An Evening Walk At Snowbowl

San Francisco Mountains

We had just spotted the tree — an ancient gnarled limber pine triumphantly reaching for the heavens through golden evening light — when a voice from behind disturbed our wonder. “Hey, stop!” A young man in blue jeans and grey fleece jacket staggered up the dirt road, gasping. Thinking he was in need of first-aid, I switched into medic mode. Having patrolled these very ski slopes in years past, I felt naked without a radio to call in the 10-50 — radio code for an accident needing attention. Just then I noticed that the youth had his own radio, and he appeared not in physical distress, but rather in a fit of frustrated anger. “You can’t be here,” he sputtered. “This is a closed area. I need your names and information.” His skin was flushed pink. Pure unbridled agitation radiated in palpable waves from his excited voice. He was in a tizzy.

My wife and I attempted to soothe his distress by explaining that, in any case, we were headed away from his apparent closure, en route to potential record limber pines, which we intended to measure for a national database. For a moment, it seemed this information helped alleviate his crisis, but as we struck off to continue our evening walk, his alarm switch flipped. “No!” he barked in a cry of panic and utter desperation, “you’re coming with me!” I honestly thought the boy was going to burst if we didn’t in some way help. So we walked with earnest Ian Smith, his nametag proudly pinned to his Snowbowl-issue security jacket, and we talked him down.

Yet, we were unwilling to offer every detail of personal information he requested, including social security numbers. You could see his blood pressure rise. He called his boss, Terry. “I’ve got a couple trespassers resisting escort,” he chimed to the great OZ, hidden away somewhere on the far end of that little black cell phone. The situation was quickly devolving into the absurd, so I asked for a word with boss-man Terry before my wife, arthritic ankle and all, and I were swept into a hovering spacecraft never to be seen again. Such a scenario seemed probable given the surreal events that were unfolding. After introducing myself over the phone, I leaned toward the receiver expecting a measured, consolatory tone. What spewed forth on the other end were thinly veiled threats straight out of the good-cop interrogation handbook. “You give him all your information to complete the card or we call the sheriff and they’ll charge you with class-III felony trespass. It’s really out of our hands.” “Of course it is, Terry,” I said, “you’re just a pawn.” I couldn’t resist the quip. I don’t think he got it.

So, we finished our altered evening stroll accompanied by a gradually calming Ian, our enthusiastic escort, gaining a glimpse into the convoluted circumstances that landed him here on security detail at the Snowbowl. We learned of his brief internship at a Tucson brokerage, cut short by slow economic times, and his forced transition to snowboard instructor in the White Mountains, where, he explained, he was swindled into sixteen days of free work during his first season, fourteen days his second. Curiously, Ian did not recognize the injustice of that indentured servitude, trained as he was in economics to willfully plug-in as a cog of the profit machine. “It’s the way you have to run a business,” he opined. Now, with an unplanned child of his own to care for, he was grateful to work the front lines for Arizona Snowbowl limited partnership LLC. “They found out that I was an Eagle Scout and I’d work my tail off, so here I am.” Like a foot soldier conducting house raids in Baghdad, his genuine naivety was both charming and unsettling.

As we approached an assemblage of metal buildings at the fringe of forest (“The Shop,” it’s called at Snowbowl), a circle of a dozen laughing men dressed in grease-stained work clothes traded stories at the end of a long day. I half expected to recognize a familiar face in the crowd. I didn’t, but no matter; open, friendly faces greeted us as Ian herded us out of the woods. They immediately appreciated our predicament, silly as it was, and offered us both a beer. The voice of J.R., area manager, crackled over the radio just then with frightening timing, “Ian, there’s a fire truck coming up the road, do you know about that?” The distraction allowed us a moment to crack a PBR with newfound friends while Ian juggled priorities.

I thought we might be free of our detention, but Ian quickly put out the emerging fire truck peril and got back on task, hiking with us to our car, where he could learn more, scribe additional information on his folded white form, get us in the data base. As we approached our battered decades-old Honda Civic, we confided, “I guess that rope right there is where we crossed the boundary.” Indeed, it was the ski area’s lease boundary, delineating that portion of public land that they have been granted to act as stewards. In years past, I had strung more of that rope than I cared to remember, which is likely why I gave little thought to stepping over it as my wife and I picked through logs and ferns, buzzing with anticipation to reach the record trees.

We paused on our way down the mountain, a safe distance from our little ski hill’s security zone, of course, and sat on a log to ponder what had just transpired. Is this what life has come to in Flagstaff, a place we glowingly refer to as a “mountain town,” whose one real mountain is now cordoned into a security zone? I remember a time, not too long ago, when I cherished Snowbowl — a place I learned to ski on a Hart Prairie handle tow, ditched school to spend my meager teenage wages, happily, on a lift ticket to ride the Poma to the top of today’s Blackjack Run over and over, a place where I skied for class credit in college, and later traversed every nook of the area in a red jacket, occasionally sledding patrons down the mountain with twisted knees, dislocated shoulders, broken femurs. I took visiting friends up the mountain with pride, eagerly showing off my, our, wonderfully quaint diamond-in-the-rough ski area. That time has passed.

We decided, sitting on that log, that time marches on to the pendulum swing of events and attitudes, and that presently the pendulum has swung in a disconcerting arc. But comeuppance is being meted nonetheless. For what is the cost to Ian, to Terry, J.R., Mr. Borowski, of the daily edginess they must now feel, of the hostility they have brought, continue to bring, to themselves in their quest of the holy dollar, or millions of dollars. It must be a hollow existence indeed. Too bad we can’t go back to the good ol’ days, they might think. But I guess for, some, the good ol’ days just weren’t good enough.

We don’t now a damned thing about Tyler Williams, except that this is his first piece for the Mountain Gazette.

How to Watch Your Son Jump Off a Cliff

ski flip

Illustration by Keith Svihovec

First of all, remember: You were the one who taught him how to ski. You were the one who wanted him to know the freedom of letting go. Of trusting your body to the downhill thrust of gravity and speed.

When he was just a baby, you were the one who stood at the top of Big Mountain and pointed your skis down the chute. You were the one who chose a line and committed to it. You were the one who pushed off, tucking tight, letting your knees absorb the shock of the moguls, the falling away of the gullies. The one who let the speed build and build until there was no you left — just the push of wind peeling back the skin of your face and the snow plummeting away beneath your feet. Seventy miles per hour from top to bottom, holding on to that razor-thin edge between being in control and losing it all. When your friends at the base stared at you aghast, you knew you had been irresponsible, with two small children, to take such a risk. And yet …

So you stand calm at the bottom of the snow-dusted rocks that reach up 15 feet into the clear blue sky. And you consciously even out your breathing as you see your son side-stepping up the long steep approach to the jump.

Though you try not to, you think about your friend’s son last summer. The one who had gone swimming in the Blackfoot with this buddies. The one who always approached life as if it were a desert bar, sinking his teeth deep into whatever was on offer. The one who had been climbing along the cliff trail to the jump where generations of fearless, immortal young high school and college kids plunged into the deep pool below. That very same pool where your own sons had been so many times. Your friend’s son had paused on the trail that day. No one is sure why. Some thought it was to tie his shoe. But suddenly his feet went out from under him and he plunged headlong down onto the rocks … no, you will not think about him.

You see that your son stands at the top of the approach, not moving, his skis turned sideways to the hill. You wonder if he’s scared. You know you could not do what he is about to try. In spite of your daring on the slopes, you have never jumped off a cliff like this one, could not imagine trying a back flip, letting your body leave the earth and spin upside down in empty space, not knowing where you would land.

You think of another boy, Tray, who lived along the river. How your son had been playing at Tray’s house and you’d gone to pick him up. The two boys, 13 years old, were wading in a small channel of the river. While your son’s brown body shimmied through the water like a sleek muskrat, Tray stayed near the bank, decked out in the helmet and water wings his mother had forced upon him. Tray had been a brilliant kid, full of promise, but when he’d gotten a full-ride scholarship to Harvard, he couldn’t go. He was afraid to leave home. And so he works at a nice safe bank job and still lives with his parents, a middle-aged man at 20.

The flash of light from your son’s ski poles catches your eye as you see his skis turn downhill. In a no-turning-back moment, he is plummeting down the chute toward the jump. There is nothing you can do now to stop him, no way to catch him if he falls.

Your older son stands by your side and watches too. For a moment, you let yourself feel the miracle of that. Just a year before, he had laid in a hospital bed between life and death and you’d had  the same knowing, that nothing you had done or could do would change what was going to happen.

You hear the battle cry as your son nears the lip of the jump. He is going full-bore and your body memory takes over, feels what his body is feeling. As the tips of his skis come off the edge, his body is thrown backwards. His skis arc toward the sky and he hangs upside down, suspended  in emptiness, crossing that line between doing and being into the exhilaration of letting everything go. And you cross it with him.

Peggy Christian is an amateur naturalist, essayist, blogger, hiker, photographer and beginning trail runner. She lives in Montana and at

Mountain Gazette Timeline


Skiers’ Gazette is born.


Doug Tompkins and Kenneth  Klopp open The North Face, a small outdoor retail and mail order shop in San Francisco. They go on to make their own line of mountaineering apparel and equipment, which you now own some of.


Both the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and National Trails Act are signed into law.


Bob Gore develops expanded polytetraflouroethylene (ePTFE) and releases it under the trademark Gore-Tex.


The Environmental Protection Agency is formed, the Clean Air Act is signed into law and the first Earth Day is held.


The first production-model avalanche rescue transceiver, the Skadi, is released and quickly becomes standard equipment for ski patrollers and others at risk of avalanche burial. Before the Skadi, avalanche safety protocol involved trailing a piece of cord that would theoretically float to the top of the snow in the event of an avalanche.


Bill Briggs makes the first ski descent of the Grand Teton.


Telluride Ski Area officially opens in December with five lifts.


John Denver records “Rocky Mountain High.” It was released the following year and eventually moved to #9 on the Billboard charts.


An essay by Doug Robinson in the Chouinard Equipment catalog proposes the revolutionary idea of clean climbing, which eschews hammered-in pitons for removable, non-scarring climbing protection. The essay, along with the game-changing Stoppers and Hexentrics built by Chouinard, forever change the climbing world.


Therm-a-Rest releases the first self-inflating air mattress for climbers and campers.


Mike Moore, publisher of Skiers’ Gazette, meets with George Stranahan to discuss the future of the magazine. Moore and Stranahan agree to morph the Skiers’ Gazette into a more generalized magazine called the Mountain Gazette.


The I-70 Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel opens to highway traffic, literally paving the way to Summit County for untold numbers of Front Range skiers.


The Endangered Species Act is signed into law by President Richard Nixon.


The Colorado Avalanche Information Center, funded under the direction of the U.S. Forest Service, begins to issue statewide warnings of high avalanche danger. In 1983, the Center becomes part of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Funds are secured from a consortium of public and private sponsors.


The “Climbing Smiths” — father George Smith and sons Flint, Quade, Cody and Tyl— set the first record Colorado Fourteener speed record by climbing the by-then-accepted 54 Fourteeners in 33 days. They then continued on to California and Washington and climbed the then-accepted 68 Fourteeners in the Lower 48 in 48 days, a record that still stands.


The first Telluride Bluegrass Festival is held in Telluride, CO with only three bands and around 1,000 people. This summer marked the festival’s 39th year and the fest’s 10,000 tickets were sold out in early February.


Edward Abbey publishes “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” a book so influential it creates a new verb, as well as inspires an entire generation to participate in civil disobedience in the name of the environment. The first chapter appeared in Mountain Gazette #29 the year before and was titled, “Where’s Tonto?”


To celebrate America’s Bicentennial, several skiers at Vail found the Colorado Ski Museum. A formal dedication is held in 1977 with the first Hall of Fame members inducted.


Skier visits at Vail soar over the one million mark — a first for a Colorado ski area.


After 48 issues, Moore resigns his editorship of MG and moves onto a position with Outside magazine. Gaylord Guenin takes over as MG editor.


Jake Burton, the “father of snowboarding,” moves to Stratton, Vermont, to pursue his dream of designing snowboards. He makes 350 boards at night after bartending during the day. Friends sneak up the mountain at night to test Burton’s radical products because snowboards were not allowed on the slopes. Those first boards sell for $88.


President Jimmy Carter signs a bill legalizing homebrewing in the United States.


Aspen Skiing Corporation is acquired by Twentieth Century Fox. The 1,080,000 outstanding shares of Corporation stock are purchased for $48.6 million or $45 per share, the largest transaction in the history of skiing.


Colorado’s first microbrewery, Boulder Brewing, begins operation in a goat shed.


The Skier Safety Act is passed by the Colorado General Assembly. The bill establishes reasonable safety standards for the operation of ski areas and defines the duties and rights of skiers using the areas.


After 77 issues, a lack of ad sales forces Mountain Gazette to close its doors.


Originally started as a telephone recording at Alta Ski Area in the late-’70s, the Utah Avalanche Center becomes a fully funded program of the U.S. Forest Service.


Crested Butte holds its first annual Fat Tire Bike Week, now the oldest mountain bike festival in the country.


Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) established 13 new national parks, 16 new national wildlife refuges and two new national forests, adding 56 million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System, including the largest wilderness area in the system, Wrangell-St. Elias, which now includes 9,676,994 acres.


Specialized releases the Stumpjumper, the world’s first commercially produced mountain bike. It originally sold for $750, had touring-bike and modified-BMX components, no suspension and weighed just under 30 pounds. An original is now on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.


The first of Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division huts, the McNamara and Margy’s huts, are completed. The hut system now comprises 30 huts connected by 350 miles of suggested travel routes.


“Red Dawn,” starring Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson and Charlie Sheen, in his feature film debut, is released. Considered by many to be the worst movie ever filmed in Colorado, “Red Dawn” was shot almost entirely in the Arapaho National Forest. The film was actually entered into The Guinness Book of Records for having the most acts of violence in any film up until that time.


Rim Cyclery in Moab, Utah, begins renting mountain bikes and guiding tours on an old motorcycle route called the Slickrock Trail. Over the next few years, the desert surrounding Moab slowly builds momentum as a world-class destination for the burgeoning sport.


Dick Bass, owner of Snowbird Ski Resort, summits Mount Everest, making him both the first person to complete the Seven Summits and the oldest person to summit Everest.


The coldest temperature in Utah history, minus-69, was recorded at Peters Sink on Feb. 1.


The coldest temperature in Colorado history, minus-61, was recorded at Maybell on Feb. 1.


The Moab Chamber of Commerce decides to hold a “World’s Most Scenic Garbage Dump” contest in an inventive attempt to lure tourists to town. It worked, and Moab shared top honors with Kodiak, Alaska. The two became sister cities thanks to their lovely landfills.


Bayern Brewing, Montana’s oldest operating craft brewery, opens for business in Missoula.


The Yellowstone National Park fires burn a total of 793,880 acres in Wyoming and Montana.


Frenchman J.B. Tribout establishes To Bolt or Not to Be, the first 5.14 rock climb in the U.S. at Smith Rock, OR.


Charlie and Ernie Otto open the Otto Brothers Brewery (now the Grand Teton Brewing Co.), Wyoming’s first, in Wilson, WY.


Greg Stump releases the seminal ski film, “Blizzard of Ahhhs.”


New Belgium Brewing begins production in Fort Collins, CO.


Looking for a new way to access the backcountry, Utah snowboarder Brett “Cowboy” Kobernik begins experimenting with the first splitboard prototypes by sawing snowboards in half in his basement. With the help of Voile owner Mark “Wally“ Wariakois, his design eventually becomes the world’s first production splitboard, the Voile Split Decision. Kobernik is now a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center.


Lynn Hill makes the first free ascent of The Nose on Yosemite’s El Capitan, a feat many thought to be impossible.


“Aspen Extreme” is released in theaters. Heralded as “Top Gun on the slopes,” the movie features big-mountain skier Doug Coombs as the skiing stunt double.


The first Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race is held in Leadville, CO. Featuring a grueling out-and-back course that includes a 3,000-foot hill climb, the race now draws 1,300 riders to Leadville every summer.


The South Canyon Fire, perhaps Colorado’s most infamous wildfire burns 1,856 acres on Storm King Mountain, near Glenwood Springs. The fire, which was caused by lightning, took the lives of 14 firefighters, most of whom were from Oregon.


66 gray wolves from Canada are released in Yellowstone and parts of central Idaho in an effort to repopulate the species in the Northern Rockies.


President Bill Clinton designates 1.9 million acres in southern Utah as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, effectively killing a proposed coalmine for the area. The announcement was made at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Holding the event in Utah would have posed a safety risk for President Clinton, as the decision was unpopular among many rural residents at the time.


Colorado has its first winter free of avalanche deaths since 1968.


“Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer’s first-person account of the deadly 1996 season on Mt. Everest, where eight climbers were killed during a massive storm, is released. The book thrusts the mountain into the mainstream limelight and begins an ongoing media frenzy for the high-altitude shenanigans surrounding the peak.


“South Park” — created by Colorado natives Trey Parker and Matt Stone, debuts on Comedy Central.


ESPN holds the first Winter X-Games in Big Bear Lake, California. The event draws around 38,000 spectators and is broadcast in 198 countries.


Members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) set off a series of firebombs within Vail Ski Resort that cause an estimated $12 million in damage, at the time the costliest act of eco-terrorism ever committed.


Mt. Baker Ski Area near Glacier, WA, sets the world record for most snowfall in a season with 1,140 inches, which equates to 95 feet.


For reasons unknown, snow BMX racing fails to catch on and is discontinued as an event at the Winter X-Games.


Rolando Garibotti sets the speed record for the famed Grand Traverse of Wyoming’s Tetons with an astonishing 6 hours and 49 minutes. The traverse enchains 10 of Grand Teton National Park’s major summits with climbing difficulties up to 5.8, and entails around 14 miles of travel and 12,000 feet of elevation gain.


Amendment 20 passes in Colorado, legalizing the production and consumption of marijuana for medicinal purposes.


After two-and-a-half years of meticulous planning, scouting and training, Ted E. Keizer, aka Cave Dog, set the current Colorado Fourteener speed record of 10 days, 20 hours, 26 minutes. Keizer experienced strong winds on 12 peaks, lightning on three, falling snow on four, snow on the ground on 12 and five summits coated with ice. He spent 29-percent of his time on the trail at night and spent 67-percent of those 10 days, 20 hours and 26 minutes actually hiking and climbing. Aided by a five-person support crew, he enjoyed a total of 138,558 of vertical gain on the trip.


A team consisting of George Stranahan, Curtis Robinson and M. John Fayhee resurrects the Mountain Gazette. Issue #78 comes out in November.


“Flyin” Brian Robinson becomes the first person to hike the Triple Crown (Appalachian, Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails) in a calendar year. Robinson burned through seven pairs of shoes on the 7,400-mile, 22-state journey.


“Comeback Wolves: Western Writers Welcome the Wolf Home” is published. Included within its pages are essays from MG alumni Laura Paskus, Craig Childs, B. Frank, Mary Sojourner, George Sibley, Michele Murray, John Nichols, Gary Wockner, Hal Clifford and M. John Fayhee.


Mountain Gazette is sold to GSM Publishing.


In an effort to bypass the complicated planning process required by the Grand County government, the Winter Park Town Council annexed part of Winter Park Ski Area — up to 12,060 feet, making it the country’s highest-elevation municipality.


Colorado unseats California as the #1 beer-producing state by volume.


Chris Sharma completes the first ascent of Jumbo Love at Clark Mountain, California. The route, rated 5.15b, stands as the most difficult rock climb in the U.S. and one of the hardest in the world.


Salt Lake City activist Tim DeChristopher sneaks into a BLM oil-and-gas-leasing auction, where he makes false bids on 14 parcels of land in the Utah desert, some adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands national parks. The auction is postponed when he is discovered, and later only 29 of the auction’s 116 parcels are deemed legal. DeChristopher is sentenced to two years in federal prison in 2011.


GSM sells Mountain Gazette to Skram Media, which also owns Climbing and Urban Climber magazines.


Rock climber Steph Davis free solos the North Face route on Castleton Tower in the Utah desert, then BASE-jumps from the summit.


Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. signs legislation legalizing homebrewing in the Beehive State.


The first railcars depart the Moab Uranium Mill Tailings Superfund site, carrying away a fraction of the 16 million tons of uranium waste sitting on the banks of the Colorado River. The town’s toxic legacy is moving to a safer resting place at Crescent Junction at a cost of over $800 million.


Skier Shane McConkey, known as much for his extreme skiing as his zany antics, dies in a ski-BASE accident in Italy’s Dolomites. McConkey, widely revered as the father of modern powder-ski design, first tacked ski bindings onto water skis to ski big Alaskan peaks and later helped create the Volant Spatula, the first reverse-camber, reverse-sidecut ski.


Skram Media is sold to Active Interest Media, which also owns Backpacker magazine. Mountain Gazette is spun off and acquired by Summit Publishing of Charlottesville VA, which also owns Blue Ridge Outdoors, Elevation Outdoors and Breathe magazines.


Wolves are removed from the federal Endangered Species List in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Utah by a congressional measure. One of the West’s most enduring controversies returns to center stage.


Shaun White wins snowboard superpipe at the Winter X-Games for the fifth year in a row, with a first-ever perfect score of 100.

Check out the 60 best excerpts from Mountain Gazette over the last 40 years!




Quit Whining, Do Something

I’m older than dirt.

The kid sitting on the pile of gear behind me is maybe 25, the son of my one of my life friends. He’s going to guide me through my first class 3 rapids. He’s got to be nuts. He’s laughing and joking on top of the cargo net. I have a death grip on the oars. I watched him take us through some earlier rapids here on the Yampa. He was coolly competent. The raft just bounced and flew exactly where he wanted it to go. I was impressed. I caught myself thinking, “If this kid can do this, it can’t be that hard.”

He was a scary kid growing up. He drank way too much beer and did crazy stuff. He’s big at 6’ 8”and got in bar fights. I called his dad one day to talk about business and asked after his kid. His dad stopped me cold when he said, “I hope he survives high school.”

I was 25 in the early-’70s and fighting a losing battle with the draft. My government wanted me for cannon fodder. I almost had a degree and some school-loan debt. I had an apartment with my girlfriend and a job at a newspaper. I lost the fight with the draft and was saved by the reserves. I married the girlfriend. And I was real average in all respects. Did I whine about stuff? Of course, but I was taking care of myself.

A lot of you guys in this same age range are doing fine, but a disproportionate number of you don’t appear to be able to find your butt with both hands. You guys seem like you have the attention span of a fruit fly. You have huge debt from school. Your unemployment rate is the same as Muslims in Norway, and you are living at home with mom and dad.

If you are 25 and still reading this (doubtful) you are going to think, “Just another cranky geezer.” That could be true, but that’s not the point. This is a really rough start for you guys under 30. Mark Twain talked about older parents looking at their middle-aged children searching for signs of improvement.

We’re looking at you guys and saying, “We know it’s tough out there. In one way or another, it has always been tough out there. Show us something.”

I can hear the roar of the rapids ahead, but I can’t see it. I’ve sweated through the back of my cowhide gloves. Best guess is that my pulse is already over 100. There is that odd metallic taste of fear in my mouth.

“Remember,” he says, “when you see the tongue, set-up right in the middle of it.”

I nod my head, because I’m afraid that if I say anything my voice will sound nervous — but more like scared shitless.

We round a bend and there before us is the maelstrom. It is just a wall of whitewater that makes me wonder what class 4 and 5 are like. I see the tongue. And after several days of coaching from a 25-year-old, my hands move the raft into position in a sort of magical way. I’m a hair to the right and get a slight tap on my left shoulder.

I adjust.

“Good” is the last thing I hear before the roar of the river as we fly down the tongue.

This 25-year-old is a boatman. He’s also a mechanical engineer with a new job on the coast and a wife headed for medical school. Like all of us, he’s got some rough patches in front of him. And he has many more days on the river where he will laugh so hard the back of his head will hurt. He’s made a life for himself.

Things start happening fast. I feel like I’m going to broach to the left and into a wall. I’m praying that the kid will reach down and take the oars. Instead I get a firm hand on my right shoulder and pull hard to get my line again.

There is a huge “WHOOOP! from behind.

We pound down two more tongues in better order this time. I might actually be smiling through clenched teeth.


In my peripheral vision, a big left hand points a finger toward a wave train.

“Hit the train! Hit the train!”

We ride the train and settle back in a placid ride downstream with the roar behind us.

I’m getting pounded on the back by this kid.

It will take a week to get the smile off my face.

It’s fine to ignore what I’ve said here. But this kid has taught me to believe in you guys. There is some hugely important work that needs to get done in the next 40 years. There are mountains and rivers and oceans to explore. Get out there and do it.

It’s time.

Boulder resident Alan Stark, a gin-drinking, portly trail runner with an attitude, is the publisher at Colorado Mountain Club Press. His blog, Mountain Passages, can be found at 

Craft Brewing Revolution: Dawning of the Age of Aquarius


Aquarius, the bringer of water, and sign of the times

For the last 50,000 years, our ancestors have watched the night sky, attempting to discern secrets encoded in the movement of the stars. Against a backdrop of diamonds, projections of animistic and mythical creatures were imprinted on the confusion of the night sky and passed down through the ages as the constellations that are still recognized today. Twelve of these, roughly located around the celestial equator, are known today as the twelve signs, or houses, of the zodiac. Were one to find him- or herself in a high forgotten place with a clear view of the horizon on some anciently agreed-upon day, such as the vernal (spring) equinox, and were they to wake before dawn to mark the spot where the rising sun first breaks a new day across the land, and if they were to repeat this ritual year after year, encoding the results in lore, carvings, monuments and architecture so as to pass them on through epochs of time, a great secret truth about our world would eventually be revealed. This truth, known in modern times as precession, is the simple fact that, as our planet rocks and rolls around the sun, a slight imperfection in its rotation causes the point at which the sun would rise on a certain day to slowly move, or precess, against the static background of stars.

The result is that the sun appears to rise in the house of a particular zodiacal sign for a period of roughly 2,150 years, before drifting onto the next constellation. In 10,000 BCE, this was the house of Leo (as marked by the alignment of the sphinx in Egypt). Around the times that the Old Testament of the Christian Bible was written, the sun rose in the house of Aries, the ram. All indications are that 2012 stands somewhere late in the transition period between the age of Pisces, the fish, and the coming age of Aquarius, the bringer of water. According to many, along with this shift, there will be obvious signs that the times, as they say, are a changin’.

It is no wonder then, that according to the American Brewers Association the number of operating craft breweries in the United States topped 2000 in April of this year. While this may not seem like many, the increase is meteoric when one considers that the numbers have grown from one hundred in 1988, to five hundred two years later in 1996, to 1,500 in 1999, followed by a dip and then back to 1,500 operating breweries in 2008. Going even farther back in time to 1983, a mere 51 brewing concerns operated a total of 80 breweries in the U.S., the low mark for the 20th century. The top six breweries at that time (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Heileman, Stroh’s, Coors, and Pabst) controlled 92% of U.S. beer production. Certainly, this represents the “Bad old days” for domestic production when viewed in light of the cornucopia of beer from a myriad of breweries available today.

And it is not just brewers that have appeared as messengers for the “bringer of water”.  In the past decade, the craft distilling movement has finally shaken the shackles of unfair taxation that had hobbled the industry since Prohibition and is well on its way to becoming a thriving component of this new age economy (see MG #190).

Also heeding the call, the micro-roasted coffee movement has exploded in recent years, with nary a small mountain town of any character finding itself devoid of highly caffeinated wizards creating black magic from fire and funny green beans of the third world.

Finally, whether you partake or not, it is hard to ignore the effect that medical marijuana legal reform has had not only on the quality and variety of the weed itself, but also the diversity of THC-infused products on the market. A quick survey of any local independent newspaper will inundate the reader with advertisements for sodas, lollipops, tootsie rolls, cheesecakes, bubble baths, hand lotion, soap, ice tea, brownies and ice cream, just to name a few. With medical marijuana now legalized in eleven of thirteen Western states, (all of them, save for the conservative bastions of Utah and Idaho), and with decriminalization efforts underway in Colorado and California for the coming election, it is fair to say that for those in need, a time of relief has come.

Erich Hennig grew up in Minnestrohta and once served as a recruiter for the PB Army. His column, Mountain Beer Notes, appears monthly in MG. You can reach him at

The Same River Twice – Changes in River Running Over the Last Forty Years

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he is not the same man.”

— Heraclitus, Greek philosopher   

“So you’ve done the Grand Canyon, now what?”

— Quote from a river company brochure

To speculate on the changes in river running over the past forty years is like rowing through Hance Rapid (in Grand Canyon) at very low water with the sun in your eyes, four large passengers in your boat and a hangover. You are going to hit a rock, but you can never be sure just how hard, whose rock it will be and how much damage you will incur. The continuum of change from river to river, from company to company and among individual boaters varies enough that making generalizations can be a hazardous business. Exceptions and anomalies abound. There are axes to grind and territory to defend. Intense personal
experience can trump facts. Language and terms become outdated. River runners are known to have a strong proprietary sense for the rivers they run regularly. Memories of the “good old days” fog the lens of perception. What can be said of commercial operations (who have been branded with the vaguely sinister appellation “comm ops” in one book) does not necessarily apply to private boaters (who prefer the more appealing democratic moniker “self-guided”). In fact, folks who run rivers, commercial or private, might well be labeled “elite” compared to the general population, so infinitesimally small are their numbers. Disagreement among river lovers is inevitable.

Nevertheless, I dare to speak from my own necessarily limited point of view as an ex-river guide (from a specific time in the forty-year span) and present-day boater who queried a handful of guides and ex-guides about their experience on the river over the last forty years. Although I try to keep up on the river scene and tend to be Grand Canyon-centric, I have not worked as a guide for decades. Thus, I rely on rumor, innuendo, promiscuous reading and second-hand information, which pretty well identifies and qualifies me as a regular contributor to Mountain Gazette. In the spirit of change, for better or worse, and MG’s 40th anniversary, I humbly offer a few brief, sweeping, oversimplified observations about the changes in river running that I hope can stand up to scrutiny.

Time to get in the boat and head down river.

The Numbers —  Call it an explosion! In 1949, twenty-five people floated the Middle Fork and/or Main Salmon; twelve-hundred in 1965; forty-five hundred in 1975; nearly nine thousand in 1990. In 1965, roughly five hundred people made trips on the Colorado through Grand Canyon; in 1972, over 16,000 people ran the river. Recreational river running had taken off. And there was no turning back. Today, roughly 20,000 to 24,000 run the Colorado annually. Other popular Western rivers have seen significant increases in river travel. Ladies and gentlemen boaters, welcome to waiting lists, jockeying for camp spots, more government oversight and the need for even more cooperation and courtesy among river voyagers.

Cost — In 1972, a nineteen-day trip with Grand Canyon Dories cost $450. Today the same (albeit three days shorter) trip costs anywhere from $4,900 to $5,500. Thus, a family of four could expect to spend $20,000, not including transportation, hotels, meals, personal gear. A five-night, six-day trip on the Middle Fork offered by Echo runs approximately $2,000. Casual internet research and anecdotal information suggests that costs per day for most companies run $250 to $300 per individual. Inflation, I guess.

Gear — More of it, better quality, more colors and way cooler than forty years ago. One only has to go on-line or receive a brochure in the mail to experience that “I gotta have that” surge rising to the surface. The “stuff” — state-of-the-art rafts to designer tents to thick sleeping pads to trendy, colorful outdoor wear to flip-flops to toilet-teepees — can even induce an ancient mariner like myself to get itchy fingers to place an order. Of course, it’s fun stuff, but is it all necessary? Forty years ago, river people (guides and passengers) had far fewer choices, kept things basic (out of necessity?), made things last, invented equipment, purchased second-hand and made do with what was available, not because they were morally superior. Mostly they were broke. The prevailing thought was that gear and equipment, though obviously essential, should not get between you and the experience. Sounds quaint today. Disclaimer: I really like my new life-jacket, as it floats my aging body in a way I could not have imagined when I was in my prime.

Regulations — In 1972, self-regulation was the norm; in 2012, bureaucratic oversight is the rule. Following the national trend that more is better, regulations (restrictions?) increased, allegedly — and sometimes justified — for the benefit of passengers and ecosystem protection. Once tasked with managing their trips and themselves, guides faced more scrutiny. In the 1980s, they became subject to drug-testing, despite operating in a risky environment for decades with an excellent safety record. River running evolved from ma-and-pa family businesses into an industry. As companies became aware of increasing vulnerability to possible lawsuits, their insurance companies took note and began to make policy suggestions for which on-river activities were safe. With river running’s higher profile and larger numbers of people on the rivers, increasing regulation became an unfortunate necessity.

Promotion — Simple. Forty years ago, there was no Internet. Marketing was primitive: word-of-mouth and an annual brochure. In 1972, most companies had a single seasonal brochure patched together by someone with an art degree who was offered a free river trip for their efforts.

Today’s electronic social-media-driven promotional efforts are more varied and sophisticated, and likely more effective at reaching a larger audience. Shiny brochures present guides as unique personalities (instead of the dirtbag, beer-drinking seasonal transients of rivers past) with attractive storylines — educational qualifications, winter travel destinations, number of rivers run, river anecdotes. Some companies have redefined themselves, offering a variety of river and “adventure-eco” trips around the world.

Poop — Forty years ago, you did your business up in the rocks away from camp. Except that everyone, over a season with numerous river trips, ended up in more or less the same spot. It wasn’t long before Park and Forest services ordered that all shit be carried out. Crude porta-potties (and the techniques to package and transport waste matter to the local dump) were born and continued to be modified and improved. Today’s equipment and transportation techniques are far superior and far kinder to the river environment.

Campfires — What are those? In 1972, they were standard fare; by 2012, mostly nyet because of environmental concerns and, yes, lack of firewood.

Passengers/Cliental/Participants/Guests Relation to River and River guides —Informal, likely biased consensus seems to be that expectation levels (in general with notable exceptions) of today’s river vacationers appears to be far greater than forty (twenty? ten?) years ago in terms of comfort and service. Dare I say downright demanding?  In 1972, passengers were prepared for a “down-to-basics” experience on the river. Mishaps, struggles and foul weather were more readily accepted as part of the “adventure.” With a changing clientele and increasing competition for “market share” by river companies, the “pamper factor” appeared and took hold to a greater or lesser degree among many river companies. $10,000 trip tips for crews in Grand Canyon are not uncommon. In 1972, tips were small and in some cases, discouraged by owners. One River Viejo voiced the opinion, “The passengers have evolved from experienced, self-sufficient outdoorsy types to ‘You mean I have to set up my OWN tent’ types. Latte machine? Who will be the first to set up an internet cafe below Lava?  Everest base camp has had one for several years now.” (Shameless self-promotion: read my Rivermouth blog at about the proposal to place a restaurant on the Little Colorado.)

Guides — Mostly young males in 1972, the community now includes increasing numbers of women, older guides (who have yet to give up their privileged access, but serve as mentors) and cross-generational families of guides. The transition from “river guide” to “professional river guide” was likely inevitable if guides were to become players in river politics, defend their common interests, bargain for fair wages and speak as a united voice on controversial issues. (In 1972, Georgie White, “Woman of the River,” used unpaid fireman as boatman to operate her terrifying triple rigs). The “pro” designation also lent status to what was once considered a summer job. The appeal of safe, reliable boatmen to a new generation of vacationers/passengers/clients/river lovers proved irresistible. Today’s river guides are more organized politically, have access to educational and health benefits and training in wilderness rescue and emergency procedures. Another ancient mariner has this to say, “In fact, the quality of guiding has improved a lot cuz of collective knowledge and the ethics of conserving and protecting the environment. Guides have more time to devote to guiding instead of freaking out about what’s around the corner or patching their boats.”

Shady characters, questionable behavior —  By 2012, these characters and behaviors seem to have been on the wane, if not eradicated all together: firework displays, grease bombs, lengthy detours to casinos in Las Vegas, loincloths, Fleet’s magic shows, naked boatmen circling eddies into the wee hours of the night, boatmen wearing dresses, operating a concession without a permit (the individual served time), sneak “speed” runs, night crawling and tent scratching. On a historical note, in the 1920s, Glenn Wooldridge routinely “improved” rapids (with the approval of the Forest Service) on Oregon’s Rogue River by blowing them to smithereens with dynamite. One fellow (who shall remain unnamed) who tried to blow up Quartzite Falls on the Salt River went on the lam to Ecuador for years only to be nabbed when he returned to the U.S.

River apparel and accompanying ailments — Ball-hugging, crotch-grabbing cut-off Levis (which caused server boatman’s butt) have been replaced by space-age, quick-drying, big-pocketed “river” trunks made of Supplex, etc. Dance-pants came and went. Foot rot, induced by wearing Converse tennis shoes, has been replaced by tolio, which colonizes the straps of Tevas. In the same vein, in the 1970s, there used to be one kind of cheap, one-trip flip-flops. Today’s “flip-flops” have enough straps and design patterns to recall the ancient practice of foot bondage. Somewhere along the time continuum, river garb morphed into a “style.”

River Politics — In 1972, the great river controversies, at least in Grand Canyon — motor use and fair access for private boaters — (and the sometimes acrimonious debates and name-calling) had yet to emerge. At the time, there were fewer private (self-guided, non-commercial?) boaters with the skill, time, and economic means to put together multi-day trips. That was about to change. By the middle of the 1980s, the growing population of private boaters began to organize and demand a bigger share of the river allocation pie. Ironically, the Park Service began for the first time to look seriously at its mandate to manage Grand Canyon for wilderness values.

Food/Cooking — In 1972, the idea was simple, tasty meals, enough for everyone. After all, you were camping along the river. As the small amount of ice melted, meals came out of #10 cans. Waste was frowned upon. One or two companies provided cooks, usually woman who had a degree of leeway in the food they prepared and offered. Today, “cooks” (and the art of running a kitchen with a sparkle in your eye and an iron fist) are passé. Companies vary greatly on the kind and amount of grub they serve. The spectrum runs from basic fare to many-course menus with more food than anyone can eat.

Zeitgeist — Perhaps the hardest of all categories to generalize about. Depending on who you talk to, how old they are, which river you are running and what measuring stick you employ, the changes in the river-running zeitgeist are: a) non-existent; b) very existent with a steady deterioration; c) who cares?; and d) what the hell is a zeitgeist, some kind of new raft? The development of bomb-proof kayaks and other durable watercraft coupled with talented kayakers made running once-impossible rivers possible, as well as led to the phenomenon of “stunt” runs over waterfalls, popular ad images that define, in part, river running to the general public. Some critics complain that the river “experience” has been shorn of its authenticity, packaged and commodified to fit the needs and demands of a new consumer group. Other people believe that overall the experience has been improved.

What hasn’t changed — The magic of rivers (especially Grand Canyon), and the camaraderie of a well-oiled crew; the visceral need of boatmen to tell “stories”; the opportunity for a vacation-voyager to experience joy, wonder, deep peace and child-like relaxation in a natural setting; and lastly and most importantly, riverside bathroom etiquette: women pee upriver, men pee downriver, or for those aging mariners with faulty memories, “Skirts go up, pants go down.”

Senior correspondent Vince Welch is the co-author of “The Doing of the Thing — The Brief, Brilliant Whitewater Career of Buzz Holmstrom” and “The Last Voyageur — Amos Burg and the Rivers of the West,” scheduled to be released by The Mountaineers in October. His blog, Rivermouth, can be found at Welch lives in Portland OR.

Sapporo Story


We sat, cross-legged on the floor, two shot glasses on a low table between us. Sato uncorked a bottle of Suntory VSOP Brandy and filled my glass. Then he put the bottle down, and raised his empty glass, as if to a toast. I picked up the bottle and filled his glass. “Ah! You know our custom,” he said. “Just some preparation to be a guest here, like you photographers picking the right film for the day,” I replied. The rapport was there.

We had met the year before at the ninth Interski ski instruction congress in Garmisch-Partenkirken, Germany, which I had written up for the February 2, 1971, issue of Skiers’ Gazette (the predecessor of MG). When SKI Magazine assigned me to join Editor John Fry and photographer Peter Miller on the magazine team covering the skiing events of the 1972 Winter Olympics, I had written to suggest that we meet again. That’s what we were doing in mid-February, in his home on the outskirts of Sapporo on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

Even to the Japanese, Hokkaido has always been remote. At the latitude of and a third the area of Oregon, it was unexplored until the 17th century. Its topography is rugged. Cold winds lash it in summer; snows cover it in winter. For untold centuries, its only human inhabitants were the Ainus, a light-skinned, hairy people who spoke a language related to nothing else. But then the frontier was pushed northward by the usual means of subduing the natives. The Ainus lost their last battle in 1669, and Hokkaido became part of Japan.

“I’m part Ainu,” Sato said, this time filling both glasses. “But in spirit, I’m just a Hokkaidoan, fond of our mountains and our winters.” That fondness was well located. Japan is a country of skiers, then some seven million out of a population of 100 million. Paradoxically, one of the reasons for the popularity of the sport is the lack of outdoor recreation space in the crowded island chain. Japan is mountainous, and nearly a fifth of the mountain areas cannot be farmed or used for any other viable production. So, in winter, skiing is the prime outdoor recreation, particularly in Sapporo. Nearby Mt. Eniwa, site of the downhill courses, stands out as prominently, as do the peaks of the Cascades. Mt. Teina, site of the slalom and GS courses, is in a ward of the city.

Sato’s wife served and joined us for dinner, washed down with Dewatsuru sake. “From the mountainous Akita Prefecture north on Honshu, the big island south of here,” she explained. The conversation turned to the place that the Sapporo Winter Olympics might have in history, save for being the first held in Asia. Sato believed that it might be the last Games in which amateur rules would be so hypocritically enforced. International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage had banned Austrian racer Karl Schranz, then the world’s best in the Alpine events, for admitting to having been paid by ski manufacturers. Canada had spotlighted the weakness of the concept of amateurism by refusing to send a hockey team to compete against the teams of communist countries, who were in fact full-time paid professionals.

We agreed that aerodynamics probably would play a greater role in ski jumping, as the lithe Japanese jumpers who had flown gracefully through the air to take all the medals in the normal hill event had shown. And it seemed only a matter of time until fiberglass skis that worked so well in the wet snows of Sapporo would replace the traditional wooden skis in cross-country events.

We had pride in what we did, but we both had seen the ever-increasing clout of the big media. Sato lamented that “it probably will be the last time that small publications will have teams of people like you and me reporting on events. TV will take over.” In retrospect, he was right, as we were in our guesses of that evening. The furor triggered by disqualifying Schranz led to reform of the IOC. Ski jumping now is all about aerodynamics. And save for a few wooden skis made by craft shops, all cross-country skis now are fiberglass laminates.

For almost three years, long-time contributor M. Michael Brady penned MG’s Dateline: Europe column. He lives in a suburb of Oslo, Norway, where he works as a translator. 

Steve Baer, Beatnik Engineer

Steve Baer

Excerpted from an unfinished book about regional solar pioneers. 

Mountain Gazette was born in 1966 (as Skiers’ Gazette), the same year TIME Magazine discovered The Hippie and explained why Captain Stone and Sunshine were dropping out of Pig Amerika and going the other way from LBJ. In Drop City, a legendary commune near Trinidad, Colorado, 28-year-old Steve Baer, the commune’s architectural mentor, showed reporters how to stand atop a junk car and chop its top off with an axe to get panels for geodesic domes, taking care to avoid toes and blade-dulling chrome trim.

In the ensuing years, Baer wandered through colleges, spent three years in Germany in the U.S. Army and ended up in Albuquerque. Following his lifelong interest in math and geometry, he began tinkering with domes and solar gizmos and the hippies from Drop City would visit to help fashion solar collectors out of car windows and rock bins for solar storage. In 1968, at an early solar conference in Palo Alto, Baer was “swept off his feet” by Harold Hay, a pioneering solar engineer who said we should learn from indigenous architecture but add a modern twist. Hay and his associate John Yellot had the previous year built their radical “SkyTherm” test house in Phoenix that, for heating and cooling, employed a pond of water on the roof that could be covered by movable insulating panels.

In 1968, Baer and the Lama Foundation in Taos published the “Dome Cookbook,” the world’s first comprehensive and step-by-step instructions for building “zomes,” structures based on zonahedra shapes. The book sold briskly amid the growing countercultural currents and Baer used the profits to publish “Time Lock,” Buckminster Fuller’s book about his life in the 1930s.

In 1969, inspired in part by the “Dome Cookbook,” Stewart Brand, editor of Co-Evolution Quarterly, published the “First Whole Earth Catalog”, the iconic encyclopedia of counterculture that soon graced nearly every hippie coffee table in the land.

Then the Drop City commune folded and the world changed again. Baer decided to start a business dubbed Zomeworks that started out making domes, playground climbers and various solar gadgets. At Zomeworks, he continued his solar experiments and in 1971 he was ready to build his home in Corrales. The “Zome” was soon a sensation among solar innovators. Refining Hays’ concepts, it had adobe walls to soak up solar heat, enclosed by a sleek moon-station exterior of honeycombed panels. Behind the large expanse of sun-facing glass were “Drumwalls,” stacked 50-gallon drums of water that passively store solar heat. The windows were insulated at night by large panels hoisted up and down with a rope.

In all its industrial neo-funkiness the Zome demonstrated vividly that the home itself is the most important solar device, and it was featured in all the solar magazines. Baer began speaking on the college lecture circuit and teaching solar classes at the University of New Mexico, where he hosted the first Ghost Ranch “biotechnic conference,” which became a lively annual bash for regional solar yahoos. The conference was named after a prescient solar house built in El Rito in 1949 by Peter van Dresser, an early pioneer of modern sun-tempered adobe homes in New Mexico.

In 1973, the Arab oil embargo traumatized America and sparked ever greater interest in alternative energy as the buzzwords of the Granola Generation were being coined: Ecosphere, Macrocosm, Appropriate Technology, Organic, Natural, Soft Energy, Third World, Self-Help, the Environment. Baer and Zomeworks were busier than ever as consultants for a funky, homegrown New Mexico solar-building boom, which soon spread throughout the Rockies as scores of regional architects began to design wild and innovative passive solar trophy homes. Baer’s crew was also perfecting inventions that would become classic Zomeworks trademarks, including the “Skylid,” an insulating panel for skylights that operates automatically, powered by the movement of freon in canisters (using the same principle as the Dipping Bird). Another product called “Beadwall” used a vacuum cleaner motor to blow beads between the panes of double glass windows for night insulation. Zomeworks also innovated passive tracking devices for solar panels.

Government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy began shoveling money at solar energy, which Baer and Hay felt was largely wasted on a useless new bureaucracy that advocated overly high-tech solutions and ridiculed the New Mexico solar experiments as “hippie junk.” Baer was also skeptical of the Jimmy Carter solar tax credits, opining “The poor Mexicans pay for the liberal’s hot tub.” He was also feeling squeezed out by his peers — the Ghost Ranchers were being absorbed by the influential New Mexico Solar Energy Association, which published Solar Age, the dominant solar trade magazine. In 1975, in a book called “Sunspots,” Baer announced that he would go his own way, “an old farmer, farming the sky, worrying about the weather.”

The furious regional flowering of solar innovation would continue a few more years, mostly in New Mexico and Colorado. Dramatic examples ranged from the earthships of Taos to Aspen’s solar airport terminal, solar post office and solar bus stops. Less obvious but more significant were the thousands of high-performance passive solar homes that sprouted up in the coldest and highest corners of the Rockies. A good part of a generation of architects digested the lessons of Hay and Baer and the other pioneers and developed a true regional vernacular that evolved from water drums and solar batch heaters to stately masonry homes that can be heated by candles and cooled by opening windows.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan removed Jimmy Carter’s solar panels from the White House roof, an act that came to be prophetic, as well as symbolic. The solar tax credits were abolished and almost overnight the burgeoning new solar hardware industry collapsed. Since then, we have largely forgotten about the passive solar revolution and today, when someone uses the word “solar,” he or she usually means photovoltaic panels and battery banks. The notion of building homes that respect the local climate and use the least fuel possible has given way to arguments over which fuels we should burn. There may well come a day when 1970s solar hippie homes get historic designations.

MG senior contributor Jon Kovash was an early editor of the Aspen Daily News and KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced “Thin Air,” an award-winning regional radio news magazine. Currently he’s the Moab correspondent for Utah Public Radio. His blog, Mountain Architecture, can be found at

Forty Years in Wolves’ Clothing

Between 1972 and 1975, some very cool stuff happened. First, Skiers’ Gazette was reborn as the Mountain Gazette. The following year, Rick Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act, and, in 1974 wolves in the Lower 48 were the first species declared endangered under this bright and shiny new law.

1975 hailed the end of the war in Vietnam.

But time can be a cruel mistress: We cannot stop ourselves from fighting more wars. And in 2011, the Obama Administration compromised both the Endangered Species Act and wolf recovery in one fell swoop by approving a federal budget with a sneaky rider. For, buried deep within the budget’s muck and mire, the delisting of wolves was mandated for the Northern Rockies. Adding insult to injury, legal challenges were blocked and, for the first time, Congress alone stripped a specific species of protection under the ESA.

I will not argue that, today, most small and multi-generational family ranches are struggling to survive. Adding wolves to the equation just makes it that much more difficult, or so one may believe. But while wolves are an easy target for misdirected blame and aggression, there are far more nefarious factors that are being swept under the braided rug, like so much dirt mingled with cow shit. It is far too convenient, actually romantic for some, to point a finger — or a gun — at an apex predator, making it their own personal scapegoat.

I phoned my good friend Mr. Miller, who helps maintain a small, fourth-generation family ranch in Jefferson County, Montana. A former teacher, Miller wrote his Master’s thesis on the decline of family farms in American rural communities. When I asked him what he felt was the biggest threat to ranching in America, Miller replied, no, it wasn’t predation, but rather favorable tax policies and agricultural subsidies benefitting large commercial livestock operations that were systematically wiping them out.

But you cannot legally practice the shoot, shovel and shut up method on lobbyists and politicians who promote and support the commercial livestock industry.

The Miller family ranch, currently grazing 150 cows and 70 sheep (it has been historically both bigger and smaller), has yet to suffer one loss from wolf predation over these many years. Yet, locals swear they know of wolves in the area, near the Tobacco Roots and the Highlands. “But we have definitely lost livestock to coyotes, domestic dogs, foxes and hunters,” Miller said.

The USDA Statistic Service (NASS) recently reported that depredation by wolves accounts for a very small percentage of cattle lost — 2% in the Northern Rocky Mountain states and 0.23% nationwide. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, using professional, field-verified reports, calculates these numbers even lower than the NASS, which uses unverified livestock industry reports.

Non-predator causes account for about 95% of livestock loss: disease, injury, weather, poisoning and theft. But it is much simpler to bludgeon, shoot and trap wolves than it is the aforementioned.

Miller fears the days are numbered for his family’s ranch and others like it, the only way of life known by his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. In order to help keep it viable today, and just maybe into perpetuity, Miller salvaged six commercial greenhouses, moving them onto the land. With three currently up and running, Miller is producing pesticide-free, all-natural tomatoes, peppers and herbs, which he sells to local shops and farmer’s markets.

Thinking outside the fence line just may work.

“Can anyone tell me what’s good about wolves?” asked a little girl during a public meeting of the Idaho Fish and Game Commission last summer. The meeting preceded a vote the next day setting the hunting and trapping season for the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf. Her father, a hunting guide and trapper, suggested during the same meeting, “Open ’em year round. Hunt ’em, trap ’em, run ’em over. Don’t make a collared wolf illegal to shoot. Shoot ’em!”

During the past forty years, the wolf began as a mere ghost in the Lower 48, given federal protection in great hopes of enhancing biodiversity and restoring healthy ecosystems. Nearly twenty years later, efforts went so far as to take individual wolves from their packs in Canada, turning them into non-consenting martyrs and reintroducing them, kicking and howling, into Yellowstone National Park. Twenty more years pass and we watch in horror as wolves are vilified, legally and illegally tortured, trapped and hunted.

Like most of us, wolves are neither devils nor saints. Wolves are just another animal playing an important role in the fabric of a diverse planet Earth. Collectively, we must look toward a changing landscape that impatiently waits beyond the end of our own noses, far and away from our own Back Forties. We need to think outside the fence line. If we refuse, I will continue to huff, and to puff, and keep right on trying with all of my might to blow this house down.

Tricia Cook writes from the eastern toes of the North Cascade mountains, in the company of her two big dogs, two small cats, and a cornucopia of forest flora and fauna, including a wolf pack or two. Tricia’s blog, Living Beyond Lost, can be found at

The Mountain Dirtbag Transportation Unit Formula, find out more about it.

G+W≠C±MG= MDTU — The Mountain Dirtbag Transportation Unit Formula

[Caveat to the Greek chorus: Some of the following may wound the sensibilities of traditionalists, neo-hippies/rednecks, new/used car hawkers and litigation-minded attorneys. While the MDTU conversion equation makes no attempt to correct for personal bias and inaccurately remembered historical details, even science-based, peer-reviewed computer models seem to provide ample fodder for change-denial-types, and are likely no more accurate. Please keep in mind that the writer still owns several mostly roadworthy MDTUs of sundry vintage, and drives them more than is prudent or defensible in this century. All models remain anonymous for their own protection.]

Volkswagon Bug

1972 — Ass, gas or grass

Gallon of gas (36¢)
Minimum wage ($1.60)
Chevron stock ($3.77)
Mountain Gazette (50¢)
MDTU equivalent?
A used VW Bug (or van if you want to risk being hassled by The Man).

Best I recall, my personal ride was the mid-’60s Ford Custom sedan-tank that would get me my first driver’s license — but stylistically, I was a bit of a late-bloomer.

Chevy Truck

1984 — Dirtbag-free “Morning in America”

Gasoline ($1.22.9) +Wage ($3.35)  Chevron ($8.75) ± Mountain Gazette (on publishing hiatus) =

MDTU (well-used 8-cylinder redneck caddilac, $1,000)

I was driving the 1971 Chevy pickup named Lucy from Canada to Mexico, while, back in Idaho, another dirtbag burned all the firewood I left at the funky trailer I sublet to him. He also didn’t pay the rent, ran up my phone bill, and had left the place a shambles when I returned travel-sated and broke a few months later, but we eventually made peace.


1992 — “The economy, stupid.”

$1.17.9 (Gas) + $4.25 (Wage)  $16.75 (Chevron) ± still MIA (MG) = POS K-car, 40 mpg (MDTU)

Gas Price Chart

Gas prices: U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Ah, Lucette K. Car, the Mountain Dirtbag Transportation Unit of my dreams. When oil embargos and corporate ineptitude almost sank Chrysler under the weight of its grandma-mobiles in the late-’70s, an upstart CEO authorized a startling innovation, the intentional design of piece-of-shit (POS) autos for the American proletariat and commuter class. I bought Lucette after her newness had been worn off by a seriously nervous (to judge by the worn clutch and cigarette-burned car seat) nuclear physicist commuting to Los Alamos lab. The ’71 Chevy became my domicile, and I towed Lucette to take-outs and trailheads so that solo river trips and through backpacks could be completed without practicing social skills.

Susie Baroo

2001 — Lucette is dead, long live Susie Baroo

(I know, I know — United We Stand; but with all above apologies, this is my POS MDTU formula)

G (1.64) + W (5.15)  C (45.25) + MG (now free in many fine mountain establishments) = MDTU (1986 4WD Suby wagon, $300)

By now, the field-tested data-set had led to locating a still-running 10+-year-old vehicle, telling the owner it was a piece of shit worth less than I was offering, and then finding a mechanic with a sympathetic streak for POS mountain dirtbags’ transportation units.

2011— Great Recession, continued

G (3.70) + W (7.25)  C (101.28) + MG (still free, but ya oughta have a home subscription by now, it bumps cred in mountain dirtbag society) = MDTU (1999 4WD 6-cylinder pickup, w/towing package)

Gas Prices Continued

Average Annual Gasoline Pump Price, 1919–2004 

(“On average, the price of gasoline was higher in 2004 than it has ever been before; however, when adjusted for inflation (constant dollars), gasoline cost more in 1981 than it does today.” Bush 2.0 et al)

Through asymmetric warfare, inflation, economic collapse and hope for change, MDTUs track the market, meaning the perceptive dirtbag will find ample “redneck Cadillacs” 10 years after love-bugs and hippie vans, high-mpg POS cars 10 years after oil industry terrorism cycles, battered POS Subys and Toy trucks after neo-hippies have tired of them and gone back to “real life” and family, muscled-up pickups and SUVs 10 years after the oil/politico conspiracy convinced the trembling masses that a 4WD mini-tank would be the perfect family mom-van. I hope this illustrates how a mountain dirtbag could justify acquiring a 22-mpg 4WD pickup, even while gasoline prices creep past record levels each year just as mud season brings an itch to hit the road.

2012 — Mayan calendar; what Mayan calendar?

Let’s review the formula: G (gas price per gallon) + W (minimum wage)  C (Sorry, Chevron, but you took over Texaco and Union Oil, so receive my cudgel blows by proxy) + MG (let’s keep it on the plus side, shall we) = MDTU?

Lucy and Susie Baroo live on, albeit reduced to occasional shuttles and roadside camps. My current 4WD MDTU involved hours of sweat and blood piecing second-hand parts onto a sweet-running hulk with a T-boned frame. As the odometer nears 300,000 miles, I’m eyeing a tandem bicycle that a young friend of mine was riding the other day, as a possible MDTU of the future. He and some buddies built it with salvaged frames of single-speed bikes, attached side-by-side to a common rear axle so that no matter how many dirtbags are going your way, you can add another pair of legs to the pedaling chores by welding on another frame. I figure with all the designer cruisers in mountain towns these days, there should soon be plenty of orphans lying about, and this century’s mountain dirtbags will know just what to do with them.

G+WC+MG=? Let the equation be your guide.

Senior correspondent B. Frank is the author of “Livin’ the Dream: Testing the Ragged Edge of Machismo.” He splits his time between the Border Country and the Colorado Plateau. His blog, Ragged Edge, can be found at