Timelines Part 2: Time Travel

In the great scheme of the mostly fictitious American Dream, a great many people could rightly argue that, not only am I and not only have I long been one serious U.S. Grade-A fuck-up, but I could very well pen a how-to tome about being a fuck-up. My retirement savings are not nearly what they ought to be for a man of my advancing years. I never seem to get caught up on the myriad home-improvement projects that daily await attention that will likely never be forthcoming. I still haven’t finished that damned tennis novel. My rap sheet, while not exactly world-class, has more red check marks than it ought to have. I drink and smoke too much.

From the ashes of a near-clinical fuck-up life, there are three components that are most assuredly not fuck-ups.

I married very well (26th anniversary this summer).

I have done a lot of very cool shit.

I have always managed to live within spitting distance of the kind of turf people dwelling in lesser realms would drool over.

Three miles from where these words are being penned lies the closest boundary of the famed 3.3-million-acre Gila National Forest. Almost immediately upon passing the forest sign is found the Gomez Peak Trailhead. A quarter-mile farther is found the Little Walnut Trailhead. And, two miles past that lies a double trailhead for the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. All three of those trail systems hook into and out of one another, forming a series of loops that, should one be thus inclined, could occupy a hiker for many hours without re-tracing one’s steps.

Certainly, from the perspective of true backcountry aficionados, the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/CDT trail complex is certainly something of a yawner. It is what it is: a front-country/almost urban-interface system that is perfectly suitable for trail work-week forays. These are the closest national forest trails to town, though, in town, there are many acres of footpath-crisscrossed open space.

Because the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/CDT trail complex is only a few minutes drive from the center of town, it serves as a siphon for hikers and mountain bikers who would otherwise venture farther in the Gila to commune with nature. Ergo, the complex gets more use than most of our less-populated trails. On some weekends, there can be as many as six or eight cars in the Gomez Peak Trailhead parking lot, a sad reality that causes many of us who moved to Gila Country at least partially because of the empty woods shake our heads and wonder how long it will be before this place starts looking like Colorado.

During the summer months, I interface with the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/CDT trail complex almost every morning during the workweek. There are other more-wilderness-ish trails I prefer, but none close enough to the Casa de Fayhee to merit serious consideration on days where vocation-based toil is unavoidable. I generally leave home at 6:30 a.m., arrive at the trailhead at 6:40 and, after changing into my hiking boots, generally leave about 6:43 or 6:44. Since I usually have to wait while my dog takes a dump 15 feet from the car, that means I’m generally limping my way upward by 6:45. The reason I hit the trail so early (at least by my historically non-early-riser standards) is that summers in southwest New Mexico are rough on a man who has lived most of his adult life above 9,000 feet. In summer in this neck of the woods, if I do nor hike in the coolness of morning, then I will likely not be hiking that day.

I biorhythmically prefer to hike in late afternoon/early evening, and, in the non-summer months, that’s exactly what I do. I also really like to take a toke or two before venturing forth into the backcountry, and that’s something I have never been inclined to do before Happy Hour time. I have of course had many chums over the years who opted to commence each new day with a couple bong hits. For me, that’s a one-way ticket to an extended stay on the couch. So, all things considered, I much prefer taking my daily hike at 4 p.m. rather than 6:43 a.m., but I also prefer hiking when it’s 60 degrees rather than when it’s 92.

This hot-season/non-hot-season hiking schedule juggling act has time-related implications that transcend its early-morning/late-afternoon, stone-or-not-stoned components. Some of those implications are direct: When I hike in the early morning, I generally hike for 90 minutes at most, because, unregimented though my work day might be, it is still a work day and therefore I need to get back to my home office at a reasonable hour. When I hike in the late afternoon, I generally kick it out for two or three hours, because my work day then is over and done with.

And some of those time-related implications are less direct.

Though the main reason I hike the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex near-bouts every morning is, as I have indicated, its proximity to my front door, there is one other reason, and this reason may seem counter-intuitive when applied to a perceived ragtag life such as mine. Though my preference for moving through the woods is to walk upon a path less followed into the great unknown — and, believe me, I have done just that for more miles than could likely ever be counted — I also very much like to tromp upon the same ground on a regular basis. This is time-relative on several levels. The first of those levels is more macro in nature: I am not exactly getting any younger, and, by impacting my bootprints onto the same tread several times a week, I am more able to gauge — if not mitigate somewhat the almost stunning effects of — Father Time’s inexorable journey into the depths of my physiology.

The Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex is very interconnected — meaning there are long series of both and informal formal loops. There are system trails, social trails and unmaintained trails galore. It is easy to be as spontaneous as one can be in the midst of a defined trails system, and it is, of course, easy to stay the regimented course.

Though I deviate somewhat, here is my basic summer/early-morning schedule:

• Monday: The Angel Loop (55-60 minutes).

• Tuesday: The Mountain Loop (60-65 minutes).

• Wednesday: Angel Loop with a side trip to the summit of Gomez Peak (80 minutes).

• Thursday: Angel Loop and Mountain Loop (90 minutes).

• Friday: If I’m not off somewhere camping, either the Mountain Loop and the Angel Loop with a side trip to the summit of Gomez Peak (two hours) or the Mountain Loop, with a connect to the Dragon Trail via the Angel Loop (90 minutes).

Though there are permutations, like doing these loops/trails clockwise or counter-clockwise, that’s pretty much it. And, while such a rigid schedule may sound a bit repetitive and, therefore, boring, it’s not. Well, it is, sometimes, sorta. But, overall, it works, at least partially because I always bear in mind that there are millions of people out there who spend similar amounts of time and effort in gyms on Stairmasters and NordicTracks and at least partially because, from the summit of Gomez Peak, you can see clear down into Mexico. From the Mountain Loop, you can see 50 miles away to the Mogollon Mountains.

More than that, though, those familiar loops, around which I have circled hundreds of times, provide chronology-based opportunity to measure my ongoing journey into physiological decrepitude. It serves as a psychic salve to know that, this morning, at age, 56, I was able to hike the afore-referenced Thursday schedule in 87 minutes, without stopping a single time. That is at least 10 minutes faster than I could do five years ago, and, five years ago, I usually had to stop and catch my breath midway up both the ascents.

Assuredly, I understand these are not the only ways by which my increasing decrepitude can be measured. Though I am now hiking those Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex trails faster than I was five years ago, it is not lost on me that, increased speed notwithstanding, there are more and more real-time pain-based manifestations of that increasing decrepitude that rear their ugly heads, most often simultaneously. Those various maladies have a bothersome way of making journeys of their own from one part of my weary corpus to another, depending on whether I’m ascending, descending or striding on level ground, whether the trail itself is rocky or smooth. And my recovery time is not exactly following the same line on my personal health-and-fitness graph. The standard health-and-fitness line is that, when one exercises in the mañana, it energizes one for the rest of the day. I find, at my age, this is not often the case. Verily, on days when I hike early, I usually find my weary eyeballs wandering toward the daybed along about siesta time, which may just be a function of the summertime afternoon heat. Maybe not.

Moreover, though, I find myself wondering, as I’m risking every piece of soft tissue I own as I sprint down the trail trying to beat last week’s best time, why on earth I bother. I mean, after 56 years, oughtn’t a man have come to understand that the goal should be to increase time spent in the woods, rather than intentionally and with great effort, decreasing one’s time? I mean, what kind of dumbass, when he has a couple hours to kill in the beauteousness of the Gila National Forest, tries his damnedest to get back to the office as quickly as his little legs will carry him? A truly dumbass dumbass, methinks.

Well, this dumbass dumbass is at least partially at the mercy of his aforementioned biorhythms. This is the biggest difference for me between the necessity of hiking early in the morning in Gila Country when it’s too hot to hike any other time of day and hiking later in the day during those wonderful months when the weather is perfect no matter what time of day one chooses to tromp through the wild land that defines this part of the world. When I hike in the mornings, my thought processes are far more literal. I am awakened by an alarm clock set for no other reason that to get me out of bed early enough to hike before it gets too hot to do anything save sit in the shade. Though I am blessed insofar as I have no one looking over my shoulder and telling me what time I have to punch in, I still have to figuratively punch in, something I try to do by 9 a.m. (Though I am biorhythmically inclined to exercise later in the day, I am more biorhythmically inclined to get work done in the mornings.) So, when one factors in the need to shovel down some breakfast, it’s somewhat understandable that I have little choice but to think in terms of time while passing through terrain that, like most terrain in the Mountain Time (!!!) Zone, is more, or least partially, conducive to leisure and contemplation.

When I hike in the mornings, I am focused on the hiking itself. On foot placement, on the impending terrain, on pace, on breathing, on heart rate, indeed, even on the mechanics of arm swing. Some might call this a perfect example of living in the moment, being here (or, more accurately, there) now (or, more accurately, then). Which is great and all, except that such focus makes the actual hiking less pleasurable. It makes the minutes seem like hours, which, when you get to be my age, might seem from the sidelines like a positive, but, when your thighs are getting ready to explode as you’re pushing it up the south end of the Dragon Trail, it is functionally counter-productive, at least as I define the process of hiking through the woods.

I understand how fortunate I am to be able to “work out” in the Gila National Forest. I pity the poor people who live in Omaha, at least in this context. My recognition of my good fortune requires that I further recognize that anyone who looks at two hours out on the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex trails as solely, or even predominantly, as a “workout” deserves whatever bad shit comes his or her way. I am not too bright, but I am bright enough to comprehend that forays out into the woods are physically healthful by default; one does not need to keep track of how long it takes to get from the trailhead to the Ponderosa Loop junction in order to benefit the cardio-vascular system.

The other reasons — the most important reasons — the reasons that separate a national forest trail from a Stairmaster at a gym in Omaha — are mental and spiritual. This is of course not to say there are not inherent mental and spiritual benefits associated with Stairmastering in Omaha, especially if that’s all you got, which I think is the case with people who live in Omaha. I guess if you’re an open-minded, perceptive sort, you can gain enlightenment, whatever that is, no matter your immediate circumstance. But you know what I mean: At a minimum, one should not only stop to smell the roses, but one should maybe even ponder the roses one smells within a frame of reference larger than immediate aromatic sensation. I too often look at the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex trails as workout facilities with views (and rattlesnakes), except that I often don’t pay the views enough attention because I’m too fucking focused on cutting two minutes off my trail time.

I don’t think there are any roses to smell or ponder in a gym in Omaha. Yet, when I hike in the early mornings, I sometimes feel as though I might as well be indoors on a Stairmaster. Which, of course, once again shows what a serious dumbass my dumbass self really is. There is no doubt that, by osmosis, if not recognition, being outdoors positively affects one’s mental and spiritual states, even if one is too obtuse to notice.

Now, when things cool off in Gila Country and I am able to comfortably visit the local trails in late afternoon, things are different, and not just because, at that time of day, I am inclined to maybe get a bit stoned pre-hike. Well, OK, maybe partially, but not totally. During the non-scorching times of year, I do not set an alarm; I wake up when I wake up. And, since, by late afternoon, my work day is done, I rarely have to worry about returning home by a certain time. I can hike till darkness falls or till my legs give way — which means I do not keep track of time, I venture further afield, to trails I visit less often and therefore am less familiar with, trails that I can’t remember how long it “takes” to follow them. I bushwhack more.

And this is where and when things get a bit more interesting on the temporal plane. For, even when, during the cooler months, I do by default hike on the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex trails, I rarely find myself thinking very much at all about the hiking itself. My mind wanders, and this is when I “do” the bulk of my actual writing. I am sure my heart rate is increasing and that my overall cardio-vascular fitness level is improving much the same way I assume it does when I’m hammering it early in the morning during the summer months.

There is this concept of “folding space,” a concept made popular — at least insofar as incomprehensible scientist jabber can be made popular — in Frank Herbert’s astounding “Dune” series. The idea is that, in order to cover great distances, you do not increase your speed, but, rather, shorten the distance.

When I hike in the afternoons, I often get to where I am going (understanding that I am often going nowhere in particular) and I can’t remember getting there. Space has been folded. Even on the Gomez Peak/Little Walnut/Continental Divide Trail complex trails, trails I know in 30-second increments (yes, I most often measure distances in time, rather than space), I will suddenly snap out of some sort of reverie and realize I am on top of 80 Mountain or most of the way to Bear Mountain Road or even back at the trailhead. And at those times, I rarely am out of breath. I rarely notice the aches and pains that define my corporeal here and now. I am not tired. I am not stiff. I just am.

It is during such instances that I come to realize how relative time really is. We try to capture and maybe even control it with day planners and schedules and with verb tenses and, yes, with digital and analog measurement devices. But when we’re alone out in the woods, time comes down to a deep mathematical formula that includes more sun than day planner, more wind than schedule, more mental wandering than limiting verb tenses, more perception than watches and clocks.

I do not argue that my time-oriented morning hikes are less valid or important or relevant than are my time-free afternoon hikes. They are assuredly part of a yin-yang-esque greater whole that will thankfully always be well out of my conscious grasp.

Because of the change of the seasons, because of time layering again and again upon itself, I have no choice but to interface with the complicated tick-tick-ticking of the cosmic clock as I go about the simple process of walking through beautiful woods near the place I have come to spend my little part of eternity.


Timelines Part 1: Timelessness

My admittedly modest everyday jewelry ensemble consists of:

• One yin-yang-motif earring I’ve owned since the late-’70s. It was given to me by the man who pierced my ear. No matter how hard he tried, the man, a friend to this day who had pieced the ears of several other chums over the years, could not force the stunningly unsterilized leather punch through my stubborn lobe, which was anesthetized only by the bottle of tequila I shared with the man who was trying with increasing might to puncture his way through a section of skin that was captivatingly close to my jugular vein. Eventually, in abject frustration, the man reared back with the leather punch and went through my lobe with a big enough follow-through that the momentum carried the sharp point all the way into my neck. Next morning, my memory was a tad hazy. When I looked into the mirror, the first thing I saw was a long streak of dried blood caked onto the side of my neck. The earring is rarely visible because of the normally shaggy state of my mane.

• A black jade necklace I bought in Guatemala in the early-’90s that sports a Mayan decoration supposedly representing my birth month (December), which might, for all I know, be a message to the Mayan gods to deny me a place in heaven after the resurrection dust settles after the Dec. 2012 apocalypse.

• Since I developed knuckle-swelling arthritis in my left ring finger a few years back, I have stopped wearing my silver wedding band — a Hopi-type-pattern story ring made by renowned Santo Domingo Pueblo artist Vidal Aragon — because I now have trouble getting it on and off.

• When I’m really stepping out, I sometimes wear a copper bracelet, which I bought at a local art shop.

• And that’s it on the personal adornment front … except for my watch.

I don’t think my watch — a basic Timex digital model procured for 40-something bucks at the Albuquerque REI — would even be considered jewelry in most fashion circles, especially given the tattered and soiled state of its Velcro wristband. It is nothing more than a tool that happens to be more visible than most tools.

The question is: Given my life, my lifestyle and where I live, why do I need this particular tool? Why do I even wear a watch? I mean, I could see it if I scurried through life as an investment banker-type in Manhattan, though, if I scurried through life as an investment banker-type in Manhattan, I would likely commit seppuku by day three and, thus, wouldn’t need a watch for long.

I live in the most-mañana’d part of the Land of Mañana. (Read: Those of us who dwell hereabouts can generally meet most of our space/time continuum-based needs and obligations well enough by eyeballing a calendar.) I work at home, in a room that boasts not one but two clocks — one integrated onto my computer screen and one whose main characteristic is its ability to unambiguously roust me from peaceful slumber at 0530 every day. Those are not the only clocks in the Casa de Fayhee. There are two in the kitchen, one on the microwave and one on the range. There’s yet another in the living room, glaring from the cable-TV interface. The guestroom has a clock. I keep one near my weight bench to help keep track of time between sets. Both our vehicles have clocks.

It’s not as though I have to search far and wide to accurately orient myself to Mountain Daylight Time.

My wife, who works in a dental office, does not have it quite so easy. Her 8-5 gig is measured in minute-by-minute increments. If time is lost early in the day, it resonates and multiplies till quitting time. Still, she does not wear a watch.

I, a man who controls his loose schedule almost absolutely, who rarely needs to be anywhere at a given time, do wear a watch, and I basically let that watch rule and run my life. In the summer, I generally hike as early in the morning as I can drag my lame carcass out into the woods. There is actually a practical reason for this scheduling effort: I abhor heat and, if I don’t make it onto the trail before morning’s blessed coolness dissipates, then I likely won’t. Yet, I always strive to get to the trailhead by 6:40 a.m., so I can change into my boots and begin hiking by 6:43 on the dot. If, for whatever reason, or combination of reasons, I don’t hit the trail till, say, 6:46, I get agitated and, well, behind. Late. While I certainly enjoy my time (fuck … there’s that damned word again … you can’t outrun time) in the woods, I am also out there to get the heart rate up. Ergo, I push it, both aerobically and anaerobically. I am a vigorous hiker. When I commit the unpardonable sin of not leaving till 6:46, I verily push myself to the point where it feels like my chest will explode trying to make up those three lost minutes. Why? It’s not like I have to be home by any certain … time.

Now, in my partial defense, I am one of those people who “move better” through life if my schedule is somewhat regimented (and that, admittedly, covers a lot of conceptual ground — everything from “accomplishing more in the way of work” to “getting more and better exercise” to “eating more healthfully” to “achieving more headway in our ongoing effort to make our abode more habitable”). It may seem counter-intuitive to the point of near-irony that someone who comes across in his writing as fundamentally chaotic requires, or at least benefits from, a modicum of regimen, but 1) it’s a lot easier to lead a loose life if your are reasonably tightly wrapped and 2) a lot of the autobiographical pandemonium I present in my writing, not surprisingly, is a result of self-invented-character fictionalization. In other words: Don’t believe everything you read.

Because of the need for total range of motion in all my aching joints, including wrists, when I interface with strength training (twice a week, three times a week in the winter, I embark upon a losing battle with a set of Bowflex SelectTech Dumbbells, which is preceded by 15 minutes of dynamic stretching), I remove my watch. One day last week, after losing yet another battle with the weights, I left to take my dog down to the creek (at exactly 2 p.m., as always!) and did not realize till I was halfway to town that I had neglected to put my watch back on! I found myself not just watchless, which was bad enough, but timeless! I suddenly felt completely discombobulated. I literally considered turning around to fetch that damned digital tether.

Again, I stress that I was not exactly right then on my back floating in a sensory deprivation chamber. All I had to do was divert my eyes like 10 degrees and, right there above the CD player in my truck could be found a perfectly workable and mostly accurate clock, which I didn’t need anyhow, beings as there was no place I needed to be and no time I needed, or didn’t need, to get there.

Yet, try though I might to resist the temptation, once I realized I was watchless, my eyes kept darting down to that highly conspicuous non-suntanned band across my right wrist. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how much I castigated myself for doing so, I kept glancing down at the watch that was not there.

While sitting next to the creek, throwing sticks for my dog and nursing a cigar, once again, I could not help but look where my watch should have been. This, I should point out, despite the fact that I had with me my cell phone, which, of course, displays the time. Moreover, most of Silver City, including where I was then sitting, has the pleasure of being reminded every 30 minutes by the bell tower at the university library what time it is. Plus, again, I point out that 1) I knew before I left home what time it was and 2) I did not have to be anywhere anytime.


Part of my time focus surely comes from the fact that I abhor the concept and execution of tardiness, both on my part and on the part of others. Always have, always will. On the fetid fringes of Dixie, the place I say I am “from,” it was considered bad form to get too agitated about tardiness. People should all be given a courtesy 15 minutes was the operational concept. And that is understandable. After all, who knows, the person you’re scheduled to meet for a tennis date might have been pulled for drunk driving yet again or might have been waylaid by an emergency drug acquisition that would make the tennis more pleasant. Try though I might over the course of five-plus decades, I have never been able to cut people such tardiness slack, an assholey trait to be sure, but there you have it. I’ve even terminated friendships with people who are habitually tardy.

And neither is it a matter of being addicted to the technology. I am not a person, for example, who teeters off into near-terminal disorientation if I forget my cell phone. Matter of fact, I tend to happily leave my phone behind when I venture forth unless there is a compelling reason to have it with me.

No, when it comes to my watch/time fixation, something larger and far more sinister is at work. Somewhere along the developmental line, my otherwise-blissfully anarchistic mindset was inexplicably corrupted. And that corruption is not just social in nature. When I get up in the middle of the night to relieve myself, I can usually guess what time it is within a few minutes sans additional temporal clues, such as, say, the sun rising. Worse: I almost always make the effort to guess and smile when I am correct. On those rare instances when I am off, I feel like something’s sorely amiss in the universe.

I have a regrettable cigar habit, and, on an almost daily basis, I ponder some sort of strategy for giving up stogies. When I still lived in the Colorado High Country, it was easy, at least seasonally easy: Since I only smoke outside, out of courtesy to my wife, Mother Nature provided an annual smoking off season. Rarely did I ever light up when it was 25-below zero outside. I have no such climatic crutch in Gila Country, which makes eschewing my daily couple of Macanudo Ascots even more difficult. Still, I give the matter frequent considered thought.

Similarly, I ponder the notion of somehow trying to jettison my bad time habit. As I indicated earlier, I live in a place where, one would think, such an effort would be made easier solely via environmental influences, or lack thereof. And, as I indicated earlier, I rarely ever have to be anywhere on time. If I’m five minutes early or late for table tennis, it’s not like anyone is even going to notice, much less comment or judge. When I meet chums for beers, we rarely get more specific in our planning than “Happy Hour” or “tonight.” And that works out perfectly. Admittedly, there are times (damn that word!) that require more detailed punctuality, such as doctor appointments (though our local doctors do not generally stress themselves out when it comes to keeping their end of the appointment deal), airplane departures (ditto), court dates (ditto) and, more importantly, when backpacking trip shuttles are being organized and executed.

How does one quit, or at least cut back on, time? Far as I know, there’s no such thing as a time patch or time chewing gum or time methadone. And, if there were, New Mexico, with no additional effort save existing in status-quo fashion, would serve as a perfect poster child.

Whenever I rope someone into providing a food drop for one of my long backpacking trips, my wife tells them straight up: If I am not where I am supposed to be right exactly when I’m supposed to be there, go ahead and call search-and-rescue.

Hello, my name is John, and I am an addict. I drink too much beer, smoke too many cigars and twitch like I’ve been wired to an electric fence on those rare occasions when I forget my watch. I do not get up when the sun rises. I get up at 5:30 a.m. I am never late.

Please help me.

I’m not getting any younger.

Time’s a-wastin’.

Photos Essays

Copper Canyon – Creel

Smoke Signals

The Discovery (unabridged) – Mountain Gazette 183

Author’s note: The events herein recounted occurred almost 25 years ago. Without a doubt, most circumstances have changed.

Second author’s note: Be forewarned … there’s one part of this story that gets a bit unsavory. 

Butch Cassidy: Jeesh, all Bolivia can’t look like this.

Sundance Kid: How do you know? This might be the garden spot of the whole country. People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot where we’re standing now. This might be the Atlantic City, New Jersey, of all Bolivia for all you know.

— “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

It was a law-of-diminishing-transportation-returns kind of sweltering Third-World overland journey that began well before dawn in Santo Domingo on a jam-packed, barnyard-fowl-dense, 1960s-era, shock-absorber-free school bus designed to accommodate legs no longer than those borne by pygmy kindergartners, then degenerated in Barahona to the back of a jam-packed shock-absorber-free dump truck that had obviously been used since 1945 to transport road kill, fish guts and a wide array of excrement to a fertilizer factory, then further still in Neiba, where we hired what in the Dominican Republic is called a guagua — small, antiquated Datsun or Toyota pick-up trucks in such states of dismal rusted-out, multi-colored, worn/mismatched-tired, dented, smoke-spewing disrepair that, had the orcs invented the internal-combustion engine, this is what they would have come up with — for the final 20-mile, two-plus-hour push along single-lane, shoulder-free, sinewy, unpaved mountain/jungle “roads” that managed to be simultaneously dusty, muddy, rutted, potholed, wash-boardy and populated by other guaguas being driven by people who seemed to be at least as drunk as the guy driving our guagua was, to our final destination: the diminutive and remote village of La Descubierta. Had it required one more transportation degeneration/transfer to reach La Descubierta (translated: “The Discovery”), we surely would have arrived riding piggyback on the handlebars of a flat-tired bicycle being pedaled by an arthritic octogenarian.

In other words: Very cool journey.

Still, by the time we were deposited in front of the humble headquarters for Isla Cabritos National Park, we were so beat-up and shell-shocked from the trip that we could scarcely stand straight. We were further disoriented and negatively physically impacted by the fact that this marked the first time we had been even remotely sober for several days, a situation I need to stress right here was in no way our fault. It was God’s fault — as I’m sure you will agree in a few moments — and what God lays before the likes of Norb and I, we are generally inclined to accept, no questions asked, unless, of course, those questions are both irrelevant and inane.

Norb, the expedition photographer, and I were, believe it or not, official guests of the Dominican National Tourism Office, a governmental entity that, because we were on assignment from Backpacker and Adventure Travel magazines to pen a few pieces on the outdoor recreation opportunities found in the DR, had given us a couple of free tickets on Dominicana Airlines. Everything was going remarkably smoothly until we boarded the not-exactly state-of-the-art plane in Miami. Most times, when jets with a capacity of several hundred passengers are “overbooked,” it is purely an administrative term — more tickets are sold then there are actual seats and, therefore, “X” number of would-be passengers are told, sorry, tough luck, but you’ll have to wait for the next plane out. This was not the case with our flight, which was overbooked by at least 70 people. But, rather than bumping those hapless folks, they were herded into the aisles, where they stood stoically as the doors were closed and the departure procedures initiated. Just as we were about to pull back from the gate, the doors were suddenly re-opened with a startling degree of exigency and everyone on the plane was ordered to disembark post haste. Surely, thought Norb and I, the FAA had got wind of the overbooking situation and had stepped in to rectify what was clearly an untenably unsafe situation. Then I looked out the window and saw a great many police officers and, captivatingly enough, several vehicles bearing the words: Miami-Dade Bomb Squad. Ends up, someone had called in a bomb threat for our plane. Perhaps a surviving family member of someone who had been lost on the last overbooked plane.

Since we had already been officially passport-stamped out of the U.S., we were ushered into an isolated end-of-the-world lounge and ordered to sit tight till the bomb sweep was complete, or the plane blew up, whichever occurred first. No one knew how long the process would last. But, just as the first sighs of exasperation were about to pass my lips, in walks an airline employee pushing a beverage cart laden with, of all fortuitous things, several cases of cold beer, which, we soon came to learn, was being offered gratis as a small token of Dominicana’s appreciation for our patience and understanding. Even better, though, come to find out that just about every other passenger on our flight was some sort of crazy-assed Christian missionary, and the main manifestation of that craziness, as far as I could tell, was the fact that they all turned their noses up at the several cases of free cold beer being wheeled out for their refreshment. Yes, Norb and I were essentially the only ones drinking that free beer that God had unambiguously provided for us, probably to give the crazy-assed Christian missionaries in our midst some palpable opportunities for practice prayers before arriving in a country that, as far as I know, had already been pretty much Christianized since back in Columbus days.

Here it is important to stress that this was not the first foreign foray magazine project dance for Norb and I. We had traveled together on assignment to China, Copper Canyon and Central America. I should also stress at this point that we are both also fairly focused, professional people. Before God intervened, Norb was busying himself cleaning lenses and inventorying film and such, while I was jotting down notes and mentally sussing out The Plan, which, while woefully lacking in executable details, was, at least in theory, very doable: visit Isla Cabritos — at 130 feet below sea level, the lowest and hottest point in the Caribbean — then ascend Pico Duarte — at 10,164 feet, the highest and coldest point in the Caribbean. It’s just that, well, the bomb sweep ended up taking four hours, which was an awful long time to clean lenses and jot notes with a beer cart sitting tantalizingly scant feet before us. Needless to say, Norb and I ended up placing a sizeable dent in those several cases of free beer.

When the bomb squad signaled all clear, we verily staggered back onto that same plane, where, once gain, 70 or so overbooked passengers booked themselves standing-room-only-style into the aisles. As I boarded the plane, I jokingly slurred to one of the stewardesses that Norb and I would like a few beers before departure to help calm our nerves, which were quite agitated, given the fact that neither of us believed for a moment that the tattered and overloaded plane we were on would do anything save fall from the sky in a million little pieces well before the landing gear was even fully retracted. My already compromised composure quotient was further impacted by the fact that the stewardess to whom I was speaking had remarkably detailed makeup on her eyelids that looked like, well, eyes. So, when her eyes were wide open, one looked into her, you know, eyes. Then, when she blinked, one observed what looked to be, of all perplexing things, eyes. This was especially disorienting when she blinked only one eye at a time, something I believe she practiced often as a means of distracting passengers who might otherwise be bothered by the severe over-booking issue.

The stewardess good-naturedly informed me there was no beer on this particular flight. I feigned shock and disbelief, we both chuckled and I fell into my seat, figuring that, if there was one thing Norb and I were, it was drunk enough already. But before I had even fastened my frayed seatbelt with the broken buckle, a hand zoomed in from my peripheral vision, pulled down my seat tray — the one that’s supposed to be fastened in an upright and secure position before take-off — and placed upon that tray a full unopened liter bottle of Bermudez run, along with two cups full of ice, two cups full of lime slices and two bottles of cold mineral water.

“I only told you there was no beer on this flight,” the multi-eyed stewardess said, beaming. “I didn’t say anything about rum.” This was an emblematic turn of events, as we would learn over the course of the next six weeks in the Dominican Republic, a country whose official slogan ought to be: There’s no problem that rum can’t fix.

Had that stewardess not brought us that rum, it would have been the most intoxicated I have ever entered into a foreign country. But she did indeed bring us that bottle of rum, most of which Norb and I consumed during the two-hour flight. It was one of those jets that have three seats on each side, and next to us, next to the window, sat one of the crazy-assed Christian mercenaries who, during the entire flight, kept his nose buried in one of those miniature bibles, which, truth be told, I don’t know if they’re smaller because they contain less words, like maybe a Twitter form of scripture, or whether the print’s really, really small. Either way, as we began our descent, the man closed his eyes, bowed his head and, with lips moving, started silently praying. We noticed that almost every one of the other crazy-assed Christian mercenaries were similarly occupied. It was like watching a silent movie; every Christian lip was moving as though orating at an Alabama tent revival, yet no noise spewed forth, which, if you’re going to be among a troop of crazy-assed Christians, is the best a heathen can hope for. Maybe they were going to the DR to minister to aspiring lip readers.

When our seatmate finally rejoined the land of the sane, he turned to us for the first time and said, “Gentlemen, do you have any idea where you’re headed?” You want to talk about a loaded question, rife with any number of possible witty retorts, none of which either of us were able to even think of, much less articulate, unless you consider drooping heads and drooling mouths to be forms of articulation. Sensing our befuddlement, the man answered his own interrogative for our benefit, which we appreciated mightily. “You are about to land at one of the two or three most dangerous major airports in the entire world. The reason it is so dangerous, besides of course the fact that it’s surrounded on three sides by high mountains, is that the power grid in Santo Domingo averages five or six outages a day, and the airport has no back-up generators for the control tower or landing lights, the latter of which, you may have noticed, because of our little four-hour delay in Miami, we will need, because it is now dark.”

Exactly 17 minutes after we successfully landed at Las Americas International Airport, the power grid crashed and we passed through customs and immigration facilities illuminated only by flashlights, something that, we realized in hindsight, might have worked to our advantage, given that I’m sure we looked like the very dictionary definition of undesirable aliens.

We were not feeling exactly what I would call chipper the following a.m., but, still, we had a professional obligation to pay a visit to our benefactors at the Dominican National Tourism Office, to let those who had arranged for our visit know we had arrived safely. It was mid-July and near-bouts 100 degrees, with near-bouts 100-percent humidity. We dashed from shade patch to shade patch as we zigzagged our way through Santo Domingo’s Colonial District.

When we arrived at the Tourism Office, it was lunchtime. Only one employee was thereabouts, a fly-swatter-bearing young black man who had lived in Brooklyn for many years and thus spoke fluent English. He sat beneath a slow-moving ceiling fan in a darkened room that was so miserably hot and stuffy, even the flies, of which there were many, refused to stir, preferring instead to simply park on the window sills, apparently hoping to soon be swatted out of their sultry misery. The tourism employee had perspiration rings so large they met at his solar plexus and, one would assume, back between his shoulder blades. Droplets were forming on the tip of his nose and splatting onto the desk beneath with alarming regularity.

When we introduced ourselves, we might as well have been speaking a sub-dialect of Navajo. The tourism employee’s face was totally blank. He had never heard of us either generally or specifically. The only person who might know — the Minister of Tourism — and this man assured us that the Minister would in fact not know, was gone for the rest of the month, and, truth be told, hadn’t been into the office the entire previous month. We weren’t exactly expecting a red-carpet reception, but we were expecting that someone, somewhere, knew we were coming. That this was apparently not the case was fine with us, given our shaky mental state. We figured at that point we would talk for an hour or so about our proposed itinerary, get some inside skinny and pick up a few maps and informational brochures. No such luck. Not only did the tourism employee not know a goddamned thing about our proposed destinations —both of which, I should stress, were located in national parks, something you would think the national tourism department would know a little something about — but he could not for the life of him understand why anyone would want to visit such out-of the-way, under-developed parts of his fair land.

Whenever we tried to winnow some relevant piece of information from him — about the bus system, where we could score supplies, are permits required? — he, without hesitation, returned to the only subject he seemed to know anything about, and the only subject that seemed of any interest to him at all in his position as the sole representative of the Dominican National Tourism office right then occupying a seat in the center of the capital city across a desk from two professional magazine people on assignment to write stories that would be read by literally hundreds of thousands of potential visitors: how one goes about pursuing nookie while enjoying one’s time in the Dominican Republic.

In this regard, the young man seemed not only eminently qualified, but quite enthusiastic. We learned the proper techniques for determining whether Dominican women were approachable, how to initiate first contact, how to ascertain if they were in it for the money, the experience or the betrothal potential, how to negotiate satisfactory remuneration, how to actually transact that remuneration, which neighborhoods specialized in what, etc. etc. I am certain our visages verily defined the compound word, “slack-jawed.” When we tried to explain to him that, in all likelihood, our spouses back home would be extremely displeased to read about our various nookie pursuits in Backpacker and Adventure Travel magazines, he recommended that we immediately apply for quickie divorces — he could show us how and where — which would free us up to pursue some local material that would doubtless prove to be far more understanding than those obviously uptight American women that bore our surnames.

Before we left, the tourism guy hooked us up with a credentialed local guide — young guy, well groomed, nattily attired in his blue tour guide shirt — to show us around the Colonial District. Before we went upon our merry way, the Tourism Department guy whispered something we could not hear into the ear of the tour guide, who nodded earnestly and seemingly conspiratorially. Even though it was mid-afternoon and sizzling, we strolled around the various museums, restored castles and elegant edifices of the Western Hemisphere’s oldest European city. We stuck our heads into the very jail cell where none other than Christopher Columbus had been imprisoned on his last voyage to the New World. Interesting enough shit. I took some cursory notes. Norb took a few cursory photos. But it was way too hot, and we were way too hung-over, to focus on work, and we could see that our tour guide was growing impatient. “Wouldn’t you rather visit someplace more … interesting?” he asked. “Maybe find some … refreshment?” Admittedly, we were getting a tad parched, the previous day’s indiscretions suddenly seemingly like ancient history. We said, sure, a beverage or two might go down easy. So, we started walking away from the Colonial District. And we walked and walked through increasingly deteriorated and threatening neighborhoods. We walked until Norb and I started wondering if maybe we were not right then venturing toward our very doom. Then, suddenly, our tour guide announced that we had arrived. We looked up the sewage-drenched street one way, then we looked up the sewage-drenched street the other way. We looked up, we looked down. As far as we could tell, we had “arrived” at an oozing, malodorous ditch in the middle of one of the worst urban slums I have ever seen. Our guide grinned and pointed to a green door across the sewage-drenched street, and upon that door, in barely legible flaked letters, there were two words: HAMBURGER BAR.

Our guide walked over and, like a monkey-suited doorman at the Park Lane Hotel, open the Hamburger Bar’s creaky door and bade us welcome with a deep bow. We were greeted by an olfactory amalgam of stench that contained component wafts of tropical decomposition, malfunctioning plumbing, spilled beverages that were not cleaned up in a timely fashion (or ever), blood, sweat, tears, 10 or 12 types of body odors that we did not care to ponder further and, worst, the fragrant bouquet of perpetual hopelessness. Now, I’ve been in more than a few skanky brothels in my time — houses of ill repute often providing the only options for libations and lodging in many rural Third World hamlets — but the Hamburger Bar verily took the cake in terms of unsavoryness on every conceivable level, from potential pathogens clear up the evolutionary ladder to the lurid excuses for art adorning walls caked with every variation imaginable on the grime/pestilence theme.

Since it was fairly early in the day, there were only three employees on duty, and our hearts bled at the sight of them. In the dimness, their ages were hard to peg, but they were young and attired in mismatched rags so unclean they might best be described as contaminated, maybe even toxic. They bore a hodgepodge of bruises, scars and needle tracks and, of all incongruous things, smiles. They greeted us warmly and invited us to join them at a table they shared with three exceedingly hammered adolescent sailors from the French Navy. Norb and I wasted no time getting straight down to the business at hand: We let those three on-duty brothel employees know that, under no conceivable circumstances, including, but not limited to, the release of a toxic virus scheduled to wipe out the entire human population within the next two minutes, would either of us be soliciting services more intimate than superficial chitchat. Being decorous sorts, we framed this absolute statement in martial terms, so no insult would be given. We said, if that was cool, we would sit there and drink with them for an hour or so, and we would pay for everyone’s beverages. Truth be told, the ladies seemed both relieved and flattered. They made no advances toward us at all.

And so we came to while away enough time there in the Hamburger Bar with those three tattered ladies and those three French sailors and our official Dominican tour guide (who at one point disappeared into the back with one of the ladies) that, by the time we emerged back out onto the sewage-drenched street, we had to do a space-time continuum double take, for, while we were in the Hamburger Bar, a cosmic cataclysm had transpired: the sun was no longer in the sky! It was gone, and who knew where? Yes, turns out, we had been in the Hamburger Bar for more than nine hours, during which time we came to learn that, the main reason our guide — an official representative of the Dominican National Tourism Office, no less — had brought us to this particular sordid establishment instead of the myriad more upscale sleazy brothels closer to the Colonial District — where our hotel was located —was that, one of the ladies we were drinking with hailed from La Descubierta, the jumping off point for Isla Cabritos National Park. “My friend at the Tourism Office asked me to get this for you,” the guide said. He handed us a crudely drawn map, with public transportation information all the way to the front steps of the national park headquarters. That must have been what the Tourism Office employee had whispered to the guide, and that must have been why the guide disappeared into the back with one of the Hamburger Bar’s matinee employees. And here we were, thinking that the Dominican National tourism Office was a slack operation! This, amigos, was efficiency incarnate.

You can imagine how we felt the next day, when we were scheduled to meet with the Director of the Dominican National Park Service, who, we were not exactly stunned to learn, not only knew next to nothing about the country’s national parks, but had never actually visited a single one of them. He had no maps. He didn’t think there actually were any maps. There might be guides. There might not be guides. There might be bandits, poisonous snakes, attack monkeys, mud, disease and noxious fumes spilling forth from the bowels of the earth. Or maybe not. Be all that as it may, halfway through the fact-free interview, one of the 12 mini-skirted secretaries on duty came in bearing three bottles of rum, along with the requisite cups of ice, soda water and limes. Guess how the rest of the day turned out.

And so we eventually arrived on the front steps of the headquarters of Isla Cabritos National Park in La Descubierta — which we found only because of a map drawn in a bar named Hamburger back in Santo Domingo by a prostitute who was apparently the official cartographer of the Dominican National Tourism Office — so grimy and so over-laden with gear, I’m sure we resembled one of those giant dirt termite mounds in Africa you sometimes see photographed in National Geographic.

The headquarters office was a small house located in a backstreet residential area. The front room contained one small desk lacking so much as a scrap of paper upon it and two bunk beds, made available to visitors, who, we got the impression, were few and far between. Before we had the chance to deposit our mountain of equipage, in walks a small man named Angel, the assistant administrator for Isla Cabritos. He seemed absolutely stunned at having to deal with tourists, much less camera-and-notebook-bearing tourists from the Great White North. The Director of the Dominican National Park Service had told us, somewhere around beverage number-14, that he would contact his charges in La Descubierta to inform them of our imminent arrival and to make certain that all professional courtesy was extended to journalists of our international stature. (We might have slightly embellished our standing in the outdoor press just a bit.) Stunningly, that contact had not been made. Angel had no idea who we were, what we wanted or, more importantly, how our presence might impact what we came to learn was his very laid-back life.

Since we had spent more money than anticipated on our journey from Santo Domingo (we were charged extra at every juncture because we had so much shit), our first order of business was changing American dollars into Dominican pesos, a task, we were informed, made more difficult by the fact that La Descubierta had no bank. Good news, however, in that there was a local man who would be happy to sell us black-market pesos at a highly deflated rate. And, even better news, according to Angel, the man owned a bar! Great! Instead of converting dollars to pesos and pesos to beer, we could just go directly from dollars to beer! Our livers rejoiced!

So, par for our increasingly curvy course, we strolled over to the black-market bar, which was just then opening for the evening. Come to discover that Las Descubierta was home to exactly two watering holes: the daylight bar and the evening bar, an insightful exercise in community-wide organizational logistics. You’d have to be pretty damned drunk to screw those hours up.

Since the bar employees were still at the point of taking chairs off tables when we walked in, we were the only customers. Angel hunted down the owner, who, as advertised, was only too happy to bend Norb and I over a log by way of a completely one-sided black-market fiscal transaction. As we were getting bent over the log, I noticed Angel hobnobbing with one of the lady bartenders, who nodded her head briskly while glancing over at Norb and I. She dashed out the back door into the gathering dusk.

Angel, Norb and I went and sat at a table that was both empty and large, rather than sitting at the bar, my preferred venue. Angel said it wouldn’t be long before the place was hopping. And he was right. Within an hour, every single female in La Descubierta descended upon that bar like locusts upon a cornfield. And every one of those females was dressed in the height of rural Dominican fashion: there were bouffants and bangly jewelry and FM pumps and high heels and mini skirts and gawdy make-up apparently slathered on with full-sized paint rollers and veritable tsunamis of low-rent scent. And every one of those gussied-up fillies sat around Norb and I, forming a solar system of orbital estrogen, with the two of us serving as the epicenter. There were pretty girls and ugly girls; fat girls and skinny; tall and short; dark-skinned and light; shy and gregarious. Norb and I could utter an incomprehensible syllable, “Yug,” or some such, as these ladies would hang on that syllable as though it were a personal blessing delivered by the Pope himself. They tittered and giggled while focusing on our every facial twitch. And did I mention that they were all under 20?

“Uh,” Angel,” I finally asked, “so, heh heh, what’s up with the 200 fawning nubile nymphets clawing at us?”

“They all want to marry one of you, so they can move to America,” he responded in a tone of voice that suggested he thought I was perhaps a tad simple.

“Somos casados,” I bellowed, in part to buy us some breathing room and in part to stress to these ladies that we were not going to pay for everyone’s drinks. A huge buzz-kill let-down sigh deflated the entire room, just as I realized that what I had just said, which was supposed to be, “We’re married” — as in, “Norb is married to one lady, while I am married to another” — was instead, interpreted as, “Norb and I are married to each other.” My stuttering attempts to clarify the situation, by saying, “No somos casados,” was further translated in the minds of those American-husband-desiring Dominican lasses that my Spanish was poor, rather than an indication of our actual marital status. Confusion reigned, which is normal operating procedure in the DR, but, even so, the partying vibe revved right back up.

Then the DJ took up his post. There are many positive statements you can make about Dominicans. They make great rum, beer and cigars. They are good chess players. They have organized themselves a very impressive national parks system. And they can flat-out dance. These people pop out of the womb dancing. The infants dance. The old people dance. The cripples dance. The nerds dance. Everyone dances all the time, aided and abetted by the fact that few are the moments in the DR when there’s not music blaring from every edifice and automobile in the entire country. And it’s rhythmic music. No trance, drum-and-bass or C&W shit here. It’s all variations of the DR’s endemic style: merengue. Music that enters your body less via your ears than via your skin pores.

It was not long before every single goddamned one of those proximate nubile nymphets was lining up to boogie with Norb and I. But here’s the thing: Not only am I the worst dancer who has ever drawn breath, but I also HATE dancing. My DNA carries nary a strand of funkiness gene. I am literally incapable of tapping my foot to a metronome. This is bad enough in my normal life, where I am generally adept at avoiding dance-laden environments. But, here I was, in a huge bar with music throbbing and a dance floor 12 feet away populated by 200 gyrating Dominican ladies, all of whom, according to Angel, wanted to bear my children. Wasn’t long before the ladies of La Descubierta finally succeeded in pulling me out onto the dance floor, and, the exact nanosecond I made my first tentative twitch, trying mightily to match arrhythmic chromosomes to pounding salsa-infused merengue, all music-based movement within the four walls of that bar ground to a screeching halt. An immediate cessation of dancing. The DJ stopped spinning tunes. Mouths hung wide. Eyes popped. Hands were raised palms out in desperate hope of warding off an affliction that hopefully was not contagious. Visages that, an instant prior, had been gleeful now stared at me in abject horror. Birds fell dead from the sky. Somewhere in the distance, a dog wailed mournfully.

“Maybe if you drank more beer,” Angel suggested, sympathetically, when I slunk back to the table, mortified. Well, there’s a thought. Angel said he would talk to one of the nymphets about giving me dancing lessons. But apparently no one volunteered. Understandable. You can’t teach stupid.

Sadly, what with the throbbing music, the giggling, gyrating damsels and the 447 beers we eventually consumed, not much of the way of strategy-honing transpired that night, so we agreed to meet Angel for breakfast to see if we couldn’t formulate a plan for visiting Isla Cabritos.

At this point, some actual facts are required. Isla Cabritos National Park — at 130 feet below sea level, the lowest point on any ocean island in the world — is located in the middle of Lago Enriquillo, a 102-square-mile endorheic lake that is the largest inland body of water in the Caribbean. Isla Cabritos, about eight miles by one mile, lies seven miles from the closest land, a point just north of La Descubierta. Lago Enriquillo is also home to about 15,000 endangered American crocodiles, which can reach 20 feet in length, and a great many of those bunk down every night on Isla Cabritos.

I mentioned earlier about how much gear Norb and I were carrying. Not only did we have full backpacks, necessary for our upcoming ascent of Pico Duarte, but we also had with us two one-person Sevylor inflatable kayaks, along with all the necessary kayaking accoutrements. The main reason we had those kayaks with us was because, later in our visit to the DR, we intended to paddle down the Rio Yuna, which we ended up doing a month later. We brought those Sevylors with us to La Descubierta in case we needed them to paddle across Lago Enriquillo to Isla Cabritos, though the thought of having our nuts sitting inches from the waterline in easily puncturable kayaks while making our way across a lake populated with 15,000 20-foot crocs did not exactly titillate us. We were hoping to procure sturdier aquatic transportation.

Angel told us over fried platanos and tomatoes the next morning that the park owned a Zodiac that, for a slight nominal fee, we could rent. He also volunteered himself and the services of a cook, again, for a slight nominal fee. The only problem, he said, was the one outboard motor the park owned was right then in a state of disrepair, and he did not know when it would once again be functioning. So we hired a couple of motor scooters and made our way to the mechanic shop, where we found 1) three mechanics sitting around a table playing cards and drinking rum and 2) a boat motor spread around the facility in willy-nilly fashion in about 1,000 pieces. This was not encouraging, but Angel, after talking with the drunk, card-playing mechanics, assured us the motor would be purring like a kitten within hours. And so it went for three solid days, with the only progress being made on the motor as far as we could see being 1) the mechanics were even drunker than the day before and 2) the 1,000 motor pieces were spread around the facility even more.

There was very little to occupy us. We did a bit of dayhiking. We caught the few local sights. And we whiled away many hours in the daylight bar, and we whiled away many hours in the nighttime bar, where I was never once pulled back out onto the dancefloor

La Descubierta’s daylight bar was an interesting affair, less a public house and more a public works project that happened to sell alcohol in large quantities. The “bar,” was actually a baño, a place where a rivulet that flowed through the middle of town was dammed and transformed into an ersatz swimming hole that served as a bathing facility apparently utilized by every resident every day. As such, it functioned as a town plaza, with water, beer and the ever-present merengue being blasted continually through speakers the size of refrigerators.

Pleasant as those three days were, Norb and I were getting a tad antsy, especially because we were coming to understand that the reason for our delay had less to do with a boat motor lying in 1,000 pieces on a drunk mechanic’s floor that it did with Angel’s 1) lack of desire to actually go out to Isla Cabritos and 2) his fervent desire to milk Norb and I for as many drinks as possible. So, that evening at the nighttime bar, we announced that we would be leaving first thing in the morning with or without him. Again, the thought of paddling those flimsy inflatable kayaks across a lake filled to brimming with carnivorous reptilian teeth was cause for some concern, but we were resolute in our declaration to Angel. Stunningly, Angel announced that he had recently learned that the park boat would be ready for departure by sunrise.

Angel arrived well before dawn with the Zodiac in the back of a truck. With him was a cook/fetcher/toter/slave, whose name I forget. We drove to the put-in and started loading gear. It seemed like something was missing, maybe even something borderline important. Just as we were getting ready to launch, my hyper-observant journalistic eye noticed that, at the stern of the boat, right where the motor was supposed to be, there was no motor. I mentioned this to Angel, who just shrugged and said the motor was still lying in 1,000 pieces on the drunk mechanic’s floor and, therefore, we would have to paddle those 12 kilometers across the croc-infested waters of Lago Enriquillo, something we could have done three days earlier. Angel passed me a bottle of rum. Problem solved.

The last piece of gear placed into the Zodiac was a foot pump, which the cook/fetcher/toter/slave attached to the air valve even before we set sail out into the heart of the food chain. This seemed unduly cautious, given the fact that the boat was clearly fully inflated. But in a lake full of 15,000 sets of razor-sharp choppers, maybe extra prudence was called for. As we started paddling toward Isla Cabritos, Norb and I could not help but notice that there were only three of us paddling — Norb, me and the slave. Angel was sitting on the side languidly foot-pumping in cadence with our strokes, as though he were a coxswain at a very low-rent Olympiad. When I said that maybe we could make better progress were he too to take a paddle in hand, he sighed and told us a sobering truth: the Zodiac had a pretty significant leak and, if one of us did not man the foot pump at all times, we would soon find ourselves submersed in the croc-filled waters. Few are the words that could have been uttered at that point that would have bent us to our task more diligently. The nose of the Zodiac was suddenly pointed skyward and our wake suddenly became a rooster tail.

It took several hours to fetch Isla Cabritos. We made camp under a disintegrating palapa that was part of a long-abandoned meteorological camp that was deserted because no reliable fresh-water source could be established. Angel stressed to us in no uncertain terms that we needed to keep our eyes peeled for scorpions, of which there were apparently several varieties on the island, many of which, come to learn, lived in the thatch serving as the roof of the palapa under which we planned to sleep. Suddenly, the crocodile situation took a psychic backseat.

At dusk, we crept down to the beach, which was filled to brimming with crocs. It was an exotic scene: glass-flat lake water, the verdant mountains of Haiti rising in the distance, several thousand crocs a stone’s throw from our prostrate selves. And these creatures were, as advertised, huge. They rested with their mouths agape, which added to their fearsome vibe, though, in truth, while on land, they were very skittish. (Angel stressed to us that, while in their native liquid element, they were assuredly not skittish.) The slightest sound, such as, but one random example, me cursing through clenched teeth because I just crawled across a cactus spine, had the crocs dashing back into the lake.

Once darkness descended, we returned to camp, where we made the mistake of shining our flashlights up into the thatch, which was literally crawling with scorpions. Norb and I moved our sleeping bags out from under the roof, something that Angel advised against because, he said, occasionally the crocs were known to venture inland in search of carrion. Restful shut-eye did not come easily.

After breakfast — once again, fried platanos with tomatoes, a dish I still love — Angel was kind enough to point me toward the old meteorological station outhouse. While so doing, he brushed aside the dry-rotted toilet seat, leaving me with a smooth slab of concrete upon which to sit and relax. I parked my posterior and let my mind wander for just a moment, self-satisfied about the fact that, assuming we managed to successfully paddle the leaky Zodiac back across the croc-infested lake, Norb and I had pulled off Stage One of our Dominican trip. I leaned back a bit and, as I did so, my left hand barely nudged the remnants of the dry-rotted seat. To this day, I do not know what compelled me to look back at that exact moment. But look back I did, and what to my wandering eyes should appear, but a scorpion the size of a house cat sprinting out from under the dry-rotted toilet seat remnants, poison-tipped tail pointing at my exposed butt cheek — scant inches away — like it was a medieval knight out for a little morning joust. I had to act quickly, lest my ass get skewered in a part of the world where mortality concerns might come into play. The thought of being paddled across the croc-infested lake in the leaky Zodiac by only two people, because one was having to man the foot pump while I lay on the floor writhing in mortal agony with a scorpion sting to my buttocks must have registered deep down in my lizard brain, for I reacted as quickly as my alcohol-deadened syntaxes could fire.

Thing is, I was right at that exact moment in a digestively awkward set of circumstances. I had little choice, though, but to immediately jump up, ongoing bowel movement notwithstanding. Before examining what turned out to be some disgusting collateral damage, I turned back toward the toilet seat, where there stood the scorpion, its tail whipping back and forth menacingly and a look in its eye that bespoke a deep desire to leap onto my mortifyingly exposed noodle, which, I then realized, was dangling tantalizingly close to the scorpion’s outstretched stinger. I retreated, tripped, because my pants were still around my ankles, and only then looked into those pants, the sole pair I had brought with me to Isla Cabritos. Given the fact that I had been suffering a bit of stomach distress the previous few days, the sight was not pretty. As I scrambled to my feet in the most undignified circumstances I have ever experienced in my life, the scorpion sat watching me. I wouldn’t have thought that scorpions could grin. But they can. And this one did.

I arrived back at the palapa naked from the waist down, my befouled Grammicis held out at arm’s length. I was greeted by perplexed looks. I cleaned my myself and my pants as best I could down at the lakeshore while a snickering Angel stood watch just in case any crocs with especially low culinary standards were lurking nearby.

Shortly after our otherwise uneventful return paddle to La Descubierta, I strolled down to the daytime bar one last time for a beer and a swim. We were scheduled to leave town at midnight on the red-eye guagua/dumptruck/pygmy-kindergartner-bus run back to Santo Domingo. Word of my unfortunate scorpion encounter had obviously preceded me, as I was greeted by barely suppressed giggles that soon gained momentum until the entire crowd was rolling on the ground, belly-laughing and trying to catch its collective breath. There was nothing for me to do but laugh along with them.

I suddenly did not want to leave La Descubierta.

Toward late afternoon, I found a shady spot back in the woods and dozed. When I awoke, the daytime bar was closed. I sat alone, enjoying the rare quiet and solitude. But not for long. Just as a sliver of moon began to rise, women began streaming to the baño. There were toddlers, teenagers, young mothers and grandmothers. Someone turned on a radio, but kept the volume low. All those women entered the pool. There was storytelling and laughter and gossip and commiseration. Women started washing each other’s backs. As bars of soap began disappearing beneath the surface of the water, the women started subtly moving as one to the rhythm of the radio, and the surface of the pool began undulating, almost imperceptibly at first, then gaining energy, with little waves lapping on the sides, until, at last, water started escaping the pool, wetting the ground. At that moment, in the murky light, with an entire town’s worth of women submerged to their bosoms, there was no telling who was pretty or not, who was old or young, who had varicose veins or who had a protruding tummy. At that moment, they were all the loveliest things I had ever seen.

And there was my lecherous self, sitting in the shadows, pulse well past heart-attack level, sweating profusely, too fearful to move, lest I have added voyeuristic-pervert peeping tom to a resume that already included scorpion-dodging pants-shitter and inept dancer.

I tiptoed over to the nighttime bar. Norb and Angel were there, wondering what had become of me. I did not tell them what I had just witnessed. All I knew was, for the only time before or since in my life, I wanted to dance. And dance I did. My spasmodic gyrations were not things of beauty. But they were things of joy. And, before long, I found myself in the middle of the rhythmic throng, and we were all moving as one, even if for only one short night, and only one short song.

Smoke Signals

Big Bob and the Beer Math Saga (unabridged) – Mountain Gazette 180

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d.
— Alexander Pope, “Eloisa and Abelard”

It ended up being one of the most long-winded, improbable stories in the history of the Mountain Gazette, which, given that publication’s ability to attract long-winded, improbable stories like cow pies attract flies, is saying a mouthful. The story was not only long-winded and improbable, but it was layered and faceted, like an especially large and gooey cow pie, one that had contributions made to its malodorous mass by many bovines, relieving themselves over the course of many months, after having digested a wide array of high-fiber victuals. In that regard, this story verily defined/defines the wonderful, though perplexing, metaphor known as “bullshit.”

And Big Bob Kimble was right there in the middle of it, treading water in an ever-increasing pile of verbal mierda that came to include several deaths, an innocent woman fleeing her home in the middle of the night in abject fear and hopes of redemption dashed by the grim realities of a troubled existence.

Some of you may remember the Gazette’s infamous “Beer Math” saga. What follows is not just the Beer Math story, but a roadmap to the various offbeat locales and personalities that story visited from its unlikely birth a decade ago in MG #82 (Sept. 2001), till it finally mostly faded away with one last Letter to the Editor in MG #99 (Dec. 2003), only to be sorta re-born out-of-the-blue in the summer of 2010. (And, I guess, in the relating of this tale, it continues on still, with potential ramifications as yet undetermined.)

It all began innocuously enough on a hot summer day (at least as hot as they get in Summit County, Colorado). I found myself a tad parched after a nice, long hike up the Lenawee Trail, so I stopped in to the Dillon Dam Brewery for numerous recuperative beverages. I ordered up my usual pint of Dam Straight Lager, and the bartender (I believe it was either Nadene or Natt) asked when I was going to pony up for a genuine personalized mug, which, come to find out, cost something like $35. The benefit of doing so, I learned, was, from that moment on, I would receive 20 ounces of beer for the same price as a pint. Being a liberal arts-type person and all, I scrunched up my forehead and tried mightily, and unsuccessfully, to suss out just how many beers it would take before that $35 investment would be recouped. I jotted down some amateur numeric notations upon the backside of an at-hand coaster, tried utilizing fingers and toes, a la Jethro on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and, sigh, yet again, regretted the fact that I was not exactly what you would call an attentive student in high school algebra, or trigonometry, or whatever branch of mathematics it is that, in the right hands, is capable of solving such suds-based conundrums.

So, I threw in the towel and asked the bartender, assuming that, of course, a highly lubricated business operation such as the Dam Brewery would include such skinny in their employee-training program. Alas, I was greeted with nothing save a perplexed shrugging of the shoulders and an obvious statement: “M. John, I think we can all safely conclude that, whatever the exact number is, you will soon come to exceed it.”

Thus, the Beer Math saga began.

Also at the bar the day was a tribe of senior citizens I am proud to call chums, and I believe the vice is versa in that regard. Though their ranks have thinned over the years, via an unfortunate combination of relocation and attrition, to this day, they are known as the Dillon Dam Brewery Old Farts Club, a non-organization of aging bro-brahs that meets at the Dam pretty much every day for Happy-Hour libations. Unlike the kinds of regular cadres of senior citizens who hold down the fort at most bars, this is a group of astounding ladies and gents (mostly gents) who, with one or two exceptions, serve as an aggregate poster child for how I hope I am when I’m in my 60s, 70s and ever 80s. These folks are all educated and erudite; they are all well traveled; they had interesting careers; they are jovial; they are great storytellers; and, at ages when most people are shuffling around shuffleboard courts in Florida, they are still hanging their hats in the High Country, skiing, hiking and biking at every opportunity.

It should come as no surprise that they several sets of Old Fart ears perked up when my mug-ROI interrogative was posed. For the next hour or so, a gaggle of retired physicists, engineers, administrators, educators and whatnot, most of whom were at least partially in their cups, pulled out felt-tipped pens, grabbed proximate cocktail napkins and began scribbling, calculating and arguing. Now, I may not be smart enough to ascertain how many beers it would take me to recoup my $35 mug cost, but I am smart enough to recognize a potential Mountain Gazette story when it slaps me upside the head. By the time Happy Hour was winding down (the witching hour, as it were, for most of the Old Farts), I had in my possession more than a dozen cocktail napkins adorned with a vast array of Beer Math calculations, all of which were completely different from each other. No two Old Farts drew the same conclusion, though all were equally vehement about the accuracy of their computations. It was only after I had gathered those cocktail napkins (all of which I still possess and likely always will) that someone thought to ask the obvious: “Hey, were we talking about regular prices or Happy Hour prices?”

The MG art director scanned in a handful of the Beer Math cocktail napkins, I jotted down a couple silly observations and we ran a half-page story on the whole experience. And that was that. Or so we thought …

The very next issue of MG, we received a part-typed/part-hand-notated Letter to the Editor, from, of all strange things, an admitted wine drinker, that looked like it was half-correspondence, half-PhD physics dissertation, which came to the conclusion that it would take 44 beers for the 20-ounce mug to pay for itself. I remember well Big Bob Kimble bellowing a retort when he eyeballed that letter, accusing the writer of incorrectly utilizing a straight line equation, when, in fact he ought to have used Fermi’s Einsteinian Newtonian Hemorrhoid Hypothesis (or some such). Now, when I say that Big Bob bellowed, I am not just whistling Dixie. Of all the various disparate members of the Dillon Dam Brewery Old Farts Club, Big Bob stood alone in many ways, not the least of which being, as his nom de bière would indicate, his size. He was probably 6-2 and had a girth the belied his past enthusiasm for long-distance bicycling. And he had a well-honed Southern drawl, which he wore with honor, which would make even third-generation residents of the Mississippi Delta recoil in linguistic horror.

Big Bob grew from roots so humble it makes me wince to consider his childhood circumstances, though he often proclaimed nothing but satisfaction regarding where and when he was born and raised: rural Alabama during the Great Depression. His dad apparently owned, of all things, a low-rent roadhouse imbibery, the kind of place where one can easily picture that the dominant conversational topics rarely ventured much further than frog-gigging and the agenda of the next KKK meeting. Bob reveled in his poor cracker background and took advantage of every opportunity to amp up his drawl factor and to tell stories that in the aggregate amounted to a Redneck Manifesto so dank and visceral that it would have latter-day grit wannabes like Jeff Foxworthy packing his bags and relocating to South Boston.

Thing is, though I can’t quite remember all the details (I blame it on the Dam Lager), somehow Big Bob managed to pull himself up by his overall straps, attend college and become apparently one of the foremost water-delivery-system engineers in the world. He worked for decades on water-delivery systems in Hawaii and Japan. He was a brilliant man and, despite his affinity for white T-shirts that, shall we say, we not flattering on the beer-belly front, was open-minded, funny and self-deprecating.

He made a few offhand comments about the aforementioned Letter to the Editor, words to the effect of how you should never trust a wine drinker to make beer calculations, about how the letter writer was probably a damned English major who had no business having even cursory access to a calculator.

And that was pretty much that, until about 16 months later, when out of the blue, we got a second Beer Math Letter to the Editor (in MG #93), this one from Inmate #106669 at the Buena vista (Colo.) Correctional Facility, who, while serving a 12-year sentence for something white collar, had received a copy of the Beer Math issue and, since he worked in the slammer as a teacher of math to fellow prisoners opted to take advantage of the real-life-lesson opportunities that story presented. He asked his class to try to solve the problem. I don’t know which was more sobering, that a Mountain Gazette story bearing my byline was being used in a prison math class or the fact that this did not mark the first time MG had been on the receiving end of a submission from an incarcerated felon. A year before the Beer Math saga, we had received a Review of the cafeteria food/ambiance of the Buena Vista prison by a man named Zeezo, and, since, like Zeezo said in his cover letter), he was able to view mountains (and wonderful mountains, at that) from the prison exercise yard, he figured his Review was perfect for the Gazette. We agreed, and printed it, verbatim, much to the consternation of several of our more upstanding advertisers. Little did those advertisers know what was soon to befall our otherwise upstanding pages.

In addition to Inmate #106669 asking in his Letter to the Editor for a free subscription to MG, he took the opportunity to perform a Beer Math calculation of his own. That calculation essentially raised the algebraic ire of Big Bob Kimble, who responded in MG #95 with a long Letter of his own — which included a series of very-impressive-looking calculations that filled an entire piece of graph paper — that was addressed not to me, and not to the Mountain Gazette, but directly, personally, to Inmate #106669. And that Letter essentially spat upon Inmate 106669’d math skills. We subsequently received a good-natured response from Inmate 106669 stating that, when he was released, he planned to visit the Dillon Dam Brewery to set things aright vis-à-vis this Beer Math contretemps.

And here we must exit the basic narrative to interface with a long, but very applicable, tangent.

Also in issue #95, we printed, right exactly adjacent to Big Bob’s graph-paper retort of Inmate 106669’s Beer Math calculations, a 4,500-word Letter to the Editor from, yes, Inmate #106669 — which, for months to follow, generated many indignant response Letters, mostly of the aghast “I-can’t-believe-even-immature-assholes-such-as-yourselves-would-print-such-a-thing” variety — that showed more than anything we have printed before or since that people like me ought not be allowed to run a magazine without very direct adult supervision. In his 4,5000-word Letter, Inmate #106669 proceeded to share with us a group curriculum vitae for he and the rest of his prison posse, complete with a photo of five hombres that, under no circumstances I can even wildly envision, would you, or anyone you have ever known, mess with. The CV was sorta legit, as it was part of the pre-release re-education program within the prison walls, part of which required prisoners to send out actual resumes and applications-for-employment to real potential employers. This group CV was soliciting employment as either bar bouncers/doormen or collection agents. It contained stunning details of each of the five people — including Inmate #106669 — and those details were, shall we say, captivating. In summation, the group CV stated to potential employers, including the MG and the Dillon Dam Brewery, that, if there’s anyone you’re having trouble collecting money from, hire us, and we guarantee that they will pay up. Ha ha and all. But, not exactly lost in all of these gory details of felonious violence and such, but playing a definite backseat at the time the Letter was written were those seemingly innocuous five syllables: pre-release program. Yes, we learned in that rambling Letter to the Editor, which, like Inmate #106669’s first Letter to MG, was well penned enough that I had visions of a regular contributor flowering before my very eyes, that Inmate #106669 and his posse were all soon to be released.

At that time, the concept of Inmate #106669 venturing forth to the Dam to hobnob Beer Math skinny was still little more than an abstraction, but in subsequent communiqués over the next few moths, I learned that that abstraction had a very non-abstract expiration date, and that that date was essentially looming. Until, finally, that date was translated to “I’ll be at the Dam Brewery in two weeks at 3 p.m. Please make sure all the Old Farts are there”

So, there we were, at a point where I had to break the news not only to Big Bob and his Old Fart ilk, but also, in fairness and as something of a warning, to the management staff of the Dam, which included at the top of the heap the owner, George Blincoe. Now, George is one of my all-time-favorite people, but he is not a person who would think that having “X” number of recently discharged ex-cons coming to his establishment was is perfect sync with the “target demographics” component of his business plan. “George,” I’ve got some GREAT news,” said, unable to look him squarely in the eye as those words were passing my lips. “You remember all that Beer Math stuff in Mountain Gazette? Well, I’m happy to report that the cons who played a large role in all that are coming to the Dam, not only to imbibe, but in the words of their ringleader, to get shit-faced! It’ll be wonderful!” George did not exactly jump up and down with enthusiasm. Actually, I believe he had a bit of difficulty spitting out a nervous, disjointed “uhhh … OK.”

I am, embarrassing as this is to admit, an Investigation Discovery junkie and am by extension addicted to the various police/crime shows that dominate that channel. Many of those shows have focused on people befriending cons and ex-cons, and I think it’s accurate to say that the over-riding theme of those shows can be distilled into the notion that, whatever you do, you ought to avoid, under any and all circumstances, interacting with long-incarcerated felons. This concern was at least partially mitigated by the fact Inmate #106669 had sent MG yet another well-worded Letter to the Editor, this one admitting to his crimes, apologizing to society for those crimes and promising with his hand on his heart to change his ways. The fact that his 12-year stint in the BV Correctional Facility was not his first brush with the prison system mitigated my reaction to those seemingly heartfelt words somewhat. The fact that he had a significant other and two young kids waiting for him re-mitigated them again. Besides, being a card-carrying (at least conceptual) pansy-assed liberal and all, I felt at least partially compelled to extend a friendly hand to someone who, when push came to shove, I was very interested in meeting.

“How will I know you?” I asked Inmate #106669 in an email. “Oh, you’ll definitely know us,” was the response. That the email included “us” made me gulp even more.

So, I arrived at the agreed-upon time, already having downed a few brews to settle my nerves. Over the course of the next two hours as 15 minutes, whenever the front door so much as parted, I leaned forward and seriously scrutinized whoever was entering. When Inmate #106669 finally arrived, I was reminded of the time that my buddy Mark Fox and I scheduled a newspaper interview with the Bud Light Girls, who were likewise quite tardy. Every time any young nymphets entered the interview venue — Eric’s Underworld in Breckenridge (RIP) — Mark and I wondered if they were the Bud Light Girls. When the Bud Light Girls finally arrived, we laughed at the thought that we could have confused anyone else for them. Ditto when Inmate #106669 ingressed the Dam Brewery, with another gentlemen, who, it ended up, was not one of the other members of Inmate #106669’s five-man CV posse, but, rather, a man who had been Inmate #106669’s cellmate for two years, a man who had been released the previous year after having served seven years for beating up two cops. Also in tow was the spouse of Inmate #106669’s ex-cellmate. Inmate #106669 was right as rain in that, when this threesome arrived, there was no disputing who they were. It was not so much appearance or action as simple bearing (well, that, plus the tats).

No matter how tough you might think you are, no matter how tough you might think your buddy, who’s a 7th-dan black belt, ex-Special Forces Himalayan mountain climber world-champion mixed-martial-arts competitor, you and your buddies are pussies compared to long-maximum-security-incarcerated ex-cons. Nothing compares to the people who have spent significant percentages of their adult lives fighting for their lives every days in tight quarters behind those high and highly electrified walls. My wife (who, as a casual aside, was real happy to hear that I was going over to the Dam Brewery to drink with ex-cons) and I once stopped for a couple beers at the Green Parrott in Buena Vista and found ourselves accidentally sitting at the bar next to a man who had just been released from prison in Cañon City that very day. This guy was a pencil-neck geek who had been convicted of something like embezzling bingo money from his church. And, let me tell you, this was a man whose vibe was flat-out fearsome. Many years ago, while visiting a particularly seedy watering hole in Reno, I ended up parked next to a guy who had just, the week before, been released after serving 20 years for Second-Degree Murder, a murder he gleefully admitted he had committed. This guy was like four-foot-nine and I cannot think of the circumstances under which I would have physically engaged him. When he suggested that it might be a good idea for me to purchase him a beer, I bought him two.

I have long wondered why the military does not actively seek out ex-cons for combat deployment instead of prohibiting them from enlisting. Think of the recruitment possibilities: “Hey, ex-cons, we’ll not only let you commit ultra-violence, but we’ll provide you with state-of-the-art weaponry and then we’ll pay you to shoot as many people as you care to shoot.” I guess there’d be a bit of concern about them shooting only the people you wanted them to shoot, but how could it work out any worse than what’s right now happening in Afghanistan?

Inmate #106669 and his cellmate would have been intimidating if they were life-long Hare Krishnas, which they assuredly were not. The vibe that preceded them, surrounded them and followed them like a dark ominous karmic wake was the very denotation of “Mess with us at your own peril.”

We introduced ourselves, and I took Inmate #106669 over to meet, first, the Dam Brewery’s very nervous management team, and then I introduced Inmate #106669 to the Old Farts. Inmate #106669 and the Old Farts hobnobbed good-naturedly about Beer Math for a while, but, since my ex-con buddies had arrived so late, it was soon time for the Old Farts to pay their tabs and move along, unscathed, much to my relief. Big Bob told me a few weeks later how much he enjoyed his levitous chat with Inmate #106669. The brewmaster of the Dam Brewery, the late and much-lamented Matt Luhr, had told the bartender that he would pick up the tab for Inmate #106669, his cellmate and his cellmate’s spouse, something I really wish Matt had run by me before the fact. Because of Matt’s well-meaning, though misguided, offer, my new friends opted to imbibe at what I would call an injudicious rate, and, believe me, my standards are not that high. Over the course of the next few hours, we all got pretty hammered, especially the cellmate, whose demeanor, sad to report, started getting a bit surly and argumentative. Several of my attempts at sarcastic levity were not received as I had intended them. There were a couple of snarly “What do you mean by that?” retorts to my good-natured attempts to get through the evening without getting the shit kicked out of me.

About 9, Matt Luhr paid the tab and bade everyone a fond good night. I, too, said it was time for me to head home to Frisco, a parting of the ways that was somewhat awkward because I got the feeling Inmate #106669 was half-expecting an invite to bunk down at the Casa de Fayhee, an invite my wife had preemptively, and unambiguously, told me earlier that day damned well absolutely BETTER NOT be extended.

Though there was justified nervous tension, the M. john/ex-con/Old Farts confab went off without a hitch. The Dam Brewery was not destroyed, no patrons were pummeled, no women raped. Whew!

Then, the next morning, I got a voice mail from Inmate #106669. “Man, I am so sorry for what happened. My cellmate just got pissed. I don’t know what to say.”

The message ended without Inmate #106669 filling in any of the pertinent details, which made me think he was just messing with me. Still, I placed a call to the Dam Brewery and, much to my infinite chagrin, I learned that, after I left, the cellmate had continued drinking and got up to leave without paying for his last beverages. When the bartender brought this to his attention, the cellmate said that his tab was taken care of by Matt Luhr. The bartender said that Matt had paid for everyone’s beverages clear up till the point that Matt left. After that, the deal was off. The cellmate did not respond well to this and “caused a bit of a ruckus.” The police were eventually summoned. And I had a series of apologies to make.

A few weeks later, I got a call from Inmate #106669, who was as disappointed that things turned out the way they did as I was. “It’s hard to explain the bond that exists between cellmates,” he said. “For two years, we covered each other’s backs. We both ended up in the infirmary a couple times defending each other. He’s a good guy, but he’s got a lot of anger, especially when he drinks” — a fact that would have been nice to know a bit earlier.

A few weeks after that, I got another call from Inmate #106669. He told me that his cellmate had been burned alive, which is a weird way to word a form of demise that ought to be called “burned dead.” The cellmate and his wife, who was a very, very pretty and pleasant lady, had rented an RV for their first vacation in many years. The cellmate could not contain his enthusiasm, so, the night before they were scheduled to leave, he went out into the RV, parked in the driveway, to spend the night. The wife woke up in the middle of the night to find the RV totally engulfed in flames.

Inmate #106669 also brought me up to date on the status of the four other members of his prison posse, the folks he shared that humorous 4,500-word Letter to the Editor with. One had been murdered in prison. Another murdered the murderer and thus will spend the rest of his life behind bars. One other, after his release from the slammer, moved to Mexico, where, I believe, he is not necessarily living a totally above-board life. I don’t remember what happened to the other guy, but I don’t think it was anything good.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Inmate #106669’s posse once again entered peripherally into the Mountain Gazette orbit. For several years, we had a lady out of Flagstaff who, every month, would send us in decorative envelopes to lend an artistic flourish to our Letters page. Every month, we were very careful to blot out the return address. One month, we neglected to do so, and, apparently, the tattered remnants of Inmate #106669’s posse sent our envelope lady a letter that scared her so badly, she skipped down, no forwarding address. He last letter to the Mountain Gazette was decorated not with art, but, rather, with very justified invectives.

The Beer Math saga was fast losing its silly humor factor.

Man, it’s mind-boggling to see where shit that on the surface is anodyne as can be may one day lead.

Inmate #106669 and I kept in contact for a couple years. He was back with his family and seemed to be doing fine. He tried to talk me into going to Burning Man with him, but, since that sort of event is not exactly my cup of tea, I begged off. He said he was going anyway and would like to pen a Gazette piece on the experience. I hooked him up with a photographer I knew was also going, but nothing ever came of the assignment. After a while, Inmate #106669 and I lost touch. I felt badly about that, but, as much as I truly liked Inmate #10666, I simply could not bring myself to fully extend a comfortable hand of true amigo-ship, despite the fact that I really liked the guy. I did that once with an ex-con, and was burned. A kid from my home county in Virginia, who I did not know well, had walked into a branch of the Bank of Gloucester brandishing a rifle. The kid lived right up the street. Everyone who worked there had known him his entire life. His parents banked there. When he walked in, a teller recognized him and apparently said words to the effect of, “Hey, [Bill], whatcha doin’ with the rifle? Goin’ huntin’?” At which time, [Bill] pointed the rifle toward the ceiling, let go with several rounds, and demanded money from the very surprised staff. He was arrested less than an hour later, in his living room, gleefully making his way through a stack of bills amounting to about $2,000. He was apparently stunned that he had been apprehended.

While in college, I spent a summer in Virginia and, while preparing to drive back to New Mexico for the start of the fall semester, this kid, who had served a couple years, asked if he could accompany me, to try to start life anew in the great Southwest. My inner liberal said, “Sure.” And accompany me to Silver City he did. It was a fucking nightmare. He smacked the shit out of one of my roommates, had trouble understanding the word “No!” when uttered by several of my lady friends and, I learned later, was probably involved in a rash of residential burglaries, with the goods being stored without my knowledge in my apartment, which I guess made me an unwitting accessory. On what turned out to be an emblematic final foray together up Boston Hill before he left to hitchhike back to Virginia, we came face-to-face with an agitated rattler, and [Bill] reacted by losing his balance and landing, first, in a large prickly-pear and then in a large cholla. He had spines embedded from chin to shin.

I am not one who learns lessons well, but, after that experience, it sunk in that some people operate out of phase with the rest of society. For some, it’s slight and for some it’s significant. And, sure, there’s ample argument that society’s mores ain’t often so great themselves. There are a whole lot of people behind bars who are innocent and/or incarcerated for crimes that ought not be crimes. Still, one of the most fundamental ways of gauging someone’s overall togetherness is whether he or she can manage to stay the fuck out of jail. It’s hard to feel comfortable around people who can’t manage to pull that off, and, thus, I never could quite loosen up enough with Inmate #106669 to let myself become his friend. That bothered me every time I thought about it, because, like I said, Inmate #106669 was a smart, personable fellow, and, besides, sometimes people do change. And it seems that becomes more possible if there’s someone standing there they can count on, who, while not necessarily overlooking past transgressions, at least is willing and able to consider them nothing more part of the overall personality pie. Guess I ain’t that enlightened.

Two summers ago, B. Frank and I were traveling around the Four Corners area doing some readings. The first one kicked off at Maria’s Bookstore in Durango. I arrived early the day of the reading and was killing time in Carver’s catching up on correspondences. Stunningly, right then, I got an email from none other than Inmate #106669, who was, even more stunningly, then living in, of all coincidental places, Durango. His previous year had been a continuous tale of woe. He had $90,000 worth of uninsured construction equipment and tools stolen. His young son had accidentally burned his house to the ground. And he had received four DUIs (!!!) in two days (!!!) and had consequently spent the previous year in the county jail. Yikes! Right next to my laptop was a copy of the Durango Herald with a story about our imminent reading at Maria’s right there on the front page. Not surprisingly, Inmate #106669 showed up at the reading, and he joined us when we went across the street to the El Rancho for a bit of post-event fun and frolic. Because of the size of the group, I did not have the chance to talk to him much. He asked me to join him for breakfast, but B. Frank and I were headed toward our next stop in Silverton that very night. The opposite direction, which, sad to say, is right where I felt like heading. When I got back home a couple weeks later, there was a phone message from Inmate $106669. I never returned it. Am I an asshole? I am an asshole. God, I hate being an asshole.

Because I now live 600 miles away, I don’t get to visit the Dillon Dam Brewery much any more. Last fall, I was in Summit County, so I stopped in for few mugs of Lager (my $35 mug, #151, is still at hand … it has paid for itself many times over). At the bar were several members of the Old Farts’ Club, including Big Bob. He wasn’t looking so good. Seemed like his boisterous life force had dissipated.

“You’ll never guess who I saw in Durango recently,” I said.


“Inmate #106669.”

He smiled wanly and we reminisced about the whole Beer Math saga.

When I left, I had a feeling it would be the last time I would ever see Big Bob. And it was. Ends up, he had been fighting pancreatic cancer and, in April, he finally succumbed. Another piece of my personal High Country social milieu is gone. I am already starting to feel like Jim Carrey’s character in “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” I am forgetting many of the old names and faces that defined my quarter-century at altitude. Self-centered way to view a friend’s demise, I know, but there it is.

It broke my heart that I was unable to attend Big Bob’s memorial service, which transpired, of course, at the Dillon Dam Brewery. But my buddy Mark Fox was there, camera in hand, as always. He sent me a couple of the photos he took for the Summit Daily News. Standing around a table laden with Big Bob memorabilia were many people I have long known, people I’ve consumed many beers with. They were all smiling. When I looked closer, I could see why: They were eyeballing a copy of Mountain Gazette #82, open to page 22. I could read the headline clearly. “High Country Beer Math.” Directly under the headline, the topmost scribbled-upon cocktail napkin bore the name Bob Kimble. For the record, he calculated that it would take 55 mugs of beer to recoup that $35.

Doesn’t matter whether he was right or wrong, that’s a bargain on many, many levels.

To eyeball scans of the entire Beer Math sage — original story, as well as related Letters — go to

Smoke Signals

Scar Tissue (unabridged) – Mountain Gazette 179

Author’s warning: Stunningly undiagrammable run-on sentences soon to follow (a fragment, yes, I know). What can I say? I was not completely sober when these words were scribbled onto several cocktail napkins.

“Your hand will grow bigger and your finger will grow bigger, but your scar will always stay the same size.”
— Eddie (Jon Foster) to Ruth (Elle Fanning) in “The Door in the Floor”

From the sidelines, I can see where some folks might have considered it a somewhat unusual (if not blatantly tasteless) spontaneous-combustion-type en masse subject for discourse among a wide-ranging demographic amalgam of patrons — some of whom were regulars, some of whom were perfect strangers, some of whom had been drinking for hours, some of whom had just ordered their first frothy mug of suds — that long-ago blustery winter night at the Dillon Dam Brewery.

If memory serves (something I would not exactly bet the farm on), it began by way of a young dirtbag snowboarder-type half-embarrassedly, half-triumphantly crutching his way into the establishment, people sliding barstools to accommodate his perambulatory difficulties, someone soon asking whassup, the young man half-muttering, half-proclaiming the dreaded-but-weirdly-honored syllables, “ACL surgery,” and a longer-of-tooth lady a few seats down slurring/growling the predictable, “Well, yer damned lucky that surgical knowledge has improved,” followed by the equally predictable pulling up of the pants leg, revealing the results of what ACL surgery looked like 30 years ago, like someone had operated on her hurt knee with a herd of rabid wolverines. Then a bearded geezer at a nearby table raising a hand with a 20-percent digit deficit rate and chiming in with a similar back-in-the-day tale about the failed attempt to sew his pinky back on after a negative interface with a non-OSHA-certified band saw. “I think the doctor was as drunk as I was,” the gent rasped. “It seemed to me like he was trying to sew the damned thing on upside-down. If he succeeded, I would have had four fingers that curled inward, toward my palm like they’re supposed to, and my pinky curling upward. Guess that would have made for an interesting party trick. In the end, he just gave up, told me the pinky was too far gone and tried to throw it in a trashcan. He missed and there sat my poor little finger, lying bloody on the floor, looking very alone and forlorn.”

And so it commenced, as bar confabs often do (and often don’t). It was not long before the two-dozen or so folks there gathered, in unified, borderline-soul-baring, pass-the-story-stick-type fashion, embarked upon a verbal journey centered — sometimes loosely, sometimes strictly — upon the theme of scars, with at least as much emphasis placed upon the stories about the scars as on the scars themselves. Kind of like ski-jumping, with points being awarded for both distance and style.

Though recollection of most of the scar stories that were subsequently told escapes me, there were of course some that activated the long-term memory nodules. Among those, there was a very large and gruff stranger of probably 60, who, despite his advancing age, could best be described as someone you would not under any circumstances fuck with. He wore a Vietnam Vet baseball cap, which, uncomfortable as this is to write, often is cause for giving a person some eccentricity leeway. By the time this man, who was clearly bemused by the various tales being related about the kayaking mishap and the emergency appendectomy surgery while on a wine tour of France, cleared his throat, everyone automatically assumed he would relate the tale about the vicious scar that went all the way around his goddamned throat and neck, as though he had once been hanged until not quite dead or tortured with a cable. Instead, he spoke poetically about the time he was fishing up in Idaho on some magical mountain day and it was so quiet and peaceful and he’d been trying for hours to land this one trout and how he was becoming more and more exasperated and how he got sloppy on a cast and actually managed to catch a dry fly on his own eyelid and about how he had to hike out to the trailhead and drive into town with a dry fly dangling directly in front of his pupil like one of those weird little bacteria floaters, except with a sharp hook attached, and about how close he had come to losing a viewpod questing for trout. He asked everyone at the bar to come over and look closely at the scarcely visible remains of that incident, all the while everyone’s peripheral-visioning their way down to that awful scar all the way around his neck, which, it’s my guess, is something the Vietnam Vet knew would happen. No one asked him about it.

And then, after harrowing tales involving an entire vat of French fry grease being accidentally spilled onto a young lady’s forearm and a machete wound suffered in the deepest depths of the Darien Gap three day’s hike from the nearest clinic and the entire top of a guy’s scalp being sheared off like something from a Larry McMurtry book when he was thrown through a plate-glass window in a bar after an altercation centered around a lost game of pool and a large bet the man could not pay, it was my turn to ask for the story stick. After dropping my pants and bending over to expose the back of my right thigh, I told the story of climbing a tree behind the neighbor’s house across the street from ours when I was 12 years old and living near the banks of the Saranac River in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains.

It was a fine summer day, and I was feeling my 12-year-old oats in a way I could not have supposed possible a few months earlier. For, you see, the previous winter, my erstwhile run-amok self had suffered its first serious physiological setback. I had to be tobogganed off the slopes of Bear Mountain by the ski patrol after having pushed a surely modest schussing envelope a bit too far. At that time, I subscribed to the “turns-are-for-pussies” philosophy of downhill skiing (read: I had neither the skill nor the training to turn, and I masked my ignorance with a gung-ho attitude that had but one foreordained outcome), and that philosophy-made-manifest ultimately came with a price, even for a stupid fourth-grader. I tore the shit out of my left knee trying to impress my love interest (boy, was she ever impressed!) and spent almost six months in a full-leg cast. Though my leg was still skinny from atrophy, by mid-summer, I was finally able to move, and, more importantly, to once again climb. In my youth, I was half-monkey, fearlessly ascending quarry walls, water towers, roofs and, in this case, trees. I absolutely loved climbing trees.

I was not the only kid up in the tree when it happened. Verily, there was a slew of jabbering pre-pubescents hanging out upon the rickety planks of a makeshift treehouse probably 15 (OK, 10) feet up. A flimsy home-made rope ladder connected treehouse to terra firma, a ladder only capable of handling one kid at a time. When someone suggested maybe heading over to the nearby Saranac for a swim, the notion of an orderly descent was not much in evidence. I, as always, being the most impatient person in the group, opted to bypass the ladder congestion and move downward via a series of thin branches. “Race ya,” I said, confidently.

Even now, 43 years later, the sound of branches breaking sets me on edge. There was the snap, then my first interaction with time moving at simultaneously variable speeds — slow motion (slow enough to be realizing what was happening) overlapped with blurring rapidity (so rapid, it seemed as though space had folded me instantaneously to my bleak destination), then the instinctive peeling of my right leg off a recently hatcheted stump maybe three inches in diameter and two feet high. I heard the sound of skin ripping as I pulled my leg off the pointed top of that little stump. Just before a tsunami of red overtook my world, I looked down and saw a bisected hamstring flapping and a large section of my exposed femur. As shock mercifully asserted itself, I looked back at that little stump and saw a huge hunk of my flesh still attached, twitching.

It was a tense moment.

I learned an interesting lesson about motherhood that day. My mom, gone now for almost a quarter-century, had always encouraged me to be adventurous, wild, actually, and, to her credit, once the dust settled on this torn-open-leg situation, she did not waver in that encouragement. She was over at our house barbecuing. Though in my head I remember hearing screams, apparently none came from me. Yet, somehow, maternal Def-Con-1 was activated and, simply via mother/child cosmic connection, she knew that something was sorely amiss with her first-born and came running as fast as her little legs could carry her to my side, gracefully arriving with a spatula in one hand and an admirably unspilled martini in the other. Because my mom was, well, uh, slightly unpredictable, we had a tenuous, often painful, relationship clear up until the moment she passed, an unfortunate reality that, naturally, will haunt me for the rest of my days. But never in my life, before or since, was I so glad to have someone at my side as I lay there, my life force oozing away into the grass. Even though I knew she was freaking out inside, my mom, child of the Luftwaffe’s unrelenting attack on her native London, went into instant survival mode. She remained calm, made sure my sister was tended to, field-dressed my gaping wound with towels and organized transport to the hospital. Ever the fiscal pragmatist, she directed the driver, a neighbor, to take us to the Plattsburgh Air Force Base hospital, where we would receive free treatment, rather than to the municipal hospital, which was closer, but which would cost money. On the way, I, of course, asked the inevitable question, one that had more immediate palpability than it does for many kids at that age, as my stepfather, my sister’s dad, had drowned three mere years prior: “Am I going to die?” “No, you’re not going to die,” my mom responded with a smile that was not only reassuring, but reassured. “You’ve still got lots of trees left to climb.”

And then things went dark as shit.

The surgery lasted almost 10 hours. It was nip-and-tuck regarding whether they would be able to save my leg. I must have semi-consciously overheard that part of the discussion among the doctors, because I awoke at one point and groggily reached down to see if my leg was still attached. That action pissed the surgeon off, and he yelled at me to hold still and told the nurse to re-knock my ass out. In the end, I got more than 200 stitches, which is a lot when you’re talking about a little 12-year-old leg, which had to be entirely rebuilt from the bone clear out to the skin. Almost half of my blood seeped away that day. I spent the rest of the summer on my back. It was many years before the requisite Deep Thoughts visited me, before I learned enough about anatomy to realize how close that little hatcheted-off stump came to my femoral artery, how, if my downward course was altered by even a few inches, I would have taken that stump directly to my lower spine.

Whenever I first visit a body mechanic — massage therapist, physical therapist, acupuncturist, chiropractor, witch doctor, voodoo practitioner —which I’ve been doing a lot these days, it will not be long before I am asked about the scar on the back of my right leg. I can feel their reluctance to even touch it, just in case its root cause might be contagious.

I recently started receiving treatment from a new chiropractor, because, basically, I am, at age 55, a flat-out physiological mess. I have a bad left heel, a totally trashed right Achilles tendon, a bulging L4/L5 disc and a right shoulder that, even after two surgeries, still operates at about 50-percent capability. An orthopedist once told me, after hearing my corporeal curriculum vitae — thousands of miles of long-distance backpacking, two decades of competitive tennis and years of martial arts training — that I could not have intentionally mapped out a more negatively impactful trinity of hobbies had I premeditatedly tried. Ergo: I have long assumed that my lifestyle choices are simply catching with me and that I will likely limp my way through what’s left of my years, surviving off of old memories instead of hobbling my decrepit way toward new ones.

This chiropractor, after torquing my many maladies, the way chiropractors do, asked about one I had not mentioned. “What’s the story with this big scar on the back of your right leg?” So, as I have done so many times in my life, I told him about the fall and the exposed femur and the 200 stitches. I added that it hadn’t bothered me since the last of the stitches were removed. He performed some neurological tests and hemmed and hawed and said, finally, “I think almost every injury issue you’re experiencing right now emanates from that big scar. I think your body, your mind and your spirit have never recovered from that injury. It has affected the way you have moved through life ever since.”


A few weeks after these words first hit print, it was my mom’s birthday, her 75th, had she lived. It is a day that, try though I might (and I don’t try very hard), invariably lends itself to ponderment of the internal-combustion/scrutinization variety. It is an annual Heavy Day for me. But soon after the chiropractor uttered his scar-based observations, it dawned on me out of the blue that my mom would have loved being there for the bar-scar story scene at the Dillon Dam Brewery that long-ago blustery winter night. She surely would have told the story (of course) about her Caesarian-section scar, which she received because of the desire of her eldest son to ingress this world feet first.

And I think she would have appreciated my own scar story, the one about how she arrived to save the day with an unspilled martini in hand. That appreciation would have made my evening to the point that, maybe, just maybe, it would have helped some of that old scar tissue to finally begin the process of breaking up for good.

You know, maybe scars never fully heal, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get better.

Ah, the wisdom that falls from the rafters of bars like little boys sometimes fall from trees …

Smoke Signals

Deliverance (unabridged) – Mountain Gazette 178

A few months back, I told you, in a Smoke Signals titled, “Hot Air,” about the two times I found myself, through no fault of my own (understatement), up in the wild blue yonder in a hot-air balloon. I might have even casually mentioned something about how BOTH OF THOSE BALLOONS CRASHED!!! About how, now, you could hold a gun to my head and you could not force me to even consider the notion of ever again stepping foot into a balloon basket, even if that basket didn’t have a balloon actually attached to it, just in case — by some cosmic-level geo-physical fluke, the Earth’s axis suddenly shifted at the same time that an asteroid impacted terra firma and the sun exploded and gravity came unglued — said basket miraculously, against all laws of nature and physics and probability, even possibility, found itself airborne, even if for only a few feet and for a few seconds.

Anyhow, part and parcel of that “Hot Air” tale was a little tangential aside about a certain river-rafting trip I took the day after the second of those aforementioned balloon crashes. I believe I wrote words to the effect of, “ … but that is a story for another time.” Well, this being Mountain Gazette’s annual Rivers Issue and all, I guess there’s no time like the present.

To refresh your memory: I had been given an assignment by the editor of a long-defunct magazine named Adventure Travel to venture forth to the steamiest reaches of north Georgia to pen a piece about a company that offered “Adventure Orgies,” which, you gotta admit, on the surface, sounds like something a young hedonistic outdoor-oriented writer might be interested in, even though said orgies were scheduled to transpire in the heart of Appalachian darkness, where the term “squeal like a pig” is indelibly etched into the cultural memory of anyone who has ever heard so much as one note of music put forth by a five-string banjo. (In actuality, an Adventure Orgy was nothing more than a different stupid adrenaline-based activity each day for a week.)

On the very first day of my Adventure Orgy — verily, within the first few hours — I was more-or-less Shanghaied to take a balloon trip with a crazy-as-batshit pilot that resulted in a crash-landing, a wildfire, guns being leveled at me, police being called and, of all perplexing things, a Chattanooga TV news crew arriving on the scene so quickly they seemingly were parked in the very field we set ablaze on the off chance that an errant hot-air balloon might fortuitously fall out of the sky and crash at their very feet. A news story from God, if ever there was one.

The scheduled second segment of our Adventure Orgy was a full-day raft descent of the Chattooga River, which straddles the border of Georgia and South Carolina. This is the very section of river upon which significant portions of the whitewater scenes from “Deliverance” were actually filmed. My guide, the man I was essentially profiling for Adventure Travel, assured me that the gnarliest scenes from “Deliverance” were filmed on the Tallulah River, which, I’ll admit, in my battered state, was something of a relief. For, you see, I had not recovered from that balloon incident. The deep gash on my right shin was oozing all manner of repugnant-colored fluids, my left shin was swollen so badly that it looked like some sort of Frankensteinian mad scientist had grafted a partially decomposed watermelon onto my leg and my tongue, which I near-bouts bit in two upon impact, was lolling involuntarily, like what you’d see coming out of a tranquilized rhino’s mouth in a National Geographic wildlife documentary.

We drove to the quaint mountain town of Clayton, Georgia, where we met our two partners in river crime: a sports editor from Atlanta and none other than Billy Redden, who, at age eight, was the banjo-picking boy in ”Deliverance,” though, as I mentioned in “Hot Air,” it was not he who actually picked those haunting notes that, to this day, strike fear in the heart of any non-Southerner who ventures forth into the more rural parts of Dixie. The national eight-year-old banjo-playing champion crouched behind Billy Redden, whose arms were literally tied to his sides, and slid his hands through Billy’s sleeves and, without even being able to see the instrument, picked the strings flawlessly.

It did not help mitigate any preconceptions that I might have held when, before meeting Billy, who works as a professional river guide for Adventure Orgy Guy, I was told how he “auditioned” for the part of the (non-) banjo-playing boy in “Deliverance.”

“They went way up in the sticks and picked out the most inbred, retarded-looking kid out of the local elementary school. And there were a bunch to choose from. Out of all the available material, they chose Billy. Then, just to make him look even more inbred and retarded, they shaved his head.”

Of course, based upon that vision, combined with actually having watched “Deliverance,” I naturally assumed that Billy Redden would be the walking, talking epitome of every negative Appalachia-based stereotype imaginable. I assumed that he would likely be a perpetual drooler whose best attempts at fundamental articulation would mirror those of Jodie Foster when Liam Neeson first made her character’s acquaintance in “Nell.” Ends up that Billy, by then in his 30s, while not necessarily the most handsome man I have ever met, was a totally great guy, witty and funny, and, if there was a drooler on the scene, it was I, due to my wounded tongue situation. If anything, Billy probably went home later that night (barely, I might add, but I’ll get to that in a minute), thinking, “Damn, those guys from the West are so inbred and retarded that they can barely talk.”

We partially inflated the two, two-person, 11-foot rafts right there on the sidewalk in downtown Clayton, where both Billy and Adventure Orgy Guy were well known. The 17,000 passersby — all of whom had a mouthful of chaw and were named Clem — who stopped for a chat (our raft-inflating procedures apparently being the most noteworthy event to have transpired in Clayton since the last summer’s Hog-Sloppin’ Festival) were surprised to hear that we were headed for the Chattooga. “All y’all ain’t gonna run Bull Sluice, are all y’all?” was a question pondiferously drawled by every single one of those 17,000 curious chaw-chewing Clems. And when Adventure Orgy Guy answered in the affirmative, every single one of those 17,000 curious Clems slowly shook his head, let out with a feigned nervous whistle, and said words to the effect of: “Well, best of luck to all y’all. Wouldn’t catch us’ns trying to run Bull Sluice this time of year.” After a while, I was half expecting the local undertaker to stop by with his measuring tape.

It will come as no surprise that these exchanges caught my attention, but I said nothing, at least partially because, due to my wounded tongue situation, any attempts to speak all sounded like I was the guy tied to the chair with the ball gag stuffed in his mouth in a million Hollywood movie torture scenes, where, try though I might to spill the beans about where the drugs and money were hidden and where the torturers could most easily locate my cohorts, all I could do was grunt.

Once we got on the river — me with Adventure Orgy Guy, Billy Redden and the Atlanta sports editor in the other raft — Adventure Orgy Guy, after much apparent mental cud-chewing, said: “You probably heard all 17,000 of those Clems back in Clayton asking about Bull Sluice.”


He proceeded to tell me that Bull Sluice is one of two Class-5-plus rapids on the section of the Chattooga we were going to run and that it had claimed literally dozens of lives over the years. Forgive me that I am not familiar enough with death-based river terminology to describe this properly, but it is a very short and steep rapid — a waterfall, now that you mention it — that changes directions three times in about 100 linear feet — once at the top, once halfway through and once again at the bottom. You start out going over the waterfall at about 10 o’clock, then you’ve got to alter your heading to about 3 o’clock, then you’ve got to go back to 10 o’clock, all while you’re attempting to negotiate a rapid that, even if it didn’t have three major turns, would still be, well, a friggin’ waterfall.

“Don’t worry though,” Adventure Orgy Guy said, reassuringly (at least in theory), we’ll be on the river a couple hours before we get to Bull Sluice, and, by then, you and I will be very comfortable paddling together. It’ll be great!” (This from the man responsible for placing me in a hot-air balloon that crashed-landed the previous afternoon at the feet of a TV news crew.) The plan was for Billy Redden and the Atlanta sports editor to portage around Bull Sluice. Adventure Orgy Guy and I would pull over above Bull Sluice, walk downriver to shit our pants and devise an appropriate stratagem, return to our diminutive raft, clean our pants out, then tackle a rapid that might as well be named “Death Whitewater from Hell,” after which I would either have to clean my pants out yet again or arrive at the medical examiner’s office with skivvies full of caca.

Since we had a couple hours to kill before we ourselves were killed, I opted to chill with the scene, which was wonderfully mellow. Even though the first day of winter was literally 72 hours away, it was sunny and warm. The passing scenery was straight out of Appalachia central casting. We paddled by scads of overall-adorned, dentition-challenged men, who, stunningly, were all also named Clem, sipping jugfulls of moonshine while tending to their stills. We passed veritable tribes of corpulent women — all named Bessie May and Shirley Sue — sitting on riverside front porches shucking corn and green beans and smoking pipes while stirring vats of possum gizzard stew (or something like that).

Captivating cultural distractions aside, the thought of Bull Sluice never completely left the back of my mind. Quite the contrary. Every time a squirrel farted on the riverbank, my eardrums translated the noise to the roar of an impending life-swallowing rapid. Until finally, inevitably, we came to the spot where the roar was no longer a figment of my squirrel-fart-based imagination. We pulled over and, as Billy Redden (who, as a causal aside, had already mentioned numerous times how heart-flutteringly joyous he was that he wasn’t going through Bull Sluice that day (I believe his actually words were: “Hell, no, ain’t no way you could ever talk me into going through Bull Sluice! Only a fucking moronic idiot from Colorado would even ponder the insane notion of going though Bull Sluice! Hope you’ve got life insurance” (or something like that).)) and the Atlanta sports editor started carrying their raft around the rapid, Adventure Orgy Guy and your humble narrator ventured forth to eyeball Bull Sluice with the idea of coming up with a plan that did not involve direct interfaces with mortality, or, better stated, did not involve direct interfaces with mortality for yours truly. My part of that planning process consisted, as predicted, almost entirely of shitting my pants when I laid first eyes upon the sphincter-puckering power of Bull Sluice.

As Adventure Orgy Guy was pointing out the myriad ominous hydraulic intricacies of Bull Sluice, all the while stressing the many, many potential fuck-ups that we, more than anything in the world, wanted to avoid because, even the slightest, teeniest mistake at any of those many, many fuck-up points would most certainly result in a series of soulful obituaries in the Clayton, Georgia, newspaper, I came to a realization that, while not exactly stunning — insofar as “surprise” is a necessary component of the definition of the word “stunning” — was at least a bit disorienting on the self-perception front. When you’re an outdoor writer on assignment for a magazine named Adventure Travel to pen a story about a company that offers something called Adventure Orgies, you are vocationally, if not dispositionally, obligated to live up to certain big-balled personality stereotypes. And none of those stereotypes include overt displays of pants-wetting fear when faced with a mere Class-5 death waterfall. Yet, I realized, much to my simultaneous chagrin and relief, there was no way in hell my increasingly shriveling nuts were going through Bull Sluice. Mortifying though it might have been on several levels, it was actually a very liberating moment. I was half-tempted to run around with my arms triumphantly held high, like that famous scene in “Rocky,” proclaiming loudly, “I am a pussy! I am a pussy!”

When I relayed, via a series of grunts and hyper-kinetic hand gestures, this non-negotiable reality to Adventure Orgy Guy, he seemed crestfallen. He looked like he considered me neither a man who has wisely recognized his limitations, nor a man who has had one of those inexplicable survival “feelings.” Rather, his facial expression indicated that it was all he could do to resist grabbing me by the lapels, shaking me violently and calling me a total fucking fag of the first magnitude. Which, from my perspective, was just fine. After all, thought I at that moment, the best stories are the ones you live to tell.

I, of course, thought that we would then portage our raft around the rapid and proceed upon our merry un-dead way. Ixnay. Adventure Orgy Guy beckoned Billy Redden to join him in the raft we had stashed upriver. “This way, you’ll at least be able to get some photos of us going through Bull Sluice for your story.” To say Billy Redden looked shocked would greatly minimize his contorted visage. Yet, Adventure Orgy Guy being his employer and all, he hung his head and dutifully made his way to the top of Bull Sluice. I stood below the rapid, camera at the ready.

A few minutes later, the little raft, which looked, against the fearsome immensity of Bull Sluice, like a toy boat bobbing in the surf of Oahu’s North Shore, shot into the maelstrom. There was no visual run-up — one nanosecond, they were not there, the next nanosecond, 14 kinds of fearsome hell were breaking loose. They entered Bull Sluice OK, but, at the 90-degree dogleg in the middle of the rapid, Billy Redden got his paddle caught between two rocks, and the force of Bull Sluice ripped it from his grip so intensely that the banjo-pickin’ boy from “Deliverance” came within a single ass molecule of being pulled from the raft at a place that all but assured his doom. It looked at that frightening moment like his last above-water act was going to be a very wide-eyed, frantic arabesque penchee. The look on Adventure Orgy Guy’s face was a mix of fear and resolute determination that I will carry with me the rest of my days. He was down an engine in the middle of one of the most-notorious river rapids in the entire country, and, if he did not perform in extraordinary, superhuman fashion right then and there, fatalities were likely, which, while adding the potential for some spice to my Adventure Travel magazine story, would likely have negatively affected the overall vibe of the assignment, which, I stress again, began with a balloon crash at the feet of a TV news crew.

In the time it took me to snap off one photo, they were out of the rapid. Adventure Orgy Guy pulled it off and saved the day. His performance was astounding. Their raft drifted limply to the riverbank, its occupants spent in a way that all but assures many weeks of deep introspection. Billy Redden wobbled onto shore and staggered downriver a few feet, where he plopped down on a rock, lit a cigarette and muttered to himself, over and over, “I ain’t never going through Bull Sluice again … I ain’t never going through Bull Sluice again … ” And I could tell he meant it.

The rest of the trip down the Chattooga that day was pleasant as can be. Even the second Class-5 rapid, the name of which escapes me, was mellow, as there was an easy way to paddle around the most dangerous part. We drove back to Clayton, where we enjoyed a Southern repast so splendidly lard-laden and voluminous it served as poster child for all those nation-leading bad-health-based statistics that some out of Dixie. And that repast was served, come to find out, by a lady, Louise Coltrane, who wrote the very first check that got the famed “Foxfire Book” series going. Both of her daughters were in Eliot Wigginton’s Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School English class when he conceived what ended up becoming a world-renowned 12-volume series. We did not talk about the fact that Wigginton, a MacArthur  Fellowship winner and one-time Georgia Teacher of the Year, eventually served a one-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to a single count of non-aggravated child molestation of a 10-year-old boy. That would not have been polite lard-ingestion conversation. We were, after all, in the South, where table manners are important.

Later that evening, on the long drive back to town, it was obvious there was something on Adventure Orgy Guy’s mind. It was just he and I in the truck, and we’d been drinking pretty heavily in silence for the better part of an hour. He finally said, “You know, you and I had been psychologically working our way up to Bull Sluice all day. I think if we had just gone through like we planned, everything would have turned out fine.” The implication, of course, was that, if Billy Redden (a professional river guide, I stress) had died in that rapid, it would have been my fault. I’ve got to admit, that observation rubbed me a bit wrong on numerous levels. But I really didn’t give it any further thought till I was back home, sitting in front of my computer, getting ready to write the Adventure Orgy story for Adventure Travel magazine. Then I started wondering if maybe Adventure Orgy guy was right.

Right then, though, as we were bounding down the darkening Appalachia highway, beers in hand, there was much to think about. After all, we had a horseback-riding trip planned the next day. And, after that, rock climbing, wild boar hunting, mako shark fishing and, should I live that long, ocean sailing. There was still a lot that could (and did) go awry. But all that’s a story for another time. And what a story it is …

Smoke Signals

Little Dog

It took two years for me to be able to even think of being open to bringing a new dog into my life. It does not make me feel good to say this, but I am pretty much convinced that each of us will likely share time on this plane of existence with but one true cosmic-level perro, and, for me, that was a German Shepherd/Australian Shepherd mix named Cali, who succumbed in Oct. 2008 after having suffered through a series of debilitating strokes after 13 splendid years as the best friend I will ever have. Cali was a near-perfect dog.

Gay and I had finally bought a house that had a large fenced yard, so, for the first time in decades, I found myself in a position where I could provide a great home for a dog. I spent literally six months going to various pounds looking for the right canine companion. That was tough, moving slowly through the kennel areas, sometimes talking to individual dogs that seemed like they could maybe work, taking an occasional few out into the yard to see if any sort of connection took place. Gut-wrenching as it was to bypass all those pleading, long-faced dogs who all wanted so bad for someone to fill out paperwork with their name on it, in no case did that hoped-for bond occur, until I saw a pet-of-the-week photo of Cali in the Summit Daily News, which 1) I still have and 2) just to add a little extra positive karma to the situation, was taken by my buddy Mark Fox. One frigid February day, I went to the shelter, walked directly to Cali’s prison cell, took her out for a stroll on the bikepath, and, by the time we returned, the shelter staff was already calling her my dog. I picked Cali up the next day, without my wife ever having met her. That very afternoon, I took her snowshoeing sans leash up French Gulch, and we both knew that something very, very special was afoot.

Last fall, Gay and I started realizing that, not only did we miss having Cali in the house, but we missed having a dog in the house. I started, very tentatively at first, eyeballing various rescue group websites dedicated to specific large-ish, trail-appropriate breeds — Labradors, Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds and Border Collies. I had a Lab as a kid, and decided to go that generally good-natured route. I also wanted a puppy, something with a clean mental slate. I exchanged a few emails with a rescue group out of Albuquerque and made arrangements online to meet a pup on my way to Colorado for Christmas. It was a bit of a chaotic environment, since the pup-in-question was being fostered by a very nice lady who already had three large, energetic dogs. Even though I did not feel anything even approximating the connection I felt instantly with Cali, that was OK, because, truth be told, I did not expect to, feeling, as I said earlier, that such bonds do not happen twice in one’s life. But it seemed like we had the potential to at least like and respect each other, and, I thought, that’s a good enough start. On the way back from Colorado, we picked up a 27-pound, three-month-old squirming bundle of fur that seemingly consisted of nothing more than four splaying legs and a mouth that rarely closed. She was named Casey just the day before by her foster mom. Ergo: The name did not yet register with the dog, at least partially because the concept of having a name did not yet register.

One of the reasons I waited more than two years to get another dog was that I really wanted to make certain that I was not looking to replace the irreplaceable. I did not want to burden a dog with having to live up to Cali’s image. The analogy I used was that of poor Brian Griese playing quarterback for the Broncos after John Elway retired. I even went so far as to make sure whatever dog I brought home looked nothing like Cali, who was long haired and jet black, while Casey is short haired and blonde.

But, no matter how hard I tried, during Casey’s first days with us, I could not exorcize Cali’s ghost from the premises. I reflexively found myself talking to Casey the exact same way I talked to Cali, using the same phraseology, the same tones of voice, half-expecting, hoping, that by so doing, maybe some of Cali’s magic dust would fall from the heavens onto and into this new pup, that she would automatically transmogrify from four flailing legs and a mouth that rarely closed and act the same near-perfect way Cali did from the get-go and for all those years. And I found myself getting exasperated when she did not. I mean, how goddamned foolish — on about 40 different levels —is that? How unfair is that for a pup who does not yet even know her name?

Two weeks after bringing her home, we took Casey to the vet’s for her second round of shots, as well as an overall physical. While making the appointment on the phone, we told the receptionist that Casey was about three months old and “mostly Lab.” When we arrived, the vet looked at the chart, looked at Casey, looked back at the chart, looked back at Casey and said words to the effect that he thought he was going to be examining a three-month-old mostly Lab, a dog that I assumed was a blank slate who eventually would reach something like 50 or 60 pounds of stoutness running through the woods, crossing rivers and leading the way while we ski full blast down Mayflower Gulch. You know: a bonafide mountain dog.

“This dog is six to eight months old,” the vet told our stunned selves. “And, if she’s got a lick of Lab in her, I’ll eat a stick. She looks to me like she’s mainly Cocker Spaniel and Beagle. That means she’s probably about as big as she’s going to get.” I do not remember the last time Gay and I were both as mutually shocked. I mean, 9/11 made our jaws drop, of course, but nothing like the news we received about our new dog. Fuck! Not only did I not have a stereotypical mountain dog, I had something borderline foo-foo. Near-bouts a lap dog! Double fuck!

As soon as I got home from the vet’s office, I emailed the rescue group from which I had adopted Casey, informing them of my mislabeled, defective goods. They told me that, if I wanted to return her, I was more than welcome to do so, no explanations necessary.

Though the very thought of taking a living, drooling, constantly chewing creature back to a foster home made me almost sick to my stomach, every single person I related this story to told me in no uncertain terms that’s exactly what I should do, what I must do. Everyone I talked to understood the nature of the bond between man/woman and his/her dog, and, they all said, if such a bond did not occur within a month or so, then it likely would not ever occur. And they said that, if I wasn’t happy with who/what my dog was, that whammied whatever potential bonding there might be even more, because, as we all know, dogs are perceptive, empathic creatures. There’s no way Casey was going to take that leap (assuming she possessed the inclination, which is not an assumption that ought to be taken for granted) if she thought there was any chance of me backing out on the deal somewhere down the road. Sure, people said, a perfectly acceptable long-term relationship might very well evolve, but the kind of attachment that defined — sigh! — my cosmic link with Cali (who, by the way, still visits me every month or so in my dreams, though those visits are becoming more infrequent) would have been obvious by now. But, hey, retorted I, I am of the belief that such things don’t happen twice in a train-wreck life like mine. “If you believe that,” said one chum, “then that’s the way it assuredly will be.” Basically then: It is almost impossible for something to happen that I believe deep down cannot happen. That is not only a problem, but perhaps one that is insurmountable.

Let me expound upon this human/dog bond notion. For those many of you who know what I’m talking about, my likely clumsy attempt to articulate it is unnecessary. Since it is the only such situation I have ever experienced, I have no choice but to frame this in terms of M. John and Cali. Shortly after adopting her, we aggressively (and sometimes frustratingly) went together through official dog/human training classes. And, while there were often miscommunications regarding the ambiguous complexities of the various commands, it was apparent from the very first second we ever went out into the woods together that Cali very badly wanted to know what it was I wanted of her. We may have had a few disagreements as to the best ways to go about communicating those desires (she taught me some things and I taught her others), but there was never any doubt that we would not only muddle our way through such sometimes-complex inter-species dialogue, but we would do so in a way that, before long, did not even require verbal articulation. I could tell from her slightest behavioral nuance what Cali wanted or needed. And I could give her commands (I hate how that sounds), by the subtlest movement of my fingers and sometimes, by even just thinking the right thought. No matter our location, no matter our activity, no matter what else was going on around us, Cali’s biggest concern on the face of the planet was knowing where I was and what I wanted. And vice-versa. And she knew that, when I gave her commands, I was not just bossing her around for the fuck of it, but, rather, I was doing my level best to protect her and look after her health, well-being and happiness. Which I was.

It did not take long to learn that such was not the case with Casey. Once we came to understand that she was twice as old as we had thought, we simultaneously came to understand that she must have come to us with far more psychic baggage than we had hoped. There was no clean slate to work with. The rescue people we got her from had somehow obtained her from death row at the Artesia, New Mexico, animal Auschwitz. How that happened, and what her life was before she arrived at her foster home (several foster homes, actually) in Albuquerque, I cannot say. But there was no doubt her short life had had numerous iterations, some of which, judging from her sometimes-cowering, sometimes-obstinate, sometimes-aloof disposition, were probably not pleasant. Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that, even after a month in my house, she looks at me as anything save the next bipedal asshole who is letting her bunk down for a short period of time before she has to move on yet again to God-knows-what. Cali had only one home before she came to us, and, even though those people were forced to give her up, we knew she had a pretty stable, loving pre-Fayhee life. She never forgot that her first owners dumped her ass at the pound, and, thus, she was extremely appreciative of her new life with me. Casey’s road was bumpier, and, however that bumpy road affected her, she ought not be faulted.

I decided to look at Casey as though I had never known Cali, to become a blank slate myself. So, in addition to trying to put her personality into a broader context that includes what likely was an inconceivably shitty first few months, I found myself focusing not on her relative-to-Cali shortcomings (including her hard-to-overlook shrimpiness), but rather on her good traits: She gets along reasonably well with my cat, who, truth be told, was not all that happy, among other things, to see a rambunctious puppy suddenly trespassing on the litter box during a time my cat has long considered very private. Casey loves playing with other dogs at the dog park, even ones way larger than she is. She shits only in the least-visited corner of the back yard and has the easiest-to-clean-up shit I have ever shoveled, and I have shoveled some serious quantities of shit in my time. She really likes going out into the woods and seems up for adventure. She seems satisfied eating regular old dog food. She has been very good about not chewing up things like expensive hiking boots. And she’s cute, sweet and pretty easily amused.

But she cries in fear when she dreams. And she doesn’t wag her tail very much. And she cowers when talked to sternly after digging yet another hole in my garden. And she still doesn’t know her name, or, if she does, she doesn’t let on. And she still doesn’t pay any attention to me when I talk to her on the trail. And I don’t know at this point if I will ever be able to let her off leash in the woods, something that is a non-negotiable component of a relationship between yours truly and any cur that travels with me down the path of life. I have heard many stories from people whose dogs are dispositionally inclined to run off time and time again, and that’s just not an acceptable option. I understand that such a disposition can be at least partially mitigated by proper training, but partially don’t cut it.

As these conflicting, stomach-wrenching thoughts swirl around in a brain that is overwhelmed by the implications of my newfound conundrum, Casey lies sleeping on the floor behind me. She just had another nightmare, but she’s calmed down a bit, and, even as she dozes, her tale wags just a little. Is her biggest sin that she’s not Cali, or that she’s not what I pictured? Whatever sin there is undoubtedly lies not with Casey, but with me, a man whose ego effects the way he looks down at a little pup who needs more than anything to be loved and considered special, if not perfect.

As I pen these words, I do not know what I will do with Casey. I have asked Cali to visit me in my dreams to give me some guidance, but, so far, she has not done so. At this point, the main thing that makes me want to keep Casey is how horrible I would feel if I took her back. I cringe at the thought of what her facial expression might be: Let down again. (Or, maybe: Hallelujah!) Maybe if we both try really, really hard, we could make this relationship work out just fine, even if it is not magical. Then again, maybe the effort would in and of itself make it magical. Eventually. One of the things Cali liked most about me was that I did my best to let her be her. Of course, that had to be within the context and framework of me and my life. But that was easy enough for both of us. If I keep Casey, I owe it as much to her as I ever did to Cali to let her be her. It’s the context and framework of my life part that’s the issue.

By the time these works come out in print, I will have made a decision. I have to, because, at this juncture, Casey keeps looking at me. And, in her eyes, I can tell she’s asking: “What then will your choice be?”

And I look back at her and ask: “What then will YOUR choice be, Little Dog.”

Smoke Signals

Bad Trip (unabridged) – Mountain Gazette 174

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

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

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

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

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

“Well?” Winona asked, innocent eyes wide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smoke Signals

Upwards – Mountain Gazette 172

“If you deny what you know, or what you are, or where you are, you deny the simplest part of being alive, and then you die.”
—Bel Kaufman, “Up the Down Staircase”

The news came circuitously, and slowly, as is the way of these sorts of entrepreneurial endeavors: The Mountain Gazette was once again simultaneously on the clock and on the block, and word came my way that a scion of the Old Dominion was interested in perhaps adding this humble enterprise to his corporate kingdom. Lordy, lordy, thought I, the last MG owner was an Englishman (a man from the country of my birth), now a Virginian (a man from the state where I mostly grew up). “Where do I need to go to get away from these people?” I asked myself, once again thinking that, if Gila Country is not far enough from the roots of my past, then I might have to consider moving to Alaska, or maybe even Bolivia. But, with the Internet and cell phones, as well as the microchip that the government has likely already planted in the brain stem of each and every one of us, truly there is no place one can go to outrun his origins, lest he don a loin cloth and start eating slugs with the Bush People.

But first things first. For those of you keeping score, here is a short chronology of the Mountain Gazette:

• 1966-72: Mike Moore founded and published Skiers’ Gazette from Denver.

• Famed Mountaineer Bob Craig hooks Moore up with Woody Creek, Colo., resident George Stranahan. The two hit it off and decide to morph Skiers’ Gazette into the Mountain Gazette.

• 1976: Moore leaves MG and is replaced as editor by Gaylord Guenin. Office is moved from Denver to Boulder.

• 1979: The MG ceases publication. People like yours truly lament this passing.

• 2000: Stranahan, Curtis Robinson and yours truly resurrect MG and base the magazine in Summit County, Colo.

• 2006: We sell MG to Paonia, Colo.-based GSM Publishing.

• 2008: GSM passes the magazine onto New York City-based Skram Media, which also owns Climbing magazine and Urban Climber. For the first time, the MG is owned by people from, of all things, the East. And flat East, at that. And even worse, urban flat East.

• June 2010: GSM transfers management of its assets to California-based Active Interest Media, a mega-publishing conglomerate. AIM puts out the word that MG is far too small a “title” for its “portfolio,” which also includes Backpacker magazine. If a buyer is not found pronto, then they will close the magazine down. Yours truly, who for a long time back in the dark past, used to be a contributing editor at Backpacker, yells,

“FUCK!!!!” at the top of his lungs, and wonders if, by some weird manifestation of karmic/cosmic convergence, I somehow have become reincarnated as myself before even passing away. Yours truly starts shopping for loincloths and eyeballing maps to find out where the Bush People actually live.

• August 2010: Charlottesville, Virginia-based Summit Publishing, which also owns Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine, Elevation Outdoors magazine and Breathe magazine, procures the Gazette. Yours truly is asked to stay on as editor. Yours truly places a hold on his order from

So, OK, a couple months ago, there I am, sitting on my front porch, smoking a Macanudo, when the phone rings and a familiar lilting regional accent — one I only hear nowadays when I talk to my brother on the phone — lets me know that, once again, the MG has been acquired by a company located not exactly in the middle of what we consider our prime conceptual area. You can imagine the length and breath of my sigh. I listened for an hour or so to what sounded like the introduction to an MBA honors seminar titled, “How To Say All the Right Things,” then put my retarded noggin in my hands and wondered what was going to become of the magazine that more than one acquaintance has called M. John’s baby. Then I pulled said retarded noggin out of said hands, smacked myself square in the face and said to my cat, who looked even more perplexed than usual (and that’s saying a mouthful), “Well, come what may, at least we’re still alive and kicking!”

Then, a funny thing happened next time I checked my email. I started getting communiqués from people whose opinions I actually care about informing me in no uncertain terms that the new owner, Blake DeMaso, is a perfect fit for both me and the MG. We made arrangements to meet, first in Summit County, then, a day later, in Leadville. The meetings covered a wide swath of conversational territory during a perfect blend of driving through the High Country just as the first tendrils of autumn were visiting the aspen forests and sitting in dimly lit watering holes as people I hadn’t seen in a while sidled up and, via a combination of slurs and yells, filled me in on the latest local happenings.

It was while hunkering down over Fat Tires in the Scarlet in Pb that I told Blake I intended to distill our long, rambling discourse into a very honest Smoke Signals, wherein I would straight-faced let the MG tribe know what is in store for this magazine.

Two things before I do just that.

First, Summit Publishing, which, as I said, owns three — now four — magazines, also has a deal with another halfdozen or so titles covering the geographic spectrum from Washington State to Utah to Vermont. That deal is called Outdoor Adventure Media, which gives Blake and his sales associates the ability to go to the very biggest companies that would have any interest whatsoever in advertising in outdoor media — the Subarus and Apples of the corporate world — and offer them the opportunity to advertise in all of the Outdoor Adventure Media affiliates. Now, I know it’s going to sound to a lot of our long-time readers as though I’m tooting the horn of a corporation I barely know, but I hope you will believe me when I say that, of all the things that, if I could have pushed one magic button while I owned the MG, that would have been it: To find a way to entice advertisers who would not look at us otherwise because we were simply too small and too regional. You have no idea how much breathing room that would have given us.

Those who view those words with skepticism, even perhaps with cynical bewilderment, wondering if perhaps I haven’t turned to the dark side, hear ye these syllables: The magazine publishing world these days is seriously tough. Since the MG was resurrected in 2000, many publications familiar to mountain dwellers have gone bye-bye, among them Mountainfreak, Sports Guide, Rocky Mountain Sports, National Geographic Adventure, ForbesLife MountainTime and, most recently, Inside Outside Southwest. The fact that we have managed to hold on is a flat-out miracle, and, now, the thought that we might have the opportunity to attract some larger advertisers does nothing more than make me breathe a huge, monster sigh of relief.

But—and this is a big “but”—there is now going to be justifiable concern about the effect being part of a magazine group HQed in the Blue Ridge Mountains (with additional offices in Ashville, N.C., and Boulder) that will focus serious effort on attracting advertising dollars from companies that employ people who actually wear ties to work won’t have a deleterious impact on, potentially, every aspect of a magazine that prides itself on oftentimes an anti-corporate attitude and a certain lack of maturity that we feel accurately reflects life in Mountain Country.

That is a perfect valid concern, and one that I share. Blake DeMaso has stressed to me his intentions to return the MG to its attitudinal roots. He has stressed to me that, even though his other magazines might be a bit more traditional in their appearance and editorial offerings, does not mean that the Gazette will come to resemble them. Certainly, time will tell.

Last: The main thing that has attracted me to Blake DeMaso at this point, besides the fact that he used to be a liquor salesman, and the fact that he enjoys and occasional tumbler of whiskey, is the fact that he already knows and loves the MG. He has long had a stack of them in his office in Charlottesville, and can refer to past stories and writers as though he were quoting Scripture. That’s damned sure better than the way things have been the past couple of years.

So, OK, I decided to ask Blake DeMaso, the new owner of the magazine you now hold in your hands, five questions, the answers to which I have included below. Here goes.

MJF: Tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your background.

BD: I am a mountain guy from the small college town of Charlottesville, VA. I like to do most of the same things that people in Colorado and New Mexico like to do: hike, bike, camp, ski, paddle, drink adult beverages … I just do them at 3,000 feet. I have been in publishing for about 10 years, and I consider myself lucky every day to wake up and do something that I love (publishing) that deals with my favorite subject (the outdoors).

MJF: You’ve apparently been a Mountain Gazette reader for years. How did someone living in Charlottesville come to be a Gazette fan?

BD: I traveled out to Colorado a few times a year for the same reason that most of us East Coasters come, which is to take a stab at the big mountains and the deep snow. I figured out quickly that 1) I was not as good of a skier as I thought I was, 2) my East Coast skis and other equipment were not made for Colorado and 3) the beer out West seemed to taste better. So I found myself in a bar, exhausted, drinking beer, and I read my first issue of MG. It wasn’t easy getting copies of MG in Charlottesville, so, before there were subscriptions offered, I had a network of people set up from places where MG was distributed and I would bribe them to send it to me. As soon as subscriptions, were offered I was all over it.

MJF: How did you come to acquire MG and how does it fit into your overall portfolio and vision?

BD: I would say that it was mostly an emotional decision because I love the Gazette, but, as luck would have it, it fits pretty well into my bigger publishing business right now. Honestly, about five years ago, I actually tried to acquire MG so that I could bring it into my national network of independently owned outdoor publications. They turned me down, so about two years ago, I started a magazine on the Front Range called Elevation Outdoors, but I still kept my eye on Mountain Gazette. In terms of editorial and distribution, MG and EO are very different, so when we added MG, it gave me a chance to add a more-extensive distribution network in mountain towns throughout Colorado and the Rockies. All of my publications are mostly funded by advertising revenue, so that they are free to the readers, and adding MG doubled our current circulation in Colorado and the Rockies.

MJF: You’ve expressed a desire to return the MG to its roots. Care to expound on that?

BD: I think the Gazette has deep roots and passionate readers and, while I am always interested in ways to expose new people to the publication, I think that tinkering with the editorial and look and feel of the magazine is messing with what makes the magazine great. Starting with the November issue, we will increase the size of the magazine. We intend to start putting significant effort back into our covers, which at one time people used for wall art. We plan to back off a bit on the theme issues, so we can have a bit more latitude on the editorial copy we choose to run. We want to get our distribution numbers back to where they were five years ago. We plan to resurrect the Mountain Music section and are talking about re-introducing some other departments we used to run, like Bumpersticker, Poetry and Lost Art. There’s a lot to do, I know, but it will be worth the effort.

MJF: There are going to be members of the MG tribe who are going to react to all this by saying, “Here we go again — another Easterner with entrepreneurial aspirations taking ownership of the Mountain Time Zone’s preeminent literary journal.” What’s your response to what many people would consider a reasonable concern?

BD: I know, I know. I have already heard this. I guess I considered myself part of the Tribe before I became the owner. Actually, I still can’t believe that I am now the owner. I have been taking “inspiration” (a publishing term for “knocking off”) from the Gazette for 10 years, so my number-one focus is getting back to where it was when there was an office in Summit County, Colorado. I know there are going to be a lot of skeptics, especially after the last few years. I think it won’t take long before the Tribe realizes we are back on the right path.

So, OK, there you have it. I will say at this point: For the first time in years, I am optimistic about the future of the Mountain Gazette.