Anchored, But Never Tied Down

When my boyfriend gave me my personal anchor system, it came in a series of Christmas gifts wrapped in newspapers, positioned so a photo filled one side of the box, with humorous thoughts and proclamations written over the heads of the people depicted. On the box with the PAS inside, a grinning woman in aviators declared, “You may not realize it yet, but this shit is about to become real important to you.”

I think he was talking about giving gifts between the two of us and sharing holidays in a way that signaled the development of our relationship and our commitment to one another, and not necessarily what was in the box, but it applied to both. I had just started climbing and had no idea what the daisy chain of black webbing would do for me.

He took me out climbing a few weeks later, and on an unseasonably warm January day, he climbed to the top of a sport route on North Table Mountain near Golden, Colo., used his own daisy chain to anchor himself to the top of the climb, and belayed me up from there. He’d girth-hitched my anchor system to my harness, given me advice on how to position it to keep it out of the way (which I ignored, because, yes, I was that kind of student), and, at the top of the climb, showed me how to clip its locking carabiner to the anchors and back it up with another quickdraw. Simple enough. Then he talked me through cleaning the top of a sport route so I could take down routes myself and save him from having to complete every climb he put up twice.

My PAS became a transformative tool for me in going from being a belay betty, who came along for a ride on a few 5.7s and 5.8s, to a partner who could follow and take down 5.10s. In a practical sense, what my PAS does is keep me from falling to my death. It has become a sign to me that I’ve completed something, whether it’s a single-pitch sport climb or just one of several pitches on a multi-pitch trad line. Locking its carabiner down is a signal to me to relax, to revel in the sense of accomplishment I get when finishing a route — I took up climbing for the same reason I gave up knitting: I like the feeling of having finished a task. At the top of a sport climb, it’s also the turning point at which my life goes from being in someone else’s hands to being in my own as I set up a rappel and control my own descent from the climb.

My PAS has become one of my most-revered pieces of gear. I trust it — not the blind trust that means never checking your gear to see if it’s wearing through. But the trust that tells me, if I’ve checked it on the ground, clipped it in and locked it, I don’t think about it again. I don’t worry that it might glance away at my moment of need. I don’t have visions of it unraveling or shredding and allowing me to plummet to certain death. Or even of it flirting with other women.

Flirting? Right. Because the truth is, the kind of relationship I have with my PAS is a kind of relationship I’ve never been able to have with a human being.

I trust it to have my best interest in mind. I don’t feel less in control of my own life when I use my PAS to anchor myself at the top of a climb. When I’m pushing grades and need to clip into a bolt to rest and visualize my next moves, I don’t resent it for holding me up. I would never feel a desire to log in to my PAS’s email account to see if it’s been using online dating sites again. I wouldn’t get jealous if someone else happened to take my PAS for a climb (not that it would ever leave my side). Even when it’s a little dirty, I’m proud to be seen with my PAS — my badge of honor in a gym, the mark that I’ve been out in the world, climbed hard and gotten dirty for it. It has impeccable table manners and is always dressed appropriately.

The boyfriend … well … let’s just say I have a friend who refers to him as Bad Hat Guy.

It’s a lot easier to share the world with just my gear. Ropes and webbing and quick draws and camalots place fewer demands on my time and attention, and are always ready and available to go when I am. They’re unflaggingly patient, even if I’m cranky. They don’t have bad days. And they never question whether I put the right kind of jelly on the PB&J. But, while I’ve had nights I’ve considered cuddling up to my rope, and the embrace of my PAS certainly is secure, it’s not terribly warm. And it never brings take-out Chinese and a six-pack over to watch movies after I’ve worn myself out climbing rocks all day.

I still think of that phrase, “this shit is about to become real important to you,” as I clip in at the top of a climb and my PAS becomes real important to me. I think about the boyfriend, now an ex, and all the men who have come after him.

After all, he’s been replaced. And my gear has not.

Freelance writer and Denver resident Elizabeth Miller is part of the third-generation of her family to be born in Colorado. If she happens to die while rock climbing, she would prefer to be buried near the old family farm in Meeker, though really, any open field will do.

Calendar September 2010

Ooom pah!
Billings, MT, Sept. 4-6. Can you dance for three days and nights? Youíre in luck if you like to polka, because the Big Sky Polka Festival keeps you three-steppiní high with, yes, beer, and German food and several fine polka bands, including Julie Lee and Her White Rose Band, Matt and the Dakota Dutchmen, the Polka Rhythm Kings and the Bob Bares Band. Think of it as Slovenian slam dancing. Bring the RV, the kids and grannies … itís got to be an experience you wonít soon forget. And everyone can polka! More info at bigskypolkaclub.com or call 406-656-7470.

A wee bit of green
Estes Park, CO, Sept/ 9-12. Ready to go Celtic? Longs Peak Scottish/Irish Highlands Festival in Estes Park has it all from music to marching, jousting competitions, dogs of the British Isles, highland dance, folk music, bagpipes and a bowling-ball shoot (not sure if theyíre shooting the bowling balls or rolling them … ). And certainly a lot of kilts (donít ask what they wear underneath those tartans … ) all at the beautiful Stanley Park Fairgrounds. Thereís a great lineup of music, including Mythica, Alex Beaton, Brigadoons, Rathkeltair, Albannach, Prickly Pair and Loch Carron, to name a few. Check it out online at scotfest.com or call 800-903-7837.

Fall color 
Jackson, WY, Sept. 9-19. Art in the fall has just as many colors as the changing foliage, and the 26th annual Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival has thousands of art enthusiasts enjoying the diverse artwork and spectacular natural surroundings. World-class installments of contemporary, culinary, landscape, Native American, wildlife and Western, arts, combined with an exceptional array of music, cowboy poetry and cuisine. More than 50 events round out the 11-day festival, which you can check out online at jacksonholechamber.com/fall_arts_festival/

Brews for youz
Denver, CO, Sept. 10-19. Honestly, there can never be enough beer fests, can there? The Mile High City jumps onboard with their Denver Beer Fest, and 10 glorious days of tasting, pub crawls, meet the brewers, brewery tours and entertainment ó all told, more than 100-beer related events. Theyíve also book-ended two major beer-themed festivals, the Great American Beer Festival and Oktoberfest (OK, so itís Ocktober Fest in September … ), September 17-19 and 24-26. Brilliant! Get the scoop and the draw online at denver.org/denverbeerfest and  oktoberfestdenver.com

What the Hay?
Hobson, MT, Sept. 12. What started as a friendly competition in 1990 between ranching neighbors has turned into full-blown sculpture artistry all constructed from hay bales. Last year, at the 20th-anniversary edition, there were over 50 innovative entries. Although local farmers and ranchers construct the majority of the creations, there have been entrants from all parts of Montana, as well as California, Arizona and as far away as New York. The sculptures are displayed in fields along the Bale Trail, a 21-mile loop just south of U.S. Highway 87, running along state highways 239 and 541 with the eastern end being in Hobson, the western end at Windham, and Utica being the halfway point. So, fire up the olí pick-em-up truck and either drive the trail or git yerself some bales and make yer own. For general and contest info, call Val at 406-423-5803 or see sculptures and info online montanabaletrail.com or Facebook Montana-Bale-Trail-What-the-Hay.

Burn the Grump
Crested Butte, CO, Sept. 13-18. In a week-long frenzy of Slavic-Italio-harvest-pagan rituals, the costume capital of Colorado once again hosts Vinotok, this year a week earlier than usual, and itís bound to be even more wild since itís the 25th anniversary. Twenty-four lads and lassies, the Greenman, the Knight, Dragon, Magistrate, Earth Mother, flag bearers, fire twirlers, drummers and of course the Grump all enable mumming, drinking, frolicking, town potluck, Liarís Night, storytelling and Saturdayís Vinotok passion play and procession, where the Grump is given a fair trial but always hauled down the main street to burn, convicted, at a huge bonfire. Join in and wear your Renaissance threads if so desired. More info, entertaining photos and videos on Facebook ìVinotokî.

Got Dem Blues
Telluride, CO, Sept. 17-19. The 17th Annual Telluride Blues & Brews Festival runs rampant this year with George Thorogood & the Destroyers, special guests Elvin Bishop and Eddie Shaw, BB King, Otis Taylor with Chuck Shaw and so many more gracing the stage in one of the most breathtaking settings in the Rockies. Back is the 3rd Annual Coolest Campsite Challenge, artful campsite designs not just for amusement but will earn you some serious schwag this year should you top the competition. Itís three days of riotous fun whether you drop in for a day or the duration. Online at tellurideblues.com

Run for fun
Boulder CO, Sept. 19. The Boulder Marathon promises to be one of the best and most-entertaining races in the Rockies. Itís open to all walkers and runners and, hey, you have an entire seven hours to get through the course ó so, if youíre not a pro, semi, serious runner, you can just stroll through the day chatting with your buddies. It all starts at 7:30 a.m. at the City of Boulder Reservoir, where it also finishes (that would be at 2:30 p.m.). And itís fully supported, with ample aid stations and toilets. Get yerself online bouldermarathon.com.

Monsoonal

It’s a strange and wonderful thing when the first few trickles of (hopefully) imminent monsoon season (like mountains, seemingly predictable weather patterns are well capable of displaying false summits) hit generally fairly parched Gila Country. That joyful cli- matic circumstance is exacerbated by the fact that those first welcome splats of precipita- tion follow what in the Southwest is known as the “Foresummer” — the hottest, driest, windiest (and, in the last couple weeks before the monsoons fully materialize, the muggiest) time of year. I should mention straight off that, despite whatever stereotypical mental images those not familiar with Gila Country might have (all of which are completely inaccurate), when it rains here, it is truly something to behold, in both relative and absolute terms. My very first night in Silver City, back in July 1976, I was curious why the curbs in downtown are all like 45 feet high. That very night, I received an an- swer, as the heavens opened up and before I could even begin to ponder the notion of what to me at that time was a new concept called a “flash flood,” Bullard Street suddenly became the first Class-4 main drag I had ever seen. My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets as I witnessed scads of household appliances, herds of mooing livestock, uprooted cotton- woods, Ford pick-up trucks, women, children & wheelchair-bound old people and barrels of perfectly good whiskey all being swept down the street to their assured doom in full view of the entire town. (OK, that may be slightly hyperbolic.) In all my years living in the Colorado High Country, only a few times did I ever witness a rainstorm that approaches the level of ferocity of the average downpour in Southwest New Mexico. In the High Country, you sit there thinking, as thunder’s reverberating all around you, how weird it is to be up as high as the womb of lightning. Because of the altitude, you get the feeling that you are a visitor to the realm of storms, and, therefore, whatever storm-related fate might befall you, you basi- cally deserve it, like, if you weren’t living and/ or recreating up higher than people were ever meant to be, maybe you wouldn’t have got- ten zapped. In these parts, the storms come down to street level, as through they are purposefully, almost carnivorously, stalking the good folk of our humble hamlet. I mean, here we are, sitting on our front porches, smok- ing a bowl and sipping a beer, when, out of the blue, here comes an Old-Testament-like monsoonal weather front, salivating, licking its chops, looking for an otherwise innocent drunk person to scare the living shit out of and maybe even kill. And here’s another dif- ference between High Country monsoonal weather patterns and those found in Gila Country: In the mountains, storm fronts almost always arrive on the scene from the West; hereabouts, they literally come from all directions, and sometimes from several directions at once, just to keep us on our toes. (This would stem from our closeness to the Gulf of Mexico, the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean.) In Gila Country, storms are sneaky bastards, ready to ambush the unwary, which pretty much includes most of us most of the time. But, as my buddy Pedro is wont to say, “At least they are warm killer tempests” — which is true enough; here you can actually comfortably stand out in the rain and not die from hypothermia in a matter of minutes, a reality that does not in and of itself mitigate the “killer” component of Pedro’s observation. But, at the same time, the instant that first drop of rain impacts long-desiccated terra firma, the entire area becomes verdancy incarnate. Everything inclined to turn green does that, in about 15 minutes, in a National- Geographic-special, time-lapse-photography sorta way. Cactus-covered hillsides suddenly look like postcards from Ireland. Riparian zones become so lush that they bear more re- semblance to Central America than the image most folks have of southern New Mexico. And crickets and frogs spring to life and add their vocalizations to a natural symphony that also includes cicadas the size of house cats and the tweetings of the 200-some-odd bird species that call Gila Country home. As I was lying there in bed the first night after the monsoon rains came this year, lis- tening, through no choice of my own, to the millions of chirping crickets and croaking frogs that were apparently now living not only in my yard, but right under my bedroom window, I could not help but be impressed with every aspect of Nature that has some- how found a way to adapt to harsh environ- mental circumstances. I wondered how all these critters manage to survive the nine or 10 months of the year when local precipita- tion is anything but guaranteed. By the second night, I was thinking that, in addition to playing their part in the sym- phony of life, the millions of chirping crickets and croaking frogs now living directly under my bedroom window were also helping to drown out the usual nocturnal auditory emis- sions that define life in any New Mexico town: revving choppers, emergency vehicle sirens, firecrackers, gunfire, barking curs and loud rap music emanating from low-riders with faulty exhaust systems. By the third night, though, I found myself lying there trying to figure out a way to get those aforementioned millions of chirping crickets and croaking frogs to SHUT THE HELL UP so I could get at least a little bit of shut-eye. I found myself thinking, in between mentally concocting several dozen sure-fire methods for torturing crickets and frogs, that I would happily trade straight up the otherwise splendid components and results of monsoon season for a world sans chirp- ing and croaking, even if that meant watch- ing Gila Country wither away to a degree of Sahara-like dryness that it came to serve as a poster child for both desertification and Global Warming. Fecundity, be damned! The pox on the admirable adaptability of Nature! Screw Nature! One of the main ecological features of a place that experiences true monsoonal weather patterns is that just about every creature — from pond slime pretty much up my degenerate drinking buddies — has to fit the entire procreative process into a single season, before things start to dry out again and everyone just finds a cool, dark corner to occupy for the next three seasons. Ergo: Since the chirpings and croakings of the crickets and frogs are unabashed mating calls (yes, I watch The Discovery Channel), those par- ticular creatures, of course, have little choice but to chirp and croak their fool heads off, no matter that yours truly is trying mightily to sleep off his latest beer-related indiscre- tions. Even though I often find myself this time of year perusing the web for products like “Crickets Be Gone!” and “Frogs Away!” I fully understand their situation, having bel- lowed out a mating call or two in my time, as well. Though I often find myself pondering the admittedly very un-environmentalist con- cept of eradicating every one of those chirping and croaking little buggers within earshot of my bed, I at least grok the notion of begging for sex. Thus, I make no effort to act upon my species-specific genocidal fantasies. Toward first light, just as the crickets and frogs were handing the Fayhee-irritation ba- ton over to the cicadas and birds, my sleep-de- prived, delirious mind began to drift toward, as it often does, the subject of zoolinguistics (thanks to my buddy Stephen Buhner for straight-faced laying that word on me, as I was drinking beer and wondering aloud what on earth one calls the study of non-human verbal communication). I got to thinking about what it is those crickets and frogs are actually saying when they chirp and croak. OK, we know, as I said before, that they are “mat- ing calls.” And we know, or at least I think we know, that it’s mainly the guy crickets and frogs doing the calling, a grim reality that has made its way clear to the top of the evolution- ary ladder, to the very watering holes I visit. But what would their outwardly monotonous chirpings and croakings translate to, say, in a mountain-town bar? To the human ear, those chirpings and croakings seem to be the very definition of repetition — the exact same noise over (midnight, unable to fall asleep) and over (2 a.m., still wide awake) and over (4 a.m., thinking again of hunting down a 55-gallon barrel of “Crickets Be Gone!), ad infinitum (fuck it, time to get up). By and large, those chirpings and croakings are either mono- or bi-syllabic. So, as far as my 3 a.m. somnolent lizard brain thought process can tell, those male crickets and frogs are either saying, “Snatch,” or else, when they add in that romantic, albeit unvaried, second syllable, they might be saying “Snatch, please!” Or “Snatch, now!” Or perhaps, within those one or two lower-life-form syllables, there might be enough in the way of inflection that, to the ear of a potentially receptive female cricket or frog, the repetitive chirpings and croakings amount to, “Hey, baby, I’ve got the biggest sausage in all of Fayhee’s yard!” But, perhaps, the human ear is simply unatuned to what’s really being said. Perhaps those crickets and frogs are reciting lyrical love poems in Cricket-ese and Indo-Frog that would rival a Shakespearean sonnet. Maybe what horny female crickets and frogs hear are not simple chirpings and croakings (“Snatch, now!”), but, rather, a cricket or frog Frank Sinatra crooning “Strangers in the Night.” (My friend Julie thinks that the crickets and frogs are saying nothing more than “Wake up!” — and, since she is a card-carrying Earth Goddess-type, she probably speaks several dialects of both Cricket-ese and Indo-Frog. ) Thing is, it’s my guess that each species has its own vocal equivalent of a cricket’s chirping for nookie or a frog’s contention that he has the biggest sausage in the entire yard. Bull elks bugle, cats yowl and middle-class white guys on cruises grunt loudly while try- ing to dance the limbo after seven margaritas. And, once your mind starts wandering in that direction (that would be at 4:17 a.m.), there’s no way on earth to apply the brakes. Though many young people might con- sider this some sort of urban legend, thirty years ago, guys in bars actually did ask women, by way of an opening conversational salvo (“chirp”), what their sign was. (Best response I ever heard to that lame interrogative (and I stress this was not pointed in my direction specifically, though it’s my guess it was point- ed to all males of the species in general) was, “Stop.” I’d like to imagine that cricket and frog females exercise similar discretion, that they don’t fall for any ol’ chirp or croak.) I remem- ber sitting in a now-defunct Colorado High Country imbibery, listening to the comely barkeep, who told me that, for the ninth time that very evening, some young buck newbie said to her, “We ought to go skiing sometime.” (“Croak.”) “Don’t these assholes have the ability to come up with anything better than that?” she fumed, leading me to believe that the problem was not that these guys were trying to pick her up, but, rather, that they were using stale lines. “Uh, we ought to go, uh, hiking sometime!” I responded (I thought wittily!), to no avail. (I considered mentioning something about having the biggest sausage in the yard, but, for once, was waylaid by some very uncharacteristic discretion that somehow percolated its way to my usually very uninhibited vocal chords.) There’s a certain mountain bar that I’ve been in, shall we say, more than once. But almost all of my more-than-once visits have occurred during happy hour time; rarely have I been in that bar after 10 p.m., when the crowd becomes decidedly less ancient. Well, one night, I happened to be in the bar much later than usual, and I pointed my ears toward the various attempts at croaking and chirping on the part of the young males. The main syllables I discerned were, “Dude” (a particularly weird choice of chirp when pointed towards a female) and a “Beavis and Butthead”-type snicker, a flaccid “heh heh” that followed whatever the previous sentence was. “My mother was just in a car crash.” “Heh heh.” And, since many of these young men were seemingly having far better luck at drawing the attention of the proximate females than most of my more loquacious happy-hour- drinking chums, I came to understand that, when it comes to attracting members of the opposite sex who are in their prime breed- ing years, maybe mono- and bi-syllables are indeed where it’s at. For all I know, chirping frogs and croaking crickets — wait! it’s the other way around! — might get laid more than all my mountain amigos combined, which, now that I think about it, is nothing really to hang your evolutionary hat on. “But, do they ever find true love? Do they maintain lifelong relationships?” my now very drunk buddy Pedro asked when I bounced all this silliness off him. “I don’t think that’s what crickets and frogs are really looking for,” I responded, like I’m the goddamned Dr. Phil of rutting and in-heat insects and amphibians. “Well, maybe the older crickets and frogs,” I added. “Yeah, but, by that time, it’s the female frogs and crickets who are doing the chirping and croaking,” Pedro (three times divorced, I should point out) said, as I looked around the bar and noticed that the only female (probably for miles) left inside the bar was the well-worn bartender, and she definitely looked liked, if she never heard another chirp or croak the rest of her life, that would be just fine with her. (Pedro had shortly before chased off the last two female customers with a real successful chirp: “If you want to buy me a drink, I’ll let you.”) “And all the older male crickets and frogs are now wondering if it was all worth it, if they ought to have just kept their mouths shut in the first place,” Pedro sighed, to his mostly empty glass. Hours later, as I lay there in bed, bombarded by the chirpings and croakings of a million aroused crickets and frogs, with the latest batch of monsoonal storm clouds gath- ering over Gila Country, I thought to myself, “Get it while you can, boys, for soon you will find yourself drinking at happy hour instead of pulling all-nighters!” Chirp!!!! Croak ……. Heh heh. • — — •/— — —/•••/— — •— •/— — —/••/—/•/— — — — —/— —/— •/• •• — •/• —/•• —/— •/• — —/• — •/••/•••/—/• •/•••/—

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Gear Mania Comes Home to Roost

Illustrations by Keith Svihovec Two years ago, just before Mountain Gazette senior correspondent B. Frank and I embarked upon a two-week pack-shlepping trip to Mexico’s rugged Copper Canyon, I did something I had not done in almost 20 years: I bought a whole slew of new backpacking gear, most of which I test drove on a three-day trek into the Gila with a couple of my long-time partners in backcountry crime. This was all in all a strange experience on a couple levels. First, there was the fact that I was remarkably — stunningly, even — behind the times on when it came to technical issues, like the different species of materials now used for packs, sleeping bags, tents and raingear, and gear specs, like boil time for stoves and heat dispersal stats for cook kits. I mean, I felt like a goddamned caveman. Then there was the fact that all of my old gear — a Lowe Contour IV pack, an MSR Whisperlite stove, an Evernew stainless-steel cook-kit, a Bibler two-door I-Tent, a Katadyn water filter, a North Face Chrysalis sleeping bag, a full-length Therm-a-Rest self-inflating pad, a Crazy Creek chair, a Mont-Bell Gore-Tex rain suit, etc, etc. — all still worked just fine and dandy. Not a single piece of my backpacking gear — which was all cutting edge when I bought it — had failed, though it had all been used for multi-month thru-hikes on the Arizona Trail, the Colorado section of the Continental Divide Trail and the Colorado Trail — to say nothing of hundreds of other trail days and nights in 20 states and 15 countries. Every single piece of backpacking paraphernalia I owned served as a poster child for gear well made, well used and still very much usable. Yet, there I was, suddenly eyeballing catalogues, gear stores and websites, looking to — gulp! — “upgrade.” And, as a result, I felt sheepish, unclean, even, like I was suddenly a card-carrying member of the various gear-crazed, more-money-than-brains demographics that often dominate the sociology of Mountain Country and that my drunken reprobate hiking buddies and I ridicule at every opportunity, even though we like to see such people parting with their cash at our local gear stores. So, why then was I discarding all that old, still-very-functional gear in favor of new stuff? I can tell you without compunction that it had nothing whatsoever to do with image enhancement, or keeping up with the Joneses, or being a compulsive gear-acquisition junkie. No, my shopping binge was a result of recent technical innovations resulting in much lighter equipage. After a lifetime of hauling heavy packs up and down mountains all day for weeks on end, my increasingly decrepit corpus delecti had taken a serious hit on the soft tissue front. Basically, a lot of shit had started to hurt. Ergo, I decided to take advantage of all the new gear now available that is literally often half the weight of the gear I have happily owned and operated for so long. So, in stealth fashion, so none of my drunken reprobate hiking buddies would know, I pulled out the checkbook and bought myself a GoLite sleeping bag and frameless pack, a one-person Sierra Designs tent, an ultralight, three-quarters-length Therm-a-Rest pad, with a matching six-ounce camp chair, a GSI titanium cook kit, a Snow Peak stove that’s lighter than a Macanudo cigar, an EMS rain suit that can fit into my front pocket, a couple of flexible Platypus water bottles and, in place of the filter, a bottle of chemical water purification tablets. All told, I cut at least 20 pounds off the base weight of my pack, without making any compromises whatsoever on the comfort front. All that is well and good, of course, but then came the day when yours truly met up with my drunken reprobate hiking buddies at the Gila trailhead. I did not say a word as I prepared to sling my new ensemble onto my back. But, before I could do so, my longest-lived drunken reprobate hiking buddy cleared his throat and said words to the effect of, “Damnation, boy, what’s that shit you got on your back?” The ribbing did not diminish for the duration of that equipment shakedown cruise. I was accused ad infinitum of jumping onto a faddish bandwagon. But, by the end of the trip, my drunken reprobate hiking buddies, who are the same age I am, started making note of the fact that I seemed far fresher than they were. And I was, indeed. It was not long before those drunken reprobate buddies began perusing gear catalogues for lighter gear. It dawned on me as I penned these words several months ago, words that could go on in a retrospective and ruminative manner for many more pages (you know me!), that every member of the Mountain Gazette tribe likely has something to say about “gear,” and the role gear plays in their mountainous lives. Some, of course, eschew everything gear-related in a near Abbey-esque fashion, preferring to have their old Kelty Tiogas chemically decompose on their backs rather than purchase a new pack. Some are first in line when next year’s products are released. Most, I guess, are somewhere in between, buying new gear when their old gear wears out, or when there is a truly technological-improvement-based reason for pulling out the wallet. No matter their procurement perspectives, we all own gear, whether that gear is new or ancient, top-end or scrounged from a dumpster. And many of us have gear-based stories to tell. Earlier in the summer, I put out a call for gear-related stories, and, as usual, received about 10 times more than I could ever get in print. What follows is a representative smattering of submissions that cover just about every conceivable perspective toward the often over-rated, often necessary, often unnecessary concept of gear. —MJF

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Hot Air

My buddy Pedro winked in my direction, smirked a mierda-eating grin and nodded his noggin Bobblehead-on-speed-style when I en- tered the Burro Borracho Cantina and Lucha Libre Emporium. “Well, I did it,” he said almost smugly as I approached. Despite every pre-purchase protestation I could muster, Pedro had just spent 242 hard-earned dollars for what he considered the ultimate Christmas present for his latest l’amour: a romantic two-person, early-morning champagne hot-air balloon ride outside Albuquerque. I shook my head so vigorously, I lost several gold crowns. I had forewarned Pedro about the psychic, to say nothing of physical, perils of ballooning. It mattered not one whit to him that I spoke from intense personal ex- perience on this subject. Pedro’s mind was made up. His current lady-friend, Darlene, had commented almost abstractly (and certainly drunkenly) the week before about how it would be nice for once to do something that did not involve sitting hour after hour on the exact same barstools they always sat on in the Burro Borracho. Not one to miss something as obvious as an impending case of significant-other-based boredom, Pedro immediately suggested that they embark then and there upon what must have seemed to him at that Happy Hour juncture like a National-Geographic-documentary-level journey to the unexplored hinterlands: “We could go sit over in the booth,” he said, expectantly. I’m not sure whether his sweetie’s exasperated groan was based more upon the fact that the Burro’s lone booth — upholstered in the finest of beer-stained, sticky (don’t ask, don’t tell), tattered naugahyde, was located next to the doorless entrance to the single most unsavory men’s room in the entire history of skanky watering holes, or whether it was more general in nature. I suspect the latter. Either way, at the exact moment the final air molecules of a theatrical sigh that lasted well over 15 minutes passed the final molecules of Darlene’s globbed-on bright- red lipstick, the local news came on the Burro’s 1957 scratchy black-and-white, aluminum-foil-antennaed, yard-sale-procured TV that sometimes gets one channel and sometimes gets no channels. And that one channel was running a happy-go-lucky feature segment on the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, which is so famous in New Mexico that many of the state’s license plates boast an image that looks like a flimsy air-filled cloth sack falling like a rock out of the sky. “Look,” Darlene said, pointing toward the flickering screen. “Maybe we could do something like that!” At first, Pedro thought Darlene was pointing toward the famous old Corona beer poster with the three provoca- tive, bathing-suit-attired nubile young ladies. “Sure,” he said, “but where are we gonna get two other women?” he asked. “Maybe your nieces!” “No, asshole,” Darlene snarled. “On the TV.” By the time Pedro managed to focus his one good eye on the TV, the local news had cut away to coverage of a high-speed chase in Tucson involving about 40 cop cars, three helicopters, a SWAT team and, eventually, a pair of mean-looking homies being handcuffed and hauled away. This really confused the livin’ shit out of Pedro. “You want to engage in a high-speed chase with police and get arrested in front of a TV camera crew?” he slurred toward Darlene. “Cool.” At that point, Darlene egressed the premises in a snit. “What just happened?” Pedro asked. “She wants you to take her ballooning,” I yelled over the din. I have lived more than half a century, and never once I have seen a visage so befuddled. It took me almost two hours to de-intertwine the Corona-poster/police-chase/bal- loon fiesta cognitive dissonance transpiring between Pedro’s pointy ears. I finally, exasperatedly, made him understand that Darlene had casually mentioned some- thing about wanting to go floating up into the sky like the Wizard leaving Oz. “Damn! I’ve been wondering what to get her for Christmas!” Pedro said, his face brightening in the dingy light of the Burro Borracho. This is what I then laid on Pedro vis-à-vis my color- ful, though modest ballooning resume: I have been up in a hot-air balloon twice, which is exactly two times too many, as far as I am concerned. Both times, I stressed to Pedro, took place shortly before Christmas, a cosmic coincidence worth his studied consideration. The first time, I was on assignment for a justifiably long-defunct alternative alternative weekly in Denver. The publisher, a drunken reprobate of monstrous proportions, had found himself (not exactly for the first or last time) downtown at Soapy Smith’s, trolling for some hapless soul to buy him a beverage. His victim that night ended up being, of all the people on the planet, the owner of a local commercial hot-air ballooning outfit, and the publisher said he knew just the person to go up with him into what ended up being the stratosphere, the idea be- ing 1) that we would run a lengthy blowjob story about the his operation in our paper (which, truth be told (something we rarely did) was read by all of about two people) and 2) that in and of itself was reason enough to expect the balloon guy to buy the publisher a slew of drinks that night at Soapy Smith’s. “Good news,” the bleary-eyed publisher told me the next morning. “I signed you up for a balloon trip,” which, at the time, I hoped against hope didn’t mean what I though it meant, that, rather, it might have something to do with dropping acid and being the live entertain- ment at a children’s birthday soirée. No such luck. I do not exactly suffer from aviophobia, the same way I do not exactly suffer from claustrophobia. Still, the same way I have always been mighty, mighty happy when I emerge from a small, windowless jail cell, I have always been mighty, mighty happy when the plane safe- ly touches down. Never once in my life have I gone up into any sort of aircraft unless there was palpable good reason — usually getting to a place otherwise not easily accessible via non-aerial modes of transport. The notion of voluntarily going up in a hot-air balloon for no other purpose save going up in a hot-air balloon flat-out did not, and still does not, compute. But, being a professional and all, I showed up at the appointed time, which was literally just as a stunningly beauteous dawn broke upon the Great Plains southeast of Denver. Since it was mid-December, it was a bit on the nippy side, which apparently is optimum for ascension, as cold air is more dense than hot air, and, for reasons that escape me, that physical reality helps the balloon get off the ground and make its way heavenward, until it’s just this little dot that lucky people sitting in their living rooms, sipping hot coffee, can barely see. I would be joining a young (paying) couple that had just tied the knot and were looking upon this journey into the here- after, er, sky, as some sort of marital consummation. The ballooning outfitter my publisher had met at Soapy Smith’s was also the pilot. He was affable enough and evoked a sense of confidence, and, truth be told, once we passed the moon and started making our way toward the outer Solar System, I calmed down a bit and started enjoying the expansive, albeit frigid, view of the Front Range. “Where we headed?” I, being on the journalistic clock and all, queried. “Don’t know,” the pilot responded. “What do you mean?” I squeaked. “I can use the burners to make us go up and down,” he said, “and I have a pretty good eye for where the wind is, but, for the most part, I have absolutely no control over the balloon. We go where Mother Nature takes us.” Ain’t that interesting? After seeming decades aloft, it was finally and thank-godfully time to descend. The just-married couple was cuddling and cooing, the pilot was pointing out various mountains and I was sur- prisingly casually leaning against one of the basket up- rights. Suddenly, the pilot went frantic. He yelled at the top of his lungs for all hands to hold on tight. We were apparently going through some sort of high-speed me- teorological anomaly taking place like 50 feet above the very ground I oh-so-much wanted to be standing safely upon. “I’M NOT KIDDING!!!! HOLD ON TIGHT!!!! AAAAHHHH!!!!” the now-frenzied pilot screamed. I wrapped both arms around the support, very much like Tom Hanks did in ”Cast Away” when his plane was going down (I don’t know about you, but I started paying a lot more attention to those pre-flight safety briefings after watching that movie), and I instantly became a convert to at least seven religions. Seconds later, we crashed into Planet Earth at both a 45-degree angle and at a very uncomfortable rate of speed, and we spent the next almost 400 feet (I paced it off later) getting dragged by the still-partially-inflated balloon, which was now acting like a fully unfurled spinnaker, the muddy turf zooming by just below my contorted face (yes, of course, it was my side of the basket that was closest to the ground). A couple times, just for grins, the balloon pulled the basket back up into the air, just so we could smack down hard and get dragged toward Castle Rock yet again. By the time we finally stopped, the new wife was crying, and the new husband, whose visions of a nookie-laden night were dissipating before his very eyes, was trying mightily, but unsuccessfully, to console her. That marriage was destined for doom. After I wrote the blowjob story for the justifiably long-defunct Denver alternative alternative weekly, I vowed to never ever even ponder the notion of setting foot in a hot-air balloon, which, you would think, would be a fairly easy oath to uphold. Well … The very next year, the editor of a big, glossy outdoor magazine calls me up and asks if I would like to go to the southernmost Appalachians to pen a piece about this outfitter who offers what he advertises as “Adventure Orgies,” wherein clients are taken on a different type of NON-AERIAL recreational pursuit every day for a week (whitewater rafting, climbing, horseback-riding, hiking and, I shit you not, wild-boar hunting and mako-shark fishing). Being the starving writer I was, I said sure. It was once again the very week before Christmas when I landed at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The plan was for the outfitter, a splendid hom- bre I’ll call Bill Smith, to pick me up, take me to the closest bar, where I would conduct a formal interview over many pitchers of suds, and then drive me to his mountain cabin for the night. The next morning, we were set to go rafting on the famed Chattooga, the very river where some of the whitewater scenes from “Deliverance” were filmed. Verily, one of my raft mates ended up being none other than Billy Redden, who por- trayed the banjo-picking boy in “Deliverance,” though, I learned later, he had not really played the banjo in that region/culture-defining movie; rather, the national eight-year-old banjo champion had slipped his hands through Billy Redden’s coat sleeves and picked the notes that film made famous while Billy Redden stood there with his arms tied to his sides.) “I’ve got great news,” Bill Smith told me as we were driving out of the airport. “I’ve managed to squeeze in one more adventure for you! A buddy of mine has a hot-air balloon, and he’s free this afternoon!” Yey! The first thing I noticed about the man who was go- ing to take me up into the muggy Georgia air was that he seemed crazy as batshit from the get- go. Something about the way he cackled like a crow at his own bad jokes and the way he kept furtively rubbing his hands together, like he was trying to get some- thing nasty off. Because Georgia was ex- periencing an unseasonably warm late fall, there was not enough in the way of vertical-lift-inducing death molecules in the air for Bill Smith, the crazy-as-batshit pilot and yours truly to all go up together. Just as I was about to volunteer to drive the chase car, Bill Smith patted me on the back and, with a bemused gleam in his eye, wished me not bon voyage, but, rather good luck. So, it was just me and the crazy-as-batshit pilot, and, before I could calculate a plan for changing professions, I was airborne, with noth- ing between me and the ground save a wicker basket, some thin balloon mate- rial and one crazy-as-batshit pilot, who, it turned out, thought the best way to amuse his guest was to buzz as many gi- ant Southern hardwood trees as possible while saying things like, “Bet we can take some branches off the next one.” And here I am, holding on for dear life, feeling like Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens,” like, all I had to do was stay back on Earth, and I wouldn’t be here getting chased by deadly, drooling carnivorous creatures yet again. And, of course, just like my fi rst time up in a hot-air balloon, we came down hard — hard enough that I bit my tongue almost clean in two. Then we tipped over so violently that my nose literally hit the dirt. Then, the wind caught the balloon and we got dragged through a field for a couple hundred feet. And that was the best part. Matter of fact, some hours later, just after we were released by several local Southern redneck police offi cers straight out of bubba central casting, I looked back with fondness upon the those relatively pleas- ant moments when we hit the ground with a back-breaking thud and my nose was smacked into the dirt so hard, I had to breathe through my mouth, which was fi lled-to-brimming with spit-laced tongue-wound blood. What happened was this: The fi eld that we thudded down in was home to endless vistas of waist-high dry grass. When we tipped over, the fl amethrow- ers that are part and parcel of every hot- air balloon caught the grass on fi re and that fi re spread fast, far and wide, right before my very eyes. The crazy-as-batshit pilot started freaking and yelling for me to exit the basket and stomp the fi re out. I tried mightily to do just that, but the only thing I managed to do was gouge a seven-inch-long wound into my shin, which dragged on one of the wing nuts holding the basket to the balloon frame. Finally, through no fault of my own, I found myself ejected and lying dazed on my back in a north Georgia fi eld that was pretty much by this point totally ablaze. There would be no stomping this fi re out. The only option was to get up and run, except for the fact that we had a big balloon to deal with. Thing is, it damned sure wasn’t my balloon. Screw the bal- loon, and defi nitely screw the crazy-as- batshit balloon pilot. Just as I was get- ting ready to high-tail it into the woods, a pick-up truck came careening toward us, and, before it came to a complete stop, two very agitated, overall-wearing, large African-American men jumped out and pointed, yes, their double-barrel shot- guns directly at the crazy-as-batshit bal- loon pilot and, more importantly, poor, innocent me. “Y’all ain’t goin’ nowhere,” I was told in no uncertain terms by my per- sonal grammar-challenged gun-bearer as I started eyeballing a potential escape route toward the closest clump of trees, and as those famous banjo notes from “Deliverance” started playing in my head. “We done already called the poe-leece.” I began mentally rehearsing squealing like a pig. So, we stood there, hands up, like we were bring robbed by banditos in an old Western movie, until the poe-leece and the fi re dee-partment arrived about 20 minutes later, sirens blaring. It took more than an hour to douse the fl ames, during which time the two shotgun- bearing African-American men, the poe-leece, several fi refi ghters and the crazy-as-batshit balloon pilot realized that they all knew someone who knew someone else somewhere sometime. If memory serves, there were several more “y’alls,” a few “all y’alls” and maybe even a reference to hominy grits with red-eye gravy. Basically, a meandering, drawl- laden verbal journey through Southern social inbreeding that resulted in the crazy-as-batshit balloon pilot eating a modest-sized bucket of shit and prom- ising to make a sizeable donation to the local poe-leece retirement/drinking fund. We were let go and I, bloody bit tongue, gashed shin and smelling like smoke clear down to my skivvies, was left with Bill Smith to continue upon my adven- ture orgy. Despite the fact that I had related all this to Pedro, he felt more compelled than ever to go forth and procure that $242 romantic two-person, early-morn- ing champagne hot-air balloon ride out- side Albuquerque. It dawned on me later that all of the mishaps I had described, Pedro considered to be plusses. I real- ized that, once he fi nally took Darlene up into the stratosphere, he would be dis- appointed if he did not get to experience a crash landing, setting a fi eld on fi re and having shotguns leveled at him. I wished him all the best. A few days later, Pedro called. Darlene had left him, and he asked, “You want to go ballooning with me, bro? I already got the tickets. After all, this was your idea. Merry Christmas, amigo!” To read the entire unabridged versions of various “Smoke Signals,” as well as a whole lot of other inane bullshit, go to mjohnfayhee.com.

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