Dropping By

I was in Valdez, Alaska, to report a story this past March when something odd kept happening.

Every time I learned of another potential source, the person telling me I should talk to such-and-such a person didn’t offer a cell phone number or an e-mail address or, in most cases, a home phone number. They just told me where the person lived or worked.

Dave the city councilman? “He’s at the fishery, just past the duck flats. Purple building.”

Ryan the cable guy? “He lives out at 19 Mile. Base of the pass. On your right.”

Chet the helicopter pilot? “Take a left near the hospital. Big wooden house. He’ll be there.”

And my favorite: Karen the city councilwoman? “She owns the Landing Lights bar at the airport.”

Sure enough, when I got to the Landing Lights, Karen was not only there to greet me but she had already poured me a frosty pint within 40 seconds of my walking in. We talked for a good two hours, far better than any phone interview I did during my weeklong visit, and much more satisfying, in the way only free microbrewed beer satisfies.

When I sat down to write the story in May — a piece on two locals trying to save the town in light of waning oil revenue — I couldn’t stop thinking about what the casual reporting atmosphere said about the place, and about the people who live there.

I felt welcome in Valdez. Not because everyone I spoke with was ridiculously happy to see me — it’s a mountain town, not a women’s prison — but because the raw culture of the place seemingly includes a clause that encourages strangers to drop by your home or business unannounced, as if you’re the mailman on Christmas Eve.

Not long after I returned home, I dropped by a friend’s house at 3:30 in the afternoon. It was sunny and warm and hopeful, in the sense that spring had arrived and the days were phasing out the evenings. I knocked on John’s door, as I often do. No answer. I called out his name. Nothing. Hmmm. Knowing that sometimes he can be out of earshot when his bathroom door is closed, I let myself in.

Now, it’s important to note John and I are good friends. We see each other a few times a week, on average, and are respectful of each other’s space. While renting a cabin five years ago, I once mistakenly entered a stranger’s home at 3 a.m. after sleepwalking through the forest. That is no way to drop by. This, however, was perfectly standard; John keeps all sorts of friends on a pop-in basis.

Alas, this day, he happened to be napping. And grumpier than a grizzly whose shoulder I just shot. He let me have it — a merciless guilt trip for waking him up. I haven’t dropped by since.

But I still drop by other people’s homes all the time. I honestly believe it’s the purest form of human interaction, especially in a mountain town.

You can meet someone for happy hour, but are you really as interested in what they’re saying as you are in what that freshly showered filly is sipping at the bar?

You can agree to make turns with someone, but doesn’t it always become a situation wherein one of you repeatedly waits at the bottom for the other skier before jostling for space in line among tourists — or, if said turns are to be carved off piste, wherein both parties are breathing too heavily to converse on the ascent?

That is a great way to bond, but no way to interact socially.

Dropping by is not an unconscious act, as it was before the telephone. It takes effort. I have friends whom I’ll call or, worse, e-mail, from two blocks away. Luckily, I always feel foolish and end up riding my bike over to their place instead, often with two cans of beer in my pocket.

You can’t take this approach with just anyone, however. Some people are so used to the invisible brick wall afforded by modern technology that they are genuinely taken aback, and sometimes even insulted, when another homo sapiens penetrates their social force field. “What are you doing here?” their expression wonders as they slowly open the door. I try not to associate with too many of them, but it’s tough because they’re everywhere.

Sometimes, when dropping by a couple’s home, you have to remember that they could be engaging carnally. In such cases, I try and limit my knocks to two and my doorbell rings to one. You are there to talk on their sunny deck about nothing in particular, not stalk them.

The best drop-bys generally involve people who appreciate your effort, are not intimidated by the fact that you believe you are allowed to visit without warning, and actually enjoy the spontaneity you’ve added to their predictable daily existence.

These people are usually not ones to grow weed in their cellar or have sex while chained to the chandelier. But they like a good conversation.

Breckenridge, Colo.-based freelance writer Devon O’Neil covers skiing for ESPN.com. His last story for the Gazette was “Why Our Gear Represents Our Personality,” which appeared in #171.


Tack would talk about winter nights speeding through the farmlands of Pennsylvania, careening across blue ice toward bare trees in the headlights when he told his mother, “Don’t be surprised if I don’t make it home.” The pigs whose throats he slit, chickens he chopped and a cow he shot, “the first bullet bounced off her head,” when he couldn’t stuff her uterus back in.

He was climbing in the orchard when the FBI came to dig up the makeshift grave of a murdered small-time crook that became a scene in the movie “At Close Range.” He said the smell was “Piss on perfume.”

He didn’t like riding chairlifts. “You’re just sittin’.” Or sleeping. “Because I get bored.” So it was strange how busy and anxious he said he was for how calm he seemed. Only his foot would be tapping, or his big blue eyes were looking around. But when he moved, it was like being stuck in concrete in a dream. I had to run when he walked. When he ran, I had to start sprinting. He was like a bigger animal, a bigger track ahead of you in the snow. I knew I was going to get better just by being near him. And that I was in danger because it would take me to places I would never go alone.

“As long as you don’t fall, you’re fine.”

I put together a bag of things to keep me safe: a plastic soldier with skis over his shoulder, a red rubbed corner of ski wax, the pewter angel my mother gave me, and from the truck that night, Tack’s tiny stone.

It’s as soft as the river, weighted like the wind. And I wonder if there isn’t some memory of his touch, some lingering moment of surprise like when it skipped across the water and sank for a million years or was blasted back to the surface in a volcanic eruption; a sense of glaciers and rivers and wonder at how the world can seem so intimate and infinite at once, like from an open window to the back of your mind.

My friend Penn has a St. Christopher medal, the patron saint of skiers. Esteban from Chile has a snowflake tattoo and a silver ring. Miller wears black sunglasses and Marc-Andre carries a picture of his little girl. He showed it to me in Mont Tremblant that night when we knocked wood at the mention of snow and remembered how we learned the language that we use.

“I’d never heard that word.”

The first story I ever published was about Tack Strau, about the two-story cathedral windows that faced the Tetons in the house we shared on Sylvester Lane. How on clear days it seemed we were at sea, drifting below black ragged shores. And on the big snow days the glass would rattle with the bombs. Sometimes we could see the flares rising like matches against the mountain before we felt the “boom.”

There were lots of stories in bigger magazines by people that never knew him, with quotes that were 10 or 15 years old from when he was still in college, still racing. My story ran in Couloir Magazine a year after he was gone, when the place was already starting to become something of a soul-filled ski bum shrine.

Couloir ran a spread featuring the giant black woodstove in the living room. It could eat an entire pine tree in an hour. To feed it, we stacked six cords of wood against the wall in the three-car garage and froze our trash out there until the spring. We played tennis ball hockey under carpenter’s lights, only stopping when we got too drunk or someone was really bleeding — two events that often seemed to occur at the exact same time. You could see the two torn couches and the news from Idaho on the television. The cream-colored carpet looks black, it hadn’t been vacuumed in so long, and the hall to the garage was just exposed insulation and uncovered beams.

It wasn’t the kind of place to meet girls, but all night long other Skids would drop in. Someone would bring a couple of beers or a bottle of Beam and we would stare into the fire and pick at guitars and try to remember the lyrics to certain songs. “Take me down, little Susie, take me down … ”

We rented the loft to Virgil, a narrow-faced boy from Virginia with lemonade veins and newspaper skin. He had a golden hoop earring and a little red ponytail like Thomas Jefferson. Tack said he was “a pilgrim” who couldn’t believe that the Tetons existed until he created them in a poem or a letter back home. And one night, Virgil proudly told us. “Since I have been here, I have not had one intelligent conversation.”

The front door opened onto the dirt lane that led to the Village Road. And the back door opened onto a giant plank deck like a woodcutter’s dancehall, where Tack had shot a magpie and nailed it upside down above the frame. They had been stealing Toby the Dog’s food off the deck — that was their crime. The magpies and crows together had measured the length of his rope and squawked their oily gossip every time he “gacked!” at the end of the line.

“That shit’s got to end.”

Tack said the other birds would read it like a keep out sign. “They’re smart birds,” he said, right before he took his .22 rifle and put a red buttonhole straight through the white chest of one of them.

There was a pop and he fell off into the grass, then it was quiet like the whole world was waiting. And as I picked up the little warm body, I was surprised by how light it was, but then I figured that’s how it happens. And the birds did stay away. But so did the storms. So it got to be a week after Thanksgiving, with the sky as still as glass, like the sun was painted on.

What clouds there were seemed lost, the dust of nomads disappearing in the dawn. “Don’t say a goddamned word.”

We tried not to talk about the spiders crowding into the house to hide from the cold that was sure to be coming, and how the grass that supposedly grew as high as the snowpack was “plenty tall now!” Or even that all the cows had been facing north along Spring Creek Ranch Road that morning. But when Short Fat Bald Stewey shot an elk that had built up five inches of fat for the winter, we couldn’t help but begin.

“Them boys know somethin’!”

“Even if it was a waste of time.”

Short Fat Bald Stewey made us big juicy elk burgers as soft and red as velvet inside at his trailer one evening. We brought potatoes and beer and some hot peppers we had grown in the yard, so that Bald Stewey’s head was soaked in sweat as he started babbling about how many storms we were going to get, and how “DEEP! it’s gonna be,” and Tack handed him a Pabst and said, “It ain’t snow until it’s on the ground.”

Still, the superstitions burned. Bonfires were built with old skis at parties where high-pressure bubbles were metaphorically “popped” by some hippie driving a knife into a balloon. There were kegs, barbecues and one-night bands, and non-stop speculation about unusually intense volcanic activity in the Pacific where the entire ocean was apparently being drained. Clouds were filling like freighters. There were “unmistakable signs.”

It’s only two or three storms that separate a good season from a bad one, Tack said. “Four or five nights when the snowflakes run by the window like old friends with a bottle of wine.” And those chances are thrown through the prevailing weather patterns, jetstreams, melting glaciers, warming ocean water and the way the clouds can build all day with the drama of a deluge until the wind blows it out all blue and gone.

“You buy a pass. You put your money down.”

Each season, we bet that the skiing would be as good as it has ever been. That black clouds would tear their bloated bellies on the jagged peaks like shipwrecked galleons. Then the snow would spill like confetti, and once it started, it would never stop, as if the weather were just a wheel that needs to be primed. We made little deals in the dark and put prayers on the wind. Until like a black answer, the weather came back, right behind the ravens flapping back over the house like burnt trash blowing in.

“Sqrawk!” the first raven said, as fat as resin, dripping in sin. And we looked up to see the bloated wraith beating the air with his wings, coming over slow, rubbing it in. He called and was answered, and the sky was suddenly filled with them. “Sqkrawk!” the others sang, flapping in pairs and one by one. They came off the mountains and telephone lines, gathering at the edge of the fields in a big wide pine.

“Crow party.”

“Somebody called a meeting.”

It was like a mob reunion. Like limousines rolling in. And, in minutes, there were more than 30 of them, squawking from branch to branch like black bandits planning which barn to burn.

“You think that magpie was their friend?”

I thought I should pick up a shovel to stand them off if they came. And Tack watched so deliberately that, when he blinked, I half expected to see one sink like a kite to the ground. “They’re social birds,” he said. “I know a guy that puts a tape of them beneath a tree, and when they come to see what’s up, he starts blasting.”

“That’s false advertising.”

“No,” he said. “It’s for a golf course. He kills crows for golfing.”

Toby the Dog was just one year old then. His little black ears were folded like triangles as he sniffed the air like he was trying to figure the wind, sniffing up against a post where he liked to pee and was getting ready to pee again. But then one last late raven soared by and sang, “Ach! Ach,” and Toby’s stout little doggie body went stiff before he jumped up and barked back at him.

“A-roo-roo-roo,” he yelled, then bolted off across the grass so fast that all I could see was his fuzzy tail like a flag as he ran.

Tack just laughed and said, “There goes your dog, man.”

Editor-at-large Peter Kray lives in Santa Fe, from where he edits shredwhiteandblue.com.

Ballad of Francois, le Conducteur D’Autobus

The boy crouches over a pad of paper and a scattering of colored pencils. He looks out a window, takes a breath and begins to draw. A mountain takes shape on the page — a triangle with a white cap, blue slopes, and a range of green foothills. He shakes his head, rips the paper off the pad. The cartoonish mountain drifts onto a haphazard pile on the floor. He stares at the next blank sheet, then looks out the window and draws a line …

Meet François. Keep in mind that this story takes place in the shadow of a mountain deemed to be a faultless destination for winter tourism, in a time that most assure could never happen again, and that maybe never was. Myself? I’m not so sure, so you are the jury, dear readers.

A bus pulls into a circle, bristling with skis in a rack that stretches from front door to rear bumper. The doors open, and its driver looks out his side window as the passengers get off. Another bus driver waves a flat blue cloth hat that vaguely resembles a beret; points at the hat, then at the first driver. When both buses are empty, the hat-bearing driver walks over, says, “I just found this thing, and you’re the only one of us crazy enough to wear it.”

They say the resort was imagined by an adman, a vision of celebrities on snow and ice designed to sell train tickets to city-dwellers. The railroad baron’s men found their perfect mountain at the end of a rail-line. It was a forested cone on the western horizon of an old mining town. The baron’s money imported a sport and a gaggle of European instructors to accent it, commissioned a concrete dream of a stone lodge a mile from town, and cut ski runs down the mountain. The town’s residents never could have suspected what was coming, and may have welcomed the promise of tourism as a replacement for the played-out mining trade.

By the time François came to the resort, the lodge was old, the European instructors gray and imperious with years of elegant instruction to beginning skiers, and the town’s young and defiant were exploring off the mountain’s trails on a motley variety of scarred Alpine and Nordic skis. François was young, and even his name was a rebellion against a nickname that other drivers started using when he wore the hat. As he drove his bus through the town from mountain to resort, some called him Frenchy on the two-way radio, so he corrected them by getting a new nametag, replacing his given name with François, which suited his sense of himself as a budding cosmopolitan adventurer. Then came the scarves, and soon François was known as a friend to alley dogs and frozen skiers, a judicious confidant of certain romantically inclined middle-aged wives taking time off from the week-long ski school, encouraged perhaps by his response to the innocent question, “Parlez-vous française?” “Non mademoiselle — but I do many French things.”

They sat behind his driver’s seat, leaning forward as details of their lives tumbled over his shoulder, the breath of expensive perfumes and liqueurs wafting on the intensity of their angst over trifles and perceived wrongs. They vented their frustrations with relish, and occasionally stroked his neck or arm to make a point. Details of parties, spousal indiscretions and failing affairs filled his ears, but François kept his eyes on the snow-packed roads, except for occasional glances in his interior mirror to watch the show. He soon learned it was all a façade, which his anxious passenger would drop when she got to the part that they all got to, eventually. It was fear of never quite getting it, no matter how much money and time she spent trying to learn. What the parade of occasional skiers wanted to share were fears of failing to make graceful turns take shape on the snow under their skis.

Finally, it would pour out — details of the European instructors’ perfect lines drawn down the mountain’s flanks, and of expectations that they learn to do the same. The confessions always came just before the end of the bus route, where François would send them back onto the snow with a sympathetic smile or a brush of the hand.

It was a town blanketed by snow for all the months of winter. Snow that came in Arctic storms pushed south across the continent, great drifts that covered the roads and sculpted the rooflines with fantasy shapes, skeins of snow that flew from the mountain’s sunlit top on the mornings after a storm. It was a town blanketed by snow under the roofs too, lines of it on glass-topped tables at the parties, dustings under the noses of wide-eyed novices, traces in the eyes and jerks of strung-out partiers as they tried to ski powder the next day as if nothing at all had happened the night before. Now, though our François was a man of great passions, the parties and recitals of fears soon took his innocence, leaving a jaundice he hid behind a line of patter that kept his passengers at bay so he could go back to his contemplations.

a2 + b2 = c2

Contemplations of what? Imagine drawing a right angle of any size, say the elevation of a mountain and the distance from a town nestled at its base. From this half of a box you’ve made for yourself, draw a line angling from a certain point on the upright angle to the baseline’s end, and you’ll have a perfect proof of a theorem first stated on a stone tablet almost 4,000 years ago. Now put yourself at the top end of the angled line. Ignore the upright line above your starting point for this exercise, and lean your body to a perfect right angle to the slope in front of you. If there is enough snow, your skis are waxed properly and you give up the human desire to maintain a level horizon line, you will begin to descend. Now, feel the imperfections of the line you’ve chosen, and adjust your angle to compensate and carve turns. Done right, there is no need to use the poles in your hands. Keep adjusting to the mountain’s shapes, and eventually you will reach the edge of town exhilarated, flying higher than if you’d ridden to the top of the ski lifts and followed your instructor’s tracks all day.

The town had a community art studio and small coffeehouse on a side street where such exercises were discussed, and conversations examined mathematical equations for scale and meter as often as predictions of when the next Arctic storm would hit the mountain. François would contemplate the theories of his cohorts, throwing an occasional bone from his own pile into the conversational fire. Then he would go back to his bus and scribble lines of poetry in his sketch pad, or surreptitiously draw the features of his latest group of passengers. Ah, yes, our conducteur d’autobus was an artiste.

It had started with the triangular mountains he drew as a child, and he was hooked by a feeling of immortality the first time he looked at a mountain and his hand made the shape come alive on a blank piece of paper. It felt like a secret drug. Chasing the high, he found a way of synchronizing thoughts, scene and movements; breathing just so, angling his gaze and ignoring all that wasn’t part of his vision. The perfection was fickle though, and he searched old masters’ techniques for a formula to call up the feeling on demand. Sometimes, it worked, and he would lean the finished painting against a wall to consider it.

François learned enough telemark technique to occasionally feel the same high as he slid down the mountains near town, and he began climbing the old mining roads on early mornings, to find untracked slopes where theories could be tested without the interruptions of conversation. He also practiced techniques of survival essential to starving artists of romantic persuasion in upscale economies. He wore a thrift-shop wardrobe, got free drinks and meals from local restaurants in return for discreet endorsements to bus passengers, and skied on cast-offs from the more affluent resort visitors: soft leather boots, battered poles, a pair of soft-edged Nordic skis designed for touring through gentle meadows. Elegant turns required a perfect shift of weight to the forward ski, with angle-to-slope finely tuned to the mountain’s imperfections. Many times, the artiste dug himself out of a snowy pit at the end of a face-plant, a cartwheel, or a careening skid and desperate butt-plant just before kissing a tree or tipping over a cliff. Eventually, François got the angles right more often than not, and it felt like drawing a picture that could transform a perfect feeling into a vision.

How to translate a vision? There is the phrase attributed to French master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, “the perfect moment,” when scene, action and photographer become one. The “sweet spot” of baseball is where size and shape of bat and angle of swing dictates a vibration-free collision with a fastball. Some say this is “the zone” — or “flow.” Skiers, rock climbers and river runners have long used the ubiquitous “perfect line.” In classical and jazz music, some call it “the perfect note.” Some Zen practitioners believe it is “the sound of one hand clapping,” and the Indian mystic Siddhārtha Gautama (aka the Buddha) named it, “A place beyond identity, called Nirvana” — though the rock band that adopted this name couldn’t save their lead singer from himself.

On a topographic map, the symbol for a mountain is a triangle, though its perfect sides are belied by the squiggles of elevation lines surrounding its peak on the page. To experienced eyes, the map reveals slopes that can draw a skier to Nirvana, or to a line that leads to an explosion of snow and a growing run-out of debris that just might encase the skier’s last insights, along with the body. Some of François’ friends followed the high of a perfect line to this end, a few fell from cliffs, while too many fried their lives on cocaine or its chemical cronies. Some started families, others moved away. A few seemed to balance temptations and desires, while drawing discreet lines on the mountains around that town, or another one less pressured by fame and greed. Some chased money and power until their lines blurred with the resort’s tourists. A fellow artist from the community studio, who had created one masterful abstract painting after another, became a slum-lord in a budding resort town far, far away.

François lived somewhere between, seeking lines in pictures, mountains, canyons, words and the theoretic equations of jazz. Eventually, he stopped expecting perfection from artistic representations, and reveled in the evidence of an attempt, no matter how unsuccessful the result. He left the gentrified resort town that introduced destination skiing to his continent, put away the tattered beret and scarves, and adopted another name. The artiste François, le conducteur d’autobus, was no more.

Many years later, the traveler who had been François began asking practitioners of various arts if they had ever felt that ephemeral moment of perfection, how it had felt, and if they had found a way to get back to it. He got: a river guide’s “feeling the current with my oars,” a jazz musician’s “becoming one with the thing,” a painter’s “the one with no imperfections,” a writer’s, “like time standing still,” an extreme skier’s “total commitment.” Then each described a formula with variously eloquent or convoluted language. The traveler stopped asking questions, and contemplated the problem while observing the imperfect lines of mountains rimming the horizons of his retreat.

“In any right triangle, the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares whose sides are the two legs (the two sides that meet at a right angle). If c denotes the length of the hypotenuse and a and b denote the lengths of the other two sides, Pythagoras’ theorem can be expressed as the Pythagorean equation.”

Exercise, memory and song. One old Greek story has lucky poets being anointed with these gifts by three goddesses of the arts. Others say there are nine Muses, and generations of artists have believed in one personal muse bringing perfection. In the literature, there are no proofs for these claims, but about 2,600 years ago, a Greek philosopher named Pythagoras started using mathematics to illustrate his theories, and his school produced the first known proof of the theorem that bears his name.

Pythagoras is credited with discovering that musical notes can be represented by mathematical equations, and is said to have believed that the movements of planets and stars could be translated into a symphony. He thought living harmoniously, practicing mental and physical exercises as daily rituals, and meditation on cosmic harmony would deliver immortality. His philosophies were feared by the surrounding communities, who attacked and chased the practitioners from their sanctuary in what is now Italy. A story says Pythagoras accepted death rather than breaking one of his own philosophical taboos. His son became leader of the dwindling sect, and three daughters preserved or explained Pythagorean theories. The one known as Arignote wrote, “The eternal essence of number is the most providential cause of the whole heaven, earth and the region in between. Likewise it is the root of the continued existence of the gods and daimones [demons], as well as that of divine men.”

By the time of Leonardo da Vinci, art students were dissecting and measuring cadavers to learn mathematical equations for imitating Greek sculptures said to depict the perfect human form, and then drawing boxes and circles to block out the areas for face, torso, limbs and extremities. Somewhere in Leonardo’s notebooks, he illustrated a formula first recorded by a Roman named Vitruvius.

To try it yourself, do this exercise: Hold a sketching pad in a portrait orientation. At the top of the page, draw a square as wide as the paper. Inside this, draw a remembered human face 1/10 as tall as your box. Measure this from hairline to chin; the brow is 1/3 of the way down, the nose begins 1/3 of the way up. Height, length of leg, arms, hands and feet, even the width of shoulders, are dictated by this beginning, and the arms might reach off the page.

I have no proof for a formula that will bring life to your representation of human perfection, though a poet named Dante Gabriel Rossetti sketched this intriguing equation in an ornate Victorian-era poem directed to the figures in a Venetian painting —

“Say nothing now unto her lest she weep,

Nor name this ever. Be it as it was,

Life touching lips with immortality.”

Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream.” He dreams his livin’ in southwest Colorado.

Skiing Nude

Editor’s note: This is yet another story by Richard Barnum-Reece, whose obituary, penned by Dave Baldridge, we ran in our March 2010 issue (MG #165), as part of a loosely aggregated feature package titled “Mentors.” This piece previously appeared in Barnum-Reece’s self-published book, “The Gonzo File” (undated, c. 1978-1980), which consisted of a mix of previously published and unpublished material. Prior publication history of “Skiing Nude” is unknown. Many thanks to Lorraine Seal for manually typing this piece in and sending it along.

I’ve always wanted a job that didn’t require a suit and I suppose that’s why I looked into the Nude Skiing advertisement. Thoreau once said, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes and not a new wearer of clothes.” For what it’s worth, I think I’ve got Thoreau covered.

The opportunity for me to make my break for Hollywood stardom was in the school paper of the college I attended. It was a classified ad: “Wanted, actors and actresses to appear in a feature length motion picture to be filmed at a Utah ski resort. Three males and three female parts available. Those selected must be 18 to 30 years old, be able to ski, have the ability to act (experience preferred but not required) and be willing to appear nude on screen. $100 a day for those selected.”

Well, the price was right. The job conditions were on the chilly side but it did meet Thoreau’s requirements: no suit was necessary. Who can renege on Thoreau? I called the movie people.

“Hello, I’m your nude skier.”

“Excuse me?” It was a woman’s voice. She sounded like an older lady — maybe fifty-five or sixty. There was a commotion in the background as she went off the telephone line. I was afraid for a moment that I’d reached the wrong number. What if I had mistakenly reached a ladies bridge club or something and they thought I was an obscene phone caller? That could be embarrassing.

Soon, she returned to the phone and in a strong, very business-like voice said, “I’ll connect you with Mr. Quigley.”

“Hello,” I said when Quigley came on the line. “My name is Stefan Rhinehart.” (I thought a stage name would be more appropriate. Besides, what if my mother got word of this?) “I’m replying to your ad for a naked skier.”

“Yes,” Quigley said. “Could you come down here and fill out an application form?”

“Sure,” I said. He gave me the address and I started preparing for my audition to be a nude skiing star. I knew this was the lucky break I’d been hoping for. I was on my way. As I walked to my apartment, I practiced my imagined lines out loud.

“Well, Stein, I guess the Olympic Gold will always elude you. Many are called, but only a select few of us are chosen.”

And, “Listen, Danielle, I love you but I need ski racing.” I knew I had talent. I was going to be a star.

I thought it would help my chances at the audition if I took some evidence of being a skier. I rounded up my roommate’s blue O’Neil bib ski pants; his Winter Sun down sweater; his cowboy boots with Vibram soles; his Smith goggles; his authentic hat fashioned by Mom Moriarity in Stowe, Vermont; his Scott ski boots and poles; and his Hexcel competition skis with Allsop bindings. Then I started for the studio.

“Where can I put my equipment?” I asked Quigley as I came through the office door.

“Over there in the corner will be fine,” he said, obviously perplexed that I’d brought in the props. He looked like a conservative businessman. He wore a three-piece navy-blue suit and his hair was falling out. I guessed he was around forty-five.

I crammed my equipment into the corner next to a file cabinet.

“Going skiing?” Quigley asked.

“Well, not really,” I said. “But you never know. We skiers are a strange breed. We’re compulsed by the alienation of the contemporary industrialized world to assume other-worldly authenticity within the framework of nature and nature’s challenges as expressed in the great mountain ranges of America.”

“Oh,” he said.

“Do you want me to strip?” I said.

“Well — not now, thanks. All we really need at this point is a little background information.”

“Are we going to make it in the snow?”

“Excuse me?”

“You know — mess around a little in the snow with the snow bunnies?”

“Oh — sure,” he said.

“What’s your background in skiing?” Quigley asked.

“I’ve instructed, patrolled and bummed at Alta, Sun Valley, Stowe, Squaw Valley, Crested Butte, Copper Mountain and Portillo, and I loved a girl on the Olympic team, but she wouldn’t give me the time of day,” I said. “Girl jocks can be a problem.”

“I assume you’re a good skier then,” Quigley said.

“Not really,” I replied. “But I know everything there is to know about technique, equipment, clothing, records, distances and I can drop a name without blinking an eye.”

“Well, we need expert skiers,” he said.

“Everything I said was just a lie,” I said. “I just said it to prove to you that I can act. I’m an accomplished expert. Once I even tried to kill myself at the Sun Valley Ski Patrol Downhill.”

“You do have an acting background?”

“Yeah. I’m a theater major. I’ve learned all about upstaging people and Constantine Stanislavski. Larry Roupe, the casting director for McCarty’s studio in Salt Lake, is a main drug source of mine.”

“He’s a what?”

“He’s a resource of mine. I’ve worked for him in small community theater productions.”

“Oh,” Quigley said, putting down his pencil. “Well, all we need now is a Polaroid picture of your head to show the director when he comes up next week from California.”

When he was through taking my picture, he said, “There’s one thing that may bother you.”

“What’s that?”

“If you do get the job, you’ll have to shave your beard.”

I didn’t say anything. The beard was one of my favorite disguises and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to part with it — even for $100 a day.

“You don’t mind?” he asked.

“I guess not. I just kinda thought it would keep me warm.”

“Rules are rules.”


“You think you can handle it?”

“No problem.”

“What we’ll do is call you sometime next week for another interview when our people get here from Hollywood.”

“Great,” I said. Then we shook hands and I walked back to my apartment, where I found my roommate sitting on the milk box in front of my apartment door.

“This going to follow you the rest of your life,” he said, out of the clear blue.

“Henry,” I said, “why don’t you go sing mantras to the moon or something?”

“All right. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Then he sauntered down the hall, describing a slalom course as he walked. He hung his head like a six-year-old who had just discovered Santa Claus was just a fake who played Bozo at the carnival in the summer. It made me think a little as I watched the forlorn graduate student, who had yet to decide what to do with his life, stagger out the hallway.

Two weeks later, I got the call.

“Hello? Stefan Rhinehart? This is Jimmy Blier from Stargaze Studios. We’d like you to meet us at the Solitude Ski Resort this Tuesday to shoot a screen test for our new feature film, “Naked Skiing Holiday.”

“Naked Skiing Holiday?”

“Yes. We’ll be skiing on the backside at Solitude.”

“The backside?”

“We’ll meet you at 12:30 at the bottom of the Inspiration Lift. Okay?”

“Sure,” I said.

“And don’t forget your ski equipment.”

“No, I’ll be sure to bring it,” I said. And then the man from Hollywood hung up. I’d made the first cut. I was going to be pulling down $1,500 for 15 days of work as Hollywood’s first nude skiing star. Now all I had to do was put together a few turns — dazzle them a little with my stuff — and I’d be a star for sure.

When I got to the ski area, the movie people were there in a big van. They had a snowcat and they were transporting the would-be actors and actresses up the hill.

“What we’d like to do,” one of the people who seemed to know what he was doing told me, “is go up in the next load and we’ll do a test.”

“Okay,” I said. I was nervous, so I decided, if I just acted like I knew what I was doing, I’d probably be a lot better off.

There were five of us in the back of the snowcat as we went up the back way to the usually un-skied, backside of Solitude’s new Inspiration Lift: Three men and two ladies. The men were skiing naked on one part of the mountain and the ladies were skiing naked on another part of the mountain.

“I don’t think they should separate us. It’s sexist and inherently evil,” a Park West ski instructor said.

“That’s the first time I’ve heard the argument put quite like that,” said Dana, a lady from Connecticut.

I knew one of the other two guys from school. He’d been a member of the ski team — at least he’d worked out with them for a while — and now he was turning professional.

“I’m doing this for the money,” he told me later in the warming hut when they asked us to strip. “How about you?”

“I want to be a star,” I said. “The way I see it, this is the break I’ve been looking for. After this, it’s going to be gravy. Bob Redford is going to have to move over. Utah won’t be big enough for the both of us.”

The ski racer looked at me as if he’d just been told that I had recently escaped from the state mental hospital.

We finished putting on our ski boots, put on heavy robes and slid over to the top of a steep mogully run where the movie people had set up a camera to the side. We were supposed to put on our skis and then simply snake down the run past the camera, smiling like Stein as we slid by.

“That’s all?” the ski racer asked.

“That’s all,” the director smiled.

The racer pulled off his robe and smoked down through the bumps past the camera, hootin’ and hollerin’, as he went, his naked body starting to turn a bright pink color. Then, at the end of the run, the racer hit a sharp bump and pushed himself off into the sky, executing a perfect spread eagle.

“I don’t think so,” I heard the director tell his assistant who was taking notes. “No, I don’t think he’s right.”

Next, the other fellow went down the run, smiling and skiing beautifully, stopping at the bottom in a cloud of snow as he sharply hit his edges. Then someone ran out of the portable warming hut at the bottom of the run and quickly put a robe around him.

“No,” the director said, “not quite right.”

“You’re next,” one of the assistants told me. I took off my robe and got ready. I was pretty nervous. The other two skiers had skied pitch perfectly and I had heard the director pan them both. Hollywood success was a mystery to me.

“Excuse me,” the director said. “That won’t do.”

“What?” I said.

“You’ll have to take off your shorts.”

“How stupid of me. I’m sorry,” I said.

After I’d stripped my shorts and was about to ski, I saw the director look at his assistant and slowly shake his head.

Not only was I on a ski run I had no business trying to ski, but the director had already panned my first screen test.

I stood there naked as a plucked chicken except for my roommate’s new Hexcel skis, Scott ski boots and poles and a pair of Vaurnet sunglasses looking down through the bumps. It was the Moment of Truth. I was going to kill myself skiing on an expert run and all I wanted was a chance to be in the movies. I’d lied to get a screen test thinking that a beginning-to-intermediate skier could fake his way through and now I was confronting a run with huge bumps that had my name engraved on them. And it was starting to get cold.

“Go for it!” the racer yelled from the bottom of the slope.

“That’s easy for you to say!” I yelled back.

“We haven’t got all day,” the director said.

“I’m going,” I said.

Then I pushed off. When I hit the first mogul I was down in the gorilla attack position with my teeth clenched. The bump jolted me into the air and I landed on my rear. It was terrifically cold and I think the shock had a lot to do with my instant recovery. When I knocked into the next bump, it threw me sideways to the fall line and my body was suddenly turned uphill. I twisted around to slow myself and then suddenly I was skiing backwards in a reverse snowplow. Then I hit another huge bump, which turned me around again before my skis took off down the hill right toward the camera and the cameraman. It was a miracle that I didn’t kill myself as I ducked between him and his camera.

I hoped that letting my skis run off to the side of the wide run and then turning uphill was going to be better than killing myself in the mogul field. That’s when I hit the cornice. I should have known about that damn cornice. It’s right near the side of the run and before, when I was going up in the snowcat, I saw the cornice as we chugged up the cat track going under it. I was going so fast on the steep pitch that I’d forgotten, but just as I flew off the edge into the clear, white, empty space, I remembered. I landed on my skis and then fell head first between my skis into the soft snow.

Then, for what reason I’ll never know, I somersaulted in the snow and came right up minus only my sunglasses, which were sucked off during the roll. My skis were still strapped to my feet and I only had a short way to ski to a meadow, where I stopped.

“That was incredible!” the director said when he reached me. “I thought you were going to kill yourself. Did you plan the entire sequence?”

For a moment I was confused. Then I quickly picked up on what he was thinking. “Ah — yes — except for the second bump,” I said.

“How did you do the somersault?” he asked.

“It’s just a matter of timing,” I quickly lied. “You’ve got to duck just as your tips hit the snow. If you do it too late, it won’t work.”

The man at the bottom of the hill gave me a robe and escorted me to the lower warming hut, where I found my clothes and a cup of hot chocolate.

They told us who was going to be in the picture later that afternoon in the base lodge. The studio threw a party to make the occasion festive even for those who weren’t going to be stars. They posted a list and called us into the office.

“Well, Stefan,” the director smiled. “You were really something out there today. We want you to be our stunt man. All you have to do is ski like you did today. Your build and coloring are perfect for the part.

“So you want the part?”

“I had something a little different in mind. A speaking part,” I said.

“It still pays the same — $1,500 for 15 days work,” the director said. “All you have to do is run into things and crash like you did today. And if you’re worried about insurance — don’t. We’ve got you covered.”

“Nice,” I said.

“You think it over and let us know by Monday. We want you in our production.” Then the director stood and we shook hands.

So that’s the story. It’s not going to be an easy decision. Frankly, I’m a little scared.

Editor’s note: Because of the number of stories we’ve run by the late-Richard Barnum-Reece (we’ve got yet another planned for spring), we’ve decided to make him our very-first deceased senior correspondent.

Blood Winter

The hunger comes before I know my name or where I am. This appetite may be the story of my life but my life is not much of a story. The hunger is greater than I have been or will be. This hunger is the thing driving me and flogging me. I am born between two points: a stone axe head found in a plowed field and placed on a fence post by my father and the scars of an ancient and huge glacial lake whose collapse helped feed and sculpt the great delta of the Mississippi River. Everything else is detail to be buried in the river muck or ground under by the next sheet of ice.

I was born to be erased.

And accept this fact.

The ground under my feet has always meant more to me than the people around me.

I have dreamed all of my life about a house down by the river where I will live out my days and let the land heal and grow ever more fruitful.

I have dreamed all of my life of burning this place to the ground and then departing into the dark of night while the flames lick the ground.

I am not about closure. I am about reopening wounds and slashing through the scar tissue to the place where the dreams sleep and wait to come back to life.

I whittle the end of a stick, slide on a marshmallow and roast it black over the small wood fire as lightening bugs glow in the dusk. Images float before me like a dream.

The Case jackknife is razor sharp from constant honing on a whetstone, the air rich with the smell of oil as I stroke the blade.

Shucking fresh corn, the rank odor on my hands as the dogs gather round full of hope and curiosity.

The staleness of a city apartment in winter, the fresh blast of aroma rising from straw, cow shit and the Holsteins entering the barn door in a precise order and then waiting to be hobbled and milked.

The rankness of weeds as I hack at them in the garden and embrace scent rising off the black earth into my face.

The breath of long dead dogs floats serenely in my memories and in my heart. The coarse laughter of vanished aunts and uncles warms the coldest night for me. Lately, distant moments of afternoon or morning, long ago smells and sounds and colors keep brushing against my face.

I am three and I think of old man Zeiger sitting on his porch in Chicago whittling dogs that he then stained. He would speak in halting English and this seemed normal for the time, an America where immigrants and foreign tongues were so common as to be unremarkable. For years, I had a small dog he placed in my childish hands, the body dippled by the blade to simulate fur. But it has slipped away, like the old man himself, and yet the chips falling on that gray painted porch, the little dog emerging from the wood, while a real live and very old dog sat at his feet, I still have those things and they are crawling out of my head and spilling onto the floor. Excuse me while I lean down and smell the fresh, sharp tang coming off the wood.

I keep remembering things of no consequence. The rush I felt as the smell comes off chickens roasting on the grill in the late afternoon, the chatter of women fussing in the kitchen amid the pies and vegetables and salads and bawdy talk, the sour smell wafting off the beers in the paws of the men, the laughter of my father at his own absurdity and in the distance, the hens clucking as they scratch and feed in a world I try to imagine and wish to join. Clouds also, always better to my eye when blackened with the promise of storms and thunder and lightening. A green tinge of hail beckons from the heavens and I can see fear sweep the eyes of my farmer kinfolk.

That guinea hen pausing just before it is going to peck out my sister’s eye and the crack of the rifle as my mother on the back porch of the farmhouse cuts it down.

I have despised America’s view of itself most of my life — the belief that we are a city on a hill shining grace and light onto other nations, that we only fight defensive wars, that we have solved the problem of class by pretending everyone is middle class. And that race is a detail in our long illustrious past.

Thirteen thousand years ago, a large meteor apparently struck North America and demolished many life forms. Paleo-Indian artifacts abruptly end in the layers of soil. Most of the mega-fauna suddenly disappear. Just like that. Fires no doubt raged and turned entire ecosystems to ash. We, as people, have been here a few moments in a happy interlude between glacial events.

National identity is a fabrication and comes and goes with the vast migrations of peoples. When Hadrian built his famous wall dividing England and Scotland, the people north of the wall were not Scots and the people south of the wall were not English. And reading of the evidence of the human presence in Europe over the last ten thousand years makes me realize the continent has been a constant movement of people creating goulash of elements within the various national DNAs.

Hunger has pushed me to go into deep time, that place before my life began and before written language began, to plow the very soil of my world. I speak to others but they seem to use a foreign language. Sometimes, I think I am living underwater. I keep flicking through shards from a broken past, beasts going down: Imagine being the last mastodon? The last dire wolf howling into the silent night? The plains tribes riding into doom and alcoholism. The grass sitting there, incapable of flight, as the plow rips apart a world. The lonely paddlefish hiding in a few refuges as violence destroys all the other members of the ancient community in the watershed bleeding the heart of the continent. That slave singing African songs in a language no one in the neighborhood can understand.

The cities killing the bottomland.

The banks killing the countryside.

In the school rooms, they teach that the tale is about the unfolding of freedom.

In the academy, they teach the tale is about imperialism and the crushing of native people.

Or they insist the tale is about racism and slavery and a compact made with some kind of devil even though God is dead . . . still the devil lived on and ruined the tale from the beginning.

In all the tales, the land is there for the taking.

This is where I leave the classroom, leave my nation and turn my back on my own species.

The land was there for the taking.

I have never spent one minute of my life believing this statement.

It is the original sin, one committed by the earliest bands, then the tribes, then the nations, and after that the scribblers of the tale.

In time, this sin will tear to rubble the City on the Hill.

The land was, is and will be.

Never for the taking.

I believe in the woman walking the summer street by the old live oak as a dog wanders in the trail of her scent.

The land was there for the taking and I left the thieves before I could speak a single word.

There are some days when the green wave comes, a surge of protoplasm, pollen, chlorophyll, and it is warm as it laps against my face, memories ride within the swirl, the wish of spring when the thaw comes, the tulips and daffodils erupting from the dead hand of winter, the birds in the tree making morning songs, an up swelling of everything that says yes and drowning everything that says no, and I glide on this wave of energy and believe no matter what happens that only good will come, crack an egg into the sizzle of the skillet and feel a warmth off the orange yolk, the smell of toast, the savor of black coffee, and the days grow longer, the trees burst into leaf, and I know this green wave is the future and the past and the present, and I race downstream following it as it crashes against the tombs where abandoned hopes rot and breathes life into everything, and the killings go under, the blood is washed away, going to find my father, going back to find my mother, going back to find the ground, the dirt paved over, the soil lost to my mind, things abandoned when I left on that interstate and got aboard that plane, some kind of return to a place of broken clocks and iron sunrises, a green wave taking under things called the economy or things called career or things called planning, a surge breaking my will but feeding my appetite, and I stand as it towers over me and I go, God I must go, because nothing will make sense unless I give up sense and join.

But it is a fantasy, these waves of red and green, there are no records, all the archives are full of wars, progress, bank accounts and jubilees, things solid, I am told, like the granite facing of banks, the market reports and the daily schedules of presidents.

Since childhood I have sensed things beneath comment and lived things beneath acceptance. And now I am left with little or nothing but these waves, the erosion the boomers have made on my life, the tang in the air as surge storms toward me.

Two sticks, a line of string, the row marked, bean seeds in the ground, a wind still coming with a breath of cold, all hope lying in the turned over soil, promise of blue sky overhead, the rabbit in the meadow, crack of my single-shot .22, a leap and then flop, the animal left to rot as the sun starts to sink, a spring in my step as I move across the broken ground, the basic strands there at the beginning and now coming back at me again was waves of color.

In the morning, I think the green wave means life, the red wave means death. But in the night, I think they mean the same thing.

The green wave.

Her grave stares from the edge of the valley in the Sand Hills, a place near the ranch where her father raised the family and warred against the world. Mari Sandoz is both the recorder and the victim of the ground, a child of Swiss immigrants born in 1896, the same year as my father, she was the oldest of six raised on a hard ranch. Her father enjoyed drink, bold talk, and when feeling bad about life, beat his wife. He corresponded widely, tried agricultural experiments, held a kind of stern salon in his isolated place, and, given his reputation as a good shot, served as a one-man defense unit for the farmers coming in and butting heads with the ranch culture. He also surveyed plots for the newcomers.

Mari learned English at nine when she finally made it to a public school — as did my mother a few hundred miles to the east in Iowa. She left home by marrying a cowboy and when that swiftly failed, she went to Lincoln, starved her way to an education and worked on a book endlessly. It was about her father and called “Old Jules” and finally was published in 1935.

When as a child I would ask questions about my dead grandfather, I’d be told that all I needed to know was in “Old Jules.”

Sandoz eventually made it to New York City, lived in the Village and wrote histories of the Sioux and the land. The distance seemed to make this work more bearable.

I am in her sister’s house in the Sand Hills, a small place surrounded by a belt of trees that look to be under siege. Outside, the dunes, hidden under a carpet of grass, seem to roll on like an ocean. The house stands as a fort built against the land and the wind and the whiteouts of winter. It is not far to Wounded Knee but it is very far to what the settlers dreamed they would find.

The country feels mean when viewed from inside the house. But outside it feels like a fatal attraction. She pours coffee, talks of her sister, takes me downstairs and shows the books of Mari Sandoz I might buy. But the freshness is gone, the plains have been entombed in nice bound volumes by a woman who knew all the pain and all the scents. It is this way in the official stations of the thing called settlement — the museums, the paintings, most of the memoirs, the historical societies. Clean glass cases with oddments from brutal winters and children dying early and often. The dead buffalo are warm memories but now herds of cattle eat down the grass, and the plains want to be cowboys, country western music and strange hats worn by bankers in the stuffy air of their offices.

The insane women trapped in cabins in the wind with the sour smell of pent-up living are hardly remembered at all. When I was a kid, I could make no connection between the tales of pioneers and the kitchens where they were told as dinner simmered on the electric stove.

Ifind an old cedar box, a small half oval. I open it for the first time in half a century. It is from my childhood, some trove I kept that got stored for no reason when I left home. There are two full jacketed rounds for my .303 Enfield. A dozen .22 Long Rifles. And clusters of wooden matches with the tips sealed and waterproofed by wax.

One cufflink.

And the paper case for two Marlin blades for a safety razor.

I fondle the cartridges and suddenly ballistics tables that I poured over night after night march through my mind and I can see numbers detailing the range of the .264 magnum I once craved as an antelope killer, a caliber now largely out of production, and the gleaming stock of a Weatherby, the dazzling bands of colors from different woods glued together in a loud grandeur.

I find a tarnished penny stamped 1960 and a small piece of copper ore.

They can sense the future and they fight it. The Micmacs are in their eyes an ancient people on ancient ground. It is the winter of 1749-50, the British in their struggle with the French for mastery of North America are building up strength in numbers and guns at Halifax, Nova Scotia. The population is almost entirely of French origin, a people known to us as Acadians. And they have intermarried with the Micmacs and become something neither French nor British, but rather a new breed of people bent on hard work, independence and tilling their ground. In a few short years, they will be uprooted, their homes and churches burned, their land stolen and they will be shipped off to France, the British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard and eventually wend their way to the swamps and prairies of Louisiana and became yet another name, Cajuns.

But now, in this winter, their relatives the Micmacs grow alarmed by the British expansion and a council of elders drafts a declaration:

. . . The place where you are, where you build, where you fortify, where you think to make yourself master — that place belongs to me. I have sprung from this land as surely as the grass. I was born here and my fathers before me. Yes, I swear, it is God who has given it to me, to be my country forever . . . You glory in your great numbers. The Indian, with his small numbers, glories in nothing but God, who knows very well what is happening. Even an earth worm knows when it is attacked. I may be worth little more than an earth worm, but I know to defend myself when I am attacked . . . .

He lives in the woods near the Lost Coast and huge trees are his religion. His trailer in the woods has holes in the floor and he drapes sheets of plywood like throw rugs to keep winter at bay. He has two passions. Reading books far into the night. And shutting down modern life in the forest — no timbering, so salvaging, no harvest of much of anything. He has projects afoot to restore old salmon streams and thinks they will come back if beckoned.

He is Native American and is willing to wait forever.

He is about time.

He takes me to a massacre site, one of those spots of gore that splotch California from the days when the ’49ers hunted Indians like deer or wild hogs.

Sometimes when he moves through the woods he finds a bear. Then he will stand beside him.

The bear will get up on its hind legs and softy go huff, huff, huff.

It is written in the twelfth-century A.D. in the Orkenyinga Saga about Svein Asleifarson. His life is explained this way: “In the spring he had more than enough to occupy him, with a great deal of seed to sow which he saw to carefully himself. Then when the job was done, he would go off plundering in the Hebrides and in Ireland on what he called his ‘spring trip’, then back home just after midsummer where he stayed till the corn fields had been reaped and the grain was safely in. After that he would go off raiding again, and never come back till the first month of winter was ended. This he used to call his ‘autumn trip’.”

The temperature hangs at one above zero in western North Dakota near the Montana line. The wind is down, only slight drifts whisper across the roads. The house sits as a small tomb of silver wood, two floors, small rooms, a few trees slowly dying in a grass land where they never belonged. Joe Njos homesteads the land, builds the house, then goes back to Norway for a wife. She was very attractive, maybe the best-looking woman in the area. That was in ’15, or ’16.

“They had one son, and one daughter,” Melvin Wisdahl remembers. He’s past eighty and still he can see the beauty of her face in the blank of the plains. “She kept it spotless. She always dressed like a queen. One of his nephews always claimed his uncle got her out of a whorehouse in Norway. They died after World War II.

“Then the son lived there and he was a drunkard and he lost the land. I remember the day of the auction sale, he sat there drunk and cried.

“He married some woman who came through — someone who was making the rounds. Then she took off. He died in the fifties from something. The house has been empty a long time.”

Soon the house will not be part of memory. The roof will go and fall into the cellar. The walls will tilt. No one living will remember who once lived there, the woman who dressed like a queen in her tiny castle. The earth waits for the slow rot of this intrusion called settlement.

Nearby is the Bone Trail, the track the settlers used to haul the skeletal remains of buffalo to the railroad for a few stray bucks to get them through the angry winters.

They need meat and so the young man and his wife leave the village with eight dogs pulling loads. The story is Hidatsa or Mandan or Arikara — it is all long ago now and no one is sure which tribe first discovered this truth in the grass. Each day the man goes out and kills the game, mainly deer and antelope. Each day the woman dries the meat and cleans the hides.

She tells him, “I feel like going home now. We have been here a long time, and now there is plenty of dried meat.”

But he wants to kill more.

After a while, a routine descends. The dogs brighten when the man returns each day, the woman cooks fresh meat and at night, when the coyotes howl, the dogs patrol the camp. And then one day when the man is gone on his hunt, the woman looks up and sees a young man watching her. She scents a nice odor on the wind.

She retreats to her lodge and when she comes back out, the young man is gone. But in future days, the young man keeps returning and when he does, the dogs growl.

She tells her husband of these visits and how she fears the young man may be an enemy who will kill her husband and make her a slave. But he searches around the camp, can find no tracks and so dismisses her tale.

He says he needs one more day on the hunt and then they will return to their village.

And so it happens, he goes out the hunt, the young man with the fine scent returns and she elopes with him.

Later, the husband finds her gone, and trails her with the dogs. He sees the couple walking ahead of him, cuts around them and when they approach discovers to his surprise that his woman has run off with an elk. He fires an arrow but it bounces right off the elk.

The woman and her elk lover march past him. He follows, fires all of his arrows to no effect. When he approaches his wife, she ignores him.

They come to a lake. The elk disappears under the waters and she follows her new lover beneath the surface. Her husband sits on the bank and weeps. Night falls, and still he remains with his grief.

Just before morning, his woman breaks the surface and she tells him, “You must go home now. We can’t be together again. It is difficult where I live now. And now you must go!”

But she also tells him that if he ever wants anything — success in war, power — he should come back to this very place and ask. After the winter has passed, she continues, he should return with a dress, a belt and a pair of moccasins and leave them on the bank for her. And he should remarry and this will happen soon and she says the new woman will look very much as she does.

And it all comes to pass as she said. He goes back to his village, finds a new woman who looks like his wife, and settles down. He returns in the spring with gifts, she surfaces briefly and then returns to her elk lover.

He becomes a power among his people.

The preceding is an excerpt from a work in progress, “Café Blood: Songs My Country Taught Me.”

Charles Bowden is the author of, among many others, “Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez,” “Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder and Family” and, most recently, “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.”

1.  John Mack Faragher, “A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from their American Homeland,” W.W. Norton, New York, 2006 [2005], p. 260

2.  Cunliffe, p. 464.

3. “Parks, Myths and Traditions of the Arikara Indians,” pp. 219-223.

Jukebox Heroes

Jukebox Heroes

Story and photo by Dawne Belloise

“Ninety-nine percent of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice. That’s what makes the jukebox play.”

— Willie Nelson

Back in Black screams to a deafening reverberation across the wooden floor, pumping barflies and hopefuls into a rhythmic raising of glasses to mouths. They stand before the pulsing altar of flashing LEDs and whirling discs feeding alms to the jukebox.  Flipping through layers of CDs, they prime the bar atmosphere like fishermen chumming the waters.

Music is the great ambiance enhancer of romance. Next to the introductory  salutation of “Can I buy you a drink?” the most viable enticement to engage a conversation is, “I just put $2 in the jukebox … wanna come pick out some songs?” It’s been the standard in bars everywhere from the time oblivious couples glued together in a slow song grind bumped into machines and sent phonograph needles screeching across spinning vinyl.

The term “juke joint” originated from “jook,” the West African word for “wicked” or “disorderly” and was later applied to jukeboxes when pay-for-music phonographs became the rage. Jukeboxes were the perfect answer for supplying music to hard-to-reach mountain towns. Although certainly not a replacement, they’re cheaper than live music, don’t have to be bunked overnight, don’t steal the already limited population of local women and they don’t rack up a bar tab. It will continuously play slow songs or your favorite tune to the point of exasperation.

Phil Beckett, a guitarist who toured the Colorado mountain bars with several bands, remembers playing at the Silver Dollar Saloon in Leadville, where, between sets, the jukebox cranked. “Hearing ‘Jessie’s Girl’ five billion times over and over with no other song in between is unforgettable,” Beckett mused. “No one wanted to say anything for fear of starting a fight. Huge fights would break out with all the miners and not enough girls around.”

Fights take on a spontaneous Western movie animation when choreographed with a little background music — hard rock or Johnny Cash are the ringside choice.

Back at the Silver Dollar Saloon, the local patrons are predominantly construction workers from the mine, who lean toward country music. The bartender will plunk down silly tunes like the “Three Little Fishies,” by the Three Stooges to break the tension between the younger thumpers, who like to play rap, and the rednecks nursing their twangy fix. But Chuck Hughes, guitarist for The Hillbilly Hellcats says, “The Silver Dollar has an internet-based jukebox with seemingly thousands of selections. We get rooms on the second floor when we play there and are awakened each morning at 10 a.m., when we hear, quite clearly, all the bass lines to the songs on the jukebox.”

Forget Joan Jett’s “I love rock ’n roll so put another dime in the jukebox, baby”  — you’ll fork out $2 a song for an internet-based box and have to take precious time from tending your barstool to search the wide web for far too much variety. The Silver Dollar Saloon tried to switch back to their more popular and cheaper CD jukebox, but the vendor wouldn’t give it back. The bartender admitted, “They still play it but not quite as often. Sometimes we sit here with no music at all. We have this junky old internet instead of the one we used to have with the good ol’ country tunes. The other jukebox, you could shoot $5 into it and would play over an hour. Before, with just a couple of bucks, we could hit the popular button and it would play the favorites forever. This internet one, you have to search for each and every song you want to play.”

One thing that transcends generations is some of the music that goes into the selections. The tunes the twenty- and thirty-somethings consistently punch are the same songs their moms rocked them to in-utero.

Duane Griffith of Wildwood Music stocks the jukebox at Kochevar’s, the oldest saloon in Crested Butte. “I get requests for certain things,” he says. “‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is still going to be the number-one requested song, and anything Allman Brothers can’t be replaced. There are some staples that just don’t go away. Even though all the bartenders are so sick of these songs, I can’t take them out because it’s being played a million times,” he says of the money-makers. “I just go in count the money, change the music and make sure it’s all working.”

He rotates out about ten percent of the tunes because, “If I take out those favorites, people get mad. Generations may change, but the song remains the same.”

We’re interested to hear any jukebox stories MG’s readers might have. What/where’s your favorite jukebox, and why? What makes for a good jukebox? Anything you can think of. Send your thoughts to mjfayhee@mountaigazette.com.

Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America

Say you get five books in your library. I pick Hemingway’s “Moveable Feast,” “The Great Rock (and roll) Discography,” by Martin C. Strong, “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” (counts as one, because that’s how Tolkien wrote it), Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species” and now this: “Fifty Classic Ski Descents of North America.” In a coffee-table offering that is both awe-inspiring and relevant, authors Chris Davenport, Art Burrows and Penn Newhard have created something credible, compelling and cinematic — name another recent print product that does that! With the help of accomplished ski mountaineers such as Lou Dawson, Andrew McLean, Lowell Skoog and Jimmy Chin, they chronicle North America’s biggest and most-famous ski mountaineering faces. Some, like New Hampshire’s Tuckerman’s Ravine, have seen millions of tracks. Others, such as the North Face of Mt. Robson in British Columbia, have been skied only once. All are given the same treatment with super-short, spot-on commentary and incredibly well-picked photography that shows the character of the skiers and especially the mountains and descents themselves. Davenport single-handedly brought the storyline back to American off-piste skiing when in one year over 2006 and 2007, he climbed and skied from the summit of all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. Here, the cast of skiers happily expands, as does the number of gorgeous descents.


Letters #175

Duking your way to Mountain Country

M. John: Mountain Gazette is a fantastic publication and I always enjoy your column.
I am responding to your call for stories. “How I Came to be Living in Mountain Country and Things Not To Do.” (Smoke Signals, “Stories of Us,” MG  #169).

Here goes: Back in ’03, I was a commercial real estate broker in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Despite the economic aftermath of 9/11 and the dot.com bubble burst, I was having my best year. I was a garbage man of sorts. As the youngest broker (31) in the office, I took the deals the older guys wouldn’t touch. At that time, I capitalized on a lot of well-designed, yet hardly used, failed dot.com spaces. Basically, I sub-letted the funky, hardly used office space that a bunch of arrogant techno nerds left behind after their venture capital seed money well ran dry. I put in long hours and worked hard. I made some decent money, however I hated my life. I was blessed with a good job, a loving family, a cool loft apartment and a beautiful girlfriend (now my wife). I didn’t like my job, the corporate world and the endless schmoozing that accompanies the life of a salesman. I knew something was missing. I always had a desire to head west and live up in the mountains. My four years of college in Vermont was a tease.

My girlfriend worked for an advertising agency, and each year they held a huge Halloween party in their hip warehouse office space. That year, my girl went as ’80s Madonna and I went as a ’70s Elvis. Just before the party, we gobbled a certain type of outlawed toadstool. Her creative advertising co-workers had the space amazingly decorated for the party and the costumes were the best I have ever seen. Despite all of this, the party was tremendously lame. At one point, I was tipping back a cold Iron City beer with my cousin, Blake, when I spotted one of my girl’s coworkers getting a little over friendly with her. Now, I’m not a the jealous type, but this hand job was standing behind her with his arms wrapped around her and I thought I saw him kiss her on the cheek. She looked over at me and appeared unamused and slightly paranoid at what I would do. My conversation with Blake came to an abrupt halt and he must have spotted the daggers coming out of my eyes because he put his hand on my chest and said “C’mon, not in here. This is where she works.” I turned away and then looked back to see him planting another kiss on her cheek just as she was pulling herself away in disgust. I walked up to the guy and scooped him up off the ground by his collar. I growled: “Listen, motherfucker, you’re totally fuckin’ out of line!”

A man standing near me dressed as an airline pilot yelled to me “Take it easy, Mick, take it easy.” It was my girl’s boss. I put the hand job down and turned and fixated on the glowing red light of the exit sign. At least 150 at the party were staring at me and this weird scene. I felt as though the walls were closing in. I could hear my white rental leather boots clack on the hardwood floor as I race-walked to the exit door. The hand job was in hot pursuit behind me screaming at the top of his lungs “WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM!” I made it to the door and just as I had one foot out toward freedom, he grabbed my oversized white polyester ’70s collar and forcefully spun me around, ripping the collar completely off of the shirt. The moment I felt the initial tug, my fists instinctively clenched. It had been nine years since I fought in the Vermont Golden Gloves light-heavyweight State Championship, but that night proved I apparently still knew how to hurl a right hook. It helped that the hand job walked toward me as he angrily spun me around toward him. My fist caught him square on his angrily approaching chin, sending his feet airborne and completely laying him out. I stormed home and was unquestionably the most pissed-off tripping Elvis on the planet at that moment. My girl came to back to our apartment and hugged me. “He deserved it … he’s an asshole,” she said. “Let’s move to Colorado,” I replied.

Three months later, we were living in Avon in a cool apartment building called The Seasons. Our next-door neighbor was acclaimed Warren Miller ski star Chris Anthony. On New Year’s Day, I proposed to my girl at the top of the mountain at Beaver Creek. The Vail Valley is beautiful, but we didn’t dig the strip mall feel and Interstate 70 running right through everything. We needed an area with more character, so after six months, we moved to Summit County. Summit’s old buildings, great pubs (Cala Inn, Moose Jaw, The Historic Brown Hotel), Lake Dillon, four killer mountains (Keystone, A-Basin, Copper, & Breck) and abundant characters made us feel we were home. If there is anything better than tailgating at A-Basin’s “Beach” after a day of skiing, then please tell me.

We are back in the Steel City now. My girl is now my wife and we have a precious four-year-old daughter. Our hearts are still in the mountains and, one day, we will return.

Things not to do? At the age of 12, I went through a phase where I pissed outdoors on various stuff. One day I had the misfortune of “shakin’ the dew off my lilly” onto an electric fence. I’d advise not trying it. Felt like someone jamming a handful of sewing needles into your dickhole. Not fun …

Cheers, my High Country friends,

The Surly Mick

— — —/— — —/• — — •/• • •

Hi Editor: I picked up the fall 2010 Mountain Gazette somewhere in Boulder last month & finally got around to reading it. Good writing throughout! Keep up the good work.

However, you might try to keep the proofreader more sober during working hours. In my cursory read, and as a former Boy Scout, I think first word at top of page 5 should be “- -/..-/-/.-/-/../…”  not “–/.-/-/.-/–/../…”

Also, the dog photo contest announcement on page 7 should be for Feb 2011.

Stan Suski,

Santa Cruz, CA

A well-hyphened column

Dear Mr. Fayhee: Thank you for the well-told and entertaining story recounted in the recent Smoke Signals article in Mountain Gazette #174.  Your past works, including those reviewed on the mjohnfayhee.com website, show promising use of hyphenation.  The hyphen-laden piece in MG #174 definitively establishes you as a master of hyphenated usages and qualifies you for honorary membership in the American Hyphen Society.  Ill-informed persons have claimed that the American Hyphen Society is something of my own devising, however, that is not a fact-based assertion.  Although perhaps not  well-known, the American Hyphen Society is a community-based, not-for-profit, grass-roots consciousness-raising/education-research alliance that seeks to promote hyphen-oriented terminology for verb conservation, and further, to effectuate across-the-board self-empowerment of wide-ranging culture-, nationality-, ethnicity-, creed-, and gender-oriented identity groups by excising all multiculturally-less-than-sensitive terminology from the English language, and replacing it with counter-hegemonic, cruelty-, gender-, bias-, and, if necessary, content-free forms of self-expression. The society’s motto is “It became necessary to destroy the language in order to save it.”   Its headquarters are, more-or-less expectedly, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and the society is an non-discriminating, equal-opportunity organization.  Thank you for your efforts in advancing hyphenation.  Your much-anticipated future contributions will certainly advance the mission of the society.

Greenlee Garrett,


Thumbs down on new format

Hi John, I just wanted to send you a quick note telling you that I’m not a fan of the new format. I often pick up the MG to read Smoke Signals and check out the photos, so I wouldn’t call myself an avid reader. Nevertheless, I have picked up every issue for the past couple years. Anyway, I just wanted to put in my two cents and tell you that I preferred the gloss pages and smaller size; it was just more comfortable to read. Love your column!


Benjamin Gordon

Denver, CO

More irreverence!

MJ: Back to the future. As a long-time reader, subscriber and collector (back to #8) of Mountain Gazette, the look, feel and content of #173 takes me back to the classic Gazette. From cover to the content, you are taking the magazine where it needs to go.  It contains a nice mix of established and developing authors, and a breadth of articles.

One suggestion, work on fine-tuning the content with an eye toward adding the irreverence that made the Gazette an icon in the past.

Nice job.

Bob Kohut

We are family

Hello John, I am really excited about the future of MG after reading your “Upwards” column this evening. It will be great to hold the larger format once again and experience some of the sections that have drifted from MG’s pages. We have become regular readers of your sister publication, Elevation Outdoors, and its track record of design, content and innovation lays out a great path for MG’s future.

All the best,

Rudy Lukez,

Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Well, you found us

Editor’s Note: Though this letter came to us out of the blue and seemingly not in reference to anything specifically published in MG, we thought we’d run it anyhow, as we like the sentiments expressed.

We tried so hard. We left our collective “real lives” behind us. Abandoned all need for properly manicured lawns, pristine streets and city-approved signage. We loaded up our packs with everything we would need: love, tolerance, respect … And we traveled. We crossed red muddy rivers, climbed great peaks and traversed seemingly endless plains. We tried out many different spots that at first looked nice, but later turned out to be nothing but the empty shell of capitalism gone amok. We tried all the Aspens, Tellurides and Vails that we could find. Invariably, we left them. Too clean, too expensive, too conservative, too much, much too much too much

We bypassed the covenants of CB South, skipped over the pretension of so many other mountain towns, until we carried our loads of love and happiness over the last pass, on the last dead-end road, to the last great Colorado ski town. A place where we discovered that, if we just accepted one another, we could find the comfort and contentment that had so long been absent. We had found it.

Unfortunately, you found it too. You also came, with your packs full of money, shiny leased cars, expensive furniture and disdain. Disdain for the common workers, who, you say, “can just live in Gunny.” Disdain for alternative views and tax income, “instead … (the) top priority … (has been) dispensaries.” Disdain for REAL LIFE. You must have seen our unkempt yards on a satellite feed, watching from some dark office somewhere. You must have taken notice of our used cars for sale and yards-sale signs taped to, GASP, stop signs. Surely you must have at least been aware of the prevailing culture when you moved here. We were. That’s why we are here.

Now, there blows an ill wind from the mountain tops. Mountains long ago sub-divided and sold to the highest bidder. Anger, avarice, vitriol, disrespect, all rushing down like an avalanche, crushing the spirit and life of our little ski town.

Who is left to run the beacons and shovels? Who will be willing to help dig and fight and scratch for the life we all journeyed so long and hard to find? Who will fight for just one more weird, wild, unkempt, yard-sale sign posting, used-car-selling breath?

We will. Camp Space Camp is even now rallying their forces. The Red Lady is spreading the love. Vinotokians are girding their armor. Ski bums are no doubt sharpening their skis. The RMBLers, the HCCAers, the FOSers, the FOLSers, the miners, the Red Ladies, all those people that live to love this place. Together, we will stand for all that is left!

Perhaps, if you are not finding the investment returns you were looking for, you should just cut your losses and try somewhere else. Move to a place where they will be happy to tell you how to maintain your lawn or where you can store your own belongings, on your own property. Find a place where all the citizens are so rich that they never need to hold a yard sale, or sell a car.

For-sale signs, garage sales, overgrown yards … these are pieces of real life. These are the hallmarks of a vibrant, healthy, caring community. Sometimes yard work can fall to the wayside when most waking hours are spent just trying to survive, and free time is better spent helping and enjoying the people and surroundings we’ve been fortunate enough to find. These are the things you see when people come together to help each other live better. This is the natural beauty that forms as a consequence of community. A patina, if you will. The fact that this patina, this community, this way of life exists is what makes us unique. Yes, these things do make us unique, different and charming.

So, thank you for joining us in our little version of utopia. Thank you for investing in jobs, construction and the local service market. We hope you will stay and live a long and happy life. Just, PLEASE, stop attempting to replace a real, good, positive community with another sad capitalist money-making machine. Please stop telling us that our way of life isn’t good enough, clean enough or marketable enough. We’ve worked so hard to make this place, this town, this LIFE, the way we need.  Relax, enjoy it while you’re here. We are a community, not an investment opportunity.


J.J. Reimer

Camp Space Camp

Compare and contrast

John: Earlier this fall, I walked down the drive along the ditch to fetch my mail. In my mailbox was Mountain Gazette along with Outside Magazine. (Outside seems to randomly show up every few months and perhaps the publisher is trying to build subscriptions with random deliveries.)

Both magazines happened to write about personal lists. At the same time that Outside had compiled a lifetime “Bucket” list for its readers, MG had some very personal letters from its readers listing what they had done in their own lives that they considered noteworthy. It was some sort of serendipity to be able to compare an artificial list prepared by editors with input from sponsors, advertisers and media consultants, with actual lists of actual activities prepared by the actual people who related their own personal experiences.

Some of the Outside suggestions were pedestrian: “Learn another constellation besides the Big Dipper,” which cannot ever compare with an actual personal experience that I read in Mountain Gazette. “Connected with lost ancestors in Italy to find the best hugs on the planet … and awesome homemade pasta, of course.” Reading the personal lists in MG was moving, especially when I took the time to think beyond the written words to the emotion and passion contained in some of the experiences. Which gets to my final point — no one else can write your list.

Best Regards,

Tom Noll,

SW Idaho

PS: From another place and time, I remember the 1970s Mountain Gazette. Some months ago, I stepped back into that time when I saw Mountain Gazette in a Boise taqueria — thank you.

Cartographic eye-opener

John: Call me crazy, but Tara Flanagan’s article, “Too Close Encounters” in MG #173 was an eye-opener. First, it reminded me of my interest in the supernatural. I’ve always been a BELIEVER, with a small b, in cryptozoological and ET stuff. While I don’t receive Contemporary Occult Devotee magazine, I am casually fascinated by the spectrum, and think of myself as an armchair Sasquatch expert. Maybe it’s because s/he’s part of the mystique of a land I’ve admired since childhood or perhaps, as Tara said, people need something to believe in, and I dropped religion a long time ago. I mean, at least the Patterson film exists for some feasible evidence (a man in an ape suit, can’t move like that!), where’s Jesus making fishes multiply on film?! In any event, regardless of the cause, my interest in Sasquatch even over-rode the social phobia I struggled with till my 20s.

Second year of undergrad, I had a public speaking class, which you can only imagine did to the bowels of a social phobe. But for one stretch, I rode the fine line of anxiety/excitement when I learned of the requirement for a persuasive speech. I would persuade my classmates Bigfoot existed! While my talk generated many skeptical inquiries by classroom Matlocks, most of which I thought I fielded well, nobody was satisfied with my answers about why a Bigfoot was never caught or found in cadaverous form. Typical answers from Bigfoot scholars like, “well, look at how vast the terrain is of the areas they are seen!” and “perhaps it is because they are emotionally intelligent and bury their dead” all of a sudden were lame answers to me too as I watched none of it convince my classmates one iota.

With the amount of sightings versus amount of evidence, save footprints (only some seeming believable), my classmate’s persistent skepticism on that one question left me at a loss for any other answer than to say I had none, thereby admitting defeat, which is kinda what happened anyhow. It meant that it was all just a matter of faith (haha) that I believed, like a right-wing Bible thumper saying “because it’s in the Bible” and no other argument in my support.

Enter Tara’s article and my wish for time travel. While it likely would have opened a completely different can of worms that my prefrontal cortex was just not prepared to manage anxiety-wise back then, I am investing at least two grains of salt into the theory that Sasquatches are of other dimensions. This comes as a result of uncanny timing wherein I was recently made to invest three grains of salt into the idea that other dimensions exist. This happened when I visited a psychic, and, being a rather pragmatic sort, was very careful to not release any personal information and thus assay her capabilities. During said session, psychic consistently informed me of things, to a “T”, without knowing anything more than my name and that I wanted to know about my career and love life. She described my ex-girlfriend in finest detail and even that I saw her the previous night to clear fouled air. Then, in a grand finale, upon the terminal card reading, the last card, placed in the center of the 15 laid out, was of a girl kissing a boy’s forehead. With chills, I explained that was a dream I had a couple weeks earlier in which I forgave my ex-lover. She said “It wasn’t a dream, it was just another dimension.” And I felt it!

With that, I wonder whether Bigfoot is elusive for reasons of dimension. For all the time I’ve spent in Washington, Oregon and Wyoming, I guess I should have spent less time seeking tracks, more on finding portals. Tell me if you have any leads, and if I find the portal, can I have the honors of penning the first MG article from another dimension?

Tony Smith,


MG readership demographics 101

Fayhee, You’ve went and done it now. You’ve finally got a publisher for your rag that seems to better understand the freaks, geeks and weirdoes who are actually reading the MG. Issue 173 is like free climbing 5.12, skiing the Sand Chutes off the Burn, having post-drinking, wee-hour sex in a rich neighbor’s hot tub (while they’re at home), driving 140 past a diner full of cops, finding a $100 dollar bill in a pair of new-to-you thrift store pants — in other words, epic!

I say this after picking up a copy and just thumbing thru it — I’ve not even read the damn thing, but I can already tell this issue is going to be good.

The sexy, thick, black and white cover makes me think of art ’zines. The wonderfully content-rich interior beckons me to waste an afternoon reading the oh-so-many words that thankfully now have graphics and photos to pull the reader along with the story. Wow, I never thought it would’ve happened. I’ll admit I’ve been worried about the MG — there have been times in the past when an issue looked more like a buddy who had taken to late-night powder skiing thru bar bathrooms: all skinny and covered in blemishes.

Looking at this issue, I see everything you told us in your column from #172 is true. It’s nice to know Ullr has folks looking out for his human scribes documenting the weird and wonderful in his realm.

Your timing for this seems absolutely perfect, at least according to one of my favorite dead writers: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” — HST

I suppose I should end this with a high, smoky toast to all those now going pro. You know who you are.


Dave Shinn

Bad Trip

Author’s note: I spent literally months and months working on a fairly-heavy (at least by my humble heaviness standards) New-Year’s-based Smoke Signals about the fact that the municipal government of the town in which I live last year passed an ordinance that effectively puts the kibosh on panhandling within the city limits, and how that sort of shit is emblematic of the gentrification vs. funkiness argument taking place in many New West towns these days blah blah blah. But, alas, I never really got to the point of answering the questions I really couldn’t figure out how to even ask properly. So I decided to scrap that Smoke Signals and opted instead to retreat to more conceptually familiar territory. Yes, I decided to write about LSD.

“You ever dropped acid?” asked Winona, a young, pretty and sweet bartender, who is gracious enough that she at least pretends to be amused (or at least not offended) when grey-beards such as myself flirt with her. “Uh, heh heh, why do you ask?” I responded furtively.

“One of my mountain-biking buddies got some,” she said. “I’ve never tried it. I’m thinking about giving it a go. I just figured, out of all the older people I know who might be able to give me some observations about what it’s like to trip, you are the best choice.”

Fortunately, Winona had to tend to other patrons right then, because I needed a few moments to mentally process the apparent reality that I have reached a point in my life where twenty-somethings are hitting me up for advice regarding the use of illegal psychotropic drugs. Part of me wanted to feel as though I had been complimented, that I had become the kind of person who could be trusted to lay sage words of wisdom on a lady with so few years that cynicism had not yet even begun the inevitable process of rotting her psyche. Another part of me, however, was borderline mortified that It Had Come To This. Had Winona asked for my guidance regarding the long-term nurturing of the creative process or how to balance youthful free-spiritedness with the sad reality of having to make money, or, hell even if she’d asked how I felt about the town’s new panhandling ordinance, I would have puffed my chest out a just a little bit and thought, “Growing old sucks, but, having a nice young lady seeking out your hard-earned views about life’s Really Big Issues is pretty cool.” But, no, here was a bartender barely out of diapers asking me whether she should drop acid. Great.

There was a time in my life when, if a cute lady had asked me such a thing, I would have effusively said, “Damned right! Go for it! And I’ll be happy to join you!” But it has been literally almost 30 years since I last interfaced with LSD. A veritable lifetime ago. And here I am, grandfather aged, sitting on a barstool, wondering if my venerability, if nothing else, oughtn’t compel me to at least pretend to recommend to Winona that she should seek natural highs, like riding her mountain bike, and forego ingesting recreational chemicals. But, you know, I didn’t want to risk getting struck by lightning.

“Well?” Winona asked, innocent eyes wide.

What I should have said was, “Do you want to risk turning out like me?” What I did instead was tell Winona about the very last time I ingested acid, in hopes that she could draw her own conclusions.

It was the summer of 1983. The previous winter, I had moved to Denver from Silver City with $43 to my name. A childhood chum had offered me a free place to stay till I got set up. I was certain I would find a newspaper job fairly easily. But times were tough in the early-’80s in Denver. Though I did land a few freelance-writing assignments, I hobbled through my first half-year in the Mile High City in a perpetual state of fiscal distress.

One day, my potential economic salvation magically appeared in the Denver Post classifieds: a daily paper in a place called Russell, Kansas, was looking for an editor. Kansas, I reckoned, actually bordered Colorado, so how bad could it be? I placed a call to the Russell Daily Udder (I don’t remember its true name). The publisher was excited to hear from me. A little too excited, I thought. He wanted me to come to Russell ASAP. “Uh,” I told him, “I don’t exactly have the means to get there.” “So, you need a little gas money?” he asked. “Uh, I don’t exactly have a car. I’d be coming by bus.” The fact that I was broke, carless and desperate enough to seek employment in the heart of the Great Plains apparently did not dissuade the Daily Udder’s publisher. Matter of fact, after outlining the salary and benefits package and telling me that I could use the company car as though it were my own and that there was even a small company-owned apartment I could live in rent free, he went ahead and offered me the position, sight unseen. The word “indentured” sprung to mind. Desperate though I was, I told him I thought it might be a good idea for us to meet face-to-face before making any life-altering decisions. He wired me enough money for a round-trip bus ticket and, the very next night, I found myself aboard a Greyhound headed toward Russell, Kansas, the hometown of none other than Senator Bob Dole, the Republican who ran for president against Bill Clinton in 1996.

I did a fair amount of long-distance bus traveling in those pre-cheap-airfare days. Thus I could tell within nanoseconds of stepping aboard a Greyhound or a Trailways what kind of transitory mobile potpourri sociology I was about to become immersed in for the next however many hundred miles. It could go in any direction, from the craziest-assed Bible-thumpers imaginable sitting there handling snakes and speaking in tongues, to recently released prisoners looking to put as much quick distance between them and their parole officers as possible. This go round, it was — yey! — an entire tribe of freaks, Rainbow Family hippies, dirtbag climber/hiker-types and Deadheads. It was an instant party that involved enough liquor to float a bus, an astounding quantity of weed and hash and, yes, enough Red Dragon to almost make me forget that I was at that very moment on my way to a job interview out in the middle of an endless cornfield.

I was scheduled to arrive in Russell at 4:30 a.m. The publisher of the Daily Udder had made a reservation for me at a motel right across from the bus station. He would pick me up at noon. I was the only person to egress the Greyhound in Russell. For some damned bonehead reason, I had carried not my usual backpack, but, rather, an old leather suitcase my mom had scored at a yard sale. As I made my way off the bus, the suitcase got ahead of me, and I fell over it, performing a well-executed somersault down the bus steps and landing right on my ass in the street. I stood up quickly, acting as though nothing had happened, and started to make my way to the motel. But out of the darkness came a voice. “John?” that voice asked. Surely an auditory hallucination, I thought. I ignored it and proceeded upon my merry way. “Is that John from Denver?” It was once again the hallucinogenic voice from the darkness asking me if I was, of all people, goddamned John Denver. Then: “JOHN!!! IS THAT JOHN FAYHEE?” This time, I turned around and there stood, in the flesh, the publisher of the Daily Udder, who, it turned out, simply could not abide the thought of his next editor arriving in Russell, Kansas, at 4:30 a.m. without someone there to meet him. Which is extremely thoughtful and all, but, well, I was at that moment tripping my brains out, something, I wondered, if maybe I ought to tell him up front, just in case my behavior was not up to its normal polished snuff.

The publisher, barely able to contain his enthusiasm, decided this would be a perfect time to take me on a detailed driving tour of Russell. Over the course of the next (I kid you not) 90 minutes, he showed me every square inch of the newspaper office, including the broom closets, which I must say, were among the best broom closets I had ever seen. Very clean and orderly. Knowing that I played tennis, he showed me Russell’s two unsurfaced asphalt courts with droopy chain-link nets. He showed me his house. He showed me every school in the county. He showed me every church in the county. Then, saving the best for last, he showed me Bob Dole’s boyhood home, Bob Dole’s high school home, Bob Dole’s mother’s home and every street corner where Bob Dole ever scratched his nuts. And the whole time I’m sitting there politely nodding my head and saying “Wow!!!” over and over again, but inside I am screaming “AAAAHHHHH!!!!” at a million decibels, hoping against hope that a killer asteroid will right then fall out of the sky and obliterate the entirety of Russell, Kansas, so I don’t have to endure a single nuther nanosecond of this endless tour of Bob Dole’s hometown.

Finally 42 years later, the publisher of the Daily Udder thank-godfully dropped me off at the motel, saying, “Get some sleep … we’ve got a big day” … and I find myself, instead of crashing, pacing the room frenetically, wondering if there’s not maybe another Greyhound bus going through sometime very very soon that can take me anywhere but Russell, Kansas. Shortly before noon, I venture forth into the harsh midsummer sunlight, still tripping intensely, to wait for the publisher of the Daily Udder to pick me up for our “big day.” As I’m standing there in the motel parking lot, I see a long line of massive cottonwoods, all leaning about 30 degrees toward the east. And I’m wondering what might cause an entire row of giant cottonwoods to all be leaning like that. Then I notice the wind hitting me, and I notice that I too am now leaning over at about 30 degrees toward the east, same as the cottonwoods. I felt roots growing down from my feet and extending deep into the Kansas topsoil. When the publisher arrived, I was hopping from foot to foot, trying to keep those roots from taking hold.

The publisher of the Daily Udder takes me a Kiwanis Club meeting at, of all places, the local high school cafeteria, where our midday repast consists of high school cafeteria food — clean down to the grisly Salisbury steak and instant mashed potatoes and brown gravy and crunchy canned peas and carrots being splatted onto plastic trays by corpulent desultory women who look like they have not left their stations there in the cafeteria for decades, like, if you removed their ladles from their hands, their arms would reflexively, robotically continue the food-serving/splatting motion until they eventually expired.

Now, I had no more idea at that time what a Kiwanis Club is than I do now. All I know is that the guest speaker was a local high school junior who had placed 727th in a recent Kansas 4H oratory competition, and his subject was something like new and improved ways to slop hogs. Just as I was becoming truly captivated by the fact that all of the little peas and carrots on my tray were now performing very impressive military marching maneuvers, I heard my name spoken. The publisher had just introduced me as “the next editor of the Daily Udder.” I was asked to stand and say a few words. Would these people understand how easy it is to get caught up in a bit of innocent acid-dropping on a Greyhound bus? Would they understand marching peas and carrots? Would they understand my killer asteroid fantasy? I doubted it very much. What I did not doubt was my need to get the hell out of Russell, muy pronto, lest I find myself listening to hog-slopping oratory for the next five years.

The publisher dangled the keys to the company car in front of my nose and said that he hoped I would drive it back to Denver to retrieve all my belongings so I could return and begin my new life in Russell as soon as possible. The escape options at that point were as limitless as one tank of gas could carry me. Those keys were so shiny and seductive there in the harsh midsummer Kansas sun, I felt like Gollum staring at the One Ring there at the edge of the volcano. At what point would the publisher of the Daily Udder call the cops and report his company car missing? A week? Two?

In the end, I begged off, saying I would need some time to think his generous (which it was) offer over. But I could tell by the look on the publisher’s face that he knew I wouldn’t be coming back. It seemed like he had been down that road before. Maybe not specifically with tripping hippies, but with others who took one look at his little town, a town he obviously loved and was very proud of, and said thanks but no thanks. He dropped me off at the bus station, and the next morning, I was back in Denver, broke as ever, wondering if I had learned any sort of salient lesson. On the one hand, I could easily have looked at my journey to Russell as an example of a desperate man doing nothing more than trying to survive, something that has defined our species forever and ever (at least the grown-up members of our species). Or I could have looked at my journey as a repudiation of that mind-set, as a sign from the heavens that I needed to set my sights higher than simple survival, that I needed to be looking not east toward the Great Plains, but west toward the Rockies, where, two months later, I found myself living.

I did not venture to Russell again for two decades. While driving to Virginia in 2004, the Russell exit sign off I-70 beckoned, and I decided to eyeball what might have been. Though clearly suffering from economic malaise, it seemed like a nice enough little town.

I do not know whether the fact that I was tripping on that first visit a lifetime ago made me miss the real Russell, or whether it made me see the town as I maybe would not have otherwise, from a perspective where my dire fiscal situation was not necessarily ignored, but was not the driving force in my decision-making process. Did the Red Dragon enhance my view, jade my view or skew my view? Did it encourage me to look at Russell through the equally unfair and inaccurate lenses of a telescope, a microscope or a kaleidoscope? Either way, that marked the last time I ever dropped acid. I made no resolution; I just never felt like taking that trip again.

After relating that story to Winona, I could not tell whether I had talked her into trying acid with her mountain-biking buddy or out of it. She was smiling as she left to deal with other thirsty customers. It could go one way or the other. I crossed my fingers.

To read the entire unabridged versions of various “Smoke Signals,” as well as a whole lot of other inane bullshit, go to mjohnfayhee.com.

One More Reason Why SUV’s are Evil

For some reason, when I heard the car door shut, I knew I was screwed. It was 4 a.m., January. I was perched high on the lip of Muley Point, Utah, and the wind was howling. Somewhere in the dark, far below this wind-riven promontory, the San Juan River flowed with ice. I was naked and my car doors were locked tight.

It began with the search for a new car, an SUV. After 20 years of tired, worn-out Subarus, I needed a real four-wheel-drive; something that would get me where I needed to go; and something I could sleep in. With a new job and the regular paycheck that came with it, I went looking for an SUV — not too big, but not too small either.

The car salesman winced when I asked if they came without running boards. “How’s your little lady gonna git in?” he inquired with a wolfish grin. “Well,” I drawled back, not to be outdone, “I don’t know any ladies that can’t pull themselves into a car. Most of ’em drive trucks.” He looked puzzled when I insisted on laying the back seats down and became visibly rattled when I crawled in to lie down. I lay there for several minutes, silently staring at the ceiling, just to fuck with him. He emitted an audible sigh of relief when I finally announced that I’d take it.

That was early fall and I finally got a break in January. It was time to try out my sparkly new SUV with some quality car camping. The best place I knew of for that was Muley Point, high on the southwest rim of Cedar Mesa in the southern part of the Beehive State.

I left Colorado in a blizzard that didn’t let up until Paradox Valley. Upon arriving in the late afternoon, I got out to traverse the rim and sat to watch the play of light across Monument Valley, 50 miles to the south. What a relief to be away from work and family holiday duties! After the final glow faded from Navajo Mountain and the San Juan River canyon was shrouded in darkness, I turned to dinner and the set-up of my new home. As I went through the ritual of spreading my pad and sleeping bag, it dawned on me that I could sit back there and eat! Damn! … no wind and sheltered from the rapidly plunging temperatures. Congratulating myself, I celebrated with another beer and finally, after reading by headlamp through several hours of early-winter darkness, it was time to sleep.

While the car rocked in wind that originated somewhere in Nevada, I slept — and what a cozy, comfortable sleep it was. Until 3:30, when I had to pee. I lay there for what seemed like hours, trying to will it away, but it was inevitable.

I sat up wrapped in my bag. OK — real quick — no screwing around. I threw off the sleeping bag, rolled toward the door, pulled the handle, kicked it open into a bitter wind and stumbled out. In hindsight, I should have paid closer attention to that clicking noise as I got out. But it was a new car and I had yet to appreciate its “features.” As I hurriedly pushed into the wind, trying to gauge which direction to pee, the door blew shut and my learning curve for these “features” steepened. I had rolled over the lock button on the keys and was now, quite literally, out in the cold. 4 a.m. — dark, windy and a temperature far south of 32°.

It was time to think and act quickly.

The frigid wind on my bare ass was disconcerting, as I hastily surveyed my surroundings, quite aware that I could die, or at least become really uncomfortable. The ground all around me was smooth, but I remembered a campfire ring along the rim — surely there were some big rocks, but I couldn’t be certain. I shuffled carefully towards the darkened rim, fearful of sharp rocks and cactus in the night.

There it was — a circle of boulders, each as big as my head, and heavy. I lugged one back to the car where I began to assess the price of SUV windows. Damn! They were all big and, no doubt, expensive. I settled on the back door window, the one that had blown shut. It was, in a certain sense, revenge. It was a difficult (and long) 15 seconds. Shiny new car — great big rock — it just wasn’t right.

But desperate times call for drastic measures.

Determined, I reared back with both hands wrapped firmly around the boulder and hit the window. The rock recoiled violently against my bare, cold chest. Shit! I pulled myself up off the ground as I cursed into the dark. Adrenaline surged as I gripped the rock and again struck the window, more forceful this time. It bounced back again, but this time I was braced. Now I was freezing and pissed. “Fucking windows are rubber!” I screeched into the wind.

Finally, after several more attempts, I wound up and slammed the window, catching it with a sharp edge of the boulder. The window exploded into a million tiny fragments. My arms followed the rock through the jagged hole — hands clamped tightly around it in anticipation of another rebound.

Well, I thought, that was cool. I threw the rock over behind me, reached through the hole to open the door, and realized my hand was wet and sticky. I was bleeding profusely, as a shard had left a long, streak-like slash on my left hand. “A mere flesh wound,” I muttered, smiling at both my wit and success. I recovered the offending key chain, unlocked all the doors and dressed, all while wrapping my hand in an old T-shirt. It was good to realize that I could multi-task when absolutely necessary.

I threw all the front-seat detritus in back with the glass shards, jumped in and pressed on with a cold ride down the seemingly endless switchbacks to the desert floor.

I entered the town of Bluff in growing light. My hand throbbed. Bad news, but I expected as much. No clinic, no doctor — the folks in Recapture Lodge pointed east — go to Montezuma Creek. I snagged a complimentary cup of coffee to ward off dehydration and to make up for the blood loss, rewrapped my hand with fresh paper towels, and headed toward the rising sun.

Upon arriving in Montezuma Creek, a dusty oil town bordering the Navajo Reservation, I pulled in front of the clearly marked clinic, which was just opening for the day. After the basic clinic formalities, a very polite Navajo doctor ushered me into a sterile room and quietly sewed me up. I tried in vain to explain what had happened. He smiled politely and sent me on my way. This trip was over — almost.

The drive home was uneventful, if you can call Lizard Head Pass in a raging blizzard with one window missing uneventful.

The final “bright spot” of the trip didn’t come until a week later, as I sat at my desk on a Monday morning recounting the bizarre sequence of events to the anthropologist from the adjacent office.

“Fillmore, you’re an idiot,” he said, shaking his head. It was time to set the hook … and finish the story.

“Well,” I challenged, “I bet you’ve never been healed by a Navajo medicine man.” His eyes narrowed as I held up my bandaged hand. He peered at it closely, intensely interested as I slowly unwound the bandage. He placed his reading glasses on the end of his nose, and squinted as he bent even closer. I had him.

He snorted. “Those are stitches,” he exclaimed with scorn. “Where did you find this medicine man?”

“The Montezuma Creek Tribal Clinic,” I answered, grinning triumphantly. That single moment damn near made the whole thing worth it.

The deep scars of this experience remain — I don’t mean the physical kind, although there are those. I’m talking mental scars. To this day, even several years later, I feel an involuntary twitch and a cold shiver when I push the “lock” button on the key chain of my well-used and no-longer-so-shiny SUV. I have, however, learned all about those “features.”

Robert Fillmore is a professor of geology at Western State College in Gunnison, Colo.