s existence. Sorta like dog’s sniffing each other’s butt. When cyclists pass a borderline outcast like me, they act like Muslims when you walk into one of their temples wearing shorts. You are a heathen, worthy of not so much as a cursory nod, and maybe even worthy of a quick beheading. Bicycling is an easy demographic to poke fun at in this regard, because it is the mountain-jock/jockette group that pays more attention than any other to owning the latest-and-greatest and wearing a certain type of uniform/costume. But it is far from alone in staking out its conceptual territory via superficial means. Backpackers have their own appearance-based uniform standards, though there are two distinct schools these days — the Fleeces and the Flannels. (These two groups are at least as distinct as mountain bikers vs. the road bikers.) The Fleeces are generally younger, fitter, fancy themselves as “outdoor athletes,” boast degrees in outdoor recreation and march forth at a brisk pace with orderly and new internal-frame packs. The Flannels are generally older, paunchier, fancy themselves as hiking environmentalists, have degrees in philosophy or English Lit and venture into the woods with older gear and lots of stuff dangling from their packs. The former hit the trail wearing Polartec and pile everything, from socks to underwear to hats. The latter hit the trail wearing worn Gramicci pants (and maybe even blue jeans), cotton T-shirts and baseball hats. And, when we pass each other in the backcountry, we go through the obligatory butt-sniffing/sizing up ritual, same as bikers. Thing is, though we likely don’t like to believe we think about this, backpackers spend as much time as cyclists dealing with appearances and image before they go out in public and do their thing. I know a man who is among the most famous Fourteener-baggers in the state who once told me that he premeditatedly works hard to appear as disheveled and out-of-date as possible before he hits the trail. And his groupies follow his fashion lead. The only point to this is that tribalism, in all its manifestations, is an ancient survival strategy, and, truthfully, true individualism is a hard thing to find. Try to be a non-conformist and you join either the cult of the non-conformists or the cult of those trying to be non-conformists. There’s nothing we can do, save don your wildest-looking bike attire and pedal to Meeker, just to see what, if anything, transpires. Mountain Gazette editor M. John Fayhee has just embarked upon a reading/signing tour in support of his latest two books, “Smoke Signals: Wayward Journeys Through the Old Heart of the New West” and “The Colorado Mountain Companion: A Potpourri of Useful Miscellany from the Highest Parts of the Highest State.” Go to mjohnfayhee.com to eyeball his reading/signing tour schedule.  

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Post-apocalyptic skill sets

I do not know why I am such a big fan of dystopic literature, especially of the post-apocalyptic variety. OK, first, I need to clarify: When I use the word “literature,” what I really mean — or at least mostly mean (in terms of both inflection and frequency) — is “movies” and “TV shows.” When I was in college, I was a printed-word devotee of science fiction and fantasy, much of which was assuredly dystopic in nature, and much of which was of the post-apocalyptic variety. (I also did not own a TV in those days. Additionally, VHS had not yet been invented, much less DVDs, both of which have opened up entire new worlds of special-effects-laden counter- and anti-utopian offerings that did not exist when I was a stereotypical opium-smoking ’70s-era liberal-arts-type undergrad.) As I have grown long of tooth and grey of beard, my reading preferences have moved toward contemporary, reality-based creative non-fiction (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell’s books) and contemporary fiction (e.g. the novels of Pat Conroy and Richard Russo), even as my viewing preferences have trended more than ever toward tales of futuristic mayhem, chaos and what followers of Earth First! might call a “return to the Pleistocene.” Again, I have no readily accessible frontal-lobe explanation for this attraction, an attraction that, given my inclination to interface as often as possible with Wilderness Areas legally designated and protected by the federal government, might seem somewhat counterintuitive, if not outright contradictory. (More on this seeming contradiction a bit later.) That aside, movies like (recently) “Children of Men” (critically doomed before it even hit the big screen by the fact that its marketers inanely opted to invoke comparisons to “Blade Runner” — only the best futuristic movie ever made — during its pre-lease advertising campaign), “Terminator Salvation” (fatally flawed because it starred an even-more-robotic-than-usual Christian Bale), “The Book of Eli” (a tepid movie that gained rudimentary style points because it was filmed in New Mexico) and “The Road” (which had the added benefit of originally taking book form) will always attract my undivided attention. As will TV shows like “Terra Nova” (which has been inexplicably cancelled) and “Revolution” (despite the fact that its characters seem to maintain a high degree of personal hygiene and coiffure, even though the cosmetics-producing world as we know it was destroyed 20 years before the series was set), “Jericho” and “Jeremiah” (the producers of which seemed during its short run to understand that, in a post-apocalyptic world, people would likely be perpetually filthy and unkempt). The list of post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows is long, and, admittedly, in the minds of devotees of more-highbrow “films” like “Schindler’s List” and “The English Patient”), mostly lame. The “Planet of the Apes” franchise. (The re-make was predictably awful.) The “Mad Max” franchise. “A Boy and His Dog” (Don Johnson’s feature film debut). “Falling Skies.” And the classic “Cherry 2000,” which, despite its massive flaws with shit like plot, dialogue, characterization, special effects, continuity and fundamental logic at least was able to boast, in the lead role, a 28-year-old Melanie Griffith, who, in that little tight leather vest, while cradling the decidedly phallic rocket-launcher, was setting some high post-apocalyptic fashion standards.) (Here I should point out two big-budget movies not on this list: “Waterworld” and “The Postman.” Though my love of the genre allows me to often sink below my usual already-low critical standards, nothing allows me to sink down to the level of a movie starring Kevin Costner — though it needs to be stressed that “The Postman” was based (very loosely) upon an excellent novel of the same name by noted sci-fi author David Brin. The underlying pathology of this life-long attraction (my exasperated wife would call it an addiction) to post-apocalyptic movies and TV, while not directly influenced by the end of the world that is scheduled to arrive this very Friday, has certainly reached the forefront of thought processes that are currently wondering, on the off chance that the Mayans were right, if I have picked up any salient end-times vocational skill sets. Adding to that train of thought are the myriad reality-based TV shows being broadcast these days that center upon people who have spent much time, money and effort preparing for what they feel is some imminent big-time shit getting ready to hit the fan. These survivalist series focus on folks who have built hardened bunkers and stashed years’ worth of food and weaponry and who are fully prepared to open fire on anyone who, after the aforementioned shit hits the aforementioned fan, tries to walk through their barricaded front door. I mean, this preparation for the post-apocalypse is just exactly like it was during the most-fearsome days of the Cold War, when people were building and stocking underground bomb shelters, like the one Viggo Mortensen stumbled upon in “The Road.” This I know very well, as I spent my formulative years living on a Strategic Air Command Air Force base in northern New York. Every six weeks, my stepfather, a navigator on a B-52, had to take up residence in a decidedly un-aesthetic underground facility known as The Bullpen, a place where flight crews lived in a constant state of faux red alert, ready, willing and able to dash from bunk to cockpit at a moment’s notice should the sudden need to release a little hard rain upon the Soviet Union arise. (Think the drab Crystal Peak facility in “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.”) I only ever visited the innards of The Bullpen once. My stepfather’s scheduled stint overlapped with Christmas one year and those dedicated defenders of the American Way assigned to The Bullpen on the day celebrating the birth of the man to whom the “Golden Rule” is often inaccurately ascribed (“Therefore all things whatsoever would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12)) were allowed to bring family members into the poorly illuminated bowels of the Cold War for 30 minutes of supervised present exchanging. (The presents had to arrive unwrapped, and were searched and scrutinized by no-nonsense hombres carrying much in the way of weaponry.) To my six-year-old self, The Bullpen was about as cool as a place could get. It consisted of tunnels and nooks and crannies and a bunch of men (this being a few years before I came to understand the almost stunning disadvantages of guys-only settings) hanging out, shooting the shit and playing cards all day, while awaiting the End of the World. My mentally inert self wanted to move in that day, to take up permanent residence in a land of perpetual red alert. It was not just during the regularly scheduled stints that the pilots, co-pilots and navigators of Plattsburgh Air Force Base got to visit The Bullpen. Not surprisingly, there were various drills and practice alerts and scrambles and mock-attacks (the latter being mock attacks on both us and the enemy). Those were always captivating occurrences. Sirens blared, floodlights illuminated the sky and the roar of jets filled the air. It was glorious! We used to go out and sit next to the runway while these alert drills transpired, watching wave after wave of bomb-laden death machines rising majestically into the cloudy sky. Then, one day, there was one of those “this-is-not-a-drill” moments. It was October 22, 1962, the day President Kennedy announced to the nation the implementation of a Naval blockade of Cuba and the only time the Strategic Air Command was ever ordered to Defense Readiness Condition (DEFCON) 2. DEFCON 2, for those interested in things like the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction (the appropriately named MAD), is defined as “next step to nuclear war.” (The rest of the military thankfully remained at DEFCON 3.) The sirens on Plattsburgh Air Force Base blared at midday, and all kids enrolled in the base elementary school were ordered home directly. When I arrived home, my mom, a child of the Luftwaffe’s relentless pummeling of her native London, was in preparatory high gear. You want to talk about a lady who knew all about getting your ducks in a huddle when the bombs were getting ready to start falling. She had a survival kit that would be the envy of any high-tech doomsday nut being profiled on the National Geographic Channel these days ready and sitting on the kitchen table. I’ll bet my mom could not fucking believe that, here she was, a mere 17 years after the end of the war that crippled her native land, living 3,000 miles on the other side of a goddamned ocean, preparing yet again for fire to be falling upon her and hers. But, being a hard-ass Englishwoman, she did not outwardly fret; she only stiffened her upper lip and prepared for another round of mankind’s seeming endless desire to destroy itself. It is also interesting to note that my mom was totally on Kennedy’s side. She had lived through what she derisively referred to as Neville Chamberlain’s inexcusable appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s and she was fucking done with that shit. She wanted Kennedy to bomb the shit out of Cuba, Khruschev, the Soviet Union and whoever else the fuck needed a good bombing at that particular chronological juncture, MAD-based apocalyptic consequences be damned. (We never did get to hunker down in the base’s bomb shelters, much to my eternal disappointment, as the Cuban Missile Crisis eventually fizzled into the history books, one of its few remaining connections to modern times being yet another hideous Kevin Costner movie, this one called “Thirteen Days.” (I would personally take nuclear annihilation over another Kevin Costner movie any day of the week.) You would think that, perhaps, such a near-traumatic experience, along with hearing throughout my childhood my mom’s first-hand accounts of life during the Blitz, would have imprinted into my psyche a very anti-post-apocalyptic mindset, one that would far prefer movies and TV shows about, say, uninteresting and unthreatening, groups of friends living in New York City, where, every week, they struggle yet again to utter so much as one syllable that is not cliché and/or moronic. But, just because I am a devotee of post-apocalyptic film and TV shows does not mean I crave, or even desire, a post-apocalyptic future. Far from it. Assuming that Hollywood is up to its usual intelligent, perceptive and prescient standards, I can safely say that the vision presented of most post-apocalyptic scenarios is unappealing in the extreme. (And here I need to stress that, when I refer herein to “post-apocalyptic” movies and TV shows, I am referring to a distinct sub-set of movies and TV shows that are “futuristic.” “Futuristic” movies and TV shows present many varying visions of, well, the future, some of which are appealing (you gotta admit, that 25-year lifespan notwithstanding, “Logan’s Run” presented some intriguing future lifestyle options, mostly of the frequent-sex-with-scantily-clad-nubile-nymphets variety) and some of which are not. “Post-apocalyptic” movies and TV shows generally fall into the letter category, along with other, non-post-apocalyptic dystopic visions of the future, such as totalitarianism (“1984”), unquestioned acquiescence to corporate power (“Brave New World” and “Minority Report”), general cultural decline (“Blade Runner”), theocracy (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) and the institutionalized evolution of terminal stupidity (“Idiocracy”). Still, there’s something about that post-apocalyptic Hollywood vision that intrigues me. Maybe it’s the eternal campout aspect. Maybe it’s the fact that, while you might have to spend your days scrounging for food and trying to repel the incessant attacks of those who, like you, are fighting just to survive, at least you don’t have to deal with being put on hold for 45 minutes by Comcast. No fine print when it comes to buying a new car. No cranial cramping due to the inexplicable fluctuations of the stock market. No questions about your smoking or drinking habits when applying for life insurance. No pre-existing conditions. Of course, there would also be no Internet, cable TV, new cars, retirement accounts or insurance. But, then again, everything’s a trade-off, isn’t it? Maybe I am attracted to post-apocalyptic movies and TV shows because I subconsciously wonder if I would, if I could, survive. As I indicated several thousand words ago, I do not believe it is coincidental that there is so much apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic thought permeating our psychic airwaves these days. Top of the list, there’s the Mayan calendar shit. Moreover, there’s a general feeling that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, a feeling assuredly promulgated by various political, commercial and religious interests that want you to believe the only way to avoid, or at least survive, the looming descent is to buy into their program. Then there’s the undeniable evidence that, well, the world is going to hell in a hand basket. It’s hard to not believe in a post-apocalyptic future when you’ve just had 26 people killed in an elementary school in small-town Connecticut, when you’ve got polar icecaps melting like ice cream outside on a summer day. Which finally gets me to the meat of this story. A couple years back, long-time Mountain Gazette writer Vince Welch turned me onto a website called freedomguerilla.com. Thomas Krenshaw, Mr. Freedomguerrilla, lives in a blighted neighborhood in Brooklyn, the kind of neighborhood that could easily serve as a setting for an urban-based post-apocalyptic thriller, maybe one that includes scads of vampires and/or zombies and/or an eye-patched anti-hero named “Snake Plissken.” Though I do not know Mr. Krenshaw personally, we have exchanged a few broadsides based upon his website posts. I have never been entirely clear why Mr. Krenshaw chooses to live where he does. It doesn’t seem as though he’s looking to find beauty in blight or beauty hidden in blight. (He occasionally seems to find artistic inspiration in his surroundings, which I guess is something.) Were I to venture a guess, I would have to say he’s a man who is actively preparing for, if not the apocalypse and, by extension, the post-apocalypse, per se, then at least he’s preparing on some level for “Whatever’s Next.” (And I’m not talking about making efforts to pad his 401(k).) Judging from his posts, his neighborhood essentially serves as a training ground for surviving a worst-case scenario of Whatever’s Next. There’s violence galore, gangs running rampant and a necessary face-down furtiveness on the part of those who simply want to make it through the day without shooting or being shot. Everyone owns a snarling pit bull trained to kill. Direct eye contact all but guarantees a physical confrontation. The streets are lined with trash. Graffiti is everywhere. The skinny trees are all long dead. I mean, fuck! I think Krenshaw’s vision of the future matches up pretty closely with the place he now calls home, and he wants to be ready when the vision becomes a reality that transcends his shitty neighborhood in Brooklyn. What I do know is that Mr. Krenshaw rides a subway every day, carrying many pounds of tools, to go to work at some sort of metal foundry, a place I envision being dark and dirty, with lots of loud clanking and maybe even liquid steel being poured from caldrons into other caldrons. A place very much like the methane generation facility beneath Bartertown in “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.” And, while, again, I can’t say why Mr. Krenshaw has chosen his current life circumstances, I believe I know through his writings why he has chosen his vocation: Learned metal workers will always be of use, whether in this reality, or in Whatever’s Next. Which has got me thinking in an obviously very roundabout way about vocational skill sets that would be valuable during and after Whatever’s Next, whether Whatever’s Next takes the form of a thermonuclear war, alien invasion, plague, a zombie and/or vampire infestation or a more linear march toward a future that boasts such life-altering starring roles as climate change, population explosion and Dark-Ages-like religious fanaticism. I need to note before I progress further that herein I’m talking less about disposition than I am about actual abilities to grow, make and fix shit. If, as many of us predict, the future will include heapin’ helpin’s of the kind of bleakness we see in movies like “The Road” and on TV shows like “Jeremiah,” then we all “know” survivors will need to be resilient, adaptable and strong — traits that can transcend specific vocational abilities. As well, I believe it’s fair to say that the post-apocalyptic world that may very well be up and running by the time these words make their way to an Internet that likely will no longer be working that the main “profession” evident during Whatever’s Next will be “scrounger.” This is definitely an arena where destitute residents of the Third World will be at a decided advantage, to the point where they will likely be able to make a few extra bucks (or expired cans of peas and carrots, the likely currency of post-apocalyptic bleakness, if “A Boy and His Dog” can be believed) by organizing scrounging seminars for suddenly displaced arbitrage specialists. Well-practiced dumpster divers will also move to the head of the class, as will long-incarcerated felons, who will enter “The Road” and “Terminator Salvation” both well versed in surviving tough living conditions and being creative and determined in their acquisition strategies. I also need to note here with a certain amount of glee that the world we will face starting December 22 will likely be a place where vocations like hedge-fund managers, HMO administrators and real-estate developers will suddenly find their services, uh, no longer necessary. Verily, such white-collar leeches will suddenly find their vocational options limited to slave labor, food sources or maybe even pets. Of course, the same can likely be said for editors, writers, graphic artists, advertising salespeople, webmasters, IT specialists and most everyone else whose resume includes in bold letters any variation on the theme of  “liberal arts.” Musicians, poets and visual artists, especially of the entitled and haughty varieties, will also likely benefit from expanding their vocational horizons. Muy pronto. So, OK, what are the professions/vocations/skill-sets that will be most valuable once the Mayan calendar tick-tocks its way toward Whatever’s Next December 21? • I think it’s fair to say that healers will be in demand. Whether able to stitch up a gaping leg wound caused by a crazed, chainsaw-wielding zombie or to forage through the woods for a certain kind of vine that soothes radiation poisoning, healers will always be able to find a way to stay well stocked with expired cans of peas and carrots. • Jacks-of-all-trades will thrive. I think of my stepfather and my father-in-law, both of whom are white-collar types (lawyer and dentist, respectively) who grew up in lean times on marginal farms. Both of whom served in the military. Both of whom can fix a sump pump, re-build an engine, build a brick wall, grow tomatoes and tend to barnyard fowl. • Repair people of all stripes. Once the end of the world as we know it is at hand, I don’t think there will be a lot of new Oldsmobiles rolling off the robotic assembly line. Folks who can keep old cars running (maybe we can import some skilled labor from Cuba and Myanmar), keep the electrical grid functioning with minimal spare parts, keep aging railroad cars in service, patch decomposing sewage systems and repair bicycles and half-assed, leaky irrigation systems will be much in demand. As will craftspeople like boat builders, fishing-net-makers, arrow-makers and, like Mr. Freedom Guerrilla, metal workers. • Sadly, those with military training will likely thrive even more than they thrive in today’s world. The question will of course be whether they thrive by providing protection for others who are trying to rebuild the shattered world or whether they will thrive via exploitation. I fear there will be some of both, though this will assuredly be influenced by the number and disposition of any vampires, zombies or aliens that might be lurking about. • Food producers. It always surprises me how much your average person thinks he or she can just one day decide to start gardening and — voila! — sustenance will magically spring forth from the ground in tasty profusion. Gardening is hard, and survival gardening is even harder. I grew up helping tend a garden that was a needed food source for our family and feel I speak with less stupidity than normal on this particular subject. In addition to dealing with the unpredictability of weather and water, there are all manner of plagues and pests that can descend upon one’s potato patch and render a season’s worth of work moot. Same goes for hunting, fishing (catch-and-release will very quickly lose its yuppie cachet) and what will become the new outdoor recreation craze post-meltdown (replacing geocaching): frantic foraging. Almost every place, including inner cities, offers up much in the way of foragable victuals. But your average Pizza Hut devotee wouldn’t know yucca root from a Krispy Kreme doughnut. The food-producing learning curve for system analysts from Cleveland and soccer moms from Seattle will likely not be fast enough to make up for the involuntary weight-loss programs that will come down the pipe hand-in-hand with the apocalypse. Thus, dairy farmers in Kansas and dirt farmers in Virginia will be able to extract a bit of karmic revenge on those who considered them uneducated hicks for all those decades. • Zombie, vampire or malevolent alien. Very few post-apocalypses worthy of the term can survive without one of more of these. Bit hard to train for before the fact, but, judging from Hollywood’s post-apocalyptic offerings, these will be critical skill sets, despite, or maybe because of, their fictional status. I guess if there’s one overriding theme to this subjective post-apocalyptic skill set list, it would be practicality. Just about everything on the list has palpable benefits, unlike our pre-apocalyptic reality, where I ask of a significant percentage of the human population: What do they bring to the table? Of course, half the time I’m asking that, I’m looking in the mirror. In the meantime, I think it’s high time (probably past time) for someone to organize a post-apocalypse-based continuing-ed program. Maybe even an entire educational facility could be built. The University of the Apocalypse. Home of the Fightin’ Zombies. Fight song: “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” Oh, never mind …

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Your place or mine?

There are certain indelible mental hard-wirings that do not easily go bye-bye when you 1) claim as the “place you are from” the fetid fringe of the Dixie and 2) you are the type of person who, the exact nanosecond your high school diploma was handed to you, you fled the land of ticks and chiggers so fast you left skid marks on the pavement to the most-un-Dixie-like place that your limited pecuniary circumstances and your piece-of-shit 1967 Opel Kadet station wagon could carry you that was NOT part of the Confederacy (read: the Mountain Time Zone) and you never ever again looked back East except as part of some sort of gag-reflex past-life-regression/revulsion therapy. To wit: No matter how much counseling you receive and how much Jagermeister you drink in hopes of obliterating the literal and metaphoric thought of kudzu from your cranial mainframe, you can not help but wince at the very notion of grits and red-eye gravy. And just the thought of NASCAR and rabbit hunting make you want to join the Hare Krishnas. But, of the all things Southern that make this ex-ex-ex-ex-son of the South jump for joy the most about life in the Mountain Time Zone, what reigns supreme is the fact that, in this part of the country, the notion of “visiting” is far less pronounced than it is in places where lard is still considered a fundamental and necessary food group unto itself. This issue is especially poignant 1) when one dwells in the sort of place that folks would be inclined to visit, often for weeks on end and 2) during the Holiday Season. (I should stress after re-reading and pondering point-number-2 there that the notion of hosting and attending Holiday parties is a mostly acceptable (and quite often enjoyable) sub-phylum of the overall “visiting” genus, if for no other reason than, by definition, it only transpires in December, a time of year where it’s easy enough to find yourself inexplicably “unavailable” because of an emergency camping trip to, as but one random example, Copper Canyon.) I fully comprehend that by even half-heartedly dissing the notion of “visiting” as a viable form of recreation, my perspectives run counter to some of the most fundamental tenets of new-urbanist/small-world-ism that most of my fellow granola-crunchers flat-out consider gospel. In this, my chums and I have long been at odds. And to them I say: You did not hail from the Land of Cotton, where almost every Sunday since I was old enough to understand what the words “humidity,” “poison ivy” and “manners” really meant, families from the Shenandoah Valley to the bayou country gussied themselves up (which, in my world, is a big negative strike before ever even walking out the door) and went over to someone else’s house for periods of time that made me want to study physics so I could get a better grip on how one sweltering afternoon could go on for 27 goddamned years. Actually, only about half the families in the South went a-visiting on any given Sunday. The other half were playing host, which in most ways was even worse, because not only did you still have to gussy up, but, in addition, you had to clean your room. Jeez, I need a beer just taking this walk down a memory lane lined with Spanish moss. Anyway, when I landed in the Mountain Time Zone, first in New Mexico, then in Colorado, then back in New Mexico, one of the first things I joyously came to learn was that visiting in the Southern sense — that is to say, by way of 12 volumes worth of social rituals whose rules of conduct were writ in stone back before the American Revolution — was not part of the collective consciousness, at least as that consciousness applied to newly transplanted long-haired dirtbags. In most parts of the Mountain Time Zone, social interactions take place in wonderfully neutral settings: bars mostly, but also on trails, at civic meetings and in jail cells. I have amigos in Mountain Country that I consider among the closest compadres I have ever known — and I think it’s fair to say the vice is versa — whose abodes I have never once entered. In the South, most of your friends would know in which dresser drawer you stored your socks. It was definitely “mi casa es su casa,” and I fully understand how, on paper and in theory, that sounds like a bona fide Better World. And maybe it is, but, man oh man, I am happy as a pig in slop to live in a part of the country that is verily defined by the concept of privacy and getting together in communal living rooms. This is not to say that if I walked into my house and found my good buddy Fatty — who I’ve known for 25 years and who I consider a brother as much as anything, but whose house I have never entered — passed out on my couch, I would do anything save fetch him a warmer blanket, while wondering what he did this time to piss his significant other off. It is to say that it’s wonderful to call home a place where the likelihood of that happening is slim, and, even if it did happen, I know for a fact that the first thing Fatty would do upon waking would be to call the Moose Jaw and make arrangements for a free bar tab for Yours Truly in payment for the night’s lodging. I know it’s trendy in a progressive mindset defined by Utne Reader these days to espouse the virtues of a more integrated familial society, in which fundamental socialization is most often achieved by way to “getting to know your neighbors” at their house and at yours But, for me, I’ll always prefer getting to know my neighbors in the local bar any day of the week. That way, you never have to clean your bedroom.  

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Hike Down Memory Lane

An old stash of Backpacker magazines leads to an unfortunate hike down memory lane

 “Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.”

— “The Speech Song,” by Baz Luhrman

Pretty much since I was old enough to understand the concept, I have considered nostalgia to be akin to psychic cancer. The metaphoric sitting, sighing and reminiscing while thumbing through old yearbooks and photo albums has always been, in my opinion, an indication that the mud and muck of one’s highly fictionalized and reinterpreted past is sucking around one’s ankles, making it difficult to hike lightly, brightly and enthusiastically into one’s future. I have this buddy, Joe Kramarsic, who puts beans on the table at least partially by procuring, through a variety of means (I usually don’t even ask) and purveying old outdoor magazines and books. Knowing my long and checkered history with Backpacker magazine, Joe one day asked if I would like to buy a complete set of Backpackers, beginning with Volume I, Issue I (Spring 1973) and running through the end of 1984. Does the Pope have lips? Are chickens Catholic? I jumped at the chance, and, one bright day, Joe dropped the 12 bound volumes off at my office. Well, that was the end of THAT workday — and the beginning of a case of near-terminal nostalgia that is infecting, distracting and haunting me still. I toted those 12 bound volumes of old Backpackers into the dank darkness of one of my favorite watering holes, plopped them on a corner table, asked the bartender to keep my frosty mug filled and proceeded to make my way, page-by-page, article-by-article, ad-by-ad, through the first decade-plus of the magazine that has not only played an important role in my professional life, but an important (for better or worse) role in the evolution of mountain-based outdoor recreation as we all know it. My journey through Backpacker’s early years lasted the rest of the afternoon, through happy hour, through a couple of televised basketball games and near-bouts till closing time, when the Missus finally tracked me down and made me come home. Even understanding that I had to endure the some semi-serious spousal wrath, I have rarely spent such an introspective 12-hour barroom stint. And that stint gave me a knot in my stomach. I came West in 1976, about point-two nanoseconds after graduating (barely) from high school. My entire stash of possessions fit nicely into one trunk and a bright-orange Sears and Roebuck backpack. I moved to the Gila Country of southwest New Mexico specifically to hone backpacker-bum skills that have served me well on many levels for almost 40 years now. I had not thought much lately of those heady, Ragg-sweater-and-leather-boots days of the mid-’70s until Joe laid those old Backpackers on me. In the old days, the outdoor life seemed so much less complicated, contentious and acrimonious than it does now. There was far less mean-spiritedness and competitiveness out in the woods, at least partially because there were far fewer of us out in the woods. Those of us who lived to spend time out in the backcountry owned one pack and one pair of boots, which we wore everywhere, all the time. There weren’t mountain bikes, the ski industry was still centered around skiing, rather than development, most of the West was guidebook-free and we still were able to skinny-dip in little-known hot springs that have long since been developed and/or regulated and/or co-opted by glossy magazines and their goddamned “destination” stories. I have found myself more and more since I got those old Backpackers thinking about the “good ol’ days,” about when the outdoor recreation craze that most of us are part of now was still fairly young and full of possibilities. And that journey through revisionist nostalgia has got me thinking about how much more pleasant things were when there weren’t two billion adrenaline-crazed, X-Games-addled snowmobilers zooming through the alpine meadows at 200 mph, how much more splendid the woods were for all concerned before mountain bikes came to outnumber all other uses combined on many trails, how much “better” it was when we all managed somehow to arrive at the trailhead in $200 vans instead of $20,000 SUVs (and I say that owning a $20,000 SUV). There’s no doubt things weren’t as wonderful in the old days as I remember. I guess I’m getting ancient enough that the mud and muck of the past is starting to suck at my ankles and make me lose focus and clarity. After one more read-through, I boxed those old Backpackers up and stashed them in the deepest recesses of my basement. I’m not going to look at them, or even think about them, again until I’m too old to ruminate about anything except things nostalgic. I’m tempted to get rid of them all together, but I can’t bring myself to go that far. That would be like throwing away those days in the ’70s when we all wore wool and blue jeans and you could hike for two weeks most anywhere in the Mountain Time Zone without seeing another soul, and I don’t want to discard those days entirely. I know I should, because the only thing really left from those days is the beauty of the Mountain Time Zone itself. Everything else has changed for good, and there’s no going back, except in our minds. Mountain Gazette editor M. John Fayhee has just embarked upon a reading/signing tour in support of his latest two books, “Smoke Signals: Wayward Journeys Through the Old Heart of the New West” and “The Colorado Mountain Companion: A Potpourri of Useful Miscellany from the Highest Parts of the Highest State.” Go to mjohnfayhee.com to eyeball his reading/signing tour schedule.  

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The High Country happiness paradox

It’s weird how, among the hundreds of titles displayed in a large bookstore, your eyes can light upon one cover that draws you in fetish-like, and you know instantly that said tome will be accompanying you on your drive home. Thus it was with Eric Weiner’s “The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” (Twelve Books, 2008). The subject of happiness, or, more specifically, the fairly new science of happiness studies, has interested me ever since John Stossel’s hour-long ABC-TV special, “The Mystery of Happiness: Who Has It and How to Get It” brought the subject into America’s living rooms in 1996. It was the first time that many people even entertained the ambiguous notion of happiness being a subject worthy of the application of the scientific method. Since then, the popular media has been veritably awash in so many superficial self-help-type stories on the subject of happiness attainment that it’s almost impossible — even for those of us who don’t exactly share much philosophical common ground with the entire concept of scientific methodology — to do anything except laugh when eyeballing such vapid fluff pieces as, “Sustainable Happiness,” which recently appeared in that bastion of learned study, Yes! Magazine. Thing is, all you have to do is Google “happiness,” and you will soon come to understand that the examination of that mirthful (or not) topic has reached well into the DNA of academia. As Weiner states in his book, heretofore, the entire foundation of research into human psychology, and, by extension, cultural anthropology, has been based upon the concept that quantifiable (and therefore “useful”) understanding comes from the analysis of variations on the theme of sadness, unhappiness and dysfunction. Why, Weiner asks, has there not been more focus on the flipside of the psychological coin, on the study of happiness? After all, he notes, why should happiness be any less quantifiable than sadness? The answer of course, well, fills Weiner’s book. Weiner literally spent a year traveling around the world visiting countries where the subject of happiness plays out in often surprising ways. Included are bastions of cheerfulness, such as The Netherlands, Qatar, Bhutan, Iceland, Singapore and, perhaps surprisingly, Monterrey, Mexico. (Ss well, for the sake of comparison, the world’s least-happy country, Moldova). In each of those places, Weiner asks of local people, “Are you happy?” Of course, there are heapin’ helpin’s of relevant insights regarding fundamental denotation, relativity and context mixed into the answers he received during those 12 months on the road. All told, I liked the book enough to recommend it, despite the fact that it contained a glaring oversight: It contained nary a syllable about the Mountain Time Zone. The only chapter about the U.S. focused on Miami, Florida, which contained numerous similarities to the American West, in that many people consider South Florida to be “paradise.” (“Paradise gets old,” states one of Weiner’s least-happy Florida sources.) For many years, I wondered whether people in the Colorado High Country were truly happy. Certainly, superficially, such would seem to be the case. And rationally so. After all, how places can lay claim to recreation not just as a lifestyle preference but also as its economic underpinning? Add to that a world-class beauteous setting, a culture that casts no stones vis-à-vis things like drinking heavily numerous nights a week and an opportunity, should you desire to pursue it, to actually make some bucks, and you’ve got a place where everyone ought to be happy as pigs in slop. But I wonder. With regards to visitors, those who study tourism have in the past decade or so started cataloguing a condition called “vacation rage,” which has numerous causes: the stress of travel, the cost of travel, overly high expectations, especially as those expectations apply to family and relationship dynamics, and recent trending that sees people trying (often unsuccessfully) to fit more and more activities into less and less time. Then there’s the “paradise paradox,” wherein people move to paradisiacal places like the High Country from less-paradisiacal places like New Jersey and Mississippi with the very reasonable expectation that life will suddenly become wonderful simply by way of that move. For many, such has been the case. But, for many others, the lack of an established social network, combined with a high cost-of-living, which necessitates, rather than a life of constant on-slope leisure, a life of three jobs, have conspired to dampen the concept of paradise — to the degree that demographics experts guesstimate that more than half of those who move to the Mountain Time Zone with expectations of remaining here forevermore return to wherever it is they came from within five years. Of course, much of that is more than offset by the scenery, the opportunity to hike and ski in places like the Eagles Nest Wilderness, the overall upbeat and optimistic nature of those who call the High Country home and the fact that Colorado boasts the coolest bar scene this side of Amsterdam. Everything is yin and yang. You’ve got happy people in Akron, Ohio, and sad people in the Hugh Heffner Mansion. As Carl Franz wrote in “The People’s Guide to Mexico,” “no matter where you go, there you are.” After more than 30 years of calling Mountain Country home, I would have to straddle the fence. I think High Country people are overall happy, as individuals and in the aggregate, but I think, because their hopes are so high that they sometimes border on the ridiculous, they often set themselves up for disappointment. (Read Alain de Botton’s “How Proust Can Change Your Life” to learn more about expectation dynamics.) And the tidal forces of a high cost-of-living versus modest pay surrounded by a sea affluence cannot help but take their psychic toll.

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Tropical Cocktails

If my wife could press the rewind button and place her then-unsuspecting self back at the moment (in the middle of the one of the harshest High Country winters in living memory) when she was starting to wonder whether yours truly was a passing fling or Something More (maybe even “The One”), and, if at that moment, I would have mentioned the words “tropical cocktails,” I’m sure she would have been positively swayed. Matter of fact, I’m certain, as I was courting the love of my life, I likely did mention those words, sincerely and presciently, for, verily, we have imbibed in many, many tropical cocktails over the past 30 years. Tropical cocktails of the stereotypical variety, I should herein point out. And consumed actually in, you know, the tropics. I’m not certain what route my now-spouse would have taken had a more-sinister manifestation — but no less accurate — of those words been presented to her as our relationship was beginning to germinate. Less than a year after making her acquaintance, Gay found herself sitting by my side, not in some palm-thatched beachside bar (though that would certainly come later, in spades), but, rather, in the waiting room of the Denver Health Department’s inoculation clinic. “What are you two here for?” asked the wonderful lady who worked there forever. “Well, we’re heading to Central America,” I responded. “So, you’ll want the whole tropical cocktail, then,” she stated, double-entendre and irony lapping atop one another like Caribbean waters onto white sand. “Er, yes …” was our tentative response. We had a general idea what was coming our way. We knew, for instance, that we needed to get yellow fever vaccine to legally enter several of the countries we planned to visit over the course of our three-month trip. And we knew we’d need some other stuff. We left it to the nice lady to help fill in blanks that read like a medical text from the 1700s. “Typhus, you’ll definitely need to get typhus. And hepatitis-A. And tetanus. And we’ll need to prescribe you malaria. I’m just wondering whether we should go ahead and give you cholera too. Cholera is even worse than the others.” Three things popped into my mind at that point: First, I could not help but notice that she did not make reference to giving us shots to (hopefully) thwart those maladies, but, rather, that she kept referring to giving us the maladies themselves. And, second, with regards to her reference to cholera being ‘worse than the others,” was she talking about the disease or the shots? And, third, if she was referring to the shots, did that mean that the other shots were bad and that the cholera shot was really bad? We would soon learn. Next to us in the waiting room was a young couple getting ready to embark upon a missionary trip to somewhere in Africa. “What shots are you here to get?” I asked the couple, who had been within earshot of our discourse with the shot-giving lady, by way of a conversational icebreaker. “Cholera,” they moaned in unison. Soon, it was our turn. First came yellow fever, a disease so bad it stopped the building of the Panama Canal dead in its tracks — twice. A disease so bad, governmental operations as far north as Washington, D.C. would routinely have to be suspended during the summer months. Then came typhus. I don’t know a thing about typhus, except that its very name makes me want to avoid it like, well, the plague. Any disease that contains a “ph” in the middle is almost certainly one to steer clear of. Then came tetanus. I had forgotten about how noticeable a tetanus injection can be. Then, last but not least, we each got gamma globulin injections for Hep-A. This is a particularly captivating little prick, as the solution is so viscous, it requires a very short, very thick needle to work the syrup into the system. Getting a gamma globulin shot is like getting kicked in the ass with the business end of a stiletto high heel. This reality is made even worse by the fact that everyone agrees that, on its best day, gamma globulin is only about half effective. At that point, the nice shot-giving lady suggested that maybe that was enough, that, if we felt compelled to get the cholera shot, we maybe ought to come back in a couple weeks. “How far away did you say you live?” the nice shot-giving lady asked. “About two hours,” Gay responded. “That ought to be enough time,” the nice shot-giving lady responded. “You two drive straight home, because you’re not going to be feeling very well.” Huh? We were operating under the impression that the only bad part of the tropical cocktail experience was going to be the actual injections themselves. What was this about not feeling very well? Living like we did in Grand Lake, which was, in those years, very much off the map, we looked forward to our rare trips to Denver to eat out, visit bookstores and drink in bars that contained warm bodies we did not drink with every goddamned day of the year. Yet, we opted to take the nice shot-giving lady’s advice and beelined back up to the High Country. We stopped off at the little grocery store in Grand Lake before returning to our diminutive trailer. At that point, we both wondered aloud what the nice shot-giving lady was talking about. It had been more than two hours since she treated us like a pincushion and all we felt was a bit sore around the injection sites. Then, as we were literally standing in the checkout line, it hit us like a train and the erstwhile superficial knowledge that, when one is getting injected with a vaccine, one is actually being given a small dose of the disease, was suddenly no longer superficial knowledge. Our asses were down for two solid days. The only redeeming component of that 48-hour experience was the realization that, if what we experienced — yellow fever lite and typhus lite — were that hideously horrible, then we knew we did not want to experience the real thing. “Why aren’t we just going to Europe?” Gay moaned midway through our ordeal. Why indeed? Gay basically goes with whatever flow comes her way. Had I been an antiques enthusiast or a devotee of various forms of culture and couth — museums, art galleries, Broadway plays, well-coiffed poetry readings — I don’t believe it would have negatively effected the evolution of our relationship one bit. She did not become interested in me because of my attraction toward traveling to the kinds of places that require nasty-assed inoculations just to legally enter the country. Nor did she shy away from me because of that. The trip to Central America became probably the defining component in a relationship that has spanned almost three decades. We got to visit the most-war-torn parts of El Salvador during the height of that sad country’s vicious civil war. We got to experience the joy and rapture of proximate exchanges of automatic weapons fire between the Contras and the Sandinistas while tromping through the jungles of Nicaragua. We enjoyed sneaking off a perfectly pleasant caye at the crack of dawn because I had purchased pot from a narc in Belize and, if the island rumor mill was right, I was about to get busted. We took pleasure in negative-five-star accommodations that included a brothel in Costa Rica, an assassin-bug-infested thatched hut in Guatemala, a bombed-out pension in El Salvador that had inoperative plumbing (understatement … use your imagination), a rainforest campground that boasted such high-class amenities as reptiles crawling out of the shower drain and myriad backcountry digs that came with room service consisting mainly of swarms of biting insects, poisonous snakes and the kinds of scurrying noises out in the dark jungle that make the notion of getting out of the tent to take a leak at 2 a.m. less than appealing. Of course, we also saw quetzals, the most resplendent avian species in the Western Hemisphere. And sharks, barracudas, mantra rays and moray eels on the Belizean reef. And white-faced moneys frolicking in the highest canopy. And we paddled down meandering rivers and hiked up volcanoes and trekked through cloud forest and on an on. And not once we either of us contract any malady more severe than debilitating hangovers spawned by very cheap rum consumed on full-moon beaches with the dolphins frolicking offshore. Since that trip, we have interfaced with the tropics on numerous other occasions, and, before each foray, there’s the inevitable trip to the inoculation clinic for whatever horrible booster cocktail was required by the pathogen populations of wherever it was we were headed. None of those tropical cocktails have ever been as bad as the first, but, truthfully, none of our tropical journeys has been as wonderful as that first trip overland by creaky trains and rickety pick-up trucks and thumb and foot. Two weeks ago, we drove down to Passport Health Services in Tucson for yet another round of tropical cocktails in preparation for an upcoming trip to Cameroon. This go-round, it was: yellow fever, typhus, Hep-B, tetanus, malaria, avian flu, polio and meningitis, as well as a Cipro script because cholera shots are no longer recommended (thanks be for small favors). We were worried because the clinic is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from the Casa De Fayhee. Normally, when we’re in Tucson, we go grocery shopping at Whole Foods, visit Mountain House in case there are any gear-acquisition emergencies, stop in at a couple bars, eat at P.F. Chang’s, stroll through the camera department at Best Buy — all things unavailable in the boondocks town we call home. But, this time, we dashed home as fast as our Outback would carry us, in hopes of being on the couch when the inevitable shot-induced sickness(es) hit. This go-round, we suffered nary a symptom. Not even sore arms. Wonder what kind of trip that portends. P.S. Just for the record: We did take a cultured-and-couth trip to Europe a few years back. Checked out lots of museums and art galleries. Dined in places with tablecloths. Slept in hotels that had working plumbing and no reptiles emerging from the shower drain. It was very pleasant, and it was a trip that required nary an injection beforehand. But, even as I was standing before the Mona Lisa, I found myself wishing that I was right then tromping through some nasty-assed stretch of jungle, where, sure, there lurk snakes and assassin bugs, but where also lurk white-faced monkeys and quetzals.

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Resolutions

Editor’s note: Here’s a note from long-time Mountain Gazette contributor Alan Stark, which I took to heart: John: Here’s an idea. Ask your regular MG contributors for two New Year’s resolutions for a joint blog to send out next week. Maybe one with tongue in cheek and one semi-serious. I, Alan Stark, resolve to: A. Be circumspect in using the term asshole and its plural for any individual, corporate or governmental entity for at least a week. B. Spend more time with my life friends, at least the ones who are not assholes.   Like George Orwell (“Politics and the English Language,” 1946), Nobel literature laureate (2001) Sir Vidiahar Naipaul offered (ca. 2007) seven simple rules for all who tap on keyboards and put mice on pads. I, Michael Brady, resolve to adhere to more to them, particularly numbers 1 and 3: 1) Do not write long sentences. 3) Do not use big words.   I, Vince Welch, resolve to: A. Use less words than more words in my written and verbal efforts to communicate because we live in age of brevity, sound bite and short attention spans and Raymond Carver’s short stories (and sentences) were so compelling (and short) and he had a Svengali-like editor that, according to some accounts, made Carver’s short sentences even shorter, but more to the point, because my wife believes that we Americans cannot stand silence or pregnant pauses and always interrupt, to which I reply “Look at Fayhee’s sentences, and as MG editor, he never lets a comma or a misspelling get in the way of a good story and he would cause Carver’s editor extreme agitation leading to heart palpitations and night sweats unless he had recently read ‘Crime and Punishment’ or one of Joyce Carol Oates’ sentences.” B. Go surfing in 2012.   I, Tricia Cook, resolve to: A. Read again the Carver books on my bookshelves. Sober. I will chase Carver with Vonnegut, and then Robbins (mebbe not so sober). With reverence, I will take down from my bookshelves and reread Peacock and Abbey. Hayduke lives! B. Crawl out from under this rock.   In an ongoing effort to evolve from any and all reptilian-brain tendencies, I, Tara Flanagan, resolve: A. To not watch or discuss debates about the 2012 presidential election (see Alan Stark’s resolution about assholes). B. To help out a complete stranger in an unexpected and unconventional way — paying forward the good turn of events I’ve had lately.   I, Dawne Belloise, resolve to: A. Party like it’s 2012. B. Have better excuses for not turning in articles in a timely fashion.   I, George Sibley, resolve to: A. Stop reading political porn about Republican presidential candidates. B. Write something worthy of Mountain Gazette.   I, B. Frank, hereby renew my yearly Securing the Homeland “to do” list (aka resolutions) to: A. Preemptively spike a Hummer (or any other Landscape Assault Vehicle); use “because it was there” defense. B. Practice random guerrilla acts of consensual gratification. C. Unilaterally hug: trees, forests, neighbors, animals, lover.   I, M. John Fayhee, resolve to: A. Spend less time reading guidebooks and more time wandering aimlessly through the woods. B. Remind myself when appropriate that there are plenty of times when being an asshole is OK, especially when I’m being an asshole to an asshole (i.e subscribing to the Law of Equal, Opposite and Collinear Assholes).  

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A Bushwhacker’s Lament

In the early ’90s, I was made aware, through my normal mud-covered journalistic channels, that what is now known as the Leave No Trace ethic/code/credo/religion was in the process of being formalized, institutionalized and, ultimately, canonized. Being a tried-and-true devotee of what had long been known generically as “minimum-impact” backcountry travel (carry your beer cans out; don’t pour your bong water directly into the stream), I was both enthused and made curious, even nervous, by the fact that, with the advent of Leave No Trace, for the first time ever, all sorts of entities — from our federal land stewardship agencies to wilderness education institutions to hiking clubs — would be landing more-or-less on the same philosophical page when it came to specifically telling folks how they ought to comport themselves while making their way through woods, over mountains, down rivers and across deserts. As the LNT gestation process was transpiring, one of the potential tenets in particular caught my attention: “Travel upon durable surfaces” — meaning, at least to my lizard-brained self, if you’re going to tromp through the backcountry, do so only on designated trails, jeep tracks and roads. As the original LNT tenets — there ended up being six, out of a potential pool of at least 15 — were being debated, I sat in my office with the same feeling in my gut that some unrepentant ladies’ man sitting at the foot of Mount Sinai when Moses made the world’s most-famous first ascent must have felt. “Please, don’t let the simple fact that I covet my neighbor’s wife be a Big Time No No.” Well, at the moment the “durable trails” tenet was chiseled into the original LNT stone tablets, I became something of an environmental transgressor, a backpack-wearing neighbor’s wife coveter. For, you see, I am, and have always been, an avid bushwhacker, one who goes out of his way to hike upon turf with a decided lack of “durable surfaces” (though, now that I ponder this, it seems to me that terra firm, by definition, is pretty damned durable). Not only off the beaten track, but as far off as possible. Sorta like a hiking equivalent of off-off-off Broadway. As a matter of fact, time was when I considered backcountry terrain that contained anything even resembling a “durable surface” to be contaminated, a place appropriate only for the visitations of pudgy families-of-four from some wretched Ohio suburb. In those days, if I accidentally came across a trail while making my way through the hills, even if it was long-abandoned and adorned with the desiccated skeletal remains of the last passersby, I beelined in a completely different direction, grumbling about the omnipresent evidence of civilization. In those days, such an attitude was considered nothing out of the ordinary among my gnarly and unwashed backpacking compadres down in the Gila Country of southwest New Mexico, where I then dwelled, and where I now dwell once more. These days, however, in many places considered more civilized than Gila Country, bushwhacking is considered, if not a bona fide backcountry sin, then at least a major-league ill-advised decision, a decision that, in the eyes of the LNT Powers That Be, necessitates a visit to a re-education camp. Folks from Boulder (where, not surprisingly, LNT is now headquartered) who know (or even suspect) that you’ve been bushwhacking give you that nose-in-the-air disingenuous look that makes mountain dwellers want to skewer people from the People’s Republic with a trekking pole. Since LNT adopted its “durable surface” tenet, I have, out of a combination of guilt and obligation, cut way back on my off-trail forays, though, like addicts of all stripes, I have been unable to totally break with my habit of straying off the beaten path, whether by design or directional miscue. I try to persuade myself as I’m making my way into the boondocks nirvana that surrounds my home that I should keep my LaSportivas firmly planted upon designated trails, thus following in the footsteps of thousands of hikers before me. Yet, often, I look down and notice that my feet are straying, seemingly of their own volition, from anything even resembling a durable surface. Along trail-free ridges, up arroyos and drainages, down into canyons. Then, several hours or days later, I notice that I’m in the middle of some wonderful place that sports little if any evidence that anyone has ever before been there. Like most sinners, I make my way through life with a combination of justification, rationalization, denial and a fruitless search for philosophical penance. I understand that, according to the high priests of Leave No Trace, the most significant impact a place feels is when the first bootprints blemish it. I understand that, in many places — such as the cryptobiotic-soil-rich regions of southern Utah — even one flirtation with bushwhacking can irreversibly harm a critically important part of the natural environment. I understand that, by limiting our backcountry experiences to established trails and roads, we leave wildlife islands of habitation relatively undisturbed by human scum, such as yours truly. Still, eyeballing the Leave No Trace tenets that are posted at near-bouts every trailhead these days, I know that, as I hoist my pack and begin making my way into the backcountry yet again, there is a better-than-even chance I will stray — literally and figuratively — from the path of righteousness. And I reflect upon the experiences I have had in the backcountry that came about solely because I had left the trail. Like the time I came upon a bear momma and her two cubs frolicking in a sun-dabbled meadow in northern Arizona. The time I found a long-abandoned cave dwelling that had not been catalogued before in the Gila. The time I stumbled — almost literally — upon a wild tribe of skinny-dipping co-eds in Shenandoah National Park. I will always bushwhack; I can’t help myself, but, while so doing, I try to minimize my presence and my impact. (Or at least I tell myself I do, self-delusion being a personal specialty.) If I’m in the Utah desert, I’ll avoid cryptobiotic soil like it’s acid (battery acid, I should say). In the tundra, I generally bushwhack by my lonesome, and I rarely relate my itinerary or destination to my muchachos. I avoid bushwhacking through riparian areas. Etc. etc. In the end, of course, it all becomes a pain in the ass. We can only minimize our presence in the natural world so much. When bushwhacking, it’s important to be on our very, very best backcountry behavior. I know how lame that may sound, but, without bushwhacking, without straying from the trail (again, literal and figurative), there is no real exploration, and, without real exploration, many of us spiritually wither away and die. And, besides, rarely do wild tribes of co-eds skinny-dip in close proximity to durable surfaces. Maybe that’s something Leave No Trace could address.

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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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