Hope is the Thing with Feathers

The violet hour belongs to swallows.

This is the evening span when canyon walls glow with an interior luminosity, when the setting sun simply cannot account for the wash of colors across the land — colors that exist for this one expansive moment each day, hues that Crayola finds impossible to ensnare in wax.

This is the hour when light dances out its last breath before darkness descends, and its sweet death throes enliven the world.

And this is the hour of the swallows. Is it any wonder they swoop in circles of such ecstasy?

I have my favorite swallow-viewing grounds near my desert home, places I specifically go for the aerial show and the communion with small, untethered creatures. These places are my air-show grandstands, islands of sandstone high up in the ether, outcroppings that hoist me into the land of wingbeats and wind. It is on these pedestals that I sit in order to look swallows in the eye.

We can and we do share gazes, so curious are these avian marvels. They approach me and hover, staring at the bumbling landbound invader sharing their space. Eye contact occurs, the human side wonders at the rarity of such a simple moment between species, and then the passerine participant

moves into a dip or dive or twirl, requiring another hit of airborne joy before sating its curiosity anew.

The eye of a swallow holds a brightness amidst its blackness, speaking to the species’ immense capacity for bliss.

Perhaps swallows subsist simply on air — and joy — so effortlessly do they fly and play. A life of such seeming ease must require little sustenance in the form of matter-borne calories. Spirit, breath, air, wind — these, I’m

sure, are the main components of the swallow diet. Insect-catching is mere pretext for their dances in the ether.

They make little sound as they rush through their breezy milieu on lithe wings. Only the slicing of air is heard, the sky seemingly rent to pieces with the sound. It is as if the swallows’ flight cuts through this space, creating an opening to the lighter world hiding behind this sometimes heavy one, and we could maybe escape to it, if only we were fast enough to hit the seam that rides the edges of wingtips and tail-feathers.

Such a sky, shredded by delicate and breathing daggers, this is hope’s home. In fact, the continual existence of the wild — whether it is bound up in skyward feathers or corner-dwelling cobwebs — all of this is hope embodied, a perseverance against the odds. And in this, we find that hope is accessible. We can reach its source — that wild seam — because it is our ground. Wildness, hope, feathers—they’re all made of the same resilient stuff. And in times of suffering, we find that our hearts and souls are made of it, too. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul…”

Even at the airport recently, amidst the travelers’ milieu of madness — swallows.

These were not the violet-green evening-dwellers of my home, but they were swallows, nonetheless, hunting and playing above the tarmac and engine noise. They flew in stark contrast to the lumbering planes jockeying for position on the runway. By comparison, our answer to the problem of gravity seems so clumsy and graceless.

They buzzed the windows where I sat, forked tails silhouetted against the smoggy mountains. Their maneuvering was precise, elegant, spontaneous — a kind of weightlessness we can only dream about. Next to all our necessary accoutrements for flight — the literal and figurative baggage that accompanies us in our skyward travels — the swallows appeared as pure, unadulterated joy in motion.

And I was suffused with that same joy as the surprise of the wild infiltrated an otherwise sterile landscape.

I was reminded of Gary Snyder at that moment, a man with an unwavering faith in wildness. Even as many environmentalists — myself included — decry the destruction of wilderness, the end of nature, the silence of all that is holy, Snyder holds faith. And hope. He writes, “Wilderness may temporarily dwindle, but wildness won’t go away. A ghost wilderness hovers around the entire planet…”

For Snyder, wildness refuses to be extinguished, despite our every attempt to send it along without a return address. It lives on in mould and seeds, spiders and raccoon packs. “It is everywhere,” he says. Even above the tarmac at Salt Lake City International Airport.

This encounter acted as a reminder: In being open to wildness, we will find it. Perhaps under the kindling pile, between tiles in the bathroom or along a busy thoroughfare. I say this not in ignorance of the havoc we wreak on our environment — the subduing and subdividing of our wilderness, the incessant razing and excavating in pursuit of energy and economic development, the toxins we unleash for the sake of a stronger plastic bag or a pineapple in Maine in the winter — but I say this as someone who understands that, in grieving for the battered earth beneath our feet, we must also constantly ride the wings of hope. When we lose touch with that wild seam of hope, then we become crushed under the weight of lost ground.

Thus, the tiny bodies of swallows carry me along when faith is in short supply.

Hope is the thing with feathers …

Driving through northern California on a warm June evening — one car among two straight lines of many — I came upon an enormous swarm of barn swallows, all forked tails and finesse, swooping through and under and around the flight paths of one another. There were easily 50 birds in this natural cloud of insecticide, hunting and playing in easy unity.

I slowed the vehicle to better absorb the multiplicity of rusty breasts and blue backs, the riot of feathered confetti at the roadside. They emulated the gnat swarms they preyed upon, mirroring the gifts of life that sustained them.

I turned back to the road and observed the straight lines of vehicles and asphalt beyond and behind me, the unnatural order

to it all. I wondered how we lost our ability to emulate and honor all that brings us sustenance, energy and life. When did we turn the mirror upon ourselves — rather than outward —Âand become preoccupied with our own small images?

Another evening, lying on the sandstone surface of a swallow-viewing sky-island, enjoying the swooping curiosity of joyful creatures, my literary mind struggled with terms to describe the agility and precision of swallows in flight. I kept reaching for metaphors drawn from aviation or the military — images drawn from man-made machinery.

Now, in retrospect, I am thankful for an inadequate military vocabulary, for these words are ill suited to describe wild perfection. It is a substitution of the imitation for the original — like calling microwaved Velveeta fondue, or tearing down the forest to build a church, a house of God.

It is a reminder to stop looking in the mirror, to recognize how much fuller the world is beyond the human reflection. We live in a vastness that stretches beyond the reaches of words, an idea the writer in me will someday accept. And rejoice.

I have never seen a swallow on the ground. I have never seen one walk, hop or otherwise perambulate. From my experience, they are entirely airborne. I know they eat on the fly, drink on the wing and even copulate in mid-twirl. Males attract mates in shows of aerial prowess. Air, simply stated, is their main habitat. In fact, swallow feet are not even designed for walking; these birds come into this world equipped with short legs, partially fused toes and an innate sense of how to get around the stifling tenacity of gravity’s pull. They gave up their terrestrial ties long ago in evolutionary history, preferring instead to soar beyond their own shadows’ reach.

Yet we, for all that we’ve gained while ascending the evolutionary ladder — our immense capacity for creativity and ingenuity, our complex social systems, our philosophical and scientific traditions — we’ve also abandoned a great deal along the way. Most of us come into this world and go out of it without an intimate knowledge of the earth beneath our feet, how these soils are the basis of our stories and our sustenance. We no longer read the pages of landscape for

survival and identity. We’ve lost our sense of connection and belonging to the rich tapestry of life cradling us. The scientific quest to understand our world — and control it — has only served to distance ourselves from the ground of our existence.

We, like the swallows, have given up our terrestrial ties, but in a different manner and to a different end. Instead of soaring beyond the reach of shadow, we hold our shadow tightly inside, plucking its smoky feathers and rendering it tame, flightless and lacking in hope.

Hope is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul…

What if we allowed that shadowy creature within to soar beyond our science and our sorrow? Would its absence gift us with the language of hope?

“There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground,” said Rumi. The swallows’ way is through flight, kneeling in midair. For us it is the expression of love — love of one’s partner, of one’s kin, one’s work, this land, this life.

Love is perhaps the wildest act in which humans still engage. It is our deepest bow to Other. And in its defiance of reason — the way in which we rededicate our hearts to love despite our accumulated losses — herein lies love’s ever-hopeful wildness.

Like the cobwebs, moulds, rodents and roaches that wildly persist at the periphery of otherwise ordered lives — Gary Snyder’s

“ghost wilderness” — so too endures our un-tamed pursuance of connection and communion. Despite the odds, it rides wings of hope through a landscape of loss, splitting that elusive seam between heavy and light, uniting us with the infinite and wild realm of all that we may never understand.

The violet hour and its swallows are my daily reminder to kneel and kiss this rocky desert ground that I love. And to continually and wildly hope.

Jen Jackson writes from Moab, Utah, where her vocabulary is always inadequate to the task of describing her surroundings. However, she persists, and her work can be found in numerous regional publications, including Mountain Gazette, High Country News and the now (and sadly) defunct Inside/Outside Southwest.

The Devil’s Stairway

“There’s just one particular harbor … so far, and yet so near … ” — Jimmy Buffett, 1987

So how was I to know that in June of 1971, standing at the on ramp to I-95 outside Fort Liquordale, Florida, with my protruding thumb pointed north and west, that 72 hours later I would land a job washing dishes in Yellowstone National Park?

And how could I know that in 1976, after three years of being caught up in the running “boom,” that on b-day July 12th I would run 22 miles across Yellowstone’s Central Plateau, three times longer than any run I’d previously attempted?

Then surely I couldn’t know that after turning fiddy in 2001, that, in defiance of that fiddy milestone, I would run up Pikes Peak in the Ascent race, and even go back again in 2002.

Or that, left with a residue of fitness, I would go back and do the long Yellowstone run again that fall? Or that, in 2009, with the stiff heaviness of years of running skiing biking abusing, I would be back at it?

Best thing I’ve ever done.

Hayden Valley, the Central Plateau, is one of the few remaining wild epicenters in the Lower 48. The place crackles with electricity, charisma, danger. I’ve only gone in there alone.

It’s home of the grizzly — Hayden is where the famous brothers, Frank and John Craighead, did much of their research in the 1960s for their heralded book, “Track of the Grizzly.” I’ve never not seen grizzly sign back there.

It’s the stomping ground of the Nez Perce pack of wolves (and where, on another run, I was one sock away from slithering nekkid into a hot spring, and saw two cans of lupus adults that had been watching me from twenty yards away the whole time. They sauntered off; I slithered in).

Across the Central Plateau. Past geothermal areas that a dozen … few dozen? … of Yellowstone’s 3.5 million yearly visitors ever see, perhaps 0.0005%. (The Park Service does not permit backpacking anywhere along that 22-mile route.)

The trail over Mary Mountain and the Central Plateau follows the old stagecoach route before there was a Craig Pass out of Old Faithful in 1892. Coming in from the west, you still follow two-track before it crosses Nez Perce Creek and into thick lodgepole pine forests.

You sick MG-reading adrenaline-addicted enduro-fux don’t wanna do this chit. Go away.

Okay? Reason with me here.

Reason 1: It’s either 22 or 24 miles across, depending which signs you believe. Or 20.2 if you ask the backcountry office. Yes, the major predators are there (evidence of recent activity abounds): grizzlies and wolves, also the tormenting mosquitoes and the kamikaze deer flies in July. If you stop to adjust or glance at the map, you’re done. Blood donor. They’re insane back there. You bathe yourself in DEET, then you gotta keep moving. Your options are one.

Oh yes — it’s gorgeous in that primal Yellowstone kind of way as you jog along Nez Perce Creek, crossing the old wooden bridges, into the shady forest, across the floor of a volcanic caldera. Entering a special place. A portal back in time some eighty thousand years, before homo e-wrecked-us.

Reason 2: You’re gonna get mad at the trail. Because no one goes back there, and because there’s so much verdurous growth, you run into these open meadows and the trail disappears and you slow as you jog

through uneven sedges in the direction that feels right. The white part of an otherwise green topo map denotes marsh and it does not lie.

There’s one! An orange sign, and you pick up the pace back to an Anasazi Shuffle and consume more miles.

You stop and read a 60-year-old inter- pretive sign; you’re standing where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce camped out on their terrible and sad retreat from the U.S. Army in August 1877.

Onward, then, through uncleared fallen lodgepoles. Damn lodgepoles! They’re ev- erywhere, and you gotta decide if walking around or climbing over is better again and now where’s the trail?

Then you get to run up and over Mary Mountain. Did I mention the mountain?

Dusty, crusty, obsidian and pulverized volcanic tuff, and it’s steep. You gotta leap back and forth over a small drainage for the best line, and the crushed obsidian acts like ball bearings, so you slip as it climbs to a twelve-percent grade.

(This was the Devil’s Stairway in the old stagecoach days. The dudes and dudettes were requested to walk to lighten the loads for the four-horse teams. In 1890 Congressman Guy Pelton died while walking up this road; the beginning of the end for this route.)

Me likes this part. I start at eight in the morning. Now the sun’s climbing high, I’m baking … basking … in the glow of a good mountain sweat, a semi truck in low gear grinding my way uphill and …

“Whoa … !” Large male grizzly track, unmistakable in the powdery volcanic ash … “Whoa! Hello!?” … scratch marks on that lodgepole … seven feet up … You wanna come up with a song at this point. You wanna make a lot of noise.

“Hello bear … are you there … I do care … if you eat me…”

And just because your panting-ass lungs are having a heave, forget about it — you better keep making some noise. Old Ephraim (in mountain man lingo) is around, and he’s close.

“There’s no business like show business … ”

And no puking, either.

So you’re on high alert and the safety cap is off your pepper spray, but the forest opens up and finally you’re over and … there’s the cabin.

A log cabin with a personality (as most do). Safe, solid, cozy and gracefully Feng shuied in the center of a stately lodgepole forest. Thirty steps to the lake, twenty to the pooper.

Eleven miles in now, half way, I empty out my Camelbak onto the picnic table, shoot up more DEET (skeeters not as bad here, 700 feet above the swamps), and gag down a Clif Bar. (Please send me a case of the choco p-butter for the dubious plug, thx. cg.)

Now you’re probably ten miles from the nearest human and you gotta think about the last time you were ten miles from another human.

And: No Service (yeah, I ran with one), no television, no CNN, no escaped convicts, no pooters.

How many people have never been a mile away from another person? A hundred yards?

I’m thinking that after owning and operating Callowishus (!) Tours for twenty years, the Park Service might bequeath the Mary Mountain patrol cabin to me. Backcountry ranger Becky riding up on Saturdays with supplies. I’ll have to ask.

Ten minutes of being epicentered, a short stretch, and it’s back on the trail. Before every tendon and muscle freezes, starved of glycogen.

Now the trail meanders through Highland Hot Springs and it does not seem possible that out there somewhere, out past your envelope of sweat and endorphin and wonder, the world can be going on. There can’t be a rush hour and Wall Street and hate-war violence and environmental destruction and how could anyone not clamor to be where you were right then? Sneaking across an impending volcano, seething, hissing and geologically late for a big eruption. The caldera. The crucible for all things good and vibrant.

The hypnotic buzz from running hours at this pace, shivering in the glow of it all.

And don’t forget about Old Ephraim.

Singing, “Hello hello, what is it, you want to know?”

You catch the signed cutoff — thanks Ranger Bob — away from the old stagecoach road that thins out into nothing.

“Ohhhh!” You jump three feet in the air … “Fuck!”… Big Bison, wide-eyed, he jolts then you skid backwards grasping a tree. “Ahhh!” He stampedes away through the young trees, tossing up a dust storm.

“Dude, you scared the crap out of me!” Bitch.

You moron. With that squirt of adrenalin, you used up 18% of your remaining energy … coulda touched him! If that was a bear …

Then ninety minutes after Mary Cabin, it’s all about to change again: Hayden Valley! A huge rolling meadow of green stretching forever and the brown dots are buffalo and where’s the trail? Well, you still have like seven miles and it runs northeasterly. Shuffle.

The Park Service puts up posts with orange markers, but say the buffalo like to rub up against them, knocking them over.

You keep plodding east, jog when you can, walk if you must, uneven sage meadows. You know to run on your toes in rough terrain, but the muscles balk. It’s hot. Slight tail breeze. Long way to go.

You have topo-choices and get lucky, up that middle ridge was correct … and there’s a fallen Park Service post with an orange trail marker. You prop it up, again commence the shuffle.

A little map surveillance. There’s a big, inviting geothermal steaming way over there, but you’re not about to veer two miles extra.

Trail on, trail off.

You think about getting back, what you want to drink first, second, then third. The water warming in your sweat-soaked Camelbak isn’t cutting it. Civilization is six miles ahead, and you just want a root beer float before you go back to the cabin to stay.

You’re eighteen miles in, you pick up the scant trail, up and over yet one more ridge and there, orange marker, obvious trail that leads out.

You don’t want to go back to the mechoworld, but you can’t go back the way you came, so you sit. You think to yourself, this is it, I found it here, but you’re not sure what “it” is. Perhaps it’s the combination of fatigue, endorphins, the primal beauty, of the sense of impending accomplishment.

Why Abbey went on those long walks toward the end, I suppose.

You’re mainly trail shuffling, but then

again you got your buffalo. 2,000-pound bull standing two yards from the trail and your choices are again: one.

Snorting: the rut has commenced.

Around, preferably upslope toward the trees. If the grizz was to get you now, you really don’t care that much. You’re ’bout done.

Your shuffle is no faster than Elder Hostellers advancing toward the vegan buffet line after a five-mile hike.

And did I mention the seeps? Go way up high again where those people went? Or right through the middle? Yep. Slosh slosh suck muck squish slosh muck suck. Add heavy muddy shoes and now, whacking through sage and sedge, a bit of decorative plant life chaffs your heel and a coupla small rocks are annoying your feet and you’re down to two miles.

And I won’t mention the two secret treats …

Quit walking, you lactic-acid pussy.

So you trudge because it counts for running miles in the story, and you’re try- ing to break six hours. Hikers with poles coming your way … you don’t want to see them or the cars in the distance now, but you shuffle on and there is that root beer float … I bet they can make it with chocolate ice cream. Then grape juice on the rocks then beer. Lots of beer. The buf- fet back at the Inn. Rum and hot chocolate and Advil for dessert.

One more seep crossing, two more buffalo aversions, and damn: there’s the end. Cars everywhere and plump tourists taking pictures of Canada Geese. They don’t know that I’ve just returned from eighty thousand years ago. That I found an epicenter.

1:58 p.m. I walk to the turnout, stick out my thumb.

Well, for reasons aplenty, I’m gonna do this run again come fall; dry trails are just one positive.

I might even entertain the idea of tak- ing along a co-pilot or two. email me. I left a scratch mark on this thin piece of tree, how to find me.

You don’t want to do this chit. Best thing I’ve ever done.

Long-time contributor Cal Glover lives just over the Teton Pass from Jackson.

The Loon of Mystic Heights Pond

Most of our time is spent in Idaho, but Jeannie, my girlfriend, partner and love in life, owns a house on the pond in Mystic Heights just outside Bozeman, Montana. We spend less time in the house on the pond than it deserves, but our irregular visits are cherished, nourishing and always educational. Bozeman and the surrounding area has more people living in it each time we visit, as does the rest of western America and, in fact,the entire earth. An ever-increasing population of humans is referred to by humans as “growth,” but in the natural world it represents the opposite, a diminuendo. Montana friends both close and casual are, as everywhere, treasured, and the six-hour drive between these two homes and circles of friends and the gaps of time between them encourages appreciation of the moment, person and place at hand and leaves less time for taking any of them for granted. Absence really does make the heart grow.

Absence does not have a like influence on understanding.

Mystic Heights is a classic middle-class America suburbia subdivision, with an abundance of normal children from toddlers to teens, dogs of many sizes and breeds with an accent on Golden Retrievers and adults of a wide range of backgrounds, professions, inter-ests and political, social and spiritual leanings. Except this is Montana and Mystic Heights is at the entrance to Leverich Canyon on the northern edge of the Gallatin Range. That is, like other Western housing developments, it is suburbia joined to a wilderness laced with hiking/biking/running/horseback riding and (alas) motorcycle trails and roads. It is not unusual to start a run up Leverich and meet and pat on the head one of the friendly neighborhood Goldens and fifteen minutes later see fresh bear or cougar tracks on the trails of your run, and, on occasion, the maker of the tracks in creature. A few years ago, Jeannie was running alone and was bluff-charged by a bear less than a mile from the house. It was a black bear but grizzlies are abundant in the Gallatin and the experience, regardless of the taxonomy of bears, properly focused her attention on the present moment of survival and the long trail back to Mystic Heights. I ran up a favorite trail one day and on the way back down came across cougar tracks that had not been there an hour earlier, inspiring an unplanned burst of interval training to end the run. (In truth, I am a chugger with increased interval speed training in the jogging range of fleetness, but I call my endeavors running for purposes of communication. What would people think if I said I was going “chugging?”)

And then there is the pond.

The pond was once a gravel pit several miles from town, but Bozeman grew as part of the ubiquitous developmentof western America, extending pavement and subdivisions in all directions. Parcels of land once used for gravel pits, grazing, farming and just filling a natural niche in the environmental scheme of things suddenly took on an economic value as mysteriousandrandomastheoddsof winningthelottery.Capitalisminaction. Mystic Heights Subdivision was platted, lots put up for sale and Jeannie bought one.The gravel pit was lined with bentonite and filled from a spring on the southwest corner. The pond is roughly four acres in size, less than a hundred by two hundred meters across, forty feet at its deepest spot and, because of the bentonite, turbid, though the water quality is called “decent” by one who has analyzed it. As intended, it has become a private recreational center for the denizens of Mystic Heights, a superb swimming hole on hot summer afternoons, a place to paddle or float on buoyant contrivances — canoes, rubber duckies, inner tubes, noodles, inflatable mats and surf boards. Jousting and balancing contests among hormonal teens are spectator events. The pond has been stocked with rainbow and brown trout and there are said to be suckers as well. I have seen minnows, tiny crustaceans and turtles and a few people fishing on the pond and from its banks. I’ve never seen them, but algal outbreaks and fish kills have occurred.

Each autumn, flocks of geese stop at the pond during their laborious annual migration. They make a squawking racket that is endearing to me and annoying to some others, and I love watching the geese prepare in formation for their morning takeoff from Mystic Heights to the next pond south, accompanied by copious and loud communication. I always wonder what they are saying to each other. They leave in waves. Sometimes three or four groups of ten or twelve geese depart in a span of ten minutes, and it is beautiful to watch such graceful, tribal, harmonious creatures rise and form patterns in the sky. Geese are often on the pond in spring, but usually in groups of two or three or four, never in flocks of ten or twelve.

In winter, the pond is frozen and used for ice hockey and New Year’s Day polar bear plunge fests. The rest of the year, it is not unusual to see a wide range of avian and terrestrial creatures on or near the pond. Several years ago, one of the neighbors used the pond as home for his pet duck, a large white bird that couldn’t fly but added a resident neutered wildness to the suburban ambiance. I named him “Fred” in my own mind, but so far as I know he had no other name and Fred was shunned by his wild, multi-colored cousins during their short visits. Perhaps as a consequence, Fred spent an inordinate amount of time on the pond, quacking existentially into the void to no obvious response in order, anthropocentrically speaking, to substantiate his own existence and alleviate his disconnection from his own kind, much like some human beings do. I rather enjoyed Fred’s running commentary and was not distracted by it, but Fred mightily irritated others who were not amused, informed nor entertained by his lyrics. For them, a beautiful day did not include a loud white bird, even on a hot summer day. One day (or night) Fred simply disappeared, either at the hands of his owner responding to complaints or those of a stealth neighbor who had had enough of Fred except, perhaps, for dinner.

Fred’s close cousins, the mallards, are probably the most frequent and numerous visitors to the pond, except for the geese in autumn. I have seen ospreys, egrets, hawks, cranes and bald eagles at the pond. The bald eagle, the national bird and symbol of the United States, like the nation and values it symbolizes, has recently had its extinction rating improved from endangered to threatened. We hope this trend continues and that both eagle and nation make joint comebacks to health and vitality. Deer are often in the yard, and on occasion we have heard elk bugling from nearby fields. I once watched a bear leisurely amble along the bank beneath the towering cottonwood trees on the far side of the pond before disappearing into the fields beyond. A wildlife biologist who specializes in wolves was staying at the house and swears he saw a black wolf in the front yard.

Whether one views it as suburbia in the wild or wilderness in suburbia, Mystic Heights is as symbolic of Montana, the American West, perhaps the environment of the Earth itself as the bald eagle is of the United States. That is, humans tend to think of things as they are as something else. How could we not? My friend Jack Turner reminded me the other day:

“Two hundred billion stars in our galaxy, billions of galaxies. We are spinning around the Earth’s axis at about 15,000 mph; around the sun at I don’t know what; and around the black hole at the center of the Milky Way at around 500,000 mph. Weeeeeeeee… And nobody knows.”

Nobody knows. And, of course, we spin at different rates at the equator, in Anchorage and at the South Pole, and the Earth itself spins around the sun at a different rate in January than in July. I mean, truly, nobody knows. Weeeeeeee.

The only ones with a clue are the ones who acknowledge that nobody knows.

Our understanding of nature is incomplete, and whatever humanity’s selfimposed absence from the natural world does to its own heart, it tends to fragment its deficient awareness of our proper relationship to it. No matter how much we pave, extract from, develop, poison, clear cut, ignore, rape, pillage, plunder and exert our self-anointed, ignorant dominion over the earth, we do not understand the consequences of what we do upon it. We are each part of that inscrutable ignorance.

Nobody knows.

Before we came to Bozeman this spring, our friend Robin, who has stayed in the house for the past year, reported the presence of a loon on the pond for several days. That was exciting news. I had seen but a single loon and heard its lovely, haunting call once in Wisconsin. We had never seen a loon on the Mystic Heights pond and, so far as we knew, none had ever been there. Which only shows how little we knew (know?).

And there he was that first morning, a lone loon on the pond. Rarely did he make his call, but when it came, it was ethereally beautiful. We watched him through binoculars, floating, sometimes paddling, and every so often diving beneath the surface to fish for up to a minute at a time. A bald eagle made a few swooping passes over the pond and loon and then spent a couple of hours in the top of one of the cottonwood trees observing the world and the loon with eagle eye. We watched these things intermittently between chores and work and as distraction from that antithesis of nature tool, the computer, before which I sit writing words about contemplating nature.

While having coffee the next morning, I watched through the front plate-glass windows an interesting exercise by the lone loon of Mystic Heights pond. He (I later determined it was a he) paddled to the east end of the pond without a dive or pause, turned and immediately commenced a furious wing-flapping take-off toward the west end. He quickly built up an impressive rate of speed but rose no more than a foot or two above the water, not nearly enough to clear even the treeless section of the west bank. The loon made an awkward landing in the last stretch of water and paddled immediately back to the east end and repeated the performance with the same result. Something about it didn’t seem in harmony, but I was busy with matters of my own (perhaps no less loony) life and forgot about it. That evening, I timed the loon making a series of fishing dives lasting nearly a minute each. He was good in the water.

The next morning, again drinking coffee and watching the pond as much in procrastination as curiosity, I saw the loon again paddling east. He reached the far end, turned and immediately com

menced a frenzied, wing-flapping effort to take off. His speed was impressive but his height was low and again he made an ungainly landing on the west end. The loon wasted no time paddling like a loon back to the east end and launching another effort resulting in an even more graceless landing, after which he placidly floated as if contemplating his next move and resting. Two take-off attempts seemed his limit.

I retreated to my computer and the internet for some loon research, which quickly revealed that the Mystic Heights loon was a common loon. I learned loons are sometimes known as “the spirits of the wilderness” and have four calls — the tremolo, the hoot, the wail and the yodel. I’d only heard the wail, though Robin had heard a yodel. Adult loons are rarely eaten by other animals, though the young are often taken by raccoons, skunks, turtles and big fish. Adults are sometimes eaten by bald eagles, leading me to surmise that the eagle I watched swoop over the loon and then sit in the tree for several hours was not just whistling “America the Beautiful.” Because their legs are far back on the body, loons are both awkward and vulnerable on land and spend as little time as possible there. Loon bones are denser and heavier than those of most birds and that weight helps them dive for food. Though I was totally impressed that the loon of Mystic Height pond stayed under for nearly a minute, loons can stay down for up to five minutes and dive to 250 feet. One revealing (to my uneducated mind) description read, “Graceful in the water and in flight, they are almost comical on takeoffs and landings. Their size, solid bone structure and weight distribution result in thrashing water takeoffs that can last 100s of feet. The loon’s landing is nothing so much as a controlled crash-glide.” That certainly matched what I had seen, and it pleased me that my bits of research and observation fit so nicely together.

But absence fragments understanding. Because we had never seen a loon on the pond before, and because we had not talked with our seldom-seen neighbors about that loon, we assumed that loons on the pond were a rare occurrence.

“Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness,” said Marshall McLuhan.

We observed the loon for the next couple of days and each morning he attempted two takeoffs from the east with the same inelegant landings on the west end so different from those of the graceful geese. By then, my research had taught me enough to realize that the pond might be too short for the loon’s take-off requirements. For sure, I concluded, a loon launch from Mystic Height pond needed a good wind from the west to succeed, and even that was no guarantee. It occurred to me that this loon was trapped in too small a body of water. Far from being one of the spirits of wilderness, he was a prisoner. With this new understanding that he might have screwed up and landed on a pond with too small a runway, I viewed the loon with new eyes. Nature can be cruel.

What to do?

The anthropocentric response, it seems, is to interfere, which enables our addiction to the illusion of control. By the time my knowledge of loon ways had reached this stage of incompleteness, Jeannie had left for a climbing expedition in Alaska, so Robin and I conferred over morning coffee.

What to do with a crazy loon that had landed on a pond too small? He had been there more than a week. We watched him attempt another take-off and perform another clumsy crash-landing. After some discussion, we decided that, even though the fishing was good and he appeared healthy, his morning take-off attempts were reason enough for the anthropomorphic conclusion that he must be missing the company of fellow loons and he needed help to get off he pond. He clearly needed a longer runway. Robin had to go to work, but she thought she knew someone who worked for Fish & Wildlife and maybe we could contact him later in the afternoon. Like everyone who follows the fluctuating fates of wolf and buffalo, we both know that the true headquarters of Fish & Wildlife departments in most Western states are located deep in the folds of the pockets of the local ranching, hunting and real-estate-development industries. Contacting Fish & Wildlife about helping wildlife is not a step to be taken lightly and we would not, but we were conflicted.

But it was our conflict, not nature’s, and like all things left to nature, it took care of itself naturally.

That afternoon when I returned to Mystic Heights from chores in town, the loon was gone from the pond. Whether the loon got a lift from a headwind or from the bald eagle or was hyper-motivated by ESP that we had even considered calling in Fish & Wildlife is unknown, but neither he nor any other loon has been seen after that.

I’ve since learned that a few loons visit Mystic Heights Pond every spring. Whether they get off the pond in the talons of eagles or a headwind is something I hope to determine by further, better-informed observation in another spring. Either way is as natural as the eagle or the wind or the black hole at the center of the Milky Way. I don’t know whether the loons that land on the pond become eagle food or take off in the first strong wind to fly another day, but, anthropocentrically speaking, the loon of Mystic Heights Pond and the more than six and three quarters billion human beings living on this tiny Earth are all in a space that may or may not be large enough to allow take-off into the graceful flight of survival.

Dick Dorworth, who has been writing for Mountain Gazette since before it became Mountain Gazette in 1972, is the author of “Night Driving: Invention of the Wheel and Other Blues” and “The Perfect Turn: Tales of Skiing and Skiers,” soon to be published by Western Eye Press. He is fond of saying that skiing, climbing and writing are the only things he’s ever learned to do.

Hats Off to Good Times Ahead

I said goodbye to an old, inseparable friend and skiing partner this last winter, after what had begun twenty years ago in Stowe, Vermont, where we were first introduced, and ended in Winter Park, Colorado. It was another one of those tiny tragedies and small realizations I now endure, as I suspect most of us do, that we’re growing older. They arrive, from nowhere, and land like an unexpected letter — and with it the loss, by slow degrees, of invincibility, recklessness and all those things that I now regard and associate with youth and stupidity.

There is a story I’m reminded of from time to time concerning a baseball player who had already spent several years in the big leagues and who asked his father, a retired major league veteran, how he knew when he was beginning to lose a step. His father replied, “If you’re asking, it’s already too late.” My own moments have been more subtle and innocent, but no less disarming, the latest of which I place full blame on my six-year-old daughter.

My friend, as it was, was a ski hat, and not a particularly attractive one, given to me by the owner of a bed-and-breakfast inn I worked for during my ski-bum years. It was oversized and warm and slid down past my ears like something from Calvin and Hobbes. Two other employees received identical hats: Sara, the morning and evening waitress, who, like me, graduated from school and was also “taking some time off”; and Tony, a bearded and burly Vermonter from Barre, who plowed the parking lot and fixed whatever needed fixing or whatever he figured needed fixing. Together we formed the inn’s Ski Bum Race Team, racing every Tuesday afternoon, sporting our hats, against similar teams comprised of dubious and not-so dubious characters of varying ability from Stowe’s local bars, restaurants and ski shops. The winning team was awarded, for the week, the race’s silver cup — a bottomless, gaping piece of hardware mounted on marble that was a ticket to any bar in town to be filled with free booze until the next race, or until either you were committed. We won twice in a row and more.

Chip, a recently divorced salesman who rented a trailer out back, was a last-minute addition to our squad. He wasn’t given a hat because the inn owner didn’t altogether care for him. When we returned from our evenings, and after we bid good night, he would often later stumble out of his trailer and noisily pilfer firewood outside our dorm-style rooms and weave his way back, like a ship taking on heavy water, dropping the odd piece en route like a popcorn trail to be discovered in the morning. Sue, the owner, minded, but never said anything. We didn’t care.

My hat survived those and similar beer-soaked and smoke-filtered outings, then and in future years. It accompanied me on fresh powder days, lost escapades and ill-advised, out-of-bounds adventures, while everyone else was stuck behind a desk somewhere. It raced with me against Stowe resident and Olympian Tiger Shaw (it was over before it began), and it traveled faithfully in my boot bag when all other equipment was upgraded, lost or destroyed. I eventually returned home to Rhode Island and found a “real job,” and, for 14 years, we commuted behind school buses on brittle winter mornings, blew into bars on unforgiving evenings, made weekend-warrior trips up north. And, like the character Henry Hill in the end of the movie, “Goodfellas,” my wife and I decided it was time for a change, time for a move, and we landed in Golden, where she had been offered a job, and I left my post back East as an editor and writer for the local paper. Out of work, the kids in school and winter on its way, I did what any sensible person would do in my circumstances — I bought season ski passes. And new skis and boots.

“Oh, happy day, hat! Rejoice! We are back!” I told myself (and my hat).

The lifts deposited us atop mountains with the giddiness of the oxygen-deprived. It was as if everything had come full circle and lay beneath us for the taking. So what if my breath was shorter, my body ached more than memory served me? So what if the herniated disks in my lower back acted up once in awhile? So what?

I also purchased my daughter’s first helmet, which we had normally rented along with her equipment in previous years. Lily, as with most children her age, has a tireless, insatiable curiosity coupled with endless questions about the nature of things and the ways of the world, and when they overwhelm me and exasperation mounts, which is inevitable, I can sometimes deploy a stop-gap answer that makes inexplicable sense in her little mind. Questions, for example, like — “How do blind people drive, Daddy?”

(“They don’t, honey. The deaf people drive them.”)

But there was always one question I had difficulty deflecting, and it presented itself every year soon after the lifts began running — Why doesn’t Daddy wear a helmet? That was always a tough one, probably because I never had a good answer and because there really isn’t a good answer. Why not, indeed?

When Lily was younger, the question never posed a true threat to my hat because she generally accepted my evasive responses unequivocally, but now, at six years old, she turned an increasingly critical — and skeptical — eye toward what is said and explained to her. Still, how do you explain to a child how something so simple and regular as a ski hat contains as much warmth and comfort of past experiences as it does against the snowy elements? Or that it is a reminder, growing dimmer each passing season, of some younger version of yourself? You can’t. At least I can’t.

It was late last January at Winter Park, a rare day of fresh and much-needed snow in which skiers and boarders came off the slopes into the lift line corrals exchanging sun-bleached smiles and chit-chat like a gaggle of geese. Lily had snapped her skis on and I was fumbling with her helmet, putting it on over her ponytail amidst her small-voiced protests, when she said —

“Why do I have to wear one of these and you don’t?”

And, like that, it was over. The coup de grâce mercilessly and unceremoniously fired. The well of answers (or excuses?) I had dipped into so often was now dry. I knelt down to her as I unfastened her chin clip.

“You know what?” I said, my face peering into hers.

“What?”

We stepped into our skis again after a quick trip to the base-area ski shop and rode up the lift together, as we were to do many more times last winter. It was a special year on the slopes for both of us: Lily experienced her “Aha!” moment, when everything clicked and came together, and I was there to see it unfold. I watched her gain confidence and skirt the edges of trails amongst the trees. I watched her traverse and negotiate steep pitches. I watched, freighted with worry, as she took tremendous falls, becoming a confusion of body parts and ski equipment in a tumbleweed of snow — then get back up. I watched as she bobbed up and down, in and out of sight like a boat in high seas, through mogul fields. And there’s more to come this year and next. And next after that.

Not a bad way to christen a new helmet and welcome a new friend.

Rob Merwin is a graduate of the St. Lawrence University Writing Program and left his position as a page designer/writer/editor of his hometown paper last year to move to Colorado with his family. When he’s not playing Mr. Mom, he can be found getting happily lost among last year’s skiing photos on his laptop.

Not Just A Ski: A Tribute to Shane McConkey and his K2 Pontoons

Mom used to say, “It’s not what you have, it’s what you do with what you have.” The philosophy stemmed from her childhood as one of eight, and was made legendary by my uncles, who dominated an inner-city hockey league wearing a pair of grandma’s old figure skates — toe picks and all!

So it was for me growing up, skiing New Hampshire’s White Mountains in archaic, orthopedic gray boots and wax-less, second-hand rentals. Though I must have been a pitiful sight, gear never equated for much in my adolescent love for skiing.

Only when moving to Jackson Hole did equipment become a matter of research, debate and utter importance. The resort transforms into a ski showcase on snow days. With the howitzer blasts echoing off the Tetons like an epic heartbeat, Jackson’s devoted scuttle around the base with long, fat powder skis in tow.

A deep sense of inadequacy festered within me during my first delayed opening, powder mornings. Tottering around my dainty 167 K2 relics produced the same self-loathing as a freshman hitting the showers with the varsity squad. I kept my eyes downcast, and my loins guarded.

See, a ski is not just a ski in Jackson. It is a portal to your innermost intentions with the sport; a sort of standard that defines you as either a “gaper” or a “powderhound.” Much is assumed from the centimeters of a ski. Someone with two fat powder skis slung over a shoulder projects a serious mystique, even before clipping in. Throw an Avalung across their chest, and a shovel on their back, and you’ve got a hard-charging Jacksonite.

The mentality reeks of local machismo bullshit, but it’s nearly impossible not to subscribe to in time.

Retiring my outdated Eastern skis, I purchased Shane McConkey’s signature powder skis, The K2 Pontoons. Few have influenced skiing more profoundly than Shane McConkey. At a time when many face-shot-seeking skiers scoffed at the idea of fat skis, McConkey was floating on Alaskan spines on a pair of water skis. The Pontoons were the catalyst to today’s ski technology. Their head-turning girth, and extreme rockered tip, smacks of McConkey’s style. With a tapered, tear-drop design, the Pontoon’s rear tips sink, and enable their 160cm shovel to conquer any depth of snow. More importantly, The Pontoons became an indelible footprint of skiing’s beloved fallen son.

I just hoped I could do them justice.

As fate would have it, Jackson entered into one of the worst snow draughts just after the acquisition. For weeks, the two powder planks stood before my bed, taunting me. It took every shred of patience I could muster not to rip groomers on them. It’s gotta be right, I pleaded with myself.

In the meantime, the skis became props in the more-intimate moments of my life. Once, while romancing one of Jackson’s fairer sex, I pulled the McConkey fatties into the sultry mix. Clenching them like Poseidon does his trident, I channeled the spirit of “Saucer Boy,” and achieved a ménage a trois only possible in a ski town.

The day finally came in mid-January. “Twenty-four inches overnight, and still dumping,” the morning report read. I sped to the Village in an over-caffeinated trance, constantly shooting glances at the Pontoons sprawled across the trunk as I imagine a father does driving his newborn home for the first time.

The hours of delayed opening crawled by painfully. Consumed by the stoke of a powder day, I fidgeted through the morning like an addict through detox. Finally, amid a hail of snowballs, and punctuated by a ferocious roar of cheers, the gondola began to spin. I shoved my fatties into separate slots at the gondola door, grabbed a window seat and waited with Christmas-morning anticipation.

A lot of skiers talk about floating. Yet no matter how much you hear about it, no matter how many ski movies you watch, nothing can provide even the slightest inkling of the sensation. It is like trying to describe purple to a blind person.

Descending from the gondola, I veered skier’s left into a deep trough where the snow lay untouched. Those first weightless turns instantaneously reconfigured my life’s priorities. It was like the moment when the Wizard of Oz turns to color. The sensation was so enthralling, so utterly enjoyable, that it beckoned a sense of guilt. I knew at that moment that I would give up anything for this. Nothing before (or thereafter) delivered the equivalent ecstasy of floating on snow.

The Pontoons led me into the trees where virgin powder awaited. In the quiet seclusion of Moran Forest, turns were effortless and sublime. Not wanting to eat up the powder too quickly, I forced myself to stop mid-run. Big falling flakes intensified the scene’s silence, and I passed into a fantasy world where I expected a fawn to creep out from behind the line of conifers. Allowing my imagination to further ferment, I decided that the day deserved an apparition more epic than a fawn. Perhaps a majestic centaur trotting out with a gorgeous nude blond riding him bareback would be more appropriate. Yes, far more appropriate.

Stumbling back to my car at the end of the day, absolutely delirious, I cradled the Pontoons lovingly. For a person not easily seduced by materialism, it is striking to admit that the Pontoons changed my life. Over the season, they turned the dials of my perspective, and refined the scope of my daily objectives in the mountains. Though the experience can likely be had on a myriad of powder skis, the Pontoons were my vehicle to enlightenment, and thus ascended as the skiing’s preeminent tool in my mind.

Today, the Pontoons stand in my bedroom waiting for the snow to fall again. I often gaze at them, appreciating them on the same level as I do fine art. They remind me that, just as a writer lives on his words, and a painter in his portraits, McConkey lives on in these skis. I vow to summon that truth, and pay rightful tribute to him each time I clip in.

Robert Cocuzzo is a freelance adventure writer who has traveled extensively in South America and Europe. Formerly a charter fishing captain on Nantucket Island, Cocuzzo hung up his rubber boots for a pair of skis and currently lives in Jackson, WY.

Oetzi

Like many people my age, I own lots of old equipment, and some new. Perhaps I might have more new gear if I had consumed less beer and bought fewer bottles of single-malt Scotch.

New pack, new parka, in time, in time … in time the moon bounces and rolls along the avenue at Callanais, north in the Orkneys, built 500 years before the Pyramids of Giza. The backpacks I’ve retired never seem to just melt away and disappear. When I die, I suppose I will have one each, of every size backpack ever made. Perhaps I will build a replica of Callanais with old backpacks. That’s the problem with buying good gear, it tends to get replaced with better ideas. That, and we tend to grow larger with passing years. I replace the worn gear, and the megalith of packs grows larger.

I still look at the new designs, wondering if the idea lives up to the advertising, by which I mean that I tend to approach life as a citizen, and not as a consumer. After all, 2008 showed us that the unrestrained market did not self-correct, which leads to a comparison between consumers and a cancerous growth, which also does not self-correct. Why keep looking?

We all see the catalogues, the websites and the constant chant of buy, buy, buy. I never really understood why we had so much interest in catalogues and websites until I came across a description of a shamanic ritual described by Mircea Eliade. At the beginning of the ritual, the shaman would list the equipment he planned to use. This sounded a little familiar. Who hasn’t been around a campfire when someone pulled out a bottle of whiskey and began describing where it came from and how it came into his possession, and, of course, how good it tastes? Imagine this happening for everything in use. The drum is not an inanimate object, but formed out of living beings. The wooden frame was formed out of birch trees, and these birch trees lived on the bank of a stream, and enjoyed the sun that always shines there. The drumhead was formed from a goatskin, and the goat’s life earned a full description. The same goes for the person who put the drum together; he or she gets a description of his or her life. At some point, something began to form in my addled skull, something that said this might as well show up as an entry in a catalogue, as the pattern of description matches those used in catalogues.

This still leaves us with a buy, buy, buy chant. Until we find Julian Jaynes’ description of consciousness. Although his description is complicated, it mostly relates to observing the rules outside your mind, and then using them to form ideas inside your mind. Using his description, we find that looking at catalogues for equipment we have used and understand becomes an exercising of our consciousness. With this background as a start point, the discovery of Oetzi the iceman gained an entire other set of meanings.

Someone killed Oetzi. Why he was killed produces academic argument; it promises to produce more. It doesn’t really matter for me. As he was dying, he leaned his unfinished bow against a rock, in a small depression, where it remained, undisturbed, for 5,300 years. Now there’s an argument for “where’s it going to go.” Oetzi’s backpack, or some wood that might be his backpack, interests me a lot, mostly because I have an older Osprey that matches the design, although the materials are different. Oetzi’s pack was built out of two blocks of what look like 1×6 ash boards, and a hazel arched hoop. If you were to take the arched hoop and tie it to the ash boards, you have the same pack frame used by Osprey. My Osprey uses a padded hip belt with an arched fiberglass hoop, which for the purpose of this essay is the same as Oetzi’s supposed pack.  This means I am concerned with the development of the design within their heads, and not the actual material evidence.

The boots found with him are close to my mukluks’ design. Cut a piece of bearskin a bit larger than your foot, place it fur side up, and sew other pieces of bearskin, fur side in, around your foot. Fill the boot with soft grasses, and then put your feet into net socks, and stick them into the boots. Tie the boots closed by stepping on a leather strap and pulling up the ends, threading the ends into the tops of the net socks, and then wrapping the ends around your legs and tying the ends together. My Steger mukluks are a leather foot, with a closed canvas top. Fill the modern mukluk with felt boot liners and extra-thick socks. Add traction with a painted-on rubber sole. The difference between the two occurs mostly in the materials available. Across 5,300 years and thousands of miles of distance, we still think the same way about some of the same problems in our lives.

Conventional knowledge tells us that Oetzi lacked development and was just a savage living in the mountains. Julian Jaynes observed just the opposite, stating that the areas of agricultural development and civilization produced a human brain that up to 2,000 years ago lacked a mid-brain. William Calvin, a neurobiologist with a pen, agreed with the observation of the behaviors, but disagreed with the physical development part. We solve this problem if the agricultural people attain consciousness somewhat recently, as Jaynes suggests, allowing a longer time-line for the northern people. Our ancestors tended to live in small groups in the midst of overwhelming landscapes. Imagine a pathfinder standing on a pass in a massive landscape, surrounded by chaos of everything, wondering, “How do I keep my people alive?” The answers they developed include a use of animals to interact with that which is all around, and a development of clever ideas to thrive in difficult weather. As hard as it seems today, we valued intelligence for its own sake. We watch the trees drop leaves or needles, knowing that they see us as short lived, and show little understanding of any life form but the cancerous cell. A ponderosa forest, with a 1,000-year life and a memory to match, watches as the teeming masses run by, screaming their battle cry of “just do it.” Pathfinders travel the wilderness of the mountains and their minds, observing and evaluating the equipment they wear or carry. When they can’t find a multi-national corporation that sells what they need, they sew it themselves, carrying on a tradition that we know goes back to at least to Oetzi, as he leans his bow against a rock, before he lays himself down to die. When he did not return, we also know the ritual the next pathfinder presided over. We retain the vestiges, and Eliade described the reasons behind the ritual. Our ancestors observed that death involved a loss of focus or concentration. A toast to the dead, therefore, pledges a search for the less-focused parts of the deceased, and then the escort of those parts in their final journey. Today, good whiskey replaces the more traditional amanita muscaria, probably to reduce the projectile vomiting.

We carry forward markers of our culture. We travel into the wilderness and stand in the center of something we do not control or influence. As we stand there, surrounded by all, all of our decisions influence the level of manipulation applied to that wild place. Our ancestors lived by killing deer that migrated through their territory. Manipulate the wild and the deer may not return, and all the people die. Kill all the deer that come into the valley, and next year the memory of sweet grass on the valley floor may not exist. In late summer, rains bring forth mushrooms, and the deer love mushrooms. Imagine a pathfinder and a couple of hunters stalking a deer herd, watching as the deer begin to eat the red mushrooms with white spots on their caps. Suddenly, 10,000 deer bolt in many different directions. Guess who gets to eat the red mushrooms with the white spots so they can find which way the deer went … yep, the pathfinder. If he fails, all his people starve in winter’s cold. The survival of our northern people has never looked certain, pushed into wastelands by the teeming hordes of the south. Our pathfinders always attempted to assist us using discipline and whatever else was needed to find solutions. Originally, that was amanita muscaria, though as solutions were catalogued, and became memory, good whiskey was substituted. In our time, when a friend dies, we gather and toast the dead with good whiskey, continuing a part of our mountain culture that was old 5,000 years ago.

Kenneth Miller spent most of his adult life helping to organize and perform Mountain SAR in Colorado, before wandering the west to fight wildfires for the USFS.  He is now trying to balance that out by sitting in coffee shops studying with renegade Ph.D.s.

The Coolest Thing I Never Meant to Do

My life began in ’02, when I bit the bullet, coughed up $500 and went through river-guide training on the Arkansas River. My mother cried when she heard I was camping out of my vehicle for the summer, and my father announced that I would be consorting with degenerates. I completed the boot-camp-like training, and the raft company I trained with hired me. Once I had access to the pro-deals, I bought a small, bright-red NRS dry bag. Perfect for extra ball caps, a splash top, sunscreen, ouch kit and maybe a granola bar or two. Over the next eight years of commercial boating, I had the bag on just about every overnighter, commercial day trip and private trip; if it involved a raft and the river, I had that dry bag. Eventually, it became the not-so-dry bag and was retired to the drag bag for beer on those multi-day desert trips where you feel like you’re rowing uphill (you know the ones).

Well, on a particular mad dash from Durango to the Arkansas River for a brief weekend boat trip, I met a doctor (a psychiatrist … go figure). Not only did he have a lucrative practice, he was a boater, emotionally damaged and unpredictable. Just how I like ’em. After a steamy back-of-the-truck session during a night at the local Arkansas guide camp, “Little Cambodia,” he talked me into driving up to the South Fork of the Payette in Idaho. He tempted me with river-based sweet nothings, like, “The water would still be pretty high,” “there’s really good class III-IV” and “the water is so warm.” He offered up his truck, gas and raft to row. How could I say no? At that time, I had just started my “real job” as an accountant on the tax side for a local firm. Life took a turn for the mellow, so I relished the opportunity to throw myself in harm’s way. A trip to Idaho, with a stranger (a hot stranger), who’s clearly irresponsible and emotionally damaged … yes, please!

Two weeks later, we were headed up toward Idaho. After 16 hours on the road, we pulled into the Payette River Valley. In that part of Idaho, the sun didn’t set until about 10:30, so, even with our 8 p.m. arrival, we squeezed in a class III-V+ whitewater run known as “The Staircase.” Me with a center-rigged raft, a 12½-foot Super Puma and “The Doc” with his high-volume kayak. The river was incredible. The water was warm and busy, with big-ledge holes, mandatory moves and wave trains — everything a boater could want. We were both brimming with anticipation and excitement. We figured we could squeeze in at least three to four runs.

The next day, we hitchhiked a shuttle to do a run called “Canyon.” Canyon had one mandatory portage; other than that, it was a read-and-run, higher-volume, class III-IV. The mandatory portage was known as “Big Falls”; it was a class V+, 35-foot, cascading drop. Pro kayakers will run this rapid when the water drops down to about 500-600 CFS, and I have seen some “YouTube” footage of people running “Big Falls” in Creature Crafts at around 1,200 CFS. Other than that, everyone portages this rapid. The river was at 2,600 CFS on the day we decided to run it, which is considered a medium/high flow. The Doc told me he knew where to portage, and I trusted him. I mean, yeah, sure, “The Doc” is unpredictable and damaged, but suicidal? I didn’t think so.

Before launching, I made the decision to put ballast in the bow of the raft. The night before, on “The Staircase,” the 12½-foot raft kept getting tossed around by the large waves. To keep the holes and waves from tossing me around too much, I filled the old, trusty, bright red, not-so-dry, dry bag with rocks to act as bow ballast. I figured a little more weight in front would help me punch through those holes and over the waves. As we were boating down, we started talking about how the rapids all seemed a little “up-classed.” The doctor brought out his Julia Childs voice for the next horizon line. With each paddle stroke, he called out, “ooooh noooo another class IV ooooh.” Ten yards ahead of me, he dropped the horizon line. I started rowing hard to catch up with him. I noticed the horizon line seemed, well, rather dramatic. I then thought to myself, “He’s a doctor; this guy isn’t a dumb ass!” So I followed.

Once I crossed the other side of the horizon line, I started looking for my line. I looked left. I looked right. I couldn’t see a line. THERE WAS NO LINE!!! I suddenly realized I had rowed right into the mandatory portage, Big Falls Rapid. That hot, tingly, “oh-shit” feeling swept over me and panic reared its head. I decided to shove it down. Whether I liked it or not, I was running Big Falls Rapid and I figured I may as well try to keep my boat upright. The first drop looked like a huge vagina. Walls of water on each side, with a huge hole, followed by an enormously tall curler wave that looked like a big, angry, clitoris. This wave would surely flip my boat end-to-end. I stood up and rowed hard and furious. Once I hit the hole, I jumped to the front to keep the raft from flipping. Shortly (very shortly) thereafter, I started descending to the next drop.

Since speed and weight distribution seemed to help me get through the first drop. I jumped back to the middle of the boat, trying to grab hold of the oars in hopes of gaining some speed before hitting the second hole. I slipped and somehow fell right in between the boat and the frame. The only thing going through my mind was, “If this boat flips right now, I’m going to die.” I hit the second hole still trapped in between frame and boat. I felt the boat falling toward the second hole, water roaring all around me, the graceful slide of the raft descending into the mouth of the hole, followed by the violent lurch of my bow breaking through the bottom of the hole. And then I felt the boat being released. When I think back, I’m pretty sure my weight in the bottom of the boat actually was a huge factor in floating through that hole without flipping.

Using the oar frame for leverage, I pushed with my newfound, adrenaline-fueled strength and flung myself to the stern of the raft, dislodging my body from between boat and frame. I could see I there was another drop ahead, and it looked enormous. All I was thinking was, “Screw the oars — I’m just gonna high-side like a mutha … it’s survival now!” The last drop was awesome. I descended for about 10 feet into the biggest, river-wide hole I had seen yet. The raft got up on one side tube and stood straight up in the air. I was straddling the right side tube (the high side), riding it like a bucking bronco, watching the whole left side of the oar frame sink into the water. My bright red, not-so-dry, dry bag, filled with rocks, was dangling off the bow of the boat from a D-ring. As I sat there, five feet up in the air, straddling the tube, all I could think was, “This is it … I am going into one of the deepest, blackest, holes on this damned river.” Right then, the hole started surging and spit the raft out, right side up, sans my left oar.

As I floated calmly away, right side up, sitting where I was supposed to on the oar frame, with only one oar, I looked at my bright-red dry bag, filled with rocks and thought, “that’s one good-ass piece of gear.”

Gina Allman is an accountant in Durango, Colo., where she debits and credits like a MoFo.

Get Thee Behind Me, Gear

Ever since some caveman spent a lot of time fashioning a fancy hunting club, and, subsequently, spent more time admiring and maintaining the club than actually using it for hunting, the human species has encouraged a Cult of Gear — gear for gear’s sake. Thousands of years after that caveman (c’mon, you know it was most likely a man, although in modern times, even the smarter sex has fallen prey to Gear) started us down that expensive, lust- and jealousy-filled path, American capitalism has found Gear to its liking. Plain old lower-case gear isn’t what most outdoor companies now sell — after all, there’s really only one time most people need to buy most outdoor gear, and that’s the first time. How much different can a lightweight stove become over a few product cycles — whoops, I mean years? Instead, it is Gear that is for sale; buy Product X and you will be outdoorsy and mountain-hip, regardless of whether you actually make it to the mountains or even live anywhere near outdoor adventure. It is a classic bait-and-switch. They’re selling a culture, a lifestyle, but we’re just buying unnecessary material goods, that lovely old mainstay of American (and, more lately, Chinese) economic growth.

In my obviously open-minded and tolerant opinion, there is no outdoor industry worse about selling people Gear than the bicycle industry. I speak as a professional in that industry since 1997. What I’ve realized over the years is both sad and comical. It’s sad because we don’t use our industry’s resources to create true and healthy acceptance of bicycles as a realistic mode of transportation and recreation, as useful tools for everyday life. Instead, we’ve devoted virtually all those resources towards racing R&D and re-purposing racing products for the general market, even though the average end consumer doesn’t need, say, a carbon-steerer-equipped fork or suspension technology that really only performs at potential under the extreme demands of a professional rider. It’s comical because, for the same reasons, there are now thousands of poor saps riding around looking like Lycra-cased sausages, muffin tops spilling over every possible skintight hem, hunched over long top tubes and low-rise stems meant for lean, flexible racers, struggling to climb with the 39×23 low gear with which their $3,000 carbon road bike came equipped, a grimace of pain/frustration etched in their red faces, thinking, “Can’t wait to get off this damn thing and drive to the liquor store.” It’s as if GM sold almost exclusively NASCAR replicas — when going to the lot, you’d have to dig around in the back corner to find a plain old Malibu sedan. And when you almost inevitably drove off the lot in Dale Jr.’s race car, you’d quickly end up hating it for its lack of practicality, hurting yourself, getting into trouble, or all three.

Despite all this, American bicycle companies continue to sell race-developed bikes to the general non-racing public. Why? Many reasons come to mind, but featuring prominently is the American worship of Gear. Buying Gear is the easiest way for many people to become what they wish to be — it’s much easier to buy that team-replica bike than to actually be in team-replica shape. We care less about creating our own experiences and more about mimicking admired figures’ experiences. Hence, the multitudes who want to ride that damned Lance guy’s bike, wear Lance’s bracelet like some teen-crush class ring, and ride in Lance’s “Mellow Johnny’s” team kit — the facts that they’d probably be much more comfortable and have spent way less money on a more practical set-up notwithstanding.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying race bikes should disappear. I’m just saying the worship of Gear is making the bicycling experience less about bicycling for many American cyclists. The same is true for many other outdoor pursuits (and even many other areas of our so-called culture). I, too, once maintained an unhealthy worship of Gear. I had not one, but TWO carbon-fiber, dual-suspension race bikes, each worth somewhere north of $7,000. Yes, I did race. I was sort-of fast, but probably would have been just as fast on a bicycle worth much less. Eventually, having been around world-class racers and world-class race bikes for a while (as a team mechanic), I realized all that race stuff was just a sub-set of the whole bicycling experience, despite the fact that the industry insists on pushing race as reality. Realizing that (along with the fact that I had too much money tied up in silly plastic bicycles that cost ridiculous amounts to maintain), I sold both race bikes and replaced them with a relatively inexpensive, steel-framed, single-speed mountain bike. At that point, my cycling experience became about the experience of riding, and not about the bicycle I was using. This was for two reasons: One, by voluntarily acquiring a heavy-ish, Luddite-inspired bicycle, I had effectively extricated myself from a pervasive culture of newer, lighter, better. Two, my new bike was charmingly simple, keeping worries about breakage and maintenance to a minimum. I didn’t have to think about the bike. The Gear became the gear, and outside of the riding experience, it had no meaning. It was a freeing sensation.

Just going out and getting simple, solid gear won’t necessarily cure you of Gear-frenzy, as I discovered after I began riding my new bike. As it turned out, the bike industry hadn’t ignored the single-speed movement. In fact, it had done a great job of packaging it as the latest-greatest-new-badass thing to do, be, buy. Of course, I hadn’t been ignorant of the fact that the industry was selling single-speeds, and I certainly wasn’t one of the first to begin riding SS. But there is something about riding an SS that makes other SSers talk to you, and after my unwitting initiation into this new club, I realized that, for many other riders, single-speeds were just another manifestation of Gear. The industry had figured out that most people weren’t about to ONLY ride SS, but they sure would buy another bike if the industry could make it hip, cool, hardcore. The end result, of course, is that there are now thousands of perfectly serviceable SS bikes hanging in garages that get ridden twice a month, consigned to occasional mimicry of someone else’s experience. Gear, thine will be on consumer earth as it is in corporate heaven, amen.

The point I’m meanderingly getting at here is that it doesn’t matter what gear you use, as long as you can forget it while using it. I needed a kick in the ass via simple bicycle to make me forget Gear, but if you can ride your carbon wonder-machine and not obsess over grams and graphics at the same time, then more power to you. I’m well aware that a lot of people will argue in favor of the Gear fetish, generally by saying they need all that stuff they obsess over to “get out there.” Where I live, practically every house has a visible overflow of an amazing variety of outdoor trappings (which mostly leads me to wonder what all my fellow citizens do for a living, should they actually have time to enjoy all those toys). But, by having all that stuff, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice. The more we focus on the gear, the less we get of the experience the gear is there to facilitate. I remember countless times out on the trail, surrounded by amazing natural beauty, when someone would come upon me just admiring the view — and then proceed to make some conversation about my gear. I don’t want to talk about gear — look around, man! The experience of being out there is the reason for the gear, not vice-versa. When we look back at the end of our lives, would we prefer to have memories of many adventures and experiences, or memories of all the Gear we worshipped, memorized specs on, bought and stored in closets? Say it loud: Get thee behind me, Gear — I’ve got trails to ride, mountains to climb, landscapes to look across in awe, conversations in camp to have and experiences to experience. You, Gear, are just a tool along for the ride.

After spending years traveling the world as a bicycle mechanic, Joey Ernst settled in the best place he’d been:  Southwestern Colorado. This is his first piece for the Gazette.

Everything Must Go

I thought I had the edge. How many people could be shopping for camping gear at 10 a.m. on a Thursday? But as I pulled into the parking lot of Backcountry Escape, an outdoor equipment and apparel store, my advantage whittled down to nothing: I was not alone. Every parking space was taken and a herd of anxious consumers hoofed toward the store.

Backcountry Escape was going out of business. They had sent forth mailers declaring “the largest sale in the history of the store … and the last!” Everything was priced to move, from the kayaks down to the tent stakes. The desperate store owner was even hawking the bookshelves and clothing racks. This business was another victim of the difficult economic times.

After finding a distant parking spot, I slid sideways through the store’s entrance, narrowly avoiding a collision with a woman brandishing a discounted ice axe. There was hardly room to move inside. Shoppers and merchandise commingled to create a congested labyrinth. I had come looking for a good lantern, but my eye roved for any bargains that were too good to pass up. As I slipped past a mirror sandwiched between hooked fleece and parkas, I caught a glimpse of myself frowning. It was a sad day. Another locally owned outdoor store was going under. Sure, there was a Dick’s Sporting Goods across town, but stores like that aren’t typically run by people who have used the gear they’re selling. Small places like Backcountry Escape are more like base camps than retail stores, a waypoint to re-supply, catch a weather update and hear about the best trail to get you where you’re going.

I looked around and saw I wasn’t the only one in a foul mood. A man scowled as he pawed through a basket of socks. A woman couldn’t find her size among a stack of shoeboxes and grimaced like she’d found a hole in her rain fly. There was something more than mourning for the loss of a local business. Desperation was in the air. This milling band of gatherers was on a dire mission to secure their escape.

The fall and winter of 2010 promise to be a season of canceled vacations and pared-back plans. Money’s tight. Each successive month brings news of hundreds of thousands of jobs lost and double-digit unemployment rates in some states. There is prodigious uncertainty out there and people are clutching the money they have. A vacation is a luxury item and one of the first things to be slashed from a tightening family budget. My wife and I recently pulled the plug on plans to fly to the Adirondacks with our four kids. The price tag was just too high. Terms like “staycation” and “naycation” are surfacing in media like spring crocuses breaking through the snow.

Yet staying put is not an option; like the sign on the storefront says, “Everything must go.” For a lot of us, the need to get out and move around is coded in our bones, like a bird’s instinctual call to migrate. Westerners in particular are a restless subspecies. Never finding too much relaxation in the reputed comfort of an easy chair and a remote control, we’re always giving in to the urge to light out for country. Blame it on the landscape. Leagues of prairie, mountain, desert, valley and coast run uninterrupted to the horizon. It all gives off a sultry whisper, saying, “Move. Go. Just because you can.”

As I looked around the store at the harried bargain hunters, I could see we’d all come to the same solution. In our solidarity, we knew our escape was closer and less expensive than the resorts and airlines would have us believe. It’s really in the family campgrounds, and the state and national parks. For the price of two nights in a hotel, I can purchase an economical six-person tent. A multi-day camping permit costs less than room service. And a good campfire at the close of a day spent outdoors has more value than an overblown IMAX movie ever had.

I found my lantern and moved into the line for the cash register. I was smiling. It’s all too easy to think of 2010 as the year of our discontent. In reality it will be the season of the tent.

Jeff Osgood writes and shops on Colorado’s Front Range. Read more from him at
jeffosgood.com.

Panuelo

Douglas Adams may have taken it a bit too far in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” when asserting that a towel was “the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” He was certainly onto something, but I’d argue that it’s hard to discretely wrap up a chunk of hair-studded pig fat for quiet disposal, so as not to insult your impoverished, but well meaning Guatemalan guests, with a towel. For that sly maneuver, you’ll need a handkerchief.

As far as necessary gear, in fact, the handkerchief, or pañuelo, by its significantly sexier Spanish name, is at the top of my list. Whether backpacking or traveling abroad, the pañuelo addresses one’s most basic needs: clean hands, quick-access shade, identity masking, tourniquet, sweaty brows, snotty noses … there is no end to the list.

Some among you are now fighting the image of an elderly man carrying his neatly folded handkerchief in the back pocket of his slacks. I’m not talking about that, although I’m sure even my grandpa, Vern, knew that backcountry cowboy coffee tastes far better strained though a (clean) pañuelo rather than a sock. What’s more, these old guys understand utility, which is the real reason every old timer has got one stashed in his back pocket.

I’ll admit that I’ve got a small handful of handkerchiefs, but I really only had one pañuelo. If memory serves, its original color was black with yellow and white designs throughout. I purchased it on a whim, probably in some gas station or at a checkout counter in the local K-Mart. But long before the pañuelo became an indispensable travel partner hitched to my belt loop, stashed in my daypack or neatly tied to my raft frame, it made its debut upon me at mid-thigh. This came in tandem with David Lee Roth, ripped jeans and the constant battle with my mother over the length of my hair. It wasn’t long before it had moved upward, abandoned its Van Halen playfulness and adopted employ as a stoic do-rag just in time for collapse of glam metal under the oppression of the AIDS scare, the first Gulf War and Nirvana.

As with the rebellious fashion of the pañuelo, its original colors eventually faded, leaving behind only the slightest hint that this scrap of fabric really began with a purpose. For most of our travels together, pañuelo was little more than that: a scrap of fabric. It lives in my memory: approximately 16-square inches, tattered and paper thin, and hemmed in multiple places with dental floss. During our years together, it soaked up everything from spilled beer to blood. It had bundled everything from scraps of tortillas to the charred remains of recreational embers. It had shielded my neck from the desert sun, and my hands from hot campfire pots. For more than a decade, whenever gear was assembled, my pañuelo was at the top of the pile.

While in grad school in the fall of 2004, I made a hasty stop on Lake Street in Minneapolis to join a “visioning session” for the redevelopment of a long-vacant and heavily blighted area of town. My evening plan still included a two-hour drive to southern Minnesota, where I lived at the time, so I’d intended my stay to be brief. Besides, Lake Street in 2004 wasn’t exactly the safest neighborhood, and all my meager possessions for a week at school were in the cab. When I returned to my truck after no more than a 20-minute absence, I was horrified to discover that my passenger side window had been reduced to a shimmering pile of glass shards. I guess I had made it easy for him, since all my most important items were neatly wrapped up in a carry-away backpack. He didn’t even have to dig!

Gone were:

One GIS textbook, one statistics textbook, approximately $80 worth of economics articles, one date book, one cell phone (I was kinda happy to see that bastard go), one calculator, one watch, one water bottle, one mechanical pencil, one pair of gloves, one bike light, one pack of gum (that I’d bought to get change for the fucking meter), one laptop computer, and …

… one miserable, thin, dirty and well-worn pañuelo.

My mind sifted through the likely scenario many times over the coming weeks and months. I’m quite sure that the shit-stain individual who rummaged through the contents of my pack quickly, and perhaps even with disgust, tossed my pañuelo aside. Fucker. Even then, even during my two-hour drive through a frigid Minnesota October night without a passenger-side window, I would have happily exchanged the entire contents of that pack, the pack and the window for that tattered snot rag.

I’ve moved on and now try not to bestow emotional importance to things like handkerchiefs. Luckily, this piece of gear is cheap and can be replaced (and probably should be) from time to time.

Nathan Boddy has stomped all over western North America, but calls the Bitterroot Valley of Montana home.  He has previously written articles for Backpacking Light magazine, a forum that accepts the utility and lightweight properties of the handkerchief.