Letters #186

Letters 186Envelope: Adam Lee, Decorah, IA

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Coyote Bones

Hi John, I loved your story “The Bright White Light” (Smoke Signals, MG #181). I’ve had several lightning moments, mostly up near Grand Mesa doing a Vipassana retreat. The Wakayan (Thunderbeings) were really active up there. I’ve attached a few paragraphs from a short story I wrote called Coyote Bones. The lightning snapped me out of suicidal thoughts … scary and good. Hope you enjoy it.

The lines of my identity began to dissolve as I stared down at the trickster, melting myself into the creek bed, alongside the beast. Adrift in the desire to merge back into the oneness, disintegrating and submerging deep into the feeling of what I thought it would be like to cross over and die, I floated away, over the hills, river and mountains. Then, an ever-so-soft yet penetrating voice whispered into my mind, “Is this where you want to be?”

Right then, at the very moment the question was posed, a flash of lightning accompanied by an explosion louder than dynamite cracked above my head. Smack-Sizzle-Boom! Thunder reverberated through the canyon with an echoing domino effect. A primal scream erupted from my mouth, snapping me out of my dissociative daydream as I jumped back five feet from where I was standing. My heart surged with a force like rushing water and the hair on my arms stood up on end. Quickly, my mind started ticking with the consequences I could face for being down here in this deep narrow canyon.

This could be a flash-flood zone. Yes, now I could see why all the bones were down here. I looked up at the dark sky as grey clouds bundled tight and fierce, huddled together like a pack of wolves in the direction I was headed. The steep canyon walls were at least 25 to 30 feet high on each side of me. It was definitely too risky for me to try to climb out at this spot. I knew that miles up ahead a cloud burst could send a rushing river of water, mud and trees through this place that could kill me. Jolted by the thunder and the fear of really dying down here, I began to run up the canyon looking for a way to get to higher ground.

The Bone People and Coyote Trickster were laughing at me now. I sensed the presence of anthropomorphic beings, ancient ones, floating high above the cliff walls, watching my unfolding dilemma. They were the witnesses of my life in this Land of The Lost juncture. They were the guardians of this place where I had come for lessons, their kind of lessons. This was the canyon that turned my head, and now I realized that I didn’t want to be down here with the bones. I wanted out!

The sky darkened and a firm rain began to fall on me. I was about half a mile from the coyote skeleton when I saw something up ahead blocking the trail. Within minutes, I found myself face to hoof with the stench I had smelled earlier up canyon. In the most extremely narrow part of the canyon thus far, where the white rock walls came no wider than eight feet across, was a deer carcass. Silently stiff and hardened by rigor mortis, it waited for me, twisted up in thorny brambles, branches and tumbleweeds. Its head was speckled with pieces of pink decomposing flesh and one cloudy black eye gazed downward with pity. Yellow bones were poking through its bloated hide while maggots swarmed in a frenzied feast of rotting flesh. Terrified, I saw the decomposing deer as a reflection of myself, caught in the tangled barbs of anorexia. I was forced to look at it. Turning back was not an option. The only way out was through, and the only way to get through this part of the trail was to press myself up against the deer carcass, pull away the thorny branches, hold my breath and squeeze myself between this doorway of death. The rain pummeled my face. Any moment now I felt like the red murky waters of a desert flood were going to rush over me and whisk my life away.

Panicking, I grabbed at the sharp brambles to clear my way, and cut my hand. Blood seems to flow faster in the rain. My feet got tangled up in the broken cottonwood branches that were scratchy and clumped up like barbed wire. Teetering to keep my balance and not fall into the sharp thorns, I fell onto the carcass. A puff of putrid air enveloped my senses. Gagging, I rolled off of the deer and into the mud. Sobbing out loud, I sat with my eyes closed, tears and rain pouring down my face. I was afraid, bleeding and shocked. I didn’t want to open my eyes. I couldn’t bear to see any more death. The penetrating light of truth was cutting my ego open like a laser, revealing to me that this experience was my un-buried treasure.


Charlene Love 

Volcanic Activity

John: I was living in Taos, New Mexico, in the ’80s and was dating a beautiful Chinese-American lady named Nancy. She had moved from Santa Barbara, CA, to Santa Fe, NM, to attend Healing Arts School. She had a short-lived, boring career as a CPA counting beans and decided to shuck it all and reinvent herself. She was in her element and got way into the Santa Fe “New Age” spiritual community. I loved it because she practiced her massage training on me and all my buddies.

After getting certified in massage, she packed up and moved to the island of Oahu in Hawaii and set up her massage table on the beach outside of Kailua. She fit right in with her long black hair, brown rock-hard body and exotic Asian looks. She invited me over to visit and I was on the first plane I could book to Hawaii! She had changed her name to “Akua,” which she thought meant “Spiritual One” in the ancient Hawaiian language, but actually meant “God” to the locals, so she became the “Goddess on the Beach” who gave killer massages. Not far from the truth.

As soon as I arrived, she told me we were going to experience a week of spiritual enlightenment … Hawaiian style. Sounded good to me. After all, I had spent the last ten years in Taos, exposed to all kind of latent hippie craziness, and was open to anything. She had become quite a “seeker,” looking for the true meaning of life. While I was not really looking too hard to find myself, who knew what revelations I might stumble upon in this island paradise? Our first night on the path to knowledge, we went to see a “White Witch” (think of Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, in “The Wizard of Oz.”). She expressed concern over our yin and yang and told us to look out for both good and evil signs that could influence our future. Next day, we went to see a psychic healer who placed heated stones all over our bodies to release any bad energy we had accumulated in our years of drug and alcohol abuse. I was not sure how much I was cleansed, but I did get a second-degree burn on my butt that gave me a small scar that looked like an eyeball.

The third day, we went to a group meeting to see a “channeler” (big in the ’80s) who channeled Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes books. He was going around the circle of seekers having us say our names, then he would emphatically state (in a pretty bad English accent) who we had been in a previous life. He told me I had been a Sioux Indian Medicine Man and I needed to drink lots of saffron tea to find the true meaning of my life. Which would have sounded kind of hokey, except, six months earlier, I had gone to a New Year’s Eve “Psychic Fair” in Taos and a lady channeling a Civil War confederate soldier had told me that I was a Sioux Indian Medicine Man in a previous life. Whoa …. Either those two were in cahoots or maybe there might be something to this channeling thing!

By this time, I was starting to find out more than I wanted to know about myself, and decided to go on a solo camping trip to the Big Island of Hawaii to see the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. The park was home to the 13,680-foot Mauna Loa volcano, which was still active and spewing smoke and debris in the air. It occasionally burped and sent lava flowing down the side of the mountain, continually adding to the size of the island. Mauna Loa had been relatively calm for a while, so I rented a tiny
compact car and drove straight to the top of the island, from sea level to almost 14,000 feet in just over an hour. It was getting dark by the time I reached the Park Service campground and I was the only one there. It started raining, so I quickly set up my one-person, borrowed tent, which to my dismay had no rain fly with it. Very quickly, the storm began to get violent and the wind began to howl all around me. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Fantasia,” where the song “Storm on Witch Mountain” was playing and it was getting kinda scary up there.

The thunder was deafening and the lightning storm was becoming like a surreal dream. After my previous week of dabbling in the New Age “occult” world, a random thought crossed my mind to see if I could actually call up some of those “evil sprits” that I had been hearing about. Bad idea. That was one dumb-ass move, as the moment the thought entered my brain, a gigantic lightening bolt struck somewhere near the campground, everything went bright white and my hair stood straight up in the air! A huge gust of wind blew me and my mini-tent end-over-end across the campground. I was so scared, I almost peed my shorts. Terrified, I ran to the parking lot, with the wet tent wrapped around my ankles. I jumped in the back seat of the car and locked all the doors, wondering what the f–k had I done. What kind of idiot would call up the dark side in the middle of a lightning storm on an active volcano? Me …. that’s who! I pulled the soaking wet tent over my head and started praying to any “good” spirits that would listen, to have pity on me and rescue me from this nightmare.

It continued storming all night, and I was afraid to go to sleep for fear that I might not wake up. Finally, the rain clouds cleared and I looked out the window at the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen in my life, peeking at me over the vast horizon of the Pacific Ocean. That was all I needed to prove to me that good had prevailed over evil, and a new day was ahead for me after all. I’ll never forget that night when this young punk with an arrogant attitude thought he could actually call up evil spirits on demand and get away with it. Whatever happened that night, it made me start focusing on the good in life, not the alternatives. I learned a valuable lesson not to be asking for more than I could handle or it might actually come true. To this day, when I’m out in the woods camping,
and the lightning starts, I high tail it to lower elevation, hide in the trees and concentrate only on pure thoughts that would even meet the approval of Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. Oh yeah … what happened to Akua? She got married, came back to the mainland and started a very successful accounting firm in LA. Not sure if she found real the meaning of her life, but she does have a house on the beach and gets to watch the sun set on the Pacific every day.

Richard Speegle

Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

Letters #185

Letter #185

Envelope: Aana

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Thumbs up for “Pee”

Editor: I loved Jen Jackson’s piece on Moab (“When in Doubt, Pee on the Fire,” MG #183). It really captured the spark that makes living here great despite being inundated by goobs most of the year.


Bruce Dissel
Moab, UT

Wait, don’t pee on our fire

John: After reading the fine article, “When in Doubt, Pee on the Fire,” by Jen Jackson, I had a few thoughts on that flame of eccentricity burning out in Durango that she was referring to. See, I just moved to Durango within the year, and felt the call to defend, or at least comment on, what I’ve seen here. (I should add Jen’s piece kept me happily occupied as I waited in line at the Durango post office one afternoon.)

I rolled into Durango after living in Gunnison-Crested Butte, Colorado, for over a decade. Like many a mountain town residents, the surroundings of an area are essential to my enjoyment of the place, as well as the culture of the people. In Crested Butte, they have both — great rocks, trails and mountains, as well as frequent townie takeovers (a naked one caused quite a stir this summer, I hear), costumed/themed sporting events nearly every weekend (chainless bike race down Kebler Pass, anyone?) and characters that just wouldn’t quite make it anywhere else besides a funky little mountain town.

With this ingrained in my soul, I wondered if I could love Durango in a similar way. I rolled into town waving my freak flag high, with my 220,000-mile spray-painted red, white and blue Freedom Mobile Mazda MX 6. Much to my delight, Durango seems to have more graffiti’d cars per capita than anywhere else I’ve been in Colorado. “Oh, I’ve seen this car around,” is always an icebreaker when I meet new people out and about. One guy I met from Durango out at Indian Creek described my car as immediate probable cause, but, well, that’s Utah, and, fortunately, Colorado honors freedom more than Utah. (Really, a state that tries to bust people for bringing beer across a border? It’s 2012, people.)

Where do we look for companionship and camaraderie in a new town? We look for those that share our interests. I look to the climbers. One couple I’ve met is incredibly resourceful, and maybe a bit eccentric. They grow plenty of their own food, and even resole their own climbing shoes. The guy fixes his own vehicles (he’s also the new Freedom Mobile mechanic), and the woman knits all sorts of things, most notably a breast-shaped pillow (really impressive … you have to see it to believe it) and a penis-shaped mini-hat, which sits on top of a mini-Christmas tree (year round).

There are others I haven’t met yet, only heard about, for example, a woman who goes on epic hikes on the Colorado Trail, foraging for food along the way. There’s the woman I see all around who always carries hula-hoops (must be for sale?). Then you have the “23 Feet” crew, who embarked from Durango to make a film about “people living simply in order to pursue their passion for the great outdoors.” Check that one out (there’s a review in the last issue of MG).

There are funky bikes and funky cars. This is a town filled with funk. On Halloween, the funk was confirmed, though I didn’t necessarily agree with the winners of the costume contest at Carver’s. Four men dressed as Mennonites beat out the two sexy robot girls (sexy girls should always win over creepy dudes). The best costume of the night, though, one I saw while cruising the streets of downtown, was a trio of guys dressed as the Jabbawockeez dance crew. Challenged to prove their skills, they did, with some dope break dancing.

Anywho, I gotta go now, with some deadlines to attend to. Just thought I’d represent my new ’hood.

Sincerely Yours,

Luke Mehall,
Durango, CO

Following some sketchy tracks

Dear John: Just a quick note in the spirit of the week to say thank you for keeping it real. I have been a reader, nay, a worshiper, of the Mountain Gazette for as long as I can remember. I ran away from my home in Tennessee to come to Colorado as soon as I graduated high school, and have been living the dream you write about for 22 years. I’ve even tried to follow in your proverbial ski tracks so to speak. In fact, my girlfriend and I are even now living in Frisco. I’ve done stints in Steamboat Springs, Nederland and on the dreaded Front Range.

Regardless, I was inspired to write this morning after reading the current issue cover to cover, as is my practice, and stumbling upon the lamentations of the article entitled “Resurrection,” by B. Frank. “This place was once my hometown. It was one of the first destination ski resorts in North America, and like most last best towns betrayed by travel mags out to make a buck” … (the truth hurts) … “it suffers the afflictions common to other pick-your-poison elite retreat, real estate development zones that now dot the Mountain West. The streets are familiar but the stores are up-scale and mostly empty of shoppers, seasonal-worker safehouses I once hung out in are gingerbread restoration projects geared to flip on the next boom cycle, dogs are on leashes, and so are most of the people I meet. I’ve had about enough nostalgia for one walk and am heading back to my truck to get the hell out of town …”

The dogs are on leashes and so are most of the people I meet. Not that I’m all that bitter, just sometimes, but thankfully the Mountain Gazette still exists to remind me of how good it was, how good it can be, and that there are still some folks out there who get it. Take care, John, hope to see you out there some time.

Aaron Bible,
Frisco CO

Choking on Chile

Most Precious Fayhee, oh man, just gotta say… you are a national treasure. serious. I can’t even believe how many years/decades you’ve been making me crack up from a very real, gut-deep, high-mountain-zeal-for-living place inside. your Smoke Signals — The Discovered — in your November, 2011 issue had me choking on my green chile burrito and wiping laughter-based tears by paragraph three. and here is the thing … i haven’t even read past paragraph ten cuz, like, it’s such a glittery jewel of writing so far, it’s like I’m compelled toward delaying self-gratification in case the next fourteen (yeah, i counted) paragraphs don’t meet the standard set by the first ten (it should be noted, however, that this is tendency of ilgs …like, for instance, the fact that i haven’t been back to Yosemite in over 20 years because, well, we used just drive our little sport pick-up with a camper shell on it, right up to the base of New Dimensions wall and camp … it’s like, the present can’t compete with my imprint of the past, so why ruin it?).

honestly, i don’t know how you sustain the health of your creativity (or your liver and lungs!) … even as a two-time cover athlete of that tragic mag, OUTSIDE, ilg just bows to you as low as my paltry padmasana allows for your loving perseverance and stalwart support of deep-fiber mountain journalism. feeble ilg cannot even imagine sharing this plane(t) without Fayhee somewhere on it (or hovering near it, at least). dat’s all. now that i’ve finished my 2,000’ vert of snowshoe hill repeats in La Plata Canyon’s fresh November pow? i’m feeling ready to take on those next fourteen paragraphs of yours. but first, i need to grab me a local brew …

head bowed,

coach steve ilg
durango, CO

ps: LOVED the Bar Issue cover, ’cept that the Scarpa tele boots were too shiny and new … i coulda loaned you my beat up pair … just ask!   ;-)

Uncle John’s Band

Uncle John. Photo: Aaron Plant
Uncle John. Photo: Aaron Plant

John, I read your write-up on your story about 9/11 (“North by Northwest,” Smoke Signals, MG #182). Well, tonight I wrote mine about my trip up the Grand Teton on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 with Veterans Expeditions. I am not an English major, but here it is. I hope you read it. Edit the hell out of it and please share it with others. I will attach a picture of Uncle John.

For 30 years I had wondered what it would be like to stand on top of Grand Teton.  As a little boy, I daydreamed of my father’s own experience as a young 20-something atop the mountain as he told his story time and time again. He told me one day I too could reach the summit and behold all of what Wyoming stood for the vast freedom of our land.

Thirty years later, I awoke early. Steve at my side, ever ready, shot out of our tent into darkness fully prepared for what lay ahead and disappeared into morning that was still night. I moved quickly. Did I have what I needed? Headlamp throwing shadows as I placed this and that into my bag and took this and that out of my bag.

Into the cool night air I arose. My stomach calling, I headed toward voices below. Water for coffee was heating as quiet chatter emerged. Tents stirred as more people entered for caffeine and food. I sat with my thoughts of what was to come. My father’s stories turning in my head no longer daydreams, but a reality to come.

We set out into night with headlamps exposing a maze of boulders heading for the saddle like giant stirrups occasionally misplacing feet. We talked. I sang. It was not pleasing, but when I asked what I could sing, the guide only replied, “Make it the blues.” GNR Welcome to the Jungle, Blues, misquoted, but satisfying to my anxiety and fear.

I told them I was feeling anxiety. You know how you tell the party you’re with where you’re at. Well I did. Erica America stated that we could rope up. Now not a bad idea, but I have kids and a wife back home. However, I should not have said no. Next thing I knew, our lead guide Scott says, “Nick! Aaron! You two follow me.” “Follow you where?” I thought. “It is fucking dark out here and why are we leaving the group?“ “We are going through the Key Hole. You guys are going to love this.” In the darkness, I could feel his grin.

My headlamp immediately noticed the ledge and watched as Scott left center stage and disappeared behind stage left. “Put your hand here,” a voice said. “It is a good hold. Just grab on and swing around.” I looked down, down and down some more until my light petered out into the darkness. “Hell, yeah,” I thought to myself. Dad would be proud. We continued this way along the ledge, unroped, and as a key entered Key Hole. My inner soul had been unlocked and my anxiety lifted. I was ready to climb.

After that, it was like time flew by. Twilight began to embrace us as the dawn signaled a new day. There across the valley floor, a shadow stretched out with the new day. It was grand and as I moved the shadow grew. I stood atop the mountain. Our summit time was 8:03 Mountain Time. Ten years earlier, a same time for flight 93. Here we all were. Seven Veterans from different time periods and different life experiences shared that day on the summit of the Grand Teton. It had been a long time since I had held an American flag as first call to colors rang out in my head. It had been a long time.

We all had our reasons to climb that day. I chose to climb for my Uncle John. He didn’t die in the Vietnam War or receive the bronze star. He was young like the rest of us when he joined the military — Steve the Army, Nick the Army, Stacy the Army, Chad the Army, Jared the Air Force, Dana the Navy and I the Navy. He changed like the rest of us when we come home. However, he became really sick with schizophrenia and coped by drinking. I remember driving for hours with my mom and dad out looking for him as he wandered the streets, another homeless vet. He never came home and we left to our new home in Wyoming without him.

Here on the Grand Teton, I took out his picture that I carried with me on so many of the trips leading up to this one. I took one last photo of my uncle with the shadow of the mountain behind him. The shadow he and I were no longer in.

Aaron Plant
Laramie, WY

Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

Letters #184

We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette.

Envelope: Cha Cha, Boulder, CO
Envelope: Cha Cha, Boulder, CO

Welch Rocks!

John: I’ve been a backcountry cook & guide since 1992 and I’m TOTALLY FLATTERED by Vince Welch’s tribute to dory cooks! (“Dory Cooks,” Mountain Notebook, MG #178.)

Thanks, Vince!!!

Peace, Love & Happiness,

Magpie Cycling Adventures

• –/••••/• -/-   -/••••/•   •• – •/•• -/- • – •/- • –   •• — ••

Dear John, I have been translating the Morse code of your articles in Mountain Gazette and am curious as to whether it is a word jumble? The most recent translated to BELLA GERANT ALLI, and last month was more incoherent, TIMENDI CAUSA ESTNES CIRE. Now I am no NSA analyst code cracker, so what do these mean?

Avon, CO

–/- • —   • – ••/••/• — •/•••   • -/• – •/•   •••/•/• -/• – ••/•/- ••

Ignore the Howls!

Hello, good folks, Enjoyed #182, as always. M. John, I especially appreciated your comments on 9/11 (“North By Northwest,” Smoke Signals, MG #182), going beyond mindless patriotism to take a cold hard look at what horrors were leveraged in the aftermath  of our collective shock and fear.

And Sgt. Mike (“Send in the Boosters, Deploy the Granolas,” Dateline: Afghanistan), for a breath of fresh air and a taste of reality from the quagmire.

Thank you both! You’ll hear howls from those who just want MG to stick to fun and games, but, since these insights rarely appear in the mainstream media, it’s valuable to have them popping up in lots of other places, like MG.

Arden Buck
Nederland, CO

Frank Banks
Frank Banks

Lightning in the Noosphere

John: In response to your call for lightning stories (“The Bright White Light,” Smoke Signals, MG #181): Ol’ pal Derwood and I have been around the West alright, from the Sierras to the northern Rockies up on the Canadian border down to the desert southwest. Seems like the only time we’ve ever had run-ins with life-affirming lightning was in the High Country of Colorado.

There was that one time atop Arapaho Pass, where we squatted on our packs as our hair stood straight up and a friend from California finally took off running down the mountain, screaming, “My father warned me about going to Colorado exactly because of the lightning! Aaaaahhhh!!” Good times.

Another time, we were on the boulder field on Longs Peak when we hoofed it past a hiker wrapped in one of those metallic silver blankets quivering (maybe the correct term is “seizuring”), having been blasted, and waiting for the Flight for Life helicopter as the swirling wind blew the graupel around. Freaky times.

The thing that finally changed my thinking about the respect owed to mighty Thor happened on the back side of the Maroon Bells, about 15 miles in on a backpacking trip that, we planned, would take us down to Gothic and up over to Conundrum Hot Springs. We started with four of us, but two bailed — one was a buff aerobics instructor from Brooklyn who, our other bud had assured us, was in better shape than any of us. Which might have been true, from a physical standpoint. Trouble was, loose talus on the flanks of Snowmass Peak and mad mountain exposure was more than she ever conjured on the sea-level flatlands, and so they bailed on us and headed back to Aspen on the third day.

So Derwood and I went up over Trail Rider Pass and down the other side and up the Crystal River Valley. We figured we’d make it up just past treeline in Fravert Basin below Frigid Air Pass and call that a day.

We made it right where we wanted to — hoping mightily to elude the spikes of rain that were threatening us all afternoon. We probably should have found a spot in the trees instead of above them, but the draw and vision of high, exposed peaks right outside our tent door was too much for us, so we plodded on, and thought we found the winning spot in the high basin above the trees.

We saw an interesting brown circle amidst the verdant tundra, and thought maybe a previous camping crew had set up for a few too many days and killed the grass. We thought of pitching our tent right there on that spot, but it was down a ways, and there was a fine spot right at our feet, so we doffed our packs — just as that cool Colorado rain began to pelt us. We dove into the tent, wet but not soaked.

And then. And then the damn thunder started rattling our tent poles, not to mention some dental work around my back molars. We figured some herbal remedies would calm our nerves — and probably did, at least until the time horizon between flash of lightning and crash of thunder shrank to instantaneous.

Truth be told, we started freaking a bit. We thought we should take our hiking boots off, because the bottoms of them were wet and that might conduct electricity better. Then we thought we should put them back on, because, if one of us did get blasted with lightning, and the other lived, then time would be wasting for the living to go get help and shouldn’t be bothered with the time-wasting process of getting one’s boots laced back up. Still, it somehow made a little more sense to avoid getting blasted altogether, and so the better answer was to dry off the boots as best we could, and take the boots off.

Holy mother of Zeus! That one cloud-ripper not only made us flinch, jump even, but when I looked on over at Derwood, his eyes got simultaneously beady and dilated, like he was peaking on a good double-dose while turning into a prairie pheasant. Finally, we consulted our laminated pocket first-aid guidebook. We always had a good time flipping through that manual — the best part was in the last pages, when it moved on from simple remedies on cuts and abrasions to advice on amputations. The line that contributed to more than a few backcountry guffaws was the counsel: “Then, cut the bone.”

Oracle thusly consulted, we settled upon a two-prong strategy. One: get our boots back on, again. Two, check out the topo to see which was the quickest way back to civilization, just in case the one living person of us in our tent would have to trek on out to get help or a hearse.

Having settled upon a plan, and too terrified to do anything, especially the things you might think would be de rigueur after a day’s pack over one pass and to the flanks of a second — like, say, piss and eat — we settled into our sleeping bags, hoping against hope that we’d be able to sleep, perchance to dream.

Damn if I didn’t do just that. The crazy thing was, I had this dream about an old elementary-school friend of ours, Matt Karwowski, whom I honestly hadn’t given a single thought to for literally years. But there he was all the same, inside my head at some elevation north of 10,000 feet, in the heavenly lap of a bowl on the backside of the Maroon Bells, helping me get through some dreamlike cityscape that sort of approximated the metropolis Charlton Heston lived in in “Soylent Green.” So, Matt helped me out, and when I woke up, it was light out.

I was so happy. We made it through the thunderous, lighting-spiked night. I zipped open my bag, and zipped open the door of the tent to revel in some early morning blue sky I knew I could count on.

What the? — I couldn’t see the top of any of the Bells because they were infected with a creeping, charcoal crown of clouds that did not look friendly one single bit. I leaned back to tap Derwood and whisper a choice expletive when — shitfuck! Shitfuckshitfuck! — a splinter of lightning accompanied by a simultaneous roar from some medieval creature made Derwood sit up straight, and fast.

“Dude!” I said.

“We’re still in this thing?”

We decided — it seemed like a good idea at the time, anyway — that the best course of action was to not stop, do not collect $200, and just get the freaking hell out of this cursed cirque. As we were packing up the wet tent, I think it dawned upon both of us at the same time that the brown circle in that meadow below us was probably not from a tent set up for too long. No. We both looked at each other knowingly. All that grass was singed dead because 10,000 volts from the sky fried the ever-loving shit out of its green verdant life.

We hoofed it, triple time, up the rocky trail, into the clouds where we could no longer see if we were getting close to the top of the pass or not. C-c-c-c-crrrrack! “Fuckshit!” We had hiking poles with us. Truth be told, they were ski poles doing double-duty during the summer months. We again both looked at each other knowingly. Ski poles. Metal ski poles. Portable lightning rods!

We decided to ditch the poles, then found a boulder that we rationalized could maybe keep our heads dry from the rain that began pelting us, and maybe at the same time it would keep the lightning from snagging us.

I know, I know. Still, at the time, having not eaten or pissed in probably 18 hours, up near 12,000 feet, it seemed perfectly logical.

We sat there, in the cold rain and savage lightning, pondering whether we should continue going upward because, in theory, that would bring us even closer to the lightning. As we talked about calculus and differential equations and the random nature of lightning strikes, all of a sudden it occurred to us that we hadn’t heard any thunder in a number of minutes. We stopped talking. We waited. Derwood raised an eyebrow at me from behind his speckled specs. It occurred to me that the rims of his glasses were some metallic substance, and me sitting next to him was no better than holding onto a ski pole when you get right down to the relative attractiveness of elements to lightning. But before I was able to reach over and grab those confounded glasses and throw them down the mountain along with the ski poles, I realized that another minute had gone by in non-thunderous silence.

We were sitting on a pile of edgy maroon rocks, in the cold, in the rain, in the clouds, at two miles above sea level. But we could deal with all that, because the existential threat of our very existence no longer needed to be a topic of conversation, and we could start the process of discussing more material things, like whether our frozen, frightened nut sacks would remain the size if not constitution of a frozen mouse medulla, or not.

We decided the time was ripe to continue our journey up into the clouds, and I stumbled the stumble like when you reach the top of the stairs in the dark and think there’s another stair to step on but you’re already on the top. And I was. On the top of the pass. Not that I would know it, since we were squarely in a pea-soup cloud. But a silent cloud. Here’s to the silent clouds!

We made it a hundred yards or so down the other side of the pass, silently ruing the disappointment at having come to the hard-fought top of a pass, with the ineffable views that go with all that, and all we could see was the inside of a bag of cottonballs.

And just then, a sly wind from the north blew against us, and it made us both stop. The wind blew out of nowhere, or everywhere maybe, and after a minute, like a dream, a few banks of clouds blew away, and it revealed a golden-grass landscape below colored peaks that were now mottled with snow. Honest to God, it was one of the most sublime viewsheds I ever laid eyes on. Matter of fact, tears swelled up from inside my head and I wept a bit. It was a cry of beauty, and of grace, and also of hunger and exhaustion, and of tapped adrenals — we made it, and were rewarded.

Epilogue: When Derwood and I made it back to Boulder, we discovered that an old friend of ours — that’s right, Matt Karwowski — had been shot dead in New York City. He was killed the very night Derwood and I battled the lightning in the heavens, the selfsame night Matt came from out of nowhere to help me navigate the demons of my dreams. I figured we were as close to heaven as a mortal needs to ever be, not to mention feeling like I was as close to losing my mortality as I ever wanted to be. And the spirit, or soul, of Matt came flying through the metaphysical spiritual noosphere on its way around the world and out of town.

Todd Runestad
Boulder CO

Patriotic Fireworks

Mr. Fayhee, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your Smoke Signals column in Mountain Gazette No. 181. I’d never had any harrowing experiences with lightning until the summer of 2009 when I started section hiking the Colorado Trail. I have yet to complete this trail, but have hiked 343 of the 485 miles over the last three years. To paraphrase sports writer Peter King, “Factoid of My CT Hike That May Only Interest Me”: All of my encounters with lightning during the CT excursion have happened during the Independence Day holiday weekend.

A few thoughts have emerged from these encounters with “The Bright White Light”:

1. I really need to lose weight and get in shape, so I’m not above treeline when the afternoon thunderstorms arrive.

2. To plan all future hikes above treeline around monsoon season in Colorado rather than greeting the arrival of the monsoon at elevation.

3. Perhaps I’ve done something unpatriotic to alter my karma causing patriotic weather gods to wreak havoc on me during the 4th of July holiday weekend.

Am working on 1 and 2, should I want to continue the CT hike next year.

Thanks for sharing your experiences with lightning in your column. Am looking forward to the next edition of Smoke Signals.

Here is a look back at some of my CT Journal entries:

2009: http://www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=280840

2010: http://www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=318916

2011: http://www.trailjournals.com/entry.cfm?id=353572


Bernard Wolf
Denver, CO

Letters #183

Envelope: M.L. Ward Moab UT We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette.
Envelope: M.L. Ward, Moab UT

We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette.

A Zen Duality Thing

Dear John, I recently barfed on my copy of MG #182. No, I’m not asking for a new copy, just wanted to say what I thought of the mag. Look forward to the next issue, really!

Tom Slagle,
Moab, Colorado Plateau

More Scar Tissue

Mountain Gazette #183 Letter to the editor

Dear Jeff [sic]:  I read your commentary in MG #179 (“Scar Tissue,” Smoke Signals) that I picked up at our Ketchum library and I thought I’d give a try at serious scabbing.

Poor right clavicle, usually referred to as a collarbone, though it has never even approached the collar at the base of a size-sixteen neck, has experienced more than most of its contemporaries, even the twin attached to the opposite shoulder. At a relatively youthful four years of age, it suffered the indignity of fracturing when its host slipped down the sidewall of a bunk bed and caught on the bottom bed frame after having reached a state of blissful repose late one night. There had only been single cots in tar-papered internment camp barracks previously, so falling had never been much of a problem. A few weeks in a sling occasioned a great respite from everyday activities. For over a dozen years, the clavicle managed through innumerable scrapes on a trampoline, wrestling mat and in the odorous and humid confines of a football jersey. But life was too easy for a right-hander.

Mountain Gazette #183 Letter to the editor

Following a great week of activities with the nubile female counselors in the rarefied air at Camp Bluff Lake, located up a dusty and windy road from Big Bear Lake in the Angeles National Forest and high above the hot San Bernardino and Riverside cities of southern California, clavicle began the long drive back to San Jose and more athletic endeavors on the judo mat at San Jose State College. With temperatures exceeding one hundred degrees in the moving oven of an excuse for a car, it did its job to help keep the car pointed down the arrow-straight highway and the wind rushing through the almost-solid heated air. Even the crickets were smart enough to lay low till the sun said good night. The unending monotony of traveling over the tire hum of concrete through the Central Valley on Highway 99 was close to being an afterthought when the sign for the turnoff to the Pacheco Pass Highway and Highway 101 finally appeared. The main torso was uplifting off the sticky vinyl seat too often for a tired body part to tolerate. A little bit of zigging and zagging on a winding mountainous road was looking pretty good.


Forward progress was interrupted by a car pulling a vacation trailer and moving well below the posted 35-mile-per-hour speed limit. A straight stretch of road beckoned the in-need-of-a-shower-rest-and-food body to pass the laggard road tortoise. Unfortunately, the beast’s shell obscured the double-S curve sign, and unable to slow down or follow the curve to the right, the chariot of fire was soon airborne amid the rapidly passing shadows and silhouettes of the trees that appear in cowboy movies filmed in California. It couldn’t have been more than a heartbeat, but clavicle felt the incline in lush green grass its host had back landed feet first on, as if on a good ski jump out run, amid clouds of dust suspended in the still air. A few arm reaches to the left was a rocky outcropping that resembled the incisors of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and on the right was one of those movie trees, only a few yards away. Eight feet above and behind was a three-strand barbed-wire cattle fence. Rock music emitted from the silent hulk of the car below, adding some levity to the scene. The ribs were complaining that they couldn’t expand for breathing, as if a huge boulder were positioned directly on them. People sounds became evident, as rescuers quickly scrambled down the steep hillside. Attempts were made to push the knees to chest down, but were rebuffed because the chest could inhale better with them up. A trucker said that the car had spun three times in the air and clavicle was ejected during one of the rolls. The road knight tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but his smoky breath only nauseated the body. The sound of an ambulance’s siren rent the air and real help soon arrived. The host matched insurance demographics of a young male driver within 25 miles of home.

At the hospital, it was determined that two ribs were broken and a lung punctured with some internal bleeding, but there were no visible external trauma marks. Clavicle had to wait until four days later when its host sat on an aluminum chaise lounge, which collapsed and it suddenly met a knee and fractured. X-rays had not been taken high enough to show the slight fracture, which became larger and deformed it for the rest of its useful life. Sling time again for a few weeks of leisure.

A few years ago, on the television program, “You Want To Be A Millionaire,” a contestant failed to answer a question correctly, and clavicle could have given the right answer, if it could talk. The question was asked, “A private individual sued a major American corporation over a product liability issue and a book was written about the case.”

What was the book? A woman had lost her fiancé in an auto accident on Pacheco Pass, within yards of the host’s accident site and only days before during the same week, and she sued General Motors. Ralph Nader wrote a book entitled: “UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED,” about the inherent dangers of the Chevrolet Corvair. Host had been driving his father’s 1960 Corvair. So much for phone lists.

Life was good and clavicle managed to stay in one piece during the years of physical duress in the U.S. Army in basic training and through the rigors of OCS at the Armor School in Fort Knox and the near misses while traveling over rough ground in a tank. Even when a 100-pound periscope sight in the commander’s cupola somehow loosened and fell into the host’s lap during the main-gun live-fire exercise at Grafenwoehr near the Czech boarder south of Nuremberg. And also when it took a Nantucket sleigh ride in the tank down a steep and winding snow-covered road with steep drop-offs while spinning 360s for almost a mile during another training exercise. The three- or four-inch-thick trees would not have stopped over 65 tons of heavy armor from plowing an alternate route down into the valley. Other than acceding to the demands of C rations heated over hot engine manifolds, clavicle felt relative comfort, knowing it wasn’t sweltering in some Far Eastern jungle and dodging I.E.D. mines or excrement-coated bamboo stakes hidden in foliage-covered pits.

Many years of helping with pole plants during rapid and continuous descents down Bald Mountain in Sun Valley and numerous other resorts, as well as backcountry climbs in the Sawtooths, strengthened clavicle and it felt invulnerable. There had been the occasional eggbeater falls down The Bowls and other venues during four decades of zestful endeavors, but luck held and clavicle scraped by with élan. Even after a fall following a drop into Corbet’s Couloir at Jackson Hole onto solid ice. The past two decades had been kind of a bummer because it was only needed to help right up the body from a sitting or kneeling position when snowboarding became the main means of transport. The less clavicle and its arm were used, the better. And it was always in the background while left twin got to lead the way in a regular stance. Oh, it was needed when releasing the back foot for lift entries, but only helping lift beginner boarders upright gave it a sense of purpose. Especially after the host was able to make many non-stopper runs from top to bottom without a rest.

The winter of 2009 began late with little snowfall to cushion the firm man-made snow. Few runs were open. One morning, the opening of Canyon Run was welcomed by avid locals, though the surface was more suited to the Sun Valley ice rink. After a couple of ski runs, host decided to forego searching for the Smith sunglasses that had been lost the day before while looking for a Christmas tree on the steep hillsides that encircled Adams Gulch. It had fallen off the ski hat when an icy patch occasioned a hard backside landing and it only became apparent when the huskies later pulled a found tree into bright sunlight and there were no glasses to shield the eyes. This was a case of not stopping in mid-stream, continuing whatever it was that you were doing. Returning to the locker room, host pulled out a snowboard and proceeded to ride the new gondola up to the Roundhouse top station, from which Canyon Run dropped precipitously down. Rated as a blue run, under these conditions it was more a black designation. Carefully tracing arcs down the pitches and using any upswing in the terrain, of which there were few, host carefully descended, much slower than he had on skis with their two edges for greater purchase. As the terrain leveled out for entry into 42nd Street, host sped up in a straighter line. Suddenly it felt like a patch of Velcro below a snowgun and a forward slam happened, with no time to take any evasive actions. A sudden deceleration with helmet and goggles hitting first and followed by the upper body. Like being kicked not only by two mules, but Sister Sara in spiked heels!

Clavicle felt instant pain and gratefully accepted the body’s lack of motion for what seemed an eternity. The lungs had the wind knocked out of them and the whole body felt like the front defensive line of the Boise State Broncos football team had run over them. People stopped to ask if they could be of assistance or if they should call the ski patrol, but host declined. Finally managing to get upright without clavicle’s assistance, host began slowly heel-side sliding down to the Number One Lower River Run lift. Bending over and using the left arm to release the K2 Cinch back binding lever helped keep clavicle from screaming bloody murder, if it could have. The lift down ride seemed interminable and the feared bottom station landing was soon a nightmare become real. Left clavicle had to do the honors of helping carry the snowboard back to the car and the short drive to St. Luke’s hospital began after a slow Native American-style of tiptoeing traverse of the parking lot.

At the E.R., the charge nurse was a stranger to host and she was very curt in her actions with him; the regular ward nurses knew him because he often volunteered as a music therapist, playing his harmonica and mainly conversing with patients, who were in the only facility after the morgue that locals and visitors avoided at all costs. After X-rays, a figure-eight strap was applied and some of the pain subsided, allowing clavicle to somewhat relax. Too bad that host was too macho to use all of the pain pills that were prescribed. Easy for him when it was clavicle that had taken the major beating, aside from all of the skin tissue that was rapidly resembling members of a Motown funk soul band. Two days later, host engaged in a required snow sports school boarding rehire clinic, of all things. Clavicle would have much preferred a ski clinic and not had to do the up and down routine. But how could it complain when the right Achilles tendon, which had been damaged the previous year when stomped on by a trenching machine, accepted its lot and trudged on, though often in intense pain? Host believed that he could muscle through most injuries, and usually he was right. But not this time. Dr. Woz would have to surgically repair it the following year.

Clavicle managed to avoid the knife and eventually healed well. However, the carefree days of mountain biking on local single-track trails or wakeboarding at Redfish Lake took on a misty moments-in-the-past feeling. Clavicle somehow transcended the normal
channels of physiological connections
and managed to alter the host’s perceptions of hell-bent-for-leather
behavior. An occasional night of riotous dancing to good classic rock music at Whiskey Jacque’s was tolerated, but clavicle and the rest of the body would pay dearly the next morning …

Rod Tatsuno,
Sun Valley, ID


John: In response to your call for stories about forgetting stuff (“Don’t Know What you Got ’Til It’s Gone,” by Mark Plantz, Mountain Notebook, MG #180): One time out at Elephant Rocks, in the San Luis Valley, after an eventful morning of hiking, lizard chasing and rock scrambling, we called the dogs back to the truck and loaded up the kid for town. The trip back to town was full of talk about what we would do with the rest of our day. So many options! The advantage of getting out early is you still have an entire day ahead, right?

Well, we get back to our place in town and unpack our stuff. I open the tailgate of the truck and out jumps one dog. I look in the back of the truck, dumbfounded. Did the other dog turn invisible on the way home? Panic sets in. Running not like a chicken with its head cut off, but maybe more like a two-headed chicken, with one head cut off about to get the other head cut off if caught. I grab the kid — back in the truck. I grab the not-left dog — back in the truck. I grab the wife, explain what is happening in three mumbled words out of the side of my mouth — back in the truck.

If ever there was hauling ass, this was it, meanwhile sweating, swearing, fretting. What if he chased us all the way back? What if he got to the highway and got hit? What if what if what if? A cloud trail of dust followed the truck as we fish-tailed into the winding roads of Elephant Rocks. Eyes bugged out looking for the telltale markings of our pet. To our relief, there he was, sitting patiently, waiting. He was dehydrated, so much he wouldn’t drink, or maybe he was just disappointed with his owners. Boy, we were glad to see him. We swore we would never tell the story to anyone. Don’t tell my wife.

Sean O’Friel

Letters #182

Envelope: Claydia Sanderson.

Scar Tissue #1

Hi, John: I read your article about scars, and since you asked, I’ve got a tale to tell (or maybe a “tail” to tell?).

I was around 12 years old as well, and it was summertime in Pennsylvania. Three Saturdays in a row, I found myself in Allentown General Hospital’s emergency room.

The first Saturday, I was building a model rocket and got a fin on my rocket that wasn’t quite straight. As I cut the fin off, I managed to slice myself between my thumb and forefinger. Three stitches, and a scar.

The next Saturday, I was playing catch at a neighbor’s house. As I slid across the grass trying to catch a ball, missed, and I rammed my knee into a flagpole base hiding in the grass and cut my knee. No stitches this time, no fracture, but a lovely set of X-rays to accompany the second scar.

On the third Saturday, my other neighbors had a truck full of topsoil and a 2×10 as a ramp off the back of the truck for wheelbarrows. It looked like a slide to me. It was a painful slide, followed by an odd limping run up the hill to my house. Determined not to make a third trip to the ER, mom got out the pliers and tried to pull out the “splinter.” That wasn’t happening. On closer inspection, she realized it was bigger than it first appeared. It was sticking out above and BELOW the back pocket of my jeans. Off to the ER. My pants were cut off me. I was given Novocaine to ease the pain before they tried to remove the “splinter.” News travels fast in a hospital. I remember lying on my stomach waiting for the Novocaine to kick in, and a nonstop parade of nurses, who all wanted to see the biggest splinter they’ve ever seen in a kid’s ass.

I just wanted to disappear.

The doctors put a tube in my butt cheek for drainage. I still remember going on a field trip that week, with a special pillow to make the ride more comfortable. The scars are still pretty impressive, since they are about six inches apart.

I saved the splinter for several years, as a trophy of sorts. Chicks dig scars, right?

On the 4th Saturday, my parents wrapped me in bubble wrap and left me in the basement. ;-)

Brian York,
Summit County, CO

Scar Tissue #2

Hi John, Your terrific tale in the June Mountain Gazette (“Scar Tissue,” Smoke Signals, MG #179) put me in mind of a similar incident and since you invited your readers to share their stories …

I lived on a steep hill in West L.A. back in the fall of 1959. I was 13 and, although this may come as a surprise to your younger readers, many of us now-ancients were deep into skateboarding some 50-plus years ago. Of course, our boards were significantly less sophisticated than the current crop of polypropylene-propelled rides. We used metal shoe skates split apart and nailed to the underside of a six-inch-wide sheet of three-quarter-inch plywood.

In any case, it was early Saturday morning and I had climbed out of bed to get in some turns before breakfast. Swooping down our street, I reveled in my newfound sense of vehicular freedom. Coming up against a rather significant curve in the concrete, I leaned into the bend just as I had watched countless contemporaries do the same. Only my turn had tragic consequences. I spun off the board and landed hard on the sidewalk, falling knee, elbow, noggin first.

Of course, my initial response was to instantly sit up and check to see if anyone witnessed my in-line ineptitude. Luckily, no one was around. I soon realized however that it was also unlucky no one was around. My left leg was twisted underneath me in a manner decidedly not as nature intended. I tried to move, but simply couldn’t. I worried over what to do next, when I happened to look up the hill to my house and saw my dear mother standing beside our kitchen sink and framed by the large kitchen window.

I was saved! Mom would see me and come rushing to my side. Mom would soon be comforting me in my condition and rushing me off to the hospital. Oh, dear, dear mother! How could I have mistreated you so terribly? Leaving my room a mess, lying about my homework, ignoring your entreaties to eat my sprouts … what kind of son was I? And there she now was before my tear-filled eyes, beatifically preparing our morning meal, still unaware of her tragically fallen progeny lying prostrate on the pavement.

“Mom! Mom!” I called out doing my best to get her attention by weakly waving my one unscathed arm. “Mom! I’m down here at the corner. I think I broke my leg! There’s blood everywhere! Come quick, Mom, and save me!”

I don’t know for sure if it was my desperate cry for help or some innate parental perception that had her looking up from the sink and out the window directly at me. But just seeing her kindly, compassionate face looking in my direction was balm enough for this wounded soul and comfort for my fractured body. I was to be rescued!

I smiled up at her as our eyes met. She saw my plight. She felt my pain. And then she fainted dead away, falling sideways and straight like a tree slowly toppled by an incessant wind. I knew I was screwed.

Twenty minutes later, a neighbor drove by and stopped to help. He bandaged me up, put a splint on my leg and rushed me to the hospital. En route, I remembered about my Mom lying out cold on the kitchen floor. It was a passing thought, nothing more. I was too eager to see my suture-driven scar.

Rich Mayfield,
Summit County, CO

Scar Tissue #3

M. John: Just finished your scar story and am inspired to write. Once, long ago, I was riding my bike to my first youth football practice with two of my better friends. I grew up in a small town in upstate NY, in a world that is rapidly approaching sepia tone in my memory — lots of free time to get up to navigational hijinks via bike. My town had one road with one big hill at the northern edge of my 7th-grade cosmology — always a good thrill to drop in. This particular chain of events marked one of the first times where I had an out-of-body experience unfold: in a separate, yet parallel, universe, I made different decisions — I did not cross on the crosswalk on the wrong side of the road, and if I did (further interspatial tear), a car was not coming up the hill at exactly the right point to preclude me from sliding out across the road to maximize the angle of descent on the correct side of the road.

Regardless, in this world, I stuck to the wrong side and was soon whistling merrily downhill on the sidewalk. In another spatial-temporal rift, I decided that this sort of magic day required an extra element — riding no handed.

As I assumed the full-on arm-extension Christ pose of gravitational glory, a car swiftly backed out of its driveway too close to me to allow for brake engagement. I crashed full on into the poor driver’s back left rear quarter panel, bending my frame and tacoing my front tire. I folded up, over and across her sedan’s trunk onto the utility strip outside her home, looked down and saw the fat tissue of my upper left knee for the first time. I remember this professional-looking woman shooting out of the car that I just T-boned totally distraught. Then, ambulance — me put on a backboard with head restraints for first time.

At this point, my mom shows up — holding it together well, but I can imagine she was not enthused to see me boarded up. I remembered, years later in a WFR course, that she asked me to squeeze her finger, I guess to ensure I was not paralyzed! Two levels of stitches later — 60+ total — and I was gimping around. Was unable to fully participate in training camp, but football is for others anyway — mostly wanted to hang with my friends, I guess.

Several years later, I was called in to testify in an insurance settlement case and stated the facts and feelings clearly. I was apparently awarded a not-inconsiderable sum, which paid for half of my college tuition at the U of M in Missoula — a move to the West I would not have been able to make in the 1990s without this incident, this outcome and the support of my folks to send their last kid out West on the train.

Still here and loving it, now with a perpendicular ACL scar on the other knee.

Sam Fox,
Ft. Collins, CO

Scar Tissue #4

John: On snowy winter weekends in Brooklyn, my 12-year-old buddies and I would drag our sleds to the park and test our nerve against “Ball Buster Mountain.” Thinking back on it, it was more of a tiny hill with a big dip toward the bottom, which caused your sled to go airborne and land with a thud, driving an atomic shock right into your groin — hence the name.

One particular Saturday, my pal Jeffrey and I hauled our wooden Flexible Flyers to the aforementioned nut crusher and, finding it too crowded with masochistic thrill seekers, we spent the afternoon trudging up and down every other hill we could find, until it had become too dark to sled. The temperature had dropped considerably and, late as it was, we decided to take a short cut to get home. In our youthful bravado, teetering at the top of a hill thick with trees, we determined it would be the fastest way out. Standing there, our sleds held by clothesline threaded through steering handles; we worried aloud about the treachery of the ride down.

“You go first,” I said. I could barely see Jeff’s face, but I heard him clearly. “I’ll choose you for it. Odds or evens?” Quick to take the advantage, I said, “Evens. Ready?”

We thrust fingers into the air. He won. I shrugged and lay face down on my sled and pointed it into the abyss. Careening into the darkness, I swerved this way and that, around trees, bushes and rocks, and somehow made it to within yards of the bottom before I spotted the silhouette of a tree rapidly approaching. I jerked the sled to the right and instinctively moved my head just a split second before my left shoulder made violent contact with the trunk. “Thwok!”

Jeff, on hearing the sickening crash and then my agonized scream, yelled out into the darkness, “You okay?”

By the time he returned with police in tow, and an ambulance on the way, I was shivering and numb. Scared more of what my parents might say, I pleadingly said to Jeff, “Please don’t say anything to anybody. If you see my brother, don’t tell him.”

As I suspected, my mother sent my brother to look for me. Jeffrey came face to face with him in front of the apartment house.

“You see Stewie?”


By the time I reached the ER, my fingers had turned blue from lack of circulation. The mild frostbite however was no match for the shattered bone protruding through torn skin and the compound fracture of my left clavicle. The cops were kind enough to bring my damaged sled to the ER and called my parents. By the time they arrived, I was lying on a gurney and wrapped in bandages, mildly sedated and very apologetic, but otherwise okay and they sympathetically forgave my recklessness.

After all these years, with every winter chill that comes my way, my shoulder clicks and grumbles and I sometimes cringe whenever I pass too close to a tree. Oh … mom threw away what remained of my Flexible Flyer.

Stew Mosberg,
Bayfield, CO

Scar tissue #5

John: Just finished reading the “injury stories bar confab” piece in the new MG and wanted to heartily commend you. Mainly I want to commend you for the large-scale format of MG. Not only does it aid middle-aged eyes control reading glass costs and serve as an ideal supply of ready-to-hand paper for sudden spills, but it is difficult to eat AND read while holding such a hefty periodical. I say that because had I been eating something with one hand while reading that description of a jutting femur and a viscera-smeared tree stump with the other, I might have returned some foodstuffs to nature more quickly than I usually do. I’m glad you don’t see many tree stumps in Silver — I would not want that imagery “bleeding” through my mind every time I saw one. You have a commendable Hemingwayesque economy of expression when you want to use it — sometimes …

Oh, by the way, it was well written.

Shawn Gordy,
Silver City, NM

You’re most welcome

Dear John, Dave Baldridge just sent me the piece by Richard Barnum Reece that you published in the MG #180. I just wanted to say thank you and that I’m proud and honored for all involved, especially Richard, for that refreshing reprint. It fits right in with your great tradition. I’m happy that you have Dave on board. I’ve been missing the MG, so I’ll get my sub in without delay. “It’s astonishing how high and far we can climb into the mountains that we love.” John Muir. Keep it up.

All the Best,

David Moe,
Ex-publisher, Powder magazine

35 Mugs of Beer on the Wall

Dear MJ: By my reckoning Big Bob’s calculations (“Big Bob and the Beer Math Saga,” Smoke Signals, MG #180) that it would take 55 pints of Dam Straight Lager for you to realize full payback on your $35 mug investment means you were paying $2.55 per pint back in those days (that’s actually rounded up from a precise calculation of $2.5454544 per pint). That sounds about right for a local microbrew. Adjusting for inflation, it would take maybe an even 35 pints for payback. Then again the damn mug would cost more …

Ken Ryder,
Bozeman, MT

Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.

We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette.

Letters #181

We’re in the market for decorative envelopes to help beautify our Letters pages. If you’ve got an artistic envelope bent, pull out your weapons-of-choice, decorate an envelope with our snail mail address on it, mail the resultant envelope to us, and, if we print it, we’ll give you a year’s subscription to the Mountain Gazette. And don’t worry about spelling “Gazette” correctly.

Oar snobbery

Dear Sirs, I examined the cover of the Mountain Gazette River Issue (#178) with interest. Could the picture be of any of the Old Boatmen I had worked with over the years? Could it be based on Catfish from the Taos Box? Bill from our first Dolores trip? Or maybe Skip from the Animas?

Upon closer examination, I was taken aback. It was certainly not one of my old comrades. The Boatman was using Oar For Sures on a pair of blue plastic oars. Why not give him pins and clips and be done with it?

I have always said, “Real Boatmen use wooden oars.” As for myself: I would never leave shore without my hands wrapped around a shapely piece of ash.

Michael Black
Durango, CO

River Right

Mr. Fayhee: I read Rob Marin’s story (“River Family,” MG #178) with ever-growing recollections of a river trip fatality while I was a whitewater river guide on the Ottawa River, between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, in Canada. I then got to thinking that every river probably has a similar story to tell, so I submit my tale, and perhaps this will lead to a collection of stories along this theme, although it may be a macabre proposal.

It was in the early ’80s, and I was working my second season as a whitewater river guide for a commercial company on the Ottawa River near Pembroke, Ontario. Death was not a new thing to us on the river; just the previous season, another company lost a customer over the side of a raft in a rapid during the high-water portion of the season. He did not surface for over a month until after the waters subsided. But, in my case, the story Rob Marin told was hauntingly familiar.

We set out for the five-hour trip on a non-descript sunny day with the usual compliment of eight paddle rafts. Each raft was crewed by a dozen or less customers propelling the 22-foot-long Salmon rafts, guides positioned in the back of the raft for steerage with oversized paddles. We headed toward the first of five rapids, McCoy’s Chute. Company policy was to beach half the rafts so the customers could enjoy watching the other half go through, and the landed guides provided lifelines to any paddlers who were ejected from the raft, in conjunction to the rescue kayaker that accompanied each trip. Those who went through first beached their rafts at the bottom and the process repeated. The first rapid was running at about class 4 and was a good jump into the day’s adventure. After successfully negotiating the rapid, the mini-flotilla set off for a 15-to-20 minute paddle to the Lorne rapids.

This rapid consisted of a hydraulic at the top of the run, followed by a series of standing waves and another hydraulic almost 50 yards downstream of the first one. The key to this rapid is to stay river right lest you send the raft to its destruction into the Greyhound Bus Eater, which extends the width of most of the bottom of this rapid, and out of which the customers would not fair too well either. At either end of the Greyhound Bus Eater is a chute. As an added precaution, this rapid was always run with a minimum of two guides, the extra guide being positioned in the front to absolutely ensure the raft stayed river right. It was time for our run, and we were anticipating the lunch stop immediately after the rapid. I wish I could remember the name of the guide who was running with me, but I am glad it was he because I would be calling on his leadership in a few moments. We caromed through he first big wave and executed a textbook run, achieving maximum splash and riding the roller coaster waves down to the safe exodus of the rapid. It was then the lady immediately to my right looked back at me and gave the understatement of the day, alerting me that the man immediately in front of her, and who was leaning back against her, must not be feeling well. By now, we were out of the waves and into the frothy aftermath of the rapid. I called up to the guide in the front to take over steering and to get us ashore. I turned my attention to the middle-aged fellow who was now convulsing. My only previous exposure to this kind of symptom was a friend who was prone to epilepsy. I had by now got the man lying down on the raft tube and was unfastening his May West and asking out in general to the rest of the customers if anyone knew about this man’s medical history. The answer came to my eyes just as a lady’s soft-spoken voice confirmed what I saw. This man, her husband, had had heart surgery within the previous six months, she told us. We were now within earshot of the shore lunch party, which had driven the lunch down to the lunch spot on a very primitive road (I know this, I helped “build” it).

By now, the general manager, who had come in by road for whatever reason, was trying to organize the lunch van to take this cardiac situation to the hospital. I countermanded his instructions and told the other guide to get on the radio to base. That year, there was a new twist for the customers. A freelance helicopter pilot had rented a corner of cornfield near the company offices and would give paying customers an aerial view of the rapids. In exchange for word-of-mouth advertising, he had given a handful of us guides a free ride, which is where I came to understand his skills with his flying machine and how I came up with the next development in this unfolding saga.

As we were performing CPR (two nurses had been identified on the trip), I called to the guide to raise the base on the radio and contact the pilot. As chance would have it, the pilot was in the office having a cup of coffee when the call came in. By now, I was in a pissing match (arguing) with the general manager over how we should best get the victim out to help. The pilot, meanwhile, understanding what I had in mind, had made it to his aircraft and had thrown one door off his bird and was in the air in short order. As I predicted, he came screaming in low and landed his craft on a submerged sand bar in the bay where the lunch spot was. Now with the man with the cardiac problem secured to a backboard, my life jacket under his neck to straighten the airway, we hustled him over to the helicopter where the pilot had just jettisoned the other door. The nurses accompanied the victim as they headed to the local hospital. His wife rode out in the lunch van.

With a diminished and somber crew, the remaining rapids presented an additional challenge in that, if our hearts and shoulders weren’t into the trip, there could well be another fatality. With that announcement, the crew came to life, and we managed the remaining rapids and concluded the trip.

Back at the base, one of the nurses caught up with me and handed me back my puked-on life vest. She recounted the trip to the hospital stating that she only looked out of the window once, and that was enough. I had seen the helicopter depart, but not realized how radical the pilot’s plan was. In order to make distance over altitude, he flew back up the river channel while gaining altitude. The nurse told me that when she looked out forward, as the waves of the rapid broke, the spray was splashing on the windshield of the helicopter. The pilot had called ahead to the hospital and arranged to be met in the parking lot. I am told he came to a sliding stop there and the man with the heart problem was whisked into the hospital. Twenty or so minutes later, he was pronounced dead.

Several weeks later, I received an unexpected letter from his wife. Her husband’s aorta had come away from his heart. The thing that stuck with me from that letter was her assertion that the time it took to get her husband to the hospital was faster than would have happened in the metropolitan city where she lived.

This all happened some 30 years ago, and some of the names and specifics elude me, but the events of this day are etched into my memory for life.

Peter Bowen

Duck, Fayhee, Duck!

Sir: As a resident of Rabun County GA and a past professional whitewater guide, I find your article (“Deliverance,” Smoke Signals, MG #178) reprehensible. There are not even 17,000 residents of Rabun County, the Chattooga River is not lined with houses or even one house, and I, having lived here nearly 20 years, have never met anyone named Clem. I have worked on many river rescues from deaths due to foot entrapment or body entrapment to lost hikers and or boaters. Most of these people were either attempting wilderness travel via river or on foot without proper skills or with inferior “guides.” Maybe this article is not your fault, but the fault of this Adventure Orgy guy, as you call him. Either way, you have perpetuated the thinking of the less informed in their perception that all Southerners are ignorant, moonshine drinking, possum eating, tobacco chewing and inbred.

In some ways, this myth is perfectly acceptable, because it keeps urban-dwelling adrenaline-seeking pussies like yourself from coming to these sacred mountains of southern Appalachia to get their thrills, then leave their granola wrappers, boutique beer bottles and drive their Subaru back to their favorite Starbucks. While we who live here wait for them to leave so that we can clean up their campsite, rescue the unfortunate and try to enjoy what we can of the natural beauty of this area before we are again over run with the hordes.

Don’t be mistaken — all here, including myself, are still very patriotic and relatively conservative Americans. We will be the last Americans left, I would think. You should consider yourself lucky that I am probably the only Rabun County resident who subscribes to your magazine (although that may change when my renewal comes due), because I can think of a few people — they aren’t named Clem, just simple names like Mike, Gary or William — who would just as well shoot you as look at you based upon your attitude and perception.

Maybe next time you look me up and I will explain and show you these mountains and people in a different light — or if you prefer you just continue with your opinions and then next time you look in a mirror ask yourself who is the ignorant one.

Capt. George W. Custer,
Master & Managing Partner
Charter Yacht Freedom

Fayhee responds: As I made abundantly clear in “Deliverance,” I am not an “adrenaline-seeking” pussy but, rather, and adrenaline-avoiding pussy, that being the nature of pussiness and all.

My Uncle’s Scar

John: Regards “Scar Tissue” (Smoke Signals, Mountain Gazette #179): The wound I got didn’t leave a scar. All it left is a memory of an abrasion, a 3×7-inch raspberry on the inside of my right forearm. It was a mess for a while, it scabbed over and went away. It was the result of the second-to-last time I approached a curve way too fast on my bicycle. The last time I did this, my left knee took the beating. The scab that resulted was large and thick enough to serve as a cast. A shower would soften it up and then whatever angle my knee was in as it dried would determine how I would walk until the next shower. I learned to let it set up with my knee straight. I smarted up after that crash.

The arm abrasion only served as but an introduction to scabs. This wound came during a ride on a day off from a summer job at a camp. The camp was relatively primitive; we cooked over wood fires and lived in tents. Electricity started and ended at the water pump. Clean-up for the 20 of us amounted to standing by the pump, flipping the switch, then waiting three seconds to get hit with 50-degree water shooting from a two-inch pipe. Communication with the outside was via a battery-operated, two-way radio mounted in the dash of a ’50s-era Willys Jeep. The radio was declared off limits, as if all our girlfriends had two-way radios and we would drain the battery talking to them.

My day-off-ride/crash: downhill, way too steep and way too fast, barely into the curve, down into the ditch, up and around the hillside, back into the ditch — all with wheels down — a launch up and out of the ditch and back over the road air-borne, still with wheels down but not exactly centered, contact with the road, a brief, hopeless struggle for control and then the road rushing up to meet my face. I managed to position my right forearm in front of me before I hit and then went sliding along on it, my body rigidly held up at an angle to the road.

Sliding along, watching the road pass by under my arm, it occurred to me that, if I didn’t duck my shoulder and roll, my arm would be ground off. So I ducked and rolled, got tangled up with the bike, tried to steer my slide to the side of the road in case any cars were coming. I got back on and started for home, figuring the time to get back would coincide with the time I had before the pain really set in. It worked out pretty close.

My dad dug the gravel out of my back, bandaged my arm and I was back at camp the next day with an oozing, gummy wound that soaked right through his bandage and any of the others I contrived.

The camp’s flies, which had previously only pestered me at meals, went after that wet bandage relentlessly like it was a piece of raw meat. The familiar buzz of their tiny wings changed into an urgent, high-pitched snarl. While changing bandages, the exposed wound put them in a complete frenzy. They didn’t just try to land on it; they went for it, hit it hard and hung on. Waving them off didn’t work. I had to swipe them off. They had gone Kamikaze, fearless with determination to lay eggs in me.

I’ve had deer flies tangled up in my hair like so many sticky raisins while they bit into my scalp. I’ve been peppered with ticks and coated with mosquitoes. I’ve come out of the water leeched. Lousy experiences that keep occurring, but I’ve learned to accept them by understanding my place in the food chain. Contemplating maggots crawling out of me after being attacked by frantic egg layers, that was too creepy and it stayed with me. The rest of the guys at camp couldn’t let it go either. My nickname became “Wormy”.

Sometime later, I was lazing around with my dad and my uncle, just shooting the breeze. I don’t recall what we were talking about, but I decided to bring up the manliest story I had at the time, my most-recent crash, the scab, the flies and all that. While it was a rehash for my dad, my uncle was a new audience.

Lost to me was the fact that I was in the company of two men, both from large families, whose fathers had died while they were kids. They went out to find work during the Depression and followed that up with combat in World War II. I respected them, but to me they were just two harmless old farts and I thought I could impress them with my scab story. I knew my dad as a scale mechanic and my uncle as a city bus driver who walked with a slight limp and who was usually rubbing his thigh. I was a candy-ass and I really didn’t know who they were.

When I began to talk about the aggressive flies and my brush with maggots, my uncle’s expression underwent a subtle change. His lips pursed a little, his chin and eyebrows came up a little, all very slight and simultaneous. Watching his responses, I had the satisfying impression that my story was making an impact on him and I remember the event for that reason.

Only much later, after he was dead, did I realize that what I saw on his face was his reaction to a memory.

I only know bits and pieces of their involvement in the war. The stories came to me from other relatives over a period of years, let slip like secrets accidentally revealed, never to be repeated. Most of what happened to my uncle came to me from widely separated comments from his sister, my mom.

My dad mixed it up with the Japanese in New Guinea in ’42. My uncle was in the D-Day invasion in ’44. My dad came out of it alright and was in for the duration. On the day of the invasion, my uncle had no more than stepped out of his landing craft when the war ended for him.

Something knocked him face down in the sand. He turned his head and saw someone’s foot next to his face. “That’s my foot,” he thought. And it was. Whatever knocked him down had nearly severed his leg at the thigh. His leg, twisted at a crazy angle, brought his foot up next to his head.

At that instant, my uncle became just one in the invasion’s overwhelming flood of wounded whose treatment decisions were governed by pitiless triage. His gaping, complicated wound was treated only for blood loss and given a cursory debridement. The wound was left open, but before the medics moved on, they packed it with maggots. For my uncle and the other untold wounded, the medical corps had brought maggots for the detail work. I was told that my uncle didn’t mind having maggots in his wound so much. The ones that got out and crawled around in his bed were the ones that really bothered him.

Mil-Spec, medical maggots. I’ve tried to think of how maggots could be supplied in a scale to accommodate the number of casualties from an invasion. Were there jars of maggots? Cans of them? In preparation for the invasion, did someone win a government contract to breed pallet loads of maggots?

Through it all, my uncle’s leg was saved. It never was completely right though. He always had that limp, but was lucky enough to get a job where he could remain seated, driving the bus. For the rest of his life, bits of bone kept coming up through the skin of his thigh.

My silly scab story and my uncle’s memory of war. He didn’t say a word, didn’t interrupt me, didn’t say, “Shut up, you inexperienced lightweight and listen to me.” He could have knocked me out of the ring with a few words, but he didn’t. I wish he would have. He was a man with memories of war and he let me go on and on about the bicycle crash that happened to me on a day off from a summer job. I came away thinking that my story was significant enough to take its place among the memorable events in his life.

I never saw my uncle’s scar. While he was alive, I never knew he had it.

Charles Green
Boise, ID

Mountain Gazette welcomes letters. Please email your incendiary verbiage to: mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com.