The Gazette at, uh, 40

Karen Chamberlain With Mike Moore

Photo of Karen Chamberlain with Mike Moore by Bob Chamberlain

I’m still getting used to this idea of a 40th-anniversary celebration for a publication that spent around 20 of those 40 years in a deep coma (we all thought it was dead). Can we really say that a publication, which lived for only one decade, then pulled a Rip Van Winkle, actually rose up and lived again?

Well, I think we can — as Mountain Gazette founder Mike Moore said in the first issue in 1972, “Why not?” Especially since refounder M. John Fayhee very deliberately set out to resurrect and carry forward the old publication, rather than just start up a new one with the old name. He scoured the West to scrounge up the aging survivors like me from the Seventies publication, while also looking for new young blood to seduce into the indulgence of speaking from the heart about things you love, an indulgence that ruins you forever for the practice of what passes for journalism today in publications that actually pay serious money, where you’re just supposed to paw through the hearts and minds of others and keep yourself out of it.

Now Fayhee, the Natty Bumppo of this expedition, has asked those of this band of brothers and sisters who were actually alive and writing in 1972 to give some personal reflections on Then and Now and what went Inbetween. He also asked us to keep it to around 800 words, which is an unusual Mountain Gazette request, but understandable, since otherwise this issue might weigh too much for the average reader to handle unaided. And he also asked us to try to avoid the usual reflective funk about how everything has been really going to hell on our watch.

In 1972, I personally was in further retreat from the world, living in a shack six miles by ski from the mountain town to which I had retreated six years previous. That sounds depressing, but it really wasn’t. My retreat was, as Conrad said in “Lord Jim,” “in good order,” and it was also a pretty nice shack — although ultimately a little small (16’ x 20’) after our daughter joined my partner and me and our young son. It offered a mix of 19th and 20th century living; we had to haul water from a nearby spring, the toilet was about a hundred feet due east and the bathtub was a big bowl that also served as my partner’s bread-rising bowl (no baths on bread day). But we had electricity for the long nights, the windows faced south and gathered a lot of sun, and it was an easy place to warm up with a wood stove, which I kept fueled by strapping myself into the snowshoes and a rope harness on sunny afternoons and going up on the nearby hillsides to haul down a matched pair of dead-standing aspen.

It was in fact a pretty cushy life — a civilized life, there six miles beyond the plowed-out part of civilization. I was ostensibly there to write — and did, some, first for the Skiers’ Gazette, then when the name and mission changed toward the ambiguous, for the Mountain Gazette. But mostly, I guess I was there to stare at the wall or out the window and think, or go out and ski around and think, because that’s mostly what I did. Think about the world I was retreating from.

There where civilization and nature coexisted and contended in an often delicate balance — that was where I began to distinguish between “the world” and “the earth.” There’s this planet here, which we are on; that’s the earth. And we are one very successful species in a thin layer of what geologists call “fluff,” life, spreading over the restless rock and wind and water of the planet, and what we do as a species is create worlds that we superimpose over the earth. Our worlds are imagined and partially executed reorganizations of the earth and its fluff of life to make the earth more accommodating to ourselves and our needs and desires.

There are, as I see it, only two ways to look at the past forty years both positively and sort of intelligently. One is to say, wow, we have sure gotten adept at turning the earth into a world. This isn’t just a matter of the technological changes of recent decades (like this device on which I not only “write” but also store my brain). The world we are still making has also essentially permeated what passed for relatively untouched “nature” in places where most of us Gazetteers like to hang out; everything is subdivided into units by use, and all of it is being overlaid by information about it. We have wolves again, here and there, but most of them have radio collars to keep someone informed about where they are, what they’re up to — just as most of us voluntarily carry a variation on the radio collar that keeps someone else informed about where we are, what we’re up to. There’s really no putting things back; there’s just going forward.

A second way to look at the past forty years is to say that today we know a hell of a lot more than we did in 1972 about what we are doing to the earth in this process of creatively laying a world over the earth. And also what we are undoing for the earth. We may be gradually turning ourselves into a reflexive species — a species that thinks more inclusively about what we are doing and undoing while we are in the process of doing it. And even before we start doing it.

So today — much more so than in 1972 — there is a tension between our increasing knowledge of how to manipulate the earth into serving our world vision, and our increasing knowledge of what happens to the earth when we so manipulate it. Never mind that the hard-charging manipulators have dominated the politics and economics of the past forty years; they have not achieved their goal of silencing the reflexive voice always posing the obnoxious questions: Do we really know what we are doing? Couldn’t we think this through a little further?

Exploring and resolving the tension there, between those two competing cultural drives, may be the work of the next forty years — 2050 is the current long-range planning horizon for most governments and agencies that have no choice but to keep on doing, but with a growing awareness of what we are doing. And undoing. And that exploration doesn’t all have to be “scientific” and data-driven; it’ll be a lot more accessible if a lot of it is anecdotal. Sometimes we get that in the Gazette. I just hope the Gazette doesn’t fall into another 20-year Rip Van Winkle, either due to being too serious or too superfluous.

George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter: A Memory More Like a Dream” and “Dragons in Paradise: On the Edge Between Civilization and Sanity.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo. 

Dick Dorworth reflects on Edward Abbey, and his influence on him

Swimming in Deep Holy Water – A Haitian Odyssey

Deep Holy Water

Sketches and excerpted emails by Jake Welch.

The joke I tell is that I thought my twenty-three-year-old son Jake, a river kid since he could crawl, said he was going to Tahiti. Six classes short of receiving a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, he quit school, much to the dismay of his parents. In fact, he was bound for Haiti — to serve a nobler cause and, in doing so, test himself against larger forces in the universe. Scramble the letters in Haiti, throw in a “t”, and you have the famed Polynesian paradisiacal dreamscape. If you are a father, it is easy to hear what you need to hear.

After the mandatory gnashing-of-teeth episode, I performed a random survey of male friends (of a familiar age span) who I consider successful (in both conventional and nonconventional ways) human beings. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that at one time or another they had all, for different reasons, “dropped out.” Jake glibly called his retreat a “stepping back.” Exercising a father’s prerogative, I failed to mention that I had abandoned my pursuit of an English Lit degree decades ago and headed to the mountains. Years later, I circled back to academia between river seasons and picked up the damn certificate.

When I suggested that perhaps it was easier and cheaper to “step back” four decades ago, hardly any of my peer group disagreed. One curmudgeon with a contrary soul even dared to question the social, educational and employment value of today’s increasingly overpriced climb up the wobbly ladder of college education. Heresy!

The last time I checked, Haiti was still recovering from a devastating earthquake, but overflowing with historical oppression, widespread poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, corruption and the reemergence of cholera. Haiti, I soon learned, is also swarming with Americans, evangelical and otherwise, looking to do good and, if possible, harvest a few Haitian souls. The Haitians, especially the young (a major portion of the population), hope to harvest a few greenbacks.

Who can blame them?

Haiti drawing

Jake has never been a churchgoer, unless you consider that, on one of our annual river reunion trips, I brought him and the dozen or so other helpless children and teens into the fold of “The Church of the Flowing Water.” Complete with magic words, a sacred wine-bottle brimming with holy river water and a wallet-sized-you-are-part-of-the-river-forever-club card, the baptism was a big hit. Outdoor secularism with a sprinkling of pagan-fairy dust at its worst. To this day these now-young adults refer to themselves as members, river brothers and sisters. Jake, I suspect, is an agnostic with a spiritual hunger appropriate for someone his age. In the land of plenty his moral compass has pointed him to the land of poverty.

Somehow he managed to convince the Haiti-bound leader of a local evangelical group (in the college town where he lives) that he was a “Christian at heart.” Likely as not, the evangelicals saw a sincere applicant, as well as a donor and a potential convert. Folks who join the two-week mission must pony up roughly $2,000 — a good chunk of change — which goes toward various endeavors: supporting the orphanages, medical clinics and other programs on the island. The caveat, as mentioned earlier, is that one must also be a Christian of the evangelical stripe to join the mission. The impulse to help the less fortunate is an honest one; the desire to spread an Old Testament faith to hungry, poor people whose condition places them in a vulnerable situation, sticks in my craw. Apologists would rightly argue that the two are inseparable, have been and always will be. Jake insisted that he could slip under the pagan-detecting radar.

In a sense, these well-intentioned churchgoers have become “adventure missionaries.” Modern-day skeptics have given brief trips to locations like Haiti another name: “medical tourism.”

Jake also made the bold claim that he intended to stay for a year. I asked how he would accomplish that goal in a poverty-stricken country with no slack in the economic rope and his tenuous connection with a religious organization. “No worries, Dad,” he assured me. At the bottom of his emails, he leaves a proclamation, as well as a message to himself:  “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up to much space.” Egad! When I first read it a few years ago, the maxim sounded so familiar to my youthful inner ear, I had to stop and catch a breath. Once, on our way home from a river trip, I set about to seek an alternative mantra, or at least balance the scales. We came up with another axiom: “If you’re not dancing around the mystery, you’re running in circles.”

Well, here I am. I talked with Amber about the needs of the facility a bit and asked (in a round about way) if I could be useful. She said that the man to ask would be E.P. Later, after the group brought out play-doe, jump ropes and tiny airplanes for the kids to play with (a scene which quickly dissolved into jubilant chaos despite the best efforts of our team leader), Amber brought me to talk to E.P. I told him my desire to stay in Haiti for an extended period of time, and what meager skills I possessed. Long story short, he said they can use me. I helped teach a pack of preschool aged kids about the six days of creation. We handed out colored pages, one for each day and colored pencils. This occurred in a village far up a rough cut dirt and clay road. School here is held for four hours a day as the children must have time help parents work. In rough concrete structures kids are packed in thickly along bench rows and teachers stroll around with a length of electrical cord to keep order (though I never saw them actually strike a child, only the desk in front of them). Teaching is done by rote memorization: the teacher says something and the students, as one, call out the answer or parrot back. Even the youngest children are taught in this manner, which is rather depressing but I can’t figure out how else I would do it given the large student-teacher ratio and the simple lack of teaching materials. Only the students who really hunger for knowledge will progress in this sort of classroom. I was grateful to be able to supply them with the rare experience of coloring.

When Jake was nearly five, skinny and bespectacled, I dropped him over the gunnel of my dory into the flat water of the Main Salmon. All morning he had been watching the older kids, laughing and shrieking, leap off their respective boats. He had danced around the deck, badly wanting to join the club of daredevils, but could not bring himself to conquer his fear of the unknown. My encouraging words had little effect. That’s when I did what any good father would do. I lifted the whelp up and pitched him feet first into the River of No Return.  He never had a chance to be frightened in that terrible way. Call it the Sink-or-Swim School of Experiential Learning.

Of course Jake had his lifejacket on and the river was deliciously summer warm. When he surfaced, he stared at me in euphoric astonishment. How could I do such a thing? How could I not? He had discovered The River, not from shore or a boat or story, but through total immersion in the holy water. For the first time he felt the River — its current, warmth, sound. It was as if, at last, we shared some long-lost secret.

The boy had been liberated; I, of course, was doomed. For the remainder of the trip, he pestered me relentlessly to leap off the boat into the now-familiar “great unknown.” Since he could not pull himself up, I became his personal hoist. Once the flatwater fear was conquered, he turned his attention to the rapids. He wanted to swim the fast water.

Haitian drawing

His mother would never have allowed me to dump him overboard when we floated Westwater Canyon two years earlier. He was only three, the water was colder and the motherly instinct not to be trifled with. Theory #1: After sons know they have the fundamental, unconditional love of their mothers in the bag, they begin to look toward the sperm donor, their father, for something different. What that is, they are not sure. Thus begins the dance/wrestling-match-as-embrace of father and son as the latter begins the voyage, more often meandering than not, to adolescence and perhaps, one day, to manhood. Except that there is always another father cutting in. Call him the ghost-dancer. Call him grandfather. The duo is really a trio and they must learn to move in harmony.

I am not a Christian, but I’m not against spreading the good word (others will be even more surprised to discover) provided there is no coercion involved. People need stories, a spiritual history which can guide them and help them relate to people very different from themselves. Don’t underestimate the power of a little common ground. As far as my own beliefs go I will say that I find the Christian condescending, self righteous attitude fairly unappealing but that I believe that the universe is a far more passionate, intelligent and loving arrangement then atheists are likely to give it credit for. If you need to put me in a box, tick ‘other’; meanwhile I’ll be off doing tai-chi on a slack line, singing silent prayers in mantra to the jesus-buddha cooperative fellowship. That being said I am surrounded by Christen folk who do credit to their religion. Despite my misgivings about how they handle their beliefs, they are sacrificing their money, time and energy to bring a little relief to people in need. Their gentleness of spirit, their unselfconscious brotherly love, their passion for helping and their complete acceptance of me, a stranger, will ever serve as an example for me.

Around the age of 10, Jake discovered that he no longer wanted to be a mere passenger in my boat. The dory, ponderous and inhabited by parents and an annoying sister, never struck his fancy. With the purchase of a cheap, six-foot-long inflatable raft, best used for floating on lakes, the fledgling departed the dory-nest. Although he remained willing to listen to basic instructions for brief periods, he preferred the time-tested method for extracting the most fun out of rapids: Follow your friends no matter what. Over time he navigated the Rogue, Lower Salmon and Grande Ronde.

Just as a son’s growth is incremental and all but invisible on a day-to-day basis, so the father’s role in relation to his son changes imperceptibly. One day the person you thought you knew has already gone around the river bend onto the next stage of development, and the father is left onshore, scratching his balls and wondering “Where did that kid go?” If he is to perform his role adequately, Daddy-O must catch up and get out in front, but out of the way, of the young boatman who must never know what the ancient mariner is up to. A father begins a period of calculation: when to intercede, when to step back. Timing is everything.

I’m staying pretty safe. The orphanage in Mirabalais has big walls and if I do leave them, it’s always with a guide of some sort. The people have that island time mentality which makes them very friendly and easy going, though of course I’m never sure how much of my presence (a potential source of wealth) affects that. I’m getting better at smelling it out though, picking up the “something is not quite right here” signals that don’t rely on language. There is a furtive hand signal they’ll make to me when they want to usher me away from a group to ask for something.

The first night I was here I got thoroughly involved in helping clean a well that had just been dug, no easy task considering the hole goes down 230 feet. It all happened rather spontaneously as I was standing around trying out my meager Creole, with some Haitian well diggers and an old man from Oregon who had brought all the equipment (on his own dime, no less). Evidently everyone decided that my Creole was good enough to translate for them so I suddenly found myself in the midst of a project. My god it was glorious. I translated instructions and plans, I carried gravel, I helped patch piping, I feed piping down the hole and I watched dials on the massive machine which served as kind of a well digger’s Swiss army knife. We solved small mechanical problems together and hauled gravel.

One fella told me about his life a bit: ten younger siblings, parents too old to work and his own family to support. He is not married because he can’t afford the traditional ring, so he wants to buy a motorcycle with which he can work shuttling people around (a young person’s job as common as street vending). I sympathized with his plight and the load he had to carry. Later, rather out of the blue, he said ‘I pray to god that he will help me, and after I will pray that you will help me buy my motorcycle.”

Haiti house drawing

The summer of 2006, we launched from Mineral Bottom on the Green River. Jake, just turned 17, was rowing his own raft, a used 13-foot Pioneer model fitted with a pirate flag and a rag-tag crew of two other adolescents, the sons of fellow boatmen. His rig looked like his bedroom: straps flying, gear lying about, empty soda cans floating on the floor, granny knots galore, cooler open to the 90-degree heat. It was a floating nightmare. At the put-in, he ignored my suggestion that his oar set-up might need some adjusting. Fair enough. The 40-mile run down to the confluence with the Colorado is mostly flatwater. At lunch on the second day, Jake ran afoul of one of his River Uncles who found his tie-up unworthy of a boatman. It is hard to tie a knot around sand. River Uncle nudged the raft off shore, watched it circle an eddy, and then called out, “Is that someone’s raft floating away?”

I owe him a beer.

When we reached the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, the head of infamous Cataract Canyon, the mood among the boatmen changed. Though we were running on relatively low water and the danger of a serious mishap, even disaster, was minimal, the reputation of the rapids in Cataract and the residue of communal high-water memories, combined with the soaring temperatures, left us rubber-legged. Over the decades, enough of us have participated in, seen or heard the horror stories that we approached the rapids — Mile Long and Big Drops, to name only two — with caution, even at low water. Under a merciless sun, we preferred to nap.

Jake picked up on the vibe, listening closely as the most-experienced boatman pointed out the pivotal moves through the rapid. Unlike the past, he did not hover close to me. As the sorting-out process of who will run in which group at one of the Big Drops began, he made it known he preferred to be included in the first group of three or four boats, to follow one of his Uncles through the maze. Usually the novices and first-timers watch the first runs to gain information and their visual bearings.

I would wait on shore and watch.

Following an experienced boatman on the approach to a rapid is not as simple as it sounds. Spacing between boats can shrink, but usually expands, and, before you know it, you have lost sight of your lucky charm. Soon enough, Jake was on his own.

Nevertheless, he executed a flawless entrance, never flailed at the oars, navigated the brown-water maze seemingly effortlessly, and at the bottom of the rapid, wore a grin that lasted the rest of the day.

There is no trash service in Haiti. Garbage is simply tossed on the ground or into big burn piles which go up in cloying, plastic smelling smoke when ignited. This is the practice here at the orphanage, much to the offense of my northwest eco/health friendly sensibilities. It’s hard to come up with an alternative, though I’ve been trying. The sight of this beautiful land, strewn with the flotsam of man’s livelihood has had a visceral effect on me, mostly because there is no reprieve: everywhere you go, there is garbage. An unsettling vision of the future which we never get in America because we pile all our junk out of sight.

So I decided to try and solve the trash problem, if only in the walls of this orphanage, to the best of my ability. The easiest materials to process are the soft ones, food and paper products. So I went online to learn about paper making and composting. Dead interesting and both these projects require very little in the way of start up materials or expert knowledge. This is essential, because none of these techniques for waste management would have any great impact unless I could pass them on to the children of the orphanage. That is the crux.

There is a little banana orchard on the property, which looks beautiful until you walk in and see all the discarded clothing, candy wrappers (again courtesy of the teams who stay here), old building materials, paint cans, razor blades, broken bottles, diapers, used maxi pads etc. The adults throw their junk away there and so the kids do the same.

I thought about how nice it would be to hang out in the banana orchard, were it more hospitable and how important it is for kids to have wild spaces to play in. I had a really strong hunger to make the orchard into a nice place but the enormity of the task and the seeming futility was holding me back. What would I do with the garbage anyway? So I go to my journal to work this out.

I should go collect trash, not with the notion of ‘solving’ anything, nor getting anywhere, for there is nothing to solve and nowhere to go. I should do it for its own sake… because at the bottom of it all I am the one who is thirsty for a beautiful world.

So I went to collect garbage.

Three years later, Jake and I ran the Rogue alone. The morning we launched, the fall weather was glorious, the river virtually empty of other boaters and the river corridor awash in fall color and birdsong. We had a muddled discussion about rowing; I assumed we would share the task. Jake, however, announced that he wanted to row the entire river. Like the intermittent flash of a lighthouse on a fog-bound coast, he had been sending me a signal: he will “guide” me down the river

Perhaps he sensed my 22-year-old secret? Over time fatherhood had imperceptibly nibbled away at what I would call my “edge” — that blend of boldness, measured risk-taking and quiet confidence that had informed my rowing as a guide. A greater degree of caution, and thus, hesitancy, had crept into my mind. An eight-year-old and a three-year-old will do that to you.

We floated on low water — sun-lit, sparkling green and rock-infested. Not unreluctantly, I made myself a comfortable spot in the front of the raft and settled in. All I had do was keep my mouth closed. Sooner or later Jake would ask for advice on where to enter rapids. It is one thing to follow a run, another to be in the lead.

The first day he spurned even the gentlest of suggestions. At the entrance to one particular rapid (which even had me confused), I asked, “You got it?” No reply.  He was lost. We washed helplessly over a pour-over, bumping and grinding on a series of ledges. It was a sloppy, potentially bottom-ripping run. I said the very thing I hoped not to. “What the hell are you doing?”

As we bore down on a similar rocky maze Jake broke his silence, “What do you think?” Our roles temporarily restored, I gave some quick instructions and he nailed the run. At less-confusing rapids downriver Jake asked specific questions of the “do-you-see-what-I-see?” variety and made his own calls. We camped early. For reading material he brought along Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” an apocalyptic tale of a father-and-son road trip unlike no other.

If there is such thing as harmonic convergence, we stumbled momentarily upon it over the next couple of days on the Rogue. The rapids came one after another, fast and with little interruption. Perched on the bow I called out the names, pointed out markers, obstacles, the sway of the current. Jake’s runs were clean, his rowing effortless. We seemed to be of one mind, an extension of one another for the time being.

My policy so far is no hand outs. Mostly because it simply is not sustainable for me to be buying candy and drinks and motorcycles, but also because I think there has been too much careless giving. In our desire to help it’s easy to react emotionally and go for the quick material fix. This is disempowering and enables dependency. It’s very much a ‘give a man a fish’ vs. ‘teach a man to fish’ sort of situation.

Not to say that material donations are not important or needed, after all, people must have food in their bellies and healthy bodies before they can think about developing their situation. But giving must occur out of genuine sensitivity to a person’s need, not simple a reaction to our own confused guilt. The trouble is that there are not many jobs available in Haiti, especially for young people. So the streets are filled with vendors, on the move or in little temporary stands, selling everything from blow dryers to painting reproductions to refilled soda bottles (buyer beware) to ethnic looking wooden bowls. They can get quite intense sometimes, especially in the tourist rich areas where there is a lot of competition. It’s difficult not to react defensively and forget compassion for those who want to make an honest living.

Right before Jake flipped for the first time in his rowing life (Chittam Rapid/Mile 78/Main Salmon) on our annual dory reunion trip in July 2011, I gave him the usual bit of finger-pointing, hand-waving, ex-river guide advice on how to make the run. He was suffering a case of poisonous butterflies that threatened to erupt into projectile Technicolor vomiting. I know the feeling.

Chittam looked big and gnarly, but manageable. In hindsight, I misread the rapid, underestimating its ferociousness. The crux move was a tight, stern-first left-to-right cut across the tongue of a fast-moving river through a sizable lateral wave and hopefully into the purgatory of slower, eddy-like water. At high water, Chittam has been known to cause problems. Indeed, the Salmon was running so fast and high (18,000 cfs) that the Forest Service had issued a cautionary warning to private boaters on its webpage.

To knowledgeable shoreline observers, Jake was probably doomed from the get-go. That afternoon there was no slow water above Chittam Rapid. Once you pulled out from shore, the current immediately carried you away. No time to gather yourself, no room to correct position, no margin of error and, thus, little forgiveness. Jake later voiced a sentiment that most first-time flippers would appreciate: Whatever the reason, he didn’t feel right above the rapid. A little voice whispered: You are going to flip. The longer he listened, the louder the voice grew. Perhaps his desire to run in the first group rather than watch a run had something to do with his flip. Perhaps following behind the Old Man had given him a sense of false confidence.

It all happened in an instant. He missed the cut, hit the diagonal, got pushed back out into the wall-hugging churlish wave set sideways, and, before he could straighten up his raft, he was over. He surfaced under the raft, worked his way out, but couldn’t figure out where he was. e crawled atop the raft, still stunned. I happened to be in the eddy below and tossed him a line and with the help of Eric, a 30-year Grand Canyon veteran guide, corralled him to shore.

The chips are down here at this orphanage in Mirabalais: they know I’m not a Christian and they don’t want me around. The trouble sprang from my decision to not attend church last Sunday. I didn’t make this choice without due consideration. When deciding to go against the herd, it’s important to spend some quality time shifting through the social and personal consequences. Actually that is a bit of a fudge; I knew soon as I woke up that I wasn’t going to church. Later I figured out why it was the right choice. I instead went to organize the attic, which was one of the projects I use to escape people for awhile.

Later Pastor Luke, who I had been working in the clinic with three days a week, asked me where I had been. Up to this point I had successfully maintained a philosophical smokescreen in casual conversations about belief, but direct questions like that are hard to get around honorably.

“At worship,” said I. (True enough, I try to make all my work with my hands an act of worship.)

“Where? There (indicating the church)?” he persisted.

I couldn’t lie, so I just tapped my heart. It is with my belief that church isn’t what happens in the building.

“… in your heart?” he said. “Why were you not at church?”

“I worship alone.”

“No” he said. “No, you cannot do that. Here we worship together.”

“I worship alone,” I said, walking away.

Determined to have to last word he said, “You cannot worship alone.”

So just yesterday, after rather an uncomfortable week where I sensed what was to come, I was summoned into Pastor Yves office. I was rather sick with dread, for reasons that are unclear to me, but on another level kinda digging all the drama. There with several other people present he laid it out for me: your beliefs don’t align with ours, we want you to leave. To their credit they were very respectful and non-judgmental but it was still a very tense, emotionally charged scene. The details of the conversation are fuzzy to me, and rather irrelevant; we went round and round for awhile, dancing in the thorny land of reason and religion but it came down to this:

My hard work didn’t matter to them, nor did my ideas for improvement that I was willing to spearhead, nor did the potential positive influence I could have on the children here. It didn’t matter that I came here to help people, nor that I came here to explore my relationship with the wild, unseen potential that works in the world (sometimes referred to as god) or that I am open some of the very relevant and valid teachings of Christianity. What mattered in the end is that I don’t think the bible is the end-all-be-all of religious discussion. What mattered is that I think there is not one path to God, but many. What mattered is that I am not so arrogant as to think that I and my people alone are keepers of the truth.

These people had been so welcoming to me, so loving and open and generous, I didn’t think that my own personal situation/preference would offend them so greatly (especially considering the value I might have). It’s a strangely delicious paradox, to be savored perhaps, that these same wonderful human beings are absolutely inflexible and closed minded with regard to the central tenants that rule their life.

A month after he left the U.S., Jake returned home far short of his stated time goal of a year. His principled stand about not attending church services could easily be viewed as a case of not knowing which hill to die on. He had gone to right the world, put his finger on the scale of justice and fairness. Would an hour in church have fatally compromised his stated fundamental principle and goal: to help people? Could he have not meditated or dreamed of rivers he had run or mountain he had climbed amidst the hallelujahs?

But he had also gone to Haiti to remove himself from the all-too-familiar, to scrape away some of the social and psychological barnacles. Perhaps he came to realize things about himself that he didn’t like or wasn’t aware of: Helping people is tedious, relentless work; they are not always grateful; historical victims can become today’s predators; a solitary retreat in a communal, overcrowded country is hard to find; empathy and capacity for helping had limits; a shower is nice; so is food and friends back home.

Jake had not been completely honest with the evangelicals. It is possible that his refusal to go to Church was something of an unconscious ruse, a way to force them to toss him out. Then he would not have to bear the burden of quitting so early in the game.

It is also unfortunate that no adult in the evangelical congregation failed to get past their rigid orthodoxy and into a young man’s hungry heart. About the time he arrived home, a YouTube video, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus,” appeared. The video had been posted by Jefferson Bethke, a recently graduated student of Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon (outside of Portland). Pacific University is a small, independent, liberal arts college with long-time ties to the United Church of Christ. Bethke, who is Jake’s age, is certainly not a river-loving pagan. He evangelizes online. Within twenty-four hours, his video had scored a million hits. By April 2012 the number rose to 20 million.

That’s a lot of hungry young hearts in search of food for the soul in the 21st century.

Spirited atheist, long-time parent and MG senior correspondent Vince Welch co-authored “The Doing of the Thing — The Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom” in 1998. His latest effort, “The Last Voyageur — Amos Burg and The Rivers of the West,” will be released by The Mountaineers on October 5, 2012. Welch’s blog, “Rivermouth,” can be found at 

Read Wandering Sacred Shores, another feature from our July issue

Wandering Sacred Shores

Wandering Sacred Shores

Dawn found us perched at cliff’s edge, overlooking the Pacific. The pangas were long since out on the water, searching for gilled prey, and the tiny cinderblock-built fishing camp was ghostly quiet. Even the resident dogs held a seemingly respectful silence, as if they knew that their fates, too, were pinned on the bounty of the day’s catch.

With coffee in hand, we walked the craggy Mexico shoreline, absorbing spray at the watery intersection of moon’s playful drag and gravity’s covetous leap. High tide caressed the cliffside incessantly, obsessively, a dangerous adoration that had stolen more than one resident of the fishing camp. The interstices between elements make for the most precarious lives and livelihoods.

Our walk soon brought us to an impromptu concrete shrine holding a skull fashioned out of a buoy. This, perhaps, was made in honor of one of the lost fisherman, proffering a portal toward communion with him. Maybe his family left regular offerings for him — colorful shells, stones lovingly shaped by the tides, driftwood with knotholes, the ocean’s artistic offerings. And maybe they hoped he would sense their sustained love, find refuge in it, and then bring their prayers to the ears of the saints. The small shrine was not only hallowed access to the dearly departed, but it was a portico toward divine grace.

In Baja, these reliquaries blanket the countryside, some as simple as candles lovingly placed in a small cave. Others are grandiose, with tall, brightly colored walls, glass cases for photos and votives and murals depicting the Virgin de Guadalupe or Christ and the Sacred Heart. Offerings range from flowers and rosaries to cigarettes and liquor bottles. We frequently found these small altars along roadsides, especially near dangerous curves and cliffs. In this way, Baja’s highways are a landscape of loss and holy space, a divine drive amidst watchful saints, cross-shaped cordon cacti and the eternal flame of the cirio or candlewood.

The Catholic faith is very much alive in Mexico; it is evolving, not simply some fixed remnant of another time. Here, it is pertinent to people’s lives, malleable enough to match each individual’s joys and concerns. It speaks in terms of the everyday, not the elite. The saints are just as willing to listen to a supplicant offering tobacco as one with jewels. They are as eager to populate shallow caves and arid earth as they are churches or cathedrals.

A religion that once protected salvation from the masses by imposing a high tariff now finds the populace storming the gates, taking what has always been rightfully theirs. Access to God’s grace no longer sits on scales awaiting the requisite amount of gold. Instead, spiritual currency is of subjective value. As such, each shrine, whether made of simple seashells or soaring adobe walls, is a thing of beauty, speaking to the heart and hopes of its creator.

This was true even for a foam skull looking longingly at land from its small, shore-bound shelter — a shrine built to honor death and to hope for a better life through the intercession of celestial beings.

In Mexico, Christ and his entourage of saints walk amongst the masses — just as they always intended.

Farther south, we learned Cerritos Beach is no longer the desolate shoreline of the previous decade. Large resorts have sprung up, a gated RV park blankets the nearby desert and tourists like us swarm the surf beach and beach bar. No furtive candles in the rocks. No holy gaze surveying the sea. It seems the gringo influx has displaced natives and saints alike. The locals now commute to collect trash at the RV park for 50 pesos per bag while the Virgin and her Son seek shelter and employment elsewhere.

We went for a hike through this changing landscape, exploring neighboring beaches by traversing the rocky points segregating each cove. Atop the lower tier of rocks, enormous tide pools offered their warm embrace while tiger-striped fish flittered beneath us. In one me-sized puddle, I floated on my back, ears submerged, enjoying the womb-like calm of the pool with the faint sensation of pounding surf filtering toward my awareness.

Instead of retracing our footsteps along the coast, we wandered back on a rural road paralleling the beach. There, we found a fascinating mix of people and economic realities. The path we walked skirted working farms and modest ranchos, abandoned and unfinished multi-million-dollar homes and inhabited Turkish palaces. An enormous yellow hotel sitting on a point overlooking Cerritos Beach — which we dubbed Banana Manor — has a room atop its phallic turret that rents for $900 a night. Within view of this opulence, mutts scavenged for food and fought fleas while a lone horseman sat on his pony bareback and stared over the waters. Here, Mexico’s past and present seek the terms of an uneasy truce. And the years-long conflict has displaced the saints.

The abandoned homes — ruins of the recent economic collapse — stood on the shoreline battlefield where the forces of nouveau colonialism recently made a hasty retreat, conceding the coast to scavengers and tides. The wounded buildings sat open to the elements, devoid of the warmth and memories habitation creates. Careful brickwork spiraling toward 20-foot ceilings, storied mosaics, polished beams, the artistry of human hands — it had all been created, unknowingly, for entropy and erosion’s pleasure.

Unintentionally, the villas had also become monuments to the unrevealed — just like the shrines. Though their creators had meant them to be bulwarks against the outside world and its unknown undercurrents — a cocoon for one’s delicate mortality — life’s uncertainties had prevailed. This space of onetime dreams, of perished plans, of crumbling monuments to wealth and self now had to allow that there are forces at work greater than one’s means. We can’t buy our safety, serenity or salvation. Nor is it anyone’s to sell — as Mexico’s faithful have learned.

Perhaps this is where the lost saints of Cerritos now reside, amidst the toils of men who unwittingly built testaments to loss and change. Much like the fishing village shrine to the north, these skeletal remains held space for forces beyond our control.

We hit Punta Santo Domingo near sunset, and Tyler had a chance to surf on the point’s small waves. Our camp sat atop a rocky outcropping where shrines had been placed, likely by and for area fishermen — in honor of those who travel among tides of abundance and loss. Statues of Jesus and the Virgin de Guadalupe stared out over the bay, blessing the waters and those who cross it, including my beloved.

I sat near the holy sculptures and reflected upon these acknowledgements of death and the divine, the inescapable and interconnected energies that shape our world. These energies were now visibly at work on the half-built palaces full of unrealized dreams, each tumbling brick a transcendent footstep among us. And they were imperceptibly weaving their unrealized plans into my own life. Acknowledged or not, the holy, the ghostly, the unseen and unknown — the saints — continue to march through our lives.

My companion soon trudged up the crumbling hillside as purple dusk descended. A salty-wet and smiling kiss was our nod to the divine. To mark this, I placed a heart-rock at the Virgin’s feet. And, as always, she and her Son faithfully cast their gazes upon our watery surroundings, serving as a rock-bound reminder that, if we humbly hold space — landscape, heartscape, dreamscape — the divine will freely walk among us.

Senior correspondent Jen Jackson’s last piece for the Gazette was “Forgetting in a Landscape of Memory,” which appeared in #188. Jackson’s blog, “Desert Reflections,” can be found at She lives in Moab. 

Just Three Things to Remember

Just Three Things to Remember

Why do they call it golf?
Because all the other four-letter words were taken.

Targhee Village (aka Spudgusta; bordering Idaho potato country). Men’s informal Thursday. Random foursomes, two dollars each in the pot.

First up, hole #1.

I reach for my driver. Well, it’s not actually my driver, as I broke mine over a tree three days ago. Fucking thing misbehaved. Markida reluctantly handed me a loaner.

The three other guys drive it out there pretty good. One guy clears Ditch Creek by twenty yards. I get my stance, few Sergio wiggles, head down, eyes on the dimple at the back of the ball, easy back swing, balanced athletic position, coming down … wrists releasing …

… then comes that 3/100ths of a second where I semi-consciously decide to change it all … I break one of those 87 different commandments … I start to look up … and it’s a top-spinning worm-burner skimming along earth-bound for all of 57 yards …

“Damn it!”

I approach that foul egg of a demon dragon, a Top Flite 3 … as if … select my Rescue 3. This club performed very nicely when I first got her. A hybrid between a wood and an iron, designed to get me out of the rough. But over this summer she’s performed sporadically. I had to slam her head into the ground a couple of times. Fickle bitch.

This ball I hit more squarely, it lasers out of there, not more than two feet above the fairway where it hits … rolls … oh no … don’t start off like … into the ditch.


The other guys hit good shots. I’m lying “two in three out” as I pluck my wet ball from the one-foot-wide ditch and drop it two feet farther from the flag.

Okay, nine iron. This is an easy club for most golfers to hit. Just one or two things to remember here … and I flash back to my first lesson, the pro demonstrating in slow motion …

“ … the grip, so the Vs are pointing to your arm pits, the ball a ball-width or two behind in my stance, athletic position, I bring the club back slowly, left arm straight, left knee bending slightly, weight shifting back, the turn … slightest pause at the back swing, then open up with my hips, hands and elbows still close, weight shifting forward, releasing my wrists, club face square, the club striking down on the back of the ball before it hits the ground, through my divot, follow through with my belt buckle facing my target. This is a club that most recreational players will hit between 100 and 120 yards from the flag. Now I’ll hit it at a regular tempo.”

That’s how fuckin’ nutz  this sport is. Golf’s an all-too-true metaphor for life. Undulating terrain … unbalanced swings … traps … hazards … penalties … bad shots good lies … good shots unlucky bounces … finesse and etiquette in and around the populated greens … all that concentrated effort only to finally end up in a hole in the ground. I try so hard to stay on par, but the truth is I’ve carded a lot of bogeys, double bogeys and two days ago an 8 on the par 3 sixth hole.

Those standard and upright citizens (shirts with collars are expected for men) who can synthesize the most components and compete evenly among others in a socially accepted behavior prevail. We rogue-ish mountain types flail.

I take a deep breath, draw the 9-iron back, just think of one thing that one dimple and I hit it with that perfect click … club center, and toward the flag … bouncing one foot from the flag … and carrying recklessly onward … and beyond the green, into the steep rough.

By now, my mind and body tense up, breathing short, gritting my teeth … just the opposite of what you hear: “Loosey goosey,” “easy when it’s breezy, easy all the time,” “slow it all down.” “Relax.” Relax hell, I want to beat something, someone, anyone. So if all else fails, “Grip it and rip it!”

Okay, here comes the 60-degree. A lob wedge. Designed to lift the ball out of the rough … delicately … just keep my head and upper body still and legs planted … practice swing … now hit it just like that pop out she comes and it looks good for the first bounce, but Miss Dimples defies all laws of nature as she gains speed running past the hole six feet … I can sense my three playing partners’ disgust and pity.

Now, the putter. The other three have holed out so I step up, a few practice sings, yes, just there … plink … and it takes an impossible right turn before she stops two feet from the hole.


My putter was forged two levels beneath Hell’s Deepest Cellars …

Even top pros miss the easy two- and three-footers. You anticipate the “yips.” That means right at the last instant you question your performance: Did you grasp your shaft too tightly and how hard do you strike the ball and there is two or maybe three inches of break? And the “miss it” part of “don’t miss it” echoes in your brain and you twitch right at the crucial moment …

Golf is a game of confidence, a good player once told me.

I think it’s because I have the protester gene welded into my DNA from the ’60s with Nam and Nixon and all the nuts stuff oozing out directly opposite the explosion of artistic and musical and so many other enhancements so we’d all vacillate, shape-shifting our consciousness back and forth between paranoia and Peak Experience. Three-one-hundredths of a second and you think of too many things or the wrong thing and you doubt your swing your life your very reason for existence and it’s manifested in a “yip” and you miss the two-foot putt. Your cerebral cortex didn’t want to. Something misfired in your reptilian complex.

Hell, dude, professional baseball players are hitting a 5-ounce baseball being thrown directly at them at speeds upwards of 100 mph, spinning, curving, and any decent batter can take a 30-ounce round stick of wood and hit that 5-ounce spinning sphere squarely in 38/100ths of a second and you can’t hit this bright white 1.62-ounce dimpled ball perched up on a tee lying dormant right beneath you? And help yourself to a couple of practice swings …

I line up for the two-footer and the other three guys are standing oh so silently around me, one has picked up the flag. One good player told me Tiger Woods says grip it as lightly as possible. Just because it reflects my weird-ass life, I hit the ball right handed, but putt lefty. Don’t ask. I read a two-inch break here. I strike the ball and it breaks … toward the edge … catching the edge … spinning around the cup 270 degrees … and in! Kerplinkadink. The drug is in the kerplinkadink. The scores reported: 4, 4, 5 … and my 7.

Okay, next hole. Par 4.

This time I don’t hit the worst drive, but it hooks left and brings the water hazard into play. Golf doesn’t seem to attract the scientist types, but it should, as the cosmologists  would find there’s a black hole right here at Spudgusta. It has swallowed up entire solar systems and even galaxies and at least two hundred of my golf balls. But it brings out the club I am most adept with, my ball retriever, a recent birthday present; replete with telescopic extenders and a ball-size day-glo basket.

Now the four-iron. This club brings instant anxiety. The hardest clubs to hit are the lower irons, as six-time-major winner Lee Trevino, the “Merry Mex,” said, “If it starts lightning hold up your 1-iron. God can’t even hit a 1-iron.”

At this point you’re asking, “Why do you keep playing?”

It’s because I have logged lots of miles running in them thar hills in and around Yellowstone and Jackson Hole. In fact, as of this writing 38,189. Add a hundred-thousand moguls + or – and a few thousand miles of schussing and crashing on light cross-country ski gear. All that mountain biking. Motorcycle accidents. Sixty planet revolutions. Arrggghh. The left knee is gone. In fact, when Obama Care slides through, I’m going in for an entire skeleton replacement.

So I was looking for another way/reason to stay outside. Golf! You’re outside, beautiful places. Make some new friends. Satisfy the old competitive urges. So I just took it up. Nine years ago.

My best score here at Spudgusta is a 41 for our nine-hole course. Five over par. The record round, from the best golfer in these parts is Chris Inglis. He’s one-quarter Nez Perce Native American. He’s carded a 28!

My four iron from about 150. Of course it splashes into the water. What else did you expect? But one of the other guys lands his ball in the thicket, one other hits into the tall grass, so I don’t feel that bad. They shall share my suffering.

I pull out my 56-degree for my penalty shot, 40-yard shot to the hole. With a miracle, I can make par. And don’t watch, you’re making me nervous …

You gotta hit under the ball, practice swings skim the grass just like that step up, pause, how long to pause? Shite, I didn’t check my impact point keep going they’re waiting … hit it squarely just that hard club back now forward aim there which dimple … and I skull it. Hit it one-quarter inch too high … but it bounces out of the duff and onto the green  stopping five feet away from the hole.”

“Good shot, Cal.”


I miss the five-footer by a foot, then almost missed the tap in, so it’s a 6.

Now, let’s move onto the epicenter of horror and mayhem, hole #6. Par three. Over a dank brown lagoon. Draining it in the fall reveals a golf ball graveyard.

One local guy I played with a couple of years ago boiled the whole game down this way:

“There are just three things to remember in golf. One, keep your head down. Two, keep your fucking head down and three, keep your goddamned fucking head down.”

I’m having problems with that one lately. I keep looking up and seeing scary shit going on all around me. The planet and its citizens veering into deep rough. Into the thick stuff, and we’re gonna have to pull out that rescue hybrid and get back on the fairway.

My heart’s in the mountains. Escapism. These thirty years of running over these wonderful mountain trails, uphill forever, to 10,000 feet! The Top of the World! Grinding above all that complicated humanism. And also shuffling across the volcanic caldera that is Yellowstone Park. My heart and mind soar freely out there, past sour pyschodramas, beyond cities, living in that exact moment.

No score, no parameters, no penalty shots, no bad swings.

But as I’m running low on miles, I try to spread out what’s left. Some days, some rounds, better than others, yes? On sore knee days, there’s the bike or easy ski touring. On good days, do I have one more Pikes Peak Ascent left in me?

Only one of the other three guys lands his ball on the green, one goes over, the other guy flirts with disaster as his ball stops on the edge of the slope above the lagoon. I step up, tee my Callaway (yeah, I drowned the Top Flite on hole #5). A practice swing, then I remember tip #79, about the torso and I turn my shoulders … slight pause … balanced there open up the hips swinging through and CLICK! That beautiful sound when you hit it right “on the screws” … the whistle of the ball through the air when it’s hit perfectly. The ball flies up … arching toward the flag … down from its pinnacle … toward the flag … “Go!” … it lands with a heavy thud four feet from the flag … takes two short bounces and stops three feet from the hole.

“Good shot, Cal.”

“There ya go.”

“Nice one!”

Okay, FYI, I compensated for the two inches of break … and made the putt. A birdie! Won points for the team. It would be the only hole to which I contributed, but the other guys played well and our team won. I begrudgingly accepted my eight dollars.

Golf backwards is Flog. So you now have MJF’s, MG’s and my permission to flog any friend, relative or spouse even hinting at taking up this *%#&! sport. Remember, for every 400 yards of fairway, there are 800 yards of rough. But for every 400 yards of mountain trail there are 400 yards of  birdies, eagles … you tell me …

So golf and life: The meta-four-iron. It’s that comeback shot. Not the 150-yard 9-irons the pros hit that land on the green and roll back to within inches of the hole. No, the 7-iron I hit on #6; it makes me want to come back and play one more time. One more perfect mountain trail, evoking exuberance. One more perfect swing.


Long-time contributor Cal Glover, a tour guide in the Greater Yellowstone area, passed away last December. This story was submitted several months before his death. 

A Climbing Guide To The University of Wyoming

Climbing Guide

Editor’s note: In the very first line of  “Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas,” author Rebecca Solnit writes: “Every place deserves an atlas, an atlas is at least as implicit in every place, and to say that is to ask first of all what a place is.” That “Infinite City” (University of California Press: 2010) happens to be about San Francisco stems mostly from the fact that Solnit herself is a San Francisco native and resident.

According to the book’s acknowledgement section, the project began when Solnit, author of, among many others, of “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” and “Wanderlust: A History of Walking,” was asked by the public relations curator of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to propose a project for the museum’s 75th anniversary. She proposed an atlas.

But not just any atlas: One of the best and most-original atlases conceived and produced in the last century. (And please understand that statement comes from a fairly serious atlas-o-phile/collector.) Better, even: an atlas concept that, true to her opening sentence (as well as true to Solnit’s peculiar way of looking at the world), can be translated to almost any city on earth.

Verily, ever since “Infinite City,” hit the streets, Solnit has been visiting other cities — such as Tucson, New Orleans and Dublin, Ireland — helping resident artists, writers, historians and cartographers conceive and execute their own local versions of “Infinite City.”

One of those cities was, of all places, Laramie. When Solnit took a month-long gig as an eminent writer-in-residence at University of Wyoming in February 2011, her plan was to see if her “Infinite City” model would work in a smaller town in the heartland. Long story short, the end result of the experiment was “Laramie: A Gem City Atlas,” which, while it has not taken mass-circulation book form, was turned into a display at the University of Wyoming Art Museum. It has also been displayed at the California Institute of Integral Studies and will be at the Seed Gallery, Thoreau Center for Sustainability, at the Presidio in San Francisco through June 8.

The “Gem City Atlas,” like “Infinite City” before it, contains a wide array of stunningly original maps and accompanying essays. Included in the Laramie atlas are maps covering everything from “Ghosts and Cottonwoods” to “Saloons and Salons” to, for our purposes here,  “Quarries and Climbing,” reproduced above.

The following story, with its included artwork, stems from Solnit’s efforts/influence in Laramie. Author Paula Wright, a creative writing student at UW, took Solnit’s seminar and opted to combine her love of climbing with her love of local history. The result was “A Climber’s Guide to the University of Wyoming,” a story that is much more than the sum of its parts.

Please go to for more information on the “Gem City Atlas” project.


Warning: climbing is a dangerous sport in which death or serious injury may occur. This guide is intended for archival purposes only. The University of Wyoming prohibits climbing on campus buildings and has not endorsed the distribution of this information.

Natural rocks, unnatural places

In local climbing lore, legend persists of the Vedauwoo hermit, who resided among the lichen-speckled granite domes for several summers in the late-1940s or early-1950s. The hermit likely made first ascents of many faces and cracks in the rocks without documenting the dates, difficulty or names of his new routes. In summertime, the air of Vedauwoo is dry, warm and fragrant with sage and juniper. Scrambling around the mounds of rust-colored boulders, the Vedauwoo hermit would have encountered the same water-carved pools teeming with algae and swimming insects that I’ve seen, or climbed through the narrow, dark alleys I have.

Documented climbing in the Laramie area began with members of the 10th Mountain Division’s return from World War II to the University of Wyoming. At Vedauwoo and in the Snowy Range, climbing continued to evolve, as the University Outing Club explored and made the first recorded ascents, as opposed to those unrecorded by the Vedauwoo hermit, of the regional rock faces. Students in the club also opened up the University of Wyoming campus to climbing when they noticed the features of the buildings’ sandstone façades.

Viewing campus with an eye for climbing may turn buildings into vertical structures without an internal use — the summits of the Classroom Building and Half Acre become mountaintops, the Physical Sciences Building and the Union become cliffs. One would assume that building climbing, or buildering, would feel sterile, artificial, as opposed to the “freedom of the hills” offered by mountains and granite domes. But, as I imagine traversing my way across the walls of the Classroom Building, hand over hand, I think of the life held inside this new rock. I picture the students roaming the halls inside as I climb past, I think of traversing above the room where I taught my first class of Freshman Composition, and the nervous energy that perhaps another teacher is emitting now. I imagine ascending the walls that enclose the Classroom Building’s coffee shop, where, although someone may be whipping up a delicious cinnamon-honey latte, the café always smells of cheap hamburgers and fried onions.

The chiseled sandstone features lining campus buildings have been drawing students out of the dorms and lecture halls for decades, whether during warm spells of the spring semester, or in the early days of Laramie’s short-lived fall. An early University of Wyoming architect noted that the campus is one in which “broken perpendicular lines predominate, and the whole gives an impression of mass, suggestive of the natural rock and cliff formations of the area.” As the first cluster of deciduous trees was planted in the plains surrounding campus around its inception in 1886, so too were these new, artificial cliffs in the form of Old Main and the Sciences Building erected. Nature was quarried, tamed and re-imagined as the University campus. Most of the stone now seen covering the campus buildings came from a quarry located about ten miles northeast of town. The sandstone is a dusky, tan and rose — a few shades lighter than the rough crystals of Sherman granite that make up Vedauwoo’s domes 20 miles east of town.

West of Laramie, in the Medicine Bow Mountains, the University architects’ intent for campus to reflect the natural features surrounding it has not been overlooked. Wyoming climbing legend and Snowy Range guidebook author Ray Jacquot informs me that many of the formations of the Snowies were named by Walt Sticker between 1948 and 1954 or thereabouts. In the mountains, the quartzite slabs of the “Old Main” formation rest above Mirror Lake. The “University Avenue Traverse,” according to Jacquot’s guidebook, is a fourth-class climb that follows a “brown diabase rock rib which horizontally splits the face from Old Main to First Street.”

Degrees of difficulty and desire

In the route descriptions of this guidebook, I attempt to provide a sketch of each climb’s character and difficulty of ascent. Since I have not attempted all the climbs myself, I consulted with fellow area climbers in order to determine the route grades using the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). This system is common throughout climbing ratings in the United States and signifies ascent difficulty from class 1 (hiking along a trail) to class 5 (technical climbing). Once in class-5 territory, the grade further breaks down into levels from 5.0 to 5.15 (and counting); a grade of 5.0-5.7 is typically considered easy, 5.8-5.11 intermediate and over 5.12 advanced.

For some, a vast majority of climbing’s appeal comes from the climber’s knowledge of the grading system and of completing routes at higher levels. My climbing partner Brian described it well when he linked the drive to climb to the desire to “defeat the former self” — to know that your technique, strength and mentality have improved from season to season. While some may fashion climbing as a competition with nature, others see it as a competition that comes from within.

This desire for difficulty may seem like an arbitrary goal in which one solely aspires to improve along a numbered system; even so, some climbers have spent years trying to take their sport to the next level. A 2010 Sender Films production featuring two young boulderers trying to take their sport “to the next level” shows them rehearsing the same crux moves — involving sometimes no more than six feet of rock face — for over a year. Their reason for doing so becomes a mantra throughout the film — “to add something to climbing,” as one would “add to” the fields of physics, geology or other disciplines built up through an accumulation of knowledge and practice over time.

Perhaps another reason why climbers delight in their sport has something to do with humans’ common ancestry to chimpanzees. Animal biologists have documented these apes in the wild climbing trees, not to feed or nest, but for fun. Knowing myself the sheer joy of climbing — of moving vertically over obstacles, sometimes with my heel hooking around an arête while I swing myself up the rock, or by using my knee as a stopper in a crack so I can rest, hands-free, 100 feet off the ground — I take comfort in knowing that another species shares in this pleasure.

Select Climbing Routes at the University of Wyoming 

1. Half Acre Traverse: Start in southeast facing corner and traverse around to the lamppost nearest the entryway; 5.9, 1 pitch, 50 feet. 

Half Acre

Climbing on campus most likely started with the Half Acre traverse: a fairly low-commitment route in which the climber moves horizontally across the wall just a few feet above ground. A sloped sandstone ledge used to wrap its way around the entire building, and above and below the ledge, the building walls were all made of cut sandstone. Renovations to Half Acre Gymnasium have eliminated portions of the original traverse route, thus modifying the character and difficulty of the climb over the past fifty years.

While the desire to scale heights of constructed brick and mortar, sandstone and concrete may seem like an odd pursuit, it came quite naturally to the early campus climbers. When I interviewed Ray Jacquot, one of these early building climbers, he said, at the time, the decision to climb on campus structures was not at all strange — just the result of “a bunch of kids with spare time on their hands.” Jacquot told of how, back in the late-1950s, climbers would find themselves having dinner at the Knight Hall cafeteria and, on the way to the library for the evening, they would stop by to do a few laps of the Half Acre Traverse. When I ask where the idea to climb the buildings came from, Jacquot responds, “I think it was just something we made up.”

Jacquot reveals that, around campus, “anywhere there [was] natural rock … was attractive” for climbers. The locally quarried stones that were used to construct campus buildings (until the early-1990s) contain features one could expect to encounter while climbing anywhere in the natural world. The rose-colored sandstone bricks were cut, when the quarry was still active, just up the road on north 9th Street, in the building that currently houses Heather Plumbing and Heating. The stones were saw-cut on five sides, but the exposed face of the stone had to be chiseled to give the completed façade an evenly cragged look.

The Half Acre Traverse is also where the accomplished climber and area developer Davin Bagdonas got his start climbing. While he was a student at the UW Lab School, the gym teacher encouraged students to get out and try buildering on the face of Half Acre just across from the main entrance doors. This recess pastime continued until Davin and his friend were featured in a photo in the Laramie Daily Boomerang, the local newspaper, with the caption “Local kids climb Half Acre up to window of women’s aerobics class.” Though the caption was a joke, it incited the wrath of the then-principal, and Lab School students were no longer encouraged, yet alone allowed, to climb campus buildings. The photographer was probably not aware of it at the time, but capturing this small moment played a role in the tradition of buildering’s demise.

2. The Paint Shop Chimney: (since removed). Begin with a hoist from your belayer up to the roof, and from there aid-climb 30 feet to top of chimney. Descend via rappel with your belayer holding the other end of the rope on the ground on chimney’s opposite side; 1 pitch, 5.6, A1, 40 feet. 

The Paint Shop Chimney has since been replaced by White Hall, the farthest-west of the campus dorms. The chimney was adjacent to Talbott Hall, which went up in 1890. Talbott closed for student use in 1958, and soon after the space was taken over by the university painters. The brick-and-mortar chimney rose out of the old Talbott kitchen, connected by a thin hallway to the old dorm hall. On the ascent, climbers pounded pitons (metal spikes driven perpendicularly into rock faces with a hammer) in the chimney’s rotting cracks. Usually attempting climbs only under cover of darkness, early campus climbers rarely ran into trouble with law enforcement. However, as the process of pounding creates a high-pitched sound, those climbers did not escape the neighbors’ notice. While night climbing, Jacquot recounts, he was once visited by a campus cop who arrived on the scene, car lights beaming, to make a surprisingly simple request. “Could you guys quiet down a bit?” the cop asked, “We’ve had some complaints about your noise.”

The Paint Shop Chimney was razed to the ground shortly after (though not because of the climbers’ night-time escapades). The story of this climb’s first ascent and demise reminds me of the transience that is unique to buildering. The orderly bricks where men once stood to view the glittering lights of the Gem City at night suddenly became a chaos’d pile on the ground. True, rock slabs also slip and crumble off mountainsides in nature, and I’ve seen places where the ice that had once held against the cliffs melted, after spring thaw, and caused a rock face to shear and spill to the ground. The shedding of the rock slab, however, unearths a new face of rock — a little lighter, cleaner and less-weathered in appearance than its surroundings. None such markers exist to show where Talbott Hall once stood, and the histories of those who once gathered there to commune or climb slip away without walls to hold them in.

3. Union Traverse: Begin on the southeast-facing corner of the Student Union, above the water-spigot. Proceed left, turn the corner, and finish at the intersection of the sandstone and brick wall; one pitch, 40 feet, 5.12 (low route), 5.11 (upper route). 

Union Traverse

As climbing across the world slowly changed to favor “pure climbing” — or climbing natural rock without the help of aiding devices — so too did the character of the climbs at the University. Climbers were no longer found dangling from the ends of ropes on slick brick walls, their shoes smearing black rubber smiles on the buildings’ faces. Instead, climbers focused on the process of purely climbing, unhindered by the placement of gear, and without harnesses wrapped around their legs and waists. Bouldering is perhaps the form of climbing that is most unhindered and so, naturally, bouldering easily lent its style to the art of buildering.

Local climber Davin views climbing as a process — “not an outcome” — that structures a climber’s life. Some put climbing in the same category as drugs, in terms of addiction; they believe climbing develops brain chemistry similar to those on drugs or in a trance-like state. Having only been on the rock for three years, I have not been able to channel the spirit of monks on the wall; too often, my mind lingers in between moves on what might happen if I were to fall. But for experienced climbers like Davin, climbing has become “a process of meditation … and an entire lifestyle.”

4. Half Acre Aid Route: Exiting the Outdoor Program office, turn left and walk 20 feet to an in-cut wall facing the Student Union. A line of old expansion bolts winds its way from the left to the right side of the wall, just above the first roof. A second route begins in the corner and goes to the top. Rappel from fixed anchors; one pitch, A2, 30 feet. 

Half Acre Aid Route

Before the sport-changing invention of spring-loaded camming devices, much roped-up climbing was done with the use of smaller gear that took patience and skill to fit into the rock, thereby slowing down the process of climbing considerably. Then, as climbers like Lynn Hill made history by free-climbing (using only one’s body to progress up the wall) the Nose of El Capitan in under 24 hours, aid climbing (using gear to assist in climbing the wall) seemed to be on its way out. Aiding is still required for many big-wall ascents, in which the climbing party might find itself suspended from a portable ledge on the side of a 3,000-foot wall for several nights in a row. Perhaps due to the cost of aid gear and the damage that placing gear does to the wall, this form of climbing has not survived on campus. Another factor may indeed be the existence of a structure built exclusively for climbing inside the gym, a mere sixty feet away.

Still, a tribute to the pioneers of rock climbing and mountaineering remains on an outdoor sidewall of Half Acre Gymnasium. Sometime around 1970, a climber placed the old expansion bolts in the building’s side. Curving their way up the wall, the bolts are about eight feet apart in the sickly, creamed-yellow painted bricks. Aid climbing on campus saw its heyday from 1969-1971. Inside Half Acre, during the severe winter weather, climbers could also be found pounding aid gear into the walls of the old infield (now armory) on the gym’s east side. Once the climbers reached the ceiling, they would tie slings around the girders and continue climbing the roof, 40 feet off the ground. An adventurous climber might still find some old hardware on these long-forgotten routes, with the names of their owners etched into the smooth face of the abandoned metal gear.

5. The Trench: (Building renovations to Washakie Dining Hall have made the Trench unclimbable in its original fashion. However, the traverse on the opposite wall of the entry way still exists). Horizontal traverse; 5.11, 50 feet. 

The Trench

Once the prime buildering site at UW, The Trench no longer exists in its original form. A new entryway to the dining hall and glossy windows (terrible for smearing, even with sticky Stealthâ Rubber soles) has gutted the former sandstone face once awash in crimpy, crystally holds. The Trench offered a long, uninterrupted training wall where climbers could increase their strength and endurance. It had the added bonus of being virtually hidden from view. As we sit down for a beer at The Library, local climber Jay Jurkowitsch recalls studying in the dorms early one afternoon in 1976, and looking out his window to see Todd Skinner doing laps on the traverse below. At the time, there were no indoor climbing gyms within a 1,000-mile radius of Laramie.

One cannot mention Laramie, Wyoming, and climbing history without also talking about Todd Skinner and Paul Piana. The Trench is where the famous climbing duo met. The pair were pioneers of free climbing on big walls around the world. Skinner, who died in a climbing accident in 2006, is often referred to as “the most diversely accomplished climber of his generation.” Having grown up around Pinedale, Wyoming, Skinner made history with his (and Piana’s) ascents in Yosemite, Mt. Hooker, the Cirque of the Unclimbables in Canada and elsewhere in Pakistan, Vietnam, and Venezuela. One of Skinner’s many feats also includes climbing Devil’s Tower in 18 minutes — the 500-foot trip to the summit usually takes climbing parties four hours.

6. Physical Sciences Finger Crack: Located on the southeast corner of the building. Start in the crack and finger-lock your way up, turn the roof, and descend via a leap from the top, with plenty of encouragement from your spotters; 5.12, 12 feet.  

Physical Sciences

This thin, beautiful line was developed after someone picked out the rubber from the expansion joints in the concrete late at night. As Davin describes, the point of all this is often “just to climb a rock for the sake of climbing a rock” — not to summit — but just for the sheer feeling and rhythm that comes from moving your body vertically over a face of stone. The small, open crack of the Physical Sciences Building is of the type that draws climbers by the thousands to places like Indian Creek, Utah, where cracks in the walls perfectly split the burnt-auburn and sienna-colored rock face without changing in width, whether the cracks are finger or fist size.

The Physical Sciences Finger Crack is also the area test-piece for crack climbers; if your fingers are still slender enough to fit inside, you probably have not been climbing long. For experienced climbers, like Davin, the crack is barely wide enough for one weathered, climber’s fingertip. My hands are tree-like, long and slender, and so my fingers slip in between the cold concrete slabs beautifully. With my index and middle fingers in the crack, thumb pointed down, I rotate my shoulder ninety degrees and feel the weight of my body settle in on the knuckle and first joint of my index finger. Smearing my feet on the wall corners, I lift myself off the ground and slip the fingers of my other hand into the cold, concrete crack. With most of myself resting on the few inches of surface area on my fingers, I feel exhilarated, though barely a foot off the ground.

7. The Classroom Building: Start at the east-facing doors and traverse 360 degrees around the building; or, start in a shallow fist crack to the right of the skateboard rack and climb 15 feet to the first roof, walk five feet and climb a hand-fist size crack to the top. Descend via downclimbing; 5.9-5.11, 40 feet. 

The Classroom

Though buildering on campus was permitted when the activity began in the 1950s, by 1970, it had become the bane of many a campus security guard. Climbing in tight, sticky-soled shoes has a clear advantage for the climber, but wearing them was a good way to insure getting caught by campus security while hobbling away, toes mashed and pinched together. Todd Skinner helped many a climber, such as Jurkowitsch, avoid disciplinary action by advising them to boulder in sneakers, not climbing shoes, so that they could run away. Skinner also advised the college-aged crowd to not carry any form of identification while climbing, to give fake names to campus security if questioned and, at times, to climb as another persona entirely, perhaps even wearing Halloween masks of the former presidents. (Jurkowitsch recalls that Skinner and Piana were fond of Washington and Jefferson, respectively; Jurkowitsch himself went as Warren G. Harding, but confesses that he never needed a mask.) In the 1990s, however, young climbers discovered that bringing their bicycles to the buildering site provided quicker getaways. On bikes, climbers could ride off to places where police cars couldn’t easily follow.

8. Geology Building Traverse: Begin on the northwest corner of the new wing of the Geology Building, and traverse up and right; 5.11, 60 feet. 

Geology Building

The Geology Building Traverse was the first traverse on campus to gain in elevation from start to finish, and is also one of the few routes whose first ascent is known (Davin Bagdonas, circa 1995). Yet, with the building’s remodel and addition (the new wing officially now the Earth Sciences Building) also came the advent of artificial rock on campus in the form of machine-made sandstone. Since 1995, most new building faces are made of the same artificial sandstone: a composite of sand and glue pressed together.

After Davin informs me of the University’s use of artificial sandstone, I begin to notice a difference between the dusky-rose, earth-toned hues of the natural rock and the pallid shades of the artificial sandstone. The glued-together stone, as it appears on the Health Sciences Building and newer renovations around campus (including the library and College of Business), appears quite uniform in color from brick to brick — too perfectly even to occur naturally. When I press my palm to the wall, the rock feels coarse and crumbly, as though it might simply erode with the weight of my fingers. It is a reminder that, as the student body population grows and walls are torn down to make way for new labs, classrooms or offices, these walls too may disappear with time.

As Talbott Hall and the Paint Shop Chimney vanished from campus fifty years ago, so too will the trace of climbers’ fingertips, toes and bodies moving across the stone. It is not that I am concerned with losing the simple history of who climbed what small span of rock first or in the most perfect style. Rather, I think that even building climbing plays a part in the story of our desire to interact with the landscape, no matter how tame or wild.

Epilogue: Why I Climb

On a wintry Laramie afternoon, I find myself once again at the Half Acre climbing wall, traversing back and forth over candy-colored plastic holds. As I climb to the bouldering boundary line, a thick brown strip painted 12 feet high, I let my mind wander out the gym, west past Elk Mountain, the Red Desert and through the Wind River Indian Reservation. Suddenly, I’m driving along the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway above Cody, Wyoming, in June of last year. In between hairpin-turns on the road, I identify the Madison formation (a limestone whose tell is a pattern like Charlie Brown’s shirt: a thick, dark zigzag crossing a pale, yellowish-tan) and the Chugwater (a gorgeous, rust-red shale and siltstone that looks and feels like velvet). Trying to concentrate on the switchbacks in the road, I avoid thinking about Bighorn dolomite, the rock that makes up a majority of the climbing areas in Ten Sleep Canyon, my destination. Now, hours later, I’m coming up on the town of Ten Sleep, about to make the ascent into the canyon. I feel the adrenaline slowly slip into my veins as I imagine climbing up the vertical faces of rock, gripping the wall’s smooth pockets, pinching my fingers down on its finely-grooved ledges. Vanishing from my belayer’s view as I climb over a ridge, I look back to see the canyon spread below  —  rock buttresses protruding like ship prows over a sea of green pines and sage.

Paula Wright is a poet and climber with a MA and MFA from the University of Wyoming, and the author of “The Gathering,” forthcoming from Binge Press. She has never been arrested for climbing. 

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Where It Ended

If I slipped and fell from this height, I thought, I would definitely die, and if that happened, everyone would think I did it on purpose. They’ll say, he filed his divorce papers 16 hours before he started climbing that big rock without a rope, and got high enough where he decided to just let go, to end it.

But that wasn’t why I was there. I was hanging onto red-brown sandstone a few hundred feet up the Third Flatiron because I quit drinking six-and-a-half years prior and climbing was what I did to clear my head. I had the week off work and I couldn’t sit in my tiny post-split apartment all day. That would have been unhealthy. Of course, soloing could turn out to be really unhealthy. I looked down at my feet, clad in my tiny sticky-rubber-soled climbing shoes, which looked about as tough as a pair of ballet slippers. Long as they stuck to the rock for another hundred moves or so, I would be just fine. Then I could get back onto flat ground and back to feeling like someone punched me in the stomach.

Emily and I had been together, on and off, for almost nine years, through all my problems, her problems, Christmases and rehab and counseling, the time she almost died from pneumonia from making herself throw up because she looked in the mirror and saw a fat girl, the times I went to jail or got jumped because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, again. We met at a bar, and I was an alcoholic already at 20, and she was an anorexic/bulimic sorority girl. We changed, over nine years. She lived in Omaha and western New York, and I lived in Idaho and Montana, and we got back together in Phoenix, and then moved to Denver. She was a makeup artist, an esthetician, and finally decided on graduate school for a master’s degree in social work. I worked at crappy newspapers and finally landed at a nonprofit that took inner-city kids on backpacking trips.

I wanted to climb, to get out there and see it all, snow-covered peaks, rivers that cut canyons, the moonscape of the American desert, bring it into myself and see what it made me. I asked her to go hiking, and she said she had to stay home and study, so I went climbing instead. Each conversation we had, we lost more hope for our marriage, and continued to push closer and closer toward calling it dead. She studied, and I had the best climbing year of my life, attacking routes with a sad and angry ferocity and somehow pushing past my normal fear.

We moved out of the apartment we had shared for two-and-a-half years, the longest I had lived anywhere. I broke down going through my things, not knowing what to do with photos of the two of us having what I thought were great times, photos of our wedding, gifts she had given me, notes she had written, things that you save when it’s forever and don’t have a box for when it’s suddenly not forever. And you cry because they don’t cover this part in any of the movies you’ve seen, the songs you’ve listened to or the books you’ve read.

She picked me up at the Denver airport after a backpacking trip in California with a group of inner-city teens, and after my week in the wilderness, I didn’t get a handshake or a hug at passenger pick-up. I got in the car and Emily said that the City Clerk’s office closed at 4 p.m., so we needed to hurry. All the forms for the divorce were filled out, in a yellow folder in the backseat. I tried to look at them and make sense of them, not what they did, simply how to fill them out correctly. At 3:20, we were still a mile from the City and County Building in downtown Denver, and I asked if she had brought her checkbook, knowing we needed to pay $200 in fees. Nope. We drove to my place, and I ran up the stairs to my still not-lived-in apartment, I ripped out a blank check and ran back to the car. We parked as close as we could and hurried to room 280A, getting there at 3:40 p.m.

We had failed, fucked it up, gotten all those people together, and they had all spent so much money, traveling, buying gifts, hotel rooms, and we had stood there and lied to everyone and said it was forever, that we loved each other. And we blew it. I hated myself, thinking it was my fault, even though she said it wasn’t anyone’s fault. People change, people grow apart. Worse than crying every time I was alone, I instead just felt sick to just below the point of tears, like someone was sitting on my chest when I tried to get out of bed.

She never liked climbing, which I realized was perfectly normal. We’ve spent thousands of years working to avoid risk and maximize safety and comfort; seems pretty natural to not try climbing up something you could very easily fall off of.

But after three years of sobriety, I still felt like I was treading water without a real identity, and from there I eventually pulled myself toward rock climbing. I had eliminated the only way I knew how to relate to people. I was sure every other 26-year-old in America could order a beer at a baseball game, loosen up and meet people after a few drinks, start the weekend with a couple casual after-work microbrews on Friday.

Not me. If I was awake, I was sober, 100 percent of my insecurities and neuroses bouncing around in my head at all times. No liquid courage, no beer goggles, no social lubricant.

Climbing worked for me. The nuances of holding onto rock features with only the friction and balance of toes and fingertips, crucial placement of the safety equipment every few moves, keeping the rope at the right tension — all these things demanded full attention. I learned to persevere through debilitating fear, when I hyperventilated and was so overcome with the likelihood of falling that both legs shook hard enough to jackhammer themselves right off the tiny footholds, but I didn’t fall because somehow I kept it together and made one more move upward. I had to leave my problems on the ground.

That kind of simplicity was appealing when I was sitting in my apartment on the one chair I kept after the split, sure I’d just made the biggest decision of my young life, but not sure it was the right one and knowing there was no way to reverse it, even though the City Clerk gave us 90 days, just to make sure.

I was up early, not hungry, too nervous, stuffing a small backpack with everything I needed: A harness, belay device, chalk bag, climbing shoes, light rope for the rappel. No helmet. No climbing partner, no rope — a helmet wasn’t going to do anything for me if I fell. It was my first ropeless climb.

I had climbed the Third Flatiron twice before, roped. It was easy, low-angle, like a thousand-foot ladder into the sky above Boulder. It was not a challenge for the typical superathlete residents of Boulder — they would leave from the Chautaqua Park trailhead, run the trail to the base of the climb, slip on their climbing shoes and race up the face, rappelling off the back and running back to the car in less than an hour. For me, though, it was serious. No matter how easy the climbing was, it could still kill anyone. One move, upsetting your balance, one foot slipping, one hand greasing off a hold, and you’re rag-dolling down the rock, and at the bottom there is no rescue, just a body recovery.

I walked quickly up the trail, breaking a light sweat in the warm early-fall air. Near the base of the rock, the trail steepened, and I wove up the switchbacks, arriving at the East Bench in just under 40 minutes. I popped off my hiking shoes, pulled my climbing shoes out of my pack, slipped them on and tried to focus.

My friend Bruce, wrestling with a heavy life decision once, had climbed all the way up a wall at a climbing gym before noticing he had never clipped himself into a self-belay. Trying to traverse across the plastic wall to a safe spot, he slipped off the wall and fell 30 feet onto the floor of the gym. He spent five days in the trauma unit of the hospital with a collapsed lung, broken ribs and a broken elbow.

I sat there at the base of the climb, the Standard East Face, and tried to get my shit together. I stood up on one foot, pulling my other foot up and resting it against the inside of my knee, brought my hands together and pointed them above my head. This will quiet things down. I focused, kept my balance for ten breaths, a yoga tree pose, then switched to the other foot.

I looked up at 1,000 feet of sandstone and took a deep breath. Boy, if I fall off this thing. Deep breath. Apparent suicide, they’ll probably say in the paper, even though I didn’t leave a note.

No one will know that it was the lowest I’d ever felt in my life since that first year after I stopped drinking. Another time in my life I hated myself, and who I am, and what I’d become, and how I got there. The divorce was my fault. All the damage from my drinking, my fault.

But I looked up at the gigantic rock, a giant sandstone skyscraper tilted into a mountain, and I thought the answer might be up there. Not at the top, as if I was going to get a message from someone or have an epiphany about my disaster of a life — but maybe somewhere in the process. I went to pull myself up the Third, to interact with it, and think nothing else besides what I needed to do to keep moving up and not fall.

“Back in 5 minutes,” a sign taped to the door at 280A said. A woman came out of the office across the hall and let us in, and we sat down at a desk with her and watched her go through our forms. Are we really killing this? A woman stuck her head through the door and asked if she had questions, could she ask them here. The woman looking at our forms said yes, come on in and have a seat. No privacy for us. The woman asked us

do you have any assets?


and there isn’t a pregnancy?

No, No, No, we said, and she labeled a couple of the forms, explained that we needed to take them to the Clerk and Recorder’s office and have a notary watch us sign them. We screwed up and signed one of them before she told us this. We walked into the hallway to look for the Clerk and Recorder’s office and Emily started to get choked up, and I said, Are you okay? Are you going to be okay?

Like I still care about you, just not enough to stay married to you, or what? I don’t want you to be sad while we’re filing our divorce papers, but I’m not a good enough man to stay married to you. I was dizzy.

She said Yeah, she was okay. I couldn’t swallow, and I knew she was about to start crying, two breaths away from a sob. Why couldn’t I make this right?

On the forms, we had to write the city where we got married. Emily’s handwriting said Springdale, Utah, and I remembered our wedding, and the couple days leading up to it, and … stop.  Emily swallowed and we went into the office across the hall and told the woman there we needed someone to notarize our forms. She explained that the Clerk and Recorder’s office was down the hall.

At the counter, the woman said we needed to cross out our signature, re-sign it in front of her, and sign the other forms. It was $220, she said, and we needed to make copies of all the forms. There was a copy machine behind us, and I started to make copies while Emily ripped staples out of the forms, saying it would be faster if we sent them all through at once. I argued, but Jesus Christ, can we just get through this, the last thing we ever do together, so we sent them all through at once, re-stapled them and turned around and gave them to the lady. I wrote out the check to Denver District Court and we watched her stamp everything.

A bike messenger waited behind us and I was sure I heard him say, “You gotta be kidding me,” and I was ready to send him through the glass door if that was what he said. Happiest day of your life, you get a best man and as many groomsmen as you want. She gets a maid of honor and a bunch of pretty bridesmaids. That’s the beginning. When it ends, you get this hollow government hall, and this fucking asshole bike messenger behind me talking shit. I gritted my teeth.

In 15 minutes, we ended it. We had spent years together and months planning a ceremony to solidify it, and it was all over. We cashed our deposit check from the apartment, signing both our names on it, enough to pay the divorce fees and a little extra.

An hour later, we sat next to each other on a bench in Cheesman Park, crying and talking about how much we cared about each other. I didn’t care if all the joggers and cyclists in this park saw me crying. I couldn’t stop it. The only thing worse than something you love dying, is knowing that you killed it by neglect, and that’s why it died.

I hugged her goodbye in front of my apartment, and she said she’d call when she was ready to talk again, when the door had closed on our relationship. It would be the first time in nine years that the door would be all the way shut.

She drove off and I walked the steps to my apartment with lead feet. Just kill me. I have done so much damage.

I chalked up. I stepped one foot onto the stone, smearing a stance, grabbing a hand hold, then the next one. Pay attention. I moved left out onto the enormous east face, as wide as a football field. I traversed, and the exposure opened up underneath me. I could now fall a couple hundred feet, rolling into a bag of blood and broken bones onto the talus below. I stepped up, keeping three points of contact at all times.

Only a couple people I knew could make sense of this. I was turning to this, climbing, when I needed something to take me away. I remembered that in my bed last night, unable to sleep, I thought about going somewhere and drinking. A bar, for a few beers, hell, a park bench and a bottle of cheap red wine, whatever. Six-and-a-half years of sobriety, gone, with a bottle to my lips somewhere. But the crushing feeling of failure, gone, too. It was just for a second, for a flash, that I considered it as a serious option. Then it disappeared.

In 20 minutes, I was halfway up the face, out of breath. I stopped and took a few breaths, looking back behind me for the first time. The city was beneath me, and I was slowly leaving it on the ground, where all my problems were. I turned back, kept climbing up, and then I stopped. I was in a strange spot, where the handholds are far apart, and I’d have to step high to grab the next one, only leaving one foot and a few fingers on the rock. I halfway went for it, and then I slowly lowered myself back down. Not the time to take risks. I made two moves to the right, then up, then back left to my line. All secure moves.

Just like that, I was on top of The Third, standing on the summit no bigger than a living room, no more rock to climb up. The first time I climbed it, it took us hours to get to this spot. I pulled my skinny rope out of my pack, put on my harness, and zipped down the three rappels down the west face to the ground.

On the walk back to the car, I realized I didn’t really enjoy the climbing, up there all by myself. Too risky, no one to share the views with, talk about the moves, the rock, life. My first ropeless solo climb ever, but my last as well, maybe.

I had gone to a few therapy appointments when Emily and I were deciding to get divorced. My therapist had recommended I do some sort of ritual to give closure to my relationship with Emily — burning some clothes, cutting off my hair, something like that. I looked back up at The Third, towering above Chautauqua Park, wondering if I got closure up there. I still felt terrible, and I would for over a year. But for certain, when it got tough, really low, I looked here for answers, and not in a bottle, and that was a different type of closure.

The day on The Third was the day I started to forget all my memories with a person I loved. I told her I’d love her forever in front of all those people, and forever just ended. The next part, the part when I wasn’t in love anymore, this part was alone.

Brendan Leonard is a long-time MG contributor currently living on the road in a van. His blog, Semi-Rad, can be found at More of his writing can be found at

A story about Jesus and Joshua Tree

Jesus and Joshua Tree, or How I Almost Became a Climber


Jesus and Joshua Tree

Eight years out of high school and I was still trying to finish college and attain the much vaunted bachelors degree in Religious Studies. It had been an on-again, off-again ordeal interrupted by backpacking trips and general vagabonding, mostly up and down the west coast. And here I was again, embarking on an off-again session of wandering — just a semester this time — due to a duo of factors: my girlfriend dumping me for my good friend and the sudden appearance of a HARD-CORE cult of wandering Christians right out of the Old Testament: Long beards, prophetic pronouncements and vows of poverty and dumpster-diving asceticism as they waited around for The Apocalypse, which, to a stoned hippy who listened to way too much Bob Marley, seemed very imminent indeed.

Not to mention the fact that this was the era of my life when everything held some kind of “deeper meaning,” be it the muttering of drunk bums on the street (who surely grasped some sacred knowledge the rest of us couldn’t understand) or a tune on the radio (another Grateful Dead song? I’m obviously supposed to quit school again and travel!). So when the Christians literally showed up on my doorstep mere minutes after I had aced a final exam on the New Testament and a couple days after getting dumped, suffice to say that it seemed as if some higher power had willed it to be so, and that RIGHT NOW was the time to drop everything and follow these seemingly wise apostles before they climbed the ladder to New Jerusalem.

In the end, despite weeks of proselytizing by the earnest patriarchs and hours of long-winded circular spiritual discussions, some shred of common sense kept me from trading my wicked path of sin for a new life of prayer and homelessness, but the eager holy rollers still ended up disrupting my life, albeit not in the way they’d hoped: One afternoon toward the end of my six-week winter break, one of the Christian gang showed up at our house in need of sanctuary. Seems he had just left the “The Brethren” (the “REPENT” patch was missing from his baseball cap) because he had decided that he “still wanted to live like a pagan” and needed a place to stay while he figured it all out. Which was perfect, as a broken heart, a dangerously close brush with a creepy cult and the stresses of extended academia were wearing me down, and living like a pagan sounded like the perfect way to recharge. I boxed up my stuff — records, books and sentimentalisms, mostly — and stored them with my somewhat more responsible sister, explained the situation to my roommates, and the apostate and I hitchhiked north to Seattle to fetch his didgeridoo (right where he had left it when he ran away with the cult: wrapped in plastic and buried in a park) and loiter/explore our way to some kind of exciting experience in the great north woods, but the rain soon chased us back south, all the way down to Joshua Tree National Park.

For Southern Californians who occasionally get claustrophobic within the gargantuan Tijuana-to-Santa-Barbara megalopolis of 20 million people, the Mojave Desert offers a rather large expanse of space and sanity, and Joshua Tree — barely an hour outside of Los Angeles — is a convenient destination for urbanites looking for a change. Being a San Diegan, I had heard much about the place but had never been there, so when two young Canadian ladies en route to Mexico picked us up on the side of the road somewhere in soggy southern Oregon, I suggested on a whim that we shoot for Joshua Tree for the night. Many hours and a few hundred miles later, we gleefully dodged the shuttered entrance station and its fees, and rolled into Hidden Valley Campground. We nabbed an empty spot, set up tents, and headed over to the actual “Hidden Valley,” a football-stadium-sized ring of granite rubble, where we basked in the relative warmth and welcome dryness of the desert in February — a desert illuminated by a full moon. The Canadian girls uncorked a big jug of wine and passed it around as we marveled at a fine ending to a memorable day of travel.

The Canadian vixens stayed with us for a couple of days before turning their Thelma-and-Louise-style station wagon toward the Mexican border, but we stayed on, moving camp a few times before settling in on a good one nestled snuggly in the big rocks. Three days later, my traveling companion embarked on a quick journey to San Francisco, where he planned on scoring a few sheets of acid, which we could then sell to some of the other campers in order to fund our current round of travels. It sounded like a great plan, so I’d dug deep into my sock and invested all but 35 dollars of my leftover student loan money and let him borrow my better backpack for swifter travels. He figured he’d be back in 10 days or so, but if he didn’t show up by mid-March, then we’d rendezvous at a regional Rainbow Gathering near Yuma during the next full moon.

Of course, I never saw him again, which meant I was almost flat broke and stuck with an ancient external frame pack that was way too big for me, but I had a good tent, youthful vigor and plenty of time on my hands. Plus, I was ensconced in the midst of an amazingly beautiful national park with nowhere to go and nothing to do but explore it. Days were spent hiking in all directions, while nights were spent in the tent reading by candlelight or writing bad poetry about the desert and the meaning of life, or even worse poetry about my ex-girlfriend. Occasionally, I’d hitchhike the 20 miles into town for a supply run, which usually consisted of four tasks: spending a few precious dollars at a huge dent-and-scratch grocery outlet; filling up my water jugs from a tap behind the Chevron; diving into a handful of Safeway-style mega-dumpsters for big jars of Ragu, blocks of perfectly good cheese and plenty of fruits and veggies; and a final, ritual stop for a rigorous washing of the hands and the reluctant-but-joyous purchase of a single 59-cent bean burrito from Taco Bell. Thus was I able to make my 35 dollars last for most of a month.

In addition to my willingness to explore the less sanitary side of our food chain, another thing that allowed me to stretch my meager funds as far as possible was the fact that camping was FREE. Yes, free camping at an “improved” campground in a national park, something that had been phased out everywhere else decades before, and no longer exists at Joshua Tree, at least partially due to freeloaders like myself. Rumor was that the Park Service couldn’t charge for a dry campsite, which meant that, while the site was free, you had to supply your own life-giving water — a fine trade-off for a vagabond on a shoestring budget. It was high season, and the campground had a perpetual “CAMPGROUND FULL” sign posted at its entrance, but, late each afternoon, folks would cruise slowly through hoping to score a site, and since I was carless and had just a single tent set up, I’d offer up my site to anyone in need.

That was the other thing that made my adventure possible: the kindness of my fellow campers. Indeed, there was much in the way of solitude — after all, that’s what the desert is all about, at least to idealistic Religious Studies students who think they want to grow old and die alone while meditating in a cave — but, in reality, most of my time was spent in the presence of other people, all of them interesting and generous. As the weeks unfolded, my campsite played host to a parade of folks, and every few days, I would find myself  bound up in an entirely new chapter of random interactions with followers of the Golden Rule. Here’s a sampler:

″ A family of four fleeing the cold and dark of Alaska via a long, slow loop through the southwestern desert parks. They took me along for a driving tour of the entire park, topped off my camp stove fuel canister and loaded me up with a bag of fresh dates and a half dozen military-grade “ready-to-eat” meals.

″ A Korean artist who sculpted images of the Goddess. I used my single practical set of skills to tune up his rusted Volkswagen van for him and in return received all the beer I could drink, all the coffee I wanted and generous and repeated samplings from the big-as-a-human-head bag of non-culinary mushrooms he had brought along for inspiration.

″A pair of newlywed Mormons from Michigan on a very non-traditional Mormon honeymoon. They praised my brush with Jesus, explained that the “Joshua” that the trees were named after was actually a guy in the Bible, and gave me my very first (but certainly not my last) copy of the “Book of Mormon,” along with plenty of soda pop and hot dogs.

″Two carloads of Earth-First!ers, with names like Orca, Lichen and Ann R. Key, fresh out of an “activist conference” in the nearby San Bernardino Mountains. They drank cheap beer from cans, shared their own dumpster-dived goodies and instantly brought my humble little campsite to life with rollicking protest songs both serious and funny, including this one (to the tune of America’s “Horse With no Name”):

“I’ve been through the desert in van that was lame

It felt good to be out of … Texas.

At the conference you won’t remember your name

So get under this blanket and huddle up by the flames

blah blah, blah, blahblahblahblah blah … ”

But most of the time it was climbers — rock climbers — here for some big-rock adventures. Indeed, it only took a few days to figure out that the majority of campers, at least at Hidden Valley Campground, were of the climbing persuasion. Which made sense, as a quick glance in any direction revealed gigantic stacks of slightly orange-ish granite boulders, some of them hundreds of feet high, a fact which makes Joshua Tree a Mecca for climbers around the world, especially during the winter months.

They were everywhere, and despite the fact that I was a lowly hiker (a “groveler,” they called me), they took me under their wing and made me part of their shindigs, which, following each stellar day of vertical action, usually involved campfires, booze and rollicking “spud sessions” wherein anything that could be wrapped in foil was tossed onto the coals and baked. Every moment around these fires was chock full of swell conversation peppered with colloquialisms and jargon that made me wish there was a climber-specific dictionary I might consult. Eventually, I learned that “crimpers” were difficult, “scumming” was sometimes necessary, “cheese graters” were bad and “spraying” was inevitable when dozens of climbers gathered round a fire and started swapping stories about climbing, climbing and climbing. Sea cliffs in Acadia National Park. Sandstone in West Virginia. Limestone walls in western Utah. Lone Pine. City of Rocks. Notch Peak. Lost Creek. Cirque of the Towers. Names of exotic locales and challenging routes flowed from their tongues as if they were rattling off the names of family members.

There were climbers there from all over the U.S., as well as a few from South America and Europe, slumming it up in Joshua Tree for awhile before checking out Hueco Tanks in Texas, or the Organ Range in New Mexico or some other exotic and relatively warm desert rock oasis, and all of them seemed to have mastered the fine art of dirt-bagging. They had a connection at The North Face who could get you new tent poles, or knew somebody in town who provided showers, or a guy in Palm Springs who could hook you up with some work — indeed, for a few days, a large contingent of climbers disappeared into that nearby enclave of golf and wealth to sell concessions or park cars during a high-end tennis tournament. They knew where the firewood was, and occasionally they’d pile into an ancient Toyota Van with Maine plates and 300,000 on the odometer and cruise into town to gather some, which meant surreptitiously cruising behind grocery stores in search of shipping pallets — surreptitiously because it was illegal, and just a few weeks earlier, two unfortunate souls had been caught stealing and were hauled off to the county jail, which, in this sprawling county (largest in the lower 48) meant 60 miles and a world away to San Bernardino.

As I mentioned, the camping was free, but there was a 14-day limit — not a problem for your average family on vacation, most of whom would stay only a few days at the most, but a real hurdle for someone hoping to spend a couple of months living out of the back of a pickup truck. Since there was no fee, there was no registration that I recall, so the ranger would cruise through now and then and write down license plate numbers or make/model of vehicles. Due to the fact that I had no car, the rangers never caught onto my extended presence, but they were well aware of the climbing set, which led to a cat-and-mouse situation that forced the climbers to get creative. They swapped license plates and campsites, or covered their vehicles in tarps in hopes that the ranger wouldn’t bother getting out of his truck to investigate further. If necessary, they’d disappear for a few days and try again, maybe backing the rig in this time or spending a few nights parked at my site before being shooed away by the rangers.

As the weeks unfolded, I continued to explore, hitting the high points: south for a huge view of the Colorado Desert; east for a nice view of Queen Valley; west for a big glimpse of the snow-covered San Jacinto and San Gorgornio Peaks — 12,000-foot jewels separating the desert from the sea; and north at for a glimpse of the earthquakey Lucerne Valley and hundreds upon hundreds of miles of Mojave Desert. Often, I’d start my forays by following a gang of climbers out of the campground as they trekked out to a nearby climb. They’d set up and I’d sit and watch for awhile, curious about the life I was hearing about around the campfires. One such climb was called “Gunsmoke” — a low and horizontal traverse in and out of a big bend in a rock face. It was technical rather than vertical, just a few feet off the ground, actually, and, being close to the campground, it got a lot of traffic. But one fellow stood out, for he was always there cruising gracefully back on forth along the route like a monkey in the treetops. He was alone, never saying a word to anyone, and always had a faint smile on his face like he was in another world — rumor had it he was autistic or perhaps just majorly OCD, but he was amazing to watch.

Beyond Gunsmoke was the aptly named “MAGIC KINGDOM” — 20-or-so square miles of towering granite monoliths, cliffs and mounds of boulders that made you feel like an ant in a gravel pit. The Earth First! crew had shown me this area first during one of the most-punishing and amazing hikes of my life, a dawn-to-dusk trailless scramble right through the heart of the moonscape. This was ground zero for epic solo jaunts, and I spent day after day just wandering around back there. There were hidden amphitheaters, bighorn sheep, a single spring and a few grassy meadows, and, just when I’d find myself deeper than ever before, exhausted and bleeding at the knees and elbows, I’d glance up at a sun-exposed cliff face and see climbers halfway up a three-or-four-pitch ascent, effortlessly (or so it appeared from my vantage point) on their way to the top of any one of ten thousand possible climbs.

Indeed, during that month, I sat and watched climbers for hours. I marveled at the slow-but-sure effort, the teamwork, the gradual snail-like movement up a tiny crack in the granite. I was intrigued, but not enough to wish to partake in it all. To be sure, I loved clawing my way to the top of random rock piles, and I admired the climbers’ abilities, but felt no desire to join their ranks — I loved the simplicity of hiking, just me and a pair of boots, with endless possibilities in all directions. But, slowly, my curiosity grew and, eventually, I accepted an invitation and gear loan and tried it out: warm desert sun on my back; toes jammed securely into the toes of the nimble shoes; fingertips clinging to rock. This was not at all like the random rambling I had been experiencing on my travels and hikes; indeed, it was the exact opposite: extremely focused and deliberate. Adrenaline at a strangely slow pace. Time warping and sticking you right in the moment (with a big view at the top), which was the whole point of the traveling, the psychedelics and the haphazard study of religion.

Toward the end of my month in Joshua Tree, an opportunity came my way in the form of a van load of climbers headed south and east to Apache Fortress, a lesser-known but first-rate climbing destination a couple hours outside of Tucson. One of the van’s crew had just headed back to Israel for a mandatory stint in the army and had donated his gear — harness, chalk bag, rope and a pair of shoes — to his fellow climbing nomads. Everything was in place — extra gear (including shoes that seemed to fit me), a gang of climbers willing to show me the ropes and a ride to what would surely be another astonishingly beautiful place.

It was a charitable offer, but after giving it much thought, I said no thanks. The full moon was just a few days away, and, since my traveling partner had not returned, I felt obligated to stick to our plan and head down to the Rainbow shindig to make sure he was alright (and to retrieve my backpack and recoup my black market investment). Besides, the hippy fest involved drums and girls and a lunar eclipse/full moon smack dab on the night of the Spring Equinox, a combination that, at the time, seemed to hold more symbolic meaning than the fact that I was sitting in a rock climbers’ paradise and was being handed everything I needed to join their ranks.

I caught a ride out with them and got dropped off just outside of Blythe. They got back on the freeway and headed east toward their next big climbing escapade, and I started thumbing my way south. For the second time in as many months, I’d crossed paths with folks who offered to change the trajectory of my life, and for the second time, I’d gone against my “it must be happening for a reason” philosophy, and stayed the course, whatever that was. It was the closest I ever got to becoming a Jesus freak or a true dirt-bag climber.

Senior correspondent Charles Clayton’s last piece for the Gazette was “New River, Arizona: Three Glimpses,” which appeared in #181. His blog, “Pagan Parenting,” can be found at Clayton lives in Taos with his wife and daughter. 

Read about one man’s experiences with divorce and how climbing helped him get through it.

Frances & Polly Go Paddling

River woman circa 1967 (R. Rat image)

Hand-written draft of Frances Wisner’s column for the Idaho Country Free Press, 1967. Inset: Frances Wisner. Photo by R. Rat, Esq.

For Frances Zaunmiller Wisner (1914-1986), Polly Bemis (1853-1933) and all the river women who have taught me a thing or two about staying upright in an adventure. 

Clarity is a good thing in the midst of a river adventure, that and serendipity. On the Main Salmon, the water is so clear I could look down between the tubes of my pack-cat and feel I was flying; the river stones passed rapidly beneath, as if I were seconds from touchdown.

“Idaho river holes are hard to recognize,” an experienced kayaker explained, referring to clarity’s downside. She nodded as I recounted my surprise tumble miles upriver earlier that day. “Never saw the hole,” I told her, though in all honesty, my mind had been focused on a new paddling strategy that was delighting me greatly. Before surfacing beside my pack-cat, though, my mind let loose these previous occupations. I’d remounted my steed with clarified determination to adjust my vision, so I recognize what’s actually in front of me.

In 1940, a young woman from Texas by the name of Frances followed a trail on horseback over a mountain pass down to the Salmon River. The trail crossed through a homestead at Campbell’s Ferry before reaching the river, where a traveler could, depending upon the river’s flow, hire a ferry and continue up the trail on the other side. Apparently Frances skipped the ferry, instead getting hired by the homestead owner to cook and care-take for his hunting business. Whatever Frances’ flash of clarity, she remained at Campbell’s Ferry for the rest of her life. She married the widowed owner of the homestead, Joe Zaunmiller, in 1942. In total she lived 45 years at Campbell’s Ferry, the final 20 more or less on her own.

In the early 1950s, Frances successfully rallied popular and political support for the construction of a bridge to replace the ferry. She asked Idaho Senator Henry Clarence Dworshak, “Have you ever been on a ferry when the river was too high, and felt the floor tip, saw the water start to curl over the bow into the boat and prayed that the cable would break so the boat could ride level again and not be sucked under?” On the day of the bridge’s inauguration in 1956, Frances and Joe took turns riding their Appaloosa mare across the Salmon and back, enjoying the view and her triumph.

After pulling onto the opposite shore to feast upon sandwiches and chocolate, my river-mates and I traversed “Frances’ Bridge” to visit her old homestead. After three days on the river, we delighted in the antique desk tops, invitingly lumpy twin beds, hand-stitched quilts, home-built cabinetry and outdated wall calendars. The hand-written draft of one of her weekly columns for the Idaho County Free Press was set out for visitors to read. In it she warned of the BLM’s pending plans to dam Glen Canyon.

Frances was a feisty woman, so, had she arrived home just then to find this odiferous crew milling about, she might have leveled a rifle in our direction and suggested we all get the hell out. But probably not. An apple orchard spread across the field, a stone’s throw from the cabin. One of us asked our host, the current caretaker of the homestead, if bears were ever a problem for Frances, since the orchard was so near. He looked at the questioner, puzzled. “A problem? No. Don’t think so. She just lived with them.”

Big Mallard is one of the few Class IV rapids on the Main Salmon. At our water level, the far left run would have been best, but our arrival was a bit disorganized, so most of us worked the eddy on the right as we studied the array of rocks, pillows, plumes and holes.

“We could go across to the left,” one kayaker suggested to me. In his play boat and young male body, he reached the far bank easily. I struggled a short while in the current, then turned back to consider Plan B, which pretty much consisted of seeing what I could and going for it. I wished I had not just witnessed a raft from our group follow a right-to-not-far-enough-left run, then drop from sight into an enormous hole, bottom-side facing upriver.

My beloved worked his raft between a nasty, jutting rock in the river’s center and a hole toward the right-hand side, till he too descended below my horizon, still bottom-side down, though facing backwards.

Polly Bemis and her husband, Charlie, lived miles downriver from the rocks and drama of Big Mallard, below the confluence of the South Fork and Main Salmon. How they ended up together on the Salmon isn’t clear; one story tells that Charlie Bemis, saloon owner, won Polly, a Chinese immigrant, in a hand of poker. Or, how about this account: Charlie was shot in the face during a hand of poker and Polly nursed him back to health. She may or may not have come to the U.S. as a slave, may or may not have been a prostitute before meeting Charlie. I do know this: Polly and Charlie were tough river people. In 1922, their cabin burned to the ground. Charlie died shortly thereafter, but neighbors from across the river helped Polly rebuild and helped her out, till her death in 1933.

River women circa 2011(R. Rat image)
The Main Salmon. Photo by R. Rat, Esq.

Polly and Charlie are immortalized today as paper action figures in an Idaho grade-school lesson guide. (Read: Paste cut-out figures onto cardstock; then prop each figure with a brace). If you lived in Idaho, your 4th-grade child could bring home a paper Polly and Charlie and make up dialogues about hunting or fishing (illustrated with cut-out tools), harvest eggs from Polly’s paper chickens or play with Charlie’s paper pet cougar. Your child could identify the adjectives in this sentence: “In September 1890, an angry man believed that Polly’s friend Charlie had cheated him in a gambling game. He got a pistol and shot Charlie in the face, missing his eye but shattering his cheekbone.” Later, your kid might walk paper Polly down to the imaginary Salmon’s edge with her paper pet dog, Teddy, for her astounding catch of 27 fish in a day. Follow that with this math question: “What if Polly had caught 27 trout each day for a week? How many fish would that be? Show your work.”

If your kid’s improvised conversations between the paper river folk begin to flag, explore together this question from the Idaho lesson plan: “Polly and Charlie’s cabin on the Salmon River did not have running water. It also had no television or radio. What do you think they did for fun?”

Across the river at the top of Big Mallard, a kayaker from our group gestured to me broadly, communicating the path to a good run. Right arm down the center, then pointing right. I considered all my observations and the last bit of advice, and started toward the rumbling mayhem.

Can’t say I had a clear vision of the outcome, but did have one clear thought: I’m-not-going-over, gawd-dam-it.

I followed my beloved’s line, entering on the right, the Idaho river holes appearing to me clear as crystal. I shot the gap between the nasty rock center top and its subsequent hole and a second hole to its right. With each paddle stroke I grunted my most beneficial mantra (“fuck, fuck, fuck”), picking my way through the roiling waves. In response to applause at the bottom of the run, I patted my helmeted head and smiled goofily.

River adventures can begin and end before it’s even clear what’s going on. Turns out, my beloved’s backward-facing run put him in great position to pull the dump-trucked boatman out of the water. Meanwhile, the kayaker from our group who counseled me on Idaho rivers, paddled directly over to the emptied raft, exited her kayak, boarded the raft, lifted the kayak onto it, pulled the remaining swimmer into the raft, sat down at the raft’s oars and took command.

Frances and Polly would have been proud.

Laura Kerr recently paddled and dragged her pack-cat down a slow-rising Salt River. She thinks Frances and Polly would be cool with her decision to portage Corkscrew.  

Men Gone Wild!


•Day 1•

We gather at the river once again. Andy, Todd and I roll down the gravel hill to the put-in and find another few of our crew there, boats out, gear strewn about.

Somehow every year it works.

See, there is little “plan,” per se, to the annual Men’s Trip. The idea is what’s important. It’s harder to catch catfish than to hook these guys: just trolling a vague, word-of-mouth meeting time and place — “mid-day at Sand Island” — for a month beforehand is enough to collect a stringer of men for three days on the San Juan River every year. It’s like the only plan is No-Plan.

This year waiting for us on the beach are the familiar figures of Eric, Randall, Dave and Jan. First-timers Ben, Jared, Scott and Jim are introduced. Wild Bill and a friend of his are supposed to arrive after dark — every year a group floats in on the night shift, under the nearly full moon — as long as the nasty weather dumping on our mountains back in Colorado doesn’t discourage them.

We hope it won’t, because here the weather in southeastern Utah has turned. After greetings, we make early-afternoon rigging toasts as the gently rattling November cottonwoods frame a clearing sky. By the time our convoy hits the river, the air is dry, the sun brilliant and the headwind a spring-like breeze.

It seems that the Men’s Trip No-Plan is working so far. Again.

I’m a firm believer in the kiva. I’ve had several: A 1980 Jeep Wagoneer. An old Chevy Van. A 10 x 12 cabin in a high mountain valley. A little room in my garage. I feel a deep kinship with those male residents of the ancient Southwest who negotiated with their wives for the first kiva. A hole in the ground with a stick roof? We can do that! And the women, too, I suspect, knew that this men-space was best for the whole tribe.

Todd knows what I mean. Although we don’t really talk about it — we are male, after all — it’s seems I always find Todd hanging with me in whatever kiva is in my life at that time. One winter night sitting in my van parked in a cold valley in the La Plata Mountains, Todd came up with the idea of our investing in a fleet of “Chevy Kiva” rentals, so more men could explore their men-space callings affordably. Ken’s Men’s Vans, we’d call our “Men Business.” It would be a service to society, we reasoned.

A van is nice, but my favorite kiva is a canoe. A 16-foot red tripping canoe, to be exact. And in which, for the last few Men’s Trips, Todd has been both bowman and barman, those roles overlapping and often indistinguishable. He is also the spiritual leader of the group: As we tie off our boats at our first campsite, Todd ascends the shore, like MacArthur returning to the Philippines, and fastens a big pirate flag to the arm of a thick cottonwood.

There are laughs and more joking toasts to the flag, but I think he’s got something here. Isn’t the absolute value of piracy — the intent aside from the positive or negative manifestations — simply poaching your spirit from forces that would control it? The true Pirates — those we most admire safely from our side-line landlubber lives — are those who most deliberately and resolutely carve some space where they can assert their own style no matter what.

And that, right there, is both the function and beauty of the Men’s Trip. Because here there’s only one rule: Mutual non-coercion.

Moonlight sugars the smooth top teeth of Lime Ridge, across the valley. Around a campfire, groups of two or three cook a variety of meals. As pragmatic and efficient as it would be, there is, of course, no group-wide coordination of food, drink, cookware or appliances. This is understood and never discussed. It’s one of those questions you just don’t ask on the Men’s Trip.

Todd, Andy and I stand around a table and enjoy enormous hunks of campfire-grilled steak, served communally on a tin plate with a side of baked beans bubbling over a backpacking stove. River knives and forks are the utensils. Dining is by headlamp and emerging stars.

“This steak’s a little raw,” I mention politely to Chef Andy, as Todd and I poke our fleshy slabs for signs of life.

“It’s not raw steak,” Andy corrects. “It’s cow tar-tar.”

“Another Men Business,” Todd suggests. “Beef Sushi.”

Andy’s the one who already owns a successful restaurant, so I let him tackle Todd’s latest brainstorm. I have my own business to worry about.

A female friend told me once that I don’t have enough women in my writings. But I argued that, as a journalist valuing fairness and accuracy, I don’t write about things I don’t understand. But I mean no disrespect in this; in fact, I mean respect. Look, I think men and women are different. Very. But I also think this is not a bad thing — not in the least.

In fact, I’m here to celebrate that.

“Too much beer, also,” my literary-critic friend appended to her editorial feedback. “There’s always too much beer.”

To that charge I plead guilty. But I claim the fairness-and-accuracy defense again. Especially when writing about the Men’s Trip, because the worst of what you might imagine is true: It’s an unconscionable foray into excess. Hence, another thing you can’t ask on the Men’s Trip: “How many have you had?”

I’ve had a few by now. We all stand around, wedged between firelight and moonlight, talking. But this isn’t “talking” like in mixed company, outside the kiva. When just men are together, it’s the act of talking that matters. It’s like the rap in hip-hop — you can listen, if you dare, but the real point of the nasty talk is musical.

As most common stereotypes would predict, there are, of course, sexual undertones, and overtones, to everything. But don’t get too excited; this stuff really isn’t that different from hanging outside the gym at the junior-high dance. Suffice to say that, for tonight, “mount” has become a remarkably versatile and amusing verb. Also, when men gather in groups of just men, warmth and affection often manifest as bantering, badgering and derogatory flagellating. This year, for example, everyone is really glad Ben is with us — truly so, this being his first men’s trip — so “Ben, you suck!” has quickly become our terms of endearment. It seems to bring us all closer together.

Still, though, sometimes sincere, touching compliments slip out. Like earlier today, when my relieving myself on the river’s edge was cut startlingly short by the sudden appearance of a passing boat.

“Don’t worry,” Andy reassured me from nearby. “He just thought you were throwing him a rope.”

Sometime around midnight, I decide to give up on Bill and his friend arriving tonight, and wearily turn toward my sleeping bag on the river’s edge. Before I wander down, though, I lean toward Todd.

“The No-Plan is unfolding perfectly,” I tell him.

I startle awake. It’s still dark. I turn and see the moon ready to plunge behind the ridge. It must be three in the morning.

“Get up, you scumbags!” Bill’s big voice booms from the middle of the wide, shallow river. A flashlight flashes, searching the shore.

“Get up, you bastards! We’re stuck in the mud!”

•Day 2•

After a couple of hours on the water, we hit shore on river left, drag our boats up and pull shoes from our drybags. While others mill around and set up lunches, Andy, Randall, Jan and I head off on a run.

We do this every year: an hour-long sprint across broken-slickrock desert up and down steep arroyos, until we scramble up a great volcanic plug with a staggering view. It’s dangerous and grueling, and my legs always come back shredded and stinging from dodging and leaping saltbush and sage. But it’s so great.

This is another Man Thing, is it not? I don’t mean to suggest that men are somehow tougher than women — fairness and accuracy wouldn’t allow that. My wife runs at 6 every morning year round; I join her, only with great effort, once a year or so to show her I still care. And I’ve seen two babies come into this world, so I know first-hand that, if men had to go through childbirth, cockroaches would already rule the earth. So it’s something else.

I have a theory: Men are from Utah. Women are from Telluride.

I mean this metaphorically, of course. I propose that each place represents the topography of the psychology each gender generally inhabits. I also, though, don’t mean this metaphorically at all.

Take the example at hand. For the Men’s Trip, it’s Utah: big, raw, wild, exposed. And we’re all paddlers, so maybe this group’s spirits and styles are best expressed in this canyon’s entrenched meanders — seeking not, perhaps, the most direct route, but certainly the most lovely. Because to men, function is beauty.

For women, I propose, beauty is function. Several of the men on this trip have wives — also veteran river rats — who every year gather for their own Women’s Trip. This, too, is a shameless foray into excess; but for the women, it is a carefully planned visit to a luxury hotel with posh amenities in classy Telluride. There, they savor saunas, pools and masseuses. At night, they walk Telluride’s scenic sidewalks and eat in nice restaurants and wander the fancy shops. And we men all strongly encourage, support and assist our wives’ carving out their own space in their own place. We think it’s a good thing for the whole tribe.

But I also know that, as a Men’s Trip venue, that would hold less appeal than a sleep-over at Michael Jackson’s house.

I’ll instead take this: The four of us claw our way up the crumbling volcanic tower and mount the summit (heh heh). Before us stretches redrock ridges and a brown belt of bare cottonwoods, through which threads the slowly sliding river. The dozen boats of our manly flotilla lie on the rocky shoreline below.

“Ben, you suck!” we bellow affectionately.

•Day 3•

Morning. The campfire is rekindled. For breakfast, Andy, Todd and I hold bratwurst impaled on sticks over the flame. Meanwhile, we work on our retirement plans.

“I’ve got it: greeting cards for men,” I announce. “We’d have three lines: cards men would send to men, cards men can send to women and cards men would like to get from women.”

“There’s too few places that would carry any good ones,” Todd notes, crushing our dreams. We think some more while we roast our brats.

“Do you need a beer?” Andy asks politely. But I scold him: “You can’t ask that on a Men’s Trip. It’s not about need. If there’s a point to your drinking, you’ve got a problem. I want a beer. Pointlessly.”

He hands me one, eyes lowered apologetically. To avoid these conflicts in the future, we divert our attention to coming up with a list: The Top 10 Things You Can’t Ask on the Men’s Trip:

10. “Are you going to pick that up?”

9. “Can I borrow a mirror?”

8. “Did you wash your hands?”

7. “When will you be back?”

6.  “Do these pile pants match my paddling jacket?”

5. “Did you toot?”

4. “Is there any Zima left?”

3. “Congratulations. When are you due?”

2. “What did you mean by that?”

And the number-one thing you can’t ask on a Men’s Trip: “What are you thinking?”

What I’m thinking, actually, is that as zany and crude as I make all this sound, to be fair and accurate about it, the Men’s Trip is really more like “Boys Gone Mild.”

Our after-breakfast activities illustrate this: Eric and Bill play golf (all sandtrap). Todd and I throw a baseball around. Others play a game of tug-of-war on milk crates. The guitar comes out and gets passed around: Dead music, Jimmy Buffett, some Pink Floyd and, of course, a healthy helping of Neil Young — an honorary Men’s Tripper. Andy, meanwhile, decorates the riverside with a lovely free-form arch of driftwood.

The truth is, we don’t really need to act like stereotypical men all the time. And, the truth also is, we don’t want to act that way at home or around women. It’s just that, every now and then, it does our spirits good to pirate a visit to a kiva. It may not be pretty, but its function is its beauty.

And then?

After Utah, the best plan I can imagine is a visit to beautiful Telluride. And I mean that non-metaphorically. And metaphorically.

Chasing a stray baseball, I wander over and mention my newfound Men’s Trip insight to Andy.

“Everyone here is really so nice,” I tell him.

“Y’know what they say,” Andy responds with a warmth only a man could understand, “if it’s day three of the trip and you don’t know who the asshole is, it’s you.”

Ken Wright is a self-proclaimed “parenting bum.” He lives with his family in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. This story is from his most recent book, “The Monkey Wrench Dad” (Raven’s Eye Press).  

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The Colorado: First River of the Anthropocene

Colorado River

Reading the same old conventional wisdoms over and over makes me impatient, to the point where I start to say things that I know will piss everyone off, even most of my friends, just as a way to say, c’mon, think about it for a minute, dammit! It’s always a mistake — but what the hell: here goes.

Jonathan Waterman’s recent book, “Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River,” hit the tipping point for me. Not because it’s any worse than any of the rest of the books about the Colorado River; it’s not. But it’s just the same old sad story, a mingling of lamentation, nostalgia and repugnance for a river presumed to be ruined if we don’t stop … whatever. And maybe it is ruined, for a geological moment here; it is certainly a river with problems. I would definitely say it is a river beyond “restoration” at this point — restoration as “the river that was” anyway. But does that mean it is “ruined?” A half-built house has problems that are very different from the problems of a house that is falling down — but you don’t solve those problems by trying to turn the boards back into trees. And if for no reason other than the eventual boredom of hearing a sad story over and over, I’m not going to just agree that the Colorado River has been ruined by its problems until I’ve heard at least one more perspective on the river. I want some judgments on the river from an Anthropocene perspective.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I am not above reproach in this business of literary lamentations about the Colorado River. Back in 1977, I wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine about the Lower Colorado River, arguing finally that “this cannot go on this way,” an essay that became a PBS-type film in 1981. Also in 1981, environmental journalist Philip Fradkin brought out “A River No More,” lamenting what we have done to the Colorado. Not long after that, Marc Reisner wrote the environmentalist epic “Cadillac Desert,” lamenting what we’ve done to the entire American West with emphasis on the Colorado River; a few years after that, Colorado journalist Jim Carrier wrote “The Colorado: A River at Risk”; and just a few years ago we got “Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West.” And now we’ve got the latest in this literary cottage industry, Jonathan Waterman’s “Running Dry”the book that hit the tipping point for me, and precipitated this effort to see if there isn’t some way out of this “dead pool” of nostalgia and lamentation.

Some factoids: Over the 35 years since my Harper’s essay, these regular predictions of near-death notwithstanding, the Colorado River now provides some or all of the drinking water for around 10 million more people than it did in 1977 — around 35 million of us today. If you’re eating fresh vegetables in mid-winter, you probably have to thank the lower Colorado River to some degree. The southwestern cities that depend on the river, and that most of us depend on directly or indirectly for jobs, complex networks of finance and transportation and communication, a vast menu of entertainment, et cetera, et cetera, have mostly at least doubled in size in that time.

Meanwhile, from the Mountain Gazette perspective, the Colorado still has almost as many stretches of good whitewater rafting as it did in 1977 (although it had lost a lot in the decades before), a lot of good-to-great fishing (with some improved fisheries), a lot of beautiful scenery with new “wild and scenic” stretches being protected, not to mention flatwater reservoirs for those who like that kind of thing — and the industrial management processes that operate this great American playground are pretty discrete, so that it is possible, for example, to spend a couple weeks floating down the Grand Canyon, only seeing a few other parties besides your own, and feeling like you truly are in a great natural wilderness and you don’t have to think about the high level of crowd management and planning that goes into nurturing that feeling.

I hasten to add that I am not deluded that everything is fine on the Colorado River — far from it. There are major problems that we need to address on the river, from the headwaters all the way down through that vast delta that now begins at Parker Dam and spreads the river from Phoenix and Tucson on the east all the way around through a lot of desert farming to Los Angeles and San Diego on the west. The creeping consequences of diverting too much water from the headwaters for out-of-basin metropolises, the cattle-caused breakdown and depletion of mountain streams, the salt-loading from some irrigation runback on top of the natural salinity of the river, evaporative losses that further degrade water quality, siltation behind reservoirs and a lack of silt in the Grand Canyon, loss of both riparian and aquatic habitat for wildlife, loss of most of the old delta — there is no shortage of problems facing us up and down the river. But, with the exception of the recently “discovered” global climate change looming over everything, these situations were already problems 35 years ago, and some of them — irrigation-induced salinity, loss of habitat, degradation of streambeds caused my human and livestock activity — have actually been addressed with some success over those 35 years.

I would certainly agree that our enhanced level of “environmental awareness” has been important in motivating those improvements and “corrections” to our often naïve and clumsy works on the planet. But I raise the question: Are we doing what we do, to undo what we’ve done, for reasons that really make sense in the way the planet works? The fact that we are still writing and reading the same old “river-no-more” book about this situation makes me think, no, we aren’t. There’s a problem of context and focus. It may not be a problem of not thinking right about this river; the problem might be a way in which we are not thinking right about ourselves.

Let me try to explain. A couple three weeks ago, I had a discussion with another writer about what geological epoch we are living in. He said “the Holocene.” I said “the Anthropocene.” We didn’t get much beyond that, and probably won’t for another, say, 300 years; it turns out to be a religious question, about beliefs that lie below reason for both of us. But it is not a minor distinction; those two words encapsulate two diametrically opposed concepts of the relationship between the earth and ourselves that we ought to at least be aware of.

Most plainly, “Holocene” refers to a climatological epoch in which we humans have been impacted by things happening on earth (climatic moderation, disappearance of planet-cooling ice sheets, et cetera), while Anthropocene refers to a biological and climatological epoch in which the earth has been impacted by things happening among humans (advanced technologies, release of banked carbon, et cetera).

The Holocence Epoch began somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, depending on whose criteria you like, when the last glacial epoch of the Pleistocene eased up and the Big Ice retreated again in its mysterious way. The climate moderated, things warmed up, and plant and animal species tough enough to survive the cold deserts in the shadow of the Big Ice more or less exploded into that dangerous kind of success that nature usually rewards with a nasty comeuppance, as ecological limits get pushed to the breaking point. The megafauna explosion that ended in population crashes thousands of years ago was probably one example of those Holocene “success tragedies”; the passenger pigeon was an example from historical times; extreme cycles in populations of small mammals like the lemmings or gophers are apparently always going on somewhere.

There is, however, one successful species that has swarmed on the earth in the most recent 10,000 years of the epoch my friend wants to call the Holocene — but this species has not yet crashed on the ecological reefs, and that is because for the past 10,000 years or so it has shown remarkable creativity in adapting to its own ecological consequences with new, ever more concentrated and sophisticated systems for social and economic organization. That’s us, of course. And despite constant and accelerating warnings from those who study such phenomena, we seem thoroughly disinclined to do anything aggressive to control our own swarming. We instead continue to manipulate the environments we live in to squeeze out yet a little more for us, knowing that we do it at the expense of other forms of life, and through irreversible changes in those environments — but what choice do we have? No free people could tolerate — right? — the levels of external and internal discipline and social structure it would take to bring us back into some level of balance with what we think of as nature, which was the world before us. Today, the planet throws its worst shots at us — diseases, drought and famine, flood and famine, tsunamis, hurricanes, supertornados — but our scientists conquer the diseases before they can really take hold; our managers and NGOs move enough food around to keep some of the famines in hand; and growth spurts somewhere in the world soon make up for the loss of a few hundred thousand, or million, somewhere else. We continue to swarm, and to invent new social and economic systems to enable us to live in even larger concentrations, and to squeeze just a little more out of the ecological support systems. We know about peak oil and climate change, but seem increasingly incapable of real action on any of it; instead we continue to indulge our own inner denier like we indulge the public ones, hopping in the car to go to the store or the nearest trailhead, confident that, if the scientists and engineers and managers can’t come up with another silver bullet, then it’s too late anyway and we might as well enjoy the last days.

Depending on how you choose to look at it, our continued ability to change the planet to serve us rather than changing ourselves is either a tragedy (meaning we’re learning something the hard way), a travesty (meaning a meaningless comedy of errors that isn’t even funny) or a miraculous achievement. And why not at least explore the last alternative, since it suggests a sense of optimism, however illusory it might turn out to be?

Which brings me back to the Colorado River, and why I think we need to start looking at it from an Anthropocene perspective. What choice do we have? The cities of the desert keep growing, and are not going to stop growing because they cannot: the global population continues to grow because we cannot or will not stop it, and the people will go where they can. And wherever people go, there needs to be water there for them, and it is one of the cornerstones of the American Way to say with the engineers: “Can do!”

So we are going to keep on remaking the Colorado River in the image of man’s growing needs: the First Anthropocene River.

So what is the Colorado River going to look like when its reconstruction is done? This is where the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Colorado River is kind of out in front of the pack in the anthropocentric reconstruction of the earth portion of the planet. (The oceans are another world.) We have decided that we need the Colorado River to continue to look as much like it used to look as possible. “Need” is deliberately chosen there; we need this the way we need food to eat, water to drink. It can go to places where it is reduced to rational piping and plumbing, but there have to still be significant segments of it that “look natural.” Phoenix can do what it will, but the Grand Canyon must remain the Grand Canyon.

Sometimes this is pretty easy. The Gunnison River (my home basin) has a tributary, the Taylor River, that has a beautiful stretch of canyons — 20-plus miles. And at the head of that canyon stretch is a dam that used to be late-summer storage for a big irrigation district a hundred miles downstream. But some new dams on the mainstem of the Gunnison gave the irrigators a closer, better place to store their late water. So all of a sudden, they did not really need the dam up the Taylor River. One can hear the chorus that would erupt today: “Tear it down! Free the river!”

Instead (this being back when it was not yet a sin to be Anthropocene), a “local user group,” made up of Taylor River irrigators, the local anglers club, a couple rafting companies, the reservoir concessionaires and some wealthy second-home owners, went to the Bureau of Reclamation and proposed that the storage at the top of the canyon be used to run the river like a “natural stream,” only with periodic adjustments for special needs (late-summer irrigation, a river-runner event, et cetera) and also with the kind of year-to-year regularity that storage affords when the highly irregular Western water cycle does its extreme events. So now, every spring, the local user group sits down and figures out how the water will be released from the dam to operate the river. No one is entirely indulged, but everyone gets most of what they want, and it is a lovely little river — entirely a human economic and aesthetic construct at this point, but as beautiful and natural-looking (in a dependable sort of way) as it ever was.

So, sometimes it’s easy — especially when the cities of the plain across the mountains have not yet come looking for water to move out of the river and into their plumbing. What about a mountain river that’s not so lucky? Like the mainstem of the Colorado River in Colorado. Its major headwaters watersheds — the Fraser, Williams Fork, Blue and Eagle rivers — are so water-rich that they made a significant, and very convenient, eastward bulge in the Continental Divide. Today, two-thirds of the waters that originate in this bulge now go through the Divide in tunnels to the cities and farms (mostly the cities) of the East Slope rather than down the Colorado to the southwestern deserts.

Geologists say that this eastward bulge in the watersheds was the consequence of a huge glacial lake that broke through the Gore Range during some previous warm spell between Pleistocene glaciations. Had that not happened, the Gore Range might have been part of the Continental Divide, and those headwaters streams might have all been part of the Platte-Missouri Basin already when we Anthropocenes arrived a century and a half ago. It would have saved a lot of work — but that misses the point of the Anthropocene: imagining the work and carrying it out is what we’ve been all about.

The work today, a task finally being taken semi-seriously by the cities east of the Divide that have dewatered the streams, is to rebuild the rivers from which they have taken two-thirds of the water: to reconstruct them so they still look and even function like natural rivers — important to the human economy — and can adequately meet downstream obligations. (Those downstream obligations, I should note, are strictly the obligations to humans created during the Anthropocene; for the next half-millennium or so, it no longer includes the much longer-standing obligation the river apparently had to convey the entire Southern Rockies and the disruptive Colorado Plateau south to the Gulf of California as rubble and silt. An impressive but ultimately kind of meaningless task, maybe even more meaningless than creating huge transient cities in the desert.)

Much has been made of a recent agreement between Denver Water and something like 60 regional, county, municipal, agricultural and industrial water-oriented organizations west of the Divide in the Upper Colorado River tributaries, but no one seems to be announcing the Anthropocene triumph: when the cities of Eastern Colorado complete the job they are just beginning (and it will require many more cooperative agreements), the Colorado River mainstem will be, from top to bottom, a completely man-made river, the “first Anthropocene River” — and a lot of it, most of it in the Southern Rockies, will look really natural and beautiful.

The agreement involves fairly small numbers, for something that took five years to negotiate. For a surprisingly modest amount of water — around 18,000 acre-feet a year, less than a tenth the amount that now goes annually to the cities across the Divide — Denver Water will be investing millions of dollars in the Upper Colorado River. Much of the money this go-round goes to sewer plants that increasingly lack any dilutive capability in their systems due to reduced flows. But the rest — the ultimate Anthropocene act — will go to reconstructing some sections of the river where the amount of water taken to the Front Range has left the flows too shallow and sun-warmed to support the aquatic systems that fish, kayakers and those who cater to fishermen and kayakers depend on. They are going to construct a scaled-down version of the former river.

A friend in the Eagle River valley, who is less impressed with this cooperative agreement than many others, explains it thus: “They are putting backhoes and bulldozers into the water, to convert a former river into a creek.” There’s a more Anthropocene way of saying that: It will be a stream that will fit the amount of water still available.

It’s not cheap, maybe a million bucks a mile, more or less — it’s still a fairly new operation. But it is a definite step up in a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of rivers — say, from the engineers’ sense in the 1950s and before that a river was just a sort of sewer system for excess water on the land, and straightening channels made it function more efficiently. It is also a definite step up for Denver Water, which for most of the 20th century vigorously, even violently, resisted the idea that taking water from the headwaters of a river conferred any moral obligation. There’s a man named Chips Barry to thank for that change, although he was by no stretch a man who thought that rivers should run free just because they used to. He was a man of the Anthropocene all the way, but came to understand that the new world had to be remade somewhat in the image of the old one.

One could go on in this vein, but the point would be the same: wherever you go on the Colorado River, you are looking at a river that has been remade to render multiple services to a swarming species that likes to eat, drink and make merry. The question is whether the humans who benefit from all this are going to be able to adapt to the reality of their lives and acknowledge the miracle associated with the dual facts that there is still water in the Grand Canyon as well as in the faucets of Denver and LA, or whether we are going to continue to indulge the “nostalgia centers” in the cortex that can only see the half-empty river, but not the opportunity to half-size the river to appear full. That of course will probably precipitate other unanticipated problems to work on — but that is the road we are on; it’s what we do to avoid having to get some control over ourselves and our numbers.

The last step in the remaking of the Colorado River will probably be to bring certainty to the most common lamentation: “the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.” Get used to that one — and not just for this river. Once we have thoroughly “firmed up” our control and utilization of the world’s freshwater resources — only a very small percent of the total water on the planet — no river will be drowning itself in that salty cesspool. It is wonderful that life has learned to live abundantly in saltwater, but that is another world on the same planet; it neither needs the leftover piss-in-the-ocean semi-fresh water from rivers, nor misses the evaporation that enables the recharge of those rivers in our mountains.

Watch a river at work — tearing stuff off the hillsides it can’t keep from running off of, then piling that debris in front of itself in leveler places, forcing itself into meanders, staying with the land as long as it can even as it continues to move the land around — there’s no evidence that a mature river is in any hurry to get to the ocean. And the rich delta zone it pushes as far as it can out into the sea before it succumbs to the sea — a river’s last hurrah. Why shouldn’t that final life zone instead be a lot of rich farmland and a megacity or two to contain the masses? There are problems to solve there too, of course — usually that “freshwater” isn’t that fresh by the time it gets to its final lowlands. The job of reconstructing the river in the image of ourselves and our needs and desires is not done; there’s plenty of work for another generation or two. As Ed Marston, former High Country News publisher, said to me once, “No generation should be expected to solve all the problems for the next generation.”

But there’s also the possibility that that “nostalgia center” in our cerebral hard wiring may be powerful enough so we find we just cannot tolerate the idea of the Anthropocene, and most of us (especially if we read all the sanctioned books of lamentations) will be like the ancient dispersed Jews: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” We’ll continue to paddle down the work-in-progress in our miracle-fabric boats with the lightweight carbon-fiber paddles and our freeze-dried foods and Nalgene bottles, deploring what we see as we write the next lamentatious epic in crocodile tears. And so we will abandon the half-done project — maybe the barely begun project, the first time life itself has ever presumed to take an active role in the evolution of life — and the world will become even more intolerable until three-fourths of us die fairly quickly from something, and the remainder goes back to the simple life, which will not be so simple …

We should probably also do whatever we do or don’t do in the secure knowledge that eventually, regardless of our efforts, the Colorado River will be back at its own primal obligation of removing the Southern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau, grain by grain, flood by flood, down to the sea-level peneplain that water dreams of. We know that the dams, as we currently know how to do dams, are only good for maybe half a millennia, maybe a little longer; that’s one of the problems we pass on to the next generation. But the real challenge might be making Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver last even that long. Unlike the climatological ages preceding this one — the Pleistocene with its flow and ebb of glaciations, the lovely moderate Holocene, the hot steamy eras like the Carboniferous to which we may be returning as we begin recycling all that banked carbon — the Anthropocene, at this point, depends on whether nostalgia or imagination will capture our minds from here on out.

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” 

— Stewart Brand

Senior correspondent George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter” and “Dragons in Paradise.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo.